Savvier, Rebels Shift Tactics in Syria


At a hydroelectric dam on the Euphrates River on Monday, Syrian rebels relaxed in the operations room, checking a computer screen, sipping tea and projecting confidence after driving off government forces and seizing crates of rocket-propelled grenades. All of this was proudly recorded and quickly uploaded for the world to see.

Swarming the heavily guarded dam was the latest in a monthlong string of tactical successes in which rebels have raided government installations, including numerous air bases, from northern Syria to the suburbs of Damascus. The raids allowed the rebels to boast of their growing effectiveness, undercut the morale of government forces and reinforce their arsenals.

But what they are not necessarily seeking is to hold the bases they hit. Instead, rebels have shifted tactics, fighters and analysts say, seizing outposts, then often abandoning them, to deny government air power a target for retaliation. Rebels say they have learned from recent mistakes, after seizing neighborhoods only to draw devastating airstrikes that killed civilians and alienated supporters. Now, they focus less on conquering territory than on turning a war of attrition to their advantage, forcing the state to bleed.

In the past month, fighters have overrun a half-dozen bases around Damascus, Syria’s capital; two in the country’s eastern oil-producing area; and the largest military installation near the country’s largest city, Aleppo. They have focused on challenging air power, their deadliest foe, by harassing some air bases, ransacking others and seizing antiaircraft weapons.

They are continuing to fight even in areas crucial for the government, like the ring of suburbs around Damascus and the commercial hub of Aleppo and its supply routes.

“Rebels are learning,” said Ahmad Kadour, an activist in Idlib, reached through Skype. When they capture a base, he said, “they take the machinery and the weapons and leave right away, because the regime is always shelling the places it used to control.”

Yet the tactical gains appear unlikely to lead to a sudden shift that collapses the government, analysts say. Rather, they say, a de facto split of Syria is hardening with the government slowly shrinking the area it tries to fully control, a swath that runs from Damascus north along the more-populated western half of the country to Latakia, the ancestral province of President Bashar al-Assad.

The government is still strong in core areas, analysts say, and even when it cedes control of the ground to rebels, as in parts of northern Syria and growing areas of the thinly populated east, it retains, the power to strike from the air. And, analysts warn, even if the army abandons some areas, that could simply open the way to fighting among sectarian and political factions.

Yezid Sayigh, an analyst of Arab military affairs at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said that the loss of bases near Damascus, like the helicopter base that rebels seized on Sunday, is more significant than losses in the rebel-dominated north and isolated northeast, where the army has partly melted away, leaving the reduced forces vulnerable. The government’s main focus is holding Damascus and a corridor northward through the cities of Homs and Hama to coastal Latakia, analysts said.

“By contracting the core areas they seek to defend, regime forces can extend their ability to fight,” Mr. Sayigh said. “And regime forces have not yet lost their ability to escalate the level of violence.”

Still, rebel actions are imperfectly coordinated, and it was unclear whether they planned to hold the Tishreen Dam near Aleppo. It is an important source of electric power and one of two major crossings between Aleppo and the eastern provinces.

Even as they celebrated its capture, there came a reminder of the risks of victory: warplanes bombed the Bab al-Hawa border crossing into Turkey, an area the rebels have controlled since July. The strikes scattered people who had taken shelter there after fleeing their homes elsewhere in Syria, said a fighter in the area who goes by the nickname Abu Zaki.

Tactics have often shifted throughout the conflict, which is approaching the two-year mark. It began as a peaceful protest movement. After security forces fired on demonstrators, sporadic insurgent attacks began. The government pursued pockets of rebels across the country, only to have them pop up again elsewhere. Last summer, the government withdrew to strong points, increasingly relying on air power and artillery to smash areas that rebels had seized.

The rebels have changed their tactics, too. Col. Qassem Saadeddine, the head of the military council of the loose-knit Free Syrian Army rebel umbrella group in Homs, said there was a concerted strategy to attack key bases and withdraw with weaponry. But, he said, where possible, rebels leave guards to prevent troops from using the bases again.

“They just control the areas the tanks stand on,” he said in an interview from Turkey. “The regime is pulling out its forces from the provinces to the capital.”

The rebel victories create opportunities, and dangers, as well.

After they took Base 46, a large base outside Aleppo, rebels won a political victory by restoring power that had been cut in pro-rebel areas. “The heater or the Internet or the TV? — I’m running around confused,” said Najid, an activist in Binnish in Idlib Province. “I wish I could save electricity in boxes or containers, like water.”

But when rebels took over oil fields in the eastern province of Deir al-Zour, chaos ensued, with residents siphoning oil without safety precautions and selling it for far less than its value, said an activist there, reached by Skype.

Majed, an activist in Aleppo, was angry that rebels had captured the dam. He doubted they would be able to pay the foreign experts and technicians running it, and feared large regions would lose electricity. Worse, he said, the government might shell it, drowning villages.

“The regime destroyed half the country,” he said. “They won’t stop at a dam.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        The New York Times



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