New opposition strategy wins in battle for Syria's north

New opposition strategy wins in battle for Syria's north
Comment: A new coalition of opposition forces backed by regional powers launched an offensive that forced the regime to retreat from Idlib. Can this success be repeated?
4 min read
06 May, 2015
Opposition forces on the move in the Idlib countryside [Getty]

The Syrian regime has lived through a military nightmare in the north during the past six weeks.

Its forces have been dramatically pushed back from the centre of the Idlib province; they suffered a bitter defeat in Jisr al-Shugour, a key region bordering the regime-controlled coastal area, and they have lost the villages of the al-Ghab area.

A black eye for the regime

As a result of the last battle, the regime's forces left a well-fortified military area. Such speedy advances made by the opposition forces contributed to the tarnishing of the reputation of one of the regime's military icons, Colonel Suhail al-Hassan, known as al-Nimr (tiger), and to the collapse in the morale of the regime's supporters on Facebook, as was apparent from the pessimism of their posts.

The rapid advances made by opposition forces tarnished the reputation of one of the regime's military icons, Colonel Suhail al-Hassan.

The rebels' advance in those areas was easy and rapid. No major battles took place inside Idlib or Jisr al-Shugour as the regime's soldiers speedily evacuated both towns while the attacking forces were still far away. Military detachments behave in this way when their supply lines are cut or when they fear being trapped.

The armed rebels employed the tactic of attacking support and back-up positions, which the regime uses to protect its positions and supply lines. These barriers were gradually destroyed, allowing a large number of mechanised forces to advance on cities from several directions, allowing them to be taken without much resistance.

The opposition forces' new tactics forced the regime to rely on its air force and long range artillery almost completely, attempting to make the confrontation a battle of attrition not position, to protect its forces and keep the opposition at bay. These tactics suit the regime and it has used them on the northern front for some time.

The regime's response has fallen far short of the catastrophic losses it has suffered. Some of the air raids it launched after the setback were limited to bombing military hardware abandoned by its own forces as they fled to destroy it and prevent the rebel forces from using it against regime forces later.

The regime's media response was feeble, and much disappointment was expressed on social media networks. This has led some to conclude the war might be coming to an end. That impression began to fade as analysts re-examined maps and the geography of the battlegrounds. Even though Ariha, a regime-held town south of Idlib, is a relatively easy target, the opposition is still far from being able to decisively move to take the town.

The rapid rebel military advance could not have occurred had it not been for the increase in Qatari, Turkish and Saudi support and the massing of a considerable force for the Idlib offensive. Their Islamic orientations may have brought them closer together.

No more low-hanging fruit?

The rapid rebel military advance could not have occurred had it not been for the increase in Qatari, Turkish and Saudi support.

However, making further advances could be difficult. The area that the regime is defending has shrunk following its loss of most of the land and its forces have, as a result of their safe withdrawal from the cities, preserved most of their manpower. The regime is now fortifying what it controls, utilising its air force as much as it can to prevent rebel divisions from reorganising in preparation for the next battle.

The next battle will be for Ariha, the last regime-held urban centre in the Idlib governorate. It has become clear the regime prefers to hold large urban centres, and to move out of villages and less defensible outlying areas. This gives it the appearance of being in control.

Its exit from Ariha might turn out to be the final an irrevocable loss of the Idlib governorate. This could transfer the battle to areas more important to the regime, where it cannot afford significant losses like the one it suffered in Idlib. Ariha is expected to be an important milestone.

The rebels will not rush into attacking it before they are prepared and the opposition coalition holds consultations, some of which may be regional. This next goal may also be subject to bargaining at the Geneva meeting, preparations for which are underway as the regime's air force bombs areas it used to control.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.