East Ghouta’s Central Sector Fully Controlled by Syrian Government Forces

Operation Damascus Steel - 31 Mar 2018.png

Our previous article on Operation Damascus Steel (the ongoing military offensive in East Ghouta) can be found here.

On 31 March, the last buses from East Ghouta’s Central Sector (which consists of Irbin, Zamalka, Ayn Terma, Jobar, and Hazeh) left the area on their way to Greater Idlib. These buses were the last of a total of 710 buses which have evacuated rebels, their families, and anti-government civilians from the area over the past eight days.

Number of Evacuees (According to pro-Syrian Government sources)

Date Number of Buses Number of Total Evacuees Number of Militants
24 March 17 981 Not given
25 March 81 5,440* Not given
26 March 100 6,749 1,620
27 March 101 6,432 1,521
28 March 89 5,290 1,374
29 March 128 7,003 2,143*
30 March 129 6,279* 1,968
31 March 65 2,935 927
Total 710 41,109 >9,553

*Alternately, 5,435, 1,243 (probably a typo), and 6,276

With more than 41,000 people moved, this evacuation effort is the most massive to take place thus far during the Syrian Civil War. The evacuees included around 10,000 rebels, most of whom belonged to Faylaq al-Rahman, the dominant rebel faction in the Central Sector. A smaller number belonged to the Salafi-Jihadi group Tahrir al-Sham.

ghouta groups diagram - 31 March

Negotiations are still ongoing in regards to the ultimate fate of the massive rebel group Jaysh al-Islam, based in the city of Douma. All speculation should be taken with a grain of salt until an actual agreement is published.

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

A full-size version of the chart can be found here.


East Ghouta Rebel Factions Fall Like Dominoes

Operation Damascus Steel - 24 Mar 2018

On Sunday, 18 February, the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) initiated a heavy aerial bombardment of the rebel held East Ghouta pocket – the opening salvo in a campaign known as Operation Damascus Steel. The ground offensive began a week later, on 25 February. Contrary to some expectations (and wishful thinking), rebel defenses have collapsed and pro-government forces have scored victory after victory for a month. The green-eyed Syrian flag now casts its shadow on perhaps 80% of the land area of the old East Ghouta pocket; the remnants of the rebels are besieged in the urban areas and have already capitulated or are negotiating their surrender.

The Syrian government and the Russians (who are reportedly involved in the negotiations) have taken advantage of the deep divisions between the Ghouta factions and have engaged in separate negotiations with the groups. The government’s strategy of military action combined with aggressive negotiations has paid off, and the factions have fallen like dominoes.  Four of the five groups – among them several thousand fighters – have surrendered after just 27 days of ground operations.

Status of East Ghouta Rebel Groups

The first to go was a small, semi-independent group in Hammouriyah named Liwa Abu Musa al-Ashari (LAMA). LAMA split from Faylaq al-Rahman in October 2016 as part of Alwiyat al-Majd but was coerced into rejoining in May 2017. However, LAMA never fully integrated with Rahman, and Rahman reportedly attacked its headquarters in Hammouriyah on 11 December. It’s hardly a surprise that the group took the first chance it got to surrender to the Syrian government. When pro-government forces reached the edge of Hammouriyah on 15 March, the group immediately handed the town over. It’s fighters, numbering no more than 150, along with a small number of civilian relatives and supporters, were evacuated to Greater Idlib on the same day.

Next to capitulate was Ahrar al-Sham in Harasta. On 21 March, after a few days of on-again, off-again fighting and negotiations, the group agreed to vacate the town. The evacuation was massive, spanning two days (22 and 23 March), making use of 89 buses, and involving 4,386 individuals, 1,413 of whom were militants. Judging by these numbers, the vast majority of the Ahrar fighters chose to relocate to Greater Idlib rather than reconcile with the Syrian government. These fighters will add strength to Jahbat Tahrir Suriya (JTS), the Ahrar-led coalition which has been batting HTS for supremacy in Greater Idlib for five weeks (the fighting has died down since early March, but clashes continue to occur on a daily basis).

