Itchy Militia Wrecks Syrian Ceasefire
Hayat Tahrir Ash-Sham launches a reckless offensive
Hard on the heels of the sixth round of diplomatic talks in Astana – facilitated by Russia and Turkey – Hayat Tahrir Ash-Sham, an Al Qaeda-linked jihadist group in Syria, announced that it launched a “major offensive” against parts of northern Hama nominally controlled by the regime of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad.
Russia, Turkey and Iran had agreed to set up “de-escalation zones” — including eastern Ghouta and the provinces of Idlib, Homs, Lattakia, Aleppo and Hama — for the next six months. Some foreign observers therefore expected the war in Syria to end.
But the talks with HTS proved fruitless. The war drags on.
Turkey is at odds with U.S.-supported Kurdish forces, and also with the HTS. Ankara has begun concentrating troops on Turkey’s border with the parts of the Syrian province of Idlib that are under jihadist control. There are rumors of an impending Turkish invasion aimed at destroying the HTS.
At top — a Syrian L-39 fighter at low altitude in mid-September 2017. ANNA capture. Above — A Russian A-50 radar plane over Idlib in September 2017. Hamah News Network capture
For its part, Moscow is only interested in imposing its will upon everybody else and scoring propaganda points from whatever “good news” Kremlin’s media apparatus can report. Tehran knows that time is on its side. The longer the war goes on, the more of Syria it can bring under its direct control, and the better it can entrench itself by way of its already extensive network of its local, Lebanese and Iraqi sectarian militias.
Nearly all Syrian insurgent groups sent their representatives to the Astana talks, but they rejected negotiations that might end with the Syrian regime still in power. In turn, regime representatives labeled the insurgents “terrorists” and effectively refused to talk.
The HTS is, in fact, widely considered a terror group and was excluded from the negotiations in Astana. The group is far from the biggest armed group in Idlib, but it remains the best-supplied and richest. So much so that it can afford to supply its own forces and the troops of other jihadist groups.
In the summer of 2017, it appeared that the HTS had recovered some of its former military capacity. In a matter of only three days in August, it defeated its one-time ally, the Syrian salafist movement Ahrar Ash-Sham. Once praised as the most powerful, most disciplined and best commanded Syrian insurgent group, the latter was weakened by an ideological split and a largely dysfunctional central structure.
One of two HTS-operated T-90s, seen before the ongoing offensive. The jihadists managed to lose both of them in a matter of 24 hours — one to an air strike, while the other was abandoned intact. Wael Al Hussaini photo
Under HTS’s attack, Ahrar Ash-Sham quickly collapsed and lost most of its bases and possessions in Idlib. But HTS has suffered its own internal strife. Some of its units act at their own discretion, even demanding the arrest of HTS’s spiritual leader, the notorious Saudi wahhabist preacher Abdullah Al Muhaysini.
HTS has also come under criticism in Syria for attempting to hijack the Syrian revolution.
Isolated and facing a growing Turkish army on the other side of the border, HTS leader Abu Mohammad Al Julani resorted to desperate measures — and launched the new offensive. Cynically, he not only promised a share of the loot to any Syrian insurgent group that might side with him, but also to take care of the families of any allied fighters who get killed or wounded in a joint operation.
There are reports that some insurgent groups joined HTS in its attack. But it’s unclear which. Julani has imposed a total media blackout.
HTS has never excelled at running offensive operations on its own. Sure enough, its offensive seems to lack coherence. The group attacked the regime-controlled salient between Abu Dali in the north, the village of Qasr Abu Samrah — bulldozed to the ground by the Assad regime — in the southeast and Qahira in the west. The assault concentrated on an area where every single village is controlled by a different militia.
Russian propaganda continues to describe IRGC-controlled Shi’a militias as the ‘Syrian Arab Army’ – even when these are carrying their own banners and driving U.S.-supplied Humvees. RT capture
While nominally under the command of the 11th Division of the Syrian Arab Army, each of militias in fact is controlled by a different warlord, all of whom accept commands from only one authority — Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Local militias are reinforced by at least two battalions of IRGC-controlled militias.
Early reports indicate that HTS deployed at least one suicide-bombers in order to punch through enemy positions, but then lost both of its T-90 tanks — which it had captured during fighting against IRGC-controlled militias in 2016 — and multiple other vehicles within the first 24 hours of fighting.
The reaction from Damascus, Moscow and Tehran has been violent. In just 36 hours, the Russian and Syrian air forces launched more than 140 combat sorties targeting HTS. Most of the air raids struck Ma’arat An Nauman, Kfar Nabl and Kfar Zita – none of which is controlled by HTS, but by local civic authorities and native insurgents.
Only a few hit the jihadist-controlled Khan Sheykhoun. Even then, the targets hit in that town included the Ar Rahma hospital and the local Syrian Civil Defense Center. In lashing out, the HTS has successfully torpedoed whatever kind of agreement might have been reached during the latest Astana talks.