Events in Syria are moving rapidly forward. The first moves of the battle for the capital, Damascus, have begun. Rebel units are targeting the regime’s military facilities in the city’s environs.
The Free Syrian Army, according to regional news reports, is already claiming to be in control of most of the air defense facilities in Damascus Governate. An FSA spokesman told the Sharq al Awsat newspaper on Thursday that the latest base to be besieged by the rebels is the Aqraba helicopter facility, situated between Damascus International Airport and Damascus city itself.
Once Aqraba falls, the spokesman said, the next target will be the Saida Zeinab military airport, used by the dictator’s helicopter gunships.
Fighting is also taking place in the eastern suburbs of the city. The regime is shelling pro-insurgent Sunni neighborhoods on the edge of Damascus. The suburbs of Jaramana, Saqba, Irbeen, and Zamalka are receiving the attention of Assad’s artillery, according to the respected Syrian Human Rights Observatory.
The rapid decline in the regime’s fortunes derives from a shortage of loyal manpower available which has been notable for some months. This, combined with the growing sophistication of the rebels’ weaponry, has led to the very serious setbacks which it suffered in November, and which have now brought the rebels to the gates of Damascus.
But there is still a long way to go.
The Syrian regime has by now surely abandoned any hope that it can re-conquer the large swathes of the country held by the rebels. There are no signs, however, that it is preparing to concede the fight. It is also not accurate to say that its forces are in a state of complete disarray or headlong flight, or that it is without options.
The core units that the regime requires to continue the fight remain intact. The overwhelmingly Alawi 4th Armored Division and the Republican Guard, both commanded by the president’s brother Maher Assad, are operative, as are the Special Forces. The regime, of course, still has the advantage in the air, and retains its heavy artillery capability. The insurgency has yet to complete the successful conquest of any of the main urban centers of Syria.
The 4th Armored Division is currently engaged in the battle to prevent the rebels from penetrating the capital beyond the eastern suburbs, which the insurgents already control. Assad’s army understands that it must, at all costs, and maintain this security perimeter around the east of the city.
The regime troops must also keep the road to the airport open, in order to maintain Assad’s links to the outside world.
With much of the north and east of Syria now in the hands of the insurgency, Assad has strengthened his defenses in the largely Alawi western coastal region. His troops are maintaining a defensive line at the eastern edge of this region, along the Orontes River Valley, west of the largely Sunni cities of Homs and Hama. This line must be maintained, in order to keep open the link between Damascus and the emergent Alawi enclave in the west.