Rebels Launch Attack on Vehicle Base Near Damascus

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On 14 November 2017, Ahrar al-Sham, Faylaq al-Rahman, and Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), began an offensive against a Syrian Army vehicle base east of Damascus. The base is located in a wedge of government-controlled territory between the rebel-controlled cities of Harasta and Irbin. Yesterday’s was the first major attempt by the rebels to seize the base since August 2015.

The attack was initiated with an HTS SBVIED. It then proceeded  from two points – Ahrar al-Sham attacked from their stronghold of Harasta and Faylaq al-Rahman attacked from Madyara.

The most significant advance came from the north. Rebels reportedly cleared all of al-Ajmi district and also took a command centre on the northern edge of the base.

The close cooperation between Ahrar al-Sham and Faylaq al-Rahman is interesting considering the major clashes that took place in Irbin between the two groups in early August. Those clashes followed months of hostility that began in May when Rahman attacked Ahrar buildings in Irbin. They ended on 9 August with a truce agreement.  The current offensive is indicative of rapprochement between the former foes. The relationship between Rahman and Douma-based Jaysh al-Islam (JaI) remains strongly adversarial, with JaI releasing a statement just a week ago condeminging Rahman and HTS. Ahrar was not mentioned in the statement, demonstrating that JaI still considers Ahrar an ally in spite of Ahrar’s improved relations with Rahman.

As of now, the base has not fallen, but government forces have taken significant losses and have not yet recovered lost positions.

A total of 12 pro-government fatalities have been identified via social media. It is likely that the true number is higher, as six more deaths were reported today (15 November) and some fatalities are never reported.

Ahmed Ali Suleiman.jpg
Ahmed Ali Suleiman, from Wadi al-Baraka, Tartous Governorate
Ali Murshid Ismail
Ahmed Murshid Ismail, from Sreijis, Tartous Governorate
Azzam Ismail Ahmed
Colonel Azzam Ismail Ahmed, from al-Sindiyana, Hama Governorate
Bassel al-Sultani
Bassel Khayrat al-Sultani, from Qardaha, Latakia Governorate
Ghadir Ibrahim Saeed
Ghadir Ibrahim Saeed, from al-Qutailibiyah, Latakia Governorate
Ghadir Habib Ibrahim
Ghadir Habib Ibrahim, from Qabu Sukus, Latakia Governorate
Hatem Rashid Balul
Hatem Rashid Balul, from al-Tawanin, Tartous Governorate
Khadr Ghassan Ismail
Khadr Ghassan Ismail, from al-Hattaniyah, Tartous Governorate
Marah Nadir Salman
Marah Nadir Salman, from al-Dulaybah, Hama Governorate
Maytham Hassan.jpg
Maytham Mashabik Hassan, from Qarqafti, Tartous Governorate
Mayhub Ali al-Aitah
Mayhub Ali al-Aitah, from al-Eidiyah, Latakia Governorate
Walid Khawashqi
Major General Walid Khawashqi, from Jawbat, Latakia Governorate

Note: a few reports state Mr. Balul was actually killed in the Beit Jinn area, but most claim Harasta.

ٌRebel casualties have not been reported but are believed to be heavy.

A full-sized version of the above map, which was created using Google Maps, can be found here.

 

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Map: The Situation Near Kati Island

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Since 2 November, a large number of IS fighters and civilians have been besieged on Kati Island (Hawijat Kati), a river island located between government-controlled Deir al-Zour city and the SDF-controlled village of al-Husayniyah. The people fled to the island during the capture of Deir al-Zour by government forces at the start of November. They are now asking for the SDF to launch an operation to bring them over the river to SDF territory.

The current crisis is strikingly similar to the Wadi al-Adhib crisis of August-October, during which thousands of anti-government civilians from the eastern countryside of Hama became besieged in a shrinking IS pocket and negotiated passages to rebel-controlled Greater Idlib.

