Syria: updates on events from around the country (Mar 29 – Apr 5)

Aleppo: For the first time in years, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) entered the city of Deir Hafer east of Aleppo, having surrounded and besieged it in the previous week. Although remnants of Islamic State (IS) resistance remained in the city, much of the northern and western sectors were secured by the SAA on the 29th. Progress farther to the east continued as the SAA rolled IS defenders back to the outskirts of Jirah Airbase, which came under heavy shelling on the 29th and 30th. The SAA were unable to make inroads against the airbase until the 3rd, when they seized the villages of Atshanat Mari and Idrisiyah, rolling right up against the outskirts of the airbase and putting three sides under control of SAA units. The village of Baylan was also seized on the 5th, bringing SAA soldiers within a few hundred meters of the airbase.

The Turkish military elements within Syria remained in Syrian territory despite the announcement of the termination of Euphrates Shield by Ankara. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim officially declared the Euphrates Shield operation “completed” on the 30th, announcing that Turkish troops and equipment would remain in the northern countryside of Aleppo to maintain peace and security and to “prevent unwanted formation” of armed groups. Peace and security, however, were difficult to obtain, as clashes erupted between the SDF and FSA units near Shabha Dam on the 3rd, following a few days of shelling between the two groups along the frontline. Squabbling also broke out in al-Bab as Ahrar al-Sham leaders moved to arrest the leadership of the Kurdish FSA group “Liwa Afhad Saladin”, which prompted tensions in the area.

On the western front, skirmishes continued and shelling was constant. On the 30th, two militia technicals were destroyed by the FSA 1st Coastal Division. On the 31st, Liwa al-Quds launched an attack on the Jamiyat Zahraa front, which was repelled quickly.

Turkish Armed Forces tanks depart from the vicinity of al-Bab after the completion of the Euphrates Shield operation, March 29th.

Hama: Beginning on the 29th, the SAA resumed their counteroffensive against HTS and other rebel forces in the countryside north of Hama, beginning with a heavy bombardment and advancing to the north of Qomhana late that night. On the 30th, the counterattack continued with significant clashes north of Qomhana and south of Khattab, which yielded control of Arzaf and Blhaseen villages to the SAA. Government troops made two assaults on the defenses of Khattab but failed to enter the village before nightfall, leaving two armored vehicles behind after retreating. Continued skirmishing eroded the rebels’ defensive positions, though, and by the morning of the 31st they had retreated from both Majdal and Khattab, yielding control to the SAA. Heavy airstrikes continued that day, as the SAA moved in to secure Majdal and Khattab and skirmished with retreating rebel elements to the north of these towns on the 1st. Despite sustaining heavy casualties in intense clashes with HTS forces, the SAA continued to put pressure on the opposition, shifting their focus to the towns of Souran and Taybat al-Imam after the recapturing of Khattab. Government forces launched an attack on the town of Halfaya as well on the 1st, but suffered significant losses and were forced to retreat back to Mhardeh. By the 3rd, though, more ground was gained to the east, as Ma’ardes and Iskandariyah were retaken, and shelling on Souran softened rebel defenses there.

On the 4th, warplanes reportedly belonging to the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) fired rockets containing an unidentified subtype of nerve gas at what were purportedly military targets in the vicinity of the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun, about 30 kilometers north of the battlefield. The weapons killed at least 100 people, several of them children, and wounded hundreds more within the town. International outrage was immediate, and several international organizations and states demanded punitive action against the regime as UN officials requested access to the impact site. The Syrian Ministry of Defense (MoD) denied the attack, having previously claimed that conventional munitions had impacted a rebel weapons warehouse holding chemical weapons, and rebel forces then denied that they were stockpiling chemical weapons. Rebel units responded to the incident by firing rockets at Mhardeh, killing at least four and wounding several more. HTS shock units also launched an assault on Ma’ardes, retaking the town after an organized retreat by government troops. Government soldiers counterattacked at Ma’ardes and Halfaya but were unable to gain significant ground in either area after initial successes on the outskirts of each town.

A Jaish al-Nasr technical fires on advancing SAA forces during the first counterattack on Khattab, April 1st.

Ar-Raqqa: Clashes continued between IS and SDF elements during the onset of the week, as both sides jockeyed for control of the Euphrates Dam and the SDF began preparations for an assault on Tabqa town itself, following the repulsion of four separate IS attacks on the nearby airbase. On the 31st, SDF units backed up by various elements of the Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) coalition began attacking the town of Safsafa east of the dam, in the hopes of cutting off and besieging Tabqa town. Despite managing to draw closer to Safsafa, the SDF were unable to seize it and besiege Tabqa until the night hours of the 2nd, when IS fighters retreated from their last positions. Heavy fighting erupted on the 4th and 5th as IS attempted to break out of the siege of Tabqa, but at the time of publication were unable to breach the SDF lines.

Homs: Military officials in Damascus made the decision early in the week to restart a previously planned operation to recapture al-Sukhnah and push to Deir-ez-Zor from Tadmur city, with the intention to lift the siege of the DeZ military airbase. Social media posts indicated that tribal fighters would be mobilizing for a new SAA-directed operation in the deserts east of Tadmur, an operation that was confirmed on the 2nd. To the northwest of the city, SAA soldiers advanced from Jazal Oil Field and captured Abu al-Duhur mountain on the 2nd, and made progress in the Jihar Gas Field and the area north of T4 Airbase.

Dimashq: Following up on previous anti-IS operations, FSA elements (primarily the Free Tribal Army and Jaish Usud al-Sharqiyah) advanced and removed all presence of IS forces from the vicinity of al-Seen Airbase on the 30th, killing fifteen IS fighters in the process. In the Qaboun-Barzeh area, SAA units succeeded in restoring the siege of Qaboun on the 1st, regaining ground in the groves and advancing on Tishreen Street to separate the two suburbs. Clashes continued throughout the groves but fighters of Faylaq ar-Rahman were unable to reach Qaboun and suffered moderate casualties in fighting on the 2nd and 3rd.

PLA fighters pose after capturing ground in Qaboun suburb of Damascus, April 3rd.

Deir-ez-Zor: SAA soldiers continued to gain ground in the Deir-ez-Zor Cemetery as clashes between them and IS fighters progressed throughout the week. Another IS assault on the airbase and nearby defenses was repelled on the 2nd, and fighting on the 4th and 5th left nearly a dozen dead on both sides. No major gains were reported, though.

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