First of all, I would like to thank a number of people who assisted me with information, translations, geolocations, and footage for this article. These people include, among others; E_Of_Justice, John Marquee, Suheil al-Ghazi, Samir, Qalaat Al Mudiq, Danspiun, Jakub Janovsky, and Riseuprebel.
This is the first of a two part series covering the SVBIEDs used during the Aleppo offensives throughout 2016. This includes the South Aleppo offensive (April-June), the Mallah offensive (June), the first battle to break the siege (July-August) as well as the final battle to break the siege (October-November). This instalment will cover the first two; South Aleppo and Mallah, up until the siege of Aleppo was first implemented. The time, research, geolocating, and writing that went into this article was a very painstaking, granular, and difficult process, but simultaneously very rewarding.
This article should be seen as a continuation of a previous article I wrote about the SVBIEDs used in the 2015 Idlib offensive. In order to connect the two, this article will begin by providing some background information on the events that transpired following the conclusion of the 2015 Idlib offensive and leading up to the 2016 Aleppo offensives.
The fighting in and near Aleppo throughout 2016 was very different in nature compared to the Idlib offensive. While Jaish al-Fatah was able to choose targets freely and generally dictated the flow of the battle during the Idlib offensive, Aleppo was nothing like it. Everything from the venue of the fighting, to the disparity in terms of military force was stacked against the opposition. Despite this, the rebel coalition went head first against all odds and managed to achieve some remarkable feats. Still, they were always one step behind.
My previous article on the SVBIEDs used during the 2015 Idlib offensive concluded when the ‘Jaish al-Fatah‘ rebel coalition – having already reduced the loyalist Idlib salient to a knub – pushed it back even further Southwest from the Jisr al-Shughour area into Hama’s al-Ghab plains in July-August 2015, cementing opposition control over Idlib province in its entirety.
However, there were still a few pockets of loyalist control scattered across the province. With fighters and equipment freed up after the success of the Idlib offensive, Jaish al-Fatah’s attention turned toward Abu al-Duhur. Located 42km Southeast of Idlib city, this airbase had been besieged by opposition forces for almost 3 years. When a thick sandstorm swept in and enshrouded the area on September 7, Jabhat al-Nusra dispatched a sole up-armoured SVBIED. The pick-up truck detonated in the vicinity of the base, and repeated follow-up ground assaults resulted in the base falling days later.
Then there was Fuah & Kafrayya. This Shia-majority enclave, located directly Northeast of Idlib city, had been besieged since late March 2015 when Jaish al-Fatah captured the provincial capital. Since then, half-hearted attempts had been made by the rebels to seize the pocket. For example, the area was struck by Ahrar al-Sham RC-VBIEDs on both July 24 and August 10. With the success of the Abu al-Duhur offensive fresh in mind, a planned “final assault” on the Fuah & Kafrayya pocket was set in motion in mid-September. During a period of two days between September 18-19, the different Jaish al-Fatah factions employed a large number of up-armoured SVBIEDs and RC-VBIEDs (five are visually documented while some claim as many as nine) against the loyalist defensives surrounding the villages.
Despite these efforts, the rebels were not successful. It wasn’t until 2018 when the opposition gained control of the enclave, following a deal that resulted in its original residents being evacuated.
On the whole, the performance of Syrian loyalist forces during the first half of 2015 had been atrocious. The continuous routs, territorial losses, and mounting casualties were both embarrassing and a worrying signal of a strengthened and unified opposition. Fearing further rebel advances into loyalist heartlands from “Greater Idlib”, the Assad regime formally requested Russian military assistance in the form of air strikes and materiel at a meeting in July 2015. In the following months, Russian troops, tanks, artillery, naval warships, as well as airplanes were moved into the region in preparation for their entry into the conflict. The entry came on September 30, when Russian jets began assisting the Syrian air force, dropping bombs on various opposition targets. A week after the Russian intervention, their local allies and respective regional non-state auxiliaries (Hezbollah, Fatemiyoun, etc.) went on the offensive.
The location of the offensive was the Southern Aleppo countryside. Aleppo city had long been the site of exhausting urban warfare between loyalist and opposition forces. By mid-2013 the remaining loyalist foothold in the city almost looked unsustainable, with only a narrow stretch of isolated territory extending up into the city’s Western neighbourhoods opposite a secondary pocket to the Southeast.
However, their position steadily improved over the course of the following two years, eventually forming a belt reaching up and around the city to the West, essentially creating a rough yin-yang pattern of territorial control. Still, loyalist supply lines connecting their Aleppo contingent from the South were rather exposed. In seeking to improve their situation, loyalist forces and their allies thus commenced an offensive in the area in mid-October 2015. Under the cover of Russian air strikes, the advance quickly picked up speed. During the next month, loyalists would establish control over large parts of the South Aleppo countryside, expelling opposition forces from strongholds like al-Hader, al-Eis, and Khan Touman, simultaneously closing in on the M5 highway, which served as a rebel supply line to the Southwestern outskirts of Aleppo city.
The steady progress of the Russian-backed offensive in the Southern Aleppo countryside highlighted the opposition’s inability to come to terms with the new situation on the ground. Still, that’s not to say they folded completely. Throughout the loyalist offensive, rebel units continuously picked off dozens of advancing armoured vehicles using ATGMs, adding to the loyalist material and personnel cost.
In early December, the Jaish al-Fatah factions realised that something had to change. Copy-pasting the MO of the Idlib offensive onto Aleppo was not going to work. For one, the loyalist Idlib salient was massively exposed, which greatly facilitated the opposition’s offensive. Being the country’s most populous pre-war city, Aleppo was a different story altogether. The addition of Russian air support and military advisors, coupled with the thousands of foreign fighters that had supplemented local loyalist ranks from Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan, meant that the rebels were fighting from a heavily disadvantageous position to begin with. Loyalist forces were also heavily entrenched across the Aleppo region, with a large section of the city’s urban areas as well as an array of surrounding military bases under their control.
If Jaish al-Fatah was going to seize back any of the territory in Southern Aleppo they had just lost, their counteroffensive would have to be conducted with swiftness and efficiency. In early December 2015, a new tactic that embodied these concepts was implemented. It went something like this: First, elephant rocket (IRAM) volleys were fired at the target village. At the same time as the rockets were fired, the assault party was launched. These mechanised assault units would typically consist of a couple of BMP-1 armoured personnel carriers filled with infantry, with a tank in front of each column of troop carriers acting as cover and firing at the target site during the charge. As they advanced, artillery, mortars and technicals would provide cover fire for the armoured vehicles until they reached the target. This scenario played out repeatedly when Jaish al-Fatah recaptured Tel Bajir, Tel Mamu, and Banes in early December, all villages in the vicinity of Al-Eis.
After having captured Banes, an attempt was made to advance further. As part of a nighttime attack on December 8, A Turkish foreign fighter with Jabhat al-Nusra named “Younes al-Turki” detonated an SVBIED at a loyalist position near Al-Eis. However, this attack eventually failed. With only three villages seized back by the rebels, fighting cooled down.
At the same time as Jaish al-Fatah were trying to prevent loyalist forces from taking over more areas in South Aleppo, loyalists were probing opposition defences in the direction toward the besieged Nubl & Zahraa towns Northwest of Aleppo. A few weeks after the December 8 Al-Eis assault, another SVBIED attack by Jabhat al-Nusra struck advancing loyalist forces at Handarat who were attempting to lift the Nubl & Zahraa siege.
Here, it’s important to note that lifting the siege served two purposes for the loyalists. Lifting the siege would not only be a propaganda victory in terms of “rescuing Shiite villages”, but it would also close the most important rebel supply route stretching Southward from the Northern Aleppo countryside and Turkey to the opposition’s Aleppo city contingent. And that’s exactly what happened on February 3 2016, when loyalist forces – backed by intense Russian air strikes – broke the siege of Nubl/Zahraa, permanently closing the route.
