IDLIB MILITANTS ATTACK SYRIAN ARMY NEAR SARAQIB FOLLOWING ISRAELI STRIKE ON SHAYRAT AIRBASE

South Front

Late on March 31, the Israeli Air Force carried out a new round of airstrikes on Syria. Israeli warplanes launched over 12 missiles from Lebanese airspace targeting Shayrat Airbase in the Syrian province of Homs. At least 8 of them were intercepted by the Syrian Air Defense Forces. The damage caused to the airbase by the Israeli strike remains unclear.

Pro-Israeli sources claimed that the attack was aimed at weapon depots and positions of Iranian and Hezbollah forces.

Shayrat Airbase is well known as the point used by the Syrian Air Force to provide air cover for the government forces’ operations against al-Qaeda terrorists in Idlib. Russian attack helicopters also use it as a prestrike staging base. Over the past years, Israeli forces have repeatedly assisted al-Qaeda-linked militants in Syria by striking the country’s armed forces during ongoing important military developments. Syrian sources say that the timing of the new attack indicates an imminent escalation in Greater Idlib, where the Turkish-Russian de-escalation agreement is slowly crumbling.

Early on April 1, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda) and its supposedly moderate counterparts shelled positions of the Syrian Army near the town of Saraqib, which is located on the crossroad of the M4 and M5 highways. In response, Syrian artillery delivered several strikes on militants’ positions near Afis and Sarmin.

Emboldened by the ceasefire regime and the increasing Turkish military presence in the region, Idlib armed groups are now regularly attacking Syrian Army units in eastern Idlib. Last week, they claimed that they destroyed 3 pieces of military equipment, including a battle tank, with anti-tank guided missiles. Such actions highlight apparent gains from the current format of de-escalation efforts in the region.

ISIS released a video report on its campaign against government forces in the Homs-Deir Ezzor desert during 2019-2020. According to the video, ISIS units continue ambushes of civilian and military vehicles, as well as separate army units, moving along the Palmyra-Deir Ezzor road. Terrorists stage fake check points, loot civilian properties and kill those that they capture. ISIS members demonstrate the mindset of common criminals. The video also shows a few pieces of destroyed military equipment belonging to  the Syrian Army.

While the video is designed to serve as a promotion piece of supposed ‘successes’ of the terrorist group, it in fact reveals the current poor state of ISIS cells, which are barely surviving in the Homs-Deir Ezzor desert. If there is no more US-occupied al-Tanf zone where they can hide from Syrian Army security operations, they will have little chance of surviving in this part of Syria for another year.

Also read: Erdogan’s terrorists violate the cessation of hostilities agreement and target Saraqib with several artillery shells

SYRIA AND TURKEY RAMP UP PREPARATIONS FOR NEW MILITARY CONFRONTATION

SOUTH FRONT

The Syrian Army and Iranian-backed militias deployed a new batch of reinforcements to the frontline in southern Idlib and western Aleppo. According to local sources, fresh troops reinforced by armoured vehicles and battle tanks were placed near Saraqib, Kafranbel, and Urma as-Sughra. These areas were the hottest points of the conflict between Syrian troops and Turkish-led forces during the previous round of escalations in Greater Idlib. Turkey and its proxies are also preparing for a new round of confrontations.

During the past week, at least four Turkish military convoys, with battle tanks and even MIM-23 Hawk medium-range air-defense systems, entered Idlib, allegedly to secure the ceasefire regime and contain the terrorist threat. How Turkish troops are planning to use air defense systems against al-Qaeda terrorists that do not have aircraft remains a mystery.

At the same time, sources close to Idlib militants announced that Ankara is forming five new units consisting of its own troops, members of the National Front for Liberation and the Syrian National Army. Both these militant groups are funded and trained by Turkey. The newly formed units will be led by Turkish officers and allegedly include 9,000 Syrian militants and a similar number of Turkish troops. Pro-Turkish sources speculate that this force will be tasked with securing the M4 highway in southern Idlib and clearing the area of radical groups like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. After this, a security zone will be established and joint Turkish-Russian patrols will be launched in the area as it was agreed to by Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin in Moscow. The problem with this theory is that the Turkish-backed groups, which should supposedly be involved in this operation are allied with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and other al-Qaeda-linked organizations. So, they will have little motivation to confront them shifting the burden of fighting to Turkish troops.

According to pro-government sources, the Turkish motivation is different. They note that Ankara is very unsatisfied with the performance of their proxies during the recent battle against the Syrian Army. So, it opted to make a new attempt to create elite units that should deliver a devastating blow to the brutal Assad regime that is cowardly resisting the occupation of Syrian territory by Turkey.

