Thursday, September 26, 2013

The wal-‘Adiyat Dabha Offensive in Southern Aleppo

by Charlie Caris and Isabel Nassief

A group of rebel brigades, led by Ahrar al-Sham and Liwa al-Tawheed, have launched an offensive called wal-‘Adiyat Dabha against regime-held towns south of Aleppo city. The offensive comes after several rebel gains in Aleppo over the last two months. Of the brigades involved, five are signatories to the recent Islamic alliance announced by the leader of Liwa al-Tawhid on September 24th.

This area of southern Aleppo was the site of a government offensive focused on securing airbases and supply lines while clearing surrounding towns. In late June, however, the regime was quickly forced to abandon its offensive and return troops to Homs, where rebels had been able to take advantage of the regime’s vulnerability. Since then rebels have made significant gains in Aleppo province, taking control of Khan al-Assal, a town on the western outskirts of Aleppo city, in July. On August 5th, rebel forces led by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham captured Menagh airbase, and later that month rebels also took control of the town of Khanassir, which sits on a critical government supply route between Homs and Aleppo city.

The current rebel offensive was announced on September 20th with the stated objective of “seizing control of the major and secondary supply routes” in the countryside south of Aleppo. The operation, entitled wal-‘Adiyat Dabha (a Quranic phrase roughly translated as “The Panting Chargers”) was advertised as a milestone in cooperation between various rebel battalions in and around Aleppo.

As rebel battalions began their assault last week, the operation gained traction on social media, and Youtube videos appeared bearing a distinct logo specifically designed for wal-‘Adiyat Dabha. The following day Ahrar al-Sham, one of the most prominent partners in the operation, circulated a map showing villages south of Aleppo that the rebels wanted to wrest from regime control. The operational plan, as shown on the map, depicts rebel forces advancing from the west, south, and east, near a regime defense factory, and continuing on towards southern Aleppo city and Nayrab military air base. In the six days since the operation began, rebel forces appear to have stayed true to the map, and claim to have liberated at least 25 villages south of Aleppo city. The newly-liberated villages are: Kafr Hout, al-Zara’a, Kafr Kar, Banan al-Has, Sarj Far’a, Balouza, Burj A’zawi, Madrasa village, Im Jaran, Qanatrat, Samaria, Maghriyat al-Shebli, al-Mayan, al-Manatir, Rasm al-Safa, Rasm Humud, Mazra’a Ali Hussein, Diyman, Sada’aya, Rasm al-Shih, Mazra’a al-Ayoub, Rasm al-Hilwa, Tayeba, Rasm ‘Akirish, and al-Safira.

Pro-Assad forces have responded to the rebel offensive by reinforcing regime strongholds near the airport, shelling contested areas such as as-Safira village, and deploying troops from Nayrab airbase to engage rebels directly in the contested villages. New reports show rebel-fired Grad rockets striking Aleppo International Airport on September 25th, and videos indicate that rebel forces continued to shore up liberated villages including the heavily-contested Madajin area, on September 26th.

Of the rebel battalions we have documented taking part in wal-‘Adiyat Dabha, Ahrar al-Sham, Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Ansar, Kata’ib Nour al-Din al-Zenki, and al-Furqa 19 (aka Liwa Amjad al-Islam) are all signatories to the recent “Islamic alliance.” Other participants include Jabhat al-Na’im al-Islami, Liwa Halab al-Madina al-Islami, Liwa Ahrar Souria, Kata’ib Abu Amara, and al-Furqa 9 Special Forces, although this list may not be exhaustive.

Since the timing and location of this offensive coincide with the newly-announced Islamic alliance and its membership significantly overlaps with the offensive participants, wal-‘Adiyat Dabha might in some respects be viewed as a showcase of the strength of the Islamic alliance signatories. Their capacity to successfully launch operations and gain territory in Aleppo may give the Islamic alliance members additional leverage in talks with General Salim Idris, Chief of Staff of the FSA’s Supreme Military Council (SMC), who has cut his trip to France short in order to meet with alliance members. It might also strengthen the position of alliance members in Aleppo ahead of an impending battle with ISIS, which has taken the border town of Azaz and may be blocking rebel re-supply from that route.

Heavy fighting was ongoing as of the time of writing, and we expect to see additional development as rebel and regime forces continue to maneuver for control of key supply routes throughout Aleppo province. For those who wish to follow reports of this battle on social media sites, “ضبحا العاديات” is the name of the offensive in Arabic. We are also looking for indicators that additional rebel battalions have signed on to the Islamic alliance. A likely candidate for admission is Liwa Ahrar Souria, whose official Facebook page recently removed the FSA symbol from their logo.