Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Regime's Offensive Campaign: Damascus and Environs

This analysis of the Syrian regime’s offensive campaign in Damascus and the nearby environs is adapted from the ISW report “An Army in All Corners”: Assad’s Campaign Strategy in Syria by ISW Syria Analyst Christopher Kozak published in April 2015. 


June 24th Update: As the Syrian Civil War moves into its fifth year, the Assad regime appears increasingly incapable of mounting successful large-scale offensive maneuvers capable of securing and holding territory amidst a string of recent ISIS, JN, and Syrian opposition advances. Unconfirmed reports over the past twenty-four hours indicate that Syrian rebels may now be preparing for a major offensive to seize Dera’a City in southern Syria in preparation for a potential drive on Damascus. The excerpt below details the regime’s military operations in Damascus and its environs through late 2014 and into 2015 in order to provide context regarding the military priorities and capabilities of the Assad regime in southern Syria. ISW will release a publication next week detailing recent developments in the south and their implications for the Syrian Civil War.

Taken as a whole, Assad’s military campaign has largely succeeded only in generating further disorder. The strategy of defensive protraction adopted by the Assad regime resulted in a grueling and destructive stalemate across most of the battlefields of Syria through 2014 and into 2015. Limited manpower and resupply options constrained the offensive capabilities of pro-regime forces, forcing Assad to prioritize a small number of fronts while maintaining a reactive stance throughout the remainder of the country. This force posture has entrenched a state of persistent conflict in Syria which exacerbated humanitarian ailments, deepened polarization among the populace, and provided space for jihadist forces to expand their social and military control relatively unchecked. An increasing reliance on paramilitary and Iranian proxy forces along the most critical frontlines in Aleppo, Damascus, and the Alawite heartland failed to secure decisive victories against opposition forces and fueled sectarian narratives of conflict promulgated by extremist actors. An examination of the frontlines in Aleppo, Damascus, and central Syria where Assad chose to go on the offensive demonstrates how Assad balanced his available resources in order to achieve some battlefield success while preserving the ongoing stalemate across the country.


One of the keys to Assad’s military strategy has been the campaign for Aleppo, a major commercial capital in northern Syria and Syria’s second-largest city. A continuous military presence in the city is essential to Assad’s claim to control all of Syria, though rebels have contested the city since 2012. Full control of Aleppo would strengthen the negotiating position of the regime in any future political settlement. It holds equal value to the opposition. The frontlines between regime and rebel forces within Aleppo city proper have remained relatively static for over two years as both sides lack the necessary manpower and equipment to clear and hold the dense urban terrain of the city. The regime decided to lay siege to rebel positions in the city in late 2013, shifting the relevant battlespace to the rural outskirts of the city where the regime’s superiority in armor and air assets could be maximized in support of offensive maneuver operations largely unseen in the rest of Syria. This ‘siege-and-starve’ strategy also followed the model of similar sieges by the regime throughout the country, most notably in Homs city and the suburbs of Damascus.

The regime began the first phase of its encirclement campaign by seizing the heavily defended urban terrain of the Sheikh Najjar Industrial City northeast of Aleppo on July 5, 2014. The advance by the regime took advantage of advances made by ISIS north of Aleppo city which threatened rebel supply lines crossing into Turkey and spurred confusion among opposition ranks. Regime forces augmented by a range of pro-regime irregulars launched a second phase of advance and seized the villages of Handarat north of Aleppo city on October 3, 2014, in a direct threat to the only major rebel supply line into Aleppo city, the Castello Road. This same coalition of pro-regime forces entered the al-Mallah farmlands west of Handarat village on December 14, 2014. The growing delays between these advances, as well as an increasing reliance on Iranian proxy fighters staging through the Nayrab Airbase, suggested that the year-long operation to encircle Aleppo had come under increasing stress by late 2014.

In a sign of the pressures placed upon pro-regime forces, the regime encirclement of Aleppo suffered its first significant setback in February 2015. On February 17, 2015, regime forces supported by fresh NDF, Hezbollah, and Shi’a Afghan reinforcements seized large portions of the villages of Bashkuy, Rityan, Duwayr al-Zeitun, and Hardatnin north of Aleppo following a rapid westward advance. The regime likely sought to break the siege of the Shi’a-majority towns of Nubl and Zahraa northwest of Aleppo, linking their forces in an arc of control dominating almost all opposition supply lines in the northern countryside of Aleppo. However, the scale and speed of the advance apparently overextended regime forces, leaving their positions vulnerable to rebel counterattack. 

