Friday, June 28, 2019

Pro-Assad Regime Forces Locked in Battle of Attrition in Idlib Province

By Michael Land, Matti Suomenaro, Mason Clark, and Elizabeth Teoman

*Updated July 2, 2019

Note: The authors have updated this post to reflect clarifications regarding: group names and composition, claims and tactical details of attacks, distinctions between assessments and reported events, and citation source materials.

Key Takeaway: Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate and Turkish-backed opposition forces are locked in a grinding stalemate with forces loyal to Assad in Northern Syria. Pro-Assad regime forces have suffered significant losses and risk provoking a more muscular intervention from Turkey. The Turkish Armed Forces shelled positions held by the Syrian Arab Army on June 27, 2019 after shelling killed a soldier at an observation post run by Turkey in Northern Hama Province. Assad likely seeks to deter Turkey from providing military support to opposition forces in Greater Idlib Province. Russia will likely attempt to constrain the regime from further attacks against Turkey while still supporting a limited ground operation into Southern Idlib Province. Assad remains incapable of securing major near-term gains in Idlib Province.

Al Qaeda and Turkish-backed opposition forces are locked in a costly stalemate with forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Greater Idlib Province as of June 28, 2019. Pro-Assad regime forces launched a limited ground offensive that seized the towns of Qala’at al-Madiq and Kafr Nabouda in Northern Hama Province on May 6. Yet they have suffered heavy casualties and failed to gain new terrain since June 7. Pro-Assad regime losses are difficult to estimate but local reports claim over six hundred combat fatalities and the loss of at least seventeen tanks, five infantry fighting vehicles, and dozens of other military vehicles since April 30.[1] The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) has lost at least one hundred fighters and officers from the relatively elite 4th Armored Division and Tiger Forces.[2] Russia has also allegedly lost at least four private contractors or military personnel in Northern Hama Province.[3] Iran is largely absent from the offensive. Overall, pro-regime forces have suffered disproportionate casualties in Northern Hama Province compared to previous offensives in Aleppo City, Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, and Southern Syria.

Assad and his allies successfully secured the gains of their initial advance but lost terrain on separate fronts in Northern Hama Province. Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front (NLF), and other opposition groups launched a significant counterattack on Kafr Nabouda on May 21.[4] Opposition groups simultaneously attacked multiple additional frontlines in Northern Latakia and Northern Hama Provinces, disrupting pro-regime momentum and buying space and time for the opposition to muster reinforcements across Greater Idlib Province. HTS and other opposition groups later launched a new counterattack in Northern Hama Province on June 6 that severed the primary ground line of communication between the pro-regime staging area of Suqaylabiyah and Hama City.[5] Pro-regime forces have not regained control of this route as of June 28. The attack also reportedly forced Russia to retreat from one of its frontline observation posts in Northern Hama Province.[6]

Al Qaeda is leading the opposition defense of Greater Idlib Province with indirect military support from Turkey. HTS helped establish - and almost certainly controls - the Conquest of Damascus Operations Room (later rebranded the Fatah al-Mubin Operations Room) on May 9.[7] This organization parallels the Jaysh al-Fatah Operations Room that seized all of Idlib Province with support from Turkey in 2015. Turkey has agreed to subordinate its proxies to these structures and continued to provide them with lethal aid including anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs). It may be providing additional advanced capabilities to opposition groups in Northern Syria. HTS’ Ebaa News reported separate attacks that damaged three regime warplanes over Northern Hama Province on June 7, June 19, and June 28.[8] HTS attributed two of the attacks to forces in the opposition operations room equipped with man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS). Unidentified opposition factions have also sustained drone and rocket attacks against airbases in Northern Syria.[9] Russia has been the target of drone swarms and long-range shelling targeting its Hmeimim Airbase on the Syrian Coast since December 2017. Opposition groups sustained these attacks against Hmeimim Airbase and the Jubb Ramlah Helipad in Western Hama Province throughout May - June 2019. ISW assesses that HTS is likely responsible for the drone attacks occurring in Northern Syria.