The loyalist advance in Southern Aleppo and the lifting of the Nubl/Zahraa siege were extremely worrying developments for the opposition. Loyalists were now even more entrenched in Aleppo, and the opposition’s contingent in the Eastern part of the city was under increased threat of encirclement. Despite the odds being massively stacked against them, Jaish al-Fatah began preparing for an offensive. The rest of February and March passed without any real action. But as March transitioned into April, the real counteroffensive commenced
While most of the countryside in Southern Aleppo is relatively flat, there are a couple of elevated points that serve as strategically important outposts. Controlling these elevated points is crucial, as seizing high ground facilitates fire control over lower surrounding areas. With loyalist forces in control of Al-Eis, they were in reach of the M5 highway, and consequently threatened another major rebel supply route to the Southeastern outskirts of Aleppo. If Jaish al-Fatah were to recapture substantial amounts of territory in the countryside South of the city, it was essential to first take Al-Eis.
Talking about the preparations for the battle in a video released later in the year, Jabhat al-Nusra official Mukhtar al-Turki said that “There were three BMP [SVBIEDs] prepared, and four or five other [SVBIEDs], [based on] pick-up trucks and water tanker vehicles [prepared]”, finally exclaiming that “We wanted Al-Eis!”.
In the afternoon of April 1 2016, a large-scale Jaish al-Fatah offensive was commenced, with Al-Eis as the primary target. Another thing that stood out in Southern Aleppo compared to Idlib was the far greater utilisation of fortifications in the form of berms and trenches. As is illustrated in the below map, these fortifications – coupled with the extensive network of irrigation canals in the area – played a large role in deciding how the battle played out.
While the irrigation canals shielded Al-Eis from the Northeast and Southeast, multiple lines of fortifications – including large open fields – discouraged an advance from Tell Hidya or Banes. While the town of Al-Eis itself is not elevated, it is protected by large hills to the North and Northwest, as well as a hill to the South. The large hills to the Northwest (Jabal al-Eis & Tell al-Maqla) form the highest points of a ridge that slowly decreases in elevation as it extends further Northwest past Al-Hadaba al-Khadraa toward the M5 highway.
With this in mind, the staging area for the rebel offensive was placed at Al-Hadaba al-Khadraa. This location was the path of least resistance, as they didn’t have to cross open fields or face substantial fortifications along the way. Seeing as it was already located on the ridge leading to Tell al-Maqla and Jabal al-Eis as well, part of the loyalist elevation advantage was also negated.
The map below illustrates how SVBIEDs were employed during the battle of Al-Eis. For a higher quality image, see here or open the picture in a new tab.
After an initial barrage of artillery and mortar bombardment blanketed loyalist positions, the first up-armoured SVBIED was sent off by Jabhat al-Nusra toward loyalist lines. After leaving the staging area, the modified BMP-1 drove slightly South, before turning East up a hill toward a grouping of buildings located approximately one kilometre from the staging area. After reaching the target, the SVBIED detonated, razing multiple buildings to the ground.
Shortly after the first SVBIED detonated, a second modified BMP-1 was sent off. Instead of taking the same path up the ridge, the SVBIED went in a general Southeastern direction, entering a fenced in military position. However, when the driver found no exit on the other side, he detonated the vehicle’s main charge right by the Southeastern-most fence.
According to Jabhat al-Nusrsa, the driver of the first SVBIED was a local fighter with the nom de guerre “Abu Qatada al-Halabi”, while the second driver was a Saudi foreign fighter called “Abu Salamah al-Jazrawi”.
In the immediate aftermath of the initial two SVBIED detonations, columns of mechanised infantry were dispatched from the staging area. Under the cover of advancing tanks, a number of BMP-1s began shuttling fighters toward both points of detonation, as well as further up the ridge toward Tell al-Maqla in order to build off of the momentum.
Jaish al-Fatah fighters inside Tell al-Maqla on the evening of April 1, overlooking Al-Eis proper.