The Euphrates Post has estimated the number of besieged at 143 (after 27 surrendered to the government) while other sources have reported numbers up to 300. Earlier, exaggerated reports had placed the number as high as 700.

On 8 November, it was reported that government forces had constructed a bridge across the Euphrates from Deir al-Zour city to Kati Island.

kati bridge
The bridge in question. Source: Ivan Sidorenko

Today (10 November), shelling of the island by government forces increased, and rumors began spreading that a storming of the island was imminent. The increased urgency has led activists to start a social media hashtag campaign – “#HawijjahLast100mSOS” – asking for an SDF rescue mission (the “100m” refers to the distance between Kati Island and SDF territory). The campaign has been covered by popular Arabic-language media outlets, including al-Jazeera.

A selection of graphics taken from social media during the 10 November campaign:

 

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The SDF reaction to the campaigns has been mixed.

On 3 November, the SDF agreed to evacuate the besieged, but the deal later fell through. The reasons for this are disputed. Pro-rebel SOHR alleged that the evacuation didn’t happen because of threats made by the government and Russians, while DeirEzzor24 claimed there was a disagreement between IS fighters who wanted to be evacuated to Wilayat al-Furat and the SDF who demanded the unconditional surrender of all IS fighters.

Following the 10 November hashtag campaign, SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali issued a statement indicating a desire to evacuate the besieged, but blaming the SDF’s inaction on the Syrian government. Likewise, SOHR continues to allege (1,2) that a potential evacuation deal is being held up by the government and Russia.

It is possible, however, that these claims are untrue and are cover for the SDF not wanting to evacuate the besieged. After all, it is only natural that the SDF would be wary of taking in IS fighters and civilians who are likely IS-sympathetic, particularly after last month’s debacle northeast of Hama. The “other side” of the story is not known, as neither the Syrian government nor Russia has commented on the situation. In fact, some pro-government sources falsely claimed on 4 November that the island had been captured.

A full-size version of the above map, which was created using Google Maps, can be found here.

 

Update: IS Loses Additional Ground in NE Hama

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The following article is Part 3 in Skylight Syria’s coverage of NE Hama. Part 1, which covers the background of IS in the region, can be found here. Part 2, which reports events that occurred between 9 and 13 October, can be found here. This article will cover the events of 14-18 October.

The situation for what little remains of IS’ Wilayat Hama has become critical in recent days, following advances by HTS and pro-government forces. IS, which at one point controlled roughly a third of the land area of Hama Governorate, has seen its holdings in the region reduced to less than a dozen small villages. The group is now on track to lose a third Wilaya in the month of October, following the capitulation of IS forces in Wilayat Kirkuk and Wilayat al-Raqqa.

On 14 October, clashes were reported between HTS and IS near Sarha. Sometime around this time, IS recaptured Sarha. However, this was not reported at the time, as IS media has not reported on the Hama battles since their initial advance on 9 October and HTS media has only reported HTS gains.

On 15 October, HTS was once again on the offensive. That day, HTS captured the small hamlets of Musatriha and Shukhitar. Following the battle, HTS media released footage showing the battle and the summary execution of four captured IS fighters.

On 16 October, IS recaptured Abu al-Ghar from HTS. That evening, Basel Fargo reported on Facebook that pro-government forces would be initiating an offensive against IS in Hama the following day.

Indeed, the following morning, government forces launched an offensive which resulted in the capture of all IS territory south of the Sabboura-Ithriyah highway. Hezbollah media listed the following locations as captured:

  • Jibal al-Tanahij (Tanahij Mountains)
  • Khirbat al-Tanahij
  • Wadi al-Adhib
  • al-Bihuth al-A’lamiya (Scientific Research)
  • al-Sib
  • Sadd al-Sib (al-Sib Dam)
  • al-Rawda
  • Harmala
  • Abd al-Amir
  • Jubb Eid
  • al-Jarouh
  • Umm al-Ghazal
  • Wadi al-Zarub
  • Wadi Mazlouf
  • Wadi Hasu al-Ramil

Not all of the above locations have been positively identified. The inclusion of Wadi al-Zarub suggests government forces also captured areas north of the Sabboura-Ithriyah highway, though it is not clear if the name is referring to the village or simply to a nearby river valley.

