The Free Syrian Army rebel force claims to have gained control of the southwestern Syrian city of Zabadani. The city's terrain has some advantages for a defending force, but also significant limitations in terms of a base of operations for broader efforts against the regime. More important, while these claims would represent a significant development, there is no indication that the rebels forcefully ejected the Syrian regime from the town, much less can deny them access should they return in force.
After five days of alleged fighting in the Syrian city of Zabadani, the Syrian army and rebel forces reportedly reached a cease-fire, and the Syrian army pulled back Jan. 18. If true, Zabadani would be the first city to fall under rebel control (the Free Syrian Army, or FSA, also allegedly controls part of Ain al-Bayda). A Syrian opposition leader said food and basic supplies had begun trickling back into the city, but the situation remains tense; the opposition claims that Syrian forces withdrew to military garrisons only about 8 kilometers (5 miles) away. It is far from clear that the military was compelled to withdraw by force, much less that rebel forces within the city have the tools and wherewithal to hold it.
In December, Stratfor discussed the similarities and differences between the situations in Syria and Libya. One key contrast has been the Syrian opposition's lack of a secure base of operations. The eastern city of Benghazi served as a haven for Libyan rebels for most of the war. Benghazi was geographically distant and buffered from the core of the regime's power — specifically from loyalist military formations. In Syria, loyalist military formations are close at hand. While the Syrian rebels' purported control of Zabadani is a new development with some propaganda value, the rebels — even if they can hold the territory and resist army attempts to take and clear the town — remain hemmed in by local geography. The Syrian rebels' underlying problem remains the same, and there is no indication of a meaningful change in their military capability.
Geography of Zabadani
Zabadani is located in southwest Syria's Rif Dimashq governorate, near the border with Lebanon. It lies in the middle of a narrow valley that runs north-to-south. To the east and west are mountains nearly 2,000 meters (about 6,000 feet) high, meaning the north-south axis harbors the only easily accessible routes to and from Zabadani. Lebanon is reached by a 12-kilometer highway drive to the north, or by crossing 7 kilometers to the west, over a 900-meter-tall ridge and generally rugged terrain.
This terrain does provide certain benefits for the Syrian rebel force, purportedly unified under the aegis of the FSA. For instance, the avenues of approach are limited. An assault from the north would require movement over mountains, which is time-consuming and complicates the movement of armor. A large-scale attack from the north is therefore unlikely — unless Lebanon is involved. (However, it would be fairly simple to maneuver a smaller, lighter unit — such as the Syrian 14th Special Forces Division, which trains in air assault tactics — into the northern valley, where it could prevent rebels from retreating up the valley toward the Lebanese border.)
A heavier offensive on Zabadani would thus likely come from the southern route. The approach is readily identifiable and funnels forces — conditions that can benefit a more lightly equipped defensive force. The urban environment — which also tends to favor the defender — would also play to rebel forces' advantage.
In addition, the geography would enable the FSA to break contact and flee the city if necessary. Even if the Syrian army cut off the northern route, the rebels could move directly west into the mountains and toward Lebanon. The difficult terrain to the west would benefit the rebels because they travel much lighter than the army due to their lack of heavy weaponry or armor — and by virtue of being locals, they will know the terrain better. Once they have escaped the mountains, the rebels could disperse to safer areas, in Lebanon or elsewhere.
The Rebels' Disadvantages
But the geography around Zabadani, while offering a defensive force a number of benefits, also has drawbacks. For example, Damascus sits about 30 kilometers by highway to the southeast, while the Golan Heights are only a 50-kilometer drive south. The bulk of Syria's army and air force is located in these areas, placing them well within striking distance of Zabadani.
Additionally, the city's terrain restricts logistical support, facilitating any attempt to cordon off and isolate the city. If fighting resumes, the Syrian army will be able to close off the northern and southern routes and put enough pressure on the area to make sustainable resupply of FSA forces impossible — and the FSA has severely limited logistical capability to begin with.
The Syrian army possesses the capability to bring substantial armor, infantry, artillery and airpower to bear on Zabadani; there is little indication that the FSA has the tools or capabilities to meaningfully resist any sort of concerted assault. The rebels' limited access to firepower is their biggest disadvantage in trying to hold territory for an extended period of time. Rebels in Zabadani claim to possess 60 anti-tank guided missiles, various types of rocket-propelled grenades and small arms. But even if they have these weapons, their ability to use them effectively is questionable.
The rebels still lack the firepower or logistical base to repel a concerted push by the Syrian army. Meanwhile, there is every indication that loyalist forces have acted in a deliberate and careful manner. The West cited the use of Libya's air force as a reason to intervene in Libya. Syria's air force has for the most part remained on the ground (in part due to concerns about Sunni pilots' loyalties), and Syrian President Bashar al Assad has stayed largely away from the most devastating repressive tactics — particularly the heavy shelling of dissenting towns — so visibly employed by former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. With the mandate of Arab League monitors expiring on Jan. 19 (though it will likely be extended by at least a month), al Assad is walking a very thin line. Restraint on his part should not be confused with progress on the rebels' side, particularly since loyalist forces are being deployed in a deliberate manner intended to ensure the longer-term survival of the regime.