The aim of this article is to assess the military strategy, operations and tactics employed against each other by the Syrian Assad Regime on one side and the assortment of Rebel forces (often hostile to each other – sometimes actually fighting each other) on the other side during the year-long Idlib campaign. Each side was supported by outside forces who provide them political backing, money, equipment, training and some combat units, but most of the actual fighting was done by the Regime and Rebel forces themselves and the focus will be on them.
The sources of the information on which this assessment is based are problematic. Information provided by the rivals is limited and replete with propaganda. Supposedly independent foreign journalists are few, often have agendas of their own, and are dependent on local informants, Rebels or Regime supporters, who are well aware of the narrative they are required to ‘sell’ by their respective superiors. Furthermore, the professional military understanding of many of these journalists is highly suspect. After trying to read between the lines of the news reports and viewing many video clips filmed by journalists and participants of the actions, and taking into account the limitations of these sources, the following is my understanding of the strategies, operations and tactics employed by the rivals. It must be considered a work in progress.
For the sake of brevity I will regard each of the rival sides as virtually homogenous politically and organizationally, though in reality they are not. Where the internal fractures affect the analysis I will mention them.
The Rival Political Goals
The rebellion began in 2011 as a series of protests on the economic situation in Syria, escalated to a demand for Regime-change which became a multi-sided civil war and partially converted to a religious war that drew into the conflict external-forces ideologically allied to the various factions. As the fighting escalated and evolved, new foreign forces intervened to serve interests that were neither internal-Syrian politics nor religion. There is no room here to catalogue all the various goals and variants that have been involved in the fighting. Furthermore, current allies fighting together for converging short-term goals might differ completely on their medium-term and long-term goals. So I will focus only on the immediate goals of the rivals and mention only divergences that are relevant for this specific campaign.
Location of Idlib in Syria
For the Assad Regime the goal is fairly simple – reestablish full control over all of the territory of Syria and any population as are willing to live under its domination. Anyone not willing to live under the Regime can leave. As with the other areas of Syria Assad’s forces re-conquered, the Regime prefers possibly disloyal civilians to leave Syrian territory for good and is willing to encourage that with fire.
The Russian goal in Syria is a fairly stable Assad Regime beholden to them, so they can maintain military bases in Syria, needed by them for political and strategic goals unrelated to the Syrian conflict and more important to them. Ostensibly Russia fully backs the Assad Regime and therefore provides it political and military support. However, there are limits to the extent Russia is willing to physically support Assad with direct involvement. Therefore, they do not want Assad doing something that could escalate the conflict – such as drawing Israel or Turkey into a head-on full-strength confrontation. For that reason, though they understand the need for Iranian involvement in Syria (manpower and money for the Regime) they are not enamoured with it – especially those actions that provoke Israel. They also understand Turkey’s military advantage over Syria and do not want to have to put their own troops on the ground to save Assad from the Turks. Furthermore, the Russians seem to have a more sophisticated understanding than the Assad Regime and its supporters of the combination of non-military with military actions to further the achievement of the political ends (see below).
Iran wants the Assad Regime to survive and retake control of Syria’s territory as part of its Shiite Crescent initiative – to create a contiguous land corridor from Iran to the Mediterranean Sea dominated by Shiites. However, Iran’s other political goals are less relevant to the Idlib campaign so, I will stop there.
The Rebels’ short-term goal is survival – maintain some embers of the rebellion burning. In the longer term, if they survive, what to do with those embers is an issue of dispute between the Global Jihad oriented Rebels and those who are focused only on the internal political future of Syria, and among the latter – between more religious groups and more secular ones.
It should be noted that though from late 2018 mid-March 2020 the fighting in Idlib was the most intense – various Rebel factions and remnants of ISIS are still waging low intensity guerrilla warfare in many of other, ostensibly pacified, areas. The casualties they claim to be causing the Regime are probably exaggerated but are a constant thorn in the Regime’s side. Furthermore, there is still ‘powder in the pan’ of many of the ostensibly pacified groups across Syria and so the Regime must tread lightly in order to not to reignite the fires. A Regime defeat in Idlib could throw a match into one or more of those ‘pans’.
