February 2018: The longest short month in the Syrian war

February 2018: The longest short month in the Syrian war
Analysis: 28 days that changed Syria
4 min read
01 March, 2018
Turkish-armed Syrian fighters are battling Syrian Kurds for territory in northern Syria [Getty]

The shortest month of the year proved to be an extra eventful month in the ongoing conflict tearing apart Syria, from the ongoing Turkish operation against Kurds in their northwest Afrin enclave to the brutal regime operation in Eastern Ghouta.

Russia began the month losing its second fighter jet since intervening in the conflict back in September 2015.

The Su-25 attack plane was shot down over Idlib while supporting the regime's offensive against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) there. The pilot managed to eject and reportedly took his own life shortly thereafter to avoid capture.

The loss of the plane came a mere month after Russia's bases in Syria came under two attacks, one from mortars and the other from a swarm of homemade drones. The Su-25's loss was the only aircraft Russia has lost in combat since its loss of a Su-24 shot down by the Turkish Air Force over its border with Syria in November 2015.

Less than a week after the downing of the Su-25, Israel also lost one of its jets

Less than a week after the downing of the Su-25, Israel also lost one of its jets, on February 10. After an Iranian drone violated its airspace, and was promptly shot down, Israel launched a wide-ranging retaliation targeting both Iranian and Syrian bases across the country, including the T4 base from which the drone reportedly took off in central Syria.

During the course of this an Israeli F-16I was lost to enemy fire, though the pilots managed to make it back into Israeli airspace before ejecting, and both survived. The jet's loss was the first time Israel lost one of its aircraft to enemy fire in more than thirty years. Israel had sought to continue attacks inside Syria but ceased and desisted, reportedly at the behest of Moscow.

Nevertheless, its targeting of some 12 military facilities across Syria, including four reportedly operated by Iran - in a single day - constituted the largest attack it has carried out in Syria to date and likely the largest such attack targeting the Syrian military since the early 1980s in Lebanon.

Amid growing opposition to the US troop presence in Syria's northeastern Kurdish territories, and the territories Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) forces captured from the Islamic State group in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zour provinces, the US Air Force foiled a large-scale attack by regime militiamen on an SDF base.

Scores of the militia were killed in the airstrikes, including a number of Russian mercenaries. It remains unclear if this was a Russia-sanctioned attack - from which they could later claim plausible deniability if it went awry, as they did - or if they were simply ethnic Russians hired by local Syrians and not following orders from Moscow.

Either way, the attack demonstrated the US resolve to maintain its troop presence in Syria in disregard to the mounting opposition to it.

Turkey's "Operation Olive Branch", against the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin, launched in January, continued throughout February. The Turkish forces and their Syrian militia allies are facing stiff resistance from the YPG, who even managed to shoot down one of Turkey's domestically-produced T-129 ATAK helicopter gunships on February 10.

The UN's Syrian envoy Staffan de-Mistura warned Eastern Ghouta was 'at risk of becoming a second Aleppo'

Later in the month, the Syrian regime deployed loyalist militia fighters to the enclave to help bolster the YPG's defences. Turkey, which warned Damascus against aiding the YPG, has since shot at these forces and appears prepared to fight the regime over Afrin, which would further complicate the crisis there.

As for the regime itself, it has launched a ferocious campaign against opposition remnants in Eastern Ghouta near Damascus, the site of the infamous August 2013 chemical gas attack that killed hundreds. The UN's Syrian envoy Staffan de-Mistura warned on February 20 that the district was "at risk of becoming a second Aleppo", referring to the brutal siege and bombardment of East Aleppo which ended in a regime victory in December 2016.

The regime attacks killed 250 people in a 48-hour period, a sign of what is to come if these bombardments against the district's population, estimated to number approximately 400,000, continue. The death toll had exceeded 600 by the end of the month.

The UN Security Council resolution unanimously passed to secure a ceasefire across all of Syria in light of this campaign has yet to take effect.

All of these events indicate that the Syrian conflict, now seven years old, could well drag on for many years to come, possibly becoming even more dangerous as outside powers become increasingly more directly involved.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon