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Syria Fighting Still Localized

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Administrative Note: Ramadan begins the evening of Thursday, 19 July 2012, and ends in the evening of Saturday, 18 August 2012.

Syria: Opposition fighters attacked the provincial police headquarters in the Qanawat district of old Damascus, news services reported on the 19th . Gunfire was intense for an hour, a Qanawat resident said.


Rebels also claim to have attacked and seized three border crossing huts, two on the Turkish border and one on the Iraq border. These attacks confirm the vulnerability of border guards in every country, including the US.

Comment: The most frustrating challenge in evaluating the Syrian security situation is the lack of precision that would make opposition reports about fighting subject to verification. Western news reports proclaim that the battle for Damascus is in progress, with fighting occurring for five days. The impression is of major combat forces engaged and the city in panic. The imagery recalls The North Vietnamese Army rolling into Saigon in 1975, but western news reporters are not allowed to travel in Syria.

NightWatch attempted today to put the battle imagery to the test by plotting the neighborhoods in greater Damascus in which shooting has been reported in the past five days. Reporting on neighborhoods is not consistent so some activity in some city blocks almost certainly has been omitted.

The reports indicate shooting has taken place in six neighborhoods. There are at least 24 of them in Damascus. The six neighborhoods are in the southern suburbs-al Tadamon, al-Midan, Qaa, Nahr, Aisha and Mezzah. If there are others that Readers have noted NightWatch invites feedback in order to construct a more accurate picture of the exchanges of fire.


The clustering effect of the location of the neighborhoods shows that the opposition shooters infiltrated from the south into old, congested neighborhoods with narrow passageways, according to satellite imagery.

Whole neighborhoods are not in insurrection. Shooting seems to take place at the intersections of selected streets by small numbers of fighters, an economy of force tactic when manpower is in short supply. The government forces in the neighborhoods appear to be militia or paramilitary forces that are backed up by more heavily regular forces and some helicopters.

The Syrian government is taking a page from the Israeli count-terror playbook of responding with asymmetric force. That explains the helicopter attacks, mortar fire, the occasional tank unit and artillery shelling. The Syrians are conserving manpower by using firepower.

The numbers involved, based on the duration of the firefights do not seem large nor particularly threatening in a military sense. The blocks in the neighborhoods are dispersed so that the government extermination efforts are tedious.

In a living systems analysis, it also is clear that the fighters have support, aid and comfort, places to eat and sleep in the nearby residences. That makes the supporting civilians targets of the government's asymmetrical counter-fire. The opposition holds hostage the people on whom they rely for support and cover.


This substrate of the fighting is obscured by the sensational attacks. The two sensational attacks this week could succeed because Syrian authorities have attempted to maintain normal security conditions in Damascus for as long as possible. It is a big city to try to secure. This week's attacks and bombings will force changes to the security regime in Damascus, making such attacks more difficult in the future.

The satellite photos of Damascus posted by al Jazeera, for example, confirm that the outbreaks of shooting reported in the media are rather localized and that most of Damascus remains unaffected. On a satellite image of Damascus, this week's street fighting is pretty small stuff. If the government forces can't handle it, they don't deserve to stay in power.

These observations in no way diminish the significance of five days of shooting in the southern neighborhoods of Damascus. This analysis concludes that it signifies government security lapses as much as opposition capabilities.

The threat posed by the opposition fighters does not seem sufficient to put the government at near term risk, unless leaders panic or have been bought off. If the government were to collapse, it would be the result of other considerations.


Reports that Bashar al Asad relocated to a presidential residence in Latakia have been denied by the Syrian government. He remains in the sprawling presidential palace complex in western Damascus.

Iran's defense minister and Hezbollah leader Nasrallah both praised Syrian efforts to defend itself from the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and outside terrorists.

Libya: For the record. The Libyan government still has only released preliminary results from the 7 July elections. According to the 9 July release, the National Forces Alliance (NFA), led by former interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril, won 39 seats of the 80 party-list seats in Libya's 200-member General National Congress, well ahead of the second largest party, the Justice and Construction Party, launched by Libya's Muslim Brotherhood, which took 17 seats.

Comment: Some analysts have seen the outcome of these elections as defying the trend of Islamists using elections to gain control of governments. That judgment might be premature because Jibril said Libyan law will be based on Sharia and because he still must negotiate with Islamists to form a government.

A key point is that the Islamists now have legitimacy and can operate in the open. They are much more cohesive than the potpourri of parties that make up the NFA and are not bound to the personality of a single leader. The danger is that they will be more prepared to win the next election.


End of NightWatch ###.

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