The Turks are also treading carefully. They have various goals in Syria, but as far as the campaign in Idlib is concerned, they are apparently driven by three – two driving to increase involvement and one inhibiting it:
- They fully support the Rebel’s ultimate political goal of overthrowing the Assad Regime and therefore their short-term goal of maintaining the rebellion.
- They fear a Regime victory will drive a couple of million more Syrian refugees into Turkey.
- Conversely, they are willing to be militarily involved in the campaign only to a limit that does not risk full-scale involvement in the war – especially if that risks a collision with Russia or risks a military humiliation that might provide a morale boost to the Kurdish rebellion inside Turkey…[i] They prefer to have surrogates do their fighting for them, but have tried to mark red-lines on the ground with their own troops (from autumn 2018 Turkish troops manned a series of platoon to company sized observation posts marking the perimeter of the Rebel enclave of Idlib as a ceasefire line), only to have those red-lines crossed by the Assad Regime and being forced to accept this. The risks to Turkey are not just military – in the past Russia retaliated with painful economic sanctions when Turkey angered it.
The Rival Strategies
The Rebel strategy is defensive. They are not trying to conduct irregular (guerrilla) warfare – i.e., absorb Regime attacks with pinprick ambushes and then compel them to withdraw by small raids. To the contrary, they are fighting to hold ground. When they lose ground, they attempt to concentrate forces to counterattack to retake it. That does not preclude guerrilla-style raids and ambushes in Idlib itself and into the surrounding areas dominated by the Regime forces, but these are secondary – just as in the First World War the nightly raids by the rival armies on each others’ trenches were secondary to the major offensive and defensive battles.
Regime strategy, no doubt authored and mentored by Russian advisers, is to reduce Idlib piece by piece, not to risk a major defeat or even large numbers of casualties in a single large offensive. The strategic goal seems to be two-fold: capture the territory and kill, wound or capture as many enemy fighters as possible. This strategy differs from what we have seen in the past. In the first few years of the rebellion Assad tried to hold everything and counter-attacked to regain anything lost all at once. This did not work. The Syrian army, about 600,000 strong (including Reserves) when the rebellion began, lost roughly half its personnel to desertions (the exact number of defectors are moot – up to a hundred thousand or more in either direction) and conscription was limited to loyal population groups who were a minority of the entire population. Dispersed all over Syria to hold everything at once and retake anything lost at once, his remaining forces were gradually worn-down and lost territory.
Shortly after the Russian intervention a new strategy was employed:
- First, retake province by province, instead of trying to retake all territory simultaneously – thus allowing a superior concentration of forces in each separate offensive.
- Second, in each province not only attack, also offer the Rebels a way out: surrender and choose between giving-up your weapons and swearing fealty to the Regime, or surrender and be provided a bus to carry you and your personal weapon to Idlib province.
- Third, don’t hurry. Minimize Regime casualties by maximum use of firepower over a long time with a minimum of ground maneuvers to follow-up the successes of the bombardments by capturing only important locations that strengthen the pressure on the Rebels and enable applying firepower more effectively on the next objectives.
As can be seen from the second point – each province pacified actually strengthened the Rebel forces around Idlib. The idea, apparently, was that one big battle for Idlib after a few dozen small ones for the other provinces was better than a series of medium battles in each province with the casualties they would entail.
As can be seen since the beginning of the offensive on Idlib from early 2019, there are still some concepts of this strategy that are being applied – take your time, win bit by bit, but at least for now there is no capitulation offer on the table – except perhaps for a total unconditional surrender which the Rebels are not likely to accept.
The plans have not been published so they can only be surmised from the conduct of operations over the past year.
To understand the rival operations, one must first understand the geographical and geopolitical layout of the province and then the general size and tactical composition of the rival forces.
