Syria’s regime has changed strategy and is battling to seize main highways rather than spread its forces thin, aiming to regain key points and freeze the flow of fighters and arms towards Damascus.
To help achieve this goal, the army is being backed by local militiamen operating in their own towns and villages and who have been trained in street warfare for several months in Iran and Russia, according to experts and sources close to Syria’s security forces.
“There is a change of strategy. The country-wide war, which exhausts the army and has no proven results, is over. Now, the main theatre of war is on the highways. The goal is to allow the army to move easily between cities under its control,” a security source told AFP.
“Taking control of Qusayr (in the central province of Homs) will link Homs city to the coast, and seizing Rastan (nearby) will secure the road linking Homs to Hama (in central Syria),” said the source.
“Taking Maaret al-Numan (in the northwest) will link Hama to Aleppo (in the north). These are our main goals, while retaking Raqa in the eastern desert is not a priority,” he added.
Raqa in March became the first provincial capital to fall out of army hands.
“Controlling the road linking Daraa (in southern Syria) to the north, or the highway leading from Damascus to the coast is very important for the regime,” said Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman.
“It wants to link those regions where it is present, in order to show Syria’s citizens they can travel there securely,” he added.
Abdel Rahman warned, however, that the army “has yet to make any strategic wins” in the new battle.
In central Syria, a key battle for Qusayr pits rebels against fighters loyal to Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah. The die-hard Damascus allies are militia fighters with years of guerrilla warfare experience.
They currently have Qusayr under siege, and hope to take it over soon, says Waddah Sharara, who teaches sociology at the Lebanese University in Beirut.
And they are backed by the National Defence Force (NDF), a militia comprised mainly of Syrians from religious minorities, most of them from the ruling Alawite sect.
“The army was disoriented because of the rebels’ mobility. It didn’t have a strategy and relied on hitting out blindly. It was working reactively, whereas now, it acts according to a plan,” said the Observatory’s Abdel Rahman.
“The army is clearly having manpower problems, due both to combat losses and the failure of probably a large majority of conscripts or reservists to report for duty,” said Yezid Sayigh of the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut.
“It’s cheaper politically to let (fighters) serve in their home towns or villages, where they will have local social support and be more effective,” he told AFP, adding that the NDF is a good example of this.
The regime meanwhile aims to put pressure on the rebels in the Eastern Ghouta area, a rebel stronghold close to the capital.
Pro-regime daily Al-Watan said on Thursday that the capture a day before of the village of Otaybeh east of Damascus comes as part of a military objective to secure the road linking the capital to the military airport at Dumair to the northeast.
Cited by Lebanese visiting politicians who met with Bashar al-Assad on Sunday, Syria’s president said the regime is acting according to its own plans, “not according to the plans that the rebels want to impose”.
“Now the operations are well planned and the objectives are precise. This is because Iranian officers are on the ground, leading operations, while new Iranian weapons conceived for this kind of battle are flowing in,” said the Observatory’s Abdel Rahman.
“The NDF is trained for urban war, while even the regular army has gained experience in guerrilla conflict,” two years into Syria’s conflict, he added.