The situation in Syria, 2014 in review
By Thomas van Linge and Pieter Van Ostaeyen
In March 2014 the Syrian war entered its fourth year. With over 76.000 deaths reported 2014 was the deathliest year of the conflict. 2014 saw the rise of the “Islamic State”, a group which, at the end of 2013 was just one of many factions fighting the regime. At the end of the year the Islamic State controlled roughly 30% of the country. 2014 was the year in which Homs, the ‘capital of the revolution’ fell to the regime and its allies. But 2014 was also the year in which the Free Syrian Army (which was declared dead by some at the end of 2013) made a comeback in several parts of the country.
First half of January
Syria started 2014 with yet another conflict. A vast majority of the factions in the rebel movement began fighting against militants of ISIS, an al-Qaeda originated group which was very unpopular among the mainstream opposition for its hostility towards other factions. Within two days rebels led by the Syria Revolutionaries Front (an FSA coalition in Idlib province) expelled ISIS from Harem, Salqin, Kafranbel, Ma’arat al-Numan, al-Bara, Kafr Zita and ad-Dana. While in Aleppo a new rebel group under the name ‘Jaysh al-Mujahideen’ expelled ISIS from Mare’, Sawran, Atarib, Tell Rifaat and Aleppo city.
Rebels also managed to temporarily expel ISIS from al-Bab and Manbij, but were pushed back here, while in the meantime ISIS took complete control of the city of ar-Raqqa, pushing out all other rebel factions. Forces of the Syrian regime managed to take advantage of this new conflict and advanced from the Aleppo international airport to al-Zarzur, just north of it.
In the Northeast of the country the forces of the YPG launched an offensive at the end of 2013, capturing the town of Tall Birak and completely surrounding Tall Hamis, capturing a lot of ground from Islamist rebel forces (mainly ISIS, Jabhat an-Nusra and Ahrar as-Sham). But facing heavy resistance in this Arab dominated area which made them suffer heavy losses; the YPG was forced to retreat in January 2014 in what would become their biggest defeat thus far.
In the South the rebels made some smaller advances; capturing the national hospital in Jasim, which was the last regime position in the town. And gaining some ground in Sheikh Maskin, which was besieged by regime forces.
Second half of January and first half of February
Despite defeats in ar-Raqqa and east Aleppo the rebel offensive against ISIS continued into February. Rebels expelled ISIS members from brigade 46 in west Aleppo, Bab al-Salam border crossing near Azaz and the town of Binnish in Idlib. ISIS retreated all its forces from Deir ez-Zor province to the north in order to prevent a wider conflict with rebel-aligned tribes in the area. However in Hasakah province ISIS overpowered all other rebel groups who all ended up swearing allegiance to the group.
In Northern Hama rebels launched an offensive against the regime, advancing all the way east to the village of Maan and capturing the town of Morek, by which they effectively cut the road to Khan Shaykhun (the last remaining regime-held city in Southern Idlib). But regime forces managed to expel the rebels from Souran, which is located just south of Morek. In the Qalamoon mountains near Damascus, the regime, backed by foreign Hezbollah forces, started to intensify its attacks on the rebel-held town of Yabroud. In the Southern part of the country rebels launched a new offensive in Southeast Quneitra, capturing several smaller villages.
Second half of February and first half of March
At the end of February ISIS pulled all its remaining forces out of west Aleppo, abandoning towns like Azaz, al-Rai, Mayer, Darat Izza and Anadan, which were immediately taken over by local rebel forces. ISIS also pulled out of Latakia province, abandoned its remaining areas in Idlib and was pushed out of Markadah in Hasakah province.
The rebels themselves lost ground to the regime, whose forces in Aleppo advanced from Zarzur and reached the outskirts of the industrial city of Sheikh Najjar. Regime forces also managed to push rebels back from Maan village in Hama and closed in around Yabroud.
The regime offensive around Yabroud made rebels in the desert area east of the Qalamoon Mountains intensify their attacks on the regime. Rebels also pushed into Khan Shaykhun and controlled the city center in a matter of days, after which fighting was mainly concentrated on the checkpoints around the city.
