Opposition fighters wage counter-offensive in Idlib to drive back Syrian army advances

AMMAN: Syrian rebels said they recaptured several villages in southeastern Idlib province and Hama from government forces during a counter-attack launched early Thursday morning, while pro-government media reported the assault was driven back.

Rebels aim to turn back weeks of territorial losses in Idlib and Hama while also preventing government forces and their allies from capturing a strategic military airport and isolating a large pocket of opposition territory.

In an effort to push back the government advance, “all the factions working in Idlib and Hama have agreed to joint action on a number of axes,” Mahmoud Mahmoud, a spokesman for the rebel faction Jaish al-Izza told Syria Direct on Thursday.

After rebel forces launched a series of pre-dawn attacks, some of the heaviest fighting on Thursday was centered near the town of al-Khaween 35km southwest of the Abu a-Dhuhur Military Airport. Two rebel spokesmen told Syria Direct that the battles were an attempt to cut off and isolate advancing government forces from the south.

“The action is to flank the enemy, not meet it head on,” said Jaish al-Izza spokesman Mahmoud, so as to “trap the enemy forces near the airport.”

Thursday’s rebel counter-attack came one day after Syrian government forces, advancing northward through southeastern Idlib, captured dozens of villages and reached the edge of the Abu A-Dhuhur Military Airport that sits on the easternmost edge of Idlib province.

Since late 2017, Syrian army forces and their allies have battled and advanced northward into southeastern Idlib province in an offensive coinciding with a parallel push southward from Aleppo city.

Roughly 18km separate the northern and southern government salients in southern Aleppo and eastern Idlib province as of Thursday afternoon. If the disparate territory is connected, the entirety of opposition-held eastern Idlib, northeastern Hama and southern Aleppo province would be cut off and vulnerable.

“We will not allow the regime to cut off the eastern countryside,” Mahmoud Rasheed, the spokesman for the Free Syrian Army-affiliated faction Jaish a-Nasr, which is currently involved in the battles, told Syria Direct on Thursday.

“Fighting continues along the entire frontline between us and the regime,” he added.

Syrian state media reported that government forces were “repelling a violent attack by Jabhat a-Nusra and the factions linked to it” on Thursday. Jabhat a-Nusra, now known as Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, is a leading faction in the hardline rebel coalition Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS) that is participating in the battles.

Opposition factions posted videos purportedly showing captured government forces on Thursday in the southeastern Idlib town of al-Khaween. Pro-government media reported that a Failaq a-Sham commander had been killed near the town, and that it was recaptured later in the day.

HTS fighters reportedly battled government forces near the Abu a-Dhuhur airport on Thursday. At the same time, troops loyal to Damascus reportedly pushed towards the airport from the east, advancing from Khanasir in southern Aleppo.

Syrian state media reported a swift advance by government forces in Idlib in recent days. An unnamed field commander told Syrian state media agency SANA on Wednesday that “skillful military tactics, planning and flexible execution” had aided the advance “amid successive collapses in the ranks of the terrorists.”

Syrian opposition fighters in a southeastern Idlib olive grove on Thursday morning. Photo courtesy of Failaq a-Sham.

During the government offensive, Islamic State forces in a pocket of northeastern Hama and neighboring Idlib have taken advantage of the chaos to expand their own territory.

Jaish a-Nasr spokesman Rasheed attributed recent losses to a “lack of strong defensive lines” and the flat, wide-open nature of southeastern Idlib in a conversation with Syria Direct on Thursday.

‘Nothing left’

Weeks of battles and bombardment in Idlib, Aleppo and Hama provinces have sparked mass displacement, with tens of thousands of people fleeing north, deeper into opposition territory.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein voiced his concern over the fate of residents in the northwestern Syrian province in a statement released on Wednesday.

“In Idlib, ground attacks and airstrikes have escalated as a rapidly moving government offensive gains momentum, jeopardizing the safety of hundreds of thousands of civilians,” said the UN commissioner.

Idlib is home to an estimated 2.5 million residents, many of them previously displaced from cities, towns and villages elsewhere in Syria.

The HTS-backed Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) in Idlib has established an emergency response committee to coordinate assistance for the displaced.

According to Mustafa Qadid, the SSG’s General Director of Displacement, “more than 30,000 families” have been displaced by the latest fighting, and are currently seeking shelter along the Turkish border and in Idlib’s cities and towns. The SSG is working to prepare apartments for the displaced, said Qadid.

The IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation, a Turkish NGO, said in a Facebook post on Tuesday that some 150,000 people from Idlib and Hama had fled to the Turkish border.

The Turkish Red Crescent is setting up new camps for the displaced people near the Turkish border, a spokesman told Syria Direct, but the settlements are not yet complete and nobody has moved in so far.

As a result, many displaced people are sleeping out in the open, while others with relatives or who can afford to pay relatively steep rent prices find shelter in cities and towns.  

One displaced person living out in the open is Mahmoud, a 30-year-old construction worker who fled his home in the south Idlib town of Umm al-Halail six days ago. He, alongside his wife, mother and mother-in-law, headed for the Turkish border to escape government bombings.

Since then, they like thousands of others have been living outside, on mats and blankets spread beneath a tree because there is no shelter available for them in nearby camps.

“There is nothing left that we have not lost,” he told Syria Direct this week.


Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting. Follow Waleed on Twitter: @walid_ALnofal.

Mateo Nelson

Mateo Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. Mateo holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.