Northwestern Syria offensive (December 2019–present)

The northwestern Syria offensive, codenamed "Dawn of Idlib 2",[10] is a military operation launched by the Syrian government, Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and other allied militias against the Syrian opposition of the Interim Government and the Syrian Salvation Government (Hayat Tahrir al-Sham)[42] forces in Idlib and surrounding provinces during the Syrian Civil War. The offensive began on 19 December 2019. The offensive left 980,000 civilians displaced from the opposition areas as a result of the Syrian Government advance.[43][44] Pro-government forces encircled several Turkish observation posts by February.[45][46] Meanwhile, Turkish Armed Forces established several new observation posts in the region.

Northwestern Syria offensive
(December 2019–present)
Part of the Syrian Civil War
Maarat Al-Numan Offensive (2019).svg
Situation in Northwestern Syria as of 17 February 2020. Locations of Turkish, Russian, and Iranian outposts are pictured.      Syrian Army control     Syrian Opposition control     Syrian Army & SDF control
Date19 December 2019[7][8][9][10][11][12]present
(2 months and 3 days)
Location
Northwestern Syria
Result Ongoing
Territorial
changes
Belligerents
 Syria
 Russia
 Iran
Allied militias:
PMF-affiliated militias
Liwa Fatemiyoun[1]
Liwa Zainebiyoun[1]
 Hezbollah[2]
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham
Ajnad al-Kavkaz[3]
Rouse the Believers Operations Room[4]
Turkistan Islamic Party[5][6]
Syrian National Army
 Turkey (since 3 February 2020)
Commanders and leaders
Maj. Gen. Suheil al-Hassan[21][22]
(25th Special Forces commander)
Maj. Gen. Maher al-Assad[22]
(4th Division commander)
Juma al Ahmad [23]
(Baqir Brigade commander)
Asghar Pashapour [6]
(IRGC senior commander; iranian-backed militias overseer)
Hezbollah Jaafar al Sadiq [2][23]
(Hezbollah commander)
Abu Mohammad al-Julani[23]
(Hayat Tahrir al-Sham leader)
Adnan Ahmed (Deputy Defense Minister of the Syrian Interim Government)
Thaer Maarouf[24]
(First Legion leader)
Captain Mustafa Kuja[24]
(Northern Command commander)
Units involved

 Syria

 Russia

 Iran

 Hezbollah

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham

Syrian National Army

Rouse the Believers Operations Room

Turkish Armed Forces

Casualties and losses
Syria 970 killed[32]
Syria 2 SyAAF Mi-17's shot down[33][34]
Russia 8 killed[35][36]
13 killed[15][37]
Hezbollah 5 killed[23]
Iran 1 killed[37]
1,044 killed[32]
Turkey 17 killed (16 soldiers, 1 contractor)[38][39]
400+ civilians killed[40]
980,000+ civilians displaced from Idlib and Aleppo[41]

Background

Months prior to the offensive, the Syrian government carried out an offensive that reclaimed parts of the Hama Governorate and southern parts of the Idlib Governorate under opposition control after months of fighting lasting from April to August 2019.

According to a Reuters analysis the motives behind the 2019 offensive were the HTS takeover of Idlib that ended any realistic prospect of fulfilling the requirements of the 2018 Turko-Russian Agreement, which called for disarming HTS, an internationally proscribed terrorist organization.[47] and the opening the strategic M4 and M5 highways to civilian traffic.[48][failed verification]

Prelude

On 24 November 2019, pro-Syrian government forces, supported by Russian airstrikes, entered the villages of Um al-Khalakhil, Dahret al-Zarzour, al-Sayeer and Msheirfeh. Syrian state media reported that several rebel fighters were killed during the operation.[49][50][51][52][53] The next day, a second advance was attempted by government forces targeting the village of al-Farjah, which Syrian state media reported as being under the control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).[54][better source needed]

On 26 November, opposition media reported that the rebel "Fatah Mubieen Operations Room" repelled another attempted government advance on the Sahel village in Idlib's southeastern countryside.[55]

On 28 November, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham announced repelling a joint Iranian militia-Syrian advance on Kabani in northeastern Latakia Governorate, with pro-government forces withdrawing after hours of clashes. Russian warplanes were also reportedly seen during the assault, according to opposition sources.[56]

On 30 November, HTS and other opposition groups reportedly captured several villages near the Abu al-Duhur Military Airbase, according to pro-government sources.[57]

