ALEPPO, Syria — Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions have recently intensified their bombing of the Syrian government posts on the southern and eastern Idlib fronts, which extend to the areas of Jabal al-Zawiya, Turkmen Mountain, Kurd Mountain and Al-Ghab Plain.
The bombing campaign came in response to the increasing land and air attacks launched by the Syrian government and Russia against several villages and towns in Idlib countryside during the past week. This was coupled with ongoing government and Russian shelling in the area, with more than 10 air raids targeting the villages and towns of the Jabal al-Zawiya area on the southern fronts July 6.
An FSA military commander told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “A military force affiliated with the Syrian regime carried out a ground attack in the Maarat al-Naasan/Kafr Amma axis, east of Idlib, at dawn July 14. FSA and HTS fighters responded to the attack, inflicting heavy losses among the regime forces during clashes and shelling with heavy machine guns during their [the regime forces’] withdrawal.”
He said, “The regime forces have recently escalated their attacks against villages and towns close to the fighting fronts in Idlib countryside, and the shelling reached the villages of Maarat al-Naasan, al-Bara, Kansafra, Kafr Taal, Baluon, Mashon, Banin, Majdaliya and others. We have responded by bombing the positions of the regime forces with various types of weapons available to us, which are mostly artillery and medium- and short-range missiles.”
The Syrian Civil Defense, known as the White Helmets, reported July 12 that Russian warplanes targeted the vicinity of the villages of Balshon and Marian, south of Idlib, in conjunction with artillery shelling by the government forces and Russia targeting the vicinity of the villages of Majdaliya, Banin and al-Fatirah in the same area.
On July 11, Ahmed Najjar, military commander in the FSA-affiliated Thuwar al-Sham faction, was killed in government shelling in Kafr Amma, in the western countryside of Aleppo. Several activists mourned the military leader on social media, while pages loyal to the government confirmed that Najjar was killed by artillery shelling by the government forces.
The Russian airstrikes resumed July 6, targeting various sites in the southern countryside of Idlib, after a relative calm that had lasted for months.
Abu Bakr al-Homsi, HTS military commander in Idlib, told Al-Monitor, “On July 7, HTS carried out an infiltration operation on the regime forces’ posts in the town of Jawbas, located on the fronts southeast of Idlib, killing several regime fighters and seizing weapons and ammunition. Our fighters are always fighting the enemy, and this operation is just a small part of what we have prepared against the Bashar al-Assad regime and its supporters — the Iranian and Russian occupiers.”
He said, “After carefully monitoring the enemy's posts and identifying their weaknesses, one of our fighters carried out a successful operation on the Jawbas axis. He infiltrated the enemy posts without being detected, gaining the element of surprise, and he was able to kill or injure every regime fighter there. He then returned safely without being hurt.”
Homsi added, “We promise the criminal regime and its supporters that we will carry out more operations against them. Our fighters will have the last word.”
It seems that the recent field developments have worried the FSA and HTS, both of which have strengthened their military positions in some axes to handle any sudden attacks by the government and Russia.
On July 7, HTS deployed several military brigade commanders, led by the commander of its affiliated Military College, Brig. Gen. Abdulrahman al-Sheikh to inspect the troops’ readiness in some axes, namely the axes of Turkmen Mountain, Al-Ghab Plain and the contact lines in the south.
Col. Mustafa Bakour, FSA leader residing in Idlib, told Al-Monitor, “The return of Russian warplanes and raids in the Idlib area with heavy reconnaissance planes and suspicious regime movements seem somewhat worrisome. It seems clear that Russia is working to restore the balance in the face of Turkey, and it wants to involve the Idlib file in discussions about the expected Turkish military operation against the Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF] after Turkey succeeded over the past period in neutralizing the Idlib file.”
He said, “It seems that Russia wants to make gains from Turkey in exchange for its approval of the Turkish military operation against the SDF. Iran also has an interest in obtaining similar gains. Both parties are trying to exert pressure in the field and send messages through the military escalation in Idlib. We may witness a greater escalation in the coming week. It all depends on the outcomes of the tripartite summit to be held in Tehran July 19.”
The Russian, Turkish and Iranian presidents are expected to hold a tripartite summit on the Astana process in Tehran July 19, Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for the Russian presidency, announced July 12.
Bakour noted, “Turkey will most likely not give up any geographical area in favor of the regime forces and Russia in Idlib, no matter how great the military pressure is. Iran only wants to ensure the protection of its strongholds in the towns of Nubl and Zahraa, north of Aleppo, once the military operation against the SDF is launched in Tal Rifaat; while Russia may obtain gains in files other than the Idlib file.”