Until Saturday the 20th of December, Assad’s forces and ally militias have achieved a relatively fast progress in the eastern countryside of Hama and southern countryside of Idlib, seeking to reach Abu al-Duhur Military Airbase, which is less than 20 kilometers away from its nearest strongholds.
Some people have criticized and accused the opposition of surrendering areas or retreating from them. However, others linked the Assad’s force’s progress to the undeclared outputs of “Astana” talks, which ensure that the area east of the railway, would be demilitarized and under the protection of Russia which backs Assad’s forces with its air forces during their battles.
In the shadow of the uncertainty that is enveloping the area’s destiny in the few coming days, along with Assad’s forces imposition of their control through it, inquiries started to appear concerning the forces’ ability to arrive at Abu al-Duhor Airbase and the military power that the opposition owns to face attacks and prevent Assad’s forces from capturing the Airbase.
On Saturday the 6th of December, Assad’s Forces have reached the frontiers of the town of Sinjar, about 16 kilometers away from the Airbase after they have controlled the towns of al-Webdah, Nasreyah, Tal Amara, Hawa, Umm Mweilat, Sheikh Barakeh in the south-eastern countryside of Idlib governorate
Abu al-Duhur Airbase is located in the eastern part of Idlib. On the 9th of September 2015, “Al-Nusra Front,” under “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” (HTS) by the current name Fateh al-Sham, controlled the Airbase.
Abu al-Duhur’s importance lies in its being one of the largest airports in northern Syria and one of the most prominent Airbases in Syria.
Opposition Tries to Absorb Assad Forces’ Attacks
The opposition factions have admitted the military power of the Syrian regime and its allies, according to Colonel Mohammad Ibrahim, the former military leader of “Fastaqim Union,” who is informed about the events of the current battle. “The military condition of the regime is strong due to its owning modern reconnaissance aircrafts and that the people of the area are fighting for him,” he said.
Local militias, from the areas’ villages, on top of which are the ones affiliated to the former MP in the Syrian People’s Assembly, Sheikh Ahmed Mubarak al-Darwish, from the village Abu Dali, have participated in the battle supporting “Tiger Forces” led by Brigadier General in Assad’s Forces, Suheil al-Hassan .
The opposition Colonel expected that the regime would not be able to keep the same tempo, for “its forces would become exhausted and would take time to steady their strongholds, as well as rearrange their cards. This was what the opposition had to exploit to absorb the first attack, considered as the most important and ferocious at a military level, which allowed it to prepare points to confront the upcoming attacks,” he confirmed.
The Opposition’s Military Situation
Enab Baladi interviewed a “high-level” military source in an operations’ room in the southern countryside of Idlib governorate, who wished not to mention his name and said that he believes that the regime would collapse militarily in the long-term, attributing that to the exhaustion of its forces due to former years’ battles.
As for the opposition’s military situation, the sources explained that “the current tactic which the factions are following in reverting the attacks is useless, for they are counting on withdrawal due to the hard shelling and then going back to regain the points. This is impossible, as the area into which the regime enters is rapidly fortified.”
As for the military solutions that would help the opposition not to lose the whole area and preserve its fortifications, he pointed out to “the necessity of starting an actual fortification process for the defense lines and preparing various defense lines, so in case the first line falls the one behind it would be ready.”
The military sources linked the above mentioned information to the importance of indulging in a real operations’ room that takes the responsibility for offense and defense tasks, at the disposal of which the factions place all their capabilities. He pointed out that the sun of the room is actually rising, and there would be actual steps to implement it in the upcoming days.”
The source confirmed that “Ahrar al-Sham and Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement’s recent participation in the battle, and placing their dispute with Tahrir al-Sham aside is auspicious. Their entry to the area of Atshan came in the overtime when the area was empty of fighters and Assad’s forces would have had the chance to reach Khan Shaykhun through it.”
The factions are preparing to work on other axes, and according to military analysts, the opposition lost most of the areas under its control due to the lack of coordination, a thing that happened in many areas in the past period as military sources said.
Would Assad’s Forces Reach Abu al-Duhur Airbase?
Colonel Mohamed Ibrahim said that the regime can reach the Airbase because of the lack of anti-air warfare missiles and the absence of good coordination and appropriate engineering equipment for the strongholds, referring to “disputes between many military forces on the ground.”
He pointed out that “the supportive countries abandonment of the revolution, the Security Council and Arab countries’ overlooking of the regime, Russia and Iran’s actions, as well as other agreements,” contributed to the dispersion of the faction’s military force.
In his interview with Enab Baladi, Abbas al-Homsi, the military commander of “Ahrar al-Sham,” said that “the regime would not be able to reach the Airbase if the operations to revert its attacks were at least moderately militarily strong. Nothing is impossible in relation to the military situation on the ground.”
The geography of the area is a source of help for both parties’ progress; however, the regime’s dependence on the scorched earth policy forms a “two-edged sword.” According to this, the opposition can now steady its points and begin rapid military operations to recover what it has lost, according to opposition military sources.
The absence of “fierce” battles, according to Ibrahim, helped slow down the movement of rival factions in the past few days, making coordination difficult. However, some are optimistic about the preparations for starting the joint operations room and the coordination to face the attack.
Current data indicate Assad’s military superiority, and according to Enab Balad’s sources, the opposition is now moving to form a separate operations room dedicated to preparing offensive plans in an effort to restore the villages and areas it has lost.
Why Assad’s Forces are heading to Abu al-Duhur Airbase?
There are many inquiries about the reasons that turned Abu al-Duhur into a military target for Assad’s forces. The military consultant in the “Free Army,” Ibrahim al-Idilbi, in a former time told Enab Baladi, that the regime aims to control it, which means, cutting Aleppo-Damascus road with the weapons’ force from the point placed in Saraqib, at a distance of about 20 kilometres.
Back then, al-Idilbi explained that the Airbase’ area and its surrounding are all planes which allow, in terms of geography, any military party which controls the Airbase to progress towards Saraqib in 24 hours.
According to the on-ground image, Assad’s forces are trying to circumvent the eastern area towards the Damascus-Aleppo International Road, known, according to “Astana,” as a “demilitarized zone,” including Saraqib and the international highway.
Colonel Haitham al-Afisi, deputy chief of staff of the newly formed “National Army” in the area of the “Euphrates Shield” north of Aleppo, said on Thursday the 4th of January that the future work is about easing the pressure on Idlib and Hama factions.
According to what al-Afisi added in his interview with Enab Baladi, “the idea of participation is under discussion; when the state of alert is announced the operations will start and we will declare the step.”
The Deputy Chief of Staff pointed out that “there are factions that follow the national army in the villages of Hama and Idlib and participate in the battles,” but did not specify those factions and did not mention the ways through which battles in southern Idlib would be entered.
UN Warns of Worsening Humanitarian Conditions
The United Nations Humanitarian Coordination Organization (OCHA) estimates that Idlib’s population, controlled by the Syrian opposition, consists of more than 2.65 million people, including 1.16 million internally displaced persons.
In its annual report issued on Thursday (January 4th), the organization warned of the deteriorating humanitarian conditions of at least 1.73 million Syrians living in the northwestern region of Syria and classified them as needing immediate humanitarian assistance.
The fighting in southern Idlib and north-east of Hama led to the displacement of more than 60,000 people between November 1 and December 24, particularly from the towns of al-Saan, Hamra, Uqayribat, Al-Tamanah and Sinjar.