Al Assad’s Last Stand from Stratfor

Al Assad’s Last Stand is republished with permission of Stratfor.”

By Omar Lamrani

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, infantry fighting 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

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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.

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.

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.

As more and more regime bases were taken, the rebels were able to bolster  their air defense equipment through the capture of a number of man-portable  air-defense systems. At the outset of the conflict, the Syrian military  maintained a large inventory of shoulder-fired air-defense missiles, likely  thousands of missiles ranging from early generation SA-7s to very advanced  SA-24s. These missiles were stored in army bases across the country. There are  also unconfirmed reports that Qatar and Saudi Arabia may have transferred some  man-portable air-defense systems to the rebels through Turkey.

The rebels tallied their first confirmed kill with shoulder-fired air-defense  missiles Nov. 27, when they shot down a Syrian Arab Air Force  Mi-8/17 helicopter near Aleppo city. The weapon system used in the  attack was likely an SA-7, SA-16 or SA-24 captured from the 46th regiment.  The surface-to-air missiles are a serious upgrade in the rebels’ air  defense capability.

The Fight Continues

Having isolated al Assad’s  forces in the north and made substantial advances in the east, the  rebels are poised to push farther into the Orontes River Valley to relieve the  beleaguered rebel units in the Rastan, Homs and al-Qusayr areas of Homs  governorate. For months, regime forces have sought to overwhelm the remaining  rebel forces in Homs city, but the rebels have managed to hold out.  The rebels are also set to begin pushing south along the main M5 thoroughfare to  Khan Sheikhoun and the approaches to Hama. However, first they need to overwhelm  the remaining regime forces in Wadi al-Dhaif near Maarrat al-Numan.

Alternatively, the regime is fighting hard to maintain its control over the  Orontes River Valley around Homs in order to keep an open  corridor linking Damascus to the mostly Alawite coast. Not only is  this corridor at risk of eventually being cut off, but the regime is also facing  a substantial push by rebel forces into northeastern Latakia governorate from  Idlib. Rebels have advanced in the vicinity of the Turkman Mountain, have taken  control of Bdama and are now fighting their way down in the direction of Latakia  city.

While events in Damascus and Rif Damascus are increasingly worrisome for the  regime, al Assad’s forces in the rest of Syria are also under considerable  pressure from rebel advances. It is by no means certain that al Assad’s forces  are under imminent threat of collapse because they still hold a great deal of  territory and no major city has yet been completely taken by the rebels. The  retreat and consolidation of al Assad’s forces also allows them to maintain  shorter and less vulnerable lines of supply. However, it is clear that the  regime is very much on the defensive and has been forced to gradually contract  its lines toward a core that now encompasses Damascus, the Orontes River Valley  and the mostly Alawite coast. With the regime’s situation rapidly  deteriorating, even the attempt to stage a gradual withdrawal to the core is  risky.

Read more:  Al Assad’s Last Stand | Stratfor


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