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Apr 28, 2015 | 09:00 GMT

5 mins read

Syrian Rebels Gain Momentum in Idlib Province

Syrian Rebels Gain Momentum in Idlib
(GHAITH OMRAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Summary

Syrian rebels are working their way into positions that will give them more options for expanding the fight against government forces. Loyalist forces, not knowing which option the rebels will choose, are being stretched thin. The fight ahead will be a long one, but the rebels are gaining momentum and likely to increase their efforts to break into core loyalist territory in the coming months.

Over the weekend, Syrian rebels made considerable advances in their ongoing offensive, called the Battle of Victory, in Idlib and northwestern Hama provinces. The biggest gain by the rebels occurred when they managed to seize the critical Idlib town of Jisr al-Shughour, breaking through loyalist defenses in the city with well-organized, decisive attacks and shattering the defending 87th Mechanized Brigade.

The rebels then proceeded southward, seizing large portions of the northern al-Ghab Plain and cutting off the two roads from the south that connect to the M4 highway, thereby largely isolating the remaining loyalist forces in the Frikah-Ariha-Mastoumah pocket in Idlib. The loyalists are still able to channel supplies into the pocket through a narrow section of territory between the towns of Frikah and Qarqur. But with the roads in the al-Ghab cut by the rebels, these supplies would have to cross the country without access to roads for a considerable portion of the route, greatly complicating resupply and logistics. The government has rushed reinforcements from Damascus to reopen the route. These reinforcements, spearheaded by the 106th Republican Brigade and backed by thousands of militiamen and National Defense Force troops, could break through and stabilize government forces' pocket in Idlib, but they will face significant obstacles — including numerous anti-tank defenses and determined fighters — in any attempt to retake lost territory such as Jisr al-Shughour.

Meanwhile, farther to the east, in Idlib, jihadist fighters with Jabhat al-Nusra finally managed to overrun the army's Qarmeed camp, in part because loyalist forces had to divert some fighters to the attempt to reopen the supply route in the west. The loyalist Tiger Forces and remnants of the 11th Armored Division that are now trapped in the Idlib pocket therefore find themselves under significant pressure from all sides. For example, with the seizure of the Qarmeed camp, the rebels are now positioned to split the loyalist pocket in two by flanking Mastoumah from the south and pushing toward Ariha.

As the rebels keep advancing against the loyalist forces in Idlib and northwestern Hama provinces, the loyalists are sustaining significant losses, especially in terms of heavy weaponry such as artillery and armored vehicles. To a large extent this was due to the rebels' astute and heavy use of anti-tank guided missiles, especially the use of TOW missiles from abroad, as well as Metis, Konkurs and Milan missiles that were captured largely from loyalist stockpiles. Anti-tank guided missiles and other rebel weapons destroyed approximately 100 loyalist armored vehicles in the past four days. The rebels also managed to capture around 20 tanks and other armored vehicles, as well as dozens of artillery pieces and mortars.

Difficulties Ahead for the Rebels

All the loyalist reversals in the Battle of Victory may indicate progress for rebel forces, but it is important to place the overall battle and its effects in context. Though it certainly represents an unmitigated disaster for the loyalists fighting in Idlib, the battle thus far does not by any means point to any imminent downfall of the Syrian government. What it does illustrate is the increasing difficulty the government encounters as it becomes overstretched, fighting on multiple fronts across the country. However, the rebels will continue to lack unity even as they set up joint command centers to coordinate the numerous and diverse units. They will also face more difficulties as they seek to advance into areas where the Sunni populations are smaller and conditions are more unfavorable for the rebel cause.

As the northern rebels solidify their base in Idlib — and they still have to defeat the remaining loyalist forces in the province to do so — they will be in a position to push their offensives in three directions: westward into Latakia, southward into Hama and eastward toward the ongoing battle of Aleppo. The problem for the government is not knowing what the rebels will choose. The last two battles in Idlib have proven that the rebels can maintain adequate operational secrecy while planning large-scale offensives. With this lack of certainty, the loyalists will find themselves at a disadvantage as they are forced to spread their forces thin to cover all three rebel possibilities. The government has devoted considerable effort to keeping the fight bottled up in Idlib and avoiding this situation.

Large-scale coordinated rebel offensives are becoming the norm in the Syrian civil war. The loyalist forces, weakened by years of guerrilla warfare and insurgency, are now more equally matched with rebel forces that have gained experience over time and built up the armor, artillery and other heavy weaponry inventories, including anti-tank guided missiles, needed to face government forces in large-scale conventional warfare. The government maintains a decisive advantage in the air, but as Idlib has shown, that advantage alone is not enough to assure victories for the loyalists. The fight ahead is long, with rebels still struggling against determined loyalist forces in Daraa, Aleppo and Idlib provinces before they can even contemplate large-scale offensives elsewhere. With a string of loyalist defeats in Daraa and Idlib, however, the tempo of fighting is likely to accelerate as the rebels make more efforts to break into core government territory in the months ahead.

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