Syria: updates on events from around the country (Feb 12 – Feb 19)

Daraa: Despite reports of a repulsed offensive, conflicting reports continued to flow in about gains made by Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in the district of al-Manshiyah. Fighting on the 12th was heavy as HTS media claimed the capture of the al-Najar fortifications and several blocks of the Daraa city suburb, forcing Syrian Arab Army (SAA) units to begrudgingly give ground on both the 12th and the 13th. As Jaish al-Fateh and local Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces joined in the fray, the opposition captured Masjid al-Bilal and surrounding residential blocks. Fierce fighting in the Manshiyah district continued throughout the rest of the week, but the rebel offensive ground to a halt and the opposition was put on the defensive as constant artillery barrages bombarded their positions and as SAA fighters began fierce counterattacks from multiple directions. By the end of the week, however, the FSA and HTS still held most of Manshiyah district, with only minor territory losses.

SAA fighters defend a checkpoint under attack by HTS fighters in Daraa, February 13th.

In the Qalamoun barrens, after a week of light skirmishes, the FSA-affiliated armed group Usud al-Shariqyah made progress against Islamic State (IS) ally Jaish Khalid ibn al-Walid. The IS affiliate retreated from the villages of al-Qara and al-Diyatha after significant fighting, yielding weapons and supplies as they pulled back on the 13th. Lowkey skirmishes continued through the 20th, with one IS technical knocked out by a rocket and two FSA commanders assassinated by a roadside bomb.

Aleppo: After a failed assault on the Islamic State-held town of Tadef, the SAA launched a new operation to the east of the village of Ayoshia, seizing Taftiyah, Abu Jabr, and Magharah Abu Jabr from IS. As the frontlines at Tadef remained static, the Turkish-backed FSA forces on the western side of the city of al-Bab advanced to al-Rai roundabout and captured more ground south of Vilat neighborhood, with fighting continuing into the 13th. By the 14th, however, IS had reversed most of the gains that the TFSA had made since the 12th, repelling them as they attempted to attack Vilat and pushing them out of Zamzam and away from al-Dilal and al-Rai roundabouts. Further attempts by the TFSA on the 15th and 16th to attack Zamzam neighborhood were repulsed by determined IS defenders, who refused to yield ground despite furious artillery and airstrikes from Turkish forces. Farther to the south, the SAA secured Bijan, Tell Bijan, and Mashrafat Abu Jabr from IS forces, as they continued to push east in the direction of Assad Lake.

On the 17th, TSFA forces retreated from all their holdings in Sheikh Aqil and Vilat, falling back to the countryside outside of the city and resorting to shelling to try and soften up IS defenders. Parts of Jabal Sheikh Aqil remained in FSA hands, but a fierce IS counterattack on the mountain and adjacent al-Hikmah Hospital forced the rebels back by nightfall, and nearly all gains in northern al-Bab were reversed. On the 18th, TFSA forces were forced even farther back, losing parts of the Shihabi farms in the northern area of the city as well as the bakery and commercial districts just north of the grain silos. Virtually all of the city and its outskirts were recaptured by IS fighters, with casualties in the TFSA ranks heavy with little success to show for it. However, a counterattack by the TFSA with air support has reportedly recaptured the Hikmah Hospital and its vicinity; at the time of this publication, the northern entrance to the city and the southern al-Rai roundabout had also been recaptured.

FSA drone footage of Dalil Roundabout showcases their retreat to previously-held positions, February 16th.

Homs: On the 13th, the SAA recaptured Majbal Asphalt Plant from IS, forcing them back into the village of Bayarat and the surrounding fruit groves. Bayarat and the agricultural areas of Tarfah Gharbiyah fell to the SAA on the next day, who have been consistently receiving support from the Russian Air Force (RuAF).

Fighting continued on the 14th and 15th without any territory gains, although the SAA lost two tanks to IS ATGM strikes. On the 16th, IS retreated from Hayyan Gas Plant, and the heavily damaged plant was retaken and secured by SAA forces as heavy combat continued on the frontline at Tarfah Gharbiyah, which had seen several exchanges of territory.

Hama: The Hama theatre saw a continuation of infighting between the belligerent breakaway rebel faction Liwa al-Aqsa (previously under the now-disbanded banners of Jund al-Aqsa) and HTS, which intervened after Jaish al-Nasr and Jaish al-Izza lost most of the major towns and checkpoints in the countryside to Liwa al-Aqsa fighters. Leadership of HTS legitimized their intervention by making takfir on Liwa al-Aqsa after the execution of nearly 100 captured rebel fighters by Liwa al-Aqsa.

The fighting quickly reduced Liwa al-Aqsa’s territory in Hama to just the towns of Khan Sheikhoun, Morek, and Hish, and on the 16th negotiations between the two groups put the former two towns back into HTS hands. Liwa al-Aqsa still held onto Souran and parts of Tayybat al-Imam, but fighting ceased temporarily as negotiations for those two towns continued, with no progress made by the 20th.

Ar-Raqqa: The week began with a blistering counteroffensive by IS on Tabqa Dam and Suwaydiyah Kabirah, an offensive that ended disastrously as well-prepared SDF forces repulsed the attackers and killed at least 40. The frontlines then remained fairly quiet until the 16th, when the SDF began advancing again, capturing Hassan Zaid and Siadun villages and putting pressure on the town of Makman. SDF elements advanced again on the 17th to capture Tell Zamuk and Azman, and then again on the 18th seized several hamlets west of Makman and fought fierce engagements with IS fighters on multiple frontlines, which resulted in the retreat of IS from Balah, Bir Adman, and several smaller hamlets. An attempt by IS to counterattack from Makman failed, with significant casualties among their ranks.

An SDF armored vehicle stops to refuel after capturing nearby IS positions, February 19th.

Deir-ez-Zor: All attempts by the SAA to reconnect the besieged pockets ground to a halt, as IS resistance was heavy and poor weather limited reconnaissance and assault flights by both the Syrian Air Force and their RuAF counterparts. On the 17th, fighting erupted south of al-Furat University as IS attempted a counterattack; while unsuccessful, they destroyed a 57mm gun and a BMP-1 in the process of fighting. Another offensive on the al-Banourama military base and its vicinity by IS on the 18th was repulsed, with unknown casualties.

Dimashq: The Damascus front saw little action outside of the East Ghouta area, as clashes on the front of Hawsh Nasri were continuous, with the SAA failing to penetrate Jaish al-Islam defensive lines in the vicinity. Fighting in Qaboun suburb also erupted, as the promised operation to recapture Qaboun and Barzeh began in earnest on the 18th.

Civilians film the aftermath of a government bombing run on residential areas of Qaboun, February 18th.
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