Understanding Syria’s Military Deployments in Idlib

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On March 3, 2019, Al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Tawhid raided a Syrian government checkpoint in Masasana, Hama, killing 18 government fighters while losing seven of their own.1.https://syrianwardaily.com/2019/03/03/syrian-war-daily-3rd-of-march-2019/ The dead reportedly belonged to both Republican Guard units and the 11th Division’s 87th Mechanized Brigade. Following this attack, both English and Arabic media began circulating claims of an “imminent” Russian-Damascus offensive on opposition-controlled Idlib. However, such claims have been periodically made since the government’s last Greater Idlib offensive came to a halt in January 2018, and while cross-frontline shelling and raids have increased dramatically over the past several months, there are no serious signs of an imminent offensive.

A February 26, 2019 post by a 4th Division-affiliated page warning of an imminent Idlib offensive.

Troop deployments, not reciprocal shelling, are a far better indicator of Damascus’ intentions for Idlib. With no other major frontlines and a renewed emphasis on rebuilding the Syrian Arab Army (SAA),2.Anonymous, Interview by Author, January 6, 2019. we should expect to see major SAA deployments prior to any Idlib offensive. For example, the spring 2018 East Ghouta, Damascus offensive involved units from at least five divisions (1st, 7th, 9th, 10th, 14th) plus all of the Damascus-based Republican Guard. 3.Waters, Gregory. “2018 East Ghouta Offensive: the Cost of Securing Damascus” The International Review Similarly, the summer and fall 2018 offensive against ISIS in Safa, Suwayda, involved at least eight SAA divisions (1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 9th, 10th, 14th, 15th). 4.https://twitter.com/qalaatalmudiq/status/1036326194038358016?lang=en 5.https://twitter.com/QalaatAlMudiq/status/1043594149470064640 However, as this article shows, this has not been the case on the Latakia-Hama-Idlib frontline. Nearly all of the units currently deployed here have historic ties to the region and do not represent the bulk of the government’s offensive units.

All known Syrian Army, Republican Guard, and Tiger Forces deployments around the Idlib pocket. Note: several unit placements are estimated as no exact location aside from “north Hama” or “east Idlib” was given.

Long-term Garrisons

The Greater Idlib front is one of the oldest and most violent frontlines of the war. Therefore, several SAA units have been assigned defensive duties here for years. These units should not be considered offensive, as their main role is to simply hold the frontline against any opposition attack until reinforcements arrive.

8th Armored Division

The 8th Division is a post-2011 creation intended specifically to hold the north Hama front. The division was designed to unify individual brigades that had either suffered significant losses in south Idlib/north Hama or whose division affiliations had weakened after years of fighting. The entire 8th Division has been deployed in Hama since 2015, when it was created. The 33rd Brigade, formerly a part of the 9th Division, currently has units stationed both along the northern most points of the Sahl al-Ghab on the Sirmaniyah-Ziyariah axis as well as just north of Suqaylbiyah.6.https://twitter.com/GregoryPWaters/status/1104441743733219328 The brigade’s commander, Brig Gen Yahya Baloush, was killed in north Hama in May 2017. The 45th Regiment is just south of this, sharing a base with the 4th Armored Division in Jurin. The 47th Armored Brigade, first a 3rd Division unit and now shared between the 11th and 8th Divisions, is currently deployed on the Taybat al-Ism-Qahira axis.

11th Armored Division

The 11th Division’s 87th Mechanized Brigade and its 74th Battalion have been stationed along south Idlib and north Hama since at least 2012. These units have held the highly contested Suran-Masasana axis since at least 2016. Several members of the 87th Brigade died in the March 3 raid.

15th Special Forces Division

The 15th Special Forces Division was one of two special forces units heavily relied upon in the early years of the war due to it’s higher degree of training, equipment, and loyalty to Damascus. However, this reliance meant the division’s component regiments suffered heavily, and by 2017 it became rare to find references to specific 15th Division units.

The 127th, 404th, and 405th regiments have spent the majority of the war fighting in Dara’a and Suwayda while the 35th Regiment remained stationed in Idlib, participating in the defense of Jisr al-Shoughur in March 2015. A 15th Division fighter was reported killed in Jadedah, northwest of Muhradeh, Hama, on March 11. This man likely belonged to the 35th Regiment.

4th Assault Corps

The 4th Corps was created in October 2015 under a joint Russian-Syrian command just one month after the official Russian intervention in Syria.7.“The Fifth Legion: A New Auxiliary Force” : Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi The corps is often referred to as a “storming” unit, indicating initial hopes that it would be a useful offensive unit. However, outside of limited use in the 2016 Latakia offensives, the 4th Corps and its component units have remained on defensive garrison duty in north Latakia and the Sahel al-Ghab region of north Hama.

