Even in defeat, Syrian rebels say their armed struggle offers hope for Ukraine

Former anti-Assad commanders say Ukrainian military in envious position compared with the disadvantages they faced against Russia

Rebel commander Abu Jamal Nuqrush was sheltering in a makeshift bunker in the besieged Damascus suburb of Daraya six years ago when a Russian missile pierced through the main shaft.

“We survived by a whisker. The Russian bombing was far more precise than the regime’s,” he says.

By August 2016, when Abu Jamal and his comrades surrendered to the regime of President Bashar Al Assad in a Russian-supervised deal, around 1,000 of Daraya’s 1,700 defenders had been killed.

Outgunned and outnumbered, they withstood the siege for four years, with Russia actively bombing Daraya for months before forcing the surrender.

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine enters its third week, former anti-Assad commanders say their armed struggle offers positive lessons for Ukrainian forces that soon could be encircled in the major cities of the country.

Besides weapons and tactics, they say maintaining a will to resist and support of the population will be crucial to withstand the onslaught as Russia intensifies its bombing of populated areas.

Significant destruction of residential districts has been reported around Kyiv, in Kharkiv, and in Mariupol, where Russia struck a maternity hospital this week.

Rebels commanders who fought against Russian-backed forces in Syria expect that once evacuations from Ukrainian cities have ended, Russia would hit civilian targets more intensely.

More civilian casualties prompts internal pressure on defending forces and could undermine unity among Ukranians, they say, citing thermobaric (vacuum) bombs and missiles that terrorised rebel areas of Syria.

This type of weapon causes a huge fireball and blast wave that bring down buildings.

Postponing the inevitable

None of the veterans of the Syrian rebellion against five decades of Assad family rule expect Russia to fail in overrunning Ukraine.

But the Ukrainian military and its auxiliaries can delay a Russian sweep in ways that would make it costly for President Vladimir Putin, they say.

Daraya’s defenders surrendered after what Abu Jamal says was a Russian strike on the only remaining hospital in the suburb, a makeshift facility.

The regime had scorched Daraya’s farmland, fuel ran out and food supplies reached critical levels. Under the surrender deal, the surviving Daraya rebels were bused to a Turkish sphere of Influence in northern Syria.

Quote
If the Ukrainians have the resolve and the engineering capabilities they will hold out for long
Abu Jamal, former Syrian rebel commander

Abu Jamal says Ukrainian defenders are in a much stronger position to prepare for urban warfare.

He says in Ukraine they have access to far superior weaponry, such as anti-aircraft guns and advanced anti-tank weapons, compared with the rocket-propelled grenades with which Daraya defenders fended off T-72 tank incursions.

“Our weapons were simple,” said Abu Jamal by phone from Turkey. “If the Ukrainians have the resolve and the engineering capabilities they will hold out for long.”

Moscow made its direct military intervention in Syria in late 2015, enabling the regime to capture large parts of territory it had lost.

Russia left most of the ground attacks to its allies as it pummelled besieged rebel areas containing hundreds of thousands of civilians with artillery, air strikes and ground rockets, killing thousands of civilians.

Unconfirmed reports have been circulating of recruitment of pro-regime militia to fight on Russia’s behalf in Ukraine.

Guessing game

People evacuate the town of Daraya, outside the capital Damascus, by bus on August 26, 2016. AFP

Abdelbasset Taweel, an officer who defected from the regime’s military and joined the rebels, says regardless of who attempts to storm Kyiv, urban warfare is a “different ballgame”.

Mr Taweel was among Syrian regime troops that attacked parts of Beirut during the Lebanese civil war from 1975 to 1990.

He said an armoured column in an urban setting would be held off from advancing by a few fighters equipped with anti-tank weapons and heavy machine guns.

“In some ways the defender who knows the urban terrain has the advantage,” he says.

Abu Haidar, another rebel officer who gave his nom de guerre described overrunning a regime roadblock in the northern governorate of Idlib several years ago then coming under fire from the direction of a collection of houses.

“A single KPC fired at us, killing seven in my group,” he says, referring to a type of Russian machinegun.

“It felt like an eternity trying to determine where the bullets were coming from,” he says.

Eventually the rebels realised a lone pro-regime shooter, who was a woman, was firing at them from the perimeter of her home.

Most of the former rebels interviewed by The National had dealt with the Russian military when they were in the regime's army. They joined a rebellion whose ranks comprised many with no military experience.

Former US president Barack Obama dismissed the rebels in 2014 as “former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth”, who stood no chance, even if Washington had made a full-fledged effort to arm them.

Cohesion

Ibrahim, another former Syrian commander, says the Syrian armed struggle was fatally undermined from within, pointing out societal fissures that broke into the open in the past decade.

Among them were religious ideology, clan rivalries and divisions between city dwellers and rural areas, and parts of the merchant classes that determined its interest still lays with the regime, he says.

He compared the drones and other weapons being supplied to the Ukrainian military, with Western nations having balked at supporting the often divided rebels, their cause undermined by the ascendency of militants

“The Ukrainian army has a far more solid base among the population,” says Ibrahim, who wanted to be identified only by his first name because he resides in an Arab country on the understanding that he does not discuss Syria publicly.

“We were fighting two enemies: the regime and the Islamists. The Ukrainians do not have this problem,” he says.

“They are cohesive and already seems to have inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy,” he says referring to US estimates of 3,500 to 6,000 Russians killed so far in Ukraine, compared with 498 deaths announced by the Russian military.

“Their loss in Afghanistan will prove light in comparison.”

The Russian military invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and withdrew in 1989 after losing a war of attrition.

It cost the lives of 15,000 Russian soldiers and contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Updated: March 13, 2022, 8:02 AM
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