BEIRUT, LEBANON (5:00 P.M.) – A slow and sporadic but nonetheless ongoing offensive against the Syrian Arab Army in the eastern countryside of Idlib province by militant groups has revealed a new set of tactics being employed by rebels, overall producing mixed results.
Over the last three days, armed rebel groups – led by hard-line Islamist factions – have been conducting a general counter-offensive against the Syrian Army in eastern Idlib.
First thing worth mentioning is that the current assault is different from almost every other rebel offensive of the last three or four years in that that there are no specific objectives (i.e. to retake a specific area, base or settlement) – the idea behind the current operation is to just retake whatever villages can be taken and to determine what can be reclaimed by attacking it several times over.
The town of Tal Sultan (now confirmed to be under rebel control) was captured by militants after three separate assaults during which time they withdrew twice without the Syrian Army even counter-attacking.
Further evidence of this is that there was no major build up of militant forces for the offensive (compared to the Aleppo and Hama rebel offensives of 2016-2017); available units in the area simply started carrying out attacks immediately – at first receiving a bloody nose due to vicious Russian airstrikes – and since then new fighters and equipment have trickled towards the target sector.
One major problem is that this strategy only works for the retaking of frontier towns; as militant groups begin to penetrate government lines in slightly greater depth, the forward-back-forward hopping approach becomes infeasible and towns intended for capture need to be fortified as soon as being entered into.
Another thing that has become apparent is the more economic and drawn-out use of car bomb (or VBIED) attacks by Al-Qaeda affiliate militias, namely Ha’yat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra).
Where as before Islamist militias would employ a mass attack of several VBIEDs on a single point of the front all at once to kick-off a major offensive, now one car bomb attack is being regulated per attack wave.
Finally, it appears that militant shock assault units have been reduced in size – this may be due to a reduction in available heavy equipment.
In the past, a standard rebel inghamasis (infiltration) unit comprised one battle tank, one BMP and about 10 fighters; picture evidence now suggests that this has been reduced to a single BMP (with battle tanks held back for fire support only) and 5 fighters.
Overall, the offensive of the last three days has witnessed militant groups seize just one town from the Syrian Army in east Idlib (this being Tal Sultan). Other claims for the capture of another four villages further south appear to be completely false as no picture or video evidence has been provided whilst, at the same time, military-affiliated sources deny having lost the settlements.