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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Moment of Truth Approaching in Damascus

Filed under: Syria

The Free Syrian Army has shifted to an offensive in Damascus and Aleppo.          

 Over the last three days the Free Syrian Army, the umbrella body of the rebel forces, has changed its approach in fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime. From a campaign of attrition—aimed at siphoning off troops from the Syrian army, eroding its power by attacking its armored forces, and taking over positions and bases while damaging morale—the Free Syrian Army has shifted to an offensive whose aim is no less than a military victory. 

 In his instructions to the rebel forces, Free Syrian Army commander Riad al-Asaad outlined the main points of his battle plan. In a video uploaded to YouTube on Monday, Asaad ordered the rebel forces in southern Syria and in the rural part of Damascus to make their way to the neighborhoods of Damascus and wage the final battle against Assad’s forces there. As for the rebel forces in the northern and eastern parts of the country, Asaad told them to go to Aleppo, the economic capital of Syria, in an effort to defeat the Syrian army in that city.

Asaad’s statements reflect the growing confidence among the rebels, who have been encouraged by a string of battlefield successes against the Syrian army. The rebels have destroyed a large number of armored vehicles and a number of helicopters, killed thousands of soldiers and officers while taking many others prisoner, and, particularly, have struck a lethal blow to the Syrian army’s morale. Many of its troops now appear to be exhausted, lacking resolve or belief in the justice of their cause. Desertions keep mounting and now include senior officers and circles close to the regime.

The decision by the leaders of the Free Syrian Army to focus the fighting on Damascus and Aleppo, the brain and the heart of Syria, is intended first and foremost to induce an attitudinal change in the Syrian army, conveying to them the message that the end of the regime is imminent and they must speedily choose between fighting to the death or saving themselves and their families by joining the rebels. 

The rebel leadership seeks thereby to cause the quick collapse of the regime through the mass desertion of both Sunni and Alawite soldiers and officers including, in particular, the senior officer corps, creating a rapid domino effect of the downfall of the army as a whole. To that end Asaad underscored in his speech—along with the expression “Umayyad Damascus,” meaning Sunni rather than Alawite—that the enemy is solely Assad and his cronies, with the rebels assigning supreme importance to preserving “national unity.” This is meant as a message of goodwill toward the Alawite community apart from those involved in war crimes. The rebel forces have indeed refrained, despite their capacity to perpetrate them, from acts of mass revenge (while committing such acts on a smaller scale) against the Alawite population for the slaughter, killing, torture, and rape that have been committed against the Sunnis.

The transfer of most of the fighting to Damascus and Aleppo also constitutes a political message by the rebel leadership, which has opposed UN envoy Kofi Annan’s initiative and the recent efforts to promote a political process. The rebels have no further faith in Annan, whom they see as serving the Assad regime’s interests. Annan’s previous ceasefire initiative gave Assad an intermission for recovery while checking the revolt’s momentum. The rebels now have the momentum and see their goals as within reach given their battlefield achievements and especially their wide support among the Sunni population, which was joined unequivocally this week by the Palestinians in the Damascus refugee camps.   

The rebels, then, are trying to make the most of success while the regime finds itself in a battle of survival, no longer able to intimidate the rebelling population even in Damascus, the capital. Syria today is actually under the Assad regime’s military occupation, and it is being gradually removed by the Free Syrian Army. Assad will have to decide very soon whether to keep his dwindling forces broadly deployed or concentrate them in the main battle centers and the Alawite areas so as to protect the Alawites against vengeance and massacres. In light of the developments, especially the rebels’ gains in recent months, it appears that the battle for Syria has entered its final phase and Assad’s regime will not be  around much longer.