Syrian army advances deeper into Idlib rebel heartland as thousands flee

Syrians displaced by fighting in southern Idlib take shelter near the Bab al-Hawa crossing on January 4. Photo by Zein Al Rifai/AFP.

AMMAN: Syrian government forces continued a swift advance into the southern countryside of the largest remaining rebel stronghold in the country on Monday, capturing villages and rolling back rebel gains made more than two years ago in an ongoing drive towards a strategic military airbase.

Units of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) backed by airstrikes, artillery fire and allied militias have advanced approximately 24km into Idlib province from northern Hama over the past week, capturing dozens of villages and towns amid an apparent collapse of rebel defenses.

An SAA field commander told Syrian state news outlet SANA on January 5 that government forces had “adopted a policy of attacking at many points and axes to surprise and scatter the terrorist organizations,” to which he attributed the “swift collapse.”

The speed of the latest, week-long government drive into southeastern Idlib province has sparked accusations by activists and media reports that opposition forces had withdrawn from their positions in southern Idlib without putting up a fight.

Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham—the rebel coalition that is militarily dominant in Idlib province, and which held control of most areas the SAA captured in recent days—posted a statement online on Sunday denying accusations that its fighters had withdrawn from their positions in southeastern Idlib and asserting that “HTS did not abandon the fronts for a single moment.”

A military source with HTS told Syria Direct on Monday that “violent clashes” were ongoing with government forces. The source asserted that rebels are now “preparing for massive military action” in the coming days, requesting anonymity.

Battles between rebel forces and pro-government troops began in northeastern Hama province in October 2017. By mid-December, the Syrian army and allied militias had advanced northwards and captured several villages and towns inside Idlib province for the first time since rebels took full control of it in 2015, Syria Direct reported.

Advancing government forces are currently heading towards the Abu a-Dhuhur Military Airport after capturing the town of Sinjar, 11km to the south, on Sunday. The Abu a-Dhuhur airport in southeastern Idlib was a major government military installation in the province prior to its capture in 2015.

Jabhat a-Nusra, now known as Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, the leading component of HTS, captured the airbase in September 2015 following a lengthy siege. After taking the airbase, rebel fighters captured and executed 56 government soldiers.

Three weeks after Abu a-Dhuhur fell in 2015, Russia began its intervention in Syria in support of the government of Bashar al-Assad. More than two years later, opposition media sources and actors on the ground told Syria Direct on Monday that Russian warplanes are conducting airstrikes in southern Idlib in support of the current government ground advance in southern Idlib. Russian state media has not reported Moscow’s participation in the offensive.

Mahmoud Mahmoud, a spokesman for the rebel faction Jaish al-Izza which has been fighting the current government offensive in the northern Hama countryside adjoining southern Idlib for months, told Syria Direct on Monday that “the intensity of preliminary bombings” had facilitated the latest swift government advance.

The same SAA commander quoted by SANA on January 5 also emphasized the “support of airpower to isolate and distract the terrorists,” including strikes on “headquarters” in towns far behind the frontlines.

Mahmoud called coordination between opposition factions in the area “poor and erratic,” particularly concerning the establishment of defensive lines. “We are seeing cases where the first line of defense is broken and we lose a huge stretch of land because there is no second or third line of defense,” he said.

The rebel spokesman denied recent reports that a joint operations room had been established between all factions in southern Idlib and northern Hama, but stated that “meetings are taking place.” Syria Direct could not independently confirm or deny the existence of an active operations room.

Ahrar a-Sham, the defeated rival of HTS in Idlib, released a statement on Sunday decrying its “weak capacity” following recent infighting with the hardline coalition and declared that its fighters would support other factions to “defend our religion, our land, our people and our honor.”

‘Largest wave of internal displacement’

Accompanying weeks of government advances, heavy aerial and ground bombardments by pro-government forces have reportedly killed scores of people in southern Idlib and neighboring Hama while sparking mass displacement.

Idlib province is part of a “de-escalation zone” established in an agreement brokered by Iran, Turkey and Russia in Astana, Kazakhstan last year. However, HTS is not included in the terms of the agreement.

Dozens of airstrikes and missiles killed at least 14 people in towns throughout the Idlib countryside on Monday alone, a source with the Idlib Civil Defense told Syria Direct.

Syrians displaced by fighting in southern Idlib take shelter near the Bab al-Hawa crossing on January 4. Photo by Zein Al Rifai/AFP.

A massive blast in central Idlib city on Sunday night killed nearly 30 people and injured an estimated 100 more, according to the Civil Defense. Reports about the nature of the blast—which allegedly struck near an HTS-linked training center—ranged from a car bomb to an airstrike or drone attack. No party has taken responsibility for the bombing.

Ahmad a-Shami, who works with a group of nonpartisan volunteers in the Idlib countryside gathering statistics for local councils and aid organizations, told Syria Direct on Monday that nearly 120,000 people had fled their homes in eastern Hama and southern Idlib between December 15 and January 6.

“This is the largest wave of internal displacement that Idlib province has seen,” a-Shami said, asking not to be identified by his real name. Of Idlib’s 2.5 million residents, just under half—or 1.1 million—are internally displaced people, according to the United Nations.

Syria Direct could not independently confirm the number of people displaced by the latest fighting. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees previously reported on January 4 that more than 60,000 people had fled their homes in Hama and Idlib between November 1 and December 24. Updated statistics are not available for the latest period of government advances and displacement.

Three displaced south Idlib residents described “systematic and intense” bombings and a surprisingly fast regime advance in conversations with Syria Direct on Monday.

“Our area had not seen any clashes before,” said Khaled al-Jasim, a 44-year-old from a town near Sinjar who fled his home to a camp near the Turkish border with his elderly parents eight days ago. “We had heard news of the advances, but we didn’t expect the regime would advance with this speed.”

“Then the bombings began….it was like a movie: people panicking in the streets, houses being bombed, fires burning inside them,” recalled al-Jasim. “No words can describe it.”

Al-Jasim and hundreds of others are sleeping out in the open near the al-Tanmiya displacement camp, one of many overcrowded camps clustered along the border between Turkey and northwestern Aleppo province. Collectively, the settlements are known as the Atma camps.

The Turkish Red Crescent is currently setting up a camp in the Kafr Lousein area near the Atma camps to serve 800 newly displaced families, spokesman Ahmad Ahmad told Syria Direct. However, the settlement is not yet open for residents.

In al-Tanmiya, “there is no room, no shelter, no tents,” camp director Abu al-Nour Uthman told Syria Direct on Monday.

Despite the camp’s lack of services, “since areas started falling to the regime, not a day or hour has gone by that cars filled with people have not come to us,” said Uthman.