The Syrian government army has begun the second stage of its military operation in the Idlib de-escalation zone.
Preparations for wiping out the last stronghold of illegal armed groups in the northwestern part of Syria started in late spring 2018. By the end of April 2019, up to 40,000 militants of different organizations had gathered in Idlib and partially in the neighboring provinces of Hama, Aleppo and Latakia, having moved there from other parts of the country. About one third of them represent the Free Syrian Army, which was made up of defectors from the regular troops with the help of Turkish military specialists.
Approximately the same number of fighters come from numerous radical Sunni groups looking for Turkey’s military assistance and belonging to the prohibited Muslim Brotherhood organization.
The rest of the anti-government forces is comprised of the Syrian Liberation Committee (former Jabhat al-Nusra) and the Islamic Party of Turkestan, two terrorist Muslim organizations prohibited in Russia. In addition, there are fighters of several dozens of other extremist Sunni groups whose ideology and practices are close to those of Al Qaeda and ISIS (both are international terrorist organizations prohibited in Russia).
At the beginning of spring, Syrian terrorists chose to ignore the declared ceasefire and intensified provocative shooting at the Syrian army, accompanied by recurrent raids and armed attacks on checkpoints and smaller garrisons. Simultaneously, they increased the number and intensity of attempted strikes against the Russian military facilities near the Khmeimim air base, using missile artillery, mortar guns and air drones. In the two months preceding May 22, 2019, they staged 21 provocations.
In response, commanders of the air group of the Russian Aerospace Forces decided to resume use of combat aircraft against militants in the de-escalation zone. They attacked the adversary’s artillery positions, improvised workshops assembling drones, and warehouses with arms and ammunition. Terrorists retaliated by intensive artillery and mortar attacks on Syrian troops, which at the end of April escalated into a full-blown confrontation.
The Russian and Syrian commanders were forced to start a military operation against militants. At the first stage, its goal was to eliminate terrorists’ strongholds, governance bodies, and arms and ammunition depots.
The second stage of the operation began on May 21. Syrian troops mounted onslaught in some sections of the frontline, but have so far encountered fierce resistance at defense lines that were built in advance. The heaviest fighting is taking place at the joint of the administrative border of Idlib and Hama, and in the northern part of Idlib. Terrorists’ resistance does not seem to grow weaker, but Syria has not brought forward its main troops yet.
General Magher al-Hassan, a Syrian brigade commander who has become a legend, says that there were US and Turkish task forces fighting for the insurgents until recently. But as the threat of casualties and captivity increased, they were withdrawn from action.
There is a flow of refugees from the area of hostilities. Their number has already reached about 300,000 people, independent sources estimate. On May 18, the Syrian command unilaterally declared a two-day ceasefire for civilians to leave Idlib and Hama through two humanitarian corridors. However, militants of the former al-Nusra employed their favorite tactic of a human shield and sabotaged the truce.
Arab military analysts point to the increased military might of the Syrian government army and say that the ongoing operation can be considered strategic, given the forces deployed, the state and headcount of the enemy, the fighting area and conditions.
It is important to recognize that destruction of terrorists in northwestern Syria will drastically change the military and political situation not only in Syria, but in the entire region. Nor is there any doubt that the Syrian army’s success, achieved with Russia’s support, will become a powerful driver for the process of political settlement in Syria.