On 1 December 2019, Ansar al-Tawhid released photos of the group firing improvised artillery at government forces in the southeastern Idlib countryside.[58] On the same day, according to government sources, HTS, the Turkish-backed National Front for Liberation (NFL), Ajnad al-Kavkaz, and Ansar al-Tawhid attacked additional villages from government forces, with fierce clashes occurring in the towns of Establat and Rassem Wared in which two war tanks and five transport vehicles were reportedly destroyed. During the rebel advance the Syrian military said it destroyed two SVBIEDs near the town of Kafriya and repelled the joint rebel offensive.[59]

On 4 December, clashes continued[60] as the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) seized a military base east of Umm al-Tinah village.[61]

On 9 December, pro-government sources reported that the military bombarded rebel-held areas in the southern Idlib countryside, as well as portions of the western Aleppo countryside and parts of Aleppo city's outskirts.[62]

The offensive

Following an air bombing campaign and after the 14th round of Astana negotiations in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan ended a few days prior without any definitive ceasefire agreement, ground fighting resumed on 18 December 2019, reportedly due to the opposition's refusal to accept new Russian terms regarding control of Idlib.[63] As many as 200 Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Guardians of Religion Organization fighters jointly attacked Syrian government forces in the Umm al Khalakhil and Zarzur fronts. The Syrian military said they had repelled all attacks and that 12 pro-government fighters were injured and hospitalized. On the same day, Russian intelligence reported that 300 fighters from the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army arrived in Idlib from Afrin in preparation for renewed fighting.[64]

Opening advances

On 19 December, pro-government media reported that the Syrian government had initiated the "second phase" of Operation Dawn of Idlib, the prior government offensive in summer 2019, with pro-government forces led by the 25th Special Mission Forces Division attacking several villages in southeastern Idlib Governorate, particularly along the Umm Jalal axis. A Syrian military source said the objective of the operation was to capture territory south of Ma'arrat al-Nu'man, a key rebel stronghold.[7]

On 21 December, several pro-government fighters were killed in an ambush by the NFL in Latakia, with several light weapons also reportedly captured.[65] On the same day the SNA also said it killed an entire unit of pro-government fighters in southeastern Idlib.[66][better source needed]

By 22 December, government forces spearheaded by the 5th Corps and the 25th Special Mission Forces Division had made notable advances in the southeastern Idlib countryside, battling rebel units in the area and reportedly capturing over 15 towns and villages within a 48-hour period. According to frontline reports, the SAA death toll had risen to 40, with over 50 wounded. An SAA source claimed the opposition had suffered 70-80 dead.[67] During its advance, the Syrian army began encircling the Turkish observation point near Sarman.[68] On 23 December, the Syrian army advanced further, completely surrounding the Turkish observation point near Sarman[69] and capturing Jarjnaz, considered the largest town in the eastern countryside of Ma'arrat al-Nu'man.[70][71]

On 24 December, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and other opposition elements launched a morning counterattack to retake Jarjnaz, reportedly recapturing the villages of Tell Mannas, al-Barsah, Farwan, and al-Ghadfah in the process; an SVBIED was deployed and attacked pro-government forces in Jarjnaz.[72] On the same day, HTS reportedly withdrew from its defensive positions in and around Ma’arat Al-Nu’man as well as other defensive positions in the southern Idlib countryside, handing control over to Ansar al-Tawhid which is part of Rouse the Believers Operations Room.[73] The Deputy Defense Minister of the Syrian Interim Government claimed that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham had blocked reinforcements sent by the National Army from areas in northern Aleppo such as Afrin to Idlib, and further claimed that the only National Army factions allowed into Idlib by HTS were the Levant Front, Ahrar al-Sharqiya and the Lions of the East Army. HTS denied the claims made by the deputy defense minister.[74]

On 25 December, the Russian Air Force bombed a military convoy of Ahrar al-Sham moving near the town of Kafr Nubl in southern Idlib, killing an unknown number of its field commanders and militants. Allegedly, the general commander Abu Jaber al-Sheikh was injured in the strike. A second airstrike targeted a meeting of militant commanders in Ma'arrat al-Nu'man.[citation needed]

