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Tony Badran

Homs and Achrafieh

Since February 3, the city of Homs has been under a sustained, and increasingly heavy, bombardment by the Assad regime’s forces. According to reports in the last couple of days, the regime has sent armored reinforcements, and residents are expecting an imminent ground assault.
 
However, that Assad loyalists had to bombard the city for nearly a month without sending in ground troops tells us something about the state of the Syrian Armed Forces as well as about its performance in operations against militias in built-up areas. To that end, there’s much that could be learned from the Assad regime’s 1978 campaign against Christian urban strongholds in Lebanon—a battle known as the 100-days war. 
 
Unlike its previous assaults on Daraa, Hama, Zabadani and Deir al-Zour, at various points over the last several months, the regime’s forces have not been able to enter and hold Homs, even temporarily. Instead, Assad’s troops have laid siege to the city and have been shelling it from the outskirts for three weeks straight.
 
The regime’s tactics in Homs bear resemblance to the ones it used in East Beirut—especially Achrafieh—in the summer and fall of 1978. Back then, much like today, the forces of Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, employed field artillery, tanks, heavy mortars (including 240mm mortars, also used today in Homs), and multiple rocket launchers, deployed around the city, to savagely bombard civilian neighborhoods in an attempt to break the will of the Christian militias and punish their supporters.
 
However, despite its brutal bombardment, and despite vastly outnumbering the Christian militias in East Beirut—15,000 to 20,000 Syrians to several hundred Christian militiamen defending their neighborhood—the Syrian Arab Army was unable to enter and take the city. The reasons for this failure are instructive.
 
Its numerical superiority notwithstanding, the Syrian army was not prepared to risk high casualties. In fact, reports from the period indicate that the Syrians had estimated a potential loss in excess of 3,000 men had they pressed ahead with a full invasion of Achrafieh. Already, following several engagements with the militias, the Syrians had sustained more casualties than they were willing to accept.
 
The militias were able to inflict such damage partially due to the employment of certain weapons, especially anti-tank systems and anti-aircraft guns converted for anti-personnel use. By contrast, despite the heavy shelling and the siege of the city, leaving them with limited amounts of ammunition, the militias sustained low casualties, and were able to maintain mobility through the use of tunneling.
 
Despite various dissimilarities between the Christian militias and the local Syrian opposition militias in terms of training and military support from a neighboring state, the experience of the former says much about how an urban setting can serve as a force multiplier for a small force with the right training and equipment.
 
Indeed, despite a severe shortage in ammunition and lack of access to proper weapons systems, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has managed to present the Syrian regime with many of the same challenges it faced more than three decades ago in Beirut.
 
For instance, YouTube footage has surfaced showing the FSA using Russian-made Metis anti-tank systems against fixed positions, on top of the good use it has made so far of RPGs against armored units.  If the US and its regional allies were to provide it with better systems, advice and training, the FSA’s capabilities would multiply significantly. As it is, with their very modest means, the defectors have managed to impose severe constraints on the abilities of the regime’s forces.
 
The regime has relied on loyal Alawite brigades (such as the 4th Division) for its ground assault operations. On the one hand, this denies the regime the ability to launch multiple simultaneous operations. On the other hand, it means that the number of reliable units is rather limited, which makes the regime, much like in Achrafieh in 1978, very wary about inordinate casualty levels. An additional dilemma facing the regime today includes an overstretched, poorly trained military constantly threatened by defections among rank-and-file Sunnis, and, thus, reluctant to enter in direct battles in the streets of cities like Homs.

For instance, Jonathan Littell, who was in Homs reporting for Le Monde, has noted how “the Army seems afraid to attempt to enter neighborhoods.”  Littell added that while the heavy bombardment has killed many civilians, its impact on the capacities of the FSA has been limited—much like what happened with the Christian militias in Achrafieh in 1978. In addition, as Littell observed, the FSA believes that direct engagement with infantry units would result in even more soldiers defecting to the rebel side.
 
We will soon find out if Assad intends to follow his barrage with a ground incursion, and what will ensue as a result. However, even if the regime manages to enter Homs, the FSA is likely to slip out and reemerge in other cities. Take, for instance, how the regime has entered and reentered Daraa several times already. And yet, resistance continues to resurface there, forcing the regime to redeploy its already strained and stretched military. There are simply too many hotspots to deploy to, and, as Littell observed, defections are increasing with every passing day. Furthermore, as Jonathan Spyer has reported, there are a number of areas in the northern Idlib province that are virtually regime-free.
 