Topography and Frontline January 2019
Schematically one can describe the topography as divided into strips of flat to undulating low-ground separated by strips of more undulating to hilly high-ground. The general ‘flow’ of each strip is north to south. The westernmost high-ground strip is along the Turkish border and fairly steep and rough. The next strip is the fairly low and flat Orontes river valley, followed by a narrow strip of slightly hilly high-ground, another flat valley which then climbs moderately to the high and gently hilly Jebel al-Zawiya. Finally, the widest strip is east of Jebel al-Zawiya, low and flat to undulating. The city of Idlib, which the province is named after, is north of Jebel al-Zawiya in a lower-ground corridor connecting the easternmost strip of low-ground to the central strip of low-ground. Of course, there are no sharp boundaries between the strips – transformation from one to the other is gradual.
Along the fuzzy natural boundary between the Jebel al-Zawiya and the low-ground to its east, passes the M5 highway that connects the important city of Aleppo in the north to Hama, then Homs and finally Damascus in the south – the four demographic, commercial, industrial and political centers of Syria. There are bypass roads connecting these cities, but this is the only highway and therefore, beyond its technical and economic importance as a wide (four lanes) paved road, that enables heavy two-way traffic, it is also important politically. Control by the Rebels symbolizes the separation between the Syrian political heartland in the south and Aleppo in the north. Control by the Regime symbolizes the gradual return to pre-rebellion normalcy.
The second important route is the east-west M4, connecting the major Mediterranean port of Latakia to the M5 and via the M5 to Aleppo. Again, there are minor routes that enable bypassing the M4, but its width (mostly only a two-lane major route plus a short section of four lanes) and directness confer it economic and political importance beyond its mere technical specifics.
The junction of the two routes occurs at the town of Saraqib, conferring importance to control of that town above others.
The original 1.5 million inhabitants of the province were scattered mostly in agricultural villages, interspersed with small towns and a few bigger ones. Another 1.5 to perhaps 2.5 million refugees from other parts of Syria inhabit tent-towns mostly close to the Turkish border in the north-west of the province.
The villages are scattered at distances of 2.5 to 5 kilometers apart. Most of the villages are built on small rises in the ground and are surrounded by open agricultural fields. The fields are currently completely barren and therefore do not impede the view all the way to the next village. Towns are sparser, but most are merely villages that have grown as commercial centers for the surrounding villages. The villages and towns are therefore the tactical positions and progress is reported by both sides specifically in the number of villages and towns successfully defended or captured on a particular day. Towns are generally more important because they reside on route-hubs, but since cross-country travel in the dry season (most of the year) is fairly easy, unless they happen to reside on the M5 or M4, they are not much more important than the villages.
The villages are composed mostly of one or two storey individual family houses. Density of the houses varies: in some villages or parts of villages the proximity of houses is fairly close, in others there are wider spaces with gardens or natural vegetation between them. Town centers are generally denser and, in some areas, also have taller buildings, though not high-rise towers. Also, around the towns there are small industrial areas characterized by large hangar-type buildings and office buildings of various sizes and densities.
The size and unit organization of the Rebel forces are not clear – quoted personnel numbers vary from 50,000 to 100,000; but how many of them are actually fighters? They are divided among a number of separate allied groups (though sometimes they fight each other – so the term ‘allies’ should be regarded loosely) – the strongest being the local Al-Qaeda affiliates who have imposed (occasionally by violence) a certain level of coordination and cooperation between them all. They use organizational terms such as companies, battalions and brigades – but these seem mere hyperbole. They have heavy and medium weapons – tanks, artillery (guns, rocket-launchers, mortars), IFVs (infantry fighting vehicles), APCs (armoured personnel carriers), automatic anti-aircraft cannon and guided anti-tank missiles – most captured from the Syrian army, some supplied by foreign supporters. Since many served in that army before defecting to the rebellion, they know how to employ them, both on the mechanical level and the tactical level. And yet they seem to be employing them in very small groups only, as fire bases. So perhaps the total available number is too small for mechanized unit actions. Another weapon in their arsenal is a plethora of small drones. These are mostly for surveillance, but dozens have been employed to drop small bombs (factory produced or improvised and varying in size from hand-grenades to RPG rocket warheads to small-calibre mortar bombs). Also, they have conducted small-swarm attacks with suicide-drones carrying explosives. However, the Rebels’ main combat weapon is the infantryman armed with a rifle, a light machine-gun or an RPG launcher.
