If January was anything to go by, observers of the Syrian Civil War would have assumed February would be an active month. Few would have guessed the extent to which one of the war’s major regional players, Turkey, would go to assert itself in a conflict that is coming up on its ninth anniversary. February has been an active month, to say the least, and one of the bloodiest months of the war since the country-wide operations of early 2017.
The following breakdown of casualties reported uses various social media platforms to provide an overview and brief insight of pertinent events on a weekly basis. While social media is used heavily by all sides of the conflict to self-report deaths – referred to as ‘martyrs’ – it by no means provides a comprehensive number of Syrians killed in combat. However, the names that are reported can help build a partial picture of the day-to-day fighting on the ground. Importantly, approximately half-way through February loyalist networks entered a “social media blackout” significantly reducing the amount of information shared both publicly and privately, including martyrdom reports.1.According to an interview with a member of Homs National Defense Forces with extensive contacts in Idlib and Hama Below is a graph showing the daily count of losses reported by all sides in the conflict.
Overview of Government Losses
At least 769 pro-government fighters were reported killed on loyalist social media pages during the month of February.
Insurgent attacks in Dara’a and Quneitra killed at least 13 members of security forces while at least eight soldiers died during intermittent clashes with Turkish-backed FSA factions in northeast Syria. Israeli airstrikes on the 6th and 13th killed at least four men: the commander of the Mezzeh Military Airport, a Syrian Air Force pilot, and the crew of a Pantsir air defense system.
Nearly half of the reported pro-government deaths during this period were of men living in the four core loyalist governorates of Latakia, Tartous, Hama, and Homs. The vast majority of these men come from concentrated pockets of Alawite and Ismaili minority districts – Masyaf, al-Ghab Plains, and Salamiyah in Hama and Tal Kalakh in Homs. Damascus and Aleppo governorates were also heavily represented due to the deployment of the 4th Division and of local Aleppo militias and Republican Guard units on the Aleppo front. Men from Dara’a continue to be deployed in larger and larger numbers as civilians and ex-rebels are conscripted or reconcile with the regime.
The chart below lists the number of loyalist men of each rank killed in February. As always, ranks have been adjusted to ignore posthumous promotion. ‘Field commanders’ are roughly the equivalent to platoon leaders, ‘group commander’ can command anything from a company to several company-sized unit while ‘commanders’ command anything larger. These terms are commonly used among militias. Ninety-four officer of the rank of 1st Lieutenant or above died in February, among them a staggering 20 men of the rank of Colonel or higher. While the SAA is affected by officer bloat, many of the high ranking officers killed this month played central roles in the Idlib and Aleppo offensive.
The chart below lists the number of reported deaths attributed to specific units. Just under half of all reported deaths came with unit attributions, meaning many of these units lost more men than indicated below. Unless marked with a “*” all units listed below were deployed on the Idlib and Aleppo fronts in February.
The first week of the month was defined by intense conflict on the Aleppo fronts and a push by government forces towards Saraqib, backed by Russian Air Force (RuAF) warplanes that targeted both military personnel and civilians indiscriminately.2.“‘Very dire’ situation: EU calls for end to Syria bombing” : al-Jazeera The fighting on the western Aleppo frontline involved the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) units, Local Defense Forces (LDF) groups, Lebanese and Syrian Hezbollah units, the Air Force Intelligence, Military Intelligence’s Naimi Groups, the Syrian Republican Guard (particularly the 106th Brigade), and the 4th Division’s 41st and 42nd Brigades which had left the Kabbani frontline for Aleppo at the start of the year.
