Russia Bombed Its Own Allies in Syria
Possibly on purpose
On March 21, 2017, two major factions of the Free Syrian Army, the Turkistan Islamic Party and the extreme Islamist organization Hayat Tahrir Ash-Sham, or HTS — an offshoot of the former Jabhat An Nusra — together launched an offensive into northwestern Hama in western-central Syria. The resulting battle was the six-year-old Syria war in a nutshell.
In short, a total mess. And not just on the opposition side. It’s possible that Russia, ostensibly supporting the Syrian regime, targeted nominally pro-regime militias that Moscow decided had gone rogue.
The offensive became possible when the Turkish government decided once again to boost the flow of supplies and troops to various insurgent and extremist factions in Idlib and Aleppo provinces in Syria. Ankara was motivated to act via proxy after the United States and Russia blocked Turkish troops from advancing from the border town of Al Bab in direction of Manbij.
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdgan was so displeased by Washington’s and Moscow’s decisions that he granted permission for Syrian insurgent units from the Al Bab area to transfer via Turkey to Idlib. For eight months, these insurgents had fought alongside Turkish forces in a campaign against Islamic State, and had even partially re-armed with Turkish weaponry, including ACV-15 armored infantry fighting vehicles.
Notably, HTS explicitly excluded the powerful, Turkey-supported Islamist insurgent group Ahrar Ash Sham — the result of recent infighting between these two groups.
A column of FSA vehicles underway somewhere in Hama, including a Turkish ACV-15. Step News Agency Release
Initially, the offensive into northern Hama proceeded at a very fast pace. The FSA elements operating on the western and southern flanks advanced especially rapidly. After breaching through two defensive lines, they captured about a dozen fortified villages in a matter of some 36 hours, ultimately reaching Arzeh, barely three kilometers from Hama air base.
The HTS’s and Turkistan Islamic Party’s part of the offensive resulted in the early capture of Souran, the scene of bitter fighting back in September 2016. HTS and TIP also captured Ma’ardes. However, the extremists eventually encountered bitter resistance in Qamahana. After deploying several truck-based IEDs and advancing nearly to the center of the town, HTS and TIP were forced to withdraw by March 24, 2017.
Since then, the area that had come under FSA and HTS control had been subjected to vicious counterattacks. The intelligence services of the Syrian regime identified concentrations of insurgents and extremists nearly a week before their offensive. The Syrian Arab Air Force began flying air strikes on the Kfar Zita area as early as March 15 and 16, 2017. However, the SyAAF’s operations were subsequently hampered by bad weather, which all but grounded the air force on March 21 and 22, 2017.
While bitterly complaining about the regime’s failures, the Russians nonetheless launched up too 100 air strikes on March 23, 2017. While the majority of these targeted roads in western Aleppo and northwestern Idlib — which the opposition forces used to haul supplies from Turkey — several hit positions belonging to friendly troops. There were reports of Russian air strikes hitting Christian militias in Mhradah on the western side of the Kfar Zita salient and in Qamahana on its eastern side. One air raid reportedly inflicted more than 70 casualties on the regime side.
Fratricide happens in intensive warfare. There’s no exception to this rule. However, a closer look at the composition of “regime” and “pro-regime” forces in Hama offers alternative explanations for the Russian raids.
The area that came under opposition attack during this offensive can be compared to America’s Wild West. The western and southwestern part of the Kfar Zita salient was under the nominal control of the 11th Division of the Syrian Arab Army before the FSA took over. The 11th Division was weak, and could count on just 500 regular army troops plus a hodgepodge of irregular fighters. The latter included several units of the Syrian Socialist National Party and the Ba’ath Party and few Christian units loyal to Pres. Bashar Al Assad.
A Russian Su-24 bomber attacks Christian militias on March 24, 2017. Photo via Tom Cooper
On the eastern side of the salient is an area controlled by an even more diverse collection of militias. Indeed, every village and every checkpoint in northern Hama is manned by a different armed group. While nominally supporting the regime and often bearing the title “National Defense Force,” in fact nearly all of militias in question are dominated by the Shabiha — criminals of all sorts, primarily smugglers, who are paid by the locals to defend a specific area and operate at their own discretion without any kind of centralized command.
Some of groups fight each other as often as they fight insurgents.
The strongest of these is what is officially the National Defense Force of Qamahana. This group is commanded by warlords, of which there are dozens in Syria. Most of them consider themselves loyal either to themselves or to the Al Assad family, not to the Syrian state or any of its representatives, including the army.
In the case of Qamahana, the local NDF was established, recruited, armed and trained by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps of Iran and the Syrian Republican Guards. In 2015 and 2016, the SAA’s 4th Division, commanded by Maher Al Assad, occupied the area. However, the militia in Qamahana is renown for providing its own supplies — by way of looting, robberies and hijacking — and answering only to its own warlords.
Even the officers of notorious security services of the Al Assad regime tend to avoid entering the area controlled by the Qamahana NDF.
In the light of rapid crumbling of various of regime positions in northern Hama during the first days of the March offensive, it’s possible that some Russian air strikes intentionally targeted NDF units that Moscow has decided have grown too independent.