Friday, October 18, 2013

Regime Counterpunch in Southern Aleppo

by Valerie Szybala and Charlie Caris

In late September the Syrian military launched an offensive to reopen a crucial eastern route between Hama and southern Aleppo. This route – which arcs east from Hama, through the desert and up through the Safira plain – provides an alternative to the main highway between Aleppo and Hama which is largely under rebel control. The regime lost control of large portions of the route in the September rebel wal-‘Adiyat Dabha [“The Panting Chargers”] offensive in southern Aleppo province. If the regime can gain control of this eastern route, it will gain a critical lifeline to forces stationed at the Nayrab and Kuweires air bases and as-Safira military base and chemical weapons facilities. Kuweires has been largely restricted to aerial resupply for several months due to ongoing rebel siege, and battles for control around Nayrab and as-Safira have made regular ground resupply difficult for the Syrian army.

Map by Isabel Nassief
The first indications of the regime counteroffensive came on September 27-28 when Syrian activists on social media began reporting sightings of a large military convoy with well over 100 vehicles leaving from the area of the Hama Military Airport. Video footage from one source suggests that the convoy was comprised primarily of civilian trucks as opposed to military vehicles. Reports that the convoy consisted of 200-250 vehicles by the time that it left the vicinity of Hama city, as well as conflicting reports of smaller convoys of different sizes and composition, indicate that the initial column of supply trucks sighted near the Hama Military Airport joined with other forces prior to departing from the vicinity of Hama city. It is clear from later reporting and video evidence that the larger convoy which departed eastward contained significant armed elements, some suggesting that it included up to 25 T-72 tanks, in addition to a large number of personnel carriers, BMP attack vehicles, and support helicopters. Some sources also indicated the possible presence of irregular forces – including Hezbollah and the National Defense Forces (NDF) – within or alongside the regime convoy. While it is plausible that conventional regime forces are operating in an integrated manner with irregular forces, which has been observed since the battle of al-Qusayr, it is not confirmed in this case, and remains unclear how such forces would interact with regular armed units in terms of roles and responsibilities. The regime’s deployment of integrated forces warrants further study, but for now the presence of Hezbollah deep in Aleppo province cannot be validated.

After leaving Hama, the convoy moved east through as-Salamiya, which lies on the highway to al-Raqqa. The large size of this convoy, composed apparently of supply trucks, point the regime’s ultimate goal of resupplying its besieged troops at the air bases and as-Safira.

There are no reports of rebel engagements during the first part of the convoy’s journey, likely because the desert route is sparsely populated east of Hama. Upon reaching the village of al-Athriya, the convoy turned north towards rebel-controlled Khanasir, an important link in the Salamiya-Aleppo ground supply route. Rebel forces first seized control of the town in late August and continued to liberate a number of other villages in southern Aleppo throughout September as part of the wal-‘Adiyat Dabha operation. Prior to August, however, Khanasir was regime-controlled, and rebels were limited to long-distance rocket attacks on passing supply convoys in order to disrupt regime combat service support in Aleppo.

Just before arriving to Khanasir, reports indicate the regime convoy paused for a few days on September 30 near the village of al-Qurabatiya, just 5 km south of Khanasir, to receive additional reinforcements from Hama. During this time, regime planes and helicopters saturated Khanasir and surrounding villages with barrel bombs, more than 30 by some accounts, as well as shelling, in order to prepare the area for a ground assault. When the regime forces began to move into Khanasir, rebel forces were quickly outgunned, and by October 3, the city had fallen back into regime hands. The use of barrel bombs, which are basically improvised explosive devices dropped from planes and helicopters, by regime forces has become increasingly visible in recent months, particularly in Idlib and Aleppo provinces. These barrel bombs, which are not precision guided, are generally filled with oil, explosives, and metal, which sends shrapnel out over a wide area for maximum effect. Their heavy use in areas where the regime has a lighter ground presence could be indicative of a scorched earth policy of indiscriminate destruction to regain rebel-held territory. It could also point to decreasing reserves of standard ordinances and greater difficulty the regime faces in receiving new weapons shipments from abroad.

From Khanasir, the regime continued to press northward towards as-Safira on a route that skirts the shores of Lake Jabbul. Unlike the desert highway outside of Hama, both this route and the nearby Safira plains are populated with small villages, and regime forces suffered heavy losses along the way, including a rebel car bomb and large ambush. While regime forces were able to overrun a number of small villages from October 5-8, and even prematurely declared the Salamiya-Aleppo Highway open to civilian traffic, there are reports that rebels recaptured villages soon after the convoy departed.

On October 8, after receiving additional reinforcements from Tal Abour near Aleppo, the regime finalized preparations for an assault on as-Safira by beginning a devastating campaign of air strikes and bombardments on the city. As-Safira is an important city for several reasons: it is a key location on the alternate supply route to Aleppo, in close proximity to both the besieged Kuweires military airbase to the east of the city and the Nayrab military airbase, which is co-located with Aleppo International Airport; and the outskirts of as-Safira are home to site of some of Syria’s biggest chemical weapons research, production, and storage facilities. While the large number of supply trucks in the convoy suggest that the primary mission was to re-establish ground supply routes to besieged bases, with the OPCW inspectors visiting chemical weapons sites around the country it is likely that securing the area around the Safira complex in preparation for their visit was an additional objective of the regime offensive.

By the time the regime attempted its assault on as-Safira, rebel forces had received their own reinforcements. This is indicated by the FSA-affiliated as-Safira Operations Room, which issued a statement thanking all of the units that responded to their earlier call for assistance. The rebel forces participating in these battles include both Free Syrian Army brigades, coordinated by the as-Safira Operations Room, as well as  more extreme Salafi Islamic groups including Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. As of the time of posting, the battle around as-Safira was ongoing, with the regime still unable to make major gains north of the city.

If the regime is able to wrest control of as-Safira, it will be a major setback for rebel forces, who have been building up their presence along the Hama-Aleppo supply route since at least the beginning of the summer. With control of as-Safira the regime would not only have an open supply line to southern Aleppo city, it would also have a clear route to Nayrab and Kuweiris air bases. Both sites have faced challenges in ground resupply, and Kuweiris Air Base in particular has been under constant rebel siege for many months. Large-scale aerial resupply is not a sustainable strategy for the Syrian regime, particularly with capacity at all of its airports frequently diminished due to attacks. The regime must control a ground supply route to its remaining strongholds in Aleppo strongholds if it hopes to hold onto them and to make future gains in the northern Syria, where rebels continue to consolidate their gains.