Rationales for the Syrian regime’s military escalation in northwestern Syria
Enab Baladi-Ali Darwish
Northwestern Syria has been seeing a military escalation since 5 June, which led to a fresh wave of displacement from the southern countryside of Idlib, amid increasing fears of a ground military operation.
People in northwestern Syria have become accustomed to the tactics of the Syrian regime and its allies, Russia and Iran, before conducting a large-scale combat operation. The regime usually begins with artillery shelling of civilian areas and infrastructure behind contact lines, then moves to bomb and cut off supply routes, and finally intensifies airstrikes and advances on the ground.
Northwestern Syria is subject to a ceasefire agreement between Turkey and Russia, which has been incessantly violated since it was first signed.
Since the beginning of this year until May, the opposition’s Syrian Civil Defence (SCD) teams have responded to more than 420 attacks by Russia and the regime, which killed 53 people, including 10 children and nine women, and injured 136 others.
Since 5 June, the regime has increased its bombing of opposition-held areas. The escalation was unprecedented, causing daily casualties and displacing approximately 1,867 civilians, according to a statement by the Syrian Response Coordination Group (SRCG).
Ruling out a large scale military action
Nawar Shaʽban, the director of the Information Unit at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, ruled out an expanded military action against the opposition-held areas for “logistical and international” reasons.
However, at this stage, the regime is “randomly” targeting the opposition factions’ defenses in addition to logistics and infrastructure in opposition-held areas to weaken, exhaust, and disperse certain defenses, Shaʽban told Enab Baladi.
He added that if the regime could advance in a specific area, no matter how small it is, it would be considered a win.
The Syrian regime returned to its previous position before the presidential elections by increasing its bombardment on several fronts in opposition-controlled areas, while launching security campaigns and putting pressure on loyalist businessmen in its areas, including Damascus, Homs, and Daraa.
In turn, Observatory-80, which specializes in tracking military flights, reported to Enab Baladi that the Syrian regime has not sent any military reinforcements to northwestern Syria. Besides, there are not any practical indicators of military actions, except for locations suspected by Iran and Russia that the regime hit.
The recent bombing cannot be regarded as “preparatory” for a military operation if compared to the bombing that preceded the military operation in February 2019, which ended by Russia-Turkey ceasefire agreement, signed on 5 March 2020, according to Observatory-80.
Observatory-20, which operates in the northern countryside of Hama, stated that some Iranian militants and Russian troops were recently trained in the Salma area, northeast of Latakia, and were brought to the village of Jurin in the al-Ghab Plain, northwest of Hama.
The trained forces were deployed from Jurin to al-Sarmaniyah and al-Jab Al-Ahmar, east of Latakia, while the regime withdrew its infantry personnel.
Observatory-20 told Enab Baladi that the regime installed anti-armor bases (MD) to launch rockets, cannons, and tank guns from Jurin.
Major Maher Mawas, the leader of the National Liberation Front (NLF), told Enab Baladi that the regime’s military has been boosting its presence in the area since the military campaign last year. The regime deployed reinforcements to several fronts: Jabal al-Zawiya, al-Ghab Plain, and the Syrian Coast, targeting military barracks and exerting pressure by bombing civilians.
Major Maher Mawas considers all the above-mentioned points as an indication of political goals or a military campaign to gain new lands.
However, the major described the opposition factions’ fortifications as “good” compared to the previous military campaign, given they would rely on Turkish support if battles broke out on the ground.
Turkey provides its support to the Syrian National Army (SNA)— which consists of three corps and enjoys influence in rural Aleppo, and the National Liberation Front (NLF), which operates in Idlib, and rural areas in Aleppo, Hama, and Latakia.
It is noteworthy that NLF is part of the Fatah al Mubeen Operations Room alongside Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Jaysh al-Izza.
In the previous military campaign, after its intervention in late February and early March 2020, Turkey supported the opposition’s military factions using drones and stopped the regime’s advance until the Moscow agreement was signed.
