Opinion

Syrian Rebels Change Tactics to Outsmart Putin’s Air Onslaught

1203_Free Syrian Army Tactics
A Free Syrian Army fighter talks on a walkie-talkie near a rocket launcher during what they said was preparations for an operation to strike at forces loyal to Syria's president Bashar Al-Assad located in Daraa, July 27. Alaa Al-Faqir/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Atlantic Council site.

Aided by Russian air support, the Assad regime has made substantial progress in Aleppo’s southern countryside, and rural areas surrounding Latakia, dealing a blow to the opposition’s resolve.

In one recent battle, seven Russian warplanes flew in formation, in contrast to the regime planes that usually fly solo, and pummeled opposition fighters. Once the planes finished, Assad’s infantry, along with fighters from Shia militias including the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi al-Nujaba, attacked rebels on the ground.

Russian and foreign fighter support has enabled the regime to retake more than 20 villages in areas around Aleppo and three key towns on the outskirts of Latakia.

When Russian aircraft stop striking heavily contested areas to avoid inflicting collateral damage on regime forces, opposition fighters, in particular those from groups such as the Nusra Front, Jund al-Aqsa and Ahrar al-Sham, immediately seize the initiative.

Time and again, these brigades have responded fiercely, killing dozens of Alawite officers and several Iranian commanders. Despite the armed groups’ ability to hold key areas under sustained Russian bombing, many tend to withdraw under heavy shelling, allowing the regime to retake crucial territory.

On a recent day in rural Latakia, rebels in Ghanam, a village located in the Turkmen Mountains along the Turkish border, and on Mt. Nabi Yunis—the area’s highest point which overlooks the surrounding grounds—were subject to more than 25 regime and Russian airstrikes. In Ghamam, sustained air support allowed regime forces to claim the town for several hours.

Undeterred, opposition fighters snuck into the village overnight and killed at least 23 of Assad’s soldiers, including several officers. Pro-regime social media accounts published news of the deaths. For example, the Shuhada al-Jaysh al-Araby al-Sury Facebook page memorialized seven officers—all of whom belonged to the Rajuh, a prominent family from Homs—killed during recent clashes in the countryside of Latakia and Aleppo.

Elsewhere in Latakia’s countryside, rebel groups killed several additional senior officers in Assad’s army, including Colonel Maher Ali Zweyd on October 18, and Major General Ayman al-Badran, from the village of Qardaha—the Assad family’s ancestral home. Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that ISIS killed 12 regime officers during a fierce battle for control of Kwayris Military Airbase in northern Aleppo countryside.

In a private interview, Alaa Saqar, commander of the Fastaqim Kama Umirt Brigade, a Free Syrian Army (FSA) unit operating in Aleppo’s southern periphery, discussed recent targeted killings of regime officers in the area.

Q: How many Alawite officers have been killed during recent clashes?

Alaa Saqar: We don’t know the exact number killed, but we can confirm that, until now, our forces have killed five Alawite officers, as well as a number of Iraqi, Lebanese and Afghani mercenaries. In addition to many of Assad’s regular ground troops—the vast majority of whom belong to the President’s Alawite sect—we killed several Iranian officers and took four hostages, three Lebanese Hezbollah members and one Iraqi Shia militiaman.

Q: What do Assad’s recent military operations in rural Aleppo hope to accomplish?

Alaa Saqar: With regards to the regime’s recent progress, we know that the Russians and Iranians seek to preserve regime control of strategic high grounds in the southern countryside [of Aleppo], most notably the weapons depots in the villages of Khan Tuman, Khilsa and Jabal al-Ais.

From the very first day of fighting in these areas, pro-regime forces have used a rolling barrage of strikes, along with weapons that are prohibited internationally. In parts of Khan Tuman, pro-Assad forces waged rocket and missile attacks every twenty seconds. We have not seen this intensity previously.

Additionally, these attacks have high precision, which we have not experienced from the regime and Iranian forces before the Russian intervention.

Thank God, FSA forces, amongst them Fastaqim Kama Umirt, which is a key group in the area of weapons stores in Khan Tuman and in the area of Jabal al-Ais, along with other rebel groups, has been able to adapt to the regime’s new tactics.

Accordingly, we have transformed the conflict from one of direct confrontation into a series of smaller attack and retreat skirmishes that have weighed down advancing forces and taken away the advantages provided by air-cover and heavy weaponry.

The firepower density is awesome and has high precision because of the reconnaissance planes that broadcast directly to Russia’s control room. The true miracle is that Assad’s forces, with the support of more than 20 Iraqi, Lebanese and Iranian sectarian militias, Iranian field commanders and Russian air coverage, have failed to do more than take al-Ais.

In the meantime, it has failed to take control of Tel Khilsa and to advance even an inch at Khan Tuman, praise be to God. Now, the rebels are working on recovering al-Ais. It’s our turn now, since the enemy forces have gone from the offensive to the defensive.

Adding credence to Saqar’s assertions, a local opposition television channel confirmed the death of Iranian General Masoud Akbari, commander of Assad’s military operations in the southern Aleppo countryside, in a rebel attack on his personal vehicle using an American-made TOW missile.

Abu Rahal, another opposition commander operating in the area, diminished the importance of the regime’s recent progress in and around Aleppo, pointing to the dozens of pro-Assad forces—most of whom, he alleges, hail from Shia militias in Lebanon and Iraq—that rebel groups have killed.

Abu Rahal added that “we must acknowledge that we’re fighting Russia, Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah while entirely dependent upon friendly entities for support, who mainly just give us some basic arms. [Our] current means, in comparison to the enemy, is nearly non-existent. In other words, we should not compare us as Syrian revolutionaries to our enemies in Assad’s camp.”

Abu Rahal concluded by drawing attention to rural Latakia, where rebels recently reclaimed, within only one week, one of the three key villages that they had lost to the regime. Moreover, Abu Rahal contends that Assad is desperate to increase regime-held territory ahead of the next round of Vienna talks scheduled for early next year.

Saleem al-Omar is an independent Syrian journalist.

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