Fighting Spreads to Damascus; but is it a Turning Point

It is significant, but not decisive, that fighting raged for a second day in the Syrian capital of Damascus Monday. The southern district of Tadamun was especially affected, though there were reports of clashes even in Midan, right down town.

There also continued to be demonstrations and clashes around the country, which left 67 dead according to opposition sources.

In the four successful attempts at deposing the dictator from below in the Arab world, crowd action and popular mobilization in the capital was decisive. The capital is key because it is typically the site of the presidential palace, the ministry of interior (i.e. secret police), and the HQ of the ruling party in the one-party state. If very large crowds gather and move toward the presidential palace, it is difficult for the military to intervene without risking the bad publicity of a massacre.

But crowd action in the capital is only part of the strategy for deposing a dictator. In Egypt and Tunisia, at least, the rest of the elite decided that the dictator was not worth all that trouble, and put him on an aircraft to somewhere else.

This element, of the elite’s willingness ultimately to throw the dictator under the bus, that is missing from Syria. The inner circle of the Baath Party is dominated by the Alawite Shiite sect. Alawites comprise 80% of the officers in the Republican Guard. These Shiites are not ideologically motivated. They are mostly secular people and at least had strong ties to Sunnis, as well. But their prosperity has depended on being regime insiders, and without a Baath Party ruling Syria, the fate of the Alawites has a big question mark over it.

Syria therefore much more resembles Libya than it does Egypt and Tunisia. In Libya, the regime did not fall until there was a mass uprising in the capital. But this uprising was made possible in some important part by the destruction of Qaddafi’s armored divisions. The fighters got rocket propelled grenades and other medium arms from Qatar and possibly France, and they knew they could prevail if they did not have to face tanks, artillery and rockets. NATO’s destruction of so much of Qaddafi’s armored capability built confidence among the revolutionaries.

So the fighting in Damascus may not be a turning point, or at least it may not be the turning point. The fighters may be surrounded and destroyed by the Alawite-dominated Republican Guard. The high Baathist elite may decide they need to make a stand rather than throwing Bashar al-Assad overboard. The regime has 5,000 tanks and lots of artillery, and this continued large arms capability may deter Damascus from rising up en masse in the way that Libya’s Tripoli did. At least, you can’t take it for granted that the deterrence will fail.

People in Damascus in telephone calls to loved ones abroad reported hearing gunfire and explosions in the distance, and not being able to sleep at night.

The geography of yesterday’s fighting in the capital is explained by Aljazeera English:

To have, as AFP Arabic reports, tank fire in Midan is extraordinary, and a real change from last year, when the capital remained quiet while the smaller provincial cities revolted.

But the fighters in Tadamun may actually be in trouble. Tanks have been brought into the districts, blocking roads, and cutting off escape routes, even as snipers have been deployed on rooftops. Guerrillas should never put themselves in a position where they have to stand and fight, and can’t melt away before superior conventional forces.

Aljazeera English reports the day’s events:

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14 Responses

  1. Dear Professor Cole

    Actually if I were a Syrian General I would be pleased that the rebels have gone off at half cock and engaged in Damascus where they can be destroyed piecemeal.

    I wonder if this is in fact a sign of deperation on the part of the rebels. Apparently their support has been cut off for the rest of the year.

    US refuses to help Syrian rebels until after election
    Barack Obama’s US government has warned its western allies and Syria’s opposition groups that it can do nothing to intervene in the country’s crisis until after November’s presidential election, The Daily Telegraph has learned. ”

    link to telegraph.co.uk

    “Syrian lobby groups in Washington, who only a few weeks ago were expressing hope that the Obama administration might give a green light to the supply of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, said they had now been forced to “take a reality pill” by the US government.

    The Telegraph understands that the Syrian Support Group (SSG), the political wing of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), recently presented American officials with a document requesting 1,000 RPG-29 anti-tank missiles, 500 SAM-7 rockets, 750 23mm machine guns as well as body armour and secure satellite phones. They also asked for $6m to pay rebel fighters as they battle the regime. All their requests were rejected. “

    • Actually if I were a Syrian General I would be pleased that the rebels have gone off at half cock and engaged in Damascus where they can be destroyed piecemeal.

      This brings me back to the days of George Bush explaining that growing violence in more and more parts of Iraq, including Baghdad, shows that the the insurgency is losing.

      link to thinkprogress.org

      • It’s more complicated than that, Joe. Read the history of the Vietnamese war against the French. Premature attempts at conventional warfare against France’s technological army dealt severe setbacks to the Vietminh. Mao argued that revolution had to go through stages, and that you can’t rush into the final stage of attacking the regime in the big cities.

