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The Rebel Offensives in East Ghouta: “The Battle of God is the Greatest and Most Honorable” (November 22nd-December 21st)

Christopher Kingdon

December 23, 2013


A guest post by Christopher Kingdon, founder of the SyrianCivilWar sub-Reddit.

Introduction

This analysis addresses the southeastern Otaibah and northeastern Adra offensives, which together constitute Phase I of the rebels’ "Battle of God is the Greatest and Most Honorable" in East Ghouta:

  • How far south and west did the rebels reach in the Otaibah offensive?
  • Which of the captured towns do they still hold?
  • What divides the Adra offensive from the Otaibah offensive? 

What do we know?

In mid-November, the rebels were confined to a shrinking pocket in East Ghouta between Jirbeen to Hawsh al Shawaq to the north and Jisreen and al Bilaliyah to the south. In late November, things rapidly changed. This analysis focuses on events in eastern East Ghouta. 

Figure 1: State of Ghouta Siege on November 15th
On November 22nd, mainstream news outlets, including the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, reported fierce fighting in East Ghouta resulting in heavy casualties. On November 22nd, Haaretz reported "fierce fighting to the east of Damascus has killed more than 160 people in the past two days" (22nd-24th of November). In hindsight, this clearly signified the beginning of the Otaibah offensive - what we now know as Phase I. The Otaibah offensive was fought in the southeastern quadrant of East Ghouta and struck eastward from Al-Bilaliyah toward Otaibah. 

From November 22nd to December 15th, a media blackout descended over the rebel operations in East Ghouta (that is rebel activists no longer uploaded footage to YouTube or official reports given on social media). There were hints of an offensive eastward, but without sufficient footage to support rebel claims, very little to definitively work from. But now looking back after Ahrar ash-Sham’s footage dump on December 16th, it’s possible to create a chronology of the rebel offensive with some degree of confidence.

On December 11th, the rebels launched another offensive in East Ghouta from the northeastern quadrant: the Adra offensive. The Adra offensive struck northeast from Duma toward Adra. 

It should be noted that the situation in East Ghouta is clearly in flux. The battle lines change daily and the maps produced for this report should in no means be considered to be entirely accurate, though they do constitute a good representation of the general progress of the battle.
What is presented here is the evidence I have as of December 21st; it will of course be necessary to add corrections and update this analysis as the situation evolves and more data emerges.

The Otaibah Offensive and Government Counter-Offensive

The Otaibah offensive struck eastward from al Bilaliyah to Otaibah in southeastern East Ghouta. The official announcement of the completion of Phase I initially posted by @IslamArmy01 stated that Jund al Malah (Ahrah Ash-Sham, Jabhat al Nusra, Habib Mostapha, Shabab AlHoda, Katibat Issa ibn Mariam,) Jaysh al Islam and the Islamic Union of Sham Soldiers (Shabab al Hoda, Habibi Mostapha, Amjad al Islam, Al Sahaba, Dirii al Asima) collectively participated in the offensive.

Figure 2: Rebel Announcement of Completion of 1st Phase of Offensive

As Joshua Landis writes, "No mention is made of the newly announced Islamic Front. In this major battle driving regime forces from a large part of the Ghouta Ahrar al-Sham, let by Hassan Aboud is identified with Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaida affiliate. Jaysh al-Islam, which is led by Zahran Alloush is identified independently of Ahrar. This suggests that the Islamic Front alliance announced in November has not taken root, at least not yet."

In the footage dump on December 16th, the rebels claim to have captured 40 square kilometers of East Ghouta (pretty accurate), killed 800 government soldiers (certainly inflated; the footage doesn’t show anywhere near that number, but heavy losses were definitely inflicted on government troops), destroyed 23 vehicles and captured 44 (once again, almost certainly inflated, but some government vehicles were destroyed and others were captured).      

