Northwestern Syria offensive (April 2019–present)

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Northwestern Syria offensive (April 2019–present)
Part of the Syrian Civil War
2019 Northwestern Syria Offensive.svg
Map of the offensive
Date30 April 2019 – present
(3 weeks and 6 days)
Location
Northwestern Syria
Status

Ongoing

  • The Syrian Army captures the strategic towns of Kafr Nabudah, Qalaat al-Madiq, as well as two dozen villages and several hills from rebel forces[7][8]
  • The rebels temporarily recapture Kafr Nabudah on 22 May,[9] before losing it again on 26 May[10]
Belligerents

 Syria
 Russia
Allied militias:

Conquest of Damascus Operation Room (formed 9 May)[2]

National Front for Liberation
Ansar al-Sham[3]
Ahrar al-Sharqiya[4]
Jaysh al-Islam[5]
Turkey
Commanders and leaders

Maj. Gen. Maher al-Assad
Brig .Gen. Suheil al-Hassan
Colonel Ghiath Dalla

Colonel Bashar Ratabah [11]
Colonel Hassan Habib (POW)
Abdul Kareem al-Sulayman (POW)
Abu Mohammad al-Julani[12]
Osama Hussein al-Dib 
Maj. Jamil al-Saleh
Units involved

 Syria

 Russia

Conquest of Damascus Operation Room

National Front for Liberation

Casualties and losses
269 killed[17] 309 killed[17]
236 civilians killed[17]

The northwestern Syria offensive, codenamed "Dawn of Idlib", is a military operation launched on 30 April 2019 by the Syrian Armed Forces and its allies in northwest Hama, southern Idlib and northeastern Latakia against rebel groups in northwestern Syria during the Syrian Civil War.

Background[edit]

In late 2018, a demilitarization deal was brokered between Russia, Iran, and Turkey. The deal set up a demilitarized zone (DMZ) entirely within rebel-held areas, encompassing the entire contact line between the two sides. The deal required the al-Qaeda-linked jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and other Islamist rebel groups to withdraw from the zone entirely. The HTS-run Syrian Salvation Government would then be dissolved. The more moderate and Turkish-backed National Front for Liberation (NFL) was allowed to remain within the demilitarized zone, but had to withdraw all heavy weapons from it, including tanks, multiple rocket launcher artillery, mortars and more. Turkey would establish military observation posts on the rebel side of the contact zone, while Russia and Iran would do likewise on the government side. Furthermore, the rebel groups had to open and ensure unrestricted civilian access through the M4 and M5 highways that span across the rebel-held Idlib Governorate.

The deal, however, was not fully implemented. In early 2019, Tahrir al-Sham launched an offensive against the National Front for Liberation, asserting control over almost the entirety of rebel-held Greater Idlib. The NFL struck a peace deal with HTS, ending the fighting between the two groups and allowing HTS to take over the Idlib region. Counter to the terms of the demilitarization deal, the HTS-run Syrian Salvation Government was not dissolved and instead extended its rule to all of the recently HTS-captured areas, including those within the demilitarized zone. The M4 and M5 highways were never reopened.[18] The deadline for HTS withdrawal from the DMZ was extended multiple times to allow more time for Turkey to broker a political deal, but the withdrawal never took place.[19] This led to HTS and Syrian government elements stationed along the deconfliction line to frequently exchange artillery fire and shelling, undermining any ceasefire terms brokered in the demilitarization deal.

In late April 2019, the Syrian and Russian air forces undertook an extended air campaign against the rebel groups still residing within the DMZ. The campaign was supported by artillery and missile fire from the Syrian Army (SAA).[20] The Russian government declared that the deal was not implemented by the rebel groups, hence justifying military action.[21]

The offensive[edit]

Opening advances[edit]

On 30 April, the situation in the region escalated when large numbers of Syrian Army troops were redeployed to Hama and Idlib provinces after getting approval to launch an offensive against the rebel-held "Greater Idlib" region.[22][23] The same day, heavy Syrian government and Russian airstrikes were launched throughout northwestern Syria in preparation for an upcoming ground offensive.[24][25][26] The strikes were launched three days after HTS attacks on government positions along the frontline left 22 pro-government fighters dead.[25][27] On the first day of the bombardment, the Syrian and Russian air forces launched their largest attack of the year, targeting dozens of towns and villages along the Hama-Idlib axis.[28] Rebel targets were also hit in the western countryside of Aleppo.[29]