17 October also saw an important advance for HTS, with that group capturing Abu al-Ghar, Sarha, Sarha al-Shamali, and the unidentified locations of Jirdawi and Hamawi Farms.

18 October began with an unconfirmed report of a Russian airstrike on HTS in al-Rahjan. Later, pro-IS media reported that al-Rahjan had been recaptured by IS.

In spite of the recapture of al-Rahjan, it is likely that, over the coming days, the remaining IS-held villages will fall to HTS, as there is little this tiny, besieged pocket of IS fighters can do to reverse the overall trend of defeat. It is highly unlikely that government forces will make any further advances in the area. In fact, it was claimed that the units leading the operation will be sent to Deir al-Zour.

A full-size version of the above map, which was created using data from Google Maps, can be found here.

Update: The Situation in NE Hama Governorate

 

NE Hama updated map.pngThe following is a follow-up to a previous piece published on 6 October. More background regarding IS in Hama and, specifically, in Wadi al-Adhib can be found in that article.

On the morning of 9 October, IS fighters launched a surprise offensive against HTS positions in northeastern Hama Governorate. The IS fighters who participated in the attack had come from Wadi al-Adhib, an IS-controlled region separated from rebel-held Greater Idlib by the strongly fortified, government-controlled Sabboura-Ithriya highway.

How IS fighters managed to cross government lines has been debated. Naturally, many pro-rebel personalities on social media accused the government of facilitating the transfer of IS fighters across the highway. HTS itself joined in on the accusations. Pro-government sources, however, vehemently denied that any such deal had been cut.

While help from pro-government forces isn’t entirely out of the question, it is much more likely that the IS fighters arrived as part of a refugee convoy which crossed from Wadi al-Adhib on the morning of 9 October, the same time the attack began.

The 9 October refugee convoy was one of several that have crossed the Sabboura-Ithriyah highway since August bringing displaced people from the Uqayribat region into Greater Idlib. In fact, these convoys are a major source of the current conflict between HTS and IS. As recently as mid-September, IS’ Wilayat Hama and HTS in al-Rahjan were said to have cordial relations. The friendship soured, however, when HTS began taking the preventative step of detaining any IS fighters who arrived among the displaced.

Soon after, IS made the decision to initiate a military offensive against HTS. The immediate aim of the offensive was to free IS detainees being held in al-Rahjan. Broader aims were to carve out a new operations zone for the continued existence of Wilayat Hama and potentially gain a foothold in Greater Idlib.

The first day’s campaign was a success for IS. The group published a statement claiming the capture of twelve localities:

In its statement, IS uncharacteristically downplayed its gains. In reality, IS not only gained these areas, but significant areas to the west and north as well. IS’ statement didn’t even mention the capture of al-Rahjan. It’s unlikely these omissions were intentional. The most probable reason is the poor communication lines that would naturally arise between IS fighters in a desolate and far-flung region and the centralized media offices.

While HTS fighters were unsuccessful in crushing the attack, they were able to contain it. On the first day, HTS pushed back IS fighters from from Qasr ibn Wardan and expelled them from al-Andarin and Buyud.

After successful containment of the IS offensive, HTS assembled elite forces and started a counteroffensive. On 11 October, HTS captured Umm Miyal and Talihan. On 12 October, HTS captured Abu Kahf, al-Hasnawi, and Abu al-Ghar. That day, al-Rahjan was also attacked, but IS managed to repel the assault.

Finally, on 13 October, HTS took al-Rahjan and also captured Sarha. Clashes were reported near al-Shakusiyah, but IS continues to occupy the village. The two villages captured on the 13th were among the largest in the pocket, and their loss represents a serious blow to IS’ five day-old presence in Greater Idlib.