Commensurate with their mission to hold their ground, their inferior firepower and Regime air-superiority, overall Rebel defensive operations are:
- Rigid: Not surrendering ground willingly.
- Mostly static: Holding specific villages, towns and hill-tops rather than maneuvering between them.
- Mostly passive: Mostly fending off attacks on their combat positions, with occasional counterattacks to regain lost ground (3 big counterattacks and approximately 25 small ones in a year of fighting) and very rarely, if at all, attempting spoiling-attacks to disrupt Regime attacks before or while they occur. This relative passivity is when facing Regime offensives – during the long periods of static warfare, the Rebels are very active in conducting small raids, long-range direct-fire fire (from rifles and machine-guns to mortars and guided anti-tank missiles) and artillery fire to harass the front-line Regime forces.
The Rebel forces are mostly scattered in a loose necklace of positions (each one a fortified village/town or dug-in on empty hill-tops) around the outer edges of the province in an attempt to create a defensive crust that will deflect Regime offensives wherever they come. How thick that ‘crust’ is at any one place (how many villages in depth are being held simultaneously in any particular sector) I have not been able to determine.
There are some mobile forces (riding armoured vehicles, small and medium trucks and pick-up trucks) held in reserve and occasionally these are sent forward to reinforce areas under attack or to counter-attack to regain lost ground, but I have not been able to determine the exact proportion of these forces relative to those holding ground up-front – other than that they are fairly minor.
The size and composition of the Regime forces is almost as nebulous as that of the Rebels. Unit organizations declared in the media have no bearing on the actual organizations in action – thus, a ‘division’ might be an actual, albeit somewhat reduced, division, or it might be an honorific denoting a couple of thousand pro-Regime militia men. As a rough guesstimate Regime and allied forces in the region number perhaps 30,000 or so actual fighters (i.e., not including administrative and technical troops). The Syrian army has more tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, APCs, and artillery pieces of all types and sizes than the Rebels, but, if the numbers are correct, fewer infantry.
Tasked with taking the province and destroying the Rebels at the least cost in casualties, while reducing the probability of massed Turkish military intervention, the Regime forces’ operational concept has been a very gradual step-by-step offensive. Each step aimed at taking a relatively small ‘bite’ of the ground held by the Rebels, each unit taking a village or two per assault, and then halting for hours to days before the next step – advancing from village to village, hill-top to hill-top, more often than not in pincers a few kilometers apart, to surround selected areas before assaulting to clear them. With a few units attacking simultaneously, on most successful days the Regime claimed to have captured a dozen to two dozen villages and towns. But not all days were successful… It is not completely clear what drives the selection between areas assaulted directly vice areas surrounded first – it seems to be a preference to capture smaller villages first in order to surround bigger villages and towns before attempting to capture them. That may be an indication to the deployment of Rebel troops – weaker in the smaller villages, stronger in the larger villages and towns.
I haven’t seen an attempt to very quickly close the pincers so as to prevent the defenders from retreating – hence I deduce that they seem more focused on taking ground than on killing the enemy. Perhaps it also has to do with a reluctance to pay the casualties necessary to physically annihilate a desperate and fanatically determined foe. Though western media has focused on the casualties inflicted by Regime troops on the Rebels and on their civilian supporters, the reality is that throughout the war Regime troops and civilian supporters have suffered almost as many casualties, the supply of new troops is not limitless and their morale is brittle, as evidenced from their behaviour during reverses.
