Blame, betrayal and treason are some of the vocabulary used in fiery exchanges and statements made by commanders of al Nusra Front and other terrorist militias operating in Syria, directed at their Turkish and Arab patrons and supporters over the past few days. This happened as the Syrian army, aided by Russian air raids, demolished the front-line defenses of rebel groups in north-western Hama and south-eastern Idlib, inflicting heavy losses and recapturing a number of villages, towns and governing hilltops.
Turkestan Army’s stronghold eliminated
The strongest blow of the week dealt to the hardcore Islamic terror groups, fighting against the Syrian state and its allies, was losing the strategic town of al Habeet in rural Idlib on Sunday, the first day of Islam’s holiest feast Eid al Adha (Feast of Sacrifice). Last night, the Syrian army took the town of Kafr Ein, east of al Habeet, and today regained three more; Talass, Mintar and Khirbet Mirshed, advancing through rapidly- collapsing enemy lines towards the three major rebel strongholds in the region; Khan Sheikhoon (now only three miles away), al Latamneh and Kafr Zeita, which are now only about six to ten miles from the advancing Syrian army units.
The overwhelming fire power used by the Syrian army so far has succeeded in neutralizing dozens of booby-trapped vehicles, suicide bombers as well as heavily fortified underground bunkers and tunnels. Al Habeet was the main stronghold for hardcore fighters of the Turkestan Army, sponsored and openly godfathered by Erdogan. Images released from the town before it fell to the Syrian army are a copy-paste replica of Kandahar, Afghanistan. Whole Turkestan families came with the fighters, settled and opened their own schools, business and implemented their strict Sharia rules, similar to ISIS. The army seized massive amounts of rebel ammunition and weaponry left behind in caves and tunnels in the area.
Those terrorists who have not been killed in recent action, have fled to nearby larger towns mainly Khan Sheikhoon, only five miles away from the advancing Syrian army. Growing reports are emerging that large numbers of the Turkestan fighters have fled along with their families to the Turkish borders. Turkey has opened three gateways in the formidable concrete wall it had built along the Turkish-Syrian borders in the region, in order to facilitate the crossing of its agents fleeing the battleground after suffering heavy casualties and losses.
Paving the way to Idlib
Capturing al-Habeet is the most significant achievement of many, in the offensive launched some three months ago with the aim of liberating large areas of rural Hama and Idlib which have been out of government’s control and a launch pad for many rebel attacks against both civilian as well as military targets for years. All eyes are on the rapidly-changing battle ground and the next move by the apparently unstoppable Syrian army advance.
Although the main rebel combatant groups in the area, al Nusra (Syria version of al Qaeda terror group) led by Abu Mohammad al Jawlani, and Jaish al Izza led by Jamil al Saleh, a renegade Syrian army officer, have been trying to hide the real figure of their dead in recent battles, it is believed to be in the hundreds with many more wounded. Terrorists have also lost a number of tanks, armored Turkish-made personnel carriers, some booby-trapped, as well as over 70 SUVs and pickup trucks, most carrying medium or heavy machine guns.
Following repetitive breaches of truces by rebel groups, and the failure by Turkey to curb or control terrorist actions in the region, further complicated by recurrent rebel drone and rocket attacks on the main Russian military base of Hmeimeem, Latakia, the current northwest offensive is set to continue for some time regardless of warnings by the United Nations and aid agencies of a new humanitarian crisis as hundreds of thousands of people having fled the war zone to the borders with Turkey.
The Tiger’s new victory
The Syrian army units spearheading the ongoing military onslaught in Hama and Idlib countryside are led by General Suhail al Hassan, nicknamed The Tiger. The man has won almost every single battle he has been involved in, including some of the toughest as in the Eastern Ghouta of Damascus just over a year ago. Al Hassan commandeers some elite units and has a range of overwhelming fire power at his disposal, including several MLRS launchers, tanks and heavy machine guns. He enjoys an excellent relationship with Russian commanders working in Syria, enabling him to enlist the help of joint Russian/Syrian air strikes whenever needed.
Undoubtedly, the capturing of al Habeet has revamped the momentum of the Syrian army’s offensive in Idlib and Hama. Despite many political and operational challenges, not least the Turkish observation posts in the area, the answer to ‘ when and where will the summer advance stop?’ remains anybody’s wild guess.