As of 14 October, IS retains control of the following settlements north of the highway: Abu Laffah, Hasrat, Jubb al-Tablaqiyah, Murayjeb al-Jumalan, Nufaylah, Rashjan, Rasm al-Ahmar, al-Shakusiyah, and Wadi al-Zarub. Furthermore, an unverified Facebook source has claimed that the hamlet of Dush, north of Sheikh Hilal, is also under IS control.

In addition to HTS’ counteroffensive, government forces have begun attacking IS positions south of the highway.

On 13 October, government forces captured Abu Hakfa, Maksar al-Shamali and al-Janoubi, and Abu Kahf.  The status of Abu al-Fashafish and a few adjacent hamlets is not clear at the present time.

In the coming days, it is highly probable that HTS will annihilate IS north of the Sabboura-Ithriyah highway, while pro-government forces will continue to tighten the noose around Wadi al-Adhib. Ultimately, Monday’s impressive surprise offensive did little to nothing to change the ultimate fate of Wilayat Hama.

A full-size version of the above map, which was created using data from Google Maps, can be found here. Please note: a minor error was found in the previous (6 Oct.) version of this map. On that map, the villages of al-Aliyah and Bughaydid, west of Sheikh Hilal, were incorrectly placed outside of government control. They are, in fact, government controlled. The error is fixed on the current map.

Map: The Wadi al-Adhib Pocket

Wadi al-Adhib Map

Since 4 October, in the wake of government advances east of the city of Salamiyah, many sources (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) have incorrectly declared the Hama Governorate to be cleared of IS fighters. This assertion is not correct. In fact, IS still controls a small area to the south of the Sabboura-Ithriyah road which includes a few hamlets as well as the region of Wadi al-Adhib, the site a major refugee crisis that has lasted around six weeks thus far.

The pocket was formed on 2 September following the fall of the village of Jarouh. After that, most mapmakers incorrectly assumed the area had been evacuated by IS and began marking it as under government control. One notable exception is the strongly anti-government Nors Studies, which continues to show the area as controlled by IS.

Government forces aren’t currently attacking IS forces in the pocket, but the settlements are occasionally subjected to air raids. A 17 September air raid reportedly targeted the villages of Abu Hakfa, Rasm Amun, and Rasm al-Tinah. A raid was reported on Abu al-Fashafish on 5 October. IS fighters in the area are said to maintain cordial relations with HTS fighters on the north side of the Sabboura-Ithriyah road. This rare example of HTS-IS cooperation in 2017 exists probably due to the fact that most IS fighters in this area are locals who were previously involved with other rebel groups.

Government action against the pocket has likely been complicated by the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the area. Hundreds – possibly thousands – of displaced people from the villages around Uqayribat have funneled into the pocket and into Wadi al-Adhib hoping to cross over to the rebel-held “Greater Idlib” region. The refugee crisis, which has been ongoing since late August, has garnered significant coverage from pro-rebel Arabic language sources but not English language sources.

Reports of evacuations of civilians have been intermittent since August. Evacuations were first reported in late Augustearly September, on 20 September, on 25 September, and, most recently, in early October. These evacuations have only covered civilians and government forces have refused to allow IS fighters to leave the area.  Some of the refugees have tried to escape across the road, while a few others have surrendered to government forces. Unconfirmed reports exist of as many as 80 refugees killed attempting to cross the road on 26 September (more info), while pro-government sources have claimed the killing of IS fighters attempting the same escape. The most recent reports indicate that, along with IS fighters, a large number of civilians are still in the area, though most have been evacuated.

A full-size version of this map, which was created using data from Google Maps, can be found here. Please note: some areas have been marked “Contested or Unclear” because conflicting information exists over the control of those regions.

