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Damascus in the grip of a tense stalemate

As Syrian rebels try to break through to the capital, the government keeps tight control of the city core, as well as strategic roads out should it need to escape.

February 28, 2013|By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times
  • A massive car bomb exploded last week in central Damascus' Mazraa district, killing at least 53 people. The government blamed rebels, but they denied responsibility.
A massive car bomb exploded last week in central Damascus' Mazraa… (Syrian Arab News Agency…)

BEIRUT — Rebel forces have dug in to the north, east and south of Syria's capital, occupying stretches of suburban and rural terrain and threatening to break through to the heart of Damascus.

Government troops have largely pulled back to a well-defended core, including the city center and loyal bastions to the west.

After nearly two years of fighting in Syria that has mostly spared the capital, an uneasy stalemate reigns in Damascus. In recent days, the city has experienced mortar attacks and car bombings, while the military has responded in its usual fashion: withering bombardment of outlying rebel strongholds.

A huge explosion rocked the city Monday, apparently a car bomb targeting a checkpoint in heavily defended Abaseen Square, a potential route into the city for rebels based in the nearby Ghouta region.

Residents of Damascus are edgy, fearing that the fighting is closing in.

"I don't go anywhere unless I have specific business," said a woman in her early 50s who requested anonymity for safety's sake. "No one does."

While Damascenes wait and worry, the opposition presses foreign allies for support that could help break the impasse in the grinding conflict. On Thursday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry pledged $60 million in additional nonlethal aid during meetings with opposition figures in Rome, though he turned aside their plea for weapons.

Much of Syrian President Bashar Assad's military is focused on defending a strategic zone that that includes the presidential palace, government buildings and military bases, drawing up a kind of cordon sanitaire around the capital. Checkpoints are everywhere. Reinforcements also reportedly have been dispatched to secure roads leading north to Homs and southeast to the international airport.

The military has dug gun emplacements into the sides of towering Mt. Qasioun, giving troops a strategic view of the city and easily defended high ground. Near-daily aerial and artillery bombardments, along with tank-led infantry assaults, have pulverized rebel redoubts in towns such as Dariya in the south and Duma to the northeast.

Opposition combatants remain ensconced amid the depopulated rubble, some reportedly seeking shelter underground in tunnels and makeshift bunkers. A sniper war rages along ill-defined front lines.

To the southwest, the Mazzeh military complex — home to an important airfield and the elite 4th Armored Division that reportedly is led by Assad's brother, Maher — is charged in part with preventing rebels from infiltrating the heart of the capital from Dariya, Moadamyeh and Hajar Aswad.

"The regime has brought in and consolidated what they can in the center without trying to go out and maneuver too much in areas under rebel control," said Joseph Holliday, an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, a U.S.-based research group. "They want to hold the line closer to downtown — and stand back and hammer ... rebel-held areas with artillery and air power."

The strategy has both sectarian and class components. Whereas much of the population in hostile suburban areas is working-class Sunni Muslim — the spearhead of the rebellion — regime supporters tend to be clustered in middle- and upper-class urban districts and neighborhoods with large numbers of Alawites, the Muslim sect that includes Assad and much of his security hierarchy. In the west, the Mazzeh Jabal 86 and Qudsaya districts are known to be home to many Alawite officers and government stalwarts.

Damascus is crucial to both sides in the conflict, but it is only one of many battlegrounds. Analysts say the government is determined to maintain a corridor from the capital along the highway north to Homs and to the Alawite heartland on the Mediterranean coast, long mentioned as a haven for Assad and his allies should the government face collapse.

"Trying to keep that highway secure is of major strategic importance," said Joshua Landis, who heads the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Still, Landis said, "obviously, Assad thinks he can hang on to Damascus. That's key for him."

Last summer, as opposition advocates confidently boasted of a "final offensive" on the capital, troops methodically drove insurgents from districts close to the city center in a search-and-destroy mission. Surviving combatants retreated to the suburbs.

Late in the year, the military also repelled a rebel effort to take the international airport. Still, the road to the facility, which passes several rebel-infiltrated areas, remains extremely hazardous.

Rebel commanders now concede that overrunning the capital is likely to be a long and arduous process.

"If we are going to enter the city, we are going to do it in a studied way," said Capt. Islam Aloush of the Islam Brigade, which includes many of the militias around Damascus.

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