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Silent tactics in Idlib… Russians prepare to shoot down “drones”

The graduation of a new batch of fighters from the preparation and training camps of the "National Liberation Front" - 01 July 2020 (Enab Baladi / Yousef Ghuraibi)

The graduation of a new batch of fighters from the preparation and training camps of the "National Liberation Front" - 01 July 2020 (Enab Baladi / Yousef Ghuraibi)

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Enab Baladi – Ali Darwish – Yousef Ghuraibi

Since the Russian-Turkish ceasefire agreement came into force in 5 of last March, Idlib’s security situation on the front lines calmed down, and the battels stopped. However, the shelling by the Syrian regime forces of areas along the lines of contact did not stop, and the regions of south Idlib province witnessed several limited military operations.

Meanwhile, the “Syrian Response Coordination Group (SRCG)” has documented 1,064 ceasefire violations (provided for in the Moscow Agreement) by the regime forces and Russia.

The ceasefire violation included the targeting of the area by artillery, shells, rockets, drones, and Russian warplanes in several areas of Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo, killing 18 civilians, of whom five are children.

The regime’s bombardment of the opposition-held areas and attacks on the contact lines under the supervision and command of Russia’s Special Forces was met with the opposition’s bombing of missile launchers, regime’s positions and its affiliated militia, according to what the “National Liberation Front (NLF) ” spokesman, Naji Mustafa, told Enab Baladi.

Nevertheless, the Syrian regime and Russia went further with their attacks, as they carried out a simulator live-fire training for pilots, most of which was performed in the sky of the opposition-controlled areas.

Aerial combat training for the future battle…

New Russian-Syrian tactic

On 31 May, the Syrian regime forces received the second batch of Russian-made “MIG-29” fighter jets.

On 4 June, Syrian pilots tested the fighter jets, within the framework of technical cooperation between Russia and Syria, according to the Russian embassy in the Syrian capital, Damascus.

Activists in northern Syria documented several aerial combat training in the sky of the opposition-held areas, during which the aircraft aimed at air targets, while no ground targets were attacked.

In an interview with Enab Baladi, the retired pilot Abdul Nasser al-Ayed said that the only clear indication of extrapolating some external data, without accurate information, shows that Russia’s training for Syrian pilots on “MIG-29” fighter jets was to shoot down “unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), also known as “drones.”

According to al-Ayed, the “MIG-29” is an interceptor aircraft designed to combat airstrikes, and has no shooting missions against ground targets, for the Syrian regime’s forces are weak in this aspect. He added, the regime’s forces have little capabilities when it comes to intercepting airborne targets, especially if they were small targets such as “drones.”

The Syrian regime has not been interested in these aerial operations during the last ten years and has devoted its capabilities to bomber fighter aircraft, targeting areas under the opposition’s control by bombing ground targets.

According to al-Ayed, the Syrian regime wants to develop this aspect not only because of the possibility of facing Turkish drones; but also because it is the future battle for the regime.

Al-Ayed continued saying that all military groups (including the small ones) can possess “drones,” which led the regime to purchase the MIG-29 fighter jets despite its financial distress and poor economic situation.

Al-Ayed suggested that the regime would probably support its air force with special equipment to shoot down “drones.”

Most likely, the Syrian regime has assigned 12 or 13 pilots to practice these operations; therefore, they should have aerial training that simulates real-life combat.

The factions are training their fighters

According to the NLF’s spokesperson, Mustafa, the opposition factions have conducted several training camps for their members in the last weeks to raise the “fighter’s readiness,” improve their fighting efficiency and increase their capacity to confront the regime’s advancements or any other possible scenario.

The training was focused and intensive to train the fighters on the combat environment and the conditions of the battlefield. The training also aimed to train the opposition fighters on special and qualitative tactics to avoid the Russian airstrikes.

The “Hay’ at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS),” the dominant fighters group in Idlib, has announced the graduation of a great batch of its fighters from several military courses, including courses to enhance their combat capabilities.

HTS also announced the graduation of the largest group of its elite “Red Bands” fighters last May.

New tactic on the ground with the participation of Russian Special Forces

On 24 June, the NLF announced its response to a Russian Special Forces attack on the Bayneen axis in Jabal al-Zawiya area, south of Idlib, and despite its success, the “Sham Falcons” Brigades (linked to the NLF) mourned the death of four of its fighters as a result of the attack.

