Syrian Army Collapses a Chunk of Southern Idlib Pocket, but Turkish-Rebel Offensive Takes Back Critical Town
Erdogan makes some gains, cuts the recently reopened Damascus-Aleppo highway
For the second phase of its Idlib offensive, the Syrian army relocated its best and most offensive-action capable units from the north, where the first phase of the offensive along the Damascus-Aleppo highway had taken them, and used them to press against the exposed southern salient of the rebel territory.
Despite rugged, mountainous terrain the operation went well. The entire salient collapsed and was retaken in just four days of fighting. The heavy lifting for its success was probably done on the first day when unidentified warplanes (I think Russian) prevented a Turkish force from moving southward into the salient. On their own, the rebels — pressed and enveloped — quickly gave ground.
However, as the best-supported and offensive-worthy Syrian units were in the south the rebels and Turks renewed their push from Idlib city in direction of Saraqib and the junction of two highways it represents.
Turkey’s first attempt on February 21 was decisively beaten back by the intervention of Russia’s warplanes, and the loss of 2 Turkish KIA and 5 WIA, and a score of rebels.
However, this renewed Turkish-rebel offensive has been successful. Yesterday the jihadi-Turkish coalition successfully retook the town of Nairab where they had been repulsed on the 21st, and today they marched into Saraqib itself.
The Russian air force was present but this time it wasn’t enough. A factor may have been the proliferation of MANPADs by the Turks.
— Mohammed Ghorab (@MGhorab3) February 26, 2020
Another thing this Turkish-rebel push has done is blow up the previous Turkish claims they’re only closely working with the groups in the NLF (National Front for Liberation) but not with those in the HTS (Hayat Tahrir al-Sham). The NLF is likewise jihadi but the difference is it’s no straight out al-Qaeda. However, the NLF umbrella commands the allegiance of only around 20 percent of the rebel fighters in Idlib. The idea the taking of Saraqib was accomplished without Jolani’s HTS is science fiction.
In fact, Turkey’s English-language state media is exploring the option, Jolani, with a $5 million dollar prize by the US on his head could be brought into the fold as a mainstream politician:
Can Hayat Tahrir al Sham gain international legitimacy?
“He [al Jolani] is sending a message to the US and other countries that he is ready to change HTS towards a more local group and if there will be a safe zone around Idlib, HTS can disappear,” said Muhsen Almustafa, a researcher at Omran, an independent think tank based in Istanbul, speaking to TRT World.
In the meantime aside from providing them extensive artillery and armor support the Turks have also handed over to the rebels, HTS included, massive quantities of artillery, ammunition, and armored vehicles.
A scene from the early stages of the renewed Turkish-rebel counter-offensive:
— Ali Özkök (@Ozkok_A) February 24, 2020
Another footage of the rebel ACV-15 encounter against regime T-72 near Idlib's Nayrab on 20 Feb 2020 pic.twitter.com/GM9ck9lN3S
— Abdurrahman (@Abdurahmanhrk) February 24, 2020
A solo charging rebel APC is almost always a suicide bomber (SVBIED). The tank crew’s reaction to flee is entirely rational. Even that they seemingly forgot to swing the gun toward the APC may perhaps be explained by poor visibility from inside the tank.
However that they’re out here all on their own without infantry support may indicate the Syrians didn’t leave their most proficient units on this sector of the front.
The success in severing the Damascus-Aleppo highway the Syrian government had just retaken and opened for traffic cost Turkey two more KIA bringing the total to about 20 now.