The new corps was claimed to be formed among current soldiers and volunteers, as well as incorporating local loyalist militias.8.“The Fifth Legion: A New Auxiliary Force” : Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi Central to the 4th Corps were the newly formed 2nd and 6th Divisions. Interestingly, it appears that the 45th Special Forces Regiment, formerly an independent unit under the command of the Special Forces branch of the SAA, was incorporated into the 6th Division by late 2018. The 45th Regiment had remained in Latakia after retreating from Jisr al-Shoughur, Idlib, in May 2015. Complicating matters is the fact that both the 6th and 8th Divisions simultaneously claim to operate a “45th Regiment” although only the 6th Division refers to it as a “special forces” unit. It is unclear if these are two separate regiments or if they have a shared command.

The 2nd Division’s 144th Coastal Brigade and 826th Regiment are both stationed on the Latakia axis. The 6th Division’s 45th Special Forces Regiment also mans the Sirmaniyah axis, where it lost 23 men in a November 2018 opposition raid.9.https://twitter.com/GregoryPWaters/status/1063885474199031808 The division’s 85th Brigade is stationed somewhere in the Sahl al-Ghab. In December 2018 members of the 45th Regiment posted on Facebook asking the government to give them more leave time from the frontline so that they might visit their families.

Members of the 45th Regiment ask the government for more leave from the frontline.

The 5th Assault Corps

The 5th Corps occupy a middle ground of sorts between historic defensive units and offensive units. The corps was created by the Russian military in November 2016 after the failure of the 4th Corps project.10.“The Fifth Legion: A New Auxiliary Force” : Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi It is funded, trained, and commanded by Russians, as evidenced by the death of Russian Lieutenant-General Valery Asapov on September 23, 2017.11.“Russia says general killed in Syria held senior post in Assad’s army” : Reuters Asapov was Russia’s chief of staff in Syria and the commander of the 5th Corps at the time of his death in Deir Ez Zor. Russian military presence within the 5th Corps has continued to be documented since then, as will be discussed in a later section here.

The 5th Corps has had a questionable deployment record, with significant claims of maltreatment and a lack of support from other government units, particularly during the central Syria campaign of summer 2017. Units within the 5th Corps have remained on garrison duty around Hama and Idlib while other units have fought in East Hama, Deir Ez Zor, and Damascus. It appears that between mid-2018 and January 2019 most of the deployed 5th Corps units returned to north Hama/east Idlib. However, the corps’ 7th Brigade remains in Deir Ez Zor.

The 2nd Brigade is currently deployed in north Hama between Kernaz and Halfaya (posts from a local reporter place the 2nd Brigade in Halfaya on February 4, 2019 while a 2nd Brigade fighter checked in at Suqaylbiyah on Facebook on March 9). Personal photos and posts from a 2nd Brigade soldier claim that units from this brigade are responsible for the recent shelling of Lataminah and Kafr Zita in Idlib that have killed dozens of civilians.12.https://twitter.com/QalaatAlMudiq/status/1096820300321304577 13.https://twitter.com/QalaatAlMudiq/status/109758352030477517014.https://twitter.com/QalaatAlMudiq/status/110011293792512819215.“More than 80000 displaced people and 121 civilian casualties in 17 days…” : SOHR

The 3rd Brigade operates in the north Hama-south Idlib axis stretching from Abu Dali north to unknown headquarters in Idlib. The 3rd Brigade’s Chief of Staff, Brigadier Aktham Hussein, was reported injured in east Idlib on February 14. The commander of the 3rd Brigade, Brigadier Nizar Khadr, was filmed alongside Syrian Minister of Defense Lt Ali Abdullah Ayoub meeting with members of the 9th Division and 5th Corps in north Hama on January 16.

The 5th Brigade operates in north-east Idlib and possibly in the southern Aleppo countryside. On March 10 an officer in the brigade claimed to be in Abu Dhuhur, Idlib. On January 12, 2019, 5th Brigade commander Maj Gen Kheirat Kahla met with the overall commander of the 5th Corps, Maj Gen Zaid Salah, in reef Idlib. Prior to this, the brigade had been deployed in Deir Ez Zor as late as January 1, 2019.

Maj Gen Zaid Salah (left), commander of the 5th Corps, meets with Maj Gen
Kheirat Kahla, commander of the 5th Brigade, in reef Idlib.

4th Armored Division

Like the 5th Corps, components of the 4th Armored Division have moved in and out of the region over the course of the war. While the 4th Division is often referred to as “elite” it can more accurately be described as a collection of loosely affiliated units who enjoy the privilege of association with Bashar al-Asad’s brother, Maher. Some components within the division have historically been better equipped than most pro-government units.