Turkish-backed forces also increased their activity in Syria’s northeast. On March 29, the 20th Division of the so-called Syrian National Army attacked positions of Kurdish militias near the village of Sayda. Pro-Turkish sources claimed that a truck equipped with a 23mm machine gun belonging to Kurdish forces was destroyed and that many fighters were killed. Turkish proxies still cherish radiant hopes to capture the nearby town of Ayn Issa thus seizing control of the crossroad of the M4 highway and the Tall Abyad-Raqqah road.

The US-led coalition continues evacuation of smaller bases and regrouping of its forces in Iraq. After the withdrawal of coalition troops from al-Qaim and al-Qayyarah, they left from the Kirkuk K1 base. Means and forces from these facilities will be redeployed to other US bases in the country, mainly Camp Taji. There are no signs of any kind of US troop withdrawal from the country despite the demands from the Baghdad government. To the contrary, the Pentagon recently announced that it was working to deploy Patriot air defense systems to protect US troops in Iraq from missile attacks.

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KURDISH MILITIAS START NEW DANGEROUS GAME IN NORTHERN SYRIA

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An armed group named the Islamic Revenge Movement (IRM), hostile towards both Turkish forces and the Syrian Army announced its existence in northern Syria. In a video message released on March 20, the IRM claimed that in 2019 its members conducted 118 attacks killing 13 Turkish officers, 187 Turkish-backed militants and 24 pro-government fighters. The IRM also vowed to continue its fight against the “tyrant state” of Turkey and the “Assad regime” in 2020. The claims of the IRM are very questionable, as the group provided no evidence with which to confirm them.

Furthermore, pro-Kurdish sources were first to release the IRM video arguing that the group consisted of former al-Qaeda members. They also released the name of the supposed group leader:  “Abu Osama al-Shami.” Syrian opposition and pro-al-Qaeda sources called the group fake. According to them, the video is just a coverup for actions by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Both groups prefer to distance themselves from acts of direct aggression against the Syrian military and the Turkish Army in northern Syria. In the public sphere, the YPG plays a victim oppressed by the bloody Assad regime and Erdogan the Invader. In reality, it already has a special brand created to distance the group from attacks on Turkish troops and proxies in Afrin – the Afrin Liberation Forces. The Turkish-rooted PKK pretends that it has no bases and fighters in the region despite the fact that a large part of YPG commanders and members is linked with the PKK.

Iran reportedly increased its military presence in southern Damascus. According to pro-opposition sources, the Shiite-majority area of Set Zaynab was turned into a stronghold of pro-Iranian forces. Syrian government sources deny these reports.

On the evening of March 26, Israel shot down an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) of Hezbollah, which allegedly violated “Israeli airspace”. The photo released by the Israeli military allows to identify the UAV as a modified variant of the commercially-available Skywalker X8. Armed groups across the entire Middle East modify such drones for combat purposes installing on them submunitions as well as use such UAVs for reconnaissance.

In Iraq, the United States withdrew its forces from the al-Qayyarah Air Base and handed it over to the Iraqi military. A spokesman for the US-led coalition, Col. Myles B. Caggins III, said hundreds of coalition troops will “temporarily” evacuate the base as a protective measure to prevent the spread of coronavirus. About 800 troops of the U.S.-led coalition were deployed at the airbase, which hosted approximately $1,7 million dollars worth of coalition equipment. The al-Qayyarah Air Base became the 2nd important military facility abandoned by US forces in March. The withdrawal of US troops from the previous one – al-Qaim – took place last week. These developments are being carried out under the pretext of the COVID-19 outbreak and the defeat of ISIS, but local sources link them with the increasing number of attacks on US forces across the country that the Pentagon cannot contain successfully without a large-scale military escalation.

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UNFORTUNATE ADVENTURES OF TURKISH ARMY IN IDLIB

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Two Turkish soldiers were injured and two vehicles damaged in Syria’s southern Idlib on March 24. Their military convoy was targeted by a roadside bomb explosion near the village of Sfuhun. Turkish troops based at the al-Barah observation post were conducting a patrol along the contact line between the Syrian Army and Idlib armed groups.

This became the second attack on Turkish forces in Greater Idlib in less than 7 days. On March 19, two Turkish soldiers were killed and several others injured, when an IED exploded near their convoy near the village of Muhamabal.

Pro-militant propaganda claims that the attacks were carried out by the ‘criminal Assad regime’ in an attempt to destabilize the situation. Turkish media outlets pay scant attention to the situation reporting about some unidentified radicals. The open secret is that Turkish forces have become the target of attacks by groups that Ankara has been supporting with its  opposition of the anti-terrorist operations of the Syrian Army. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Houras al-Din, the Turkistan Islamic Party and similar organizations see the creation of a buffer zone along the M4 as a grave threat to their interests and survival. Therefore they are sabotaging the deal by blocking the highway and fuelling military tensions in the region. In the near future, they may even stage a large false-flag attack on Turkish forces near the contact line planning to blame the ‘Assad regime’ for it and thus  relaunch military hostilities between the Turkish Army and the Syrian Armed Forces.