A rebel-operated drone filmed as two BMP-1s unloaded fighters next to the site of the second SVBIED blast. The crater, visible to the left in the below picture, indicated that the choice of target was likely a last-ditch attempt by the SVBIED driver of salvaging the explosive energy of his vehicle. It is likely that the driver – realizing that he was stuck inside the fenced area – attempted to punch a hole through the earth berm on the other side that formed the first line of fortifications around Al-Eis proper. This does not seem to have worked though.
While Jaish al-Fatah had gained a foothold further up the ridge toward Tell al-Maqla and progressed slowly through the initial Al-Eis fortifications, it was not an instantaneous and clear-cut victory. As day turned into night, loyalist forces still held Al-Eis. Using the pitch black night as cover, a third SVBIED, it too based on a modified BMP-1, was sent by Jabhat al-Nusra from Banes toward Al-Eis. In order to avoid striking a mine or getting stuck somewhere on the Banes/Al-Eis road (which was flanked by earth berms on both sides for most of the way), the SVBIED instead drove parallel to the road just South of it, detonating next to the berm just by the first line of fortifications.
Jabhat al-Nusra never released a picture or kunya of the third SVBIED driver, although there have been speculations. According to one contemporaneous source, the third driver was a German foreign fighter. And while it’s difficult to independently verify this claim, the lack of published identities of SVBIED drivers was a recurring thing during the entirety of the fighting in and around Aleppo throughout 2016.
But there are clues as to the recurring lack of published identities, both religious and personal in nature. Sometimes, suicide bombers object to having their identities published as they believe it would amount to “showing off”, detracting from an act that should (according to them) only be carried out for the sake of God. Others don’t consent to releasing their identities as it could potentially result in posthumous backlash toward the perpetrator’s family members. These reasons aren’t mutually exclusive though, and there might be other reasons for why as well.
By the morning of April 2, Jaish al-Fatah had taken control of large parts of Al-Eis and its surrounding hills, resulting in the withdrawal of the remaining loyalist fighters. With the area under opposition control, a number of other villages further Southeast – including Tell Bajir, Maryudah, and Makhalah – were also swooped up, widening the advance. Despite attempted loyalist counteroffensives against Al-Eis, they failed in taking it back.
A week after capturing Al-Eis, Jaish al-Fatah attempted another push further North along the loyalist territorial bulge in S. Aleppo, going after Khan Touman, Zitan and Birnah. While the Khan Touman offensive failed, some territory was acquired in the vicinity of the two latter villages, putting some distance between the M5 highway supply route and loyalist frontlines.
The below map illustrates where Jaish al-Fatah advanced in S. Aleppo during this time.
For the rest of April, there was largely a hiatus in fighting. With Al-Eis out of the equation, Jaish al-Fatah eyed Khan Touman as the next target on their South Aleppo territorial hit list. The failed assault on the town earlier in April had originated from the M5 highway area, and the attack only briefly managed to seize Khalidiya, the village adjacent to Khan Touman. In seeking not to replicate this mishap, Jaish al-Fatah rethought the battle plan entirely. On top of a similar assault via the M5-Khalidiyah route, a surprise attack would be incorporated.
The map below illustrates how the battle of Khan Touman was carried out, including attack vectors and the path of the lone SVBIED used. For a higher quality image, see here or open the image in a new tab.
On May 5, the reimagined plan was implemented. At the same time as a Jaish al-Fatah contingent advanced from the M5 highway and captured Khalidiyah, an SVBIED was sent off by Jabhat al-Nusra. The modified BMP-1, which had been up-armoured with side and frontal armour plates, was driven by a Syrian with the nom de guerre “Abu Jafar al-Deiri”.
But the SVBIED did not come from the same direction. The modified BMP-1 was first filmed driving through and exiting Aleppo city’s Rashideen neighborhood, heading Southward.
