Published by South Front, 02 February 2016

Written by Peto Lucem exclusively for SouthFront: Analysis & Intelligence; Edited by Rachel Lane

On February 1, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) launched their long awaited offensive in the northern Aleppo countryside. The operation’s main objective: breaking the siege of two isolated loyalist towns; Nubbol and Zahraah.

Since 2012 in this area, approximately 35,000 civilians are besieged by al-Nusra (Syria’s Al Qaida branch) and other insurgents. By reaching these two towns, SAA would also be able to cut the last supply routes running from the Turkish Border south towards Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and the country’s former commercial hub. The battle’s scale and importance led observers to name the struggle for Aleppo, The mother of all Battles. Both war parties know the side which captures Aleppo wins more than just a city. This side will win Syria’s north and therefore – most probably – the war.

Although the SAA’s offensive was predictable and the fact that the insurgents had years to entrench in the area, Government forces were able to gain ground early in their offensive. Following heavy artillery preparation fire that commenced in the early morning hours, elements of the elite 4th Mechanized Division supported by crack Hezbollah units commenced their assault. The village of Duwayr al-Zeytoun was swiftly secured. The SAA also liberated the farming areas nearby and near the village of Bashkuy. The loss of Government forces was relatively low. Only a couple of BMPs and tanks were knocked out by insurgents TOW missiles or got trapped in tank ditches. Although many observers thought this push would just be a preliminary offensive with limited goals, in order to launch the main assault some days later, the SAA pushed on. The important village of Tall Jibbin was liberated in the early afternoon. Simultaneously to this attack, the SAA also assaulted the areas between Aleppo and the liberated areas to the north and expanded their control in the Al-Mallah farming area. Al -Mallah lies directly north of the strategic Castello-ring road, which represents the last insurgent supply route into Aleppo.

The first day proved to be a full success for the Government forces. An important factor was – without doubt – the attacker’s air force. The SAA received very accurate and powerful close air support (CAS) by the Russian Airforce, which flew more than 200 sorties on the first day of the offensive. Due to the Russian CAS, many of the defense lines of the insurgents crumbled. The airpower also prevented insurgent reinforcements to reach the combat areas and – most importantly – destroyed many Command and Control Centers. The death of some of the most capable and high ranked leaders and field commanders will most likely hamper the insurgents defense capabilities further in the upcoming decisive days. Opposition sources confirmed the death of many senior leaders including insurgent’s Sham Legion’s commander and his deputy. The leader of Jaish al Islam in Aleppo area was also a confirmed casualty.

On the morning of February 2, the SAA and allied forces were able to liberate the town of Hardatnin located only 4-5 kilometers to the west of the forward defense positions of Nubbol and Zahraa. They also achieved a breakthrough into the city of Rityan. Later that day, the garrison Nubbol and Zahraa also launched assaults on insurgent positions located to the their south-east and broke into the insurgent held village of Byanoon.

The following days will likely make the position of the insurgent forces deployed in Aleppo’s northern countryside worse. As soon as the army will reach Nubbol and Zahraa, Government forces will probably launch the second phase of the offensive operation. By that, they will most likely attack insurgent held areas in west and northwest Aleppo in order to cut off insurgent forces inside Aleppo entirely and to widen the security zone around the city. Therefore, the SAA will have to capture Mansoura suburb in Aleppo’s west and the insurgent strongholds of Bayanoon, Haritan and Kafr Hamra and Anadan which are already under heavy SAA artillery and RuAF bombardment. The Mother of all Battles will therefore enter its final stage soon.