Tracking the Military Losses of the Syrian Civil War: January 2020

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January 2020 was remarkably violent when compared to the average monthly death toll from last year. This is due to a significant escalation of Syrian government military operations, particularly in the second half of the month, that continued into February on multiple frontlines. These operations include the ongoing bite-and-hold advances in rural Idlib that have been a resounding success, as well as renewed operations on multiple fronts in Aleppo that have been less successful. In the wake of these unending regime advances and indiscriminate bombardment, 520,000 civilians have abandoned their homes in fear for their lives.1.UN: Northwest Syria fighting displaces over 500,000 in 2 months : al-Jazeera

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. Below is a graph showing the daily count of losses reported by all sides in the conflict, where some trends are immediately evident. 

Next is a graph of just loyalist deaths, that is, men who died fighting for the Syrian regime in both the army and loyalist militias. The graph is color coded by front and shows a steady increase in deaths on the Idlib front beginning on January 15, coinciding with the renewal of ground operations by the regime and Russian forces. Similarily, deaths on the Aleppo pick up significantly on January 26, when the rebel forces stationed in the western edge of the city began striking loyalist positions with ATGMs. Harassment and raids in other provinces caused fewer losses.

Many martyrdom reports state the governorate in which the slain fighter was born, displayed in the graph below. As usual, the coastal governorates of Latakia and Tartous are over-represented, along with the Alawite-heavy governorates of Homs and Hama. Together, these regions represent at least 52% of loyalist deaths. Aleppo lost proportionally many more sons this month than in past years due to the renewed fighting in the governorate, much of which is undertaken by local militias.

Representation of each governorate among reported loyalist deaths.

Martyrdom reports further contain information regarding the ranks of men killed in combat. Almost always men are posthumously promoted, signified by the qualifier sharaf added to the end of the rank. The chart below lists the number of loyalist men of each rank killed in January. All 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.

January 17

Outside of a single outstanding incident, the first week of January was rather quiet, as Syrian government forces stalled their offensive on the M5 Corridor in Idlib and settled for reinforcing, regrouping, and shelling civilian and military targets around Ma’arat al-Numaan.2.“Russia announces ceasefire deal with Turkey in Syria’s Idlib” : al-Jazeera” The only incident worth mentioning was an opposition raid on the al-Tah frontline on the 2nd, which resulted in the only day this month where reported rebel deaths outnumbered reported regime deaths. This is owed to an entire squad of Uzbek foreign fighters who led the assault being wiped out in a counterattack, a loss that underscores the risky nature of such raids in the open terrain that is prominent in eastern Idlib.3. 

During this time period, 32 government personnel and 18 opposition personnel were reportedly slain for a total of 49 casualties. No casualties were reported among SDF/YPG or TSK ranks. Almost half of these casualties (23) were reported from Idlib, with Deir-ez-Zor coming in next with 7 casualties reported. The remaining deaths had a broad geographical distribution. Loyalist forces lost a captain during the al-Tah raid and a brigadier general “died from a heart attack while performing his national duty” in an unknown location.

The squad of Uzbek fighters killed in the al-Tah raid on January 2nd, 2020, mourned as martyrs by their unit.

January 814

The second week of January was similarly uneventful, defined by back-and-forth clashes on the Idlib frontline, shelling and ATGM strikes by both sides, and an ISIS ambush in the Deir-ez-Zor desert on the 14th that killed Khaldoun Zahreddine, a nephew of the late infamous Syrian Republican Guard (SRG) commander Issam Zahreddine.4.“ISIS ambush kills Syrian soldiers in eastern Syria, including Issam Zahreddine’s nephew” : AMN 

During this time period, 30 government personnel, 5 opposition personnel, 3 SDF personnel, and 4 TSK soldiers were reported as slain for a total of 42 casualties. Sporadic clashes between the TSK/TFSA and SAA/SDF in al-Hasakah and the detonation of a car bomb in the Suluk countryside resulted in a few losses out of the northeast region, while the majority of government losses (13) occurred in Idlib, with 9 KIA in two ISIS raids in Deir-ez-Zor. In Idlib, rebel raids resulted in the death of a colonel commanding a 5th Corps, 3rd Brigade tank battalion in Samakat.

January 1521

The third week of January would see an uptick in casualties due to continued raids in Deir-ez-Zor, a car bombing in Suluk, and a raid by opposition groups on the Abu Dafnah front in Idlib on the 19th that would prove bloody for both sides. While the raid resulted in a number of regime personnel killed, it would cost opposition forces an equal number of fighters (half of their reported deaths this week).5.JWT drone footage of the incident underscores the intensity of the fighting. The bombing in Suluk on the 16th would take the lives of four Turkish soldiers, including a Major and a Captain, and would provoke a fresh round of intense infighting between two Syrian National Army (SNA) divisions, Ahrar ash-Sharqiyah and Division 20.6.“Three Turkish soldiers among 10 killed in suspected YPG car bomb” : Al-Araby7. This infighting would only cease after the TSK threatened military intervention.

During this time period, 47 government personnel, 26 opposition personnel, 2 SDF personnel, and 3 TSK soldiers were reported as slain for a total of 66 casualties. Exactly half of these losses (33) would come from Idlib, primarily due to the Abu Dafnah raid on the 19th, with 10 coming out of al-Hasakah and 13 out of Deir-ez-Zor. The loyalist 4th Division lost two Lieutenant Colonels in an ambush near Zeyzoun, Daraa on the 17th while another 104th Brigade captain was killed in Deir Ez Zor. 8. In Idlib, rebels killed a colonel from an engineering unit in the 87th Brigade and the group commander of the Tiger Forces’ Tarmeh Regiment “Group 5”.

