Three tanks are parked at a street junction in a southwestern suburb of Damascus when one of them is struck by an anti-tank missile. Smoke shoots out of the barrel and turret and swiftly turns into a fiery jet of flame as the interior ignites, incinerating the crew.
The dramatic combat footage posted on YouTube demonstrates the ferocity of the struggle between the Syrian Army and armed rebels for the key district of Daraya, the outcome of which could determine the fate of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, according to diplomats and analysts.
“The regime and its supporters [Russia and Iran] are investing all in the counterattack [on Daraya] to ensure Mr. Assad’s grip on power. But if it fails, the regime will be in a very difficult position, internally and externally,” says a Western diplomat. The diplomat, who has wide-ranging contacts with the Syrian regime and opposition, agreed to give a detailed briefing on the situation in Daraya and elsewhere in Syria in exchange for strict anonymity.
Although the district has been under rebel control for months, the Syrian military has stepped up efforts in the past two weeks to seize the strategic neighborhood. Daraya lies within mortar range of the presidential palace on Mount Qassioun and neighborhoods populated by Alawites, the minority sect that forms the backbone of the Assad regime.
It also lies adjacent to Mezze military airport, which is the only air lifeline for the regime in the capital since the closure of Damascus International Airport in November. It is located between two major road arteries connecting the capital to Lebanon, 22 miles to the west, and to the Syrian town of Deraa and the Jordanian border, 65 miles to the south.
Daraya is an important component in the rebel Free Syrian Army's effort to establish an uninterrupted belt of territory under its control connecting the northern, eastern, and southern suburbs of Damascus. Once those neighborhoods have been secured and sufficient numbers of fighters, weapons, and ammunition have been deployed, the FSA can commit to an assault on central Damascus in a bid to oust the regime from its center of power.
"The regime losing [the battle for] Daraya would give the opposition a strategic advantage, and that's why [the regime] wants to focus power on it and has done so for a long time and that's why the opposition is fighting back so hard," says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "What's interesting is that despite the use of special forces and despite the concentration on Daraya, they are unable [so far] to clear and hold the area."
If the Army is able to retake Daraya, however, it will hinder the FSA’s plans to advance on the center of Damascus and buy more time for the regime to press for a negotiated settlement with Assad still in control and enjoying the continued backing of Moscow and Tehran.
The diplomat says that some 60 percent of what is left of the Syrian Army (following months of defections) is deployed in Damascus, underlining the importance of the struggle for the Syrian capital for the regime.
“I think 60 percent actually does sound reasonable, as crazy as that sounds,” says Joseph Holliday, senior analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War. “I’ve been crunching the numbers on the units the regime has used and where; and they basically have a skeleton crew outside of Damascus and Homs.”
Video footage posted to YouTube underlines the dangers faced by both sides in the bomb-ravaged neighborhood. One video shows a column of tanks thundering down an empty street. The tanks pause, turrets rotating swiftly from side to side, barrels firing until the scene is covered in smoke and dust while the unseen cameraman continues to calmly film the scene.
Another extraordinary video is shot by an intrepid cameraman who ignores the fact that the two tanks he is filming some 40 yards away are firing at the building in which he is hiding.
Although the offensive was renewed on Jan. 16, the elite Fourth Armored Division has been engaged in combat in Daraya on a near continual basis since November. In general, the Syrian Army is ill-trained for the street fighting necessary in urban areas such as Daraya. When troops move into the suburb, they fight from house to house, knocking holes in walls to avoid having to use the streets. One news report filmed by Iran’s Al Alam TV channel paints a vivid portrait of the claustrophobic and confused fighting in Daraya as soldiers dash for cover across rubble-strewn streets and pour machine-gun fire from windows.
The FSA has described Daraya as a “big slaughterhouse,” and it seems the intention is to grind down the manpower and will of the regular forces. The FSA has encouraged the local population to leave, and only some 10 to 15 percent of residents still remain.
According to the diplomat, the Syrian Army has managed to secure part of the northwestern edge of Daraya beside Mezze military airport and is busy demolishing houses to remove cover from which FSA units could launch attacks.
The renewed offensive against Daraya has seen an increase in air attacks and rocket firings. According to the Daraya Local Coordination Committee, a network of opposition activists, the district was struck by 100 Grad rockets and 15 other unidentified surface-to-surface missiles in just one hour on Jan. 19.
The end of Assad? Unlikely.
It is difficult to judge with any certainty whether the battle for Daraya is shifting to the advantage of either side or remaining a bloody stalemate.
However, Assad recently expressed confidence in the overall situation in Syria to a group of “visitors” in Damascus.
According to Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar newspaper, which generally supports the Assad regime, the Syrian president told his visitors that “the Army has regained the initiative on the ground to a large extent, achieving important results, in addition to what it has achieved in the past 22 months.” Assad reportedly added that the areas under rebel control were limited to the Turkish, Jordanian, and Lebanese borders.
“There are also some pockets in the capital’s countryside which are being dealt with by the Army. The capital, Damascus, is in a better situation. Its strategic points – despite all the attempts by the militants – remained safe, especially the airport road,” the newspaper quoted Assad as saying.
Such sentiment may be wishful thinking, but the ferocity of the assault on Daraya suggests that the Assad regime is still willing to put up a strong fight. Last week, Laurent Fabius, France’s foreign minister, sounded a pessimistic note in suggesting that Assad’s fall was not imminent.
“The solution we hoped for – that is to say, Bashar’s fall, the rise of the opposition to power – there are no recent signs as positive as that.”