Two days after Ahrar’s surrender, Faylaq al-Rahman – the faction which dominates East Ghouta’s “Central Sector” (Irbin, Zamalka, and Ayn Terma) and was once regarded as an example of a well-run and resilient FSA-brand group – suffered a catastrophic collapse. In hours, Pro-Government forces captured the city of Ayn Terma in full (for comparison, pro-government forces spent weeks during a Summer 2017 offensive struggling to capture a few blocks of that city). That same day, Rahman agreed to follow in the footsteps of Ahrar and ride Syria’s signature Damascus-Idlib bus route.

The exact details of the evacuation are not yet fully clear, with Ivan Sidorenko reporting that the operation will begin at 9:00 on 24 March (today) at the al-Ghubayr mosque in Irbin. Riam Dalati, on the other hand, reports that it will begin no earlier than the 25th.

The deal includes a prisoner/hostage exchange, Russian assistance, and a provision that allows Rahman to take light weapons and other items (heavy weapons are not allowed, and Rahman has already begun destroying them; HQs and depots went up in flames on the 23rd, before the start of the evacuation).

The official Faylaq al-Rahman twitter account has remained conspicuously silent in wake of the deal.

Faylaq al-Rahman is not known to have any significant presence in Idlib; the group’s only major presence outside of Ghouta is in the East Qalamoun (Nasiriyah-Jayroud-Ruhaybah pocket). It is not clear if the group will be able to successfully reconstitute itself in Idlib. If it is not, its fighters will wither return to civilian life of join one of the plethora of groups active in Idlib. Assuming Rahman does remain intact, the question that will immediately have to be faced is what to do in regards to the ongoing infighting in Idlib.

Within the Ghouta pocket, Rahman has had better relations with HTS than with either Jaysh al-Islam or Ahrar al-Sham (Note: JaI and Ahrar are allies and the northern branch of JaI merged with Ahrar in early 2017). However, bad blood aside, Rahman is ideologically far closer to JTS than to HTS, and Rahman occasionally denounces HTS in its media releases. Furthermore, other FSA groups that were previously sympathetic to HTS sided with JTS in the latest round of infighting. Thus, a Rahman-HTS alliance is incredibly unlikely. It’s more likely that Rahman – assuming it survives as an independent group – declares support for JTS or chooses to remain neutral. Another possibility is that Rahman becomes part of Turkish-backed anti-YPG coalition sometimes known as the TFSA. This option would be complicated by the fact that the Turkish border with Greater Idlib is controlled fully by HTS. However, one pro-rebel social media source reports evacuees will have the option of going to al-Bab. If this is true, it indicates Turkey intends to recruit some of Faylaq al-Rahman to the TFSA.

Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), embedded in Faylaq al-Rahman territory, is also included in the most recent evacuation deal. The group has only a minor presence in East Ghouta; its importance has declined since taking large losses during April-May 2017 clashes. This small presence, however, has played an outsize role in propaganda, frequently being used by pro-government media to justify attacks on East Ghouta and by Jaysh al-Islam to justify attacks on Faylaq al-Rahman. Its evacuation will have little effect aside from providing a minuscule boost to HTS in Idlib.

Jaysh al-Islam (JaI), based in Douma, is the one East Ghouta group that has not yet fallen. On social media, Jaysh al-Islam supporters like to portray their group as more hawkish and confrontational toward the Syrian government than its rivals in Ghouta. However, in light of JaI’s poor performance on the Hawsh al-Dawahirah front and the fact that its stronghold of Douma will soon be completely isolated and surrounded by Syrian troops, it’s hard to imagine JaI holding out for much more than a week or two. One thing that is for certain is that JaI will soon be reunited with the groups it once clashed with in exile.

It is reported that JaI has agreed to release around 3,500 hostages (including a large number of Alawites kidnapped from Adra in 2013 – the same ones seen in an infamous November 2015 video being used by JaI as caged human shields). This agreement is likely part of a larger agreement still in negotiation that will provide for JaI’s evacuation.

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

Rebels Launch Attack on Vehicle Base Near Damascus

East Ghouta - 15 Nov 2017.png

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 As’ad 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.


Map: The Situation Near Kati Island

Kati Island Map-Final.png

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

N-E Hama Map.png

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.