For his part, Mustafa explained to Enab Baladi that the regime forces had previously tried to infiltrate, especially on the axis of the villages of Bayneen, Hantoteen and the al-Ghab Plain; however, this attack was the first of the Russian Special Forces after the signing of the Russian-Turkish ceasefire agreement, on 5 of last March.

The following day, the Russian Special Forces, backed by the “Fifth Corps,” formed by Russia, launched two successive attacks on the axis of Jabal al-Zawiya; nevertheless, the factions foiled the attack and killed and wounded several elements of the attacking forces.

According to Mustafa, this was followed by the factions’ announcement of aborting several advancement attempts by the regime.

So far, the regime forces and Russia released no comment on these military operations.

Al-Ayed said the Russian operations in southern Idlib are a reminder from Russia that it will control the region south of the international highway, Aleppo – Lattakia (M4), and this is “undebatable.”

These operations could be training or used to prevent the creation of strong “fortifications” or bases in the opposition’s defense lines that would be difficult to overcome later.

Al-Ayed excluded the idea that the Russians would be launching extensive operations, in addition to the absence of a clear strategy or military action during the current stage.

Al-Ayed said, strategically speaking, the Russians want to control the south and part of the north of the “M4” highway to secure it, and the coming days will reveal how the Russian-Turkish agreement can be implemented, whether by agreement with Turkey, the factions or through a military operation.

On 10 March, the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said within the framework of clarifying one of the terms of the Russian-Turkish agreement, that the south of the “M4” would be under Russian control, while its north would be under Turkish supervision.

Has the opposition developed itself?

Since its intervention to help the Syrian regime in September 2015, Russian forces have used the scorched-earth approach against the opposition, targeting everything in their areas, from schools, hospitals, villages, cities, markets, and even the internally displaced people (IDPs) camps.

This caused more pressure on the military opposition factions added to the expanded attacks on the contact lines.

Russia has used tactical weapons in its recent battles, including the very advanced night vision binoculars, in addition to infantry units, sniper elements, and aerial reconnaissance devices through the “drones.”

According to Mustafa, despite the modest capabilities of the opposition factions, they used modern and special tactics to respond to the Russians’ tactics, especially during the infiltration attempts.

A field commander in the “Sham Falcons” faction affiliated to the NLF, known as “Abu Dawood,” said that Russians’ operations were conducted through highly trained Russian groups penetrating the positioning lines from behind, with extensive coverage from reconnaissance flights, depending on thermal binoculars and long-range night snipers.

After studying several operations by Russian troops and their advancement plans, opposition factions trained fighters who, according to “Abu Dawood,” were able to thwart the Russians’ attempts.

The opposition forces have set up several night-time ambushes to help detect enemy forces’ infiltration.

The factions were supplied with thermal snipers and trained elements in the back lines; their mission was to attack enemy forces during sneaking attempts.

At every detection and confrontation of enemy targets, the regime’s forces intensively bomb points of contact and fire from “drones” into any moving target, so that the attacking force pulls its dead and injured elements.

Nevertheless, in all its attempts, the regime has not controlled any areas since the “Moscow” ceasefire agreement.

According to a field military commander, who spoke to Enab Baladi on anonymity, the regime managed to control large areas after the military operations it launched in April 2019, relying on the massive military build-up to disperse the opposition factions on all fronts.

The commander said that the regime relied on heavy shelling behind the first and second lines to empty the area of its civilians, and targeted anything moving as the military campaign began within eight kilometers behind the confrontation lines.

He added the war and tactics method of the Russians and the regime depended more on the circumvention way (to control a point in return for the fall of an entire region), a new policy that the opposition factions could not deal with, and did not absorb the shock until they lost large areas.

Besides, the Russian air force depended on high-tech missiles and other advanced weapons.

The commander indicated that usually 15 days before the military campaign starts, the random preparation of the regime and Russia starts with helicopters dropping barrel bombs.

This is followed by three days of precise military aircraft preparation, targeting other headquarters, points, and lines.

As the campaign begins, the supply routes are cut off by heavy shelling and air reconnaissance.

Both the Syrian regime and Russia have taken the method of reconnaissance by force (sneaking to reveal the opposition’s positioning points, and the supply routes, especially at night, to break the enemy’s frequencies and power in the military point).

However, according to the military commander, the new warfare policy of the regime cannot be predicted.

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