The 4th Division’s 555th Special Forces Regiment has been stationed on the Kernaz-Mughayr axis since at least 2013. This unit participated in repelling the failed opposition attack on Kernaz in March 2018. The 42nd Armored Brigade, also known as “the Ghaith Forces” after its commander, Colonel Ghaith Dalah, has been stationed in the Sahl al-Ghab region of north Hama since at least September 26, 2018. The brigade operates across the Latakia mountains and Sahl al-Ghab with a base in Jurin.

Members of the 4th Division’s 42nd Brigade in Latakia/Sahl al-Ghab. Note the apparent child fighter in the left picture.

Recent Deployments

Aside from the aforementioned units, at least three brigades and one artillery regiment have deployed to the Idlib front since mid-2018. However, this handful of new units is not nearly enough for a full-scale government offensive.

Republican Guard

Units of the Republican Guard appear to be stationed across the entire frontline. The 124th Brigade, a component of the 30th Division and long stationed in Aleppo, deployed to the Abu Dhuhur airbase in east Idlib as early as June 2018. Other units have been reported in Khatab, Hama, and several of the men killed in the March 3 attack on Masasana were also reported to be Republican Guards. The Coastal Shield Brigade, a local affiliate of the Republican Guard, has historically defending northern Latakia and at some point was stationed in Jabal Ahmar. However, 2019 deployments for this unit could not be confirmed.

1st Armored Division

Today, the 1st Division is the largest division on paper and its reconstitution has clearly been prioritized since 2015 with a renewed push beginning in the latter half of 2018.16.Anonymous, Interview by Author, January 6, 2019. This emphasis is supported by the fact that in September 2018 Russian officers were pictured training a company of soldiers belonging to the 68th Mechanized Brigade in the 1st Divisions armored vehicle training center in Harjala, south Damascus.17.https://twitter.com/GregoryPWaters/status/1039268516589756416 On December 25, 2018 both the 68th and 57th Brigades deployed alongside Russian forces in the western countryside of Manbij, Aleppo, where the two groups stationed themselves in between Turkish-backed opposition forces to the west and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Manbij city.

The 1st Division’s 61st Infantry Brigade announced on January 1, 2019 that it was redeploying to reef Hama. A post on February 4 confirmed this new deployment. The 61st Brigade was joined by the division’s 141st Artillery Regiment as early as January 26. The 61st Brigade has historically fought in Dara’a and Quneitra while the 141st Regiment appears to have been split between the Deir Ez Zor-Homs fronts and the south Damascus fronts.

9th Armored Division

A soldier from the 103rd Battalion, 43rd Armored Brigade, 9th Division posted pictures on January 5, 2019 of a convoy consisting of BMPs, main battle tanks, and Gvozdika self-propelled artillery going “to the countryside of Hama.” A video posted on January 16, 2019 shows Syrian Minister of Defense Lt Gen Ali Abdullah Ayoub meeting with members of the 9th Division and 5th Corps’ 3rd Brigade in north Hama, including 103rd Battalion commander Brigadier Nizar Fandy. A second video posted on January 25, 2019 shows the commander of the 9th Division, Maj Gen Ramadan Ramadan, meeting soldiers of the division in north Hama.

These units took part in all major military operations in 2018. Then-Colonel Nizar Fandy and his battalion were lauded for their role in the government’s defense of Harasta, East Ghouta, in January 2018. The brigade also fought in the Hajar al-Aswad offensive in May and then in the Safa Volcano offensive throughout the summer.

North Hama forms the core of Tiger Forces’ territory and as such most of the militia’s affiliates are stationed here alongside the official SAA units. The Taha Regiment, a prominent unit from the Sahl al-Ghab region of Hama whose leader has close ties to Tiger Force commander Suheil al-Hassan, is currently operating a base in the villages of Um Rajim and Fahil Jalas in east Idlib. Other groups, such as the Shawaheen and Loyuth Regiments are also deployed in east Idlib.

Further south, the Sheikh Mubarak Regiment guards the Abu Dali axis. This group consists of men from the local Sunni Arab tribe and had, until an October 2018 opposition offensive captured the town, operated a large black market trading network between the opposition and the government from here. On February 9, 2019, government customs officials raided warehouses belonging to Shiekh Mubarak, accusing him of trading with the opposition.18.https://twitter.com/putintintin1/status/1094310890911027201

Elsewhere in Hama, the Tarmeh Regiment operates out of its hometown of Qomhana (where it also had warehouses raided on February 9)19.https://twitter.com/putintintin1/status/1094309152606826496 along with the Sahabat Regiment, which has deep roots in the nearby town of Kawkab. The Houreth Regiment is deployed in the Sahl al-Ghab along with the Seghati Groups.

