The Syrian rebels’ war of attrition


Did Bashar al-Assad’s family try to escape Syria only to be stopped by an audacious attack on Damascus International Airport by Syrian rebels? It’d be nice to believe that that feverishly circulated rumour was true, but according to activists, it probably didn’t happen. Rather, any activity in or around the airport was probably aimed not at intercepting a high-value convoy but at hitting a power line: cutting off the regime’s flow of electricity or telecom capabilities having become a preferred tactic of the anti-Assad forces lately.

Indeed, attacks have proliferated in recent weeks against the mobile phone towers of Syriatel, the company which controls more than half the telecom market in the country and is owned by Bashar’s billionaire cousin, Rami Makhlouf. Last week, the so-called Barada Battalion struck a power line in Zabadani, close to the Lebanon border, just as the regime was mounting a major offensive to retake that largely “liberated” city. Amer al-Sadeq (not his real name) of the Syrian Revolution Coordinators Union told me just now via Skype that he’s spoken with the insurgents who carried out that sortie. They said it “surprisingly [had] no obvious impact”. Nevertheless, if power grids are subject to routine interdictions by the rebels, then this will cause panic and anxiety in the regime. Heathrow during last winter’s snow storm saw more in- and outbound traffic than Syria’s main international hub now permits, judging by this schedule. So the mere threat of plunging Damascus into darkness has clearly rattled Assad’s confidence in maintaining the illusion that business can carry on as usual in the capital.

The rebels know they’re out-gunned and out-manned, at least for now, so their strategy is to resort to guerilla warfare operations to exhaust and vitiate the resources of Assad’s security forces and army. “I’ve been talking to some of [the rebels],” said Amer, who’s travelling outside of Damascus today, “and I’ve met some of them. I went to their weapons stash, I looked at their weapons. The unit I visited, all of them had AK-47s and one old M-16, and that’s it. There were some handguns and two-way radio that they confiscated from the regime, which I’m helping them reprogramme. They didn’t have any RPGs, although some units have those.”

And those units’ hit rates have been remarkably impressive. RPGs are best launched against armoured personnel carriers (APCs) because the fuel tanks of those vehicles are rear-positioned and so a single direct hit tends to blow them up. Check out this video from Rastan which features a rebel standing in front of a burnt-out APC in what looks like the Grozny of the Levant:

Money, too, is a factor. Consider this brilliant piece of reporting by Miles Amoore in the Sunday Times from the city of Al-Qusayr. The revolutionaries there receive about $30,000 a month from the Syrian diaspora to finance basic yet increasingly expensive weapons on the black market: an assault rifle goes for $2,000, a single round of ammunition, $2. Amoore writes that three weeks ago, a mutineer army captain and two subordinates led a pre-dawn raid against a Syrian army checkpoint:

“The officer in charge was cleaning his knife. Most of his men were fast asleep,” the mustachioed captain said. “We pounced on them before they had time to react.”

His men tied up the soldiers and marched them back to FSA headquarters. They swapped them for local people who had been captured during the army’s searches of the town.

“The funny thing is that if they’d known we had only seven bullets we’d be dead men now,” the captain laughed.

Seven bullets: the whole operation cost the rebels about $14. What did it cost the regime?

Amer says there was also a credible report of another high-level military defection at the weekend: a colonel from Khallouf family who is said to have taken almost 300 soldiers from his unit with him. They were based in the Saqba area of the Damascus suburbs, which is about 5 kilometres from the city centre. “If this is true, it makes total sense for the army to send in 50 military vehicles and 2,000 soldiers into that area”. Pinprick losses, it would seem, lead to massive overcompensation.

How long can this state of affairs continue? The Syrian army is suffering from a crucial lack of human resources and, Amer maintains, its total corps doesn’t exceed 300,000 compared to 550,000 at the start of the revolution. Despite a unpleasant jail sentence facing any soldier who goes AWOL, only a third of all call-ups now report for duty.

True, the violence in Syria has escalated to an alarming level concurrent with the Arab League’s complete withdrawal of its monitoring mission and the regime’s redeployment of heavy artillery into urban residential areas. But the fatalities are now becoming evenly distributed on both sides. According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the number of civilians killed in all of Syria on Sunday was 41; the number of soldiers and security personnel killed was 31.

That’s a ratio that ought to inspire cold sweats in the presidential palace tonight.

Via The Telegraph


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