BEIRUT, LEBANON (1:10 P.M.) – A reckless and ill-sighted militant offensive carried out against the Syrian Arab Army on Wednesday (February 7) can be identified as the primary cause for the successful break-out of Islamic State militants who were otherwise trapped by pro-government forces in northeast Hama towards southeast Idlib.
On Wednesday, a coalition of rebel factions – including various Free Syrian Army militias, Al-Qaeda-affiliate group Ha’yat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) and Muslim Brotherhood affiliate group Ahrar al-Sham – launched a powerful assault against Syrian Army positions west of the town of Sinjar in southeast Idlib province.
The militant assault targeted to government-held villages of Ajjaz (which was captured for several hours) and Sarja, both being located several kilometers west of Sinjar.
At the time, the Syrian Army was occupied with defeating encircled ISIS terrorists in northeast Hama and when news of the attack near Sinjar came through, an emergency battle-group comprising reserve forces from Ash-Shutayb and nearby villages on the western axis of the terrorist pocket was sent to counter-attack rebel groups at Ajjaz and Sarja.
Although repelling the militant attacks on Ajjaz and Sarja well and truly by Thursday, ongoing heavy shelling by rebel artillery encouraged the Syrian Army to keep its reserve forces from Ash-Shutayb in the area west of Sinjar in the event that insurgent fighters made another push.
On Friday morning, entrapped ISIS forces in northeast Hama unleashed their desperate break-out offensive against the western axis of the pocket.
With many hundreds of fighters and three consecutive car bomb attacks, ISIS burst through government lines at the town of Ash-Shutayb – since heavily depleted of Syrian Army holding forces.
Beyond Ash-Shutayb, most Syrian Army defense lines faced west towards rebel-held Idlib and not east towards the ISIS pocket. Here Syrian troops were forced retreat from the villages between Ash-Shutayb and rebel lines for the sake of reducing casualties.
In any case, the break-out offensive by ISIS saw dozens of Syrian troops and terrorist fighters killed within a matter of hours (confirmed by both Syrian Army and Islamic State sources).
Ash-Shutayb was re-secured by the Syrian Army on late Saturday, by which time ISIS had well and truly escaped to the west and come into contact with rebel forces at Umm Khalakhil and Mushayrifah.
Whilst rebels were quick to blame the Syrian Army and Russia for the ‘convenient’ break-out of ISIS militants from northeast Hama to southeast Idlib (as if losing dozens of seasoned troops is convenient), they were equally fast to forget their own offensive actions at Ajjaz and Sarja which provoked the reinforcement action by pro-government forces (and the subsequent weakening of government defenses at Ash-Shutayb) in the first place.