On 6 May, after six days of intensive airstrikes on the region by Syrian and Russian warplanes, the Syrian Army launched its ground assault against HTS and NFL-held areas in northern Hama and southern Idlib. The Syrian government stated that the assault was provoked by increased rebel attacks on government-held areas originating from within the DMZ. The Idlib-based rebel groups stated that they believed the goal of the offensive was to capture the M4 and M5 highways in the Idlib Governorate.[30][31][32][33] The National Defence Forces (NDF) released images on social media showing mobile rocket artillery vehicles with NDF emblems purportedly targeting rebel positions.[34]

On 7 May, Syrian government forces captured the villages of Tel Othman, al-Bani and al-Janabara. They also targeted various HTS, NFL and Jaysh al-Izza rebel positions with missiles and artillery.[35][36][37] The pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) war monitor reported that at least 69 civilians and 41 rebels had been killed since the beginning of the escalation.[38] The Russian Air Force intensified airstrikes against the rebels in response to missiles and mortar shells that reportedly had been fired against Russia's Khmeimim Air Base the previous day by unidentified militants.[39][40] The Syrian Army reported that it had killed 15 rebels in the previous day, while losing 11 servicemen.[41][42]

On 8 May, the Syrian Army captured the town of Kafr Nabudah after a brief battle.[43][44][45] Pro-government media released footage showing armor belonging to the Tiger Forces maneuvering inside the town.[46] The SAA also reportedly advanced from northeast Latakia, capturing Point 1154 in Jabal Zuwayqat.[47][48] The Russian Defence Ministry reported that the Khmeimim Air Base had once again been targeted with missiles fired from within the DMZ by groups which they identified as Katiba Ard al-Bab and Katiba Jabel Butma (both of which are considered terrorist groups by Russia). All 12 missiles fired at the base were reportedly shot down by its anti-air defenses, causing no casualties or damage. The positions from which the missiles were fired were then bombed by Russian warplanes and SAA artillery.[49] After pro-government forces captured the town of Kafr Nabudah, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham launched a counterattack at night with an SVBIED spearheading the attack, followed by an armed assault on positions held by the Tiger Forces; after hours of fighting, HTS claimed to have retaken the town, however this claim was denied by the SAA.[50]

On 9 May, the Syrian Army captured the town of Qalaat al-Madiq,[7] as well as the villages of Tell Huwash, Al-Tuwainah and Al-Karkat from rebel forces.[51] The Syrian Army later asserted its control over the village of Shariah, as well as Tal al-Sakhr and its surrounding farms.[52] An NFL spokesman announced the group's withdrawal from the area, stating that Qalaat al-Madiq was already militarily lost for them by that point. The Syrian and Russian air forces continued to target rebel positions in northwestern Syria with airstrikes.[53] On the same day, despite declaring a withdrawal from the town of Qalaat al-Madiq, the National Front for Liberation destroyed a Syrian army tank in the village with an ATGM.[54] Later in the day, in response to government advances, 20 groups including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the Guardians of Religion Organization, Ahrar al-Sham, multiple Free Syrian Army formations and groups part of the National Front for Liberation formed the "Conquest of Damascus Operation Room" to counter the government's offensive.[55]

On 10 May, joint rebel forces, spearheaded by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, launched a counterattack to recapture Kafr Nabudah. The rebels encountered stiff Syrian Army resistance, sparking fierce clashes. They came under heavy fire from airstrikes and government artillery. Syrian state media stated that the counterattack was repelled by government forces.[56][57] Rebel forces did, however, manage to take the villages of Shariah and Ard al-Bab,[58][59] posting videos on Twitter and Telegram to corroborate their claims.

On 11 May, the Syrian army recaptured the village of Shariah, amid heavy air and artillery strikes that targeted rebel positions.[60] The Syrian army also captured the villages of Arima and Midan Ghazal, following clashes with HTS.[61][62] The pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that up to that point the Syrian government had managed to capture at least 9 villages.[63] Later that day, the Syrian army captured three more villages - al-Jamaziya, Bab al-Taqa and Mustariha.[64][65]

On 12 May, rebel groups shelled the government-controlled town of Al-Suqaylabiyah in retaliation for the offensive, causing 6 civillian casualties, including a woman and five children.[66][67][68] The Russian Air Force responded by launching several airstrikes against rebel positions.[68] On the same day the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham affiliated Syrian Salvation Government announced the creation of the "Popular Resistance" to organize civilian militias under its command to assist in defending rebel held areas from the government's offensive.[69]