After the footage dump on December 16th, it’s evident that the rebels deployed at least one self-propelled anti-air mount, (a ZSU-23-4 [Shilka]), several tanks, at least one BMP, and a variety of homemade and imported anti-tank weaponry. Scott Lucas of EAWorldView writes that Shilkas evidenced in some of the videos could offer some protection from aerial attacks.

Figure 3: A rebel Shilka in action in East Ghouta 

Now I turn to the geography of the offensive.

Al-Bilaliya, البلالية

Al-Bilaliya was on the front lines of the Ghouta siege throughout late October and much of November. On October 30th, Dimasqh Now reported government shelling on Al-Bilaliya.  On November 2nd the FSA military council of Damascus released a statement that al Bilaliyah was exposed to government attack. Between November 11th and November 19th, videos purported to show Jabhat al Nusra shelling government troops around Al-Bilaliya suggesting that government forces were fighting in the area of the town.

On November 23rd, Ak-Saler News reported that the rebels had gained control of Al-Bilaliyah. This was confirmed in the December 16th video dump with footage purporting to show the rebels fighting in the town, destroying a government outpost, and finally, a graphic video showing dead government troops. Since then, there have been no reports of the government recapturing the city. It can be concluded that the rebels still hold the town as of December 21st.

Qaysa, قيسا

On the 22nd of November, an official Jabhat al Nusra Twitter account @JbhatAlNusra, asserted that the group had seized the town of Qaysa. Qaysa is located southeast of Al-Bilaliya.  Footage from the December 16th video dump shows the rebels walking on the outskirts of Qaysa. A report from Slab News on November 28th claimed that the clashes in Qaysa had divided the town 'two halves’. It appears that the rebels presumably never fully held the town of Qaysa, but only a northern portion.

On November 24th, a National Defense Force video showed NDF forces attempting to push north from Harran al Awamid against the rebel positions in Qaysa.

Figure 4: NDF video from the town of Harran al Awamid 

Harran al Awamid is located a few kilometers south of Qaysa. The report stated: "We are currently going in the direction of Bahariah. To support the SAA against the armed militants: takfiris. Military operations still continue. The military command assures the civilians are evacuated while they are sterilizing the area of terror. This group is on its way to Bahariah. We do of course have forces inside. We will reinforce them so we can repel the attack."

On December 10th, SANA claimed to have regained control of Qaysa and to have 'restored security and stability to it’, though there has been no visual evidence to support these claims. Considering the only primary evidence provided by the rebels was from the outskirts of the town, and that government claims to have retaken the town come from SANA, it can be concluded that the government has probably recaptured Qaysa.

Deir Salman, al-Qasimiyah, Abbadeh and Al-Bahariyah

On November 24th, Etilaf.org released a statement, entitled "FSA and Islamic Front Advance on Regime Forces in Eastern Ghouta," which stated: "The Free Syrian Army and the Islamic Front captured the towns of Al-Bahariyah, Qasimiyah, Abbadeh and Deir Salman in Eastern Ghouta after fierce clashes with Assad Forces with reports of regime losses." The statement further stated: "clashes are still going on in the town of Otaibah."

Figure 5: Rebel Gains, December 5th
Deir Salman, دير سلمان

The rebels reportedly captured Deir Salman on November 22nd. Footage released in the December 16th footage dump showed the rebels celebrating at the center of Deir Salman as well as another clip showing a rebel tank and infantry destroying a government building. A further video shows rebels storming a government building as it burns.

Figure 6: Rebels Storm Government Building as it Burns

However on December 19th rebel pages reported a heavy government bombardment rocket and artillery bombardment. On December 20th government pages and Arab news outlets claimed that the town had been recaptured. Starting with Al Hadath News, then Slab News and Al Nour.  An Al Manar reporter, Sonar Hatem, also made the same claim on Twitter. Visual evidence has not yet been provided of these claims, but they were consistently carried in news outlets and on pro-government social media pages.

Until more evidence emerges, the situation in Deir Salman should be considered to be in flux, but it is very possible that the government has regained the town.