Rebel forces recaptured the villages north of Aleppo within four days after clashes which killed over 150 pro-regime fighters. JN, Jabhat Ansar al-Din, and other allied Salafi-jihadist groups also captured the al-Mallah farmlands on February 20, 2015 and portions of Handarat village on March 10, reducing regime gains to the October 2014 status quo. This reversal demonstrated the difficulties that the regime faces in completing the encirclement of Aleppo while operating at the end of an extended supply line. However, despite these setbacks, regime forces still pose a dire threat to opposition-held Aleppo. Aleppo is a key northern “pin” on the map of Syria and Assad remains unlikely to abandon his campaign for any reason. The arrival of further regime reinforcements or an escalation of rebel infighting in Aleppo could enable the regime to complete the encirclement of the city. The end result of this operation would be a protracted siege of Aleppo which subjects the rebel-held districts of Syria’s commercial capital to starvation and punishing aerial bombardment in a powerful symbolic and strategic blow to the Syrian opposition. 

Securing Damascus

The elimination of the opposition threat to the Syrian capital of Damascus formed the second core component of the Assad regime’s military strategy. Durable control over the formal seat of government and the home of several million Syrian citizens provides the Syrian regime with a solid claim to domestic and international legitimacy. Damascus is also key terrain from a military perspective due to the high number of airbases, military installations, and elite SAA units present in the vicinity of the city. Damascus also serves as a key transit route for shipments of Iranian weapons and equipment to Lebanese Hezbollah and other proxy forces via the Damascus International Airport. Rebel forces began actively contesting the capital in early 2012 and currently hold large swathes of the eastern and southern suburbs of the city.

The regime’s campaign for Damascus can be broken into two distinct lines of effort. The first primary focus is the battle to reduce and eventually eliminate the strong rebel pocket in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs, a mixed rural-urban region which holds an estimated 160,000 civilians and opposition fighters.167 Eastern Ghouta has been the scene of some of the fiercest urban fighting in the capital, including the August 21, 2013 chemical weapons attacks targeting several opposition-held districts in the area. Meanwhile, the regime has also conducted a systematic effort to neutralize other opposition-held neighborhoods through sieges, starvation, and ceasefire agreements, preserving its combat power for other battlefronts. Assad has heavily relied upon his elite ‘praetorian guard’ units – including the Republican Guard and the 4th Armored Division – as well as Iranian proxy forces in order to prosecute his campaign in Damascus. Regime forces concentrated their offensive capacities against Eastern Ghouta in an attempt to neutralize and compress the largest pocket of opposition fighters in the capital. In contrast, the Assad regime utilized siege-and-starve tactics to neutralize rebel forces in the denser urban terrain of southern Damascus with minimal military effort.

Eastern Ghouta

The regime directed its main efforts in early 2014 towards driving rebel forces from Jobar and Mleiha, two districts of eastern Damascus which formed part of the western defensive line for opposition-held Eastern Ghouta. Jobar represented the furthest line of opposition advance into Damascus city proper and its heavily-developed urban environment provided rebel forces with a decisive advantage which the assaulting forces of the elite SAA 105th Brigade Republican Guard were unable to overcome. Regime forces targeted Jobar with heavy artillery, airstrikes, and ballistic missiles on a daily basis, while both rebel and regime fighters have constructed complex networks of tunnels used to facilitate troop movement and ferry food and other supplies. In some cases, both sides have used ‘tunnel bomb’ attacks to burrow explosives underneath opposing strongholds. Under these conditions, the situation in Jobar remains a virtual stalemate as of April 2015. 

Forces from the elite SAA 4th Armored Division supported by NDF, Iraqi Shi’a fighters, and Hezbollah launched an offensive against Mleiha on April 3, 2014. Although the town was subjected to a constant barrage of airstrikes and ballistic missiles, regime ground troops proved unable to make significant initial gains. By the end of May 2014, pro-opposition media claimed that the clashes in Mleiha had killed over eight hundred pro-regime fighters. The withdrawal of Iraqi Shi’a militias from Syria following the fall of Mosul in June 2014 slowed the regime’s push for Mleiha. Activist sources reported that the majority of Iraqi fighters along the Mleiha front had departed by June 19, 2014, forcing the regime to ease its assault on the area. However, the mobilization and deployment of over 1,000 Hezbollah fighters to Damascus in order to “defend the Sayyida Zeinab shrine” quickly revitalized the regime’s offensive. On July 12, 2014, SAA supported by NDF and Hezbollah advanced around the eastern perimeter of Mleiha, placing the town and several hundred opposition fighters under siege. Although JN fighters used an SVBIED attack to successfully break the siege on August 3, 2014, pro-regime forces reestablished the cordon one week later. “The regime forces now wrap around the perimeter of the town,” the opposition Mleiha Local Council reported. 

