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 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 believesthat 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.