Of the 223 government martyrs reported during this period, an astounding 137 were killed in Aleppo, indicating the ferocity of the fighting that raged there. It was during this week that the first major leadership casualties were sustained – a Republican Guard Brigadier General and a Colonel were killed on the 5th and 6th respectively, the IRGC lost it’s regional commander on the 2nd near Khalsah, Liwa Imam al-Baqir lost a high-ranking commander to a TIP ATGM strike on the 5th.3.“Hezbollah and Iranian-backed militias suffer heavy losses fighting in Syria” : Long War Journal
Escalation in Idlib continued as a Turkish military convoy post at al-Tarnabah came under fire, with seven TSK soldiers killed. Government forces led by the Tiger Forces – also known as the 25th Division – and supported by the Republican Guard’s 124th Brigade, the 5th Corps, and various SAA brigades, continued to advance towards the important town of Saraqib, having secured Ma’arat al-Numaan after its capture at the end of last month. On February 4th rebels killed the commander of the 25th Division’s 8th Regiment, the second regimental commander killed since the formation of the new unit in August 2019. On February 7th Brigadier General Ayman Zariq died in an explosion in south Idlib. Zariq was a veteran NDF officer who had been serving for several years as the head of all NDF military operations across the country. Government forces entered Saraqib on the 6th and fully secured it for the first time on the 7th. Their overall goal was control of the M5 Highway leading from Hama to Aleppo; control of this crucial road would ensure a secure land route between the two cities.
During this period new NDF recruits from Damascus were bussed to Deir Ez Zor, where ISIS mines and attacks had already killed four, including a member of the Republican Guard ‘s 104th Brigade.4.https://twitter.com/GregoryPWaters/status/1224786956585844736
The situation in Idlib became more dire for the opposition with the loss of Saraqib. Following the attack at al-Tarnabah and shelling of its observations posts along the critical M5 Highway in Idlib, Turkish rhetoric began to grow more bellicose, with Turkey giving Damascus until the end of the month to withdraw back to the Sochi Agreement deescalation lines delineated last year.5.“Saraqib falls out of opposition control…What will happen to Turkey’s military observation post?” : Enab Baladi
Fighting continued in earnest in both Idlib and Aleppo, and the SAA’s 25th Division grew more involved, reporting at least 38 deaths between the Idlib and Aleppo fronts. The dual rebel car bomb on Kafr Halab on the 10th killed at least 12 members of the 25th Division’s Taha Regiment, including two veteran group commanders. Five other members of the regiment, including three brothers, were reported killed the following day.
On the 10th, the Syrian Army again shelled Turkish forces at a newly-built observation post near Taftanaz, killing five soldiers. Turkey responded by firing a MANPADS at a Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) Mi-17 helicopter – the missile brought the aircraft spiraling down to earth in a dramatic video, killing all three onboard.6.“Turkey says 51 Syrian soldiers killed as rebels hit back in Idlib” : Reuters This was a serious escalation that brought Damascus and Ankara closer to confrontation as government forces continued to repel rebel counterattacks at both Kafr Halab and the northern Idlib fronts, with 42 rebels being reported slain in this time period – a significantly smaller number than the likely true toll.
Three other colonels were killed during this period. On the 11th, rebels killed Colonel Mohammad Saqr in Aleppo and colonels Mundhir Wusuf and Ghiath Hashish in Idlib. Saqr commanded several infrantry groups within the 42nd Brigade and was a key 4th Division recruiter for Damascus-based communities. Wusuf was the commander of an artillery battalion in the 5th Corps’ 2nd Brigade and Hashish served in the Special Forces.
The pace of operations accelerated in Aleppo beginning on the 16th, with the Syrian government moving for the Anadan plain, which had remained in rebel hands ever since initial captures in 2012. Government forces quickly took control of the suburbs of Hraytan and Anadan as the opposition, recognizing their fragile position, retreated.7.https://twitter.com/SchoenbornTrent/status/12290729323386183708.“Syrian forces seize most of Aleppo province, on eve of Russia-Turkey talks” : NBC
The victories did not come without a cost to the regime; 53 government fighters were reported killed in Aleppo during this period, with another 64 reports in Idlib as government forces there pushed north to cut off the rebel’s Aleppo lines. Among the dead was Colonel Ahmed al-Asad, of the Republican Guard’s 102nd Brigade, along with soldiers from the Republican Guard’s 30th Division (18th Brigade and 47th Regiment). In Idlib, the 4th Division’s 555th Regiment advanced on Jabal Shashbo from their base in Kernaz, losing at least seven men on the 23rd. Meanwhile the SAA’s 1st, 6th, and 9th Divisions and unknown Special Forces units reinforced the 25th Division on the Nayrab front. A Special Forces Major was killed here on February 20th.
In central Syria, ISIS continued its intermittent raids of regime forces, killing two soldiers near Tanf on the 17th and a 17th Division Colonel along with two other members of the 17th Division’s 484th Engineering Battalion in western Deir Ez Zor on the 18th.
