The Syrian Army captured two checkpoints from jihadist group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham in the evening of 2019-08-18. Just after midnight, Army troops launched an attack from the northern direction (an area poorly fortified by rebels) and entered Khan Shaykhun city. Several city blocks and neighborhoods were cleared, as rebel forces engaged in a fighting retreat. The city is now almost devoid of civilians after over ten thousand people fled over the past month northward to refugee camps and rebel-held cities like Idlib. Tahrir al-Sham was also unable to reverse yesterday’s loss of tactically important high ground northwest of Khan Shaykhun despite multiple car bombings, showing the group is now finding it difficult to effectively counter the Syrian Army in prolonged battles.
So far, dozens of fighters have died on both sides, with the death toll of the past 24 hours approaching 100. The entire rebel-held area north of Khan Shaykhun is under overwhelming government assault backed by nonstop Syrian and Russian airstrikes from jet fighters and helicopters. Almost 1,000 civilians have died in the past 4 months, almost all of them in rebel-held areas.
Over the past two days the Syrian Army, backed by both targeted and indiscriminate bombing, advanced deep into rebel territory in Idlib province, attacking far into an area the rebels never thought to defend.
After capturing the town of Madaya two days ago (while Russian airstrikes killed 2 children, 12 other civilians and wounded 30 on a refugee camp near the town of Hass), the Syrian Army briefly paused on August 17 to fortify their gains.
The day afterwards (today), bombs from the Syrian Air Force tumbled down by the dozen on nearby towns like Kafr Sajanah, Maarat Hurmah, and Hish, killing both militants and civilians.
These combined effect of these airstrikes has so far caused several thousand people to flee from southern Idlib to the north for safety, although they are still at risk of being targeted as August 16th’s totally indiscriminate strikes as far north as Ariha have shown.
The most recent Syrian Army advance in the unusual and risky direction east of Rakaya and northwest of Khan Shaykhun has caught the rebels by surprise and scared Turkey, which so far refused to withdraw its troops from itd observation post at the frontline town of Morek (a location at high risk of being besieged by government advances). It remains to be seen if this new bold tactical gambit will pay off by collapsing all rebel defenses in Hama due to confusion, or if the rebels will rally and beat back the Army in a counteroffensive.
If one thing is for sure, the next few days will be some of the deadliest in the civil war since the battle to defeat ISIS in eastern Syria five months ago.