Second half of March and first half of April
In response to the regime push east of Aleppo, rebel forces started to advance on the western outskirts and in the southwest of the city. After gaining complete control over the suburbs of Maarat al-Artiq and Layramoun, rebels entered al-Wafa and al-Zahraa districts in west Aleppo. In the meantime rebels crossed into the Ramousah district of the city, gaining some ground and cutting the main highway connecting regime-controlled Aleppo to the international airport. In Idlib province rebels captured several regime checkpoints on the M5 highway, cutting off the regime bases around Ma’arat al-Numan from Khan Shaykhun.
Rebels also made a significant push in the Latakia Mountains, where they captured the town of Kesab, taking the last remaining border crossing with Turkey from the regime, they even managed to reach a small beach at the Mediterranean. Rebels also made some small advances in the south where they captured the Daraa central prison and the silos near Daraa, cutting the regime-held part of the city from its remaining border crossing with Jordan. Rebels gained complete control of the road between the towns of Tasil and Dael. Other rebel forces seized several military installations in the desert east of Dumayr, capturing dozens of tanks from regime forces.
But they also suffered some major defeats. In the Qalamoon Mountains the rebel-held towns seemed to fall like dominos. After the rebel stronghold of Yabroud was taken by regime and Hezbollah forces Falitah fell, which was followed by Ras al-Maarra, Maaloula, Rankus and Telfita. In Homs province rebels were forced to retreat from the historic castle Krak des Chevaliers which was besieged by the regime for quite some time. Rebels lost ground to ISIS as well; first the group took complete control of the road going from ar-Raqqa to as-Sukhna in the dessert, then they started to push towards the Euphrates River, capturing several small villages including Markadah and Muweeleh along the way. ISIS fighters also expelled rebels from Tabni, and captured the small villages of Kabajeb and as-Sulah on the road between as-Sukhna and Deir ez-Zor city.
ISIS consolidated its positions around the YPG-controlled Kobanê canton and conducted new attacks on the area but was met with heavy resistance by the YPG forces who had prepared for this.
Second half of April and first half of May
In the midst of spring the regime achieved several major victories against rebel forces around the country. The biggest victory was the complete capture of the city of Homs, which was ever since the beginning of the uprising considered the symbol and hearth of the revolution by rebel forces. The regime managed to regain complete control over the city center after a deal was reached with the rebels in which the remaining rebels in the city were allowed save passage towards the northern countryside. In the Qalamoon mountains the rebels seemed to had completely collapsed after regime and Hezbollah forces recaptured Assal al-Ward and made dozens of rebel formations in the region either flee across the border, retreat to the desert or surrender. In the South regime forces managed to make a push from Sheikh Maskin into the rebel stronghold of Nawa, recapturing almost half the city. In Aleppo regime forces advanced in Sheikh Najjar, inching closer towards the Aleppo central prison which was besieged by rebels for over a year. And in Latakia regime forces used the small beach, captured by rebels in March, as a beachhead for an offensive to recapture Kesab.
Rebels had to suffer defeats to ISIS as well; the group launched a big offensive in Deir ez-Zor, capturing several villages and they effectively besieged rebel-held Deir ez-Zor city (in unofficial cooperation with the regime) after advancing alongside the Euphrates River to the city entrance.
Rebels did however manage to take some ground as well; in Daraa they took over brigade 61, situated on Tall al-Jabiyah which overlooks Nawa. In Khan Shaykhun rebels took control of more regime positions. In the desert area near ad-Dumayr rebels captured the cement factory and the Khan abu-Shamat military base, and in Hama rebels took control of tall Malah and the Khattab munition depot. FSA rebels, which resided in the Kobanê canton, launched (in cooperation with the YPG) a small offensive on ISIS, taking several small villages near Tall Abyad.
Second half of May
in the second half of May regime forces made a final push towards the Aleppo central prison and managed to reach it, breaking the year long rebel siege and putting more pressure on the rebel-held part of Aleppo city. Rebels on the other hand managed to capture the Salam checkpoint and the Khazanat army base, consolidating their control over Khan Shaykhun and the surrounding area. Rebels captured the village of Qanafiz and tried to advance towards the Hama – Aleppo highway in an attempt to cut it. In the Qalamoon region some rebel groups who were assumed to have been dissolved reappeared and took some ground around Zabadani. ISIS continued to advance into rebel-territory and captured the town of al-Busayrah on the river banks of the Euphrates. ISIS also recaptured the village of ar-Rai and surrounding area in northern Aleppo and managed to establish its own little enclave in the Northern Homs countryside. In Hasakah city tensions between the YPG and the regime escalated into fierce clashes which reportedly ended in the death of dozens of fighters on both sides and a new fragile truce without any significant changes on the ground.