Al-Qasimiyah, قرية الجربا

Located northeast of Deir Salman is Al-Qasimiyah. Al-Qasimiyah was reported captured on November 24th.  On December 16th, footage was released showing the rebels entering the town, a graphic video of dead government soldiers in Qasimiyah, the rebels storming a compound, and one rebel celebrating while claiming that they held the town. The local media page, Coordinating Qasimiyah, continued to report the rebels held the town as of December 17th, and there is currently no counter-claim from the government to have retaken the city. It is likely that the rebels still hold the town as of December 21st.

Jarba, قرية الجربا

Jarba, located northeast of Al-Qasimiyah, was another town reported captured on November 24th.
On December 3rd, in an exception to the media blackout, the rebels released a short video showing their presence in Jarba outside a damaged mosque. On December 16th, this was confirmed with the release of footage of the rebels celebrating in Jarba. The local Facebook page is inactive, but there have been no government counter-claims of retaking the town. It is therefore likely, once again, that the rebels still hold the town as of December 21st.

Al-Bahariyah, البحارية

Located slightly north of Jarba is Al-Bahariyah. The rebels initially reported on November 22nd to have captured the town, which can now be tentatively confirmed with footage available. Other footage released mid-December shows the rebels fighting in the town with tanks and another clips shows captured government positions. There are no government counter-claims to have recaptured the city. So it is likely that the rebels still control the town as of December 21st.

Abbadeh, العبادة

Abbadeh is located northeast of Qaysa, slightly southeast of Jarba and directly northwest of Otaibah. On December 16th, old footage was released of rebels celebrating and walking through Abbadeh corroborating their November 24th claim. Another graphic video seems to show dead government soldiers, while yet another shows an Islamist flag flying over Abbadeh.

On December 7th, the government claimed to have 'confront(ed) terrorists’ in Abbadeh, but there have been no claims of the town being fully recaptured from the government.  Yet again it can be concluded that the rebels are still in control of the town of Abbadeh.

Otaibah, قرية العتيبة

The furthest eastern extent of the Otaibah offensive seems to have been when the rebels briefly entered the western outskirts of the town of Otaibah. Otaibah is located here.

On December 2nd, rebels released a video showing a group of rebels at a key junction 1KM from the city center. Footage from the December 16th footage dump also shows the rebels fighting on the outskirts of Otaibah.

Figure 7: Rebels at the Junction northeast of Otaibah

Soon after, SANA news agency reported that the army had "restored security and stability to al-Eteibeh area and its surrounding in eastern Ghouta in Damascus countryside after eliminating an armed terrorist group that infiltrated the area few days ago." In conjunction with this claim, the NDF released a video showing them inside Otaibah. Evidently the government has regained control of Otaibah.

The Curious Case of Mayda’a, ميدعا

Sitting north of Al-Bahariya and south of a government base, Brigade 39, is the town of Mayda’a. On October 19th, Fars News reported, "The source underlined that only Meyda’a region has remained to be cleaned up of militants, adding that the only supply route to the rebels in Eastern Ghouta now passes through this region." The claim that the rebels had a supply route through Mayda’a is unverifiable elsewhere, but it can be evidenced that the rebels held Mayda’a before the Otaibah. On September 15th the Sham News Network reported the government shelled the town. On September 28th the local LCC reported that the government launched an air strike on the town. On October 15th Sham News Network reported government shelling of the town. It is unlikely that the government was shelling its own positions, so it appears that the rebels had been in control of Mayda’a since early September, subsequently confirmed by a Damascus source. Taken in conjunction with the October 19th report, it would seem that the rebels held Mayda’a when they launched the Otaibah offensive. As there have been no reports of the government recapturing Mayda’a as of December 19th, it would appear that the rebels still hold Mayda’a.

Figure 8: Map of East Ghouta as of December 21st
Summary 

During Phase I, as of early December, the rebels had captured Al Bilaliya, Deir Salman, Qasimiyah, Abbadeh and Al-Bahariyah in full and parts of Otaibah and Qaysa. Since then, it is likely that the government has recaptured the Otaibah outskirts it lost, as well as Deir Salman and the parts of Qaysa that the rebels briefly took.