On 26 December, ground advancements largely halted and both sides began shelling each other's positions around Ma'arrat Al-Nu’man, with casualties reported on both sides. Pro-government forces began shelling the rebel-held towns of Bernan, Farwan, Barissa, and Halban.[75] Both government and opposition factions later reported that they paused their field operations in the Idlib region due to poor weather conditions. According to a Syrian army source, the air force was temporarily grounded because of limited visibility.[76] The NFL reportedly planned to launch a counterattack, but it was also called off due to poor weather conditions. Instead, they brought reinforcements to their positions.[77]

Russia–Turkey ceasefire

According to a Russian major-general, a ceasefire was agreed with Turkey, which supported many of the rebel factions in the area, between late December 2019-early January 2020; the ceasefire was introduced in the Idlib de-escalation zone on 9 January 2020. Turkey had sent a delegation to Moscow to establish a new ceasefire in the region.[78] Turkey's defense ministry announced that the ceasefire would take effect on 12 January and said that Syrian and Russian land and air attacks would halt at one minute past midnight.[79] The ceasefire was set to stem the flow of refugees from Idlib and allow the delivery of humanitarian aid to the region.[80]

On 11 January 2020, a day before the brokered ceasefire went into affect, Ansar al-Tawhid released a video of a mechanized attack against government positions in southeastern Idlib using heavy machine guns previously captured from the Syrian army. The group also reportedly ambushed a vehicle carrying government officers and successfully captured a position from government forces, seizing some small arms in the process.[4]

Post-ceasefire advances

Late on 15 January, post-ceasefire, the Syrian Arab Army and its allies resumed offensive actions in southern Idlib in response to a prior series of apparent ceasefire violations by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and other militant groups. The Syrian Army captured the villages of Barsah and Nouhiya, located west of the Abu al-Duhur Military Airbase.[citation needed]

On 16 January, the Syrian army captured three towns in southeast Idlib after troops stormed the towns of Talkhatra, Abu Jurayf and Khirbat Dawud in the morning. The three towns were secured following several hours of clashes that killed 22 militants, including 16 jihadists, according to SOHR. HTS and its allies claimed to recapture Abu Jurayf in a counterattack that killed more than ten Syrian troops, due to the SAA failing to secure the town after initially storming it. A 23mm machine gun, several ATGMs, and other equipment were seized during the counterattack, according to HTS.[citation needed] On 17 January, the rebels captured Tal Musaytif from government forces, according to SOHR.[81]

Russia's defense ministry stated that a major clash had occurred on the evening of 22 January between Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) forces—backed by 20 cars, tanks and two armored vehicles—and Syrian government forces. The ministry and Syrian state media added that the militants also used attack drones and car bombs and that the assault pushed the SAA out of two settlements in Idlib. The clashes reportedly left up to 50 fighters killed and 90 wounded while government forces lost 40 dead and 80 wounded. An NFL spokesman said the assault had taken place earlier in the week. A Syrian military source was cited as saying army units were redeployed to the area and eventually repelled the attacks "with high efficiency".[82] However, a "field source" in Hama quoted by pro-government media said he was not aware of any significant attack near the front lines and that rebels were mostly using artillery and rockets to strike the SAA's positions in the de-escalation zone.[5] On the same day the Rouse the Believers Operations Room released photos of captured equipment and also released a photo of a pro-government fighter's German Identification card. The coalition also released video footage of mortar attacks against the government.[4]

Capture of Ma'arrat al-Nu'man

After a short lull, and after the Russia-Turkey ceasefire failed to materialize, the Syrian Arab Army renewed its ground offensive towards Ma'arrat al-Nu'man on 24 January, assisted by massive airstrikes. Ma'arrat al-Nu'man is of strategic importance, as is located on the M5 Highway, one of the Syria's economic arteries, and of symbolic significance as a major centre of protest against the government Assad’s rule since the Syrian uprising began in 2011. After sustained pro-government bombing, by late January it was empty of its 110,000 residents.[83]

Led by the 4th Armored Division, the Syrian army also launched new ground operations on the Aleppo axis on 25 January, opening with a massive artillery barrage on rebel defenses in the western Aleppo outskirts, spanning from the Al-Zahra'a Association Quarter to Rashiddeen 3 and 4 suburbs. The 4th Division conducted an armored assault on rebel defense lines near the Great Prophet Mosque, the local scientific research building, and Rashidden 3 suburb, but did not make any significant gains.[84]