After only sporadic bombardments from September 2018 to February 2019, the Regime’s offensive campaign began unofficially in February 2019 with a gradual escalation in the intensity of air strikes and artillery bombardments, followed, from 6 May 2019, by a series of limited offensive manoeuvres interspersed with days or weeks of bombardments sans manoeuvres: from 6 May to 5 June 2019, the Regime focus was on conquering the southern sector of Jebel al-Zawiya; then, from 28 July 2019 till 18 February 2020, on capturing the entire length of the M5 highway and the territory to its east. In late February 2020 they again focused temporarily on the southern Jebel al-Zawiya, and then, following Rebel counter-attacks that retook a portion of the M5, they refocused along that highway, retook the lost ground, reopened the road to Aleppo, and by 7 March had taken all of the ground also west and north-west of Aleppo, creating a defensive zone between the M5 and Aleppo and the as yet Rebel-held territory.[ii]
Change in Frontline from January 2019 to March 2020
As they advanced, Regime forces bypassed a dozen Turkish strongpoints set up just behind the pre-campaign Rebel front line to delineate and monitor the Turkish-Russian de-escalation agreement of 2018. These strongpoints are now surrounded deep in Regime territory. The Regime forces ignored them (though in some cases they claim the Turks fired on Regime forces bypassing them) and allow Turkish supply convoys to travel to them. Turkish troops have been killed or wounded, but it seems that virtually all such incidents were due to local identification errors (most were hit in air strikes or artillery fire) and perhaps occasionally when Regime units returned fire at Turkish units who initiated engagements.
From January 2020 Turkey attempted to intercede on behalf of the Rebels without getting embroiled in a full-scale war. It inserted increasing numbers of troops, armour and artillery into the Rebel enclave, provided artillery support for the Rebels and increased supplies of weapons and ammunition. Turkish reinforcements were deployed defensively behind the Rebel front line, staying out of direct fire range and out of sight of Regime ground troops, mostly along the M4 to create a barrier against further Regime advance along this route and some in northern Idlib. Turkey repeatedly issued ultimatums that the Regime forces must withdraw, or it would attack them. These were ignored by the Assad Regime, more than likely with Russian backing.
After suffering sporadic casualties from Regime and Russian air strikes and artillery bombardments (accruing 15 to 20 fatalities and a few dozen wounded over a month of fighting), on 27 February 2020 a single air strike killed 34 Turkish soldiers and wounded a few dozen more. Over the coming days Turkey retaliated with a few hundred drone strikes, most independent of and some coordinated with Rebel counterattacks, and rushed thousands of troops and many tanks, APCs and self-propelled guns into Idlib, to create a Turkish defence-line behind the Rebel front-line.
Negotiations between Turkey and Russia ended in a ceasefire gradually implemented from 5 March. Again, Turkey’s demand that the Regime forces retreat to the status quo ante was ignored. Unwilling to escalate its military engagement, Turkey acquiesced to the Regime’s gains and has been denounced by the Rebels and local civilian population as traitors for doing so. The M4 was designated a ‘security corridor’ to be patrolled jointly by Turkish and Russian troops.
Summary of Operations
To sum up: in a year-long campaign the Regime gradually captured approximately 2,700 square kilometers of approximately 6,200 square kilometers of Rebel territory, opened the main highway connecting Aleppo, the demographic, economic and political hub of north-western Syria, to the Syrian demographic, economic and political heartland in the cities of the south-west – Hama, Homs and Damascus, at a reasonable price for the Regime. However, Turkey is now militarily invested in the area still in Rebel hands – for how long and whether this will put more than a temporary stop on the Regime offensive waits to be seen.
I have found no explicit details of the Rebels’ defensive tactics, but, given that many, perhaps most, of the Rebel commanders were trained in the Syrian army before defecting or in foreign armies before volunteering to the Rebel cause, reading between the lines of the published battle reports and viewing hours of video footage of the battles, I assess the following principles were and are guiding Rebel defensive tactics:
- The main combat positions were the dozens of villages and towns scattered all over the region.
- In some locations the Rebels built 360-degree fortified combat-positions composed of trenches and earth-berms on small rises in the open ground between villages. No explanation has been published by the Rebels for this divergence from their more common practice of defending inside the villages. From looking at a couple of these locations, I surmise that the reasons are that the line of sight between adjacent villages was blocked by higher ground or the distance between adjacent villages was too great to control by fire from the villages themselves. The rebels, therefore, built these positions to compensate for those deficiencies.
