In Syria, a New Battlefront Opens

4 MINS READFeb 13, 2015 | 20:46 GMT
In Syria, a New Battlefront Opens
(STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrian government forces stand on top of a building in the Daraa province on Feb. 11.

The battle strategy for Syria's south has changed. Three Syrian army divisions and allied forces, including hundreds of Hezbollah fighters as well as some Iranian advisers and specialists, launched a large-scale surprise offensive Feb. 6. These loyalist forces made considerable headway against the rebels, seizing the towns of Deir al-Adas, Deir Maker, and al-Danajah and continuing their advance on the outskirts of Kafr Shams, Sultaniyah and al-Taybah. While the offensive has since slowed and risks leaving other important fronts weakly defended, it highlights the importance of Damascus to the government as the rebel operations increasingly threaten the capital.

With rebels advancing on the capital, the government has struggled to stabilize its defenses and regain the initiative in the south. The offensive appears to be pushing south toward a line running from Quneitra city in the Golan Heights through al-Harrah in the center and finally anchored at the city of Inkhil on the far right. If successful, the move would effectively neutralize rebel efforts to link up with rebel forces around Damascus, position loyalist forces for further attacks southward, isolate a number of rebel units in the Golan Heights and likely attract large number of rebel forces from other critical sectors.

From Hezbollah’s point of view, gaining a stronger position in the Golan Heights also serves its objectives toward Israel. If the offensive is successful, they will likely seek to sustain a presence there. Still, it is a secondary consideration to the effort against the rebels.

A propaganda campaign also accompanied the offensive. In it, the Syrian government and its allies emphasized a connection between rebels in the south and Israel. Previous and largely unsuccessful attempts to raise loyalist Sunni militias from the south have intensified with the same narrative of defending the homeland from Israel and terrorist groups. Syrian President Bashar al Assad has also given a number of international interviews to promote the narrative. A number of high-ranking officials even visited the front line to boost morale, including the Syrian Defense Minister Fahd Jassem al-Freij as well as possibly Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, head of the Iranian Quds Force.

Bogged Down

A combination of adverse weather that largely grounded loyalist air support and fierce rebel resistance slowed the offensive over the last two days. Despite significant initial gains, the losses sustained by both sides appear to be heavy, with the loyalists losing large numbers of armored vehicles to rebel anti-tank guided missiles. With the element of surprise now gone, the loyalists will also have a more difficult time advancing as rebels bring reinforcements from other sectors to face them.

Even if the offensive slows down or halts before it reaches its objective of al-Harrah, the government has already been successful in drawing rebel forces to the area, alleviating other fronts in the southern region. However, the government and its allies have clearly devoted significant forces to this offensive, forces that may have been useful in bolstering the defenses of other critical sections in the south such as the villages of Qarfa and Namer. Rebels are trying to seize these villages to cut the M5 highway and isolate Daraa city. As long as the loyalist forces are able to make considerable headway, the offensive is likely to pay off for the Syrian government. Still, given the finite resources and manpower at their disposal, the government and its allies will need to prevent their forces from being bogged down in specific assaults.

Controlling the Capital

The Syrian government has clearly shifted its priorities when it comes to the battlefronts. Previously, loyalists had relied on pre-existing network of defenses and military bases in the militarized south to stem the rise of rebel factions in the region. Now, the government has largely devoted its forces to isolating the rebels in direct proximity to Damascus. Furthermore, it has staged a large-scale and ambitious offensive to encircle Aleppo city. The government has sent reinforcements to the south to stem the rebel advances, but as the rebel victory at the Battle of Sheikh Miskin revealed, those forces are not always enough.

As the rebels were increasingly successful in the south, they began to pose great risk to Damascus, threatening to link up with rebel pockets in eastern and western Ghouta. Maintaining control of the capital is understandably important to the government. Loyalist forces, with significant Iranian and Hezbollah backing, prepared over the last two months for their offensive. However, the buildup for the southern offensive may have weakened other loyalist regions or fronts in Syria. For example, the lack of advance by loyalist forces in Aleppo over the last few weeks could benefit rebel forces there. Ultimately, the offensive in the south demonstrates that the government will continue to prioritize the defense of Damascus from impending threats, defining its strategic battle plans.

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