Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Syria's Mufti Declares a Jihad

I watched the recording of this broadcast earlier today and I wanted to comment on a few things that came to mind. Firstly, this in itself is not much more than a propaganda ploy. The fact that the "Mufti" of Damascus has declared a jihad or anything is a bit of a joke. Sheikh Hassoun is widely known as the Sultan's Sheikh, and his positions mirror those of the regime exactly, but with the necessary religious cover. If he differed with the regime then he wouldn't be where he is today, and probably wouldn't be alive either.

What was also interesting about the broadcast was the sense of urgency I got. The tone of these presenters has changed a lot since the start of the revolution. At first it was always mild and slightly chiding, sometimes mocking, of what was happening. Protests and tensions were downplayed, and the theme of the day was for everybody to keep calm and carry on. That doesn't seem to matter to the regime's channels anymore.

The presenter starts with a few quotes from the Quran - about how fighting and getting martyrdom for God is a great and noble thing, and about how it is a duty for all to step up to these challenges. There is a constant reference to the "Syrian Arab Republic" and also, interestingly, a reference to Syria's Islamic as well as Arab identity. From what I've heard nobody is really paying attention to this call, but a lot has been made of it in social media. It might be a prelude to a full mobilization later on, but so far that isn't thought likely by some.

With the escalation of arms shipments to the Free Syrian Army I would say there is a slow but sure decline in Assad's capabilities. He is losing this war. When was the last time anybody heard of Assad retaking any territory and holding it? Even Bab Amr in Homs has recently seen rebel fighters there for the first time since the regime's troops ousted them early last year. This time last year Assad was performing a "victory" tour of Bab Amr and parts of Homs, but where in Syria would he dare do that today? The north of the country is slowly but surely slipping out of his control, with base after base falling and an entire city now in rebel hands.

Sure, some people will say this all means nothing, but I respectfully disagree. Look at Assad's increasing reliance on missiles to inflict damage on the rest of the country. He is using such missiles because he hasn't got the spare divisions to go and terrorize individual neighbourhoods and towns. His planes are vulnerable and old, and they are getting shot down often, as are his helicopters. That leaves only missiles, against which the rebels have no defence unless the Turks decide to extent their Patriot missile shield further into northern Syria - and that is not going to happen.

I think Assad is gearing towards a battle for Damascus and will bitterly contest Homs. I no longer think it just a rumour that Hezbullah operatives are fighting there and in other parts of the country. Nasrallah's recent statements that some members are there of their own free will is all but a declaration that his soldiers are fighting there. I think theirs is still a consultative role, but in parts of Homs this assistance might have been crucial for Assad as he battles to keep his supply lines open.

This leaves us with the coast and Damascus. What is of particular interest to me is that the coastal towns have been mostly free of large scale confrontations. Lattakia and Tartous are, to my knowledge, totally quiet, and Banyas has been utterly pacified by Assad's secret police and armed forces. The next battle is likely to be for Damascus - and God help the people of Damascus when it begins.

The strongest rebel presence in the capital is in the eastern and southern suburbs, with Abbasiyyeen square and the surrounding central area of the city the site of frequent clashes. There will be a big push through there, but if the rebels are unable to dislodge Assad's artillery and missile bases on the Qasyoun mountain range to the north and west of the city, then they will have a difficult time advancing. Not only that, but the subsequent fighting will make Aleppo look like a walk in the park. Particularly at risk will be old Damascus, as its narrow alleys will be a tempting place for the rebels to seek protection and cover during the fighting. Assad's strategists will be counting on such foolish frontal assaults from the rebels, who are poorly organized and rash. If Assad can pound them away from the mountains, he can keep a grip on Western Damascus and weaken the rebels whilst denying them the centre of the city. Remember, Assad doesn't need to win, his regime just needs to continue existing. Whatever the price, however much the country is devastated, if he can hold on long enough to see negotiations and the rebels exhausted, he can claim himself victorious atop the ashes.

If, however, Assad loses Qasyoun, then his position in Damascus and subsequently the rest of the country would start to look very tenuous. In short it is the backbone of his presence in the south of the country.

No comments: