the home of online investigations

Is the Idlib Offensive coming?

August 17, 2018

By Nick Waters

Translations: Русский

Although the Syrian government and its allies has clearly gained the upper hand in the Syrian Civil War, the conflict is still a very long way from being over. Large areas of Syria remain outside the control of the Syrian government, including those held by the SDF and their allies, by rebel forces and the Turkish Army, and by the so-called Islamic State (IS).

Since the Syrian government and its allies lack the resources to hold and attack all their enemies at the same time, they have adopted a strategy of picking off individual territories and cities in a piecemeal fashion. This has allowed the Syrian government and its allies to concentrates their combat power, including their limited air assets, to focus on each successive offensive. By beseiging populations in this way and using indiscriminate bombing to destroy civillian services, including hospitals, life within these areas becomes extremely harsh for both fighters and civillians, leading to surrenders and forced population transfers out of these areas. This strategy has proved devestatingly effective, with Aleppo falling at the end of 2016, Homs in 2017 and East Ghouta and Damascus during the first half of 2018. The last significant area of rebel control is the Governorate of Idlib, an area which also includes parts of Aleppo, Latakia and Hama.

From the open sources available, it appears that there are indications that an offensive may soon be launched into this area. With a population of approximately 2.9 million, approximately half of which are internally displaced people (IDPs) who have already fled from elsewhere in Syria, this represents a potentially catastrophic event. The presence of Turkish forces in this area will be certain to complicate this situation further. This article will assess these indications that an offensive in Idlib will soon take place.

Movement of troops and material

Multiple videos and images posted on social media claim to show heavy goods, weapons and vehicles moving towards the Idlib area. Although it is not possible to geolocate every one of these, the rise of these kinds of posts in the last week or so indicate that some kind of major redeployment is currently underway. The videos and images that have been posted show a significant amount of firepower being redeployed, including armoured vehicles and a significant amount of artillery. There have also been reports of OTR 21 Tochka ballistic missiles being moved into the area, a significant long-range asset.

Video allegedly showing a OTR-21(s) Tochka en route to Idlib (Source: @MathieuMorant)

There have also been claims that certain offensive units are re-deploying to the Idlib area. The Tiger Forces, an unit which has been in the vanguard many of the Syrian government offensives, is reported to have moved into the Idlib area. Meanwhile the 5th Corps, a unit which has allegedly been equipped and trained by the Russian military is also claimed to have been deployed to the area. It even appears that former rebels who have reconciled with the Syrian government have been boasting about this upcoming offensive.

Bombardments 

Bombing and artillery strikes in the area of Idlib appears to have increased compared to the last few months, with almost constant attacks on the areas around Al Lataminah, Khan Sheikhoun, and Al Tamanah since the beginning of August. There appears to have been a peak in bombardements on the 10th August, with reports of heavy bombing across Idlib and West Aleppo frontlines.

Parts of these frontlines have seen heavy fortifications being built by the opposition over the previous years, with Al Lataminah in particular boasting an entire hospitals built underground in an attempt to protect from Syrian government bombardments. These underground facilities, heavily protected from conventional munitions, have previously been attacked with chemical weapons. So far, there do not appear to have been any reports of chemical weapons in the latest round of bombing.  

Open source reports of bombing and artillery bombardments on Idlib on 10th August. Note the concentration of strikes around north-east Latakia, southern Idlib and west Aleppo (Source: Liveuamap)

There have also been reports of the use of cluster munitions in the town of Al Tah, which are claimed to have killed and wounded several civilians. This claim appears to be supported by images showing a cargo warhead and bomblets identified as 9N235 fragmentation submunitions.  

A 9N235 fragmentation submunition, allegedly found after the strike on Al Tah (Source: Mark Hiznay)

A cargo rocket, allegedly from the strike on Al Tah (Source: Qalaat Al Mudiq)

Conclusion

The reports of significant logistical moves, the apparent redeployment of offensive forces to the Idlib area and artillery and air bombardments suggest that the long-expected Idlib offensive will take place soon. Assad has consistently stated his objective is to retake the whole country, and Idlib remains the last major area defended by primarily Syrian rebel forces.

The offensive to retake Idlib may prove to be a difficult, costly and complex fight for Assad. Previous offensives have sought to isolate and besiege pockets of opposition, starving and bombing them until a reconciliation deal is made. This has proved a devastatingly effective tactic in places such as Aleppo and East Ghouta, however Idlib has several factors which may complicate this offensive.