Between 24 and 26 January, the Syrian army captured eight towns and villages in the Ma'arrat al-Nu'man countryside, including Tell Mannas, Ghadqa, and Maar Shamshah, and captured a section of the M5 Highway north of the stronghold, cutting a major rebel communication and supply line from Idlib. According to SOHR, by 26 January, Russia had conducted 78 airstrikes targeting front lines around Ma'arrat al-Nu'man, south of Aleppo, and in the western countryside while Syrian helicopters reportedly deployed 52 barrel bombs in rural areas.[85] According to opposition activists and paramedics, Ma'arrat al-Nu'man was almost empty of civilians as a result of the intense government bombardment in prior weeks which displaced hundreds of thousands, many of which fled north towards the border with Turkey. By the end of 26 January, the SAA was less than a kilometer from the city.[86]

On 27 January, heavy clashes continued as government forces reached the eastern, northern and southern outskirts of Ma'arrat al-Nu'man, nearly encircling it. The 25th Special Mission Forces Division reportedly overran rebel defenses on the city's southern flank, capturing several towns and villages, including Sahyan, Kafr Basin, and Muqah, and capturing the majority of the M5 highway located south of the metro, except for the Turkish observation post at Maar Hattat. According to SOHR, pro-government forces were besieging Ma'arrat al-Nu'man from three sides and had captured 22 areas since 24 January; SOHR recorded 91 deaths among pro-government forces and 112 among the rebels, including 89 jihadists, since 24 January.[87][88][89] On the Aleppo front, there were reports in pro-government media of an ongoing battle near Khan Tuman between the Syrian army, assisted by the National Defence Forces (NDF), and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. The army attempted to capture the village after they seized several hills to its northeast.[28]

The Syrian Armed Forces' official statement on the capture of Ma'arrat al-Nu'man

On 28 January, the Syrian Arab Army and allies captured Kafr Rumah and the Wadi Deif military base following token rebel resistance. Pro-government forces subsequently stormed Ma'arrat al-Nu'man from three fronts, entering the city and capturing most of its districts after short clashes, according to Syrian state media. A Syrian military source said HTS and allied rebels mostly withdrew from the stronghold the day before, neglecting to defend the city proper, besides a small garrison. It was the first time Syrian government forces had control of the city since losing it on 10 October 2012. Rebel units subsequently counterattacked pro-government forces in the vicinity of the stronghold. SOHR said that at least 147 pro-government fighters and 151 opposition fighters were killed in the battle.[90][83][91][92]

The SAA continued to push west of Ma'arrat al-Nu'man, reportedly capturing Hantutin.[93] Meanwhile, the SAA reported it had reached the outskirts of Khan Tuman after capturing the last hills to its east during repeated assaults spearheaded by the Republican Guard's 30th Division.[94]

On 29 January, following the latest army advances, the SOHR reported that 57% of the Idlib Governorate remained under rebel control, while the other 43% was controlled by government forces. It stated that the Syrian Army had managed to capture over 40km of the M5 highway and only a 25km stretch held by rebel forces was preventing it from controlling the highway in its entirety. It also reported a government advance on the outskirts of Aleppo, but stated that it did not hold strategic significance.[95] Al-Masdar News reported that the Syrian Army had secured Ma'arrat al-Nu'man's flanks and further captured the town of Al-Harradah.[96] An armed opposition group reportedly stormed Idlib Central Hospital, occupying it for military purposes for a few hours while Al-Shami Hospital in Ariha was reportedly struck by multiple airstrikes.[97]

Government forces also advanced towards Aleppo's western suburbs to push rebels away from the city.[83] The Syrian Army reported a breakthrough in the Rashideen 5 suburb of Aleppo and advanced toward Rashideen 4, stating this advance was to be the first major SAA breakthrough on the previously deadlocked Aleppo front.[98]

Army push towards Saraqib

On 30 January, the Syrian army reached the outskirts of the opposition stronghold of Saraqib, north of Ma'arrat al-Nu'man, after capturing the towns of Kafr Battikh, Tell Mardikh, Jobas, Qomhane, Hatamiyeh and Tell Dibs, pushing the front line three kilometers away from Saraqib's city center.[citation needed] Later in the day, the army advanced further in the southeastern Idlib countryside, capturing the al-Suater hilltop from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and its allies. Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to take direct military action in Idlib unless the government-led offensive ceased.[99] On the Aleppo front, HTS detonated a remote control car bomb and deployed SVBIEDs followed by rocket and mortar attacks into the northwestern Aleppo outskirts against Syrian government positions, opening a new front. The HTS-linked Ebaa News Agency released footage of HTS inghimasi fighters pledging to wage jihad until death before deploying for Aleppo to attack pro-government positions. Syrian state media claimed government forces destroyed four SVBIEDs before they reached their destination. HTS also claimed to have killed a number of Iranian-linked militia fighters in west Aleppo.[99] Meanwhile, according to pro-government sources, the remnant Nour al-Din al-Zenki rebel group, operating from Turkish-backed opposition held areas in northern Aleppo, sent reinforcements to the western Aleppo countryside to help bolster area defenses.[100]

