By Nasser Charara
For two months now, all eyes were on Damascus as both the regime and the opposition readied themselves for a major confrontation to gain the upper hand ahead of a US-Russia summit in June.
At the beginning of March, everyone was wondering who was going to launch their battle for Damascus first, the opposition or the regime. For the opposition, their route to the center of the capital was from their Jobar stronghold headed east, reaching Abaseen Square.
The regime had no choice but to take on the armed opposition in Jobar, which is but 700 meters from Abaseen Square.
Since the the last week of March 2013, the opposition made several attempts to deliver a surprise blow by using sleeper units in the Barzeh area to infiltrate Mount Qasioun. The Syrian army maintains a sizable arsenal of rockets and cannons on the mountain that overlooks Damascus.
According to security sources, the opposition’s plan would have succeeded had the army not gotten wind of their plans from intelligence sources and moved to stop it.
In anticipation of a surprise attack on Damascus, the Syrian army took all the necessary precautions by organizing its forces on four fronts.
The regime’s plan works as follows: the Republican Guard is tasked with protecting Mount Qasioun; the Guard’s Fourth Brigade, along with volunteer units, cover the inner suburbs of the capital; popular committees patrol and defend loyalist neighborhoods throughout the city; and military intelligence operatives work along the frontlines with the opposition.
In early April, the regime gave the army the green light to carry out a preventative operation against the armed opposition around the capital. However, their mission this time was not simply to push the armed groups away from the capital, but rather to end their presence in the suburbs completely.
Before the Syrian army started its offensive, opposition fighters were concentrated in three areas around the capital: Ghoutah al-Gharbiya (particularly in Daraya); Ghoutah al-Sharqiya; the southern suburbs, including Tadamon, Hajar al-Aswad; and finally, Zabadani, Wadi Barada, and al-Hameh to the northwest.
Already, the army has taken the opposition stronghold of Daraya and it has moved on to attack al-Moadamyeh further west. In Ghouta al-Sharqiya, the army and popular committee forces have encircled a large number of fighters, regaining control of the airport road and partially taking over the strategic town of Jobar.
The most dangerous front by far is to the south. The areas under opposition control there are very close to the administrative center of Damascus and contain large numbers of al-Nusra Front fighters, particularly in the areas of Tadamon, Hajar al-Aswad, and Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp.
In this area, the army is resorting to rocket attacks directed against gatherings or movements of the armed groups. The army has yet to move against them in any direct confrontations except in parts of Yarmouk camp, where both sides have been conducting hit and run operations against one another.
The fourth front stretches to the northwest from Wadi Barada and al-Hameh to Zabadani near the border with Lebanon. Here again, one can find al-Nusra fighters, in addition to many foreign volunteers, who have been engaged in ferocious battles with government troops over the last month.
The main goals of the regime’s forces in this area is to: first, cut off all lines of support to opposition fighters; and second, to sever all the smuggling routes between Lebanon and Syria.
After subjecting Zabadani to heavy rocket fire and repeated incursions, government troops have managed to eject many fighters. Some have fled toward the Lebanese border area in order to avoid being surrounded.
There, they recently made a bid to take over a Palestinian base belonging to the Popular Front for Palestine-General Command that overlooks the international road that links Beirut to Damascus. After several hours of intense fighting, the effort failed.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.