Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat – For Omar, a young Damascene who lives in the popular district of Jobar, “the regime has already fallen, it no longer controls the districts except from outside”. Speaking exclusively to Asharq Al-Awsat via telephone, Omar revealed that “everyone here is waiting for the decisive moment and is hoping for the best”. He is following the conflict in the Daria district with interest, claiming “it is crucial”, adding “with the presence of more than 10,000 Free Syrian Army [FSA] elements in the city, this time Daria will not be broken, its people will not be slaughtered and its houses will not be destroyed…the FSA have learned from their mistakes”.
However, the young man, who is active in helping the FSA, expressed his concern about the potential reaction of the infamous Fourth Armored Division in the event of the fall of the regime. He said “they will not surrender Damascus even if they know their regime has fallen, they will choose to destroy it and bombard it indiscriminately”.
The Fourth Armored Division has been used in offensive missions against protestors and revolutionaries since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in 2011, and is the second most important military unit for the al-Assad regime, after the Republican Guard. Its key mission is to besiege the capital Damascus and maintain a military grip upon it. The division, with its main headquarters located in the Muhajireen district of Damascus, is led by Brigadier General Maher al-Assad, the younger brother of Bashar al-Assad who is also the commander of the Republican Guard.
For his part, a member of the Damascus Coordinating Committee for the Syrian Revolution has revealed that “Mount Kassioun, overlooking the capital, has in recent weeks transformed into the largest military barracks Damascus has ever known, pointing its artillery guns at all rural areas surrounding the capital”.
He added “the Syrian regime thinks that the rebel march upon the capital is imminent. Hence ammunition depots have been assembled in and around the capital, with the biggest being stationed on Mount Kassioun. The regime is aware that should the outskirts of the capital fall into the hands of the FSA, this would be the beginning of the end, especially after the experiments conducted by the FSA during the month of Ramadan when its front ranks penetrated Damascus regions such as Kafar Souseh and Mezzeh”.
The opposition activist stressed that “it is unlikely that the Fourth Armored Division will announce its defection from the Syrian regime the moment it collapses”, adding “it will continue to kill and bombard the capital until it has destroyed it”.
The activist attributes this to the fact that “the division’s troops are completely loyal to the current regime, in addition to the sectarian connection”. The vast majority of officers and troops in the Fourth Armored Division belong to the Alawite sect, the same sect that President Bashar al-Assad hails from.
However the activist asserted that “fear of the Fourth Armored Division’s reprisals will not prevent the revolutionaries from preparing for the battle for Damascus, which is now just around the corner”.
He added “we on the inside are preparing for this battle with all our capabilities; people have begun to stock up on medical supplies, others are drawing up plans to evacuate civilians, and others are waiting for the assault to begin”. He pointed out that “the battle will be especially bloody, so the FSA is trying now to think of a way in which to fight the conflict whilst distancing civilians from the battleground”.
The Fourth Armored Division dates back to the era of the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. It was established by his brother Rifaat al-Assad, who led the “Defense Brigades” responsible for the massacres in the city of Hama in 1982. It is believed that those brigades were incorporated into the fourth division after Rifaat al-Assad was exiled in 1984, due to a dispute with his brother over power. The Fourth Armored Division is considered the best trained and equipped military entity within the Syrian army, possessing the latest heavy weaponry such as Russian T-72 tanks, whilst estimates suggest it has around 20,000 cadres.
According to activists, the division’s tanks have taken part in violent attacks on Syrian cities, especially the city of Homs, where districts such as Babr Amr have been exposed to widespread destruction. A number of Alawite officers from the Fourth Armored Division are also reportedly deployed in other military formations, especially those with Sunni majorities, in order to prevent defections.