First half of June
In this short period ISIS swept across Iraq, capturing major cities including Mosul, Tikrit, Hawijah and Tal Afar. During this time they put all their operations in Syria to a halt which gave FSA remnants in ar-Raqqa province a change to start a small offensive, which resulted in them capturing al-Hazimah, just north of the ISIS capital of ar-Raqqa. Regime forces took control of the town of Kesab, after it was under rebel control for over 2 months, forcing rebels back into the mountains to the southeast. Rebels increased their attacks on regime held Jisr al-Shughur in Idlib province and made a modest comeback in the Qalamoon Mountains where they’d shifted to guerilla tactics in order to counter regime and Hezbollah forces. Other than these developments this was a relatively calm period during the war.
Second half of June
After ISIS achieved many victories in Iraq it started to shift its focus back to Syria again. After ISIS fighters captured the Iraqi side of the border they started to attack Syrian rebels on the other side which resulted in the fall of Abu Kamal into ISIS hands. ISIS fighters also entered Muhassan, took control of the entire eastern river bank of the Euphrates between Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, dominated the western desert area in Deir ez-Zor province and launched a new offensive in rebel-held Aleppo province, capturing several villages around Akhtareen. Rebel forces in east Hama seem to have disappeared as ISIS fighters started to show up in villages like Salba and Aqaribat. Rebels increased their attacks on regime and Hezbollah forces in Qalamoon and captured the military site on Tall Jumou in Daraa, which opened another road to Nawa. But they failed to push the regime back in Aleppo. On June 29th ISIS declared the re-establishment of the Caliphate and hence changed its name in the Islamic State (from now on referred to as IS)
First half of July
This short period saw the complete collapse of rebel forces in Deir ez-Zor province. Under IS military superiority village after village fell until all rebel forces in the province either left, disbanded or joined the organization. IS took over rebel frontlines in Deir ez-Zor and was now directly facing the regime.
The rebels which choose to flee the province moved temporarily to the mountains north of Palmyra, to later move to other rebel areas in Daraa or Idlib. IS continued to push into Aleppo province and entered Akhtareen were it was met by fierce rebel resistance. The regime advanced in Aleppo as well and took full control of Sheikh Najjar after having battled rebels for it for months. Rebel forces took over the village of as-Saen in northeast Hama, but failed to advance further to the Hama – Aleppo highway. The conflict between rebels and IS reached eastern Ghouta as well, as rebels almost destroyed the entire local branch of the organization.
Second half of July
In late July IS launched several major offensives against regime forces throughout the east of the country. The fighting started with IS capturing the Shaer gas fields, north of Palmyra, in which IS fighter killed hundreds of regime soldiers. Several days later regime forces managed to recapture the majority of the gas fields. A few days later IS fighters overran Division 17, a major regime army base just north of Raqqa city, again inflicting heavy losses among regime forces. In Hasakah province IS fighters pushed into the 121st artillery brigade, just south of the city, and forced regime forces to retreat to Hasakah. In order to prevent IS from taking over Hasakah city the regime asked the YPG for help, allowing them to move freely in all regime areas in the city and de-facto giving them complete control over the city.
But in Deir ez-Zor province IS was facing an uprising as members of the rebel-linked Sheitat tribe kicked out IS of several villages between Mayadeen and Abu Kamal and put up road blocks in order to prevent IS fighters from reentering.
Rebel forces launched an offensive in northern Hama province, managing to capture the town of Khattab, reaching the outskirts of Arzeh, Qomhana and even Hama city, and getting within firing range of the Hama military airport. In the South rebels captured the village of Sheikh Saad and its surrounding military sites, opening up the southern road to the embattled city of Nawa.
First half of August
Several days after the YPG took over responsibility of Hasakah IS fighters entered the Gweiran neighborhood in the south of the city and fierce fighting between the two sides followed. In ar-Raqqa province IS fighters overran Brigade 93, capturing dozens of functioning regime tanks. IS fighters also managed to capture the towns of Akhtareen and Dabiq in Aleppo province, and crushed the tribal uprising in Deir ez-Zor, killing hundreds of local tribesmen. In Idlib province Jabhat al-Nusra started to show a growing hostility towards other rebel groups as they expelled all other rebels from the border town of Harem.
