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Jul 17, 2012 | 10:31 GMT

9 mins read

The Struggle in Syria Intensifies

The Struggle in Syria Intensifies

The war in Syria is intensifying. As rebels grow in number and experience, the regime responds with heavier weapons and a reliance on artillery, unmanned aerial vehicles and helicopter gunships. The government still holds the advantage because of its superior firepower. But even as Syrian armed forces continue to score some major battlefield successes, trends over the last few months indicate that the momentum has largely shifted to the opposition. As in any insurgency, the rebel forces have the benefit of being able to select when and where they will strike or if they will decline a battle. The regime, on the other hand, is forced to try to protect a wide array of critical cities and sites at any given time.

The Syrian military reportedly fired mortars into the Kfar Souseh neighborhood of Damascus for the first time July 12. Damascus is increasingly witnessing firefights and engagements between opposition and government forces, and the regime has recently resorted to the use of helicopter gunships over areas of the capital to maintain its grip over the city.

Despite numerous rebel units operating in the city's suburbs, the government's hold on Damascus remains strong. Without a coup or the defection of significant military units within the city, this is unlikely to change in the next few months.

Still, rebel activity in the city and in the wider Damascus governorate is important. The attacks undermine regime morale by emphasizing the reach of the rebels and demonstrating the regime's inability to end armed opposition activity in the capital. Most important, rebel operations in the area force the regime to maintain a large security force around the capital, tying down forces that could prove critical in other hard-pressed regions of the country.

A Countrywide Insurgency

The Syrian military faces a countrywide insurgency, with rebel pockets forming in most of the key governorates. Given its finite resources, the regime has prioritized its operations. So far, the military has not ceded any governorate to the opposition and continues to go on offensives aimed at destroying rebel pockets in critical areas. Still, large swaths of the countryside effectively have been ceded to the rebels as the government focuses on amassing enough personnel and firepower to maintain solid control over critical cities and supply lines.


The cities of Homs, Rastan and Hama are located in the strategic Orontes River Valley, where the bulk of Syrian infrastructure and supply lines intersect. Homs and Hama are major transit arteries, with the main M4/M5 highway running north and south while other primary and secondary roads extend east toward the Syrian interior and west toward the coast. Al-Qusayr, also in the Homs governorate, is anchored on the northern Lebanese border astride a strategic transit route into Syria. If the Syrian regime loses control of the Orontes River Valley and its major road junctions, Damascus will be largely cut off from Aleppo and the Alawite-dominated coast, which would limit the regime's access to supply lines from port cities.

The Syrian Battlefield

Unlike much of the rest of Syria, the fighting in the Homs governorate is largely urban, which favors the established defender. Despite ongoing shelling and repeated regime attacks, the opposition remains entrenched in urban positions throughout the governorate, particularly in Homs, Rastan and Al-Qusayr. A significant portion of Homs is under regime control, particularly since the Syrian military conducted a February offensive that largely dislocated the rebels from the Bab Amr neighborhood. However, opposition forces continue to maintain a sizable presence in neighborhoods such as Khalidiyeh and Joret al-Shayyah. Due to its confidence, desire to avoid collateral damage, and fear of sparking an outside intervention, the military has avoided using its sizable artillery inventory to level rebel-controlled urban strongholds.

Syrian rebels in the area are still largely on the defensive, remaining mostly contained and under constant shelling. When a rebel stronghold sits astride a major road, as is the case in Rastan, the Syrian military has so far been able to circumvent the opposition by using alternate roads. Regime efforts to eradicate the rebel presence in Rastan, including at least two combined arms assaults since April, have largely failed. Given the strategic importance of the city, additional efforts by government forces to storm rebel strongholds are likely. Indeed, reports of further attacks on Rastan and Homs began emerging at the beginning of July, and the regime has not relented in its use of persistent artillery bombardment to inflict rebel casualties.

The ongoing fight for Al-Qusayr has wider ramifications, since it falls on a major transit point for rebel supplies and reinforcements coming in from Lebanon. While rebels have made recent gains in the city, Damascus has responded by reinforcing the area and shelling the opposition's logistical lines, including those in Lebanon's Akkar region. The Lebanese government has responded by dispatching some 2,000 soldiers to the northern border, but Lebanon's military is deeply divided along sectarian lines and is viewed with suspicion by both the Syrian opposition and the Syrian regime, so it is unlikely to have a significant impact on the fighting in the long run.


Idlib is a particularly important governorate for the opposition given its location just southeast of the Turkish province of Hatay, where rebel forces secure substantial supplies and reinforcements. Hatay, with its large number of Syrian refugee camps, has quickly become one of the largest and most important supply points for the rebels. The region's mountainous and hilly terrain also favors the rebels, who can establish strong defensive positions and carry out guerrilla attacks against the regime's largely isolated outposts. The rebels' control of the border zone governorate allows them to retreat across the border to the relative security of Turkish territory if they are ever threatened with a major regime offensive.

