Fighting has been now raging in neighbourhoods of Damascus for more than three days. Even a quick look at an interactive map of the fighting, posted on Monday, established that the regime has a serious challenge on its hands, as it has been unable to dislodge insurgent fighters from the southern part of the capital:
View Syria - 2012 July 16 - EA Worldview in a larger map
EA's in-depth assessment of the Free Syrian Army, posted last Wednesday, assessed that the regime is now weak enough that it is vulnerable to a sudden takeover of the capital, for example through a series of surprise insurgent attacks. So is this the Battle for Damascus?
Probably not, at least not yet. What we are not seeing is heavy casualties on either side. We are not seeing large swings in control territory. We are not seeing extremely heavy firefights. This does not look like an epic battle to the finish.
What we are seeing are widespread skirmishes that have shut down most of the capital.The Guardian, asking the same question as us, has spoken to two activists. One man, a resident of Barzeh, says:
These clashes in the capital mark a new stage in the Syrian revolution. It is close now.
The regime has tried hard in the last year and half to make Damascus [isolated] from what's going on outside - to make Damascus quiet. They succeeded in the past, but yesterday there was shelling here, and [today] there was shelling on al-Qaboon and shelling on the south. Suddenly Damascus is in the centre of the action.
Inside Barzeh there is no sign of government presence. I think they don't dare to fight here. They are stuck in Midan and Qaboon. They are too busy to come here. They used to storm my neighbourhood three times a week
Another man, reportedly the head of the Revolution Leadership Council in Damascus, shares our assessment that, while important, these fights will not likely result in the fall of Damascus. But, he adds, the fighting could spread.
Then he gives interesting details:
The Free Syrian Army didn't start this fight. It was an operation by the army to put pressure on demonstrators, and the Free Syrian Army.
There are threats from regime forces that they will bombard the southern part of the city - they have stationed tanks and artillery in the southern parts of the city.
Yet others in the opposition are ready to take this fight to Assad's palace, however, and at least one commander has stated that this is the beginning of the battle for Damascus.
One of the grey areas of this conflict is that the Free Syrian Army views itself as the protector for pro-democracy protests, protests which are by and large peaceful. However, those demonstrations are consistently fired upon by Assad forces, which has prompted the Free Syrian Army fighters to provide an escort. That in turn gives the regime an incentive to confront the protesting crowds, as there are now armed insurgents present.
Even protesters who do not want to see an insurgency appear to support the Free Syrian Army. Groups committed to nonviolence are organising rallies in the streets of Damascus, often a few hundred meters from gun battles between the FSA and regime forces. Those lines blur further when protesters, as they did yesterday, light fires or establish roadblocks to prevent the Assad military from arriving on the scene.
Conclusion? When the violence escalates, it will escalate exponentially, and civilians will be caught in the crossfire.