Ultimately, there’s one fundamental thing in common between Hafez al-Assad’s failure in 1978 and his son’s failure today. Thirty-four years ago, when his vicious assault on East Beirut was over, Assad had neither broken the will of the militias, nor inflicted heavy casualties upon them. Likewise today, despite the unspeakable horror unleashed on Homs, its people continue to come out in defiant protests – inspiring their compatriots to do the same in virtually every town and city in Syria.
 
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.

  • BBQ

    Field Marshal Marco el Pollo what can we say when you're right you're right, looks like the Syrian Army did put your Google earth strategy to good use maybe now the crack team of Syrian generals and tacticians could use it to look around the Golan and find a way to liberate something of actual substance for a change.

    March 2, 2012

  • Marco el Polo

    Ooops I did it again... now all you Phoenician Zionist armchair generals bow before master el polo and while you at it slurp those posts of yours .....LOL.

    March 1, 2012

  • Mehdi

    mowaten great job researching Tony's organization now find me something about how Ismail Haniya is really a Zionist and Hamas a Western USA CIA tool. After all Haniya has joined most of the world in supporting "heroic Syrian struggle for democracy", wait don't tell me the Qataris payed him to say that, right?

    February 29, 2012

  • mowaten

    Funny that tony badran, the author of this touching piece aimed at making Achrafieh's Christians feel closer to the salafi fanatic fighters who are taking Homs hostage, is from the FDD. "Founded in the wake of the 9/11 attacks with the apparent goal of pushing the United States to undertake an aggressive “war on terror” in the Middle East, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) is a neoconservative think tank based in Washington, D.C. that claims to defend democratic countries from the purportedly existential threat posed by “radical Islamism.” Jim Lobe, writing in the Asia Times, referred to the FDD as a group "whose views largely mirror those of Israel's ruling Likud Party," and said that the FDD's board of advisors includes "prominent neo-cons and Iraq war boosters." The American Conservative published an article accusing it of being funded mainly by a small number of pro-Israel hawks, as well as being engaged in "spin".

    February 29, 2012

  • william

    Henry, Marco also forgot about the tunnels his selective memory and rewriting of history is unfortunate.

    February 28, 2012

  • Henry

    Another feature of Marco's inspired comments escaped the attention of the readers.He writes that Baba Amro is comparable to tall ez zaatar where there were a "limited number of men , guns and resources"! Well that's new! The 500 lebanese fighters who died fighting their way into this "lightly" armed place fell probably under friendly fire....or influenza. Better, the terrified inhabitants of Ashrafieh and of the neighbourhoods of the camp were mostly victims of hallucinations when they were hammered by artillery and anti aircraft guns from the onset of the war in april 75. Not forgetting the dozens abducted and slaughtered by "lightly armed" palestinians from the camp.

    February 28, 2012

  • red

    el Pollo, the Syrian regime took the innocent Lebanese people hostage for thirty years, killing, kidnapping and robbing them all along but then one day it was unceremoniously dumped. The innocent Syrian people held hostage for much longer decided almost a year ago to free themselves from Assad and his extended family and this might take a little longer to achieve but make no mistake Assad is heading out the same door as Saddam, Qaddafi, Ben Ali, Mubarak, Saleh and maybe a few others.

    February 28, 2012

  • Marco el Polo

    I am very amused by your funny responses , we all need comedy in our lives especially when there is no light at the end of the tunnel , in this case it would be the tunnel you living in, hope the innocent people held hostage by the revolutionary body snatchers in baba amro would come out of this ordeal safe and sane

    February 27, 2012

  • le phenicien

    Marco el Pollo, actually fuzzy and fake heroics are the only tradition the Syrian army has besides misspelled slogans on walls. The 100 days war was triggered when the Syrian Army changed from it's role as a peace keeping force part of the Arab 2ouwateal Rade3 and decided to become an occupying force by attacking the Fayadieh Lebanese Army barracks. What the Syria army is doing in Homs and elsewhere in Syria it previously did in Achrafieh, Zahleh, Tripoli, Sidon etc the rhetoric and also similar but the only success those tactics ever achieved in killing hundreds of civilians.