After exiting Rashideen, the up-armoured SVBIED passed through the rebel staging area – located on the side of the road just South of Rashideen – where tanks, BMP-1s, and fighters wearing purple identifying arm/headbands were waiting for the signal to launch their assault. As the vehicle drove by, fellow fighters cheered on as the suicide bomber raised his index finger in a final message of religious steadfastness.
This is when drone imagery picked up the path. The vehicle was filmed by a Jaish al-Fatah drone as it crossed through kilometers of nominally loyalist-held open terrain between Rashideen and Khan Touman. When the SVBIED entered the Northeast outskirts of Khan Touman, it was immediately fired upon by loyalist fighters, and after turning a corner, the vehicle detonated after being hit with what appeared to be an RPG round fired by one of the defenders.
The detonation of the up-armoured SVBIED was the “go” sign for the Jaish al-Fatah mechanised infantry waiting at the staging area. As tanks and BMP-1s advanced along the same route the SVBIED had taken, they initially progressed in a single file, before breaking up into two columns of BMP-1s shielded by tanks in the front, eventually dismounting on the edge of Khan Touman from two directions.
After a night of intense urban fighting throughout Khan Touman, loyalist forces ended up retreating by the next morning, allowing the rebels to advance through Khalidiyah to Khan Touman. Despite repeated Russian-backed loyalist attempts at recapturing the town in the following days, the Jaish al-Fatah contingent in the area held firm. With the capturing of Khan Touman, the rebels simultaneously advanced further South of the town, illustrated by the below map.
During the rest of May, Jaish al-Fatah consolidated their positions, while preparing to use their freshly gained territory as a springboard for further advances in the area. That day would come in early June.
It should be pointed out that throughout all of this fighting, even when there were no active offensives ongoing, rebel ATGM teams regularly took shots at loyalist positions, while Russian and Syrian air force jets bombarded areas that had been lost to the opposition, contributing to losses on both sides.
On June 3, the next stage of Jaish al-Fatah’s S. Aleppo offensive commenced. Rather than focusing on a single target, the rebels would push along a wide frontline stretching from North of Khan Touman down toward Humeyra. Far from being over in a day or two, this stage would last for almost three weeks, and constituted the final retributive offensive action mounted by the rebel coalition in the area. In order to better understand the flow of the offensive, the map below illustrates attack vectors during the offensive, as well as the locations of the SVBIEDs used during this time period. In order to view a better quality image, see here or open the image in a new tab.
The end goal of the June offensive was to seize back Khalsa. Other than Al-Eis, Khalsa was one of the only other elevated positions that held together the remaining loyalist defences in the area. It was thus imperative that it be brought under rebel control, if more territory was to be retaken.
As the orchestra of artillery, technicals and IRAM launches began sounding on June 3, Jaish al-Fatah went to work. In a coordinated effort, multiple contingents of mechanised infantry began advancing on loyalist positions across the frontline. The open terrain between Rashideen and Khan Touman – which had only been held by loyalists in name – was the first to change hands as Jaish al-Fatah pushed East of Khan Touman, seizing Maratah, its two adjacent military bases, putting them just five kilometres away from the rebel contingent in Eastern Aleppo city.
Just like with Al-Eis, the placement of irrigation canals, streams, ditches and berms played a large part in how the June offensive played out as well. It was necessary to first push East of Khan Touman before heading South, as extensive networks of waterways made a direct Eastward push further South around Zitan/Birnah untenable.
Curiously, the rebels also used the canals to their advantage in certain aspects. For example, units of Uzbek foreign fighters used a tunnel running under a canal West of Maratah as a staging area for their armoured vehicles and infantry prior to the start of the battle, better shielding them from Russian air strikes and artillery.
Having seized the area around Maratah, capturing the territory Southeast of Khan Touman was greatly facilitated. Despite being largely covered by canals and streams to the North and South – limiting the potential attack vectors – it fell without much of a hassle.