Pro-Assad regime forces paused, regrouped, and launched a new offensive but failed to gain new ground in Greater Idlib Province in mid-June 2019. Russia declared a unilateral three-day ceasefire in Northern Hama Province on June 12, likely to integrate newly arrived reinforcements from the SAA 1st, 3rd, 10th, and 11th Divisions.[10] These units reportedly began deploying contingents to Northern Hama Province around June 10 with the likely task of reopening the supply route between Hama City and Suqaylabiyah. Russia also expanded its air campaign to disrupt opposition rear areas in Greater Idlib Province in late May 2019.[11]

Pro-Assad regime forces also abandoned a simultaneous effort to advance in Northern Latakia Province in late June 2019.[12] The SAA 4th Armored Division had originally deployed reinforcements to the mountainous Jabal al-Akrad Region of Northern Latakia Province in early May 2019. These units likely intended to seize the key opposition stronghold of Kabanah and clear terrain used by opposition forces to launch drone and artillery strikes against the Russian Hmeimim Airbase on the Syrian Coast. Russia provided significant assistance to this operation including limited deployments of military contractors and special forces personnel as well as air, artillery, and drone support.[13] Pro-regime forces sustained at least one hundred casualties over six weeks of fighting near Kabanah.[14] Russia and Assad later halted the operation, likely concluding that they could not sustain two high-casualty offensives on separate frontlines and electing to prioritize the main combat zone in Northern Hama Province. Russia likely also intended to test the SAA, which was historically unable to conduct simultaneous major operations across Syria.

Russia and Assad are likely now preparing for a new attempt to advance into Greater Idlib Province. The 4th Armored Division redeployed from its stalled offensive in Northern Latakia Province to Northern Hama Province in late June 2019, joining the other reinforcements that arrived in mid-June 2019.[15] These deployments could trigger an open conflict with Turkey in Greater Idlib Province. Pro-Assad regime forces shelled an observation point run by the Turkish Armed Forces in Southern Idlib Province on June 27, killing at least one soldier.[16] Pro-Assad regime forces have consistently shelled this post since May 2019, including an attack that injured three Turkish soldiers on June 13.[17] Turkey maintains outposts in Greater Idlib Province under the terms of the Astana Talks with Russia and Iran. It is treating the latest incident as a major escalation. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated on June 13 that Turkey would “do whatever is necessary” if attacks persisted against its military positions in Syria.[18] Turkey conducted retaliatory shelling targeting pro-regime positions in Northern Hama Province on June 27.[19]


Assad cannot conquer opposition-held Greater Idlib Province without significantly more military support from Russia and Iran. The attrition of elite pro-regime military units such as the 4th Armored Division and Tiger Forces is a serious blow to strength of the SAA. This attrition undermines Assad’s already tenuous hold on former opposition-held areas across Syria. Assad is currently at risk of overstretch in the face of a growing insurgent campaign in Southern Syria as well as a resurgence of ISIS in Central Syria.

Al Qaeda is exploiting the offensive against Greater Idlib Province to consolidate its hold over the opposition and issue renewed calls for global mobilization against Assad, Russia, and Iran. HTS has declared a general mobilization of the fighters and estimated three million civilians in Greater Idlib Province. Senior Al Qaeda-linked clerics have issued calls for foreign fighters and refugees to return to fight in Northern Syria. HTS-affiliated accounts claimed that its training camps were “overwhelmed” with new fighters as of June 10.[20] The veracity and composition of this claimed influx remains unclear.

Russia will most likely attempt to prevent escalation with Turkey in Northern Syria while still supporting a limited offensive into Greater Idlib Province by Assad. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar held a phone call with Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu on June 17.[21] Turkey also summoned the Russian Defense Attaché to Ankara immediately after the attack on its outpost in Northern Hama Province on June 27.[22] Further escalation - even inadvertent - between Turkey and Russia in Syria would undermine the recent diplomatic rapprochement between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Although Russia appears to have deprioritized this diplomatic effort in order to advance its goals in Northern Syria, it likely does not want a wider breakdown of its relationship with Turkey.

[1] The National Liberation Front (NLF) has conducted a significant number of attacks targeting vehicles and equipment with anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs). See: “More Casualties Raise to 512 Including 130 Children, The Number of Citizens Who Have Been Killed Since the Start of the Fiercest Escalation,” SOHR, June 23, 2019, Additional sourcing on regime material losses available on request.
[2] These estimates are based on an assessment of martyrdom statements published by pro-regime media accounts. They thus likely underrepresent total casualties. Additional sourcing on regime combat losses available on request.
[3] Qalaat al-Mudiq, Twitter, May 1, 2019,
[4] “Deadly Syrian Strikes as Army Battles Rebel Counterattack,” Al-Jazeera, May 23, 2019,
[5] [“Evening Publication of All Field Events in Syria: June 6, 2019,”] SNN, June 6, 2019,نشرة-مساء-اليوم-لجميع-الأحداث-الميدانية-في-سوريا-06-06-2019.html; [“After Controlling the Village Tal Malah, Rebel and Jihadist Factions Cut Through the Strategic Towns in the Hama Countryside Amid Fierce Fighting Which Has Left More Than 35 Dead Among Them,”] SOHR, June 6, 2019,
[6] Step News Agency, Twitter, June 6, 2019,
[7] Charles Lister, Twitter, May 9, 2019,
[8] [“Warplane Belonging to the Criminal Regime in the Northern Suburbs of Hama Made an Emergency Landing After Being Hit by an Anti-Aircraft Missile by the Air Defense Company of the Joint Operations Room,”] Ebaa News, June 7, 2019, https://ebaa(.)news/news/2019/06/43655/; [“Military Source in the Tahrir al-Sham to Ebaa: Damage to a Military Aircraft Type L-39 of the Criminal Regime in the Air Over Southern Idlib Province After Being Targeted by the Anti-Aircraft Company of Jaysh Omar bin al-Khattab,”] Ebaa News, June 19, 2019, https://ebaa(.)news/news/breaking/2019/06/45127/; [“Military Source: Damage to a Military Aircraft of the Regime of the Type L-39 (Machine Gun) North of Hama, Forcing It to an Emergency Landing After Being Targeted by an Anti-Aircraft Missile from the Mujahideen of the Fatah al-Mubin Operations Room,”] Ebaa News, June 28, 2019, https://ebaa(.)news/news/breaking/2019/06/45877/; [“Midday Bulletin of All Field Events in Syria: June 7, 2019,”] SNN, June 7, 2019,نشرة-منتصف-اليوم-لجميع-الأحداث-الميدانية-في-سوريا-07-06-2019.html; [“National Liberation and Tahrir al-Sham Announce the Start of the Second Phase of Fatah al-Mubin and Latter Announces the Injury of a Regime Plane in the Hama Countryside,”] Aleppo Media Center, June 7, 2019,الوطنية-للتحرير-وتحرير-الشام-يعلنان-بدء-المرحلة-الثانية-من-"الفتح-المبين"-والأخيرة-تُعلن-إصابة-طائرة-للنظام-بريف-حماة&id=4349; [“The Regime Commits a Massacre and Tahrir al-Sham Hits a Warplane in Idlib,”] Baladi News, June 19, 2019,النظام_يرتكب_مجزرة_وتحرير_الشام_تصيب_طائرة_حربية_بإدلب; Muhammad Hussein, [“Dozens of Dead and Wounded from the Regime in Confrontations with FSA and Tahrir al-Sham in Northern Hama,”] SMART, June 28, 2019,عشرات-القتلى-والجرحى-للنظام-بمواجهات-مع-الحر-وتحرير-الشام-شمال.
[9] “Russian Airbase in Western Syria Allegedly Comes Under Attack,” Al-Masdar, May 16, 2019, https://www.almasdarnews(.)com/article/russian-airbase-in-western-syria-allegedly-comes-under-attack/; “Syrian State TV Says Hmeimim Air Base Defenses Thwart Projectiles,” Reuters, May 18, 2019,; “For the Second Consecutive Day, Attack by Drones Targets Hmeimim Airbase, Which Is Being Taken by Russian Forces as Their Center,” SOHR, May 19, 2019,; [“Factions Targeted an Airstrip and Several Headquarters of the Assad Militia in the Villages of Hama,”] Orient News, June 1, 2019,الفصائل-تستهدف-مهبط-طائرات-وعدة-مقرات-لميليشيا-أسد-في-ريف-حماة; [“Syrian Army Anti-Aircraft Destroy Four Aircraft That Tried to Target a Helicopter Helipad West of Hama,”] Sputnik Arabic, June 2, 2019, https://arabic(.)مضادات-الجيش-السوري-إسقاط-درونات/; [“Attack by Drone on the Jubb Ramlah Airport in Hama Province,”] Qasioun News, June 4, 2019,هجوم_بطائرات_مسيرة_على_مطار_جب_رملة_بريف_حماه; [“Russian Base at Hmeimim Was Attacked Using Drones,”] Sputnik Arabic, June 26, 2019, https://arabic(.); [“Have You Been Hit by a Bomb?”] Al-Modon, June 26, 2019,هل-تعرضت-حميميم-للقصف.
[10] [“In Syria, Agreement Was Reached on a Complete Ceasefire in the Idlib De-Escalation Zone,”] TV Zvezda, June 12, 2019, https://tvzvezda(.)ru/news/vstrane_i_mire/content/2019612221-UJdp7.html; [“Regime Sends Components of Three Divisions to the Fronts of the Hama Countryside,”] Enab Baladi, June 10, 2019,; Gregory Waters, Twitter, June 19, 2019,
[11] [“Evening Bulletin of All Field Events in Syria: May 31, 2019,”] SNN, May 31, 2019,نشرة-مساء-اليوم-لجميع-الأحداث-الميدانية-في-سوريا-31-05-2019.html.
[12] [“Regime Withdraws the 4th Division from Latakia Countryside After 45 Days of Fighting,”] Enab Baladi, June 21, 2019,
[13] “Russian Air Force Unleashes Massive Attack Over Northwestern Syria,” Al-Masdar, May 15, 2019, https://www.almasdarnews(.)com/article/russian-air-force-unleashes-massive-attack-over-northwestern-syria/; Obretix, Twitter, May 12, 2019,; Qalaat al-Mudiq, Twitter, May 15, 2019,
[14] These estimates are based on an assessment of martyrdom statements published by pro-regime media accounts. They thus likely underrepresent total casualties. Additional sourcing on regime combat losses available upon request.
[15] [“Regime Withdraws the 4th Division from Latakia Countryside After 45 Days of Fighting,”] Enab Baladi, June 21, 2019,
[16] [“Attack on Our Observation Point in Idlib by Regime Elements,”] Turkish Defense Ministry, June 27, 2019,
[17] Daren Butler, “Turkish Outpost in Syria Shelled from Syrian Government Forces Area: Ministry,” Reuters, June 16, 2019,; Busra Nur Bilgic, “Syrian Forces Attack Turkish Post in Ceasefire Zone,” Anadolu Agency, June 13, 2019, https://www(.)
[18] Tuvan Gumrukcu and Angus McDowall, “Turkey Says No Truce in Syria After Attack on Its Troops, Urges Russia to Restore Calm,” Reuters, June 13, 2019,
[19] Nedaa Syria, Twitter, June 27, 2019,
[20] Sourcing available upon request.
[21] [“Minister Akar and Russian Defense Minister Shoygu Hold Telephone Call,”] Turkish Defense Ministry, June 17, 2019,
[22] [“Attack on Our Observation Point in Idlib by Regime Elements,”] Turkish Defense Ministry, June 27, 2019,