On 13 May, the Syrian Army recaptured Tell Huwash after briefly losing control over it during a rebel counterattack. It also captured the villages of al-Hawash and Al-Jabriyah after clashes with HTS and the NFL.[70] Shortly thereafter, the Syrian army captured the villages of Tuba and Sheikh Idris from rebel forces.[71][72] Jaysh al-Izza, backed by the NFL and HTS, launched a counterattack on the Hamamiyat front, south of Kafr Nabudah, and also reportedly shelled the city of Al-Suqaylabiyah again, with Syrian state media reporting one civilian was killed and five wounded.[73] The SOHR reported the clashes in Hamamiyat, al-Jabin and on the outskirts of Karnaz had stopped after the withdrawal of the rebel groups from the area, signalling the failure of the counterattack.[74] Later, a local source reported that rebel groups recaptured Sheikh Idris.[75]

On 14 May, Syrian Army forces began advancing deeper into the Ghab Plain. By the end of the day, the SAA had captured the villages of al-Mujahirin, al-Hamra, and a nearby airstrip.[76][77]

On 15 May, the SAA captured the entire al-Huwayz area, including all three towns located at the southwestern slope of Zawiya Mountain.[78][79]

On 16 May, HTS forces repelled a Syrian Army infiltration attempt on the Kabani axis in Latakia, killing and wounding several SAA soldiers. HTS released images of the operation, showing artillery and mortars bombarding government troops.[80] The failed infiltration was in support of the Syrian Army's upcoming major assault to capture the strategic town of Kabani, set to be spearheaded by the 42nd Brigade (Ghiath Forces) of the 4th Armored Division, and to be supported by the Tiger Forces. The SAA has launched a number of attacks on Kabani over the last two weeks, but were repelled each time, with several casualties reported.[81]

On 17 May, the SAA massed troops for the expected assault on Kabani, while rebel positions within and around the town were hit numerous times by government artillery and Russian airstrikes.[82] They were expected to meet resistance from fighters loyal to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria (TIP).[81]

Three-day ceasefire and rebel counteroffensive[edit]

On 18 May, the Syrian Army declared a three-day ceasefire and put the offensive on hold.[83][84] The National Front for Liberation stated that it will reject all ceasefire proposals unless the Syrian army returns all "occupied" areas to rebel control.[85][86] Several hours later, the Turkistan Islamic Party claimed an ATGM strike on a Syrian Army BMP, demonstrating the group's rejection of the ceasefire.[87] On 19 May, the Russian Centre for Reconciliation in Syria reported that rebel groups had conducted 13 attacks on government positions since the start of the ceasefire, leading to 3 injuries among SAA servicemen. It further stated that rebel attacks on Russia's Khmeimim Air Base had not ceased, noting 12 attacks on the airbase in the past month.[88] On the same day Ahrar al-Sharqiya, a group composed of exiles mostly from the Deir ez-Zor Governorate, announced they were sending reinforcements to Idlib and Hama to assist the rebels in fighting pro-government forces.

By 21 May, the reprieve had ended. The Russian Ministry of Defence stated that the rebel groups had not respected the ceasefire.[89] SAA and NDF units attempted to advance on Kabani, but were repelled by HTS and TIP forces.[90] Various rebel groups staged a joint attack on government-held areas near al-Hamimiat and al-Jabin, but were repelled by the SAA. Syrian forces launched large scale air, artillery and missile strikes on various rebel positions.[91][92][93][94] A second counteroffensive was launched by the NFL, storming several pro-government positions with HTS deploying an SVBIED as well; no advances were reported by either side.[95][96] The chief of the Russian Centre for Reconciliation in Syria stated that HTS forces were continuing their advance on Kafr Nabudah into the evening, with HTS deploying several SVBIEDs and tanks in the assault.[97] Meanwhile, HTS claimed to have captured an SAA colonel named Hassan Habib during the offensive against the town.[98] By the end of the day, rebel forces had successfully recaptured Kafr Nabudah after pushing government forces out of the town after a second assault. A media agency linked to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham published photos of the group's fighters in the city and the NFL also posted photos of its fighters advancing in the outskirts of the city.[99][100][101] A commander of the Syrian army's Tiger Forces, named Abdul Kareem al-Sulayman, was also captured by rebel forces.[102][better source needed]