Second half of August
Rebels continued to advance in northern Hama province and managed to recapture their former stronghold of Halfaya and the village of Arzeh, but they failed to capture the town of Mhardeh or advance any further towards Hama or its military airport. After months of fighting regime forces pushed remaining rebels out of the town on Mleiha near Damascus, forcing rebels to retreat further into eastern Ghouta. In the Golan Heights rebels pushed regime forces out of what’s left of the provincial capital of Quneitra after capturing the border crossing with the occupied part of the Heights. IS fighters launched several waves of attacks on the Tabqa airbase, just south of Thawrah, which was the last regime-held area in the entire Raqqa province. After suffering some significant losses IS fighter overran the airbase, capturing and killing hundreds of regime soldiers and completely ending the Assad regime in Raqqa.
Fighting between rebels and IS intensified as well on the frontline in Aleppo province, although neither side managed to take any ground. IS fighters in the northern countryside of Homs decided to retreat from their enclave and left their positions to be taken over by rebels.
Heavy fighting occurred as well between IS fighters and the YPG around the town of Jazaa, near the border with Iraq. IS fighters sought to capture the town but YPG forces put up heavy resistance, combating IS in the town for days.
First half of September
In early September regime forces launched a counter offensive in northern Hama and recaptured all areas lost in the rebel offensive in a matter of days. They even pushed rebels back beyond the pre-offensive lines. In the South however rebels made some significant advances, taking over the entire southern half of the Quneitra province and moving up all the way to Deir Addas and Deir Makir, just several km away from breaking the regime siege on several rebel areas in western Ghouta.
IS fighters started to close in on the city of Salamiyah in eastern Hama, a city which is dominated by the Ismaeli sect, a religious minority in the country. But in Hasakah IS fighters lost ground to regime and YPG forces in the city and were pushed back from Jazaa by the YPG.
Second half of September
IS launched a very big offensive on the YPG controlled Kobanê canton and broke through all the YPG lines, capturing hundreds of small villages and causing mass exodus of the local Kurdish population towards Turkey. FSA remnants in Raqqa province abandoned their remaining positions and went to Kobanê to reinforce the YPG forces who were now encircled in the city by the IS on 3 sides and Turkey to the north. Meaning IS controlled Raqqa province 100%. IS fighters were also closing in again on Jazaa in Hasakah province, but they were pushed out of the Gweiran neighborhood in Hasakah city by regime forces. In Aleppo regime forces advanced from the central prison and captured the villages of Handarat and Safyat, just north of the city, cutting off another supply line to rebel-held Aleppo. And in eastern Ghouta regime forces recaptured the town of Adra after it was under rebel-control for almost a year. In the South however rebels continued to advance and overran a major military facility on Tall al-Harra near the town of al-Harrah in a matter of days.
First half of October
IS continued to advance on Kobanê and managed to capture up to 70% of the city, cornering YPG and allied forces in the northwest of the city. But YPG forces prevented IS from taking full control and recaptured Tall Shair, just west of the city, after heavy bombardments by coalition warplanes.
The remaining FSA rebels in eastern Aleppo, under the banner of the ‘Dawn on Freedom brigades’, entered Kobanê to help the YPG as well. In Daraa province FSA rebels took full control of the town of al-Harra without facing much regime resistance and managed to repel several regimen counter-pushes in the following days.
Second half of October
In Idlib province (mainly the Jabal az-Zawiya area) fighting broke out between the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF) and fighters of Jabhat an-Nusra. Jabhat an-Nusra fighters managed to expel the SRF from the area and much of Idlib province, establishing themselves as the dominant force in this rebel-held region.
In Northern Hama regime forces recaptured the strategic town of Morek after rebels managed to fiercely defend it for months, in the meantime the regime was able to repel rebel-counter attacks on northern Aleppo and captured a major part of the Hawija island in Deir ez-Zor city, threatening to besiege IS fighters in the city. But the regime suffered some big losses in the Homs desert where IS fighters captured the Shaer gas fields again and advanced all the way to the Tayfur military base.
And in the south the FSA captured several regime checkpoints along the main highway to the border, cutting Damascus off from its last border post with Jordan.
