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Jan 11, 2013 | 11:30 GMT

In Syria, the Regime Shifts to Defense

In Syria, the Regime Shifts to Defense
PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images
Summary

Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al Assad have largely ceased offensive operations and are instead fortifying their presence in the north and east while maintaining a line of defense in the core territory in Damascus and the western part of the country that remains under regime control. Facing a dug-in enemy that possesses considerable firepower, the rebels will likely adopt a strategy of surrounding and exhausting loyalist forces before attempting to overtake their strongholds.

After a monthslong siege, fighters from the Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham rebel groups have seized Taftanaz air base in Idlib province. The fall of the Taftanaz air base constitutes a significant victory for the rebels in the north. The 253rd and 255th helicopter squadrons were based in Taftanaz, and over time the air base became a major supply hub for loyalist forces as they lost ground lines of communication and supply in the north. The fall of the air base will further isolate remaining loyalist forces in the region, including the provincial capital of Idlib.

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The fight for Taftanaz air base also highlighted a growing trend in the Syrian conflict, particularly in the north. Due to the rebels' growing strength and the increased pressure on al Assad's remaining troops, loyalist forces have been forced to abandon the goal of retaking control over all of Syria. Loyalist offensive operations have decreased markedly, and al Assad's forces have effectively been forced on to the strategic defensive.

From the province of Hama to Damascus in the south as well as within the coastal region, regime forces continue to maintain a tenuous line of defense. Within this region, such as in Homs and the suburbs of Damascus, al Assad's forces are still able to maintain the operational initiative in certain sectors. For instance, regime forces have recently gained ground in Homs against a stressed and depleted rebel force that has been besieged for months in the city.

Syria

Syria update Jan. 10, 2013

In the suburbs of Damascus, loyalist forces — usually from elite formations equipped with the best weapons the Syrian military has in its inventory — have also been able to stage attacks on encroaching rebel forces. These attacks are intended to disrupt rebel operations and to prevent the rebels from getting too close to the center of the city.

In northern and eastern Syria, however, rebel advances have effectively disrupted loyalist supply lines, forcing loyalist forces to entrench themselves in relatively fixed positions such as army bases, air bases or towns and hold out for as long as possible. In Deir el-Zour, Idlib and Aleppo for instance, regime forces have largely missed the opportunity to withdraw from their positions and rebel advances have already closed off their potential avenues of retreat.

It is not clear whether keeping pockets of loyalist forces in the north was a deliberate decision by the regime. The withdrawal of these forces to the south and west would have bolstered loyalist numbers in the core, but by remaining in their current positions, these isolated loyalists are slowing down rebel advances. The rebels are reluctant to leave a significant regime presence behind their lines of advance largely because the regime could then use the loyalist encampments as bases from which to launch air and artillery attacks on the rebels and to generally disrupt their operations.

The battles to seize these remaining loyalist bastions have proved slow and difficult. For example, days after seizing the town of Maaret al-Numan, the rebels almost immediately attempted to storm the heavily defended Wadi Deif military base nearby and were repelled after sustaining heavy losses. Failed attempts to take control of these more difficult targets have also reportedly contributed to rebel infighting, particularly over the Wadi Deif operation. Reports from Aleppo also indicate that certain rebel groups have begun looting stores rather than maintaining continuous pressure on remaining regime positions.

For all these setbacks, the overall trend remains clear: Rebel forces continue to chip away at the territory controlled by a battered yet still very cohesive loyalist army. The rebels are also learning quickly that hasty attacks against well-defended positions are detrimental to their operations. Even when surrounded and under siege, a considerable number of regime forces have demonstrated a willingness to fight to the death.

The rebels understand that these regime positions across the north and east will eventually collapse due to attrition and lack of supplies. They have consequently started to avoid costly frontal assaults and instead surround the loyalist positions and shell them with tanks and artillery captured in their recent victories. Every base seized by the rebels further accelerates their operations. When the rebels capture a loyalist position, they often acquire additional equipment and ammunition, often including heavy weapons. Each seizure also frees up rebel forces to move to attack the next regime target or to reinforce the rebels already conducting a siege elsewhere.

While both the rebels and Syrian regime have proved extremely resilient in the conflict thus far, the government's shift away from offensive operations may indicate that it no longer believes a full resumption of nationwide control is even possible in the near term. Recent battles have demonstrated that the rebels have developed a strategy of encirclement and isolation that could succeed in defeating loyalist forces in much of the country, if the rebels are able to sustain it.

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