On the edge of Damascus, a win for Syria’s rebels

Translator: 

The takeover by rebels of the regime’s most strategic remaining position in East Ghouta adds a new vulnerability on the fringes of the capital.

[Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Arabic on 10 January, 2018]

The battle continues for the eighth straight week now in and around the Assad regime’s strategic military vehicles base, known as the Vehicle Management Base (VMB), in the city of Harasta, just northeast of Damascus. With sources from the rebel factions participating in the battle announcing the imminent takeover of all the base’s buildings, a conclusion may be at hand to a spectacle that began last November, with the launch of the ‘Because They Were Wronged’1 campaign by Ahrar al-Sham fighters (later joined by Faylaq al-Sham) aimed at liberating the regime’s most prominent positions inside East Ghouta.

In its initial phase, the battle successfully effected several changes in the military balance within East Ghouta, with rebels taking over the al-Ajami and al-Hada’iq neighborhoods within the first week, and moving the battle to within the perimeter and buildings of the VMB itself, placing the regime’s forces there in a perilous defensive position, leading to their besiegement and the cutting of their supply lines after rebels took over the automatic bakery and the Irbeen road at the end of December. In recent days, military sources within the ‘Because They Were Wronged’ campaign have announced their control over new buildings within the VMB, and the capture of a regime tank, denying reports of the regime successfully opening a breach toward the besieged base.

In parallel with the start of this battle, the regime began a campaign of intense bombardment of the city of Harasta, hitting it with over 250 airstrikes since the end of December, in addition to fierce artillery and rocket shelling. The city’s Local Council has documented more than fifty civilian deaths as a result of this onslaught. Other towns in Ghouta have faced similar treatment since the start of last week, with many more civilians killed.

The battles currently ongoing inside the VMB perimeter represent the most significant military occurrence in East Ghouta since the battles of al-Qaboun and Jobar last year. Control over the site will enable Ghouta’s factions to attain qualitative superiority over regime forces close to Damascus, as the Harasta VMB is deemed the regime’s most important position in East Ghouta, forming a strip of regime territory extending deep inside the liberated areas, enabling it to cut the road between Harasta and Irbeen. The base overlooks all of Harasta, Irbeen, and Mudira, as well as the main Douma-Harasta road, and is located close to notable buildings including those of the Ministry of Irrigation and the Damascus Province Governorate.

A victory five years in the making

The VMB, which comprises the management buildings, a courtyard, and a technical institute, formed a point of concentration for regime forces, from which they bombarded Harasta, Mesraba, and Irbeen with artillery shells and mortars. After the liberation of parts of Harasta at the end of 2012, the VMB transformed into a launching pad for the regime’s battles against opposition factions within the city.

The battles of the past few days were not the opposition’s first attempt to take over the VMB. At the start of 2013, they launched the ‘Mujahideen Spring’ in an effort to seize the base, which became their most prominent obstacle after the liberation of broad portions of East Ghouta. The VMB’s main, six-story building was completely obliterated in an explosion at the end of the same year.

Successive battles ensued in the vicinity of the base, especially within Harasta’s al-Ajami neighborhood, near the base’s perimeter, which became the regime’s first line of defense for its positions there, until Liwa Fajr al-Umma took parts of it alongside the al-Kua area at the end of 2015. From then on, the Liwa became the dominant faction in Harasta, with most of its fighters being from the city, until it joined Ahrar al-Sham shortly before the end of last year, becoming the latter’s linchpin and strike force in East Ghouta.

The course of the Harasta VMB battles was one of the most important determinants of the military situation in East Ghouta, alongside the vital flashpoints in Jobar and the eastern fronts, and the southern sector. By maintaining control over this point, the regime was able to prevent any joint operation from the Harasta and Irbeen fronts toward the national Homs-Damascus highway. The regime’s loss of its positions here will represent the start of a new phase in the battles near Damascus, which are the battles that greatly affect the regime’s and its allies’ ability to manufacture their so-called “military victory” over the armed opposition, and consequently have the potential to rearrange calculations on the political tracks.

How will the Damascus fronts change?

The victories achieved by the opposition factions in Harasta launched a new military dynamic in Syria overall, for the regime, which was able to rack up widespread victories during the past two years, now faces a dangerous rupture close to the capital, in an area considered its most prominent point of concentration northeast of Damascus. And the political and moral impact of the battle may be even greater than the military one, for the way things had been heading in besieged East Ghouta in the past year, particularly after the regime’s takeover of al-Qaboun, and its closing of the last tunnel between Ghouta and Damascus City, was a painful blow for those under the siege.

And while the takeover of the VMB may not bring an end to the situation that turned critical after the loss of the tunnels in 2017, it’s nonetheless a step that could shake the regime’s control of a crucial area hitherto considered almost entirely calm. In return, if the Idlib battles pick up pace, and the regime advances toward the Abu Dhuhur airbase in the southeast of the province, it may give the opportunity for its forces to attend to the Ghouta fronts, in the event it’s able to cement its victory in the north. In any case, however, a new soft spot for the regime on the fringes of Damascus City has the potential to change equilibria that previously appeared to have tipped permanently in its favor, after the substantial support provided it by Russia.

More than five years on from the expulsion of regime forces from most parts of Harasta, it appears the military site responsible for the killing of vast numbers of civilians by shelling and sniping is now out of service, and is on the cusp of coming into the hands of the city’s own people.

  • 1. A quote from Qur’an 22:39: “Those who have been attacked are permitted—because they were wronged—to fight”