The roots of the offensive lie in the rebels' successful capture of the city of Idlib on March 28. As Stratfor previously noted, the capture of Idlib marked the dominance of the rebel forces in Idlib province and threatened to undermine other government efforts in the north. Determined to weaken the rebels in Idlib and prevent them from making further gains, Damascus dispatched a number of units to try to recapture lost territory in the province. However, the repositioning of forces left dangerous holes in government lines across other key battlefronts. These reinforcements, spearheaded by the renowned loyalist Tiger Forces, made some initial gains around the town of Mastouma south of Idlib but did not succeed in breaking the rebel lines. Through virtue of deploying along the Idlib corridor and down the al-Ghab Plain in northwestern Hama, the loyalist counteroffensive is vulnerable to interdiction. That vulnerability is exactly what the rebels are attempting to exploit in their latest offensive.
The large-scale rebel operation requires comprehensive cooperation to be successful. The rebels not only marshaled wide-ranging forces for the offensive from across northern Syria, but they also kept their movements a secret. The rebels simultaneously struck in several areas for maximum effect, and they have assembled and distributed the necessary logistics train to sustain the force across inhospitable mountainous terrain.
Given the diverse background and ideologies of the rebel factions, it is notable that they managed to organize such a broad offensive. It is reasonable to assume some degree of foreign coordination. Indeed, over the past few months there has been an increased convergence of the core countries backing the rebels, namely Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. However, it is obvious that the rebel units themselves have become proficient at setting their own goals and have grown sophisticated in their independent planning. The setup of joint operations centers over the past year demonstrates this improved facilitation. Overall, the rebels are willing and able, but the success of the operation is far from assured.
The offensive is focused on three key areas across Idlib and northwestern Hama. The first, and probably the most difficult, directly targets the concentrated loyalist forces attempting to expand into Idlib. Jabhat al-Nusra spearheaded this assault, striking at the loyalist Tiger Forces and remnants of the 11th Armored Division located in the fortified camps of Mastouma and the large brick factory complex further to the southeast. Using an initial wave of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices followed by infantry and armor, Jabhat al-Nusra has so far managed to seize a number of positions around the brick factory but has been unable to progress rapidly against fierce loyalist resistance.
The second major thrust was also spearheaded by Jabhat al-Nusra with support from Ahrar al-Sham. This attack targeted the mountainous town of Jisr al-Shughour in western Idlib; the town was one of the first to revolt against the Syrian government before it was occupied. So far Jabhat al-Nusra has managed to make more headway in this attack. The rebel force took several loyalist positions around the town and has entered Jisr al-Shughour itself from the north.
For the third major attack, Ahrar al-Sham from the east and the Free Syrian Army First Coastal Division from the west sought to cut the government communication and logistics lines that run through the al-Ghab Plain into Idlib. Doing so would effectively cut off all loyalist forces in Idlib. So far the rebels, despite inflicting considerable casualties, have been unable to cut government supply lines across the plain.
Finally, secondary attacks carried out principally by Free Syrian Army outfits occurred against the government lines across Idlib, including attacks launched by the 101st Free Syrian Army division to the south of Ariha. The rebels also managed to cut the M4 highway leading to Ariha, at least temporarily, and have seized the Hamakah hilltop overlooking the road. If the rebels manage to hold this position, then loyalist forces further east would essentially be cut off. Damascus, however, is reported to be preparing a counterattack to reopen the road.
Intense Fighting to Come
Loyalist forces have so far held their ground against these attacks. The presence of the elite Tiger Force has contributed to the success of the defense around Mastouma, while the loyalist air force has continued to fly sorties against rebel positions despite inclement weather. But the largely successful defense has come at a heavy price. Rebels have taken advantage of the high ground around loyalist positions to inflict heavy casualties with artillery and anti-tank guided missile strikes. Indeed, Osama Abu Hamza, a rebel TOW guided missile gunner with the Free Syrian Army First Coastal Division, has become famous for a number of tricky hits on government tanks and positions over the past two days.
The rebel offensive is entering its critical period. Success would enable the rebels to encircle and defeat the remaining loyalist forces in Idlib. Yet the tenacious government defense has slowed the rebel attack. Furthermore, every day that the loyalist forces hold their ground gives more time for Damascus to recover, dispatch reinforcements and reset its lines. The Syrian government still needs to maintain its supply lines across its frontage. The rebels will need to make more headway to capitalize on their surprise attacks, meaning it is certain that the next few days in northern Syria will be bloody.