Middle East

A tale of two battles: Deraa and Yabroud

File - A picture taken on February 15, 2014 from the side of the forces loyal to Syrian president, shows a tank pointed at rebel positions in the strategic rebel-held Yabrud area near the Syrian capital Damascus. (AFP PHOTO SAM SKAINE)

BEIRUT: War is raging in most of Syria’s 14 provinces, but two military campaigns have recently taken center stage in the media spotlight.

One is in the Qalamoun region bordering Lebanon, in the rolling mountains that rise above western side of the Damascus-Homs highway, and centered mainly on the town of Yabroud. This campaign is being led by government forces, backed by National Defense paramilitaries, Hezbollah fighters and Iraqi Shiite militiamen, against an array of mainly local rebel groups, aided by the Al-Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front.

The other battle – actually a battle to come – is in the southern province of Deraa, where media on both sides of the conflict have played up the idea of an imminent, decisive push, but this time by the rebels.

Several news reports have highlighted the significance of such a campaign, which would rely on a coming shipment of “sophisticated” weapons, meaning shoulder-launched, anti-aircraft missiles, from backers of the mainstream armed opposition.

The awaited offensive in the south comes in the wake of the failed Geneva II peace talks and after responsibility for Syria policy in Saudi Arabia was transferred from Prince Bandar bin Sultan to Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, and ultimately Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, the interior minister.

The switch, according to some experts, could lead to a smoother relationship between two main backers of the opposition.

But like so many earlier campaigns, which were played up as decisive moments in the war, Yabroud and Deraa are likely to change little in the overall military equation, experts and activists believe.

According to Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, it looks unlikely that the regime will be able to settle things in the Qalamoun region and Yabroud in the near future.

Over the last two weeks, pro-opposition media outlets and activists in Qalamoun have claimed that the rebels are holding out against the government’s campaign, while managing to inflict dozens of casualties in the ranks of the army, paramilitaries and Hezbollah.

“The regime doesn’t appear able to decide the matter soon, and it’s already coming under pressure on other fronts,” Sayigh said.

The daily course of fighting in and around Yabroud has seen both sides claim short-term gains. But in many cases, they are forced to fall back just as quickly, meaning a slow-going tug of war.

A pro-opposition activist who recently visited the front lines said that for now, the rebels had learned from past experiences, and in particular last year’s loss of the town of Qusair, also near Lebanon’s border.

“It seems like there’s only a few hundred families left in Yabroud, after they fled to [the Lebanese town of Arsal], and they would appear to be families of the rebels,” the activist said. He predicted the rebels would face less pressure to surrender than they did in Qusair, where they were worried about the fate of several thousand civilian residents.

This doesn’t mean that Yabroud and the surrounding region won’t continue to experience fierce, daily onslaughts, the activist said.

“The regime can rely on airstrikes, and tossing barrel bombs, and not expend a lot of in terms of human effort,” he said. “But it’s going to be very difficult for the regime to take the area and hold it.”

As for the southern front, where clashes and regime shelling have been steadily fierce in recent weeks, both observers agreed that the likelihood of a “push” from Deraa to the capital, with or without sophisticated weapons entering the equation, was unlikely.

“A new type of offensive from the south is debatable,” Sayigh said. “It’s not just that the opposition lacks sophisticated weapons – the question is whether they can use them more effectively.”

Sayigh said the new weapons that are the suspect of much current speculation – namely MANPADS, or shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles – were probably better suited for defensive purposes and not an offensive that was supposed to move from Deraa due north to Damascus.

Moreover, there are no firm indications that the sophisticated weapons are on the way, with a Pakistani official last week denying that his country would be involved in transferring such arms to a non-state actor.

Sayigh said Saudi Arabia and the U.S. might manage to agree on ratcheting up political and other types of pressure on the Assad regime but that this didn’t necessarily mean Washington would approve a serious military effort to defeat the Syrian army.

The other question would be which rebel group to support with advanced weaponry. The mainstream Free Syrian Army has a host of groups fighting under its banner, although many don’t receive significant assistance from the FSA’s official leadership in Turkey.

Last month’s sacking of Gen. Salim Idriss as head of the FSA’s Supreme Military Council hasn’t led to a smooth transition in rebel ranks.

Gen. Abdel-Ilah Bashir, a commander from the southern province of Qunaitra, was named as Idriss’ successor, but the deposed chief, supported by some FSA figures in Deraa, has rejected the move.

Even more damaging was a news report last week, circulated by Israeli media, that Bashir had received training in Israel during an earlier phase of the war, when the general’s whereabouts were unknown for months.

A pro-opposition civilian activist who follows the southern front said that the news, even if untrue, had already done much to harm the stature of the new FSA leader.

As for a push to Damascus from the south, the activist described how rebel groups, some working in coordination with fighters from the Nusra Front and the Ahrar al-Sham Islamist militia, have been busy engaging regime forces in a number of locations in Deraa province, and further west into the next-door province of Qunaitra.

But, he continued, they are facing relatively easy targets – if they decided to turn north, they would find at least 30,000 “rested” regime troops deployed along the way.

“You have the Army’s 5th Division in the town of Izra, and the 7th Division in the town of Sanamein, both heavily armed,” he said. “And there’s the 9th division, deployed in Kisweh, south of Damascus, and it hasn’t really fought much either during the war.”

“All these concentrations of troops make the march to Damascus a very tough, if not impossible proposition,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 03, 2014, on page 8.




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