After crossing the water directly South of Khan Touman, the rebels went after Qarassi. Even though they managed to retake Tell Qarassi and establish a minor foothold in the town, it remained in loyalist hands for the time being. As one contingent was putting pressure on Qarassi, others pushed further South toward Humeyra. A Jabhat al-Nusra drone recorded as armoured vehicles and infantry advanced into the Northern parts of the village.
With Humeyra in the bag, it was time for the grand finale. In an effort to speed up the battle of Khalsa itself, Jaish al-Fatah sent off two up-armoured SVBIEDs. In footage released by Jabhat al-Nusra, the day’s prospective suicide bombers could be seen during their final pre-mission briefing. During the briefing, a commander, using satellite imagery of Khalsa, instructed them on their allocated targets and respective approach routes, saying: “You head from al-Humeyra village straight [South] until you reach the pine farm, after that you head left to reach a small farm, then right and continue to reach the mosque, and after the mosque you will see the [target]”.
The first to be sent off was a Syrian man with Jabhat al-Nusra called “Abu Ahmad al-Hamawi”. It’s possible that al-Hamawi was disabled, as footage published later showed him sitting in a wheelchair. The use of disabled fighters as SVBIED drivers is a widely documented phenomenon – particularly with IS – but to a lesser extent also with Jabhat al-Nusra.After being briefed, he drove an up-armoured SVBIED based on a BMP-1 toward a loyalist position in the middle of Khalsa.The attack appears to have been a success, as drone footage recorded following the detonation showed collapsed buildings, half a dozen destroyed pick-up trucks, and bodies strewn about the target site.
The follow-up attack was conducted by another Syrian man with Jabhat al-Nusra called “Abu Omar al-Raqqawi”. After saying goodbye to his fellow fighters, he piloted an up-armoured SVBIED based on a BVP-1 AMB-S – the ambulance variant of the BMP-1 that has a larger rear compartment – toward Khalsa. The shock and confusion that came with the first detonation allowed al-Raqqawi to reach even further, as he detonated his vehicle near the Southern edge of Khalsa.
Despite the two seemingly successful SVBIED attacks, Jaish al-Fatah failed in their quest to take control of the town. Regardless, the day had yielded substantial rewards for the rebel coalition. In the following days, loyalist forces would – as usual – carry out counteroffensives and conduct extensive punitive air strikes that yet again resulted in no territory being retaken.
Three days after the initial advance, on June 6, loyalists attempted another counteroffensive, this time in the Maratah area. Although they managed to briefly take control of the munitions storage facility South of Maratah, they were quickly beaten back after an SVBIED was dispatched in their direction. The SVBIED managed to detonate right next to a group of buildings at the entrance to the munitions storage facility that was supposedly acting as an IRGC staging area, causing immense destruction.
Although Ahrar al-Sham took responsibility, claiming that they carried out the attack using a “remote-controlled car bomb”, also known as an RC-VBIED, many claimed otherwise. Around the time of the attack, it was widely reported that the attack had in fact been an Ahrar al-Sham SVBIED attack, supposedly a first for the group. The attack had purportedly been carried out by an Ahrar al-Sham fighter called “Abu al-Harith”.
In the early years of the war, Ahrar al-Sham was well-known for its prolific use of RC-VBIEDs, but some allege that this has been used as a cover under which the group has actually carried out suicide bombings, a notion that has been widely debated over the years. The group’s “alleged” use of SVBIEDs was confirmed less than a year after this attack, when an Ahrar al-Sham SVBIED struck a loyalist position in Daraa in early April, 2017.
On June 9, Jaish al-Fatah mounted a new assault on the two objectives that had proven most difficult to crack; Qarassi & Khalsa. With cloud cover and rain reducing the effectiveness of Russian aerial superiority, a column of tanks and BMP-1s was sent off toward Qarassi following heavy artillery bombardment of the town. Eventually, the town would fall later during the day, leaving only one task to be crossed off the list.
Rebel fighters had been preparing for combat since the early morning hours, and had actually begun the assault on Khalsa at around the same time as the battle for Qarassi commenced. However, with the latter out of the question, all forces were directed toward Khalsa. For most of the day, heavy artillery bombardment, air strikes, and intense fighting resulted in slow progress.
At around 7 PM on June 9, Jabhat al-Nusra sent out another up-armoured SVBIED toward loyalist lines at Khalsa. The SVBIED, which was officially claimed by JaN, was also rumoured to have been driven by an Ahrar al-Sham fighter called “Ahmad Abu Dalal Asad”. Jabhat al-Nusra claiming the attack does not necessarily prevent the attack from having been carried out by an Ahrar al-Sham driver. JaN has regularly claimed attacks carried out by its subgroups, and it’s possible a similar structure regarding the sourcing of SVBIED drivers was implemented within the structure of Jaish al-Fatah.
The lack of a published identity from Jabhat al-Nusra might also hint to that, but it’s quite difficult to independently confirm it either way. At any rate, after approaching the village, the driver detonated his vehicle next to an isolated house on the road just West of the Northern tip of Khalsa.
However, the June 9 attack proved just as unsuccessful as the previous one six days earlier, with the follow-up armoured assault yielding no results. Still, it was difficult to look at the situation with negativity. Jaish al-Fatah had managed to swoop up substantial amounts of (strategically important) territory in less than a week, and were in a good position to continue the advance in due time. The below map illustrates the situation after the June 3-9 fighting.
If they were to even out the frontline, the rebels would have to capture Zitan and Birnah, linking up the advances at Al-Eis with Khan Touman. Seeing as irrigation canals and streams made a Northward approach from Al-Eis and and Eastward approach from the direction of the M5 highway highly difficult, a Southward approach via Khalsa was rendered crucial despite the difficulty in capturing it. Khalsa, with its slightly elevated position, also made sure a direct approach on Zitan and Birnah was incredibly difficult. Simply put, Jaish al-Fatah were – in a tactical sense – first required to seize Khalsa in order to be able to even out the frontline across the board.
Five days after the June 9 assault, on June 14, the final battle of Khalsa began. With artillery and mortars operating in sync with mechanised infantry comprised of tanks and BMP-1s (as well as a lone Humvee), the push was initiated.
While putting pressure on Khalsa itself, rebel mechanised infantry managed to circumvent the village and reach Southwest, briefly seizing Zitan and exposing Khalsa to attacks from the West. However, progress on Khalsa itself was limited.
The following day, a fourth up-armoured SVBIED was employed against the loyalist defences in Khalsa. According to a claim released by Jabhat al-Nusra, the driver was a Syrian man called “Abu Sayyef al-Homsi”. And while there were no statements or media releases that explicitly linked the name to a face, it was possible to determine that the below photo depicted him. The photo was part of a montage of other known SVBIED drivers who conducted attacks at Khalsa, which raised suspicions as he was also present at the pre-mission briefing prior to the June 3 double SVBIED attack, and the sole *unknown* person eulogised.
Incredibly, a twitter post that mistakenly attributed the June 6 attack East of Khan Touman to al-Homsi unintentionally corroborated the identity of the man in the picture. In a video uploaded during the siege of Homs in October 2012, a younger version of Abu Sayyef al-Homsi was seen talking to the camera.
Three and a half year later, Abu Sayyef would drive an up-armoured SVBIED based on a BVP-1 AMB-S and achieve a direct hit on a loyalist position on the Northern-most outskirts of Khalsa, obliterating the area entirely.
Afterwards, a rebel drone recorded as JaF tanks and armoured personnel carriers sped off towards the site of the detonation, with the smoke plume expanding and drifting off in the distance.
As Jaish al-Fatah units streamed into Khalsa, the damage inflicted by the SVBIED on the Northern edge of the village was exposed as a drone passed overhead. Every structure in the outpost had been flattened after the SVBIED detonated on the side of the road just next to the entrance.
By the end of the day, Jaish al-Fatah claimed to be in control of “the Northwest hill of Khalsa”, the most condensed area that constitutes 75% of the village. During the following days, rebels would continuously engage in urban fighting with the remainder of the loyalist fighters present in the village, inching closer to a complete takeover of the village by the hour.