The presence of Turkish ground troops may complicate an assault, and may push the Syrian government and its allies into direct confrontation with Turkey. If Turkish troops do choose to fight, then government forces will be facing an enemy very different from the often poorly equipped rebels they have faced before. How Russia and Iran, the major supporters of Assad, will react to this kind of confrontation remains to be seen. Relations between Turkey and Russia in particular have warmed significantly over the previous two years, while Turkish relations with the USA have cooled. Statements made by the Turkish Foreign Minister even suggests a willingness to cooperate militarily with Russia in Idlib.

Whatever the outcome of this battle, one thing is certain: there will be a huge exodus of refugees and IDPs. The population of Idlib has been swelled by an influx of IDPs to around 2.9 million, roughly doubling in size. Bearing in mind that many of these IDPs have already relocated due to Syrian government offensives elsewhere in the country, they will face a stark choice of fleeing again, whether within Syria or overseas, or reconciling with the regime. 

Nick Waters

Nick is an ex-British Army officer and open source analyst. He has a special interest in the conflicts in Syria, as well as social media, civil society, intelligence and security. Contact via Twitter: @N_Waters89

Join the Bellingcat Mailing List:

Enter your email address to receive a weekly digest of Bellingcat posts, links to open source research articles, and more.

Support Bellingcat

You can support the work of Bellingcat by donating through the below link:

7 Comments

  1. Rob Heusdens

    There is no doubt that Idlib will be freed from terrorism. Let those countries that harboured and supported the terrorists (including ‘white helmets’ they are undoubtly allied with the terrorists, and not ‘humanitarian workers’ – fake resques are well documented!) should draw back their terrorists!

    Let’s hope the struggle will be over soon with the least amount of victims, and Syrian refugees from all over the world can then go back to Syria, and rebuilt the country.

    Reply
    • Brad Eldridge

      Surely you jest, “Rob”! People who read Bellingcat reports are highly unlikely to fall for your propaganda campaign. The entire world is aware of the genocide against the Syrian people being carried out by Assad, Russia, and Iran–with the “okay” of the rest of the world leaders. As for the people in Idlib all being terrorists, do you count the thousands of children, babies, women who have been maimed or blown to bits? The only REAL terrorists in Syria are Assad and his gang, Russian troops, Iranian animals, and Daesh (few and far between). The White Helmets are true heroes, humanitarian workers and have saved thousands of lives.

      Reply
      • DDTea

        Lol. “Everyone who opposes Assad’s authoritarian rule is a terrorist!”

        Want the struggle to end with the least number of victims? Kill Bashar, Maher, Rami, Suheil, and Jamil. Everything else can be negotiated. And everyone can agree on fighting ISIS.

        Reply
  2. KoshBosh

    Perhaps the weakest analysis Ive read so far on the NW, what about geo-political considerations?

    Reply
  3. Iskander

    True animals are the Russians. Before they came, in 2015 Syrian army almost vanished. The Syrians were not very happy about killing the Syrians. As well known, today pro-Assad units are saturated with Russian commanders, advisers and instructors plus they have deployed what they shamefully call “private military company” staffed with Russians themselves. All genocide-scale operations of seizing Aleppo, Homs, and Ghouta were planned and supervised by the Russian General Staff. Their signature is well discernible: the same destruction of the large cities was first applied in Konigsberg and Budapest and Breslau in 1945.

    Reply
  4. Rudolf Rojas

    Shameful criminal regimes such as the Russian, Iranian, Syrian and assorted Lebanese and other Shia miscreants mean to destroy what is left of Syria and V.V. Putin has the audacity and gaul to demand that the West pay to reconstruct Syria! This is to humourous to be true, here is the murderous Russian military that has dictated all of the operations to ‘liberate’ Syria from terrorists demanding payment! I say that one of the pre-conditions of ANY support to rebuild the country be prefaced by the removal of Russian and Iranian and assorted miscreant soldiers from Syria, as well as the removal of AL-Assad ad his mafia family so that all Syrians who want to can return to a country void of criminality and the death visited upon by this murderous triumvirate. Russia, with an economy smaller than Brazil is in no position to rebuild Syria, it can barely feed its own people in Russia.

    Reply

Leave a Reply to Rudolf Rojas

  • (will not be published)