A loyalist collapse in Idlib, siege at the National Hospital

Government forces sallying out of the National Hospital under rebel fire.
Government forces sallying out of the National Hospital under rebel fire. (May 22, 2015)

Background

Fighting began early on in Idlib. The summer of 2011 made clear that a civil uprising would become a civil war. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Damascus saw fit to handle the continuing protests with force.

Night protest in Idlib. (Sept. 7, 2011)

Guerrilla actions against government soldiers increased. Largely comprised of defectors from the military, rebels conducted raids, ambushes and facilitated defections all from autumn through the end of the 2011. By the end of January 2012, 90 percent of Idlib was reportedly under rebel control. Loyalist forces met the resistance with increasingly brutal crackdowns.

This escalation culminated in the first battle of Idlib. On Monday March 12, government soldiers began indiscriminately bombarding the city with artillery and mortars. All water and electricity was cut off and the lightly equipped civilians and Free Syrian Army (FSA) defenders were surrounded. Loyalists stormed the city. After 3-4 days of fighting, the FSA withdrew from Idlib. As the government went house to house to mop up, rebel leadership appeared in danger of crumbing.

But the fighting around Idlib continued. In an effort to reclaim territory before a UN ceasefire deal, the government launched fresh assaults on rebel areas around the city, which concluded on April 12 when the truce took effect. Two months later the UN suspended their peace operation in Syria due to the violence rising once again.

Syrian rebels launch attack on tank position in Idlib.

Meanwhile to the northeast, the FSA found a controversial yet effective ally. Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra won notoriety among other rebels for their performance during the urban fighting in Aleppo. Jabhat al-Nusra and other Islamist opposition groups in Aleppo initially rejected the widely acknowledged Syrian National Coalition.

They agreed to cooperate the next day, but asked for greater representation and reaffirmed their commitment to an Islamic government in Syria. Jabhat al-Nusra had also rebuked the ceasefire agreement with the Assad government, and were on the march with it finished. Soon the group would assert its force in Idlib.

Jabhat al- Nusra and Ahrar al- Sham prepare to attack Wadi Deif. 

For much of the next few years, the fronts around Idlib would remain fairly stable with smaller scale fighting pretty much constant. Loyalists maintained a strong salient stretching from Latakia to the city of Idlib.

FSA, Jabhat al-Nusra and other elements would spend the time claiming the surrounding countryside, addressing internal disputes and besieging loyalist forces. By the turn of the new year, fighting continued but a rebel attempt on Idlib appeared within reach.

Now that Jabhat al-Nusra had dismantled minority-friendly rebel groups, evidence arose that the Druze minority in Idlib had been forcibly converted to Sunni Islam by their new militant neighbors. Jabhat al-Nusra later reached an agreement with Lebanese Druze politician Walid Jumblatt. Druze in Idlib must convert to Islam, and in exchange Jabhat al-Nusra will not enforce sharia upon them.

Formation of Jaysh al-Fatah, The Army of Conquest

On Tuesday, March 24, 2015, rebels active around Idlib formed Jaysh al-Fatah [The Army of Conquest]. The operation room mainly included Sunni Islamist factions, notably Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, Faylaq Al-Sham and Jund al-Aqsa. The next day, they launched a three pronged attack on Idlib City. National Defense Force militia were driven out of the northwest of the city, with loyalist sources announcing a counteroffensive underway. The government-held villages of Kafraya and Fu’ah were cut off from the main garrison, which retreated south to Mastouma. Opposition sources declared the city captured that Thursday.

As the rebels consolidated and celebrated their victory, some civilians fled the area fearing more violence. Rebels accused government forces of executing prisoners before their retreat. Some observers noted the pronounced leadership of Jabhat al-Nusra in the assault.

Ahrar al- Sham hell cannon scores direct hit on loyalist forces at Mastoumeh. 

Government forces drew new lines at Mastoumeh to the south of Idlib, and Jisr al-Shughour in the west. Fresh leadership and reinforcement arrived in the form of Colonel Suheil Al-Hassan and his special forces brigade. Loyalist sources celebrated him as a competent up-and-comer with a winning record.

Jabhat al-Nusra pushed into Mastoumeh, but government forces encircled and destroyed the detachment. On April 8, a counteroffensive was announced. Meanwhile, the rebels continued their siege of government militia trapped northeast of Idlib city.

On April 18, loyalist sources claimed the capture of locations around the strategic town of Arhia. This included a report of indecisive fighting at loyalist base Qarmeed camp (also known as “the brick factory”). In the model of Jaysh al-Fatah, the group of mostly Islamist groups formed Maarakat an-Nas (Battle of Victory) on Thursday April 23. Consolidating the rest of Idlib province was the objective of the operations room.

Jabhat Ansar al-Din fighting around Ishtabraq, in Idlib. 

Government loyalist soldier captured in Idlib April, 2015
Government loyalist soldier captured in Idlib. (April 27, 2015)

Jabhat al-Nusra fighters drove National Defense Forces (NDF) militiamen from a hill east of Qarmeed camp, wrote al- Masdar News. The garrison, supported by air, defended the facility and the rebels were pushed back toward the hill. Hostilities reportedly ended around 9:30 p.m.

The same day, Jahabat al-Nusra sent men to Jisr al-Shugour. Opposition source Rami Abdel Rahman said heavy fighting ensued, with waves of rebel suicide attacks and the government bombing the area. The capture of several key checkpoints by rebels suggested the government control was slipping. On Saturday, Jisr al-Shughour fell. Loyalist forces redeployed to the plains and towns south of the city.

