By William Moloney, Exclusive to KhalijiSecurity
The Free Syria Army (FSA) recently launched and are continuing attacks in various locations in Damascus. They have assassinated four senior figures:
- Asef Shawkat, husband to the president’s powerful older sister, Bushra
- The Christian Defense Minister Gen. Dawoud A. Rajha
- Gen. Hisham Ikhtiyar, who was Syria’s national security chief
- Maj. Gen. Hassan Turkmani, a previous Defense Minister and current advisor to the vice-president
The FSA has also seized border posts on the Iraqi and Turkish borders. During the operations the FSA has stated that they have deployed 2500 fighters to Damascus from all over Syria. Meanwhile, the Assad regime has retaliated with artillery strikes, Helicopter Gunships, Armored Vehicles and Infantry attacks within the city limits. Fighting has been fierce to say the least, and both sides seem to have taken some heavy casualties.
Many observers see this attack as the beginning of the end for the Assad regime. It is being said that if he cannot hold Damascus, or protect his inner circle, he is finished. But I suspect that if this is the case the fall of the Assad regime will take much longer than is currently being speculated. This may be looked back on as the turning point, or the beginning of the end, but that the process of the final fall will be extended and bloody.
The ‘Damascus Volcano’ (DV) attack has been audacious, ambitious and, at least, partially successful. However, other similar battles, specifically the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) Tet Offensive in 1968, suggest that this may be a tactical loss for the FSA. However, this ‘tactical loss’ through perception becomes a strategic victory. A total victory will only be achieved after further expenditure of much more time, treasure and blood.
There are striking similarities between the two (DV and Tet) offensives. Both were launched on the eve, or over, the most important holiday in their respective cultures. Both targeted a relatively peaceful capital city of a war-torn nation. Both offensives began with surprise attacks in a number of locations across the City. In each offensive the battles continued for tens of days after the initial attacks.
If we look at Tet more closely, and here is a contemporary CBS new report on the Offensive, it initially appeared to be a great success. The NVA had managed to breach the security of the American Embassy, Vietnamese Radio Stations and launched attacks on the Presidential Palace in Saigon. They also took control of the ancient city of Hue, which was mostly destroyed in the 26-day battle for control.
However, on a purely militarily basis, the offensive was a disaster. As the offensive continued, the NVA started to take very large causalities, some reports suggest up to 58,000. The NVA never recovered from these losses. Their ability to fight in future would be greatly damaged by the Tet Offensive. The planned uprising of Southern Vietnamese civilians failed.
The Tet Offensive was a tactical victory for the South and the US. However, strategically it was a loss. The nightly television news beamed images of the Tet Offensive that contrasted greatly with the contemporary American belief that they were winning the war. This included the famous image of the street execution of a prisoner by a South Vietnamese Police Chief. The power of these visual images were such that even if the US was winning the battles, tactically winning the war, the appearance of losing was enough to undermine their cause and hand the enemy a strategic victory.
The Tet Offensive did, eventually, lead to the North Vietnamese victory a full seven years later. It also led to immediate changes in US strategy, changes that can be seen as the start of the end of US involvement. These changes in US strategy were: the US sought and began negotiations, the cancellation of the three-year strategic bombing of the North (Rolling Thunder) and, then led to, three months later, President Lyndon Johnson not seeking re-election.
I suspect that these Damascus attacks will play out in a very similar way to the Tet Offensive. The FSA has secured the appearance of a great victory. The attacks in and around Damascus, the killing of protected Assad-inner circle, the sheer bravado of the attacks, all will shock those that support the regime. However, I suspect that this appearance of a victory will come at the loss of a great many fighters and much valuable equipment. Fighters and equipment that will be hard to replace and may will mean that the FSA may be unable to conduct some future operations without significant reinforcements.
I also suspect that the FSA was expectant of a large portion of the Damascus citizenry would aid them in their attacks. Some surely have but more seem to have headed for safety.
Like the NVA, the FSA, will probably be militarily defeated in the Battle of Damascus. However, like the NVA, this battle has created the perception that the Assad regime is losing. This will mean that the FSA has earned a strategic victory from this tactical loss.
I suspect that the FSA launched the Damascus Attacks with this all in mind. They would know that it is unlikely that they can take Damascus barring a complete collapse of the Syrian Army. They launched these attacks to create the appearance of victory, to win the perception battle, to win a strategic victory.
However, the NVA strategic victory of Tet Offensive may not be mirrored perfectly in Syria. The Americans who lost faith in the Vietnam War effort after Tet had nothing to lose through loss; they had no vested interest other than the vague threats ascribed by the Domino theory. Like the Americans, some of the Assad supporters, and possibly international allies like Russia, may now seek to reduce their support after these attacks.
Those that are the strongest supporters of the Assad regime, especially the Alawite minority, have a vested stake in it. They perceive that they have no choice other than the Assad regime. With such perceptions their wiliness to fight on will be stronger. This will mean even if the FSA has won a perception battle, a strategic victory, it will not affect the core Assad supporters and may not be as emphatic as Tet was for the NVA.
Even if the FSA’s perception strategic victory will not be as strong as the NVA’s in Tet, it must be remembered that the Tet Offensive was only the turning point in the Vietnamese War; it was only the start of the end, not the end. It was another seven years of fighting and perhaps a million more dead before the war ended. Anyone that thinks, or says, that the Assad regime will fall quickly, and without a fight, I suspect is sadly wrong,. The war in Syria, history teaches us, is going to be going on for a while yet.
William Moloney is a Defense Analyst, he can be followed on twitter as @ZacLeBurn