The battle for Damascus is raging with increasing intensity while rebels continue to make substantial advances in Syria's north and east. Every new air base, city or town that falls to the rebels further underlines that Bashar al Assad's writ over the country is shrinking. It is no longer possible to accurately depict al Assad as the ruler of Syria. At this point, he is merely the head of a large and powerful armed force, albeit one that still controls a significant portion of the country.
The nature of the conflict has changed significantly since it began nearly two years ago. The rebels initially operated with meager resources and equipment, but bolstered by defections, some outside support and their demographic advantage, they have managed to gain ground on what was previously a far superior enemy. Even the regime's qualitative superiority in equipment is fast eroding as the rebels start to frequently utilize main battle tanks, infantryfighting vehicles, rocket and tube artillery and even man-portable air-defense systems captured from the regime's stockpiles.
Weary and stumbling, the regime is attempting to push back rebel forces in and near Damascus and to maintain a corridor to the Alawite coast while delaying rebel advances in the rest of the country. Al Assad and his allies will fight for every inch, fully aware that their power depends on the ability of the regime forces to hold ground.
The Battle for Damascus
After the last surge in fighting around Damascus in July and August, the regime kept large numbers of troops in the area. These forces continued search and destroy operations near the capital despite the considerable pressure facing its forces in the rest of the country, including in Aleppo. Once the rebels began to make gains in the north and east, the regime was forced to dispatch some of its forces around Damascus to reinforce other fronts. Unfortunately for the regime, its operations in the capital area had not significantly degraded local rebel forces. Rebels in the area began intensifying their operations once more, forcing the regime to recall many of its units to Damascus.It is important to remember that, despite considerable setbacks, al Assad's forces still control a sizable portion of Syria and its population centers. After failing to take Damascus in Operation Damascus Volcano in July, the rebels are again stepping up their efforts and operations in the Damascus area. However, unlike in their previous failed operation, this time the rebels are relying on an intensive guerrilla campaign to exhaust and degrade al Assad's substantial forces in Damascus and its countryside.
Aware of the magnitude of the threat, the regime has reportedly shifted its strategy in the battle for Damascus to isolating the city proper from the numerous suburbs. The rebels have made considerable headway in the Damascus suburbs. For example, on Nov. 25 rebels overran the Marj al-Sultan military air base in eastern Ghouta, east of the capital. Rebel operations in the outskirts of Damascus have also interrupted the flow of goods to and from the city, causing the prices of basic staples such as bread to skyrocket.
Rebel Gains in the East and North
Damascus is not the only area where the regime is finding itself under considerable pressure. The rebels have made some major advances in the last month in the energy-rich Deir el-Zour governorate to the east. Having seized a number of towns, airfields and military bases, the rebels have also taken the majority of the oil fields in the governorate. They captured the Al-Ward oil field Nov. 4, the Conoco natural gas reserve Nov. 27 and, after al Assad's forces withdrew from it on Nov. 29, the Omar oil field north of the town of Mayadeen. Al Assad's forces now control only five oil fields, all located west of the city of Deir el-Zour. With the battle for the city and its associated airfield intensifying, even those remaining fields are at risk of falling into rebel hands.
The rebel successes in Deir el-Zour have effectively cut the regime's ground lines of communication and supply to Iraq. They have also starved the regime of the vast majority of its oil revenue and affected its ability to fuel its war machine. At the same time, the rebels are reportedly already seeking to capitalize on their seizure of the eastern oil fields. According to reports, the rebels are smuggling oil to Turkey and Iraq and using the revenue to purchase arms. They are also reportedly using the oil and natural gas locally for power generators and fuel.
While all of eastern Syria may soon fall into rebel hands, rebels in the north have continued to isolate al Assad forces in Idlib and Aleppo governorates, particularly in the capital cities of those two provinces. After overrunning the 46th regiment near Atarib on Nov. 19 following a two-month siege, the rebels are now looking to further squeeze remaining regime forces in Aleppo by taking the Sheikh Suleiman base north of the 46th regiment's former base.
The Rebels' Improved Air Defense Capability
Isolated and surrounded, regime forces in the north are increasingly relying on air support for both defense and supply. However, this advantage is deteriorating every day and is increasingly threatened by the rebels' improved air defense arsenal and tactics.
The rebels first attempted to acquire air defense weaponry by seizing heavy machine guns and anti-aircraft artillery. They captured a number of air defense bases, taking 12.7 mm DShK heavy machine guns, 14.5 mm KPV heavy machine guns and even 23 mm ZU-23-2 autocannons. Over time, the rebels became more proficient with these weapons, and an increasing number of Syrian air force fixed-wing and rotary aircraft were shot down. The rebels also formed hunter-killer groups with air defense equipment mounted on flatbed trucks that provided them mobile platforms for targeting regime air and infantry units.