29-31 January saw sustained bombardments as the government and its allies carried out 200 strikes thoughout Idlib; Russian airstrikes on Ariha reportedly struck a bakery and a medical facility. Civilians displaced from Saraqib and other towns were also reportedly targeted as they fled the war zone.[101][102]

On 1 February, in response to government gains on the ground, the Turkish military established three new observation posts around the town of Saraqib.[103] On the same day, pro-government warplanes reportedly targeted al-Huda Hospital in the town of Hoor in the western countryside of Aleppo, destroying large parts of the building.[104]

On 3 February, Syrian and Turkish forces exchanged fire in Idlib, Latakia and the northern Aleppo countryside. Turkey and the SOHR reported seven Turkish soldiers, one civilian contractor, and 13 Syrian soldiers were killed.[105][39][106][107] According to Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, 76 Syrian soldiers were "neutralized" in retaliation and 57 Syrian military sites were bombed.[108] Syrian state news agency SANA and the Russian Reconciliation Center for Syria denied Turkish claims of casualties among Syrian troops.[109][110] Turkey's president Erdogan demanded that Russian forces in Idlib "stand aside"; he nevertheless dismissed the possibility of direct conflict with Russia saying Turkey and Russia would talk about the issue "without anger".[111]

Syrian government forces continued its offensive in the southeastern part of Idlib province and captured the villages of Ballisa, Tell Elaghar, an abandoned Air Defense base, Jadida Tal Khatra, Msheirfeh, Mardikh and Tell Mardikh on the same day.[112] With this advance, the Syrian Army captured 22 villages and towns including 110 square kilometers of territory.[citation needed] On the same day, according to medics and the SOHR, government airstrikes targeted civilian IDPs on the road near the village of Kafr Naya in the Aleppo countryside.[105] The next day, Russian warplanes reportedly struck the Sarmin Health Center, leading to the almost complete destruction of the building.[104]

Siege and capture of Saraqib

On 5 February, government forces captured around 20 settlements, including Resafah and several nearby villages, advancing east and north of Saraqib, isolating it from three directions.[113][114]

On 6 February, a pro-government blog reported that pro-government forces seized the area of Duwayr, cutting off the M5 highway north of Saraqib and leaving only the road through Sarmin open, which itself was under constant fire from the army.[citation needed] Later in the day, it was reported that the 25th Special Mission Forces Division captured the town of Afs, fully encircling Saraqib and all rebel and Turkish forces stationed there, including the four recently established Turkish observation posts.[citation needed] By 7 February, after two days of siege, government forces took most of the city, opening the road towards the city of Idlib.[115] Meanwhile, prominent rebel commander Obada Abu Jafar and eight other militants of an elite Ansar al-Tawhid unit were killed in fierce clashes with the Syrian Army while defending their positions in southern Idlib, according to a pro-government blog.[citation needed] On the same day, Israeli warplanes fired missiles near Damascus while targeting Iranian elements in the area. The Syrian government said Israel intended to "save the armed terrorist organisations which ha[d] been collapsing in Idlib and western Aleppo Governorate in front of the strikes of the Syrian Army".[116]

Army captures the M5 highway and continued Turkish clashes

 
Daily changes in the frontlines

On 7 February, the Syrian army, spearheaded by the 25th Special Forces Division and assisted by the Republican Guard and Hezbollah, made further advances, reportedly captured the towns of Zaytan, Birnah, Makhalah and Huwayyir al-Eis in the southwestern Aleppo countryside and the towns of Maharim, Khawari, Tall al-Nabariz, Ijaz, Rasm al-Ward and Abbad in southeast Idlib.[citation needed] The 25th Special Forces Division also captured the towns of Karrathin, al-Dahiriyah and al-Thuriyah as well as the Ebla University complex on the administrative border between southeast Idlib and southwest Aleppo by the end of the day.[citation needed]

