Syria: updates on events from around the country (Feb 20 – Feb 27)

Aleppo: Beginning on the 20th, small-scale skirmishes erupted west of the Aleppo suburb of Dhahiyet al-Assad between elements of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), with clashes resulting in control of several checkpoints by SAA soldiers. Fighting continued on the 21st and 22nd, with control of Souq al-Aqrab and Souq al-Jebes passing over to the SAA. The SAA made two attempts at assaulting al-Rashideen district on the 24th and the 25th, but were repelled both times by HTS fighters. A final third attempt yielded control of all of Rashideen 4 and parts of Rashideen 5, which were secured by the SAA early in the morning of the 27th.

In al-Bab, Euphrates Shield forces (including armored cavalry and M60T Sabra tanks belonging to Turkish armed forces) resumed attacking Islamic State (IS) positions in the western neighborhoods of the city, seizing al-Salam Sports Center, several restaurants, and parts of al-Qoublia neighborhood after heavy fighting on the 20th. The advances continued on the next day, as Ahrar al-Sham and Division 13 forces led the offensive with heavy support by both Turkish armor and warplanes. Parts of al-Zamzam neighborhood were recaptured, as well as the al-Kaf roundabout and two mosques in the southern sector of al-Zamzam. On the 22nd, the al-Bab Cemetery and several major civics buildings were captured by TFSA forces, and a counterattack by IS in al-Zamzam was repelled.

Finally in the early hours of the 23rd, after months of heavy fighting and constant back-and-forth territory captures, the city of al-Bab was yielded to TFSA and Turkish forces. IS fighters reportedly retreated in the night, evacuating untenable positions within the city as well as retreating from Qabasin and Bzaah, deeming the towns indefensible in the wake of losing the city itself. TFSA forces flooded into the abandoned city, and established control over crucial points while beginning demining operations in several of the eastern neighborhoods. While the TFSA and Turkish forces counted their losses and pulled reinforcements up to the frontline, the SAA assaulted Tadef and within the span of eight hours of fighting captured it from IS elements on the 26th. Silence briefly reigned in al-Bab. However, late in the night on the 26th, clashes ensued between local TFSA forces (Liwa Sultan Murad, Ahrar Shariqyah) and SAA soldiers in Tadef, and these clashes intensified as armor and heavy weapons were brought into the fray.

Members of the FSA 51st Brigade stand victorious in al-Bab after IS fled the city, February 23rd.

In the eastern countryside of the Aleppo governorate, SAA Tiger Forces soldiers continued to take rural ground from IS east of Kweires Airbase. Rasm al-Kama and the adjacent checkpoints were taken on the 20th, and on the 21st the advance continued to the east as Rasm Harmal al-Imam was also taken. Progress was stifled by heavy clashes on the 22nd, but on the 23rd the SAA continued their push and captured Rasm Harmal, Rasm al-Sheikh, and Rasm al-Khabbaz with only minimal casualties in their ranks. On the 24th and 25th, the advances continued with the capture of Umm Kharaz, Qasr al-Bureij, and several smaller villages around Jabal Sulaim, with IS constantly retreating under heavy fire from artillery and aircraft. On the 26th, Manazar al-Jaref and Shanhasa also passed into SAA hands after fighting on the southern edge of  Jabal Sulaim.

Ar-Raqqa: In yet another rapid advance with the aid of Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) aircraft, the SDF captured seven villages in far eastern Raqqa province on the 20th and 21st, increasing the measures of pressure on IS elements in the rural region east of the city. IS briefly counterattacked and recaptured the town of Qaryat Sukkar, but they were forced to retreat in the early hours of the 21st. The following day, a pocket was formed in rural eastern Raqqa following the capture of Abu Hayyah and as-Shamiya, and several other hamlets were captured as the SDF constantly advanced, reducing the pocket by nearly 50% by nightfall and completely collapsing it on the 23rd. Finding little more than skeleton crews guarding the remote villages of the pocket, the SDF suffered relatively few casualties, with only a few fighters reportedly killed.

The front was fairly stable until the 25th, when the SDF again began gaining ground east of ar-Raqqa, capturing Qamar, Hilo, and several small farming hamlets and advancing into Deir-ez-Zor Governorate for the first time. Fighting continued on the 26th with no major ground gains for either side, although several news groups reported that IS was mobilizing weaponry and fighters from Deir-ez-Zor and moving them to the Raqqa frontline to try and stall the unfazed SDF.

Homs: Heavy shelling on the al-Wa’er neighborhood of Homs city was registered on the 21st. Following this, a significant car bombing attack was conducted on the 25th, targeting a government security station and killing 30. Shelling resumed on Wa’er following that incident. Farther east, however, the SAA continued their steady advance towards Tadmur, reaching the outskirts of the “Palmyra Triangle” and firing on IS positions on Jabal Hayyan, which overlooks the city.

NDF fighters pose over dead IS in the rural areas north of the Bayarat farmlands, February 24th.

Dimashq: Farther to the north of Wadi Barada, in the Anti-Lebanon Mountains, negotiations for the security of the opposition-held town of Sirghaya resulted in the commencement of evacuations from the town on the 20th, as rebel forces agreed to move to Idlib with the assistance of government soldiers.

The operation to seize the rebel-held bastions of Qaboun and Barzeh began in earnest on the 20th, with on-and-off fighting occurring on the 21st and 22nd and forward units of the SAA Republican Guard managing to enter Qaboun on the night of the 22nd. Following unprecedented losses and heavy bombardment by government planes, the rebel forces in Qaboun sued for a ceasefire and reconciliation on the 23rd, but negotiations quickly fell apart and fighting resumed in the area by the next day.

Deir-ez-Zor: The front of Deir-ez-Zor was marked by heavy fighting and constant airstrikes throughout the week, as the SAA attempted once again to restore security in the city and reconnect the two besieged pockets of resistance against IS. On the 22nd, Tall Alloush to the west of al-Furat University was secured by the SAA, giving them fire control over the university and its adjacent facilities and outlying buildings.

In the early morning, an SAA soldier mans a DshK machine gun at the Banourama Military Base, February 23rd.

Daraa: In the Qalamoun barrens, IS affiliate Jaish Khalid ibn al-Walid began a new offensive against FSA organizations (Jaish Usud al-Sharqiyah, Liwa Tawhid, Faylaq ar-Rahman) in the rural areas west of Daraa city, advancing and capturing several villages including the crucial town of Sahm al-Jawhlan, north of Jawhlan Dam. An attempted counteroffensive spearheaded by Ahrar al-Sham was blunted by stiff resistance from Jaish Khalid ibn al-Walid, which proceeded to push even further, capturing Adwan, Kafr as Samir, and Jallin among other towns. Captured rebel fighters were executed and their weapons were repossessed by the IS fighters, who were not only able to hold their newly captured ground but also pushed further in the following days.

In Daraa city and the surrounding areas, the SAA assisted by Hezbollah units counterattacked in the al-Manshiyah district, which had been previously captured by rebel forces loyal to HTS. Heavy fighting occurred as the SAA recaptured some areas of al-Manshiyah, and several vehicles on both sides were destroyed in bloody urban combat.

 

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