Violations of the ceasefire regime by Idlib radicals are also increasing. Recently, ATGM, mortar attacks and artillery shelling were reported near Kafr Nubl, Saraqib, Kansafra and Kabinah. Turkish-backed groups claim that this week they destroyed a Syrian Army battle tank and  bulldozer north of Saraqib.

Members of Turkish-backed Faylaq al-Madj raided the village of Sukariya, near the town of Tell Abyad, in northeastern Syria. They attacked locals wounding dozens of them and looting their property. Earlier in March, members of Turkish-backed militant groups protested in the area of Operation Peace Spring because there had been a significant delay of salaries from Ankara. Turkish sources claim that Turkey is actively working to put an end to looting and attacks on locals. Nonetheless, such incidents continue to erupt on a regular basis.

Several explosions were reported near positions of the Syrian Army and Iranian-backed forces at al-Bukamal. Local sources claim that they were a result of actions by ISIS cells. Over the past months, al-Bukamal became a target of dozens of Israeli and US strikes. ISIS terrorists are likely trying to exploit this.

Russia confirms attack on Turkish forces in Idlib

By News Desk -2020-03-25

BEIRUT, LEBANON (12:45 A.M.) – The head of the Russian Reconciliation Center in Syria, Admiral Oleg Goralev, said that the militant forces placed explosive devices on the patrol path of the Turkish military on Tuesday.

He said in a press conference on Tuesday: “An improvised explosive device exploded during the passage of a Turkish patrol in the Sufahan region, today, Tuesday, where two vehicles were damaged as a result of the explosion, and two Turkish soldiers were wounded.”

According to him, the militants groups not controlled by the Turkish side continue to take steps to destabilize the situation in the Idlib region.

He stressed that the militants carried out during the past 24 hours seven bombing operations in the Idlib Governorate, while no violations of the ceasefire system were observed by armed factions loyal to Turkey.

He concluded by saying: “The Russian Reconciliation Center calls on the leaders of the illegal armed formations to abandon provocations with weapons, and take the path of a peaceful settlement.”

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SDF Releases Tens Of ISIS Members In Eastern Syria. Turkey, Russia Struggle With Idlib De-Escalation

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On March 23, Russian and Turkish forces carried out a second limited joint patrol in southern Idlib. The patrol involved six armoured vehicles and took place along a short chunk of the M4 highway west of the government-controlled town of Saraqib. This part of the highway remains the only safe place within the entire security zone, which was set to be established in the framework of the Russian-Turkish de-escalation agreement.

After the March 23 patrol, the Turkish side got additional time to neutralize terrorists and radicals entrenched in the agreed to buffer zone. This was the second time when Moscow provided Ankara with such an opportunity. However, Ankara seems to be taking very little or no efforts to do so.

Over the past days, the Turkish Army established observation points near Khattab and Msheirfeh and made a formal attempt to de-block the highway removing earthen mounds made by terrorists. Despite these heroic efforts of the Turkish military, the M4 remains in the hands of al-Qaeda-linked groups and the security zone there exists only on paper. Such a situation on the ground is slowly but inevitably leading to the resumption of hostilities in the region.

Humanitarian conditions are deteriorating in the Rukban refugee camp within the US-controlled zone of al-Tanf. According to media reports, people in the camp have to pay money for tents and the bare necessities, and are forcefully recruited into the ranks of US-backed militant groups. Additionally, militants sabotage the evacuation of refugees from the camp.

A series of IED attacks rocked the town of Tabqah, controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), on March 21. IED explosions targeted positions, vehicles and personnel of the SDF next to the Andalusia pool and the Maysalun roundabout. 6 SDF members were reportedly killed. Pro-opposition sources immediately blamed ‘Assad agents’ for the attack. Kurdish sources blame ISIS and Turkey.

On March 22, the SDF released 80 ISIS members that had been captured during the combat operations along the eastern bank of the Euphrates. All the released individuals are reportedly Syrian citizens, from the governorates of Raqqa, al-Hasakah and Deir Ezzor. During the last few years, the SDF has released hundreds of ex-ISIS fighters.

The group often does this for money or upon request from influential figures, like tribal leaders, businessmen and local commanders. This SDF behavior likely contributed to the reemergence of ISIS cells in eastern Syria. Last week, ISIS announced that its fighters had assassinated 40 people in the province of Deir Ezzor during the last 3 months alone.