Map: IS Gains Against Government Forces on 28-29 September

29 Sep - Eastern Syria Map.png

On 28 September 2017, IS forces in eastern Syria launched the “Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani offensive“. The offensive is aimed broadly at government forces throughout the governorates of Deir al-Zour and Homs. The locations of IS attacks have been geographically disparate and its not clear that there is a set objective other than capturing as many government positions as possible.

Two days in, the offensive has become the most successful offensive operation launched by IS since their recapture of Tadmur in December 2016.

The offensive began on 28 September with a broad attack from the east on the Sukhna–Deir al-Zour highway. IS captured the small villages of Kabajib and al-Shoula, near Deir al-Zour city. A separate group of IS fighters captured the two small hamlets of Albu Amr and al-Jabaylia, located several kilometers to the southeast of the Deir al-Zour Airbase. IS media, in what is almost certainly a greatly exaggerated claim, reported the death of 65 Syrian and Russian soldiers, the destruction of four tanks, and the capture of two Russian soldiers during these clashes. The Russians denied the claim of captured Russian soldiers.

Further south, IS advanced near al-Sukhna and claimed the capture of Jabal Tantur, which overlooks the town from the west. IS media claimed as many as 100 Syrian soldiers were killed near al-Sukhna.

IS opened 29 September with an assault on the T-3 pumping station, which is located to the south of al-Sukhna. IS briefly captured the station, but was later pushed back by government forces. IS claimed to have killed 34 government soldiers during the encounter. The only point in the T-3 area to be successfully secured by IS was the al-Hayl gas field.

The largest advance came to the east of al-Sukhna. While an attack on the eastern perimeter of the city was repelled, IS successfully captured a large area located 30 kilometers to the northeast of al-Sukhna. The points captured include the al-Baghala junction, the village of al-Qalia, and the Umayyad castle known as Qasr al-Hayr al-Sharqi. One unverifiable source claimed IS also captured the Najib gas field. In spite of several spurious social media reports to the contrary, IS hasn’t yet managed to capture the town of al-Sukhna itself. However, IS is reported to control critical positions on both sides of the town. If IS continues to press forward and a government counteroffensive does not materialize, the town may fall sometime over the next few days.

Other, smaller attacks took place across Deir al-Zour and Homs on the 29th. One occurred near the village of Humayma, a government-held hamlet located 100 kilometers southeast of al-Sukhna on the road to T-2 pumping station. Another reportedly occurred within the city of Deir al-Zour itself. No territorial changes are known to have come of any of these smaller attacks.

The most surprising attack, though, came in al-Qaryatayn. al-Qaryatayn was captured by government forces most recently in April 2016. It is located 70 kilometers from the nearest IS-held villages and 150 kilometers from IS’ primary zone of operations. An IS sleeper cell, reportedly based in the village of Hawarin, managed to capture the town due to an absence of soldiers. The stunning victory was short-lived, though, as government forces immediately entered the town and routed IS.

The attack on al-Qaryatayn is one of three behind-the-lines IS attacks during the past week in areas thought to be secure. Previously:

  • On 26 September, IS raided eastern districts of Raqqa thought to be fully secure. At least 28 SDF were killed.
  • On 27 September, IS forces managed to infiltrate the city of Ramadi, Iraq and were able to capture and hold several districts in the southwestern outskirts of the city before withdrawing.

This string of infiltration attacks is a signal that IS leaders have come to terms with the fact that their “caliphate” will soon cease to exist, and, in accordance, are developing guerilla strategies in preparation for the day after the last IS-held settlement falls.

In addition to the reports of IS gains, reports of successful government counteroffensives have popped up on social media; however, the majority of claims are yet unconfirmed. While many sources (1, 2, 3, 4) reported that government forces recaptured lost positions on the Sukhna–Deir al-Zour highway, others denied such claims. The only thing that is confirmed is that government forces recaptured the al-Shoula oil fields. There is currently no hard evidence that any other points on the Sukhna–Deir al-Zour highway have been recaptured, and it is probable that IS still controls the road along with the villages of Kabajib and al-Shoula. Previous claims (made on the 28th) of al-Shoula’s recapture turned out to be false; it would not at all be surprising if the current claims are false as well.

