AMMAN— The sudden collapse of the opposition resistance in the city of Khan Sheikhoun, in the southern countryside of Idlib province, raised questions as to how the opposition militant groups and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) were defeated so quickly.
The battle has also called Turkey’s role into question, as it is considered the main patron of the Syrian opposition in northwest Syria, including Khan Sheikhoun and northern Hama countryside that had also been captured by the Syrian government forces earlier this month. Further, the military escalation cast doubt on the cooperation between Turkey and Russia, the latter of which has played a critical role in supporting the Syrian government forces and their allied militias to advance in the so-called “de-escalation zone” established in the three-party, Turkish-Russian-Iranian, Astana Talks.
The ongoing military campaign launched by Russia and the government forces in northwest Syria at the end of April had failed to achieve significant progress up until the end of the latest ceasefire agreement, which was reached at the convocation of the 13th round of Astana Talks at the beginning of August.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR): “Since the collapse of the ceasefire on Monday, August 5, regime forces have been able to achieve rapid progress on the ground, evidenced by their control of more than 35 cities, towns, villages, and a hill in northern Hama and southern Idlib. With that [advance] regime forces have extended their control to the entirety of northern Hama for the first time since 2012 […] in addition to their control over strategic locations and sites on the Damascus-Aleppo international highway, which passes through the city of Khan Sheikhoun in southern Idlib.”
Before the truce of Aug. 1, “the regime forces had been unable to control the countryside of Hama and Idlib, except for 25 areas, since the beginning of the violent escalation at the end of this past April, despite the furious ground and aerial bombardment.”
“A rapid advance”
As Khan Sheikhoun and the surrounding towns fell, a Turkish military column entered the area to install a new observation post in the strategic Tal al-Nemir (al-Nemir hill), 8 km northwest of Khan Sheikhoun. However, warplanes targeted the column and forced it to stop short of the post.
Government forces quickly surrounded Khan Sheikhoun by taking control of Tel al-Namir, in addition to Tal Sakaik, east of Khan Sheikhoun.
In addition to the intense artillery shelling and aerial bombardment, government forces and their associated militias employed a strategy based on controlling “the heights and reaching Tal al-Nemir, which made it possible to besiege Khan Sheikhoun”, according to Mohammad Rasheed, a media officer at the National Front for Liberation’s media office.
He added in a statement to Syria Direct that “all of the recent advances won by the regime and Russia were at night and after a strong bombing.”
Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham
Last January, Abu al-Fateh al-Farghaly, an HTS prominent figure, appeared in a video published by an HTS-aligned news agency, Ebaa’, standing next to tanks and military vehicles HTS had seized from the opposition armed group Ahrar al-Sham, in the countryside of Idlib.
In the video, al-Farghaly said: “These are the tanks of the oppressors which Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham succeeded in liberating. These tanks were stored away to be used unjustly against the Muslim mujahedeen. They were stored away in the times that we needed them most against the Nusari [a derogatory term used to describe Alawite Muslims, the sect of Islam which Bashar al-Assad belongs to] regime. These tanks are completely operational, and will be sent to their natural place, [which is] fighting the regime.”
The tanks and military vehicles were seized as a result of clashes between HTS and Turkey-sponsored NFL—a military coalition formed in 2018, made up of 12 opposition factions.
The clashes occurred after HTS accused two fighters from the Nour al-Deen al-Zanki movement, a member of NFL, with killing five HTS fighters in January. However, the retaliatory attack was not limited to the al-Zanki movement in western Aleppo; instead, it included al-Ghab Plain in the countryside of Hama, an area under the control of Ahrar al-Sham, in addition to southern Idlib and northern Hama, which are under the control of other opposition factions.
During its military campaign, HTS captured several “tanks, gun manufacturing workshops, military headquarters, storehouses, among other things,” a former media officer within Ahrar al-Sham told Syria Direct under the condition of anonymity for security reasons.
“The fighters left the front in similar circumstances to the regime’s green buses [that have been used in previous deportation agreements]; they only came out with their individual weapons,” they added.
To end the fight, HTS has forced opposition factions in the area to sign a deal to surrender their heavy weaponry, as well as evacuate no less than 1,700 NFL fighters who are willing to go to Afrin in Aleppo province.
However, some fighters decided to remain in the region, fearing that too many would leave the frontline with the government forces. Fighters’ locations on the frontline are determined by HTS, according to a top military leader in Ahrar al-Sham.
The leader, speaking under the condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to media, told Syria Direct: “Unfortunately, [at the time of current military escalation] most of the strongholds were completely empty of soldiers. [HTS] was too occupied with imposing taxes in the past.”
Moreover, as government forces and its allied militias began to advance, the heavy weaponry and tanks HTS had confiscated and promised to “direct to its natural place,” never appeared.
“The factions were forced to [use] its entire remaining strength, while [the commander of HTS, Abu Muhammad] al-Jolani collected our heavy weaponry,” the Ahrar al-Sham military official said. “The equation might have been different if the factions still had their weaponry and forces in the area.”