- It is likely that some combat positions were deemed to be ‘security’ positions – manned to provide early-warning and delay the Syrian army, while the main defence forces prepare to fight in the line of positions deemed ‘holding’ positions. This point is one of the more difficult to establish, but some villages seem to be held more fervently while in others the defenders are less obstinate. This could also be because of differences between the people holding each position – so it is still moot.
- Defensive combat generally began with fire from the combat positions over the open fields they dominate which were regarded as kill-zones – creating interlocking fire between adjacent villages. The one qualification here is that the distances between positions were such that small arms fire was irrelevant except to defend each position itself. So only heavier weapons were effective in providing the overlap of fire between adjacent positions – medium to long range guided anti-tank missiles, mortars and heavy machine-guns or light automatic cannon and of course armed-drones. The Rebels possess artillery, rocket launchers and field guns, but I do not know the number and I have never seen a photograph or video in which more than a couple are shown together, so they were probably not able to create artillery fire-concentrations. No doubt ammunition stores also were not enough for concentrating fire massive enough to block a determined assault – therefore the essence of the defence was the fighting inside the villages. In at least some actions they have reportedly received support from Turkish artillery.
- The tactical defence of each village in itself was flexible: i.e., rather than rigidly defending the outskirts, exposed to the longer-ranged fire-power of Regime forces, they preferred allowing Regime forces into the village, where the firepower advantage of the Regime forces was mitigated by the short inter-visibility ranges. The defenders combined static and mobile actions: choosing specific buildings to fight from and fighting from them, come what may, while others seem to be held only temporarily – the defenders moving between them. They also combined both passive and aggressive actions: mixing purely defensive holding of buildings with many small counterattacks to retake buildings captured by the Regime forces or counterraids to harass but not retake. Among the aggressive actions was the use of vehicles loaded with explosives driven into attacking Regime forces by suicide drivers, though this seems to have been less common than in past years of the Civil War.
The Rebels mounted a number of counterattacks aimed at retaking lost towns and villages. The forces were brought forward on pick-ups, vans and light trucks to assembly areas in villages facing the chosen objectives and from there they usually attacked on foot. I have, however, seen footage of mounted assaults of infantry in armoured vehicles (some actual APCs captured from the Regime, some improvised from trucks with armour welded on and, in one case, T55 tanks converted to APCs by having their turrets removed and a low armoured box welded in its place and a not insignificant number of Turkish-supplied ACV-15s and M113s) crossing open ground, while firing top-mounted machine-guns and dismounting ‘in the objective’. Most photographs or footage show, at most, half-a-dozen tanks and armoured vehicles in a single attack (usually less), with most of the force fighting on foot. However, at least one fully armoured attack, a counterattack to retake the village of Miznaz, included a few tanks and 15 to 20 APCs. The attacking force was annihilated in the open, a few dozen to a few hundred meters before reaching the village by the defending Regime forces. Very few rebels survived, if any.
Attacking infantry attempted to use ground for cover, moving in dispersed single file to exploit the cover. Exposed ground was crossed in rushes in widely dispersed formations.
In the past the Jihadi groups often used suicide-bomb vehicles to lead their attacks,[iii] but during the Idlib campaign these have rarely been mentioned in offensive contexts, though, as mentioned above, they have been used in defensive actions. That does not mean there have not been any, but it does suggest a reduction in using them.
The attacking force was generally provided supporting and covering fire by a small number of artillery and tanks and a plethora of medium weapons, usually emplaced beyond the flanks of the attacking infantry to prevent masking. Given the limited number of artillery weapons and ammunition and lack of target acquisition and fire control equipment, these bombardments were generally small and not very accurate. However, from December 2019 to March 2020 the Rebels received support also from Turkish artillery which, given its more advanced technology, was probably more effective.
Regime tactics are just as hard to deduce. Offensive tactics were easier to see, but they too must often be pieced together from bits of information, textual, verbal and video. Defensive tactics were virtually invisible except for the general layout of the occasional strongpoint. Regime tactics were certainly focused more on mixed tank and mechanized infantry actions, heavily supported by artillery and air-strikes, conducting dismounted infantry actions inside the villages or to capture fortified objectives.