On 22 May, both the Syrian and Russian air forces carried out numerous airstrikes on rebel targets.[103][104] Pro-government media reported that the SAA was able to establish a presence in Kafr Nabudah, after launching a counterattack against the rebel offensive, however the town still remained under rebel control.[105] The NFL and Jaysh al-Izza released images on social media, purporting to show their involvement in the attack on the town with T-62 and T-72 tanks, as well as Turkish-made Panthera F9 armored vehicles.[106] Pro-government media reported that HTS mounted an attack on Qalaat al-Madiq, the second town recently captured by the Syrian Army. Concurrently, it reported that the SAA had advanced into Kafr Nabudah, but encountered heavy resistance from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham fighters that had entrenched themselves in the northern part of the town.[107] On the same day, the Russian defence ministry reported that the SAA had managed to repel a separate HTS assault, in which 200 HTS fighters, with four IFVs, attempted to capture the village of Al-Hayrat.[108] Russia also claimed that pro-government forces were able to inflict 150 casualties on the rebel groups that took part in the offensive within the previous 24 hours.[109] The National Defence Forces released a video showing their Mhardeh division taking part in the battle for Kafr Nabudah.[110] Russia's defence ministry reported that rebel forces had launched 4 missiles at Russia's Khmeimim Air Base and Hama Military Airport at around 19:00 and later targeted the Al-Zarah electric power plant with drones, dropping five bombs on it. It stated that all missiles targeting the airbase had been successfully shot down and the launcher from which they originated was destroyed by Russian aircraft, while the power plant sustained minor damage.[111] By nightfall, Syrian helicopters were bombing rebel positions in the northern part of the town.[112] Meanwhile, in response to suspected Syrian government attacks on a Turkish observation post in recent days, Turkish defense minister Hulusi Akar stated that Turkey will not evacuate its observation posts in Greater Idlib amid the offensive.[113] The Syrian Army reported having killed an HTS commander named Osama Hussein al-Dib in an ambush operation.[114]

On 23 May, Syrian and Russian forces launched a large-scale campaign of airstrikes and numerous missile and heavy artillery strikes against various rebel positions across all three governorates, including against Kafr Nabudah.[115][116][117][118][119] Syrian Minister of Electricity, Muhammad Kharboutli, stated that the damage done the previous day to the Al-Zarah thermal electric power plant was by then fully repaired and the plant continued providing electricity to Syria's northern regions.[111] The battle for Kafr Nabudah continued, with airstrikes intensifying throughout the day.[120] A Sky News team reported coming under fire from SAA tanks while filming a burning vehicle, after it had entered into HTS-held areas along the contact line. The news team had been guided by pro-HTS activist Bilal Abdul Kareem, who insisted on "telling the story from the rebels point of view". Kareem was injured by shrapnel and returned with the uninjured members of the news team to the abandoned rebel-held town of Khan Shaykhun. The team stated one of their members was wearing a marked flak jacket, while the others were wearing unmarked clothes.[121] The SAA withdrew from the southern part of Kafr Nabudah after an unsuccessful attempt to breach rebel defense lines in the town's north. It has since concentrated on bombing rebel positions in and around the town in preparation for a potential future assault to recapture the town, a prospect made difficult by ongoing rebel control of several hills overlooking the town.[122] By the end of the day, clashes in Kafr Nabudah killed 17 combatants, 11 of them Islamist rebels, with over 100 combatants being killed in Kafr Nabudah since 21 May, according to the SOHR.[123]

On 24 May, Syrian helicopters reportedly dropped leaflets over rebel-held towns in the Idlib countryside, urging residents to leave the province entirely, in order to "protect their lives".[124] Pro-government forces continued their intensive air, missile and heavy artillery bombardment against numerous rebel positions.[125][126][127][128] The National Front for Liberation bombed Syrian Army positions in Buraydij, as well as positions of Russian forces near Hayalin with BM-21 Grad MLRS and heavy artillery.[129] Rebel forces claimed destroying a Syrian Army tank on the Tell Huwash front with an ATGM;[130] Jaysh al-Izza reported destroying a pro-government rocket launcher near Mughair in northern Hama.[131] The Syrian Army again attempted to storm Kabani, but withdrew after encountering heavy Tahrir al-Sham and Turkistan Islamic Party resistance.[132][133] The Russian pro-government news agency ANNA News reported that pro-government forces had taken up positions 2 kilometers from Kafr Nabudah and were preparing a "careful" attack on the town.[134][135] Government and Russian bombardments of various rebel positions continued troughout the evening.[136][137][138]

Several Turkish military convoys arrived at the Turkish observation posts near the rebel-held villages of Sarman and Sher Maghar.[139][140] Pro-government media claimed that Turkish observation posts within the DMZ were used to provide logistical and artillery support to rebel groups, including HTS and TIP.[141] The Syrian Tiger Forces released images of Turkish-made Panthera F9 armored vehicles being used by rebel groups (the rebels themselves have published images of the Panthera F9 in prior assaults);[124] the Tiger Forces reported destroying two such vehicles.[142] A week prior, reports had emerged that Turkey was supplying ATGMs to various rebel groups during the offensive.[143] A senior rebel commander stated that Turkey had again given the rebel forces ATGMs, as well as artillery ammunition, two days prior to the rebel counterattack on Kafr Nabudah.[144]