Under siege and faced with punishing bombardment from the air, rebel fighters withdrew from Mleiha on August 14, 2014 in a major victory for regime and Hezbollah forces. An activist asserted that “the loss of Mleiha is considered as important as the loss of the Qalamoun” region along the Lebanese border to a similar joint regime-Hezbollah operation in early 2014.

Regime forces capitalized on momentum gained from the capture of Mleiha as well as the arrival of reinforcements drawn from the nearby Qalamoun region to secure several additional victories against the Syrian opposition in Eastern Ghouta. SAA and NDF forces seized the village of Adra and the adjacent Adra Industrial City after a series of clashes from September 25 to 27, 2014, restricting rebel freedom of movement towards the Qalamoun region to the northeast. Meanwhile, Republican Guard units and rebel forces traded possession of the Dukhaniyah suburb located northwest of Mleiha multiple times in September 2014 in heavy clashes which included several alleged chlorine gas attacks before regime fighters finally secured the district on October 6, 2014. 

The Assad regime next turned its attention towards the town of Douma, a major rebel stronghold in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs dominated by prominent Islamist faction Jaysh al- Islam. On November 6, 2014, SAA forces seized the Wafidin Camp north of Douma, severing the last remaining opposition supply line into Eastern Ghouta. Over subsequent months, the Syrian Air Force sharply intensified its bombardment of Douma and other towns in Eastern Ghouta, causing hundreds of casualties. Mosques in Eastern Ghouta began cancelling Friday prayers in order to avoid presenting tempting targets to regime pilots. The severity of these airstrikes prompted Jaysh al-Islam to announce a retaliatory campaign of rocket attacks targeting Damascus city in late January to early February 2015 in a move publically portrayed as an attempt to deter further regime bombardment. 

The Assad regime leveraged illegal tactics of collective punishment in order to encourage the depopulation of rebel-held areas. On November 24, 2014, regime forces opened the Wafidin Camp crossing to permit “dozens” of families to flee Eastern Ghouta. In late January 2015, Syrian state media claimed regime forces evacuated over 2,000 additional civilians from the area. On March 19, 2015, opposition sources reported that another 1,000 civilians were allowed to flee Eastern Ghouta via a checkpoint in Harasta. These mass evacuations served a clear propaganda purpose by highlighting the cleavages between rebel forces and the populace under their control. The policy of evacuations also fuels suspicions and infighting amongst rebel forces in Eastern Ghouta regarding potential reconciliation agreements with the regime. Overall, however, the regime campaign against Eastern Ghouta appears to have stalled amidst a shift in regime focus towards countering rebel gains in Dera’a and Quneitra Provinces to the south. 


The Assad regime has relied on a system of sieges to force the submission of opposition-held neighborhoods throughout Damascus without diverting valuable combat resources from Eastern Ghouta. Regime forces also employ these blockades to depopulate rebel-held terrain, draining the pool of opposition support while bolstering the legitimacy of the Syrian government. One internal UN World Food Program document implicitly acknowledging that civilians can only receive food if they relocate to regime-held areas. The widespread use of deliberate starvation as a tool of war prompted the UN Security Council to pass UNSC Resolution 2139 on February 22, 2014, underscoring that “starvation of civilians as a method of combat is prohibited by international humanitarian law” and demanding that “all parties, in particular the Syrian authorities, promptly allow rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access” to all areas of Syria. Despite this rebuke, the Assad regime has continued its siege-and-starve campaign in southern Damascus unabated through 2014 and into 2015, particularly in the southwestern suburb of Darayya and the Yarmouk Camp district of Damascus. 

The Assad regime has utilized the siege-and-starve strategy to coerce several opposition-held neighborhoods of Damascus into ceasefire and ‘normalization’ agreements. These deals serve to deescalate scattered fronts throughout Damascus, enabling the regime to redirect its limited military resources towards high-priority areas such as Eastern Ghouta. The ceasefires also provide the Assad regime with a narrative of “national reconciliation” which bolsters its claim to political legitimacy by demonstrating a willingness to forge peace. President Assad has consistently underlined in interviews that ceasefire agreements are “something concrete” which provide a “measure of confidence” for a political settlement. On February 5, 2015, he established a high committee on reconciliation staffed by five cabinet ministers, three provincial governors, and the head of the National Security Bureau. These reconciliation agreements provoke distrust on the ground, however, from both the opposition and the regime. An opposition activist in a Damascus neighborhood under one such agreement expressed this sentiment stating that “this isn’t a reconciliation…this is a ceasefire until circumstances play in the revolution’s favor.” Meanwhile, an anonymous official in the regime Ministry of Reconciliation Affairs noted: “We have reservations; we do not see it as reconciliation, just a cessation of hostilities as weapons remain with both sides.” 