Syria Direct spoke to four different sources working with opposition factions who accused HTS of not dedicating sufficient resources to defend Khan Sheikhoun from the Russian and government offensive.
A Free Syrian Army military leader stationed in the countryside of northern Hama, requesting for his name and unit to remain anonymous, stressed that “[HTS] did not even [dedicate] 10 percent of its force to the recent operations to resist regime forces.”
“There are areas in which [HTS] remained steadfast because its fighters were from there, while they did not resist in other areas. The rest of the factions helped HTS as much as they could.”
The opposition factions have resigned themselves to the reality of fighting without heavy weaponry. According to the top military leader in Ahrar al-Sham. The group has formed what it calls “the commando forces,” which it uses as a sort of an elite corps, fighting on the frontlines since the start of the military campaign in northwest Syria.”
“What distinguishes the commando forces is not their heavy weaponry, but rather their excellent fighting abilities,” he added.
“The fighters are from all areas [and are] grouped as a commando [unit], capable of carrying out difficult and complicated operations that require patience. They carry out painful and strong strikes, according to the limited resources they have.”
Additionally, the military leader pointed out that “the factions are also financially weak because of the restrictions placed on them. [HTS] has all the [border] crossings and trade, smuggling, and economic movement in liberated [areas].”
According to a media source in one of the opposition factions in the northern countryside of Hama who spoke under the condition of anonymity for security reasons, “before the regime and Russia entered the region, heavy weaponry was not seen on the ground. Some of the factions only sent their heavy weapons [to the front] before the entry of the Turkish column on Sunday, [whereas] some of them merely made noise in the media but did nothing on the ground.”
“[HTS] has no heavy weaponry on the front lines. There is artillery, [but] there are no tanks; however, even the artillery is sparse.”
Syria Direct repeatedly tried to reach HTS regarding the fighting in and around Khan Sheikhoun but received no response at the time of publication.
The fall of Khan Sheikhoun echoed that of the town of Qalaat al-Madiq in northern Hama, which the government and its militias took control of in May.
Qalaat al-Madiq had previously been under the control of the Turkish-backed opposition faction, “Jaysh al-Nasr.” In January, HTS confiscated its heavy weaponry, similar to its seizure of Ahrar al-Sham’s tanks.
The leader of HTS, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, sat down with media outlets in the countryside of Idlib after the Syrian government forces took control of Qalaat al-Madiq. He justified the outcome of the battle by claiming that the residents of the area would not allow the group to build fortifications in it.
What is Turkey’s role in the conflict?
Despite the withdrawal of opposition factions from the towns of Latamneh, Kafr Zaita, Morek, and Khan Sheikhoun, a Turkish observation post is still present in the northern Hama countryside, in the town of Morek. That 9th observation post is one of 13 Turkish posts included as part of the “de-escalation” deal created by Turkey, Russia and Iran, who would also function as its guarantors.
In a comment on the Syrian government forces and allied militias’ attack on northwest Syria, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, stressed in a press conference in Moscow on August 26, that: “The Russian air force supported the Syrian Army’s operations in the de-escalation zone in Idlib, [which] does not violate any agreements in Astana and Sochi.” He added that the de-escalation agreements exclude “terrorist groups.”
A group of Turkish military officials also visited observation posts scattered throughout northwest Syria on August 26, to inspect the ongoing surveillance operations and patrols between them.
Furthermore, according to an opposition news outlet, Turkey is intending to build a new observation point on the Aleppo-Latakia highway in Idlib province.
The news outlet, “al-Muharar Media,” quoted an opposition military official as saying: “The Turkish officials want to create several Turkish military observation posts between the existing points and previously installed points, to support the establishment of its [troops] presence’ and prevent the advance of Assad’s forces into the liberated areas, in support of and to hasten the political solution [to the Syrian crisis].”
The Turkish military delegation visited northwestern Syria soon after the presidents of Russia and Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin, met in Moscow on August 27. Though the two heads of states discussed the Russian-backed escalation in Idlib, no concrete agreements were reached regarding the situation in the province which has led to the death and injury of thousands of civilians, in addition to the displacement of around one million persons.
Putin, at the conclusion of the summit, stated that the two countries had reached an understanding regarding “the procedures to remove terrorist hubs in Idlib in northern Syria.” For his part, Erdogan said that “it is unable to fulfill its responsibilities under the Sochi Agreement until after the Syrian regime ceases its attacks on Idlib.”
However, despite international accords, the secret of what happened in Khan Sheikhoun lies with the Syrian opposition and HTS.
The military official in FSA has little answers, speculating on the fate of the heavy weaponry which HTS took, asking: “Have they sold it to the regime, hidden it, or are they taking care of it? Al-Nusra [the previous name of HTS] in the end, are not the people of this land and have nothing to lose.”
The report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Will Christou