        However, the Vietnamese found that you can’t always tell if your actions are premature; sometimes you have to move to the next phase, find out you’re not ready, take your licks and revert to what was working before. This should be true of other armed revolutionary forces, but few had the cohesion and recruiting ability of Ho Chi Minh’s. Getting slaughtered in Damascus could set the rebels back years. Then again, the Libyan rebels surprised everyone after a long stalemate by moving forces via the mountains into Tripoli, finding it practically unguarded, and coordinating with a popular uprising. You can’t be 100% sure which of these outcomes will occur no matter how good your intelligence is.

        • Super390,

          I was responding to Eurofrank’s line: I wonder if this is in fact a sign of deperation on the part of the rebels.

          You seem to be arguing the opposite – that expanding the uprising into the capital itself is a sign not of desperation, but of overconfidence. That actually makes a great deal more sense, as far as pessimistic cases go, given the growing success that the Syrian rebels have been experiencing.

          That success would seem to be a much more-plausible motive for the rebels moving into Damascus than Eurofrank’s theorized horror at being told they won’t be getting American arms any time soon. After all, they haven’t received American arms to date, yet they’ve managed to seize the momentum regardless.

        • Updated, Super390

          I agree with you.

          I counselled some of my friends to look at the Tet offensive in Vietnam in 1968, to see the similarities with Damascus today.

          The VC committed 70,000 men in that action of which they lost 37,000 so militarily the US won.

          What the US lost was the battle of the narrative.

          In Damascus I don’t understand the rebel logistics. I don’t understand how and where they have stockpiled their ammunition, and how resupply is to take place along long supply lines from Lebanon.

          I expect that, as in Homs, the rebels will run out of ammunition and will have to either hide or run for it to Jordan or Lebanon.

          There is always the possibility that some of the rebel groups have been suckered into making suicidal attacks on the regime stronghold, by their political opponents, to remove them from the scene.

          Let us beware of press reports of imminent collapse of the regime in Damascus until we see proof.

  2. A major turning point in the Libyan civil war was when a Libyan Army comamnder defending the capital of Tripoli joined forces with the rebels.

    If that happens here Dr.Assad may be forced to flee Damascus.

    For his own safety, it would likely be better for him if he resigned and went into exile – like Idi Amin in Saudi Arabia. Otherwise, he is delaying the inevitable while his countrymen are dying in a civil war.

    I suspect that various foreign intelligence agencies may be involved in providing covert aid to the rebels.

  3. As we know the rebels are sponsored by Qatar, why do you only provide your sources from a news agency run by the Royal Family of Qatar? Surely their narrative is pro-rebel. AJE has had high profile resignations due to the forced censorship on the other side of the argument on Syria.

    Al-Qaeda are confirmed as operating with the Rebels, yet it is never mentioned by the West Press (which you used to rival, now echo).

    You were once a bastion of independent free thought providing both arguments to a story, now nothing more than a reflection of the West Press narrative.

    • I think you are looking for the wrong signals of good analysis by concentrating on identity instead of argument.

    • Al-Qaeda are confirmed as operating with the Rebels, yet it is never mentioned by the West Press

      Actually, that is frequently mentioned in the western press.

    • CAM,
      We dont see the western press highlight the fact that the “rebels” are Jihadi Al-Queda types funded by Sunni governments in this religious conflict, because a lot of time the press just accepts the government version. (Remember Iraq war?)

      The other thing is that there is a stupid anti-Iran policy by the state department which feeds this line of thinking. Since Assad is Alawite-Shiite supported by Iran he immediately becomes an enemy and in the most bizarre and stupid fashion Jihadi Al Queda types become valiant “rebels”.
      I thought Obama would bring some sense to the foreign policy as he is worldly wise, but I have only been disappointed with his continuation of anti Iran (State department policy inertia) policy.

        • Joe,
          Please dont be disingenuous!!! The press may have covered the Al-Queda connection but lets not pretend that the grand narrative that has been created is the one of a evil dictator (Assad) brutally murdering brave revolutionaries, good guys who are fighting against all odds.
          The people on Prof.Cole’s blog are a lot more informed about these subject, but average person who is not very interested in world affairs is NOT aware that the rebels are Al-Queda and are far from being good guys. This is primarily because of one sided reportage.

  4. General Manaf Tlas has turned up in Paris, joining his multi-millionaire sister and his father (who was Assad’s defense minister at the time of the 1982 massacre in Hama). He condemned the regimes killing of civilians, but did not say he was joining the opposition. Maybe he is hoping there will be a transitional, unity government that he can play a leading role in.

  5. What will happen when Assad is gone and who decides? It could be real change (as seems to be happening so far in Libya) or just a new dictatorship replacing the old. I am certain both factions are part of this revolution but it is difficult for outsiders to sort them out.

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