The Idlib rebel pocket remains a major problem for the regime. Since March, rebels who fled from the government's attack as it retook Idlib dispersed into the governorate's countryside and gradually drove regime forces away from the villages and towns surrounding the city. Many Syrian military garrisons, including the city of Idlib to an extent, remain isolated. Supply convoys often run a gauntlet of improvised explosive devices and rebel ambushes before they can reach their destinations. Military defections have also reportedly been particularly high.

Government troops in the area — even if hard-pressed — are scoring some major successes of their own. In the first week of July, a military offensive drove rebel forces from Khan Sheikhoun, a strategically located town that straddles the north-south M5 highway. Regime forces have also prevented the rebel pocket in the Idlib governorate from spreading south or northeast to link up with either the Aleppo pocket or the rebel groups in Homs and Rastan. But government forces in the area do not have the strength to advance to the border and close off the main rebel supply lines. Furthermore, given recent tensions between Turkey and Syria, Damascus is wary of a potential Turkish backlash, should its troops carry out operations too close to the border.

The fall of the city of Idlib would create a continuous stretch of opposition-held territory that would link rebel forces in the Idlib and Aleppo governorates. This would further isolate the city of Aleppo and facilitate the rebels' attempts to establish a corridor connecting the Turkish and Lebanese borders and blocking Damascus from the Syrian coast, where the majority of the Alawite population lives and where most of the regime's imports arrive. The June 5-13 Battle of Al-Haffah, for example, made it clear to the regime that the loss of control over logistical hubs like Al-Haffah could potentially mean the severance of vital supply lines to government forces. Significant opposition gains in the Idlib governorate would also further threaten the critical M4/M5 highway that links Aleppo with Damascus and the Syrian coast, and have significant ramifications for the regime's overall campaign.

Regime forces can thus be expected to maintain considerable pressure on rebels in the Idlib governorate, and military offensives will continue in an attempt to keep the opposition as far away from the M4/M5 highway as possible.


The opposition's steady encroachment on Aleppo remains one of the Syrian government's biggest concerns. Aleppo is the second largest city in Syria and a major commercial hub populated by many wealthy Sunni businessmen who have yet to abandon Damascus. The Aleppo governorate did not witness any major fighting until March, when rebels retreating from regime offensives in Idlib and Homs began carrying out increasingly effective operations in the area. By the end of May, a large rebel pocket had formed to the north of Aleppo. Opposition forces are now firmly entrenched in the region's towns and villages, including Anadan and Hraytan, but the military continues to batter rebel positions with artillery and helicopter gunship strikes.

Since May, Damascus appears to have steadily reinforced the governorate with armor and infantry with the goal of eliminating the rebel pocket. Given the vulnerability of the government supply lines that stretch from Damascus to Aleppo, the regime's efforts have been time-intensive and difficult. Until now, opposition forces in the governorate have been able to maintain their steady advance on the city of Aleppo, with the closest rebel positions just four kilometers (three miles) away. The opposition even claims to have established sleeper cell units in Aleppo waiting for the opportune moment to strike.

Given the importance of the city, the Syrian military can be expected to put up a determined fight. An offensive against the rebel pocket may yet be carried out if sufficient forces are amassed, and failing that, reinforcements previously sent to the governorate will make any further rebel gains costly.

Deir el-Zour and Daraa

Two other governorates have witnessed considerable fighting between the opposition and regime forces. In the Daraa governorate in the south, many rebel units operate across the Hawran Plain. Though numerous, these units tend to be smaller in size relative to rebel units in northern Syria. Due to a large government presence in the area, rebel units in Daraa operate mostly in the countryside; the city of Daraa remains firmly under Damascus' control. However, the high proportion of Druze in southern Syria means that a shift in Druze allegiance toward the rebels would have a substantial impact on fighting in the region.

The Deir el-Zour governorate has also seen a considerable amount of conflict. This region is crucial due to its oil fields and pipeline infrastructure, which were reportedly closed down due to the fighting, and to its position as a border region with Iraq, from where arms and militants have infiltrated Syria. Damascus cracked down in the governorate in August, largely silencing the opposition. But attacks by rebel forces in the area have increased significantly since April, and the government responded to the uptick with an offensive in June. Large sections of the governorate are free from regime forces, and the military has not yet been able to pacify the city of Deir el-Zour. Despite the length of its supply lines, the Syrian military has continued to carry out operations in the area.

For political, symbolic and military reasons, the regime has not yet surrendered any governorate, not even the distant Deir el-Zour. This has often forced the Syrian military to send its elite units across the country to eliminate pockets of resistance. With no apparent prospect of direct foreign military intervention and without either side having a decisive battlefield advantage, the fight for Syria will continue to intensify.

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