    February 27, 2012

  • لبناني اصلي بعكسك

    Marco El Polo, Our high ranking officers read your analysis and literally drooled. "This guy is genious!! How could we not think of google earth before", one of them said. The idea we had is that the syrian army lost grip coz it"s almost one year now and the revolution is spreading until we read your genious analysis. Mr. el polo you will soon be contacted by the US embassy in Antarctica.

    February 27, 2012

  • BBQ

    Marco el Polo, talking about armchair generalship you're getting your extensive strategic military analysis just by looking around town on Google earth, how didn't anyone think of this before, so simple, you are truly a genius sir. I think this is going to become the new standard in twenty fist century military planing to be required study in West point, Sandhurst and General Staff Academy in Moscow. Field Marshal Marco el Pollo would be a more appropriate name for you, move over Sun Tzu. I can't wait for your new textbook "The instant General: Just add water".

    February 26, 2012

  • Marco el Polo

    Fuzzy heroics ala 1978 aside, the syrian army was not trying to enter or occupy acrafieh since they were there and the syrian bombardment was defensive , the more the syrian army positions came under fire the heavier the bombardment. as for Homs , yes the rebels have a few men here and there in the city that can be activated to do this and that but by no means they hold these areas and can freely and openly operate within them. the point remains that the main fight is in baba amro and I would advise all those armchair generals on this comment board to take a look at baba amero on google earth , no military idiot would ever want to be there , the place is a hole in the ground more like al Nabaa then tal al zaatr the strait raws of urban blocs are not particularly advantages to the defenders as it expose them to direct tank fire and with 2 dozen snipers stationed on the higher ground outside the entire place is a shooting gallery where defenders are picked one by one slow and easy.

    February 26, 2012

  • Ron David

    Mr Badran association is anecdotal... There is barely any resemblance. If there is any resemblance to a war, it reminds me of the attack of the lebanese army on Nahr el Bared ! The people that will flee Homs and Baba Amro this time, will resurface in jail and not in another town (wishful thinking) and luckily there will be no future movement that will let them flee from jail !

    February 26, 2012

  • le phenicien

    Actually the Syrian army was already inside Achrafieh in 1978, heavily armed and outnumbering the defenders and still they could not advance or occupy any new territory. In fact by the end of the hostilities the Syrians had only two positions left and a settlement got them completely out of Achrafieh. Come to think of it the only time the Syrian army made any advances inside the free Christian territories was when the commander in chief of their opponents deserted and fled to the French embassy. I suggest people find and read the exchange between General Kallas and Aoun early October 13 1990 morn only minutes after the Syrian invasion began, Aoun was already getting ready to flee. Remember less than twelve hours previously Aoun'd promised to fight and dies at his command post. There is no Aoun in Homs.

    February 26, 2012

  • Charles G. Bedran

    There exist four groups in the area that are modeled and follow Fascist and Nazi ideologies. They are the Iraqi Baath, the Syrian Baath, The Awmiyeh (SNSP) and the Lebanese Kataeb (phalangists). Having said that one need to pose the question; What would Hitler do? You will find the answer in the behavior of those groups.

    February 26, 2012

  • Firas Kay

    Baba Amro will not fall, despite the siege, and even if it did, it was just recoup and continue to come back, like Daraa.

    February 25, 2012

  • Marco el Polo

    Mr Badran , you seem to have rounded few corners in your analysis of the situation in Homs , the fact of the matter is that the fighting is concentrated in one neighborhood of the city of Homs , Baba Amro where most of the rebels had withdrawn to , Baba Amro 2012 is not achrafieh 1978 in that the syrian army was already positioned in achrafieh at the time and most of the bombardment was in defense of these syrian army positions in east beirut and withen achrafieh as they came under attack from the lebanese forces. your optimism not withstanding , the rebels situation in baba amro is like that of tal al zaatar 1976, a limited number of men , guns and resources in an isolated and besieged area, a large civilian population with limited stake in the fight, the longer the bombardment and the siege the more obvious the futility of the situation , no need for any army to enter anywhere, the besieged ,once degraded will simply give up and surrender.

    February 25, 2012