Syrian offensive takes shape in Eastern Ghouta

For two weeks now, the Syrian army has been conducting an offensive against various rebel groups in the Eastern Ghouta pocket near Damascus. The operation, named Operation Damascus Steel, has already led to significant territorial gains on behalf of the Assad government. The territory that has been captured so far, however, represents low hanging fruit, and a future, much more difficult, phase of the operation will start shaping the offensive.

The initial gains made during the offensive operations have primarily targeted the more rural eastern portion of the pocket. The battlefield in this part of the pocket consisted mostly of farmland and scattered villages. The western portion of the pocket, however, is made up of dense urban terrain on the periphery of Damascus itself. The towns of Duma, Harasta, Irbin stretch through the remaining rebel controlled areas as a belt of defensive structures complicating offensive operations.

The Syrian armed forces have long been trying to break into this rebel-held territory from the direction of Damascus, particularly in the neighborhoods of Jobar and Ein Terma. These attempts have never been very successful. While loyalist forces did manage to make gains over several years, the very complex urban terrain has made those gains very costly, and makes it nearly impossible for attacking forces to build up momentum and expand on initial gains.

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The rebel forces in these cities have also adapted really well to the fighting conditions in this urban terrain. They developed expertise, for example, in digging tunnels below loyalist-occupied structures in order to set off large quantities of explosives and bringing those entire structures down. Tunneling under an opponent’s positions dates back from medieval times, and with the use of explosives this technique was perfected during the First World War. It is a very effective method to be used in very static battles, but Syrian forces were unable to build up the momentum in these areas that would allow them to deny the rebels such methods.

At this point, the decisive advances on the eastern side of the Eastern Ghouta pocket have returned large swathes of land to the control of the Assad government, but the real challenge in these urban areas has not necessarily changed. It is likely, for that reason, that the offensive operations will continue to focus along the path of least resistance, to choke the urban centers before attempting to advance into them.

Capturing the farmlands from rebel control also has its own immediate impact on the ability for rebels to hold out in the urban areas of the pocket. Despite the ongoing war, this farmland still played a part in supplying local populations and rebel forces, and rebels will now find it harder to sustain their presence in the urban areas without access to those resources.

One key location that has emerged from all this, is the town of Mesraba. Syrian forces have shown an apparent intent to break through to the town, in what is likely an attempt to start separating portions of the Eastern Ghouta pocket from each other. On the opposite side of Mesraba, loyalist forces are already present in their extended positions at the so called ‘armored vehicle base’, and connecting these positions would effectively separate Duma and Harasta in the north from Irbin, Jobar and Ein Terma in the south.

This will not only create smaller isolated pockets that can be tackled in isolation from each other, but it will also separate the two largest rebel groups located in Eastern Ghouta. Jaish al Islam has its strongest presence in Duma, while Faylaq al Rahman is most prominently deployed in the southern areas of the pocket. If a further separation also takes place between the towns of Harasta and Duma, this would also separate Jaish al Islam from Ahrar al Sham and Hayat Tahrir al Sham. The separation of these individual rebel groups may not appear to be a significant tactical feat, but dealing with more homogenous pockets improves the ability for the Syrian government to negotiate a relocation of fighters within these individual pockets. The Syrian army may want to avoid having to enter the urban areas in the end, and may perhaps rather impose an even stronger siege on these separate groups, in order to convince them of a relocation towards remaining rebel held areas in Idlib.