Syria: updates on events from around the country (Mar 22 – Mar 28)

Homs: Following the recapture of Tadmur city and the area immediately around it, Syrian Arab Army (SAA) forces continued their operations to force the Islamic State (IS) away from the city. Although operations in the area around Tadmur were overshadowed somewhat by events in nearby Hama province, SAA units continued to gain ground against IS west and north of the city, retaking large parts of Mahr Gas Field and securing the Palmyra Grain Silos once more. Constant airstrikes by both Russian Air Force (RuAF) and Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) aircraft kept pressure on IS forces throughout the week, forcing them to abandon many rural positions. Late in the night on the 26th, the SAA advanced and seized several high points including Jabal Humrah and Jabal ad-Dalil, further strengthening their grip on the city and its vicinity. At least four IS tanks and three technicals were destroyed throughout the week.

Deir-ez-Zor: Units of the SAA and IS fighters continued to clash for control of the city of Deir-ez-Zor, with neither side gaining the upper hand in furious conflict. The government forces, who remain separated in two pockets, failed to reconnect their forces despite heavy assaults on the al-Furat University and its vicinity. Heavy fighting in the cemetery and around the al-Banourama Military Base was recorded on the 22nd and 23rd, with pressure increasing on IS forces who were forced to abandon al-Furat University on the 24th, yielding control of the heavily damaged facility to government troops. In response, IS counterattacked against the airbase and SAA weapons depots in the Ayyash area, capturing a large amount of supplies and munitions but suffering moderate casualties in the failed attack on the airbase. Fighting continued throughout the 26th and the 27th with no immediate gains for either side.

An Islamic State tank shells government positions at the al-Furat University area, March 26th.

Aleppo: With the capture and securing of Khafsah and the countryside around it, the SAA turned their attention southward to Deir Hafer, the last major IS bastion of power in Aleppo governorate following their significant losses in February and early March. Between the 22nd and the 25th, the SAA rolled IS forces back from their positions in the rural areas around Deir Hafer and cut it off from resupply on the 24th by capturing Tell Aqulah and seizing checkpoints along the N4 Highway, putting the city under siege. Fighting broke out on the outskirts of the city on the 25th and 26th, but all attempts by the SAA to enter Deir Hafer itself were foiled by determined, entrenched IS defenders and minefields ringing the city’s suburbs. Although the city remained in IS control, government troops pushed towards the east and recaptured a large swath of rural territory along the N4 Highway, seizing several rural villages and putting more pressure on Jirah Military Airbase.

Tensions around al-Bab continued but did not erupt into direct combat as they did previously. SAA forces retreated from their positions in the suburb of Tadef, yielding much of the town to Euphrates Shield forces, but no fighting was registered. TFSA units did shell and launch attacks on SDF and YPG positions in both Afrin and Manbij regions, but no territory gains were made by either side despite the skirmishes.

Hama: Beginning on the 21st, Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) began a major offensive to drive government troops back to Hama city and put pressure on the city itself. Following heavy bombardment of regime defenses, HTS and allied FSA elements launched furious assaults on Ma’an, Ma’ardes, and the vicinity of Mhardeh, capturing the first two towns along with the village of Kawkab by the 23rd and killing a number of SAA soldiers in the process. Reinforcements were rushed to the front by that point, and as the rebels captured the town of Khattab and began assaulting the crucial strongpoint of Qomhana, the government began a ferocious counteroffensive on Ma’ardes and Kawkab, capturing the latter while forcing rebels to reinforce the former. On the 24th, as the government counterattack began to run out of steam, HTS forces launched a new assault on the village of Kernaz, with the goal of encircling it and putting pressure on nearby towns. However, this attack failed after the capture of three villages, as rebel forces were forced to retreat due to heavy artillery shelling and constant airstrikes by the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF).

Fighting on the 25th was focused on Qomhana and the village of Ma’arzaf, with the rebels briefly recapturing Kawkab as well before being forced to retreat after a determined counterattack by Hezbollah squads. Three separate HTS assaults on the defenses of Qomhana were repelled, and the SAA managed to retain their battle lines at Ma’arzaf despite significant artillery and TOW strikes on their defenses. HTS again attempted to breach the lines at Qomhana on the 26th, and although they succeeded initially the gap was plugged by SAA reinforcements from farther south, and rebel elements were forced to retreat back to the outskirts of Khattab, yielding control of the countryside north of Qomhana and the crucial high ground at Tal al-Sammam to government soldiers. Fighting also occurred on the 27th but few gains were made, other than the SAA advancing in rural ground south of Mhardeh.

Ahrar al-Sham armored vehicles advance against regime battle lines east of Kernaz, March 28th.

Dimashq: Following several days’ worth of gains by HTS units in Jobar and Qaboun, the SAA 4th Division managed to undo some of their successes and retook several areas of the Jobar Industrial Area on the 22nd after heavy fighting. Combat continued throughout the week with some minor gains being made by the SAA, but little else to report.

In the deserts east of Damascus, FSA elements have forced IS out of nearly all of their positions, with the exception of the vicinity of al-Seen Airbase. After the capture of Tall Dakhwa and Tall Skhana, IS forces retreated from the Dirat al-Tulul area of the Badiyat, leaving behind some gear and weapons that were taken by FSA forces. It is unclear at the time of publication whether or not FSA units intend to press onwards towards al-Seen Airbase, which would threaten SAA soldiers there.

Ar-Raqqa: Following several days’ worth of secretive preparations, on the 22nd a joint offensive by SDF personnel and United States Special Operations Forces (SOF) fighters was launched on both Euphrates Dam and the al-Shurfa peninsula west of the dam. Special forces units were airdropped into the peninsula area as SDF forces launched a surprise attack on the dam, forcing IS fighters from their positions and capturing it within hours. After securing the dam on the 23rd, SDF fighters continued to push south from the peninsula and on the 24th, captured Tabqa Airbase and the nearby village of al-Ajil. With the assistance of Coalition forces both in the air and on the ground, they were able to repel an IS counterattack on the 25th and killed one of the more prominent foreign IS commanders in Raqqa, the German officer going by the nom du guerre of Abu Omar al-Almani. Tabqa Airbase was fully secured on the 26th after IS withdrew from the vicinity.

Attacks on the Euphrates Dam occurred on the 26th and 27th, sparking both local and international fears that damage to the structure would cause a catastrophic flooding incident. Although IS fighters attempted to recapture the dam multiple times on the 26th, they were unsuccessful, and a team of engineers dispatched to the location to examine it following the battle found no major structural issues. Fighting continued into the late hours of the 28th, and to the north SDF forces advanced against IS at al-Mazlum and south of Suwaydiyah al-Kabirah, seizing some small rural hamlets in their renewed offensive.

Daraa: In an unprecedented move, several FSA regiments (primarily Usud al-Sharqiyah and the Ahmed Abdo Martyrs’ Brigade) evicted IS elements from nearly all of the Sweida Government, launching a major offensive to seize vast swathes of the rural, arid Badiyat that IS has occupied for some time. Aggressive attacks on al-Safa and the ar-Ruhba areas resulted in IS retreating, and the capture of Bir Qassab on the 27th deprived IS of its only real bastion of power in the area.

SDF fighters overlook one of the runoff channels of the Euphrates near the captured dam, March 26th.

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