Syria: updates on events from around the country (Feb 27 – Mar 5)

Ar-Raqqa: The Raqqa frontline remained fairly quiet as SDF and IS both resupplied, reinforced exhausted units, and prepared for the next phase of combat, which began on March 5th when the SDF launched a sneak attack on IS positions northeast of Raqqa city, capturing several villages and putting pressure on several others.

Dimashq: Syrian Arab Army (SAA) forces continued to slowly advance against opposition elements within the besieged areas of East Ghouta and Qaboun. Multiple skirmishes were recorded but little ground was gained by the SAA, which faced a very entrenched, well-prepared opponent. Numerous air raids and rocket strikes against rebel positions in Qaboun were recorded. Clashes in East Ghouta were also continuous, as three government tanks were destroyed on the front of Hawsh Nasri and four SAA soldiers were captured after heavy fighting in the same area.

Jaish al-Islam soldiers skirmish with attacking SAA in the Qaboun Groves, March 1st.

Aleppo: The SAA continued to capitalize on their previous successes in the countryside of Eastern Aleppo, advancing northeast on the 27th and seizing the villages of Jiega, Khirbet al-Zib, and Mastaleh and linking up with SDF units in the southern Manbij countryside.  Meeting the SDF frontline allowed the SAA to cut off Turkish-backed FSA forces from further advances towards the Euphrates River and the IS stronghold of Deir Hafer, and it also created a pocket of IS fighters trapped between three hostile factions. Despite the SAA advances, the local TFSA continued to seize rural areas south and east of Bzaah, taking Sukkariyah and Sukkariyah Saghirah late into the afternoon of the 27th and collapsing the IS pocket within hours.

Around al-Bab, clashes continued between the SAA and TFSA elements around the town of Tadef, which had been captured by the SAA on the 26th after the collapse of IS defenses in the vicinity of al-Bab. These clashes mostly ceased, however, when TFSA forces began redeploying to the previously static frontline with the SDF on the 27th, laying their eyes on the city of Manbij to the east. Fighting erupted between the SDF and rebel forces spearheaded by Ahrar al-Sham on the 28th, and the rebels captured Umm Adasah and Jubb al-Humra after brief skirmishes forced the SDF defenders to retreat. In retaliation, the SDF shelled the two villages, but were unable to retake their lost ground. They were, however, successful in seizing Jubb Abyad and al-Birah from IS, mere hours after the SAA advanced and captured Tulaylah, Amudiyah, and Jubb al-Sultan, an attack that resulted in the death of prominent IS commander Ibrahim al-Halabi. On the 1st, the SDF counterattacked along the Manbij front against both IS and the TFSA, seizing two villages and farmland from the former and retaking Jubb al-Humra from the latter. The SDF continued to capitalize on the poor state of IS morale in the region by advancing on the 2nd and taking Arbah Sagirah, Arbah Kabirah, and three other villages.

Ahrar al-Sham fighters pose victoriously to the east of the village of Jubb al-Hamra after capturing it from the SDF, March 1st.

As rebel forces were preparing to launch attacks on SDF lines with renewed vigor, an unexpected announcement was made by the SDF and SAA, jointly declaring that they would cooperate in securing the Manbij frontline with the support of the Russian government. The morning of March 2nd saw light skirmishes along the front, but these ceased as news spread of the agreement between the two factions, which would see SAA soldiers deployed into rural western Manbij as well as within the city proper. The situation was further complicated when, beginning on the 3rd, US Special Operations Forces (SOF) vehicles were spotted in Manbij city and the nearby countryside, prompting outrage from Turkish military officials who were unaware of such plans. The official Coalition media outlet announced that the SOF deployed into Manbij would “deter hostile acts, enhance governance, and ensure there is no persistent YPG presence”, however the full scope of the operation remained unclear at the time of deployment.

Farther to the west, on the outskirts of Aleppo city, fighting erupted between Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and SAA personnel on the frontline of al-Zahraa on the 3rd, with multiple ATGM hits on government positions being recorded and at least a dozen SAA soldiers captured. HTS failed to seize any territory, though, and skirmishes continued on the 4th and 5th with no successes for either side. Ahrar al-Sham troops did manage to shoot down an SyAAF Mig-21, however, which landed in Turkish soil; the pilot was retrieved by Turkish security personnel and safely escorted to a local hospital for medical treatment.

Daraa: Faced with a growing threat from IS-affiliated militant group Jaish Khalid ibn al-Walid, several FSA Southern Front units in the Qalamoun barrens area west of Daraa city united to form a new operations room, temporarily called “Yarmouk Operations Room”, on the 28th after the loss of Tell Jamou and the slaying of almost two dozen fighters in an ambush. Disorganization and low morale, however, prevented any successful operations by the new group, which continued to lose rural terrain to Jaish Khalid ibn al-Walid fighters.

Within Daraa city, fighting and clashes continued in the al-Manshiyah neighborhood and nearby Daraa al-Balad, as HTS stubbornly defended previously captured urban territory. Casualties were reported on both sides; on the 1st, three HTS vehicles were destroyed in an ambush north of the city. Two SAA tanks and four supply vehicles were also destroyed by ATGM hits between the 28th and the 3rd. The opposition forces also repelled a significant government counterattack on northern al-Manshiyah on the 4th, although constant airstrikes prevented them from capitalizing on their successful defense.

FSA “Yarmouk Operations Room” artillery targets enemy positions in the eastern Qalamoun, February 28th.

Homs: Continuing their offensive from previous weeks, the SAA captured the summit of Jabal Hayyal overlooking the Palmyra Triangle, and continued to advance against IS in the rural regions north of the Tadmur – Homs Highway. Government forces reentered Mahr Gas Field on the 27th, and captured more segments of Jihar Field that same day. The advances continued on the 28th and the 1st, as IS defenses in the Palmyra Triangle and on Jabal Tar collapsed and the capture of Palmyra Castle and the outskirts of the city was registered on the 1st. By that point, IS fighters were retreating into the eastern and northern countryside, abandoning nearly all points within the city (with the exception of the Tadmur Airport, which held out until the 3rd). Total victory in the city was declared on the 4th, as all areas in the city and its immediate vicinity were recaptured and the SAA overtook checkpoints on the surrounding hills.

The Homs pocket also saw some minor skirmishes between Ahrar al-Sham and local NDF battalions manning checkpoints south of the town of Rastan, beginning on the 1st of March. Ahrar al-Sham, with several rebel allies, launched an attack on a swath of checkpoints near Talbiseh, capturing two checkpoints and reportedly knocking out a T-62 and a ZSU-23. However, no further progress was made.

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