On 8 February, the army reportedly captured several sites along the strategic Aleppo-Damascus Highway (M5) as it advanced north of Saraqib. Government forces crossed the M5 highway and entered the southwestern countryside of the Aleppo Governorate, the first time since 2013, from the southern approach.[117][better source needed] On the northern approach, the army advanced on the town of Al-Eiss, capturing the towns of Maryudah, Tell Bajir, Kusiniya, al-Shiekh Ahmad, Abu Kannseh, Umm Atabah, Rasm al-Eis, Rasm al-Saharij and Jub Kas in the process.[citation needed] According to pro-government activists, Al-Eiss also hosted a Turkish observation post. The army subsequently captured Al-Eiss and the nearby hilltop.[citation needed] Pro-government forces later captured the town of Tell Hadiyah in the area while, on the Idlib front, continued their northern advance along the M5, capturing the town of Talhiyah.[citation needed]

On 9 February, in Idlib, the army captured the towns of Buwaybiyah and al-Kusaybiyah as well as the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) research center.[citation needed] Army units stormed and captured the towns of Barqum, al-Zarbah and al-Salehiyah along the M5.[citation needed] On the Aleppo front, pro-government forces captured the areas of Tal Kalariyah and Kalariyah and advanced on rebel positions in the Rashideen 4 district in west Aleppo.[citation needed]

On 10 February, Syrian government forces shelled a recently-built Turkish observation post at Taftanaz Military Airbase, killing five Turkish soldiers, according to the Turkish Defense Ministry.[118] According to the SOHR, six Turkish soldiers and four Syrian rebels were killed in the attack.[118][119] The attack reportedly destroyed military hardware and supplies including trucks, APCs and a main battle tank.[120] The Turkish Ministry of Defense said, but did not provide evidence, that 115 Syrian army sites and positions were targeted in retaliation, including destroying three tanks and two mortar positions, and that 101 Syrian soldiers were "neutralized".[121] Meanwhile, the Syrian army, led by the 25th Special Mission Forces Division, captured the towns of Kafr Halab, Meznaz, and another town from HTS and the National Front for Liberation (NFL) northeast of the ICARDA research center, according to pro-government media.[122] On the night of 10-11 February, there were pro-government airstrikes on several towns in Idlib and Aleppo, killing at least 13 civilians according to NGOS,[123] a health facility in Maret al-Nasan was destroyed in shelling,[124] and a maternity hospital in Atarib was narrowly missed by government bombs.[125] An IDP camp in Kafr Aruq was also struck, killing a child, according to the UN.[126]

On 11 February, after asserting control over the Rashideen 4 district in western Aleppo and virtually converging the northern and southern front lines in the countryside,[127] it was widely reported that government forces controlled the entirety of the M5 highway for the first time since 2012; however, this was not claimed by government media, and opposition sources said fighting continued in some northern areas.[128][129][123] On the same day, rebel groups launched a counteroffensive on the town of Nayrab, located west of Saraqib and south of Sarmin. Turkey claimed that 51 government fighters were killed in the rebel counteroffensive, and Turkish-backed rebel forces shot down a Syrian Mil Mi-17 helicopter, killing all on board.[123][33] Rebels were also reported to retake the town of Sheikh Dames, 20 miles south of Idlib city.[130] Later that day, the SAA captured Khan al-Asal.[131] That night, the NGO Action on Armed Violence reported that airstrikes on Idlib city left 12 civilians (half of them children) dead and 32 injured;[132] government airstrikes on Darat Izza narrowly missed a hospital according to another NGO.[125] By this point, according to Reuters, the government had taken 600 square km (230 square miles) of territory in the offensive, and 700,000 people, mostly women and children, had been displaced, the largest number in a single period since fighting began in 2012 according to the United Nations as well as 200 killed.[123][133][134][135][136]

On 12 February, Turkey's president Erdogan announced: "I hereby declare that we will strike regime forces everywhere from now on regardless of the [2018] deal if any tiny bit of harm is dealt to our soldiers at observation posts or elsewhere."[137]

On 13 February, heavy bombardment and severe fighting forced the World Food Programme to pause their on-going relief efforts in Idlib, with Atareb especially severely affected.[138] The town of Takad was shelled by government forces for the first of many times, causing residents to flee, according to MSF.[139] The SAA, alongside the auxiliary Local Defense Forces (LDF) and Liwa al-Quds, advanced north of Az Zarbah and captured Rif Muhandiseen and Kafr Jum along with several surrounding tactical points on the approach to the strategic Regiment 46 base, also known as Base 46, which fell to rebel forces in November 2012. Another army unit reportedly made a push on a separate axis in Aleppo.[140][141]

