Syria Weekly: Foreign powers enter the battle for Idlib
Regime forces moved into a number of abandoned villages on the Hama-Idlib border this week but as they approached their main target of Khan Sheikhoun they were met with strong resistance from opposition forces, hinting at greater Turkish support for the rebels.
The new assault comes after Bashar al-Assad's forces violated a ceasefire on August 5 after just three days, which was announced after the failure of Russian-backed regime fighters to make a breakthrough in Idlib.
The few regime successes early in the Idlib offensive came after massive Russia bombardments forced rebel fighters to retreat from a number of villages, before regrouping and launching counter – offensives to recapture lost territories.
The regime offensive this week followed a pattern of earlier Russian – backed assaults on opposition areas with bombing resulting in the complete destruction of at least one village and emptying many more.
Images shared by activists on social media this week showed trucks heading north piled with furniture and other belongings as civilians flee their homes – now on the frontlines in the battle for Idlib.
Russian bombers again this week hit civilian infrastructure with hospitals and homes destroyed in air raids. A Syrian-American Medical Society [SAMS] ambulance centre in southern Idlib was destroyed in six airstrikes on Wednesday, resulting in the death of two workers.
"We're deeply saddened and disturbed by this terrible incident. Mohamed [Hussni Mishnen] and Fadi [Alomar] exemplified the unwavering bravery of so many medical workers who continue to risk their lives to save others. These blatant crimes and violations of IHL must be investigated to hold perpetrators accountable," said SAMS President Dr Mufaddal Hamadeh in a statement on Wednesday.
The relief group said the strikes marks the 17th attack on its facilities since the regime offensive on Idlib began in April and the 40th assault on medical centres in opposition northwest Syria over the past four months.
|Khan Sheikhoun occupies a key strategic position with a road passing through it linking Syria's two largest cities, Aleppo and Damascus
Medical workers have accused Russia of deliberately targeting these hospitals and clinics due to some of their locations being shared with Moscow, via the UN, shortly before they were bombed.
Adding to this is that hundreds of civilians of civilians killed in air strikes, while at least 400,000 people have been forced from their homes due to the bombardment.
Khan Sheikhoun appears to be the target of the regime offensive on the ground, which has reportedly been emptied due to the fierce bombardment. The town occupies a key strategic position with a road passing through it linking Syria's two largest cities, Aleppo and Damascus, both now completely in regime control.
In a bid to capture Khan Sheikhoun, regime forces have launched a pincer on the southern Idlib town with fighters just a few kilometres away from its centre following fierce clashes with rebel defenders.
With just a few farmers' fields separating the fighters from Khan Sheikhoun, it seemed the town was destined to fall until opposition factions launched a spirited fightback.
The counter-offensive launched on Thursday managed to push regime troops back around the village of Sukeik, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
Key to the potential success of the rebel fightback will be the role played by Turkey, with Ankara currently focused on its own potential campaign in other parts of northern Syria.
Rebels managed to hold off the regime offensive near Khan Sheikhoun with the use of anti-tank missiles, likely supplied by Turkey.
The Syrian National Army and National Liberation Front – rebel groups with strong support from Turkey – have joined in the defence of Khan Sheikhoun, indicating that Ankara is ready to speed up its support for opposition forces in Idlib.
"It was decided to start sending troops from the National Army starting tomorrow," spokesperson Major Youssef Hamoud told Reuters.
Rebel forces on Wednesday downed a Syrian Su-22 warplane near the town during the battle, according to Syrian state news.
"One of our warplanes, which was tasked with destroying the positions of Jabhat al-Nusra in the al-Taman'a area, was shot down with an anti-aircraft missile that was fired by terrorists positioned in that area," it said, referring to the previous name of the dominant faction in HTS.
The captured pilot was paraded on a video broadcast by HTS-affiliated media, saying his job was to "bomb Khan Sheikhoun" and that he was now in the hands of opposition forces.
Things could change again if Iran's powerful militia forces take part in the battle, as has been suggested might happen by at least one media outlet.
Iran manages tens of thousands of foreign fighters in Syria and backs a number of other Syrian army divisions and pro-Assad militias.
Their decision not to take part in the April offensive on Idlib is thought to be a major factor in the failure of the regime to gain ground and indicates just how reliant Assad is on his patron Tehran.
"Trained Iranian militias are believed to have recently reached the area to take part in military operations launched by the regime and Russia against the Idlib and Hama countryside," Shaam Network reported.
The opposition media outlet said that Iranian personnel have been seen operating close to the frontlines in Hama, providing support to regime forces and monitoring activities. Some Tehran-linked forces have also been reportedly moved to western Aleppo province, an area where the opposition also have territory.
Iranian involvement would undoubtedly tip in scales in the battle for Idlib, but for now the forces seem to be observers in another regime campaign that appears destined for stalemate.
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Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab.
Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin