Idlib’s Battle of Attrition between Bets and Field Reality

Opposition fighters in the northern countryside of Hama governorate - November 2017 (Enab Baladi)

Opposition fighters in the northern countryside of Hama governorate - November 2017 (Enab Baladi)


The south-eastern countryside of Idlib governorate is witnessing attrition battles between the opposition factions and Assad’s forces, as well as ally militias after the latter have arrived at the borders of Abu al-Duhur Military Airbase. The factions are trying to regain military control and win the situation through reverse attacks, efforts that the public incubator considers as insufficient to change the field reality.

To Saturday, 13 January, “Tahrir al-Sham” managed to regain control over the two towns of Talab and al-Dabshiyah, to the east of the Airbase and in the “strategic” northern Sinjar, after battles that went on for days in its vicinity, while the factions of the “Free Army” have repeated their attempts at taking over the area at the axis of the eastern countryside of Hama.

The opposition took over al-Khuraybah, al-Rabia, and Msheirfeh after they launched the “Rebel the Tyrant” campaign on the 11th of January, within which they progressed and had control over strategic villages, to lose them again within a few hours. The whole campaign was based on a bet that the opposition would be able to constrict Assad’s forces and to compel them to withdraw from the Airbase’s surrounding fearing being trapped in an enclave in its southern part.

The battles, for the first time, witnessed the participation of Turkish armored vehicles, according to photos published by “Sham Legion” on its official pages. Military sources, under the Legion, told Enab Baladi that five Turkish armored vehicles, received by the Legion about five months ago, participated in the battle.

According to military sources, informed of the battle’s plan, the opposition was counting on the withdrawal of Assad’s forces. The opposition was planning to “hit Assad’s forces from the side and to clash with them at the borders of the Airbase, to drive them into a state of confusion and force them to withdraw from its vicinity,” depending on “Assad forces’ weak fortifications of the villages previously lost by the opposition,” according to the sources.

Enab Baladi documented dozens of deaths among Assad’s forces including officers, the most important of whom were the leader of the “al-Radad” regiment within the “Fifth Legion,” Colonel Ezzedine Yaghi, from the town of Duraykish in Tartus governorate and Colonel Mahmoud Maatouq, from Fedyou in the Syrian coast. The opposition also suffered a number of casualties and captured dozens according to videos.

In the shadow of the increasing number of battles in the region, the “Islamic State” (IS) Group announced capturing elements from Assad’s forces in the surrounding of “Abu al-Duhur” Airbase, who appeared in a video broadcasted by the Group’s “Amaq” News Agency. The video was followed by a statement about new prisoners and deaths east of the Airbase, on Saturday 13 January, after the Group has passed the village of Tarfawi at the expense of “Tahrir al-Sham,” reaching a point about 15 kilometres away from the Airbase.

The joint operations room included the following factions: “Sham Legion,” “Free Idlib Army,” “Elite Army,” and “Second Army.” According to military sources, “Harakat Ahrar al-Sham,” “Jaysh al-Ahrar,” “Jaysh al-Izza,” “Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement,” and other factions have also participated in the battle.

 “Turkistan Islamic Party announced the start of a battle to regain the areas took over by Assad’s forces in the region, under the name “Allah is competent to give them victory.”

The name of the battle is a part of the Quranic verse “Permission [to fight] has been given to those who are being fought, because they were wronged. And indeed, Allah is competent to give them victory.” (22:39)

Two Axes at Southern Rural Aleppo

Assad’s forces opened two new axes at the southern countryside of Aleppo, on the 12th of January, on the eastern side of “Abu al-Duhur Airbase;” they controlled a number of villages starting with Khanasir and reaching the village of Umm al-Amad, in addition to another axis at the southern side of As-Safira city.

Assad’s forces are trying to besiege the areas under the opposition factions, which include more than 20 villages in the eastern countryside of Aleppo, within a geographical space that is about 125 square kilometres, located in the eastern side of the positions under “IS”. To January 13, a few kilometres only separated Assad’s forces from their target.

The opposition’s military tactics seemed successful at the start of the battle; however, military analysts pointed out to the difficulty of besieging Assad’s forces in the region, placing the opposition in front of the challenge to turn the battle for its advantage, amidst Syrian accusations that the opposition is “implementing the agendas of party’s with which it is affiliated.”

Did the Opposition Lose its Popular Incubator?

The notable military retreat and the opposition’s failure to curb Assad’s forces’ progress, which coincides with an almost constant internal dispute between some factions at the expense of other factions, have all affected the opinion of the popular incubator reaching a point of seperation within the villages that witnessed internal conflicts, in most of which “Tahrir al-Sham” was a major party.

Activist Khalil al-Sameh told Enab Baladi that the crisis and obstacles facing the revolution, absent protection and missing response on the part of the factions to the demands of civilians, who are requesting that the factions be joined within a unified body, affected the relationship between the people and the factions. “Withdrawals and similar happenings, which might be beyond the control of the factions, have greatly contributed to the aversion of the people and their constant reprimands due to repeated mistakes.”

Kamal Abu al-Majd, the military leader of “Ahrar al-Sham,” said that “the relationship between civilians and factions must be understood before addressing the trust issue between them.” He stressed that “the factions have been born from the revolution’s womb to defend its goals; they started doing this correctly and then controlled large areas of Syria. ”

According to Abu al-Majd, “the factions that claim to protect the people from the regime’s oppression, as we see today, are fighting among themselves to exert influence over the liberated areas, exploit the resources of the people and control their livelihoods. The factions went beyond this and started to intervene in the civil affairs and education. At the same time, there are factions who are distancing themselves, but cannot hide their affiliation to certain countries and that they are implementing their agendas at the expense of the people.”

The military leader linked the actions of the factions, who distanced themselves, to orders, which they have been receiving from “the countries of affiliation,” a thing that created a massive gap in the trust between the factions and the popular incubator. The people are now pushing their sons to leave the factions. He said that “the [people’s] view of the factions can be likened to the mother’s view of her disobedient son, who exploits her and aspires to achieve his delusions far from reality by distancing himself from his family. ”

Abu al-Majd stressed that “the revolution is greater than all and no one can represent it if the people would not support him, and this requires that the factions adopt its goals and work with its principles.”

Moataz Abu Adnan, a social activist and academician in administrative training, told Enab Baladi that the feelings of the people towards the factions take two forms, constant and changing, explaining that “the constant resulted from a difficult conviction that the factions do not represent the revolution, but they represent the entities funding them.”

He likened the changing feelings to “the feelings of a football audience,” which always applauds for the winner. “We see many people who identify with the status quo, for upon winning, they become happy and praise the winner, and upon loss, insults appear.”

Recommendations for the Factions

Ibrahim al-Dairi, a military awareness coach who worked with several opposition factions, told Enab Baladi that the popular incubator is deemed as one of the military conditions needed to achieve success, “so the factions must realize the seriousness of the matter and its consequences, and seek to preserve and strengthen the incubator by placing their fighters at the front lines and keeping them away from intervention in civil affairs.”

“The factions’ preoccupation with the fighting is the best way to ensure the people’s complete support,” according to al-Dairi. “When the people will sense that the factions are trying to preserve the liberated areas, they would be forced to support the factions even if they have failed in certain phases.”

Al-Dairei called the factions to preserve the popular incubator, pointing out that “people, to this day, have not yet reached the point of a declared objection to the factions’ presence or principles, but the people are the opposition’s capital, and its presence depends on them regardless of the military power.”

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