"The Battle for Syria in the South of the Capital"

Thu Mar 12, 2015 17:46:59

The so-called “Free Syrian Army” (FSA), is locked in in the south of the capital, CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR reports.

The battle is being waged in an area south of Damascus and east of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The stakes are high for rebels and Syrian government and army are stable.

The campaign’s goals were both strategic and symbolic. Control of the Daraa-Damascus highway would allow the FSA to rapidly funnel arms, supplies, and troops from the Jordanian-Syrian border to Damascus and to nearby suburbs in eastern Ghouta district, where another force of 12,000 FSA fighters is fighting on despite a blockade imposed by Syrian forces.

Throughout most of the campaign, from November through early February, rebel forces including the FSA’s First Army and Yarmouk brigades were met with resistance by only a few thousand Syrian army troops from the 7th infantry division, with Damascus reportedly relying on its airpower to contained the rebel forces.

A tank belonging to the forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Assad is seen in the Quneitra city countryside during a battle with rebels, near the border fence with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

By Feb. 8, FSA forces had pushed all their way to the village of Kanaker and prepared for a siege of the town of Zakiya, a feat which would have placed the rebel forces 20 kilometers from the outskirts of Damascus proper – well within the range of the rebel army’s surface-to-surface missiles.

Yet before the offensive could be launched, the tide quickly turned, with the government that day announcing a counter-offensive in the south, the so-called “battle of determination.”

The government quickly amassed an estimated 8,000-strong force south of Damascus.

The campaign’s goals went beyond simply driving rebel forces from Damascus’s gates to include pushing the FSA from the south, recapturing the northern borders of the Golan Heights, and dismantling the rebel forces once and for all.

Syrian government forces' military vehicles are seen in Deir al-Adas in the Daraa province

The focus of the ongoing fever-pitched battles has been a 20-kilometer-wide and 90-kilometer long strip of southwest Syria, stretching from Damascus south along the Golan Heights and encompassing the bulk of southern rebel strongholds.

The Syrian army backed by airpower, have focused their efforts particularly on a small, vital swathe of territory between Daraa in the south, Quneitra and the Golan to the west, and Damascus to the north – what rebel fighters have now dubbed the “triangle of death.”

The government succeeds in quarantining the strongholds in the “triangle,” it cut off vital supply lines for FSA forces, blocking the flow of fighters and arms from the Jordanian border and leaving no room for the Free Syrian Army in the south.

The FSA took a beating from the Syrian army, losing seven key villages and towns on the edge of the Damascus countryside.

Rebel forces are reportedly now again on the defensive as Syrian army sources push south toward Quneitra at the edge of the Golan Heights.

In recent days, the battle has reportedly stalled into a bloody deadlock near the village of Deir al Maker 20 miles south of Damascus.

The FSA reports an average of 10 casualties per day, or 300 since the counter-offensive began.But for rebel forces now facing this broad coalition, it’s become a fight for mere survival.

Rebel forces fear Damascus will redeploy thousands more militia fighters to the south. As spring brings better weather, the flying conditions for the Syrian air force are also improving. On Tuesday Syria army warplanes carried out 22 sorties.

The loss of the south would rob the Free Syrian Army of its last remaining base of operations within Syrian territory.

The defeat would also deal a blow to Sunni Arab states Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, and the UAE, which have either funded, armed for facilitated the transport of fighters to support Sunni militias in Syria.

“It would be not only a defeat for the FSA,” says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “but another setback for their regional Sunni backers, as well as Israel.”

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