The examination of one prominent Damascus ceasefire deal provides a reflection of these tensions. The southwestern Damascus suburb of Moadamiyah concluded a local ceasefire agreement with regime forces in December 2013 after a punishing siege. The ceasefire was promoted as a sign of ongoing “national reconciliation;” however, the Assad regime delayed in meeting its obligations and only partially lifted its siege. Reflecting upon the ceasefire agreement over a year later in February 2015, an activist from Moadamiyah wrote in the Washington Times: “The regime continues to cut off power, gas and other basic services to Moadamiyah. Some humanitarian aid is allowed to enter, but not nearly enough for the town’s residents…Most egregiously, bombardments continue and the regime has resumed arrest raids on civilians.” Read the full report for accounts of a similar ceasefire agreement in the southern Damascus neighborhoods of Yalda, Babbila, and Beit Sahem in February 2014.


The Assad regime sought to clear and hold the Qalamoun Mountains, a strategic region northeast of the capital running along the Lebanese border, in order to defend the northern approaches to the capital and maintain access to the M5 Highway connecting Damascus to Homs, Hama, and the Syrian coast. The establishment of a strong regime presence along the border region also served to sever cross-border rebel supply lines based out of eastern Lebanon. Thus, regime forces launched a major operation to clear the Qalamoun on November 15, 2013. The timing of this offensive coincided with the end of major regime combat operations to clear the supply line to Aleppo city in an indication of the military advantage enjoyed by the Assad regime in late 2013. Lebanese Hezbollah fighters played a key role in the offensive, providing strained and inadequately equipped regime units with large amounts of manpower skilled in mountain warfare.

Regime forces supported by Hezbollah and the NDF rapidly advanced south along the M5 Highway towards Damascus, seizing a string of rebel-held towns including Deir Attiyah in late November 2013, an-Nabek in mid-December 2013, and the opposition stronghold of Yabroud on March 16, 2014. (Read “
The Fall of Yabroud and the Campaign for the Lebanese Border” by ISW Analyst Isabel Nassief.) As thousands of rebel fighters fled into Lebanon or further southwest towards Damascus, the regime offensive continued to move along the Lebanese border. Rebel and Hezbollah sources indicated that Hezbollah fighters led most of the ground offensives in the Qalamoun while the SAA restricted itself to providing air and artillery support. This deep reliance on foreign proxy forces to achieve battlefield success illustrated the declining agency of the Assad regime on the battlefield.
Regime and Hezbollah forces proved unable to clear rebel presence from the rural regions of the border despite holding most urban centers in the Qalamoun and maintaining unrestricted use of the M5 Highway. One Hezbollah fighter noted in an interview the difficulties in securing the rugged terrain of the region, stating that “It’s impossible for us to control all the mountains along the border, but we have enough people to do reconnaissance and ambushes.” These limitations forced Hezbollah and regime forces to man static defensive positions in unfriendly terrain, leaving their fighters vulnerable to attack. Rebel forces exploited the disruption caused by the withdrawal of Iraqi Shi’a militiamen from Syria in mid-June 2014 to launch a wave of deadly raids against Hezbollah and NDF checkpoints located on the outskirts of Rankous, Asal al-Ward, Hawsh al-Arab, Ras Ma’ara, Deir Attiyah, and Yabroud. Meanwhile, Hezbollah and NDF fighters continued to bear an increasing share of the combat burden in the northern Qalamoun as the Syrian regime redeployed its regular SAA units in the area to reinforce frontlines in Damascus city and Zabadani in the southern Qalamoun. This pressure sparked open clashes on several instances between Hezbollah fighters and local NDF militiamen rooted in accusations that Syrian forces rarely participate in fighting, leaving their Hezbollah partners unsupported.

Primary regime efforts in Qalamoun shifted in the summer of 2014 to the town of Zabadani located northwest of Damascus near the Jdaydet Yabous border crossing, a primary supply route used by Lebanese Hezbollah to transport fighters and weapons between Syria and Lebanon. The Assad regime first focused on isolating Zabadani from rebel reinforcement and resupply. Regime forces established a cordon around Zabadani and subjected the town to heavy shelling with artillery and barrel bombs throughout the summer and fall of 2014. However, in late December 2014 Ahrar al-Sham, JN, and other opposition forces launched an offensive which seized several checkpoints and military installations northwest of Zabadani, loosening the regime siege over the area and threatening Jdaydet Yabous. Clashes to reassert the cordon around Zabadani are still ongoing as of April 2015 with regime forces unable to secure a decisive advantage.


