Syria is in a state of war. Regardless of how the warring parties are labeled – the regime versus rebels, or a state versus terrorists – the fact remains that Syria is at war. It follows that politics in times of war is steered by the combatants, or as one Syrian official said, “outlined by the boots of the fighters.”
In his speech on Sunday, 6 January 2013, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad spoke confidently – even over confidently according to some. Yet Assad, according to insiders familiar with the situation on the ground in Syria, derived his confidence – which they called “realism” – from the capabilities of his army and its achievements over the past eight weeks.
In November 2012, Damascus and its surrounding areas repeatedly came under rebel attack. At first, al-Nusra Front – the strongest among the armed opposition factions – sought to advance on Damascus from two main axes: from Douma and the adjacent areas towards the capital’s Abbasiyeen district; and from Daraya towards the Kfar Sousa groves, and from there to the heart of Damascus.
The Syrian security services were tipped off, and consequently, the army carried out operations on both axes, prompting al-Nusra to postpone its attack. However, the jihadi group reinforced its positions in Daraya and Moadamiyeh, and conducted raids against military positions in the countryside. Shortly after, al-Nusra began advancing towards Damascus International Airport, with a view to seizing it and cutting off the road linking it to the capital.
The same sources told Al-Akhbar: “Suddenly, and with total ease, the fighters of al-Nusra managed to take over several sensitive military installations in the Damascus countryside, including air defense sites.” Compared to the rebels, the Syrian army appeared like a formidable force in the last week of November, but one that was unable to fend off attacks by fighters executing plans overseen by experienced foreign officers.
For the first time since July 2012 – when a bomb targeted the National Security headquarters – the regime sensed danger looming over its otherwise fortified capital. As a result, the military leadership, both at the Ministry of Defense and the Presidential Palace, rushed to reassess the developments in the vicinity of Damascus.
According to sources close to the Syrian leadership, there were many gaps that led to grave and unjustifiable losses. For example, several posts fell into the hands of al-Nusra despite the fact that intelligence indicated that these posts were going to be attacked. As a response, the Syrian leadership was quick to introduce changes to its decision-making in the field. It reshuffled officers and officials in order to improve the operational capacity of its military forces on the ground.The results of these changes began to be felt shortly afterwards. The Syrian army successfully rebuffed an attack on the airport, with a view to changing the nature of the deployment in the area from a military to a security one.
It did not take long for the Syrian army to regain the initiative, moving from defense to offense. These adjustments to the command and control systems allowed the Syrian army to alter the general military situation in its favor: while conditions on the ground were increasingly unfavorable to regime forces at the end of November 2012, they were looking more advantageous shortly before the Syrian president’s recent speech.
The army attacked the areas controlled by opposition fighters to the south and east of Damascus. Regime troops also advanced on several hot spots in the north, particularly Aleppo and Idlib, which remain under the control of the Syrian army. A decision was made to withdraw from those costly positions in favor of others that needed be safeguarded, either because of their symbolic nature or due to their strategic importance.
This “optimistic” outlook, presented by the official Syrian side and relied on by Assad in his recent speech, largely coincides with a part of the opposition’s own account. For one thing, some of the regime’s opponents in Damascus who predicted the government’s collapse in a matter of weeks, are now less optimistic.
For them, victory now means merely controlling areas in northern Syria. Off the record, one of the hawks in the opposition camp has said: “The north will fall entirely under our control within weeks or months at the most. After that, the fighting will probably carry on for years in the central and southern regions, unless something major and unexpected happens.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.