On 14 February, a second Syrian Mil Mi-17 helicopter was shot down with a guided missile near Qubtan al-Jabal, killing its crew. According to an activist, the helicopter was shot down after dropping two barrel bombs.[34] Between 14-15 February, pro-government shelling struck IDP camps located around the town of Sarmada, according to the UN and MSF.[139][126] During 13-16 February, the UN reported that 160,000 people fled from advancing frontlines, mostly from Atareb and Daret Azza sub-districts.[126] The UN said a total of 100 civilians had been killed in the first two weeks of February by air- and ground-based strikes.[126]

West Aleppo assault and rebel retreat

Following the complete capture of the strategic M5 highway, the Syrian army shifted its momentum towards securing Greater Aleppo, particularly the city's western outskirts.[142] Among opposition settlements targeted by airstrikes in this period were Turmanin, al-Dana, Kabtan al Jabal, al-Abzimo and Darat Izza.[143]

On 15 February, the army attacked opposition forces in the northern Aleppo countryside in Sheikh Aqil near Darat Izza from Bashmara under joint Rojava and SAA control.[144]

On 16 February, pro-government forces achieved a major breakthrough on the Aleppo front by capturing more than 30 villages, towns and suburbs in the west Aleppo countryside in a single day amidst a sudden collapse in rebel defense lines.[145] By the evening, government forces had managed to capture the last remaining rebel-held areas in Aleppo's western periphery, including towns and cities such as Haritan and Anadan, thus ending the clashes that began with the Battle of Aleppo over seven years prior.[146] Pro-government media reported that after having many of their supply lines cut off, rebel forces fled west to avoid being encircled by the SAA, thus leaving the army in control of the Greater Aleppo area.[147] Meanwhile, Turkish media reported that a 100-vehicle convoy of reinforcements, including troops, tanks and military vehicles and equipment, had been deployed to the Idlib area.[148]

On 17 February, President Bashar al-Assad addressed the nation in a rare televised speech, saying the military operations in Aleppo and Idlib governorates would continue regardless of Turkey's threats, and that the war was not yet over "but it means that we rubbed their noses in the dirt as a prelude for complete victory".[149][150] Syrian state media also shared images of Aleppo residents apparently celebrating the recent advances, which reportedly pushed rebel mortar teams out of adequate firing range of the city for the first time in years and, along with the capture of the M5, was set to facilitate future civilian movement between northern and southern Syria up to pre-war levels.[151] Meanwhile, according to NGOs, government forces bombed hospitals in Darat Izza.[125][152][153][139]

On 19 February, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that a Turkish intervention in Idlib was just "a matter of time".[154]

Battle of Nayrab

On 20 February, Turkish-backed rebels launched another counteroffensive on Nayrab with Turkish artillery support.[155][156] Turkish commandos were also reported to have been operating alongside rebels in the assault on the town.[157] A Russian UAV was reported to have been shot down during the initial shelling and rocket strikes.[158] Russian planes provided air support to the pro-government forces and struck positions of the advancing rebels.[159] Additional shelling on nearby towns on both the government-controlled and opposition-controlled sides of the frontline were reported, with both Russian and Turkish forces involved in air and artillery support roles respectively.[160] During the battle, rebels reportedly attempted to shoot down a Russian Su-24 using Turkish-provided MANPADS.[161]

After heavy fighting,[162] the rebels managed to take full control of the town. However, Russian air support allowed the pro-government forces to eventually repel the rebel assault and recapture Nayrab.[163][164][165][166] Russia contacted Turkish forces and told them to end artillery support to the rebels, which they did, according to Russia.[167] The Turkish Ministry of Defense confirmed that two Turkish soldiers had been killed and five wounded due to an airstrike during the assault,[168][157][165] while also claiming the Turkish-backed rebels killed 50 Syrian government forces during the battle.[169] The Russian Ministry of Defence said Russian forces destroyed one tank, six armored vehicles, and five other vehicles all belonging to the rebels.[170] The SOHR reported that two Turkish soldiers, about 28 rebels and 14 pro-government soldiers were killed and that some Syrian soldiers were beheaded by jihadist fighters.[171]

Before the clashes, Turkey reportedly asked the United States to deploy two Patriot surface-to-air missile systems on the Syria–Turkey border to deter Russian forces.[172][173] However, the Russian state news agency reported that the Turkish Ministry of Defence denied this.[174]

