Force members are seen in Mount Zawiya area on March 1, 2020 after the Free Syrian Army and moderate opposition forces, with help of Turkish armed forces, reclaim nine villages in northwestern Syria. (Ahmet H. Hatib/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Drone Swarms, Handheld Rocket Launchers Throw Back Assad’s Idlib Assault

Ankara’s newly emboldened allies, the 7,000-troop-strong Syrian National Army, now outnumber the Islamist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham forces in the conflict area

REYHANLI on TURKEY/SYRIA border — Turkish jets shot down two Russian-made Syrian attack jets Sunday just hours after Damascus vowed it would destroy any foreign military aircraft flying over its airspace.

Ankara’s forceful maneuvers demonstrate President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s serious intent to blur the Syrian government’s assault in the northwest province of Idlib.

The surge in fighting started in January after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces displaced nearly a million civilians – threatening to drive the almost 4 million Sunni Muslims living in the crowded territory northward across the Turkish border.

But civilians – many made homeless multiple times – say they are paying the price for the constant bombardment of Idlib.

“I was displaced from Homs in 2017 and came to Binnish [5 miles northeast of Idlib], but last week we needed to flee there too because of the escalation,” said Haya Shoirtany. “The local NGOs are doing their best – providing food baskets, evacuating people from dangerous areas, and helping people find shelter.”

“A week ago we were seeing people leaving their houses every day carrying nothing but their clothes because of the airstrikes,” the 18-year-old mother of one told The Media Line. “But these days, we don’t see new displacements because the regime is not taking new lands. It’s also because the fighting has completely emptied all the towns in the southern Idlib countryside.”

Ankara’s newly emboldened allies, the 7,000-troop-strong Syrian National Army (SNA), now outnumber the Islamist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Levant Liberation Organization or HTS) forces in the area.

Officers in Ankara estimate HTS to number around 5,000 men.

The organization formerly pledged loyalty to al-Qaida but now defines itself as an independent Islamist group.

However, many local civilians blame it for preventing the SNA from entering Idlib and for losing territory to the regime.

Now the SNA is claiming battlefield victories including downing Assad’s assault helicopters with shoulder-fired missiles around Saraqeb, a town 10 miles east of Idlib, which has borne the brunt of the government’s assault on the province.

“The majority of our fighters in Idlib are in brigades formerly backed by the Americans,” explained SNA spokesman Maj. Yousef Hamoud, who spoke to The Media Line from his command post in northwest Syria on Sunday. “Now we are receiving weapons from Turkey which we are using in addition to firearms we have captured from Assad’s army.”

“We have tanks, armored vehicles, multiple rocket launchers, and anti-personnel weapons with our soldiers deployed on the M5 Highway from the southern Idlib countryside and overlooking it from Mount Zawiya,” said Hamoud.

While SAA fighters are deployed on Mount Zawiya, its hillside towns, including Maarat al-Numan, have been depopulated from the government’s two-month assault.

“The heavy shelling and the government’s scorched-earth policy throughout Idlib have pushed the people to leave their houses, displacing a million more civilians, putting serious pressure on us,” said the SNA spokesman.

Continued Western reluctance to support Syria’s rebels and the stalemate over a political solution to the conflict have led Turkey to open its borders to tens of thousands of migrants fleeing the conflict.

Turkey has the largest number of refugees in the world — an estimated 3.2 million Syrians have resettled there since 2011. Erdoğan vowed last Tuesday to “transform Idlib into a safe place at any cost for the sake of both Turkey and the region’s people.”

In recent days, his air force has made extensive use of drones to go after Assad’s troops and Hezbollah militia.

On Sunday, the opposition Orient TV channel reported Turkish drone attacks against Syrian military airports at Minaq, Al-Nayrab, and Kuweires.

The channel claimed Assad militiamen, including officers, were killed in the weekend drone strikes.

Brig. Gens. Burhan Ramoun and Ismael Ali and Colonel Mazar Farwati were targeted in an airstrike carried out by an unmanned combat aerial vehicle in Mount Zawiya in the Idlib countryside, according to the United Arab Emirates-based Orient.

Additionally, Turkey’s Defense Ministry confirmed Sunday that its forces had shot down two Sukhoi Su-24 attack aircraft and claimed it destroyed Assad’s air defense systems after one of its drones was downed.

“Syrian military high command announces the closure of the airspace for planes and any drone above northwestern Syria and especially above the Idlib region,” declared the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency Sunday, just hours before the attack. “Any aircraft breaching our airspace will be treated as enemy aircraft which will be downed and prevented from carrying out its goals.”

The Turkish drone swarm has caught Russian troops backing Assad’s forces by surprise.

“Their forces bombard everything that moves, even motorcycles,” said an unidentified Russian paratrooper who posted a report on Twitter Saturday that showed damage caused by a drone strike.

Just weeks ago, the Damascus government was proclaiming its imminent victories in the area, but on Thursday, it railed against the rebels, Turkey, and the Americans.

“Terrorists in Idlib, with direct Turkish support, use US-made shoulder-fired missiles to target the Syrian and Russian warplanes. At the same time, the Turkish regime offers support to terrorists through artillery and shoulder-fired missiles in the battles along the Saraqeb axis,” a Damascus based officer told SANA.

Ghassan Hitto, the first head of an interim government established by the Syrian opposition National Coalition in 2013, says anger at Erdoğan for allowing several thousand to leave Turkey for Europe is misplaced when Ankara is hosting millions.

“Putting blame on Turkey is not fair,” Hitto told The Media Line. “There is much the United States could do. There was a lot that Russia could do. A simple action by Moscow to stop its aggression would solve the problem.”

“We should not lose focus on Assad, the Russians and the Iranians who violated the ceasefire, targeted schools, and hospitals along with the UN which stood by idly watching more and more brutal mass atrocities unfold,” said the Syrian opposition leader.

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