The typical attack was as follows:
- A heavy long-duration (a few days to a few weeks) bombardment of the area to be captured. After watching quite a few videos showing these bombardments from both viewpoints, it seems they used various types of drones to search for the Rebel positions over a long period of time, before, during and after air strikes and artillery bombardments. Often the bombs and artillery shells were landing in the middle of villages or towns. These were often described by western media reporters as indiscriminate attacks on civilians, and no doubt there were those too, but since most, if not all, of the front-line villages were abandoned by the civilian population shortly after the first bombs and shells fell, it is more likely they were striking targets that had been identified by the drone-operators as Rebel positions – unless of course they just enjoyed wasting bombs and shells on empty targets for fun… This also fits my assessment that to reduce exposure to direct fire most of the Rebel positions were inside the villages rather than on their outskirts.
- When ready, the Regime concentrated tanks, armoured vehicle mounted infantry and walking infantry in villages adjacent to the area to be attacked. Some of the tanks conducted direct fire on chosen targets, identified or suspected Rebel positions, to destroy or at least suppress them; the other tanks lead the attack over the open ground followed by the mounted infantry. Walking infantry usually attacked through small woods and orchards in a manner fairly similar to the Rebels, as described above. I haven’t seen large formations – the biggest force I saw was, perhaps, a battalion combat team – that doesn’t mean they don’t employ bigger forces, but these don’t fit in the average cameraman’s field of view. I also only rarely saw anything bigger than a platoon in line formation. Most footage shows small columns driving as fast as they can from the assembly-area village to the objective village and then spreading out a bit to fight along the village streets and from house to house.
- Inside the villages and towns, they seemed to prefer converging attacks from a number of directions. When the tanks lead, they advanced slowly in the streets, shooting into houses, the infantry following dismounted from house to house. Most of the infantry movement seemed to be in the streets, only entering houses that have to be cleared. When the infantry lead, they brought up a tank every time they ‘bumped into’ serious resistance.
- Virtually all Regime attacks are conducted during daylight to fully exploit their fire power advantage.
An interesting variance occurred during the Turkish aerial counterattack, numbering hundreds of drone strikes, in late February. The Turks claimed to have ‘neutralized’ thousands of Regime soldiers and destroyed a great deal of equipment. I highly doubt the veracity of this claim – the Regime forces recovered their balance too quickly for that.[iv] After the initial shock wore off the Regime forces continued to attack but changed tactics. Instead of tank and armour-mounted-infantry based assaults during the day, the 25th division, for example, conducted a number of walking infantry-based assaults during the night. Theoretically that should not have reduced the ability of the night-vision equipped Turkish drones, but the assaults succeeded and took more ground from the Rebels before Russia and Turkey agreed to a ceasefire on 5 March and Assad concurred. How many other units did the same is not clear.
Regime defensive tactics seemed focused on fire power no less than their offensive tactics. In 2017 I personally observed a defensive battle near the border with Israel. The Rebels were trying to capture a Regime-held town with an infantry assault supported by some artillery fire. As they advanced in open formation across the open ground from the town they were based in to the town they wished to capture, the Regime forces smothered them for a few hours with a heavy artillery bombardment – during those hours hundreds upon hundreds of shells fell in varying frequencies on the intervening ground (sometimes sounding like a continuous drum-roll, sometimes more isolated ‘bangs’). Eventually the Rebels retreated. Footage of Rebel counterattacks in Idlib is usually only available from their side and usually shows only snippets of small forces attacking, while claiming the capture of up to a dozen villages in a day of fighting. The background sounds of artillery are not very intense, nor does one see the concentrated dust-clouds of a defensive bombardment such as the one I saw in 2017. There is no reason to suppose the Regime forces have lost the ability to conduct heavy defensive barrages. So, perhaps they are simply not deploying to actually hold the ground they took in a continuous line and most of the villages the Rebels recapture are either empty or merely security positions – the majority of the Regime force pulled-back to prepare for the next attack rather than consolidating their gains? Actual defence of conquered ground seems to have occurred only where Regime commanders deemed specific ground vital or important – villages or towns located on or very near main movement arteries and on especially dominating ground. Be that as it may, each successful Rebel counterattack is countered by a day or two of artillery and aerial bombardment, and then counter-attacked to reconquer the ground retaken by the Rebels.
Looking forward, the future of the remnant Rebel enclave of Idlib will be decided by the determination of Turkey to fight for it, or at least to convince the Russians and Assad that they are willing to fight for it.
If the Turks significantly reduce their current military presence Assad will very likely resume the offensive – though circumspectly so as not to trigger a Turkish return. The Regime operational concepts and tactics have worked, so we can expect them to continue to employ them also in the future. Some media reports describe the Russians and the Regime working hard to rebuild the army – filling up vacant posts with new conscripts, reorganizing and rearming the forces to gradually build true divisions (especially mechanized divisions) and brigades.
However, if the Turks remain adamant and invested, Assad and the Russians will probably reorient their military focus to the pacified but not yet quiet areas to the south and south-east. From April 2020 fighting in southern Syria escalated slightly and the Regime transferred some troops from Idlib to that area. In the foreseeable future the Kurdish area (north-eastern Syria) is unlikely to be a target for Regime military operations because of the American presence and the fairly good, if mostly covert, relations between the Regime and the Kurds. The Kurdish areas include oil-fields and persistent reports claim they have been and are selling the oil to Assad. In October 2019, when President Trump declared the American withdrawal and the Turks attacked the Kurdish region, the Kurds requested Assad’s assistance and agreed for Syrian units to enter their territory to block the Turkish advance.
If the Turks withdraw their troops from Idlib, the Rebels will need much improved operational and tactical capabilities to maintain their enclave. Achieving this depends very much on Turkish assistance. As noted above, many Rebel commanders have the schooling to achieve more – what they lack are the means and a unified organization. Rebel unit training probably exists (I have seen video footage of what seems to be a company exercise), but to what level is impossible to work out from available information. The Turks already train a specific Syrian Rebel militia they have employed as proxies against the Kurds, but to provide advanced military training and heavy weapons to forces dominated by an al-Qaeda affiliate requires a willingness to risk not only Russian disapproval, but American and European as well. Will the Turks provide them with much needed heavy weapons and ammunition and advanced unit-training? To date they have been careful not to – they have supplied much light weapons and other needed supplies, but the heaviest weapons have been a number of anti-tank missiles and mortars and armoured-personnel carriers. The repeated political humiliations by the Russians and Assad (Erdogan’s propaganda organs aside, many in Turkey and Syria criticized his dismal achievements in the March 2020 negotiations – to the point of calling him a traitor to the cause) may push them to risk doing so. If they do, we may expect a future Regime offensive to collide with a much more robust defence. To avoid another political defeat by allowing the Rebels to be crushed on the one hand and not anger the Russians, Americans and Europeans on the other, it seems the Turks will have to maintain their presence in Idlib for a while yet.
[i] Unlike north-eastern Syria, where Turkey has also intervened militarily in the fighting, the Idlib area has no Kurds in it, but a military humiliation could give heart to the Kurds in north-eastern Syria and in Turkey itself to escalate their military operations against Turkey.
[ii] To be precise, some of this ground is outside the Idlib provincial boundaries but it was part of the Rebels' territory contiguous with the Idlib province.
[iii] Often assaults began with a series of trucks each carrying several tons of explosives: the first would explode on the obstacle protecting the Regime position, clearing a route for the second to explode at the entrance to the position, and finally a third exploding in the heart of the position. I have not seen this tactic, or any other multiple vehicle attack, used in the Idlib campaign.
[iv] Also, some of the footage displayed by the Turks to prove their claims seems 'fishy' (for example, in one piece some of the background of the target seems to have changed between pre-hit and post-hit frames) – but I am not an imagery expert. Also, some of the footage from the Regime side during strikes shows Syrian Regime troops weathering the strikes – though that too, in this propaganda intensive war, should be regarded suspiciously.