Humanitarian consequences

The offensive has been characterised by indiscriminate aerial bombing and shelling of civilian homes, mainly either by Russian planes, taking off from the Russian base in Latakia, or by government jets flying from Kuweires Military Aviation Institute, 18 miles east of Aleppo.[143]

On 23 December, the United Nations stated that the renewed fighting that started on 18 December had caused an exodus of 80,000 people across Idlib Governorate.[175] According to SOHR, in the week up to 24 December 100,000 people were displaced because of the fighting as well as Syrian and Russian bombing.[176] More than 235,000 civilians were displaced as of 27 December 2019 per the United Nations.[177] By 5 February 2020, 300 civilians had been killed in the fighting, including 49 in the first five days of February, and 520,000 were displaced (80% of the latter women and children), according to the UN and various NGOs.[113][115] By 10 February 2020, the number of displaced civilians had reached 689,000.[43]

The humanitarian impact of the fighting was made more severe by extreme cold weather, with Save the Children, the International Rescue Committee and the International Organisation on Migration reporting that many children were dying due to sub-zero temperatures.[178][136][179] By 14 February, 10 Canadian aid organisations reported that 142,000 people had fled their homes in the past five days alone, including 6,500 children a day, bringing the total number of people displaced to over 800,000 since December.[180] By 17 February, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that the Northwestern Syria offensive since December has displaced 900,000 people.[181][182][183] According to the UN, 82,000 displaced people were living in the freezing open air in February; 36% of newly displaced families are housed by relatives or find rental accommodation, 17% found refuge in camps, over 15% sought shelter in unfinished buildings and 12% are still "looking for shelter".[184] Many of the displaced have been forced to move multiple times.[143] Some of the displaced people have escaped to Syrian Democratic Forces controlled Manbij.[185]

Hospitals have been heavily targeted in the fighting. Some 70 hospitals were bombed out of action.[143][186] On 12 February, Islamic Relief reported that 15 medical facilities it supported had been damaged or fully destroyed, at least 55 sites where they distributed food recorded 428 nearby airstrikes near these locations, and 90% of staff in Idlib had been forcibly displaced.[187]

Reactions

Supranational

  •   United Nations – U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville, asked if Syria and Russia were deliberately targeting civilians and protected buildings, and said: “The sheer quantity of attacks on hospitals, medical facilities, and schools would suggest they cannot all be accidental.”[153] UN Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet said “Entire families, some who have fled from one corner of Syria to the other over the course of the past decade, are tragically finding that bombs are part of their everyday life. How can anyone justify carrying out such indiscriminate and inhumane attacks?"[188]

National

  •   Italy – Italian foreign minister Luigi Di Maio, while speaking about his country's desire to establish a ceasefire in Libya's ongoing civil war, said that the situations in Libya and Syria were similar.[189]
  •   Turkey - On 31 January 2020, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called for the Syrian government to end its offensive in Idlib, and has threatened military action unless it does so.[99]
  •   United Arab Emirates – On the UAE's 48th National Day (2 December 2019), an Emirati official at the UAE embassy in Damascus praised the Syrian government's actions and said that Syria's president Bashar al-Assad was acting wisely.[190]
  •   United States – On 26 December 2019, United States president Donald Trump warned via Twitter that "Russia, Syria, and Iran are killing, or on their way to killing, thousands of innocent civilians in Idlib Province," and added that "Turkey is working hard to stop this carnage."[191] US Ambassador to Syria James Jeffrey has warned that the offensive would create a humanitarian crisis.[99] US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and the Syrian government's actions in Idlib and said that they were intentionally preventing the implementation of a cease-fire in northern Syria.[192]

Local

  •   Hayat Tahrir al-Sham – In response to 19 December offensive, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham leader Abu Mohammad al-Julani said in a video statement that the offensive would negatively affect regional stability and the lives of people throughout the region, namely the Levant, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iraq and the Persian Gulf. He also said that HTS has achieved many of its goals in Syria, such as weakening the state of the Syrian military and the Syrian economy; he criticized Russia's role in supporting the Syrian government as an attempt to restore the level of influence Russia had during the Soviet-era.[193]

Notes

  1. ^ As can be seen in a photo collection of this article by the Long War Journal, one of pro-government fighters killed during this offensive belonged to the Forces of the Fighters of the Tribes. The militia's emblem can be seen on his photo.

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