A destroyed BRDM armored vehicle, taken out by ISIS during their deadly raid on the 14th that killed Khaldoun Zahreddine and several commanding officers.

January 2231

Following the raid at Abu Dafnah, military operations in the northwestern countryside would escalate significantly, with a renewed regime offensive in Idlib and fresh fighting on multiple fronts in Aleppo contributing to soaring casualties on both sides.9.“Erdogan slams Russia as regime offensive sends Idlib residents fleeing for Turkey” : al-Monitor The 25th, the 29th, and the 31st were the bloodiest days, with the 31st seeing the most casualties of any day in January – 50 deaths total. The uptick in casualties correlates directly with an uptick in rebel ATGM strikes, deployment of SVBIEDs, and a wider Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) and Russian aerial campaign. 

During the last days of the month, 166 government personnel and 46 opposition personnel were reported as slain, for a total of 212 casualties. One hundred and twelve of these losses were registered in Idlib province, broken down to 78 government personnel and 35 opposition personnel. Eighty five were killed in Aleppo, broken down to 76 government personnel and 9 opposition personnel. The remaining death reports were scattered throughout the country. The fighting has been costly for both sides, with the regime losing two Lieutenant Colonels – including a Tiger Forces battalion commander – the commanders of the Liwa al-Quds “Rastan Group” and the 4th Division’s “Zakiyah and Bakar Battalions”, as well as three field commanders and a captain. At least five opposition field commanders have been slain.

HTS “Red Bands” fighters prepare to launch an attack on Syrian government positions in az-Zahraa, Aleppo on the 31st.

A Turning Point?

As the Syrian Civil War enters its ninth year, the military opposition’s position has never looked more tenuous, and their outlook has never appeared more bleak. Besieged in Idlib province, the opposition has performed several successful raids in the past year, but has lost a significant amount of territory, including the major towns of Khan Sheikhoun and Ma’arat al-Numaan. As Russia and Turkey cut backdoor deals and perform a rhetorical dance on the public stage, it remains unclear whether or not Turkey is willing to step in to defend Idlib.10.“Battle for Idlib: Syrian government assault leaves Turkey facing tough choices” : Middle East Eye11.Syria war: Turkey will not let Syrian army advance in Idlib, says Erdogan : BBC Previously very much aligned with the opposition, Turkey has taken very clear steps towards severing ties of support to Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and its civil administration, the Salvation Government, whose aims have been consistently in conflict with Turkey’s regional goals.12.Khateb, Khaled. “Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in consultations on planned military and civil administrations in Idlib”, published by Chatham House (February 2019) While Turkish observation posts remain in Idlib and the Turkish military presence has grown, a lack of direct involvement suggests that Turkey is unwilling to aid the Idlib rebels without significant concessions. 

A strike by Syrian government artillery at a Turkish observation post near Saraqib, however, may change this attitude; at least five Turkish soldiers were killed in the strike.13.“Turkey hits back after soldiers killed in Syrian gov’t shelling” : al-Jazeera A tenuous situation prevails in central Idlib at the time of this article’s publication, as government forces attempt to surround Saraqib and remain on the offensive in spite of increasingly belligerent Turkish rhetoric. Whether or not Turkey attempts to flex its hard power muscles against the Syrian government remains to be seen; such a move could have dangerous repercussions should escalation continue unabated.

The cost of the Syrian civil war this month has been high; at least 377 combatants have been killed in action, including 9 reports that lack an attributable date or place of death. At least 255 government personnel and at least 95 opposition personnel were slain in January, with the rebel toll likely significantly understated. The number for slain opposition fighters accounts for a little less than half of their likely losses, and as seen in pro-government media their casualties in the field have not been insubstantial.

Given the lack of online reporting for opposition losses, it is difficult to provide any useful analysis about their losses, but of these men, many came from Idlib or Aleppo, while some were displaced persons who once called Hama or Homs home and might have dreamed of returning one day. A few were from Deir-ez-Zor governorate, and others hailed from Damascus, having chosen long ago to abandon their hometowns rather than face uncertainty at the hands of Assad’s brutal internal security.14.Syrian rebels and activists face arrest, disappearance despite ‘reconciliation’ : Middle East Eye A couple were in their 60s, while others were still in their late teens when they met their end. Some were even foreigners – seven Uzbeks and a man originally from Saudi Arabia were among the rebel dead.

The faces of the toll of war – government, opposition, YPG, and TSK.

As for government personnel, the most-represented governorate was Homs, with 46 fighters. Nearly as many, 43, hailed from Hama. Tartous and Latakia were also well-represented, with 29 men coming from villages and towns in the former and 25 from the latter. One was a 37-year old reservist, a father of three; another was barely a man, no older than 18 years of age when he died in the service of the Syrian branch of Hezbollah. One man had served with the army for 10 years before his death this month. And beyond the killed are the multitudes more left with debilitating injuries, discharged from the armed forces and left without support from the government.15.The uncounted: Life after war for Syria’s living martyrs : Syria Source

Like their opposition counterparts, the killed and wounded loyalists were young as well as old, experienced as well as green, and many were lower-class men, and in some cases children, who had few options beyond joining the army to get a paycheck. Some, like the opposition, were sectarian warlords and criminals, seeking to protect their criminal endeavors through the protection local militias; others had faith in their homeland and fought against what they believed to be a threat against that home. 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.

International Review