On 25 May, Russian and Syrian forces continued their bombardment campaign against rebel-held areas and positions throughout the day.[145][146][147][148]

On 26 May, following intensive bombardment[149] and violent clashes with rebel forces,[150] the Syrian Army recaptured Kafr Nabudah.[10] Pro-government forces released images on social media taken from within the town, as well as images depicting a Tiger Forces commander named Ali Zakaria Dibo, who was reportedly killed during the assault on the town.[151][152] Pro-government air and artillery strikes on various rebel positions in northern Hama and southern Idlib continued with increasing intensity, with the SOHR reporting 26 May to be the heaviest day of airstrikes since the start of the offensive.[153][154] The airstrikes reportedly caused significant damage to Tahrir al-Sham's defenses in the region.[155] Rebel forces launched a nighttime counterattack on the Kafr Nabudah front.[citation needed]

Alleged chemical attack[edit]

On 22 May, four Hayat Tahrir al-Sham fighters claimed to have been injured by chlorine gas munitions launched by pro-government forces three days prior, on Sunday 19 May.[156] The Russian Defence Ministry accused HTS of staging a fake chemical attack.[157] The head of the Russian Centre for Reconciliation in Syria claimed that, according to captured HTS fighters, HTS had developed a "chemical wing" tasked with the creation of chemical weapons for a false flag attack that would then be blamed on the Syrian government.[158] The Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates denied the allegations, stating that no chemical weapons had been used and adding that Syria "had cooperated fully with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) which declared Syria free of chemical weapons".[159][160][161] The pro-oppositon White Helmets stated that "there was no confirmation of the attack"[162], while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights stated that there was "no proof at all" that any kind of chemical attack had been carried out.[163][164][165]

The United States government stated it would "investigate" whether the Syrian government used alleged chemical weapons and threatened to "respond quickly" should the claims be confirmed.[156] The United Kingdom stated that they would "respond" if any chemical weapons were proven to have been used.[166] The French government said that it had "noted the allegations with concern".[167] U.S. Special Envoy for the Syrian conflict, James Franklin Jeffrey, later stated to the United States House of Representatives foreign relations committee that the attack allegations could not be confirmed.[168] The U.S., UK, and France have launched limited attacks on the Assad government in response to alleged chemical attacks in prior years, particularly the 2017 Shayrat missile strike and the 2018 missile strikes.

Reactions[edit]

Supranational[edit]

National[edit]

  •  France − French President Emmanuel Macron expressed "great concern" for the escalation of violence and urged the parties to find a UN-brokered political solution.[172]
  •  Germany − Germany's deputy foreign minister Christofer Burger condemned the escalation of violence in Idlib saying, “We condemn heavy bombings that targeted the humanitarian infrastructure,” adding that some of the facilities targeted in the airstrikes received German funding, and that they were reportedly hit with barrel bombs, Burger also stated “Any military action [against terrorist groups] must be in compliance with international law, the civilian population must be protected,”.[173]
  •  Russia − Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov stated that "most of Idlib is controlled by terrorist groups, which are continuing to target civillians and carrying out provocations against the Syrian Army, which cannot be allowed", adding that he thought "the nest of terrorists [in Idlib] must be uprooted".[174][175]
  •  Turkey - The Turkish minister of defense, Hulusi Akar stated that Syrian forces should withdraw to areas agreed upon with the Astana Agreement, he also claimed that the offensive was creating a catastrophic humanitarian crisis. Akar called upon Russia to halt the government's offensive by saying, “We expect Russia to take effective and determined measures to make regime forces stop their attacks on the south of Idlib and immediately return to the borders set by the Astana agreement.”[176]
  •  United States - Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said regarding the offensive, "Any major operation into Idlib would be a reckless escalation of the conflict." Other US officials have claimed that the offensive is an 'Apocalyptic Scenario' for civilians and internally displaced people residing in the area.[177]
  •  India - On an official visit to Damascus on 22 May, officials serving in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs published a statement in which they "reiterated the need to respect Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity", condemned "all forms of terrorism" and resolved to work together with Syria in the country's post-war reconstruction.[178]
  •  Syria - Syria's permanent representative to the United Nations, Bashar Jaafari, stated on 23 May that the Syrian government would continue "fighting terrorism and protecting citizens from its danger". He added that the Syrian government had managed to "restore security and stability to regions which were seized by terrorist groups" and was working in coordination with the UN Special Envoy for Syria.[179]

Non-state organizations[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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