Another advance was reported near the Deir al-Zour Airbase, where IS captured the villages of Albu Amr and al-Jabayliya on the 28th. One report indicated the Tiger Forces had “fire control” over Albu Amr while another report stated that the Army (without specifying a particular unit) had captured half of said village. If the Tigers are indeed advancing in that area, this, combined with a statement made by Ahmed Abdullah al-Omar, indicates that the Tigers’ next advance will likely be along the west bank of the Euphrates toward the IS capital of al-Mayadin.

Although government forces will inevitably recapture the lost areas like they did Tadmur, the last two days have shown that IS can still be effective and resilient on the battlefield. The attack on al-Qaryatayn in particular shows what kind of attacks may occur in the future once IS becomes a guerilla-only force.

A full-size version of the above map, which was made using data from Google Maps, can be found here. Please note: the map is only a rough estimate of control as definitive reports have been scarce and the status of many of the hills and hamlets that dot the desert landscape is not known.

Map: Oil and Gas Fields of Eastern Syria

Eastern Syria Oil and Gas Map Final

IS frontlines are collapsing. The group, which once governed a “caliphate” stretching from the suburbs of Aleppo to the suburbs of Baghdad to the suburbs of Damascus, has now had its primary area of operations reduced to a lightly populated stretch of Syria’s Deir al-Zour Governorate and Iraq’s Anbar Province.

Each day on the Syrian side, ground is lost to both Syrian government forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an American-backed coalition built around the YPG, which itself originated as the armed wing of the PYD, Syria’s PKK affiliate. Over the years, the SDF has absorbed small FSA-brand rebel groups and tribal militias, and now has a significant Arab component.

Deir al-Zour’s vast energy resources, noted on the map above, are now up for grabs. The expansive al-Omar Oil Fields, located in the triangle between the Iraqi border, the Euphrates, and the Khabur represent the greatest prize. While rumors about the Euphrates being a pre-determined demarcation line between the SDF and government forces have been swirling, it seems that Syria and its Russian sponsor have other plans; Russian pontoon bridges were spotted en route to Deir al-Zour. The government would have no reason to have accepted such an agreement, as it would’ve placed the most valuable oil fields under SDF control.

The SDF, however, seems intent on capturing the oil fields. Several figures on the SDF side have demanded that government forces not cross the Euphrates. These include British Major General Rupert Jones, a deputy commander of the Coalition and Abu Khawla, the commander of the SDF’s Deir al-Zour Military Council. These warnings are not likely to be heeded. It is highly probable that over the next few weeks, government forces will cross the river and attempt to capture some of these oil fields. Short of airstrikes, which are highly unlikely, there is nothing the Coalition or the SDF can do to prevent government forces from crossing the Euphrates.

On 9 September, the SDF launched an offensive named “al-Jazira Tempest“. The offensive seems to be aimed at preemptively blocking a crossing of the Euphrates by government forces. The SDF managed to reach the bank of the Euphrates on 15 September. The next day, a one-off Russian airstrike against the SDF was reported. This strike was probably intended as a warning against SDF attempts to block a government river crossing.

Currently, government forces have not crossed the river, but they do control the river bank villages of al-Jafra and al-Marya’iya, which sit across from IS-controlled villages. This area is where the crossing will probably take place. Once government forces manage to cross the river, a race between them and the SDF to capture the al-Omar oil fields will begin. Some rumors allege that government forces will soon begin a second offensive aimed at al-Bukamal (likely in conjunction with Iraqi forces, who are currently advancing in al-Anbar). If government forces were able to successfully capture al-Bukamal, it would give them an additional advantage, as they would be able to attack the al-Omar Oil Fields from the south as well as the west.

A full-size version of the attached map, which was created using data from Google Maps, can be found here.