With it’s capture, the rebel coalition controlled the main road into the the Alawite stronghold of Latakia. After the area’s turnover, the government airpower stepped up the bombing campaign.

After a two ton VBIED tore open the facility, rebel fighters stormed Qarmeed camp. The move nullified the loyalist artillery position and resupplied the rebels, who captured weapons, munitions and other supplies the retreating forces left behind.

Shortly after the defensive collapse, a video surfaced that appeared to show Colonel Suhail al-Hassan directly on the phone with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It was followed by a second video that appeared to be shot on the same occasion and location. Colonel al-Hassan is shown to be requesting ammunition for his 800 reassembled troops.

Translation available here.

In the wake of losing most of the province, Syrian state TV alleged that the rebels received logistical cooperation and fire support from the Turkish government. Anakara denies this.

As the air campaign continued, more reports of chemical weapons came from rebel areas. This accompanied an increasing tendency of residents to avoid shelling and other battlefield hazards by moving to the countryside. The Syrian foreign ministry sent a letter to the United Nations accusing Jabhat al-Nusra of executing 200 civilians in Ishtabraq, a majority Alawite area.

Loyalists besieged in the National Hospital

Meanwhile, news reports began to circulate about government soldiers trapped in the National Hospital on the southern edge of Jisr al-Shugour. Initial reports claimed around 150 fighters inside, as well as an unknown number of civilians.

Fighting around Mastoumeh continued as did the reports of chlorine gas. The Syrian Arab Army and National Defense Forces launched an offensive in the direction of the hospital, to lift the siege. Rumors abounded about who might be inside the building, ranging from the governor of Idlib province to Russian or Iranian officers. On the 9th, Jabhat al-Nusra detonated a VBIED on the hospital. The soldiers inside the building fought off the forthcoming rebel attack while loyalist forces pushed to break through to rescue them.

Pro-government Farsnews announced an SAA capture of Khattab hill in the east of the Jisr al-Shughour. On 12 May, Islamic Front group Ahrar al-Sham exploded a tunnel bomb beneath Fanar checkpoint and stormed the position southwest of Ariha, on the east edge of the salient.

Ahrar al- Sham storms Fanar checkpoint. 

Mastomeh and the National hospital were also attacked, and government sources said a counterattack on Fanar was underway. After enduring repeated assaults, Mastomeh fell to the rebels on May 18. For those inside the National Hospital, time was running out. The hospital’s lower levels provided excellent protection and the site had plenty of ammunition, but other supplies (including water) had to be airdropped by the Syrian Arab Air Force (SAAF).

SAA soldiers smoke and reflect in the basement of the National Hospital.

Drilling could be heard beneath the basement floors, moving from room to room. With the rebels digging for a tunnel bomb, it was time to leave. On Friday, May 22, the trapped soldiers and civilians formed up and exited the compound. Receiving cover from jets overhead, they began their fighting retreat toward government lines 4km (~2.5 miles) away.

Upon arriving to friendly lines, the soldiers and civilian survivors were rushed for medical treatment.

The next day, an opposition media team surveyed the battlefield

Observers counted 123 distinct bodies.

The death count depends on who you decide to believe. The total number of people in the hospital was unclear from the beginning, so we’ll likely never know what exact percentage escaped. Days after the escape, government sources said 127 of 170-180 soldiers and civilians had returned to friendly lines. They countered video evidence of higher casualties with accusations or recycled footage and clever editing.

By the next weeks end, rebel forces overran Ariha. The last city under government control in Idlib province had fallen. Falling back to Urum al-Jawz, government forces restructured their positions to better defend their remaining possessions. These are mostly Abu al- Duhur airbase to the southwest, and a more compact salient to hinder rebel operations into Latakia.

Aftermath

On June 3, Human Rights Watch reported evidence of chemical attacks carried out on May 2 and 7.

The fighting would continue in the months to come. Rebels applied pressure to Abu al- Duhur airbase and chipped away at the salient between them and Latakia. Meanwhile, the government continued their air campaign against the recently lost territory, killing scores more civilians.

On Wednesday June 10, violence broke out between Jabhat al-Nusra fighters and residents of Qalb Loze, a Druze village north of Idlib. Allegedly, a Jabhat al-Nusra commander tried to commandeer the home of a resident, whom he labeled a regime supporter. When relatives of the homeowner helped resist the seizure, the commander returned with men who fired on the crowd. At least 20 were reported killed. This comes after the forced conversion of the Druze in Idlib to Jabhat al-Nusra’s brand of Sunni Islam. At least on paper.

With the battle largely won, Jaysh al- Fatah set out to administer their new territory. This meant reports of Zakat taxation systems, and shows of force between Islamist factions competing for authority. Jabhat al-Nusra reportedly raided independent police operations in their areas, taking equipment and detaining police and local council members.

Jabhat al-Nusra Abu Mohammad al-Julani interviewed by Al-Jazeera. Translation

Meanwhile, government forces continued to claim ownership of key defensive positions along their territory. Mobilizing forces in the al-Ghab plains, the government expected a fresh offensive in due time. While the lines held and opposition forces appeared distracted across Syria, the air campaign continued.

On July 7, reports emerged that Jabhat al-Nusra exchanged civilian prisoners from Ishtabraq to the government. Pro-opposition Orient News reporter Anas Tracy was also reunited with his mother.

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