By: Christopher Kozak
The Syrian regime reportedly began a ground offensive in northwestern Syria with support from Russian airstrikes, marking the first overt example of coordination between Russian and Syrian military forces since the start of the Russian air campaign in Syria on September 30. Accounts from Syrian officials and activists indicated that Syrian Army units backed by allied militiamen and Hezbollah reinforcements launched coordinated attacks against rebel positions along the border between northern Hama Province and southern Idlib Province amidst an intense Russian aerial bombardment of the surrounding area. The attacks centered upon the rebel-held towns of Latmin, Tel al-Sayyad, and Khan Sheikhoun, which are all located on or along the strategic M5 Highway connecting Hama City to Aleppo City. Although there have been no reports of Russian ground forces participating in the fighting, the clashes follow indications that Iran deployed hundreds of additional Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) members and mobilized hundreds of other fighters from its local and regional proxy forces in order to participate in a major offensive in northwestern Syria. The start of the offensive also coincided with the announcement that four Russian warships in the Caspian Sea fired at least twenty-six cruise missiles against alleged “ISIS targets” in Syria. Thus far, no major advances for regime forces have been reported.
The location and targets of this escalation provide further evidence that the Russian air campaign in Syria intends to bolster regime forces in pursuing the objectives of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad rather than defeat ISIS. The terrain contested by the offensive has no notable ISIS presence and is instead held by a mix of rebel factions ranging from Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra to U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) affiliates such as Tajamu al-Izza. These groups previously staged a major offensive in 2014 which directly threatened regime control of the Hama Military Airport and they retain the ability to challenge the regime in its core terrain throughout the Hama countryside. A successful offensive to drive rebel forces from this region would alleviate this threat and divert Syrian rebels from further assaults on regime positions defending the Alawite heartland of Latakia Province to the west. Over the long-term, advances by pro-regime forces could also provide an avenue for the Syrian regime and its allies to conduct further operations along the M5 Highway and reestablish a presence in rebel-held Idlib Province after being largely driven from the region over the past six months.