Russian Presence

Russians have been pictured alongside SAA units in the region at least four times this year. What appears to be a Russian soldier guarding Lt Gen Ayoub can clearly be seen in the January 16 video of the Minister’s visit to north Hama. A series of pictures posted on January 29 show Chief of Staff Brigadier Hussein at what appears to be the 3rd Brigade’s Idlib headquarters with a Russian officer (left picture). On February 5, Brigadier Nizar Khadr met with what is likely the same Russian military commander during a tour of 3rd Brigade positions (right picture). Lastly, a February 22 5th Corps post shows Maj Gen Zaid Salah and 5th Corps commanders meeting with a Russian officer. Russians are also known to have a significant presence at Abu Dhuhur, where they operate a “humanitarian crossing,” as well as among many Tiger Forces units.20.“Syrian attack on final rebel stronghold in Idlib could be imminent” : Washington Post

Left: Russian officer (left) meets with Brigadier Hussein (center) in east Idlib.
Right: Brigadier Khadr meets with a Russian officer at 3rd Brigade positions.
Maj Gen Zaid Salah (second from right) with a Russian officer (middle).

Despite the increased violence around the Idlib front and periodic sharp rhetoric from Damascus about impending offensives, there is no evidence that any immediate military campaign will begin. As this article has shown, nearly all of the current deployments in the area are of units that never left the front or units returning to their historic positions after brief deployments to Damascus in 2018. Prior to any major offensive we should expect to see significant movement of SAA units from Dara’a, Damascus, and Homs to this area.

Further complicating matters for Damascus are the new Turkish policies implemented on March 8, 2019. Concurrent with a speech on Syria by Turkey’s Defense Minister, Turkish military units carried out their first patrol along the eastern border of the “demilitarized zone” in Idlib and have reportedly gained access to the airspace over the opposition-held region.21.“The First Patrol of Turkish Armed Forces in the Demilitarization Zone in Idlib” : Suriye Gundemi These recent events further diminish the likelihood of a major government push to capture what’s left of the governorate. Instead, the government will continue to rely on mass indiscriminate artillery and rocket attacks of civilian centers across the region to demoralize and ‘punish’ the Syrians opposing Assad’s rule. Government bombardment killed 54 civilians alone in the last 10 days of February, while schools, mosques, bakeries, and rescue workers have all been intentionally targeted by both Russian and government forces.22.“More than 80000 displaced people and 121 civilian casualties in 17 days…” : SOHR23.“Syrian jihadists attack army posts to avenge civilian deaths” : Reuters24.https://twitter.com/QalaatAlMudiq/status/110467431329745305625.https://twitter.com/QalaatAlMudiq/status/1104480825113038853 As long as international powers continue to not enforce the September ceasefire deal, both fighters and civilians will be killed every day in northwest Syria, offensive or no offensive.

Gregory Waters

Gregory Waters holds a Masters in Global Studies from the University of California, Berkeley and is a fellow at the UC Berkeley Human Rights Investigations Lab. He researches conflicts and political transitions in the MENA region, primarily using open source information. His current research focuses on mapping Syrian militia unit structures. He publishes his research here and on Twitter.

References   [ + ]

1. https://syrianwardaily.com/2019/03/03/syrian-war-daily-3rd-of-march-2019/
2, 16. Anonymous, Interview by Author, January 6, 2019.
3. Waters, Gregory. “2018 East Ghouta Offensive: the Cost of Securing Damascus” The International Review
4. https://twitter.com/qalaatalmudiq/status/1036326194038358016?lang=en
5. https://twitter.com/QalaatAlMudiq/status/1043594149470064640
6. https://twitter.com/GregoryPWaters/status/1104441743733219328
7, 8, 10. “The Fifth Legion: A New Auxiliary Force” : Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi
9. https://twitter.com/GregoryPWaters/status/1063885474199031808
11. “Russia says general killed in Syria held senior post in Assad’s army” : Reuters
12. https://twitter.com/QalaatAlMudiq/status/1096820300321304577
13. https://twitter.com/QalaatAlMudiq/status/1097583520304775170
14. https://twitter.com/QalaatAlMudiq/status/1100112937925128192
15, 22. “More than 80000 displaced people and 121 civilian casualties in 17 days…” : SOHR
17. https://twitter.com/GregoryPWaters/status/1039268516589756416
18. https://twitter.com/putintintin1/status/1094310890911027201
19. https://twitter.com/putintintin1/status/1094309152606826496
20. “Syrian attack on final rebel stronghold in Idlib could be imminent” : Washington Post
21. “The First Patrol of Turkish Armed Forces in the Demilitarization Zone in Idlib” : Suriye Gundemi
23. “Syrian jihadists attack army posts to avenge civilian deaths” : Reuters
24. https://twitter.com/QalaatAlMudiq/status/1104674313297453056
25. https://twitter.com/QalaatAlMudiq/status/1104480825113038853