It can be tentatively concluded that currently the southern line of this Otaibah front runs along the southern tips of Al Bhilaliyah to Qasimiyah and then Abbadeh. The western front sits at the west of Abbadeh and runs vertically upwards along the western portions of Jarba, Al Bahariyah and Mayda’a. Sitting above Mayda’a, the government base, Brigade 39, severs the Otaibah front from the Adra Front.

The Adra Offensive

What is the situation in Adra?

On December 11th, the rebels launched an offensive on Adra. A week after the December 5th rebel claim from Otaibah, rebel activists claimed the Adra offensive represents the latter part of the Phase I offensive in East Ghouta. The Adra offensive appears to have been launched from the direction of Duma, the northeastern-most city in the rebel Ghouta pocket. On December 13th, pro-government activist Syrian Perspective created a map showing the rebels having made gains up to Baghdad Bridge to the northwest, Aard al Jullah to the north and As Safariyah town to the southeast of Adra.

On December 12th Lorientle Journal reported that the Syrian government had launched a counter-offensive. The key for the government was reestablishing control of the main road leading out of Damascus. There was, and continues to be, heavy fighting in the area. The Adra offensive seems to be a much bigger concern to the government than the Otaibah offensive.

On December 15th, the Syrian Army retook Baghdad Bridge. This has also been confirmed by a source in Damascus. On the same day Fars News reported government successes in neighborhoods to the north of Adra. On December 19th, the government further reported retaking forty blocks of Adra back from the rebels. On December 21st, RT Arabic reported that the Syrian Army had severed rebel supply routes to Adra. This matches the map by Syrian Perspective from December 21st, which showed the government had severed the Adra pocket from Duma. However rebels are reporting significant success in Adra, and two Jabhat al Nusra suicide bombers struck on December 21st, so the precise situation in Adra remains less clear than in Otaibah.

While the situation is clearly in flux, the government does seem to be making inroads to rebel gains; however, so far, the rebels continue to hold the center of Adra.

Summary  
       
The Otaibah front struck southeast from Al-Bilaliyah to the outskirts of Otaibah with the initial offensive taking seven towns. The offensive has opened up a broader front in southeastern Ghouta for the rebels to potentially access from the outside with supplies (precariously). The government has counter-attacked taking the outskirts of Otaibah and possibly the towns of both Deir Salman and Qaysa.
Was Phase I a decisive victory for the rebels?

It is a hard question to answer as it remains unclear exactly what is going on; opinions differ depending on whom you ask. Clearly the rebels captured a considerable area including at least seven towns, inflicting losses some degree of government losses and securing a substantial amount of government armor.

But did the rebels break a clear corridor through the siege?

No.

Certainly their southeastern front is now broader and more accessible than it was before Phase I, but the government’s recapture of the towns of Qaysa, Deir Salman and parts of Otaibah, combined with their string of air defense and army bases to the east of East Ghouta mean that rebels still have very little free movement. Evidently the rebels’ failure to secure Otaibah in full and the government success in retaking the parts lost dampens the rebels’ elation after Phase I. However it is clear that overall the rebels gained more than they lost in this offensive and certainly improved their situation if compared to the situation prior to Phase I.  The rebels have clearly improved their situation in East Ghouta significantly ahead of the Geneva II Peace Conference, not that any of the groups participating in these offensives have committed to attend.

As for the Adra offensive, it is too early to predict the results. The government’s swift counter-offensive has enjoyed some significant success. If the RT reports are true and the rebel supply lines from Duma have been severed, this would not bode well for the rebels left in a small pocket in Adra. It should be noted that the Adra counter-offensive seems to have received a much more concentrated counter-effort from the government than Otaibah. That said, the rebels still hold most of Adra and show no signs of retreating. Both sides claim heavy losses.

On December 21st very unconfirmed reports began to circulate from jihadist accounts that the rebels had begun Phase II in Damascus, titled "Enter the Door."

Source





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