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ISIS Threat Revives In Eastern Syria. Idlib Militants Kill Each Other Over Security Zone Deal Contradictions

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ISIS cells are once again active in eastern Syria. Late on March 17, the Syrian Army and the National Defense Forces epelled an ISIS attack in the area between the town of al-Sukhna and the T3 station. The attack involved over two dozen ISIS members supported by at least 6 vehicles equipped with heavy weapons. Pro-opposition sources claim that at least 20 Syrian soldiers were killed in the clashes. Pro-government sources deny casualties and say that terrorists were forced to retreat after they had been targeted by artillery and mortar fire.

The ISIS presence in the desert area of eastern Syria had been slowly decreasing over the past year. Additionally, government forces carried out several security operations cracking down on the remaining ISIS cells in southeastern Deir Ezzor and eastern Homs. However, the terrorist threat was not removed. Syria and Russia say that ISIS members use the US-controlled zone of al-Tanf as a safe haven to hide from Syrian Army operations.

Five civilians were reportedly killed and 15 others injured in a rocket strike on the city of Afrin on March 18. Pro-Turkish sources say that the rockets were launched by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) or affiliated rebels. The YPG created the brand of the Afrin Liberation Forces in December 2018 in order to distance themselves from regular attacks on the Turkish-controlled part of northwestern Syria. In this way, the YPG, which is the core of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, was seeking to distance itself from operations against Turkish forces. The goal was to continue receiving military and financial support from the United States, while simultaneously using the same resources to carry out attacks on the formal ally of the US under another brandname.

Alaa al-Omar, a commander of one of the largest units in the Turkish-backed Ahrar al-Sham Movement, was assassinated near Jisr al-Shughur in the southwestern part of Greater Idlib. Al-Omar was among commanders of Turkish proxy groups involved in sabotaging joint Russian-Turkish patrols along the M4 highway. Pro-government sources claim that his assassination is a result of the contradiction between al-Omar’s unit and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Turkistan Islamic Party, which controls Jisr al-Shughur. According to this theory, al-Omar was not active enough in organizing protests against the safe zone deal.

Regardless of the contradictions among the Idlib armed groups, the M4 highway remains closed and the Turkish-Russian agreement on the safe zone in the area is not being implemented.

‘Moderate Rebels’ Bite Hand That Feeds Them. 2 Turkish Soldiers Killed In Idlib

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Syria entered the second half of the week with a new spike of tensions in Greater Idlib. This escalation has been widely expected because militant groups are sabotaging key parts of the Russian-Turkish agreement on de-escalation in the area.

Radicals kept their positions along the M4 highway, where a security zone was set to be created, and blocked the planned joint Russian-Turkish patrols there. On March 19, they expanded their strategy with direct actions against Turkish and Russian forces. At least two improvised explosive devices exploded along the route of a Turkish military column near the village of Muhamabal. 2 Turkish soldiers were killed and several others were injured. Opposition sources initially reported that Horas al-Din, one of multiple al-Qaeda-affiliated organizations in Idlib, was behind the attack. Nonetheless, Horas al-Din itself denied responsibility for the incident. There is no surprise that the group indirectly receiving support from Turkey denied such a move. Later, pro-militant media adapted their version of events blaming ISIS cells and even Assad agents. The March 19 developments demonstrated that Ankara does not fully control the terrorist organizations that it is protecting from the Syrian Army in an attempt to solidify its own influence in the region. Therefore, in some conditions, Turkish-backed terrorists become a threat to Turkey and its forces themselves.

The Turkish leadership fully understands that the ceasefire will not survive too long without the neutralization of terrorists. So, the Turkish Army continues its military buildup in the area. Turkish forces set up new positions near Ram Hamadan and al-Jinah. Additionally, three Turkish convoys, consisting of dozens of battle tanks, armored vehicles, rocket launchers and howitzers crossed the Turkish border with the Syrian province of Idlib.

Turkish units also conducted a modest attempt to de-block the M4 highway by removing earthen mounds left by militants. The situation on the frontline is also escalating. Late on March 19, the Syrian Army repelled an attack on its positions near Hizareen. Syrian state media claimed that militants suffered heavy casualties in the clashes. Wa Harid al-Muminin, a coalition of small al-Qaeda-linked groups, claimed responsibility for the attack. It released its own statement saying that 15 “regime troops” had been killed.

Meanwhile, the Syrian Army and the National Defense Forces started reinforcing their positions in southern Idlib and northern Lattakia with fresh troops and military equipment. Pro-government sources claim that Jisr al-Shughur, the town controlled by the Turkistan Islamic Party, will become the target of the army offensive, if the ceasefire collapses.

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