Monday, May 4, 2015

Warning Intelligence Update: Possible Upheaval in the Syrian Capital

by: Jennifer Cafarella

Key Takeaway: Major operations targeting entrenched anti-Assad forces in the outskirts of Damascus appear to be upcoming as Hezbollah and the Syrian regime prepare to target anti-Assad hold out positions in the capital and its countryside. In addition, indicators have emerged of a possible intervention by regional actors to assist in defeating Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This includes ongoing negotiations to deepen the cooperation between prominent hardline Islamist groups Jaysh al-Islam and Harakat Ahrar al-Sham, which would increase the effectiveness of anti-Assad forces regardless of direct regional intervention. Together these trends indicate that a major shakeup of the military situation in Damascus Province is likely in coming weeks. 

The Syrian regime launched an attack on May 3 targeting the town of Maydaa, which buffers a crucial remaining rebel supply line into the partly besieged Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus. The regime made immediate gains, but clashes are reportedly ongoing in the area. According to Damascus-based Jaysh al-Islam commander Zahran Alloush, “if the army succeeds in taking Maydaa they could use it as a launchpad to storm Eastern Ghouta.” It therefore appears that the Assad regime may be setting conditions for a major campaign inside of the capital. Following the attack, conflicting reports indicate that either multiple IEDs or a suicide bomber detonated inside the Rukn al-Din neighborhood of Damascus on May 4, injuring a regime major general. The Rukn al-Din neighborhood is home to a number of senior regime officials and elements of Syria’s intelligence apparatus. Jabhat al-Nsura (JN) later claimed via twitter that three JN fighters successfully penetrated a military logistics and supply building on Barniya Street near the neighborhood, likely in the same attack that killed the regime general. This attack could be an attempt by JN disrupt the regime’s operation in Eastern Ghouta.

The attack also indicates JN’s ability to penetrate core regime-held neighborhoods with spectacular attacks. If anti-Assad strongholds in the eastern outskirts of the capital begin to fall, JN could attempt to force a constriction in the regime’s deployment in the capital through spectacular attacks targeting core regime-held terrain. Seeming to indicate this threat, unconfirmed reports emerged from a Saudi newspaper that the regime's intelligence service asked all of the “top families” of Damascus to relocate to Latakia city within 48 hours on May 3, 2015. According to the report, the regime has specifically asked the families of the Mezzeh district to abandon the city. The Mezzeh Military Airbase is one of Assad’s primary airports to support its operations in Damascus, and is located less than five miles from the Presidential Palace, making the Mezzeh district some of the regime’s most fortified terrain.

The possibility of a regional intervention by Saudi Arabia and Turkey to support Damascus-based rebels may encourage the regime to secure immediate gains in the capital that could neutralize opportunities for regional actors. Indications of a possible Saudi and Turkish intervention in Syria against Assad have increased in recent weeks. Following the fall of Idlib City and Jisr al-Shughour in Idlib Province to JN and rebel forces, reports emerged of increased amounts of regional aid being delivered to rebels in northern Syria. In addition, major rebel groups in southern Syria claimed in late April to have engaged in discussions with regional actors regarding the provision of Arab air cover or other anti-aircraft capabilities to Syrian opposition fighters for an upcoming operation against the regime, likely in southern Damascus and Dera’a Provinces. Zahran Alloush, the leader of the Saudi-backed Jaysh al-Islam, is currently in Turkey after arriving on April 17 for a series of undisclosed meetings. According to photos circulated by pro-opposition sources, Alloush recently met with leaders from hardline Islamist group Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya (HASI). The discussions underway in Turkey reportedly constitute an attempt by these two groups to negotiate a new cooperative relationship, likely under Saudi and Turkish supervision. A member of the Islamic Front Shura Council denied that the groups were considering a full merger but indicated that deepening cooperation between the groups is upcoming.

From left to right: HASI leader Hassem Sheikh, Jaysh al-Islam leader Zahran Alloush, and Suqour al-Sham (HASI’s armed wing) leader Sheikh Ahmed Issa
Photo distributed by All4Syria, May 2, 2015

A united HASI and Jaysh al-Islam could provide regional actors with a powerful ally on the ground to serve as a partner for action against the Assad regime in the near term. An apparent recent increase in Jaysh al-Islam’s military capabilities seems to indicate that regional support to the group has actually increased in the past few months. This augmentation seems to confirm that the group will be a designated partner for any future operations directly carried out by regional actors against the Syrian regime. In mid-April, Jaysh al-Islam conducted a large military parade and graduation ceremony in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus. The scope of the parade and the equipment showcased suggest a recent infusion of increased support, likely from Saudi Arabia. Some of these newly trained fighters appear to have participated in the battle to seize Jisr al-Shughour in Idlib Province. Jaysh al-Islam was a signatory to the “Battle of Victory” operations room, which seized the town on April 25. Jaysh al-Islam also signed onto a new operations room in Aleppo City the following day, a notable expansion of its operations inside Aleppo that could signify Jaysh al-Islam’s growing role as a cross-front actor in Syria. 

Meanwhile, unconfirmed Lebanese sources are also indicating that Hezbollah’s expected offensive targeting the Qalamoun border region with Syria is imminent and “could start in hours.”  According to “field sources” cited by the Lebanese paper Janoubiya on May 3, a large number of Shi’a youth have traveled from villages in the western Bekaa Valley to the Northern Bekaa region to prepare for the “Battle of Spring” in Qalamoun, which is expected to begin in the next 48 hours. Jihadists in the border region also appear to be gearing up for upcoming operations, likely indicating that a battle in the border region will require a significant military effort from Hezbollah. JN released a series of photos from the Qalamoun region showing its fighters training on a variety of anti-tank weapons systems. The tweets follow a set of earlier pictures from a graduation ceremony from a JN training camp. One of these tweets stated that “[the mujahideen] are almost ready to free their villages,” likely indicating upcoming JN offensive operations in the border region. JN and rebel fighters in the Qalamoun region launched a surprise assault against Hezbollah and Syrian regime positions in the Zabadani area and the Tfeil enclave on May 4, possibly indicating the start of a JN-led campaign in the border region.

A JN trainer instructs JN fighters using anti-tank weapon
Photo distributed by JN via Twitter May 2, 2015

It is unclear if the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) will be able to maintain security in Lebanon’s bordering Bekaa valley if a major Qalamoun offensive occurs. Lebanese Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri indicated that he supports the upcoming Hezbollah offensive and that the LAF will continue to respond to jihadist activity on the Lebanese side of the border in case of escalation. With Hezbollah’s backing, the LAF and Lebanese General Security have made a string of important arrests that appear to be dismantling the jihadist network inside Lebanon. However, jihadist actors in the Qalamoun, including both JN and ISIS, have dormant strength in the Bekaa Valley and will likely leverage this to escalate on both sides of the Lebanese-Syrian border.

Assad is likely to calculate his activities in Damascus in the context of the security of key regime supply lines transiting the Damascus countryside from Lebanon. Escalation in both the capital and its countryside could result in dangerous destabilization that could jeopardize the continued security of key regime terrain in the capital, such as that represented by the Mezzeh district. Yet a combined regime and Hezbollah assault against anti-Assad hold out positions in both Damascus and the Qalamoun region could also achieve a major victory and reestablish the military superiority of pro-regime forces in Syria. Regional actors are likely to engage with this dynamic and calculate the possibilities and prospects of intervention according to the realities of the military situation in the province. Jaysh al-Islam and HASI will be key players in rebel activities in Damascus province regardless of whether intervention materializes.