During this period of time only 29 rebel fighters were reported as slain, with most of them killed during clashes around the key town of Nayrab, Idlib, which the opposition was intent on seizing as a means to recapture Saraqib. They had little to show for their attacks by the end of the week.
The end of February would see some of the heaviest fighting and bombing yet, as the Turkish military would finally enter the scene in force and seemingly commit to action. A failed attack at Nayrab on the 24th was one of the opposition’s costliest days yet, with at least 20 dead recorded just in the single attack. Fourteen government soldiers were reported killed in Idlib that day, including two 5th Corps Brigadier Generals, along with reports that a 1st Lieutenant and his unit had gone missing during the attack. Still, the assault was successful and would set the stage for retaking Saraqib temporarily, but at an indefensible cost.
Clashes continued into the night of the 27th, when a Russian Air Force jet would create yet another turning point in the war by bombing a building full of sheltering Turkish soldiers, killing 34 and injuring others.9.“Airstrike Hits Turkish Forces in Syria, Raising Fears of Escalation” : The New York Times The incident prompted an unleashing of Turkish air power in Idlib, with armed drones destroying dozens of armored vehicles and knocking out several self-propelled artillery guns and a Pantsir Air Defense site.10.https://twitter.com/ragipsoylu/status/1233299782644445190
Among the first targets hit by Turkish drones was a Republican Guard 124th Brigade operations room, killing the overall commander of the brigade, one of his battalion commanders, a Lt Colonel, and a Major. This unit had been the key Republican Guard force on the Abu Dhuhur axis since its capture in January 2018. A 3rd Corps’ 148th Brigade Colonel and Major were also killed on the 28th while driving on the M5 near Saraqib, likely by a Turkish drone strike as well.
As rebel forces began slowly reversing the Syrian government’s gains in southern Idlib, at a cost in manpower and material for both sides, the world grew increasingly concerned at the prospect of an unstoppable escalation between Russia and Turkey in the region.
Meanwhile, ISIS continued its attacks on security forces and civilians alike in regime-held Raqqa countryside, killing a 1st Lieutenant and eight of his men near Ruseifa on February 27, just six days after killing 11 shepherds nearby. On February 29th, ISIS also killed a member of the 14th Special Forces Division’s 554th Regiment in the Raqqa countryside.
The End of the War?
The events of the end of February and beginning of March have left many wondering if the war is drawing to a close, on account of Turkey’s display of military prowess and the interest of several factions in the war to cut their losses and accept terms. The renegotiation of lines of deconfliction by Russia and Turkey, which yield crucial territory in Idlib to the Syrian government (including the M5 corridor and the M4 Highway to Latakia and Jisr al-Shugour), suggests that a small reprieve at best is at hand.
The most “hopeful” scenario for Idlib’s fate is a “Gaza” setup, in which a strip of land remains under the nominal control of the Syrian opposition, administered in part by Turkey and guaranteed by the Turkish military. While this conflicts with Bashar al-Assad’s continued insistence that the Syrian army will liberate the entire country, it is likely that Damascus will have to compromise on the fate of the ruins that it now claims to have sovereignty over. Idlib will remain partially in the hands of the regime while the opposition, which faces a bleak future, will retain partial control of the rest. There is much that can be discussed on this point, but it is best left for future analysis.
In February, 1,016 men were reported as casualties on social media, only a fraction of the true toll as many simply went unreported or forgotten. 764 government soldiers and militiamen, 202 rebel fighters, and more than 50 Turkish soldiers are included in this number, with the true toll for both government and rebel losses almost certainly higher. Of these men, 209 were killed in the last three days of February alone, underscoring the intensity of the Turkish drone campaign and the fighting on the ground during this time period.
Many were criminals in uniform, orchestrating and overseeing the killings of thousands of civilians during their time. The dead pilots in particular were responsible for dozens of sorties that each resulted in civilians killed, hospitals and mosques bombed, and lives forever changed. Some were conscripts and impressed regulars, who were involuntarily saddled with the crushing burden that they would have to fight for a cause they did not believe in. In the end, they are all casualties of a war nearing its ninth anniversary, a war that has scorched an entire generation and left only the ashes of victory.