First half of November
After Peshmerga forces from the Kurdistan Regional Government arrived in Kobanê the Kurds made some significant advances in the city and countryside west to it. In the Homs desert regime forces managed to recapture the Shaer gas fields, pushing IS fighters to the field outskirts once again. Regime forces in the south tried to defeat rebels in Sheikh Maskin but were met by even heavier rebel attacks from outside the besieged area. In a matter of days rebels broke the siege on the city, expelled regime forces from most of it and even overran all military bases between Sheikh Maskin and Nawa, establishing full control over Daraa’s second city.
Second half of November
IS fighters made a surprise appearance in Rif Dimasq, after they captured the Bir Qassab area, south of Damascus, from rebel forces. In Hasakah province IS fighters made some advances south of al-Qamishli and captured several villages along the Syrian-Iraqi border. In Aleppo province rebels tried to advance towards as-Safira and captured a few villages.
First half of December
After years of attacking the regime bases around Ma’arat an-Numan rebels were finally able to capture all the bases and checkpoints around the city and on the M5 highway, killing dozens of regime forces and seizing a lot of weapons. Regime forces in the meantime advanced further west in northern Aleppo and captured most of the Mallah farms, putting more pressure on rebels in the city.
IS fighters launched a big offensive on regime forces in Deir ez-Zor and reached the eastern edge of the Deir ez-Zor military airport. Rebels launched a counter attack on IS fighters in the Rif Dimasq Desert and recaptured the Bir Qassab area.
Second half of December
After the Peshmerga in Iraq broke the siege on Mount Sinjar YPG forces in Jazaa, pushed south towards the border to open the road leading north to the mountain. YPG fighters in cooperation with regime forces managed to repel a IS attack north of Tall Hamis as well. IS fighters in the Qalamoon Mountains continued to grow in the meantime, forcing other rebels to pledge allegiance to the group. Rebels in the Latakia Mountains stepped up attacks on the regime and managed to made some small advances near Kesab, which they lost months before.
First half of January 2015
The cold winter weather caused the war to freeze up on most fronts, and the country witnessed a relatively peaceful period, if only for a few days. In Aleppo province a new rebel group emerged called ‘Jabhat as-Shamiah’, a unification of a lot of major Aleppo groups including Jaysh al-Muhajirin, the Nour al-Din Zengi Brigades and the Aleppo forces of the Islamic Front and ADF. The new coalition proved to be somewhat successful as they managed to recapture the Bureij area, weakening the regime belt around the city.
Possible evolutions in 2015
One thing that can be said with most certainty is that IS fighters will be pushed out of Kobanê city soon, YPG resistance, Peshmerga artillery and coalition airstrikes have made them lose ground for weeks now, and after they lose the city they will most likely be pushed out of most of the former canton as it is a flat area, were they are very vulnerable to airstrikes. It is not unthinkable that they will lose most of their ground in Aleppo province as well this year as the US has pledged to start training FSA rebels this spring and it is being rumored that col. Oqaidi of the FSA is planning to set up a Southern Front styled FSA coalition in the north. IS fighters will most likely be able to hold on to ar-Raqqa but will face a growing tribal resistance as rebel remnants in the province are increasing guerilla attacks on them. In Hasakah a new conflict has emerged between the YPG and the regime and it will be interesting to see if this will be the end of the Assad regime in the northeast or even if the US which has now allied itself with the YPG will be drawn into a minor conflict with Assad.
In Idlib province SRF rebels are planning to make a comeback (one which will be welcomed by the US) so a new wave of potential fighting between rebels will probably mean the remaining regime areas in the province will be save. The regime will most likely continue to make gains around Damascus, certainly as Jaysh al-Islam has started fighting the FSA linked Jaysh al-Umma in eastern Ghouta. But to the south the regime will most likely lose more ground (possible the entire Daraa province) to the Southern Front FSA rebels which have proven to be the most successful of all rebels in 2014. It is not unthinkable that in this scenario the Druze of Suwayda will start rejecting the regime and create their own autonomies region (similar to Rojava). Whether the regime will succeed in besieging Aleppo city is questionable, rebels are putting up a very heavy fight and several international powers (including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and even France) have signaled that they want to prevent such a scenario. But both rebels and regime seem to be and continue to be determined to capture Aleppo. Which shows that after two years the common saying is still relevant; ‘the victor of Aleppo will be the victor of the war’.