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Feb 11, 2013 | 14:33 GMT

Syrian Rebels Demonstrate Increased Cooperation

AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
Summary

Syrian rebels have largely transitioned to offensive operations, and in doing so they have begun to learn from costly past mistakes. They are adapting their operations and strategy to combat a now-defensive and entrenched loyalist force. To that end, the rebels have stopped issuing grandiose announcements of imminent victory and instead have begun to seek new ways of unifying their forces while steadily eroding the strength of loyalist troops with carefully planned and executed attacks.

Intense fighting continues in Damascus as part of a new rebel offensive dubbed Operation Epic in the Capital of the Omayyads. Positions along the strategic road that encircles Damascus have changed hands several times in running battles between the two sides. While the rebels made rapid advances in their initial strikes — having reached the outside road and having crossed into Jobar district, an urban area where the loyalists are well entrenched — they continue to face fierce resistance from well-equipped loyalist formations. Tube artillery and multiple rocket launcher artillery stationed on Qasioun Mountain, which overlooks the city, continues to pound suspected rebel positions, while the regime's air force has intensified its airstrikes.

Syrian Rebels Demonstrate Increased Cooperation

Syria City Map

In a departure from previous operations in the capital area, the rebels have been careful to temper their optimism about their prospects in this offensive. The rebels claim they are now advancing cautiously while ensuring adequate supply lines for their forward units. Previous operations were costly, reckless and easily repelled. The rebels also say they are now being extra careful about clearing any suspected sniper nests to their rear and that they are prepared to fall back if they encounter overwhelming resistance from loyalist units.

Meanwhile, farther to the north in Idlib and Aleppo provinces, the rebels have also gradually realized they need to better organize themselves if they hope to overrun remaining regime bases and airfields in the region and avoid protracted sieges. Indeed, disparate rebel units fighting in the north have begun an unprecedented effort at cooperation.

Tactical Changes in the North

Gone are the hasty and poorly planned and executed attacks on well-defended regime positions in the area by rebel units. These types of attacks often end in costly failure, as the disastrous October assault on Wadi Deif demonstrated. Instead, the rebels in Idlib have agreed to set up a council of religious clerics to serve as impartial arbiters of disputes among rebel groups. Rebel leaders have sworn pledges before the council to work in unity with one other. The religious council is also charged with collecting and distributing all the weapons before an attack. Furthermore, it secures and divides the spoils of war after each attack to avoid the disagreements over the distribution of loot among rebel units that are common after such attacks
 
It is too early to tell whether this new attempt at organization will ultimately prove successful, but so far the rebels have already gained dividends from the effort. In a campaign reportedly labeled the Battle of Reinforced Structures, the rebels have now begun to implement an operation that envisages simultaneous attacks on several regime-held positions in the province. Unlike previous operations, however, this campaign has been marked by elaborate command-and-control process and deliberate, methodical and heavily supported attacks.
 

Structures of Cooperation

The rebels reportedly set up four command centers to take charge of different fronts. Each command center directly oversees 30 to 40 rebel units and communicates their actions to the other command centers. Simultaneously engaging numerous regime positions in the province forces the regime's air support and potential reinforcements to be spread thin and leaves them unable to comprehensively respond in each attacked sector.

According to an on-the-ground reporter from Time magazine, the Battle of Reinforced Structures involves the active cooperation of Jabhat al-Nusra, as well as secular groups such as Afif Suleiman's Free Syrian Army-affiliated Idlib Revolutionary Military Council. While such cooperation is indispensable if rebel operations are to succeed, the fact that secular Free Syrian Army units are coordinating at such a high level with rebel groups deemed terrorist organizations by the United States likely worries Washington greatly. In fact, numerous non-Salafist rebel units have recently complained that the foreign weapons supply in the north started to falter after Jabhat al-Nusra was designated a terrorist organization.

Early stages of the operation have seen a renewed effort to take Wadi Deif and an effort to steadily encroach on and neutralize the Abu Duhoor military airport by bringing increased fire to bear on the runway. Rebels across the north have also stepped up their attacks recently — a few times breaching Idlib city itself — and they have intensified attacks on Mannagh air base in Aleppo. Furthermore, rebels in Aleppo city have seized the Sheikh Saeed district, thus cutting off a substantial number of loyalist units from the supplies coming in from the now-besieged Aleppo International Airport.
 
If the rebels can maintain pressure on Damascus without overextending themselves, they will force substantial loyalist forces in the city to fight a battle of attrition the regime cannot win. The battle for Damascus directly affects the rest of the conflict not only because of the city's strategic importance but also because it ties up many of the regime's best units, which must defend the capital instead of reinforcing positions elsewhere. Meanwhile, the unified command experiment in Idlib, if successful, could provide a model for rebels across the rest of Syria to emulate. 
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