Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, a range of disparate opposition groups (including Jabhat al-Nusra – now Hayat Tahrir al-Sham/HTS) have wrestled with loyalist forces over control of the immensely strategic city of Aleppo. Situated in the country’s North as its most populous city, Aleppo has acted as a ‘springboard’ of sorts, in that controlling it would facilitate extending further control over Northern Syria. In 2013, rebel groups were able to seize control over large parts of the Aleppo countryside, as well as the city itself, leaving the loyalist contingent practically besieged in several pockets during a longer period of time.
However, as a result of a series of counter-offensives throughout the following years, Syrian loyalist forces were able to regain large parts of territory within and surrounding Aleppo city – In turn rendering the distribution of territorial control in Aleppo city roughly equal. By 2016, each side’s territorial control extended into the city center from opposing sides, loosely resembling a ‘yin and yang’ symbol.
During 2016, rebel groups lead by Jabhat al-Nusra and other hardline Islamist groups spearheaded offensives against Syrian loyalist-held areas in the South-West Aleppo countryside, primarily supported by the use of suicide car bombs, or Suicide Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (SVBIEDs). At the same time, loyalist forces – assisted by the Russian air force – attempted to cut off all rebel access to Eastern Aleppo by closing the Northern perimeter of the city. Despite repeated attempts by the rebels to slow down the loyalist advance, Eastern Aleppo city was left entirely besieged by July 27.
Almost immediately after Eastern Aleppo city was besieged in late July, Jabhat al-Nusra rebranded as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), and its joint operations room Jaish al-Fateh (JaF) launched an offensive that built on its gains in the South-Western Aleppo countryside previously in the year, in an attempt to break the siege of Eastern Aleppo. Thus, beginning on July 31st, JFS sent multiple SVBIEDs toward Syrian loyalists stationed in the al-Hikma school on the outskirts of South-West Aleppo city in order to soften the area for an all-out assault.
Eventually, the offensive managed to break the siege of Eastern Aleppo city, punching a hole through the loyalist blockade and connecting with the rebel forces inside the city.
However, the success was merely temporary, as loyalist forces were able to reassert the siege a month later. In late October the same year, Jaish al-Fateh, lead by JFS, commenced a second offensive aimed at breaking the siege of Eastern Aleppo. This offensive took aim mostly at Western Aleppo, but failed to gain enough momentum and eventually fizzled out.
THE GREEN SVBIEDS
As this is the first public article I’ve written about JaN/JFS/HTS use of SVBIEDs, I feel it’s important to clarify certain aspects of the group’s use of SVBIEDs. Beginning in 2015, JaN switched from employing SVBIEDs in a geographically wide-stretched area across Syria, to instead mostly focusing on a single province – Idlib. The group began employing a series of BMP-1 armoured personnel carriers as SVBIEDs, some of them up-armoured to a degree – in a sustained localised offensive. This proved quite successful, and the wider rebel coalition was able to expel the loyalist salient from the entire Idlib province as the year progressed. And while the overall number of attacks carried out decreased, the ones that were conducted almost exclusively employed BMP-1s, a sign of the importance of the offensive.
In 2016, Jabhat al-Nusra continued using SVBIEDs based on BMP-1s. Interestingly, the vehicles started being up-armoured with mostly standardised kits that included double (spaced) side skirt armour, as well as minor frontal armour.
This trend continued during both battles to break the siege of Aleppo in July/August and October/November of 2016 as well, with some other shell vehicles employed as well.
The point that I’m trying to make here is that Jabhat al-Nusra/JFS was heavily focused on simply developing and standardising armour kits on their SVBIEDs. They were not developing more advanced environment-specific SVBIED designs such as those employed by IS. Keep that in mind as we move onto the primary subject of this article.
On October 28, 2016 – As the rebel coalition engaged in their second attempt at breaking the siege of Aleppo, the JFS contingent stationed in the besieged Eastern Aleppo city published a video in which they showcased an alleged arsenal of 40 up-armoured SVBIEDs.
The video itself included 8 separate shots of drivers standing next to their numbered SVBIEDs. However, most of the shots included so few visual details of the SVBIEDs that it was next to impossible to identify the shell vehicle used or whether they were separate vehicles at all.
Interestingly, all of the examples shown in the video were painted green – a fairly counterintuitive colour if anything. In these cases it was clear that JFS was not trying to emulate their urban operational surroundings. The colour of choice was instead rather symbolic. The SVBIEDs were painted green as a reference to the green buses used in the government’s surrender deals, which awaited residents of besieged Eastern Aleppo if the loyalists and their allies were to achieve a decisive victory.
The use of symbols when preparing SVBIEDs has been a feature of some examples employed by IS as well. I have previously written about the relatively rare phenomenon of IS adorning some of their up-armoured SVBIEDs with flowers as a form of religious reference.
The rebel coalition would eventually completely lose control of Eastern Aleppo city, through a series of surrender deals and subsequent evacuations in mid-December 2016. Even though a couple of SVBIEDs were reportedly used by JFS inside Eastern Aleppo during this process, it would appear that the JFS contingent in the area grossly misrepresented the number of SVBIEDs available to them in the video in order to appear stronger.
One of the green up-armored SVBIEDs shown in the October 28 JFS video was actually captured by loyalists in the Sheikh Saeed district of Eastern Aleppo on December 9, 2016.
During the first offensive that managed to break the siege temporarily in July/August 2016, one of the initial SVBIEDs used by JFS in their double SVBIED attack against al-Hikma school on the outskirts of SW Aleppo city was also painted green. However, as the vehicle had initially been manufactured as an improvised troop transport carrier, it is unclear whether or not it was painted green as a reference to the green buses, or if that was the vehicle’s original color when first manufactured.
The battles in and around Aleppo city during 2016 can be accurately described as one of the major tipping points in the Syrian civil War. The rebel groups, including JFS, invested almost all of their resources, vehicles, manpower, and dozens of SVBIEDs into repeated attempts at breaking the siege of Eastern Aleppo. The resulting losses were devastating, and indicated the direction the war was heading in. The opposition was no longer able to seize the initiative and advance during offensive operations for long periods of time before being stalled by the arrival of the Russian air force – something that had become all the more clear to JaN and the opposition since the arrival of the Russian air force in late 2015.
As of mid-February 2020, the remaining suburbs on the outskirts of Western Aleppo have been recaptured by loyalist forces, completing their control of the entire city.