The regime has recently made changes to some of the commanders of the corps and territorial divisions stationed around Jabal al-Zawiya, al-Ghab Plain, and the coastal area. In fact, Russia induced these changes by selecting commanders who have long experience in combat, according to Major Maher Mawas.
Military escalation ahead of international political meetings
Two meetings are scheduled for June between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Biden. Several issues, including the Syrian affair, are on these meetings’ agendas.
The Security Council is expected to hold a meeting next July to tackle the issue of cross-border humanitarian aid, which Russia seeks to confine to the regime by closing the Bab al-Hawa Border Crossing with Turkey, the last of the crossings outside the regime’s control.
The purpose of closing Bab al-Hawa Border Crossing is to limit the delivery of aid to the Syrian regime, which might open internal crossings to deliver aid to target areas or withhold aid to take revenge on the Syrian people by using aid for commercial purposes.
Jusoor for Studies Center, in an analysis of the causes and motives of the field escalation in Idlib and its future, stated that the recent escalation has negotiating objectives and is an attempt to advance the course of understandings by taking into account the military option.
Likely, calm will gradually return to Idlib and the situation would clarify after the two expected bilateral summits (Putin and Biden, Biden and Erdoğan) are held. Moscow wants to put pressure on the Idlib file to influence the course of the Ankara-Washington talks.
According to the center’s analysis, any military campaign without a prior understanding between Russia and Turkey means a direct confrontation with the Turkish army on the ground. Furthermore, this could push Ankara to get closer to Washington in order to strengthen its position during the confrontation in Idlib, which is detrimental to Russian interests.
A brief analysis published by the Washington Institute on 10 June stated that Washington is not an ally of HTS, but it should realize that the Russian strikes against the group are aimed directly at thwarting US goals in Geneva, including the efforts to maintain cross-border aid.
In its analysis, the Washington Institute said that the incidents of killing HTS leaders must be viewed within the context of the UN negotiations between the US and Russia over maintaining cross-border humanitarian aid into areas outside the regime’s control.
On 10 June, Abu Khalid al-Shami, the HTS military spokesman, was killed in the village of Ablin in Jabal al-Zawiya in a Russian airstrike. “He and two other officials with the leading jihadist group in Idlib province—military media chief Abu Musab al-Homsi and senior commander Muataz al-Nasr (Abu Tamir al-Homsi)—died while responding to Russian airstrikes that killed up to thirteen individuals, including women and children,” according to the institute.
According to the Washington Institute, by killing HTS leaders, Putin wanted to deliver two messages to Biden before their meeting in the Swiss capital, Geneva, on 16 June. The first is that “Idlib is still run by a US-designated terrorist group, so providing humanitarian aid to that region is not necessary.” Second, there is nothing Washington can do that will change the fact that “Russia holds all the military leverage in Syria and continues to pursue its policies from a position of strength.”
For the second week, the Syrian regime has been intensifying its bombing of opposition-held areas in northwestern Syria. Meanwhile, the SCD teams work to evacuate the wounded and pull dead bodies of civilians from under the rubble.
The violent bombing campaign, which took place last week between June 5 and 11, adversely affected the villages and towns of the southern countryside of Idlib and al-Ghab Plain, killed 17 persons—13 of whom were killed in the Ablin Massacre last Thursday—and injured 15 others.
The opposition military factions responded to the regime’s bombing by targeting the areas used as a platform to bomb them.
The NFL official spokesperson, Captain Naji Mustafa, said on his Telegram account on 11 June that the NFL’s artillery and missile regiments intensively targeted the positions and barracks of the “criminal” Assad forces and the existing sources of fire in the cities and towns of Kafr Nabl, Saraqib, Kafr Batikh, Dadikh, Tell Kokaba, Maarrat Mukhas, Jurin and other threatening locations.
In turn, the HTS targeted last Friday the regime forces in the city of Kafr Nabl and the towns of Maarat Harmah and Basqala in the southern countryside of Idlib with artillery shells and “Grad” missiles.
The Ansar al-Tawhid faction also targeted the operations room of the Russian-formed 5th Corps, inside the town of Hazarin, with a faction-developed Zelzal missile, weighing one and a half tons.
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