Question: What is the security situation now in Damascus?
Riad Kahwaji, founder of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA):
The southern part of Damascus, some neighborhoods in the north, and the eastern side is very much rebel-held. The regime still has strong control of the west and northwest of the city, and is using firepower extensively – artillery, rockets, airpower and everything at its disposal – to keep as much control as possible
It is apparent now that the regime’s priority is to regain control of the southern part because of its proximity to the Jordanian border, and because the rebels are now able to have a sustainable supply line, without as big a distance as there was to the north. The distance between the border with Jordan and the capital is much shorter than the distance between Turkey and Aleppo. The rebels’ considerable gains over the past couple of months in Daraa and Quneitra provinces constitute a major threat to the capital. From Quneitra they can make a quick move to capture the Damascus–Beirut road from there. That is also another major concern.
The regime’s efforts to make a push in the south will fail. They don’t have the manpower to make a sustainable counteroffensive. Many are expecting the battle for Damascus to intensify in the early summer.
It seems the quality of weapons coming from Jordan is much better than from the north. I think we’re seeing Jordan becoming more involved by allowing the training of rebels, while we don’t have any real training of rebels in Turkey. You have a lot of Turkish opposition parties that keep the government on its toes, and it influences how much leeway it gives to rebels, which you don’t have in Jordan. Turkey is also concerned about high-quality weapons reaching Kurdish forces in the north.
[Security in the capital] is a thing of the past. Damascus is like Beirut in the civil war in 1978-9. A place can be secure, nothing happening, and suddenly bombs are falling and cars are being blown up. All the intelligence services and all observers are counting down the day for the big Damascus battle.
Peter Harling, Damascus-based analyst with the International Crisis Group:
The situation has deteriorated dramatically in Damascus since the start of the year. Criminality has become rampant in some parts of the suburbs, expressed in particular in kidnappings for ransom. In central Syria, hit-and-run and bomb attacks cause innocent casualties. The rate of regime arrests, which are increasingly indiscriminate, has also gone through the roof.
Both the regime and the opposition make military inroads here and there, but typically at a high price in human lives and destruction of infrastructure, and to no lasting effect.
It is quite probable within the existing dynamics [that an Aleppo-like stalemate sets in]. A very small perimeter in central Damascus, and much larger areas up on Mount Qasioun [remain firmly under regime control].
Andrew Bowen, Middle East Scholar at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University:
At the moment, not a lot has changed in Damascus. There is increased fighting in the suburbs, like in Jobar, but main opposition gains are more to the south. They have been making advances by capturing territory around major population centers, and there was the Syrian [regime army] withdrawal from the Golan. The rebels are focused on breaking supply lines from Damascus to the south. They have been targeting auxiliary support military bases and the main highways, which has been an effective tactic in the north. This has allowed them to make gains in the Golan and near the Jordanian border, which has limited Damascus’ ability to supply the south and towns they still hold.
Damascus is still very much the center of the regime. The majority of the Republican Guard units are there. There are heavily fortified army positions around Damascus. The recent bombing symbolically occurred where they used to have pro-Assad rallies, but the FSA has predominantly targeted the south and suburbs.
These bombings in Damascus are starting to cause insecurity for the regime. They are chipping away at the feeling that one can live and work in Damascus and everything is perfectly fine, even though parts of the country are no longer held by the regime. But there has been no significant push by the Free Syrian Army or opposition militias to effectively challenge President Assad’s hold over Damascus.
The battle hasn’t yet come to Damascus, and it really depends on how effective opposition militias are in maintaining gains in the south. In the south [the opposition is] even having problems holding territory around major cities. They still haven’t captured the main cities: Daraa, Homs. The regime’s strategy is definitely fortifying Damascus to Homs and moving on to the coast. The major battle is still six months away.