As I began typing this new NEO submission reports were coming in that SAA forces and its allies had cut the M5 road to Aleppo just north of Khan Shaykhun. Reports are now coming in that Syrian troops are not just blocking the road, but attacking southward down highway 5, sowing panic among the jihadis who had expected to retreat in good order if needed north up that road.
Last night Veterans Today sources told us that the jihadis were breaking up into small groups trying to break out through the still open countryside. They will only be fighting with what they can carry, which will not be much, and there will be no resupply while hiding out from the drones when the sun comes up Tuesday morning.
Update Tuesday morning: The sun rose to reports of general jihadi retreat from their positions south of Khan Shaykhun before their escape route is closed. The SAA main advance is still engaged inside the city, and I would suspect giving the jihadis time to evacuate while they still can, which has often been the case in the past, to save Syrian soldiers lives for later fighting.
Turkey sortied two F-16s in an attempt to disrupt the SAA advance but were chased off by two Russian S-35s that were quickly scrambled. They are now flying top cover for all Syrian air force sorties in the area. The days of Turkey playing fake ceasefire guarantor while aggressively supporting a jihadi terror rule over Idlib might be over. Mr. Putin backed up his statement yesterday that he fully supported the SAA advance with this move to protect Syrian air operations from Turkish interference.
This should have been done sooner as the whole peace and reconciliation process, plus preparing for elections, was wrecked as a result with more deaths and destruction which were always conveniently blamed on the Syrians defending their country. Turkey will owe Syria a huge reparations bill for its conduct.
I will admit that I did not see this huge turn of events coming together as it has. So let’s review what we know of the SAA strategy in hindsight. The advance on southern Idlib developed slowly, with wide left and right flank probes to avoid the heavy defenses in the center.
Fighting dragged out with slow advances, gains and counterattacks by the militant groups and terrorists. The strategy seemed to be to bleed reinforcements from the center off to the flanks for a possible attack up the middle.
When both flanking attacks made their way north to be on the city’s flanks, the right flank stalled and was then heavily counter attacked with jihadi troops, light armor and VBIED attacks to destroy key SAA frontline positions and hurt morale.
The western left flank endured similar attacks, but it changed the game by continuing to attack north, going past Khan Shaykhun into rural areas where HTS had not prepared for hard fighting. The Syrian strategy now seemed to be one of drawing more jihadi troops out of the city into the countryside.
Part of reason for this was the jihadi troops were more exposed while they were moving. The SAA and Russian aircover was flying around the clock, supporting both Syrian flank attacks, bombing troop positions, heavy weapons and munition warehouses and command centers. We may get to see how effective this all was after the battle.
My concern was that jihadi losses would just continue to be replaced, as Turkey was virtually an open border for militants to get everything they needed to fight and hold Idlib, denying Assad control over his country. Meanwhile the Turkish observers just sat back and watched the jihadis hold the Syrian northwest hostage, as it was unable to rebuild or hold elections.
I began to see that the issue of resupplying Khan Shaykhun could determine who would win, as a stalemate was a win for Turkey. I feared that the Russians, with all of their investment and support, would be hesitant to destroy Turkish reinforcements with air attacks, due to their multiple layers of involvement with Turkey. But I did not have to wait long for an answer.
On August 19, Putin made a statement that he fully supported Syria fully in everything he saw going on with the battle, meaning that Russian military forces were going to see the thing through. And when Turkey had the gall to announce that it was sending a resupply column down to Khan Shaykhun, I knew the glove was being thrown down at the Russian command’s feet.
The convoy, which mainly consisted of heavy weapons and ammunition, was bombed to the surprise of many, and that ended the resupply effort. The Turkish command reported that three civilians were killed and a number wounded, a hint that civilians were used as proxies and cannon fodder for the dangerous mission, as the Turkish army avoids fighting with an equally armed opponent at all costs.
There was a report that a Turkish F-16 flew over the area in the afternoon. The Turks later came up with a story that they were just shifting some supplies and equipment between observation stations, one of which is in Morek, southwest of Khan Shaykhun and no open line of supply now.
The Syrian left flank attack was so far north of the city at this point, I began to think that their cutting the road farther north would freak out not only the jihadis in the city more, but those further south. I also began to wonder about the long lines of supply for that SAA left flank column. Could it sustain a pitched battle that far north in case HTA wanted to send 10,000 more jihadis to the south.
But tonight the guessing was over. It was early morning in Syria, and the report came in that it was not the furthest tip of the northwest flanking column that cut the M5 resupply and retreat road. The SAA cut it just north of the city.
It seems now the northern flank was a ruse, to spread the jihadi defenders out more on the west side of the city so an SAA fresh column of troops could punch a hole through their lines to cut the road close to the city, which they did.
But the surprises were not over. I chose this as my next NEO submission when VT’s Syrian sources confirmed that the SAA column did not just cut the road north of the city, but actually pivoted south and attacked along a citywide front straight DOWN highway 5, pushing the jihadis away from their escape route.
I am getting reports via a Syrian officer who has a son there, of panic among the jihadis learning they were completely cut off, and trying to break out of the city into open country in small groups to escape. When the sun comes up, the Syrian and Russian planes and drones will be in the sky hunting them. It is not going to be a good day for them, or tomorrow night, as the drones with night cameras can still get them.
This will give those jihadiis in south of the city something to think about, like surrendering, as the SAA surely does not plan to let them pass through its lines.
Erdogan will not sleep well tonight, as he will be gritting his teeth on the realization that just when he has much of his army ready to deploy against the Kurds into Syria’s north, with no permission from Assad, guess who might be attacking up Highway 5 into the heart of Idlib?
If the SAA can eliminate this big jihadi-Turkish pocket, a large number of Syrian troops will be free to go on the offensive that could not before; and rolling the jihadis back toward Turkey would be much easier. Once the battle of Khan Shaykhun is over, the Russian and Syrian commands will be looking for the next target, and being a jihadi living off the land in Syria will not be as much fun as it has been.
If anyone thinks the timing of this event is just a coincidence with Erdogan’s planned jump into Kurdish Syria, I would urge you to think again. He now has to consider engaging the Kurds and the Syrians at the same time, pushing them closer together politically.
But tomorrow is another day, with new twists and turns; and the situation could change again. We have been through elation and then depression again, over and over during this long grueling war. The Syrian people do not deserve this. They were a threat to no one.
Jim W. Dean, managing editor for Veterans Today, producer/host of Heritage TV Atlanta, specially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.