Dera’a and Quneitra Provinces in southern Syria formed a major source of opposition strength which directly threatened the southern approaches to Damascus. Nonetheless, regime forces in the two provinces operated in a relatively passive defensive stance throughout 2014, appearing content to slowly trade territory in the heavily-militarized region in order to devote limited reinforcements to other fronts. SAA units based in Dera’a and Quneitra Provinces were rarely reinforced, while pervasive anti-regime sentiment among the local population resulted in low NDF recruitment. Most SAA formations in southern Syria remained in close vicinity to their bases despite the spread of the Syrian civil war due to both pragmatic concerns over the political reliability of conscript soldiers as well as strategic concerns regarding the fears of an Israeli incursion. The Assad regime also likely remained confident that opposition forces could not breach the Damascus ‘military zone,’ a belt of strongpoints and army facilities south of the city originally designed to shield the capital against an Israeli armored thrust from the Golan Heights. 

Increasing rebel unification and a series of successful opposition offensives in summer and fall 2014 increasingly challenged the regime disposition in southern Syria. Rebel fighters had seized a series of hills and military facilities in southern Quneitra Province by May of 2014, enabling opposition forces to form a continuous zone of control along the Jordanian border. Rebel momentum continued unabated, despite asymmetric response by the Syrian regime including large numbers of barrel bomb attacks, air raids, and heavy artillery shelling. JN, Ahrar al-Sham, and the FSA-affiliated Southern Front seized the Quneitra border crossing with the Golan Heights on August 28, 2014, as well as Tel al-Hara, the location of a joint Russian-Syrian signals intelligence facility on October 5, 2014. JN and other rebel forces later seized complete control over the town of Sheikh Miskin on January 25, 2015 despite the reinforcement of regime units by Hezbollah fighters and IRGC officers, threatening the regime’s supply line to isolated forces in Dera’a city. 

This rapid succession of rebel gains threatened to bring Syrian opposition forces to the southern gates of Damascus city, forcing the regime to re-evaluate its strategy. Regime forces responded by launching an offensive against rebel positions in northwestern Dera’a Province on February 9, 2015 with support from at least forty tanks of the elite 4th Armored Division. Iran reportedly played a key role in the planning, organization, and execution of the offensive, with activists claiming that a large proportion of involved ground forces were composed of fighters from Lebanese Hezbollah, Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas, and the ‘Fatimiyoun’ Iranian-Afghani Shi’a militia. 

Multiple sources claimed that overall leadership for the operation was provided by ‘Iranian commanders’ with Syrian officers being transferred away from the front or executed for alleged collaboration with rebel forces. In support of this claim, IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani reportedly made a public appearance along the frontlines on February 11, 2015. In another notable indicator, this offensive followed the aforementioned Israeli airstrike in the al-Amal Farms area of Quneitra Province on January 18, 2015 which killed several prominent Hezbollah commanders, including Jihad Mughniyeh, as well as IRGC ground forces commander General Mohammad Ali Allahdadi. This delegation of senior Hezbollah and IRGC figures was likely conducting final preparations for the upcoming offensive. The degree of Iranian leadership and coordination witnessed in this offensive was unprecedented and signalled a willingness by Iran to adopt a more overt posture in Syria in order to protect its interests in the country. 

Within days, the pro-regime coalition made significant gains – seizing the rebel-held towns of Deir al-Adas, Deir Makir, and al-Danajah in northwestern Dera’a Province while threatening the towns of Kafr Nasij, Kafr Shams, and Masharah. Rebel commanders stated that pro-regime forces employed a number of unfamiliar tactics which initially overwhelmed opposition units once again underscoring the notion that Iran and its proxy forces took lead over the SAA and regime military commanders in this offensive.

The trajectory of pro-regime forces indicated that they likely intended to recapture the strategic heights at Tel al-Hara, reestablishing dominance over a large swath of the Dera’a Plain. However, despite declarations by opposition defense minister Maj. Gen. Salim Idriss that “the balance of power is in favor of the Iranian militias” in southern Syria, regime advances slowed in the face of several counteroffensives and the arrival of large numbers of rebel reinforcements to the area. Opposition groups continued to gain ground against the regime in other parts of the province despite being placed on the defensive in northwestern Dera’a Province. Rebel forces seized the town of Busra al-Sham along the border with Suwayda Province on March 25, 2015 and the Nasib border crossing with Jordan six days later. These victories underscore the limitations of Assad’s military forces even when augmented by Iranian proxies and advisors.