The Syrian Observatory For Human Rights

Russia’s intervention in Syria in January: considerable escalation enables regime forces to capture 45 areas in Aleppo and Idlib, and growing tension with U.S. troops in NE Syria

Syrian Observatory for Human Rights

January 2020

2019 witnessed dramatic developments and changes that altered the map of the Syrian conflict. January 2020 seems to usher a new phase, with NW Syria witnessing substantial Russian escalation of military operations, which ended January with regime forces taking control of Maarrat Al-Nu’man city and tens of other towns and villages in both Aleppo and Idlib countryside.

As Russia completed its 52nd months of military operations in Syria, the region saw successive developments in the period between the 30th of December 2019 and the 30th of January 2020 during which the regime and Russia stepped up their military operations to unprecedented levels of violence with total disregard for the number of casualties left behind, and those people who fled their homes heading into the unknown.

On September 30, 2015, the Council of the Russian Federation granted Russian President Vladimir Putin the mandate to militarily engage in the Syria crisis. At that time, Putin announced that Russian intervention would be limited to airstrikes in order to defeat the “Islamic State” and other extremists in the legitimate war of the Syrian army against these groups, upon the request of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Russian forces immediately began launching air strikes on “Islamic State” positions, according to the Russian Ministry of Defense, after which Russian forces launched series of strikes, raids and military and political aid to Assad’s regime, resulting in the Syrian regime to regain control of about 72.8% of the total territory of Syria after being in control of no more than 20%.

With 52 months of the Russian intervention in the Syrian war, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights continues to document and monitor the repercussions of Russia’s intervention and the development of political and military scenes since the first raids of that Moscow launched in Syria

Military operations, patrols, and supervision: Moscow, the ultimate winner and civilians the ultimate losers

The period between the 30th of December 2019 and the 30th of January 2020 witnessed unprecedented escalation of Russian airstrikes on Maarrat Al-Nu’man city and surrounding areas and other areas in both Idlib and Aleppo countryside. These intensive aerial operations led the regime forces to impose their control over Maarrat Al-Nu’man city exactly on January 29, after fierce battles that lasted for few days pushing nearly 150,000 civilians to flee their areas. SOHR activists monitored fierce clashes on Aleppo and Idlib frontlines as the regime forces try, under Russian air support to advance into Saraqeb town approaching to nearly two km away from the strategic town.

Since Friday evening, January 24, the regime forces have imposed their control over 40 villages and towns: Telmans, Ma’ar Shmasha, Deir Sharqi, Deir Al-Gharbi, Ma’ar Shmarin, Ma’rata, Al-Ghadfa, Ma’ar Shourin Al-Za’alana, Al-Dana, Tal Sheikh, Sawami’e, Khirbet Mezyan, Masaran, Bsida, Taqana, Babolin, Kafr Bassin, Marhatat, Hamidia, Dar Al-Salaam, Salhia, Kafruma, Maarrat Al-Nu’man city, Wadi Al-Daif, Hantutin, Al-Jarrada, Al-Ruwayha and Al-Qahiryah, Khan al-Sobol town, Mardebseh, Al-Hartamiyah, Qamhana, Jubas, Tal Mardikh, Abu Juraif, Tal Khatrah and Musaytif).

According to Syrian Observatory statistics, 65 civilians including 30 children and nine females, and 95 fighters of whom there are 74 jihadies have been killed since the 30th of December 2019 due to the Russian intensive aerial bombardment on Idlib and surrounding area. Accordingly, the number of fatalities by Russian forces since their started military operations in Syria in 2015 rose to 19,434 persons: 8,492 civilians (2,070 children, 1,289 females and 5,133 men), 5,698 fighters of Islamic and jihadi factions, and 5,244 ISIS members.

Russia has not had enough with supporting Syrian regime with traditional weapons. However, they turned to unusual internationally prohibited weapons. SOHR sources have reported that Russia used the “Thermite” in their airstrikes, a substance composed of aluminum powder and iron oxide which causes burns because it continues to ignite for about 180 seconds, some the bombs used by Russian jets on the Syrian territory were loaded with this substance.

It was founded out that they are “RBK-500 ZAB 2.5 SM” cluster incendiary bombs each weighed about 500 kg (about 1100 pounds) and they were dropped by the military aircraft. They carried anti-individuals and anti-vehicles small sized bombs of the type ((AO 2.5 RTM)), loaded with from 50 to 110 small-sized bombs stuffed with “Thermite”, which outpour out of it when they explode, the range of this anti-individuals and anti-vehicles bombs reaches 20 to 30 meters.

NE Syria: U.S.-Russia tension overshadows the region and skirmishes threaten of escalation

Since Turkey launched its operation “Peace Spring” in northern Syria on October 9, Turkish forces and Turkish-backed factions advanced inside the SDF-held areas with an extensive air and land cover in a total area of ​​4875 km2 (9.2% of the total area previously controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces), which is more than a quarter of the area of ​​Lebanon. At the same time, regime forces deployed in the region under an agreement between SDF and the regime through Russian mediation, into an area estimated at 18,821 km2 (35.6% of the total area of the SDF), which means that the SDF lost control of 23,641 km2, after it has been in control of an area of ​​52,916 square kilometers (28.6% of the total area of ​​Syria) before the start of the Turkish military operation, meaning that “SDF” now only controls 15.7% of the total Syrian territories.

