For the first time since 2012, the Syrian Army has completely secured the main section of the M5 highway which runs between the cities of Damascus and Aleppo.
The victory is a result of nine months of off-and-on but otherwise intensive combat operations in the southeastern countryside of Idlib province, the north Hama plain region and, more recently, the suburbs of southwest Aleppo.
Beginning in May 2019, government forces set about a mission to draw in the remaining Idlib-based militant groups capable of conducting mobile operations and break the main jihadist defense line running from Kafr Naboudah, to Murak to At-Tamanaa, which formed the basis of the North Hama Salient.
It would take nearly four months to reduce this defense line in northern Hama province which historically shielded Khan Sheykhun city from a direct Syrian Army advance up the M5, however the real victory was in casualties inflicted on insurgent groups over the course of the operation.
The Khan Sheykhun operation forced Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and other jihadist factions to commit their last reserves of shock troops, mobile assets and heavy weapons – here they were lured into a battle of attrition, ground-down and annihilated.
Ceaseless militant counter-attacks to reclaim just a single village for 24 hours for the sake of pro-opposition media had dire military consequences for the jihadists on the ground in the long term; in effect, they traded combat endurance for brief moments of fame.
After Khan Sheykhun was liberated by the Syrian Army, when the time came to dislodge militant forces east of the M5 highway, insurgent groups were, at this point, already done for.
Just five days of operations during late December saw government troops tear open a 20 kilometer gap in militant lines across southeastern Idlib province and reach the gates of Murrat al-Numan.
A series of ceasefires were attempted, but as usual, failed due to non-stop jihadist violations, and in January 2020 the offensive across southeast Idlib resumed, supplemented by the opening of a new front in Aleppo’s suburban southwest.
Murrat al-Numan was liberated within days.
By compromising militant lines in southwest Aleppo around Khan Touman, and then reaching Saraqib, insurgent defenses in the Al-Eis area opposite Al-Hader (some of the most tested and well-prepared in the jihadist-held Greater Idlib region) were simply bypassed and outflanked from the rear.
During this time, the resolve of the Syrian Army against Turkish Army occupation forces was demonstrated with two artillery attacks, one on February 2 and another on February 10.
The two attacks combined killed fourteen Turkish Army troops and wounded another 45 according to official Turkish sources.
Furthermore, the surrounding of over half-a-dozen Turkish observation bases in Hama, Idlib and Aleppo by the Syrian Army has served to call Ankara’s bluff – that the presence of a standing Turkish conventional force would deter Damascus from further operations against militant groups in northwest Syria.
Since taking the M5 highway, a buffer zone between two to five kilometers deep in different areas has been established west of the road and now, in recent hours, government forces have commenced an operation directly west of Aleppo city, seizing Aleppo’s Scientific Research Center.
It is believed that the Syrian Army will continue to advance west of Aleppo city in the days to come.
Click here to see a HD map of the current situation in northwest Syria.
Article written by Andrew Illingworth.