US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from northern Syria on October 6 marked a green light for the Turkish military operation and a green light to redraw the map of alliances and influence in the entire region. The US withdrawal led the SDF to resort to Russia and the regime to deploy regime border guards on the borders with Turkey in exchange for the withdrawal of SDF forces from that region. With the successive withdrawal of the Syrian Democratic Forces in accordance with the Russian-Turkish agreement reached in “Sochi” between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the areas of control began to be clear and take shape. For now, the area from Qamishli to Ain Dewar is under US influence, while the region from Qamishli to Ras Al-Ain (Sri Kaniyee) and from Tal Abyad to Ain Al-Arab (Kobani) is under Russian influence. Meanwhile, the area from Ras al-Ain To Tal Abyad is subject to Turkish influence and the Turkish-backed, at a time when areas in “Abu Rasin” and “Tal Tamr” countryside, which connects to Ras Al-Ain, witness renewed clashes between SDF and the Turkish-backed factions, as the case for the area between Ain Issa And Tal Abyad.

According to SOHR observations over the past month, several skirmishes and hassles took place between U.S. and Russian troops. The Russian forces have deployed advanced air defense missile systems at al-Qamishli Airbase in the far northeast of Syria, amid escalating tension between Russian forces and their American counterpart in north-eastern region of Syria.

Syrian Observatory activists have monitored a state of tension continuing between the U.S. forces and their Russian counterpart. Each side tries to extend its influence and control over the area and the strategic highway of Al-Hasakah – Aleppo International Highway in particular.

Recently, the area had been the scene of heightened tension and daily skirmishes between both sides. Also the U.S. forces prevented movements of Russian patrols in several areas.

Reliable sources informed the Syrian Observatory that U.S. forces were deployed at the entrances and exits of the strategic town of Tal Tamr which is a link between Al-Hasakah – Al-Qamishli – Aleppo. They were also deployed at the entrance of Abu Rasin (Zarkan) and the junction in Ghabish village, and ran many patrols on Aleppo – Al-Hasakah highway known as “M4”.

These actions come as a part of the U.S. attempts to undermine the Russian role in NE Syria, and prevent the Russians from using the M4 highway in the area, except when heading to the border areas with Turkey.

On January 20, activists told SOHR that a U.S. patrol stopped a Russian one in Mustafawiyah village of Al-Malikiyah (Dayrik) in Al-Hasakah countryside, and prevented it from reaching Smilka border crossing.

On January 18, U.S. forces intercepted a Russian patrol in Tal Fukhar village while the patrol was heading to the countryside of Al-Malikiyah city (Dayrik). According to SOHR sources, the Russian patrol has been stopped for two hours which caused traffic jam on the road, before SDF mediated between both forces. After that, the Russian patrol continued its way to Al-Malikiyah countryside, while the U.S. forces headed to Rumaylan base.

On 17th of January, a column of the Russian forces of about 40 cars was heading towards Tal Tamr town in al-Hasakah countryside when an American patrol intercepted the Russian patrol, which caused a state of tension between both parties ended with the departure of the Russian forces which headed towards Ayn Issa town, after mediation by the Syria Democratic Forces.

The Syrian Observatory monitored on the 14th of January 2020 that a U.S. patrol stopped a Russian patrol at Hittin junction on the road between Al-Hasakah and Al-Qamishly. An altercation took place between both parties ended with the return of the Russian patrol after being prevented from continuing its way on the M4 Highway.

A whole year in which the Syrians suffered the scourge of the Russian intervention, which seems to resemble a kind of revenge and retaliation against Syrians for protesting against the regime that committed the worst violations against its own people. At a time when the map of alliances and power balances is changing, Russia has become the ultimate winner, succeeding in helping the Syrian regime regaining control over about two-thirds of the country after losing control of most of its territory. Moscow used the pretext of “the war on terror” to commit massacres against civilians, and sponsored and struck agreements which soon after abandoned. Moscow and its war machine spilt in the blood of Syrians despite claiming to be “political mediator” or “broker” that can deal with all parties to the conflict.

With all recent changes in the balance of powers, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights renews its appeals to the international community to put pressure on Russia to stop its aggression against the Syrians, and to find a political solution to end the Syrian crisis that is nearing its ninth year. Given what the SOHR has documented and observed of Russia’s military intervention and announcements and claims, both officially and publicly, of its role and presence in Syria as “fighting terrorism”, it is incumbent on Russia to explain why it is overlooking or perhaps tolerating the presence of “Islamic State” in Al-Badia region, an area of about 4000 km2 (1.8% of the total Syrian territories) extending from Jabal Abu-Rajmin in the northeast of Palmyra to the desert of Deir Al-Zour and its western countryside, and in Sokhna’s desert and in north of the administrative borders of Suwayda. This can only mean the real objective of Russia’s military intervention is not fighting ‘terrorism’ but killing and displacing civilians, destroying  houses and properties, and helping the regime win the war.