On the 18th, the loyalists finally broke. As Jaish al-Fatah established complete control of Khalsa, loyalist contingents in Zitan and Birnah became incredibly exposed, forcing them to withdraw from these villages as well. As rebels rolled into Zitan and Birnah, they also advanced further South, reaching the outskirts of Al-Hader in the process. Thus, the JaF offensive in the countryside of Southern Aleppo was completed. In the span of a couple of months, they had managed to push back loyalist forces around 4 kilometers along their entire frontline with the M5 highway, extending the average distance between the M5 and loyalist frontlines from 3 to 7 kilometers, and seizing back more than 100 square kilometers of territory.
In a video celebrating their conquest of Khalsa, Jabhat al-Nusra proudly declared that four “martyrdom operations” had been used during the battle to take control of the town, and that “they had the largest role in its liberation”, highlighting the importance of the group’s employment of SVBIEDs.
The below map illustrates the areas Jaish al-Fatah brought under their control during the entire South Aleppo offensive, and in which order. The numeric order denotes order of capture, not a specific date, with the parenthesis indicating which month the areas were captured in.
On top of having pushed loyalists back from the M5 highway, partially relieving the threat they posed to an important rebel supply line to Aleppo city, Jaish al-Fatah had also positioned themselves very close to the rebel-held parts of E. Aleppo city after capturing Khan Touman, Maratah, and Qarassi. These areas in particular would prove essential in the following month, but for now the opposition had other, far more pressing problems.
During the latter stages of the rebel coalition’s offensive in S. Aleppo, loyalist forces had continuously poked at the rebel contingent manning the only supply line running into rebel-held E. Aleppo city. This supply line had been put under more pressure following the loyalist lifting of the Nubl/Zahraa siege in February 2016. If rebel defensive lines collapsed there, Eastern Aleppo would be besieged by loyalist forces.
With this in mind, the fight shifted to the Northern outskirts of Aleppo city, where an already complicated battle would turn nightmarish.
Despite the fact that the rebels in Eastern Aleppo city were not besieged, reaching them was fraught with danger. Although the territorial opening into the opposition’s enclave in the city itself was fairly wide, around 7 kilometres at some points, most of it was either open land, too close to impassable active frontlines, or blocked by the presence of the YPG-controlled Sheikh Maqsoud neighbourhood. The only real way in and out, the Castello road, had previously been used regularly by both militants resupplying their stocks and by civilians.
The rebels had a small foothold in the Northern outskirts of Aleppo city, with defensive positions just South of Castello road through Layramoun and Al-Resafa neighbourhoods. The Northern section of the rebel’s corridor into E. Aleppo was more complicated. There, the Mallah farms, a large semi-developed area in mostly flat open terrain, criss-crossed by a maze of trenches, berms, and already mostly destroyed by years of shelling, acted as the oppositions only defensive line against an encroaching loyalist threat.
Loyalist forces had attempted to advance in this area for a long time, but had been unsuccessful. The consistent failure to advance frustrated loyalist leadership deeply, and resulted in a change of strategy in the beginning of June, 2016. At the same time as Jaish al-Fatah mounted their last offensive push toward Khalsa in S. Aleppo, loyalist forces ramped up aerial attacks on Castello road. If they couldn’t physically impose a siege of Aleppo, they were going to implement a de facto one from the air.
The incessant loyalist and Russian air strikes, mortar, and sniper attacks that targeted Castello road effectively made it impossible to use, and civilians wishing to flee the confines of a city that faced daily barrel bomb attacks were faced with only bad choices. This is where Castello got its alternative name, “the road of death”, as opposition activist Mohamad Adeeb recounted for Reuters: “I saw death with my own eyes, with corpses lying on the way and dozens of trucks and civilian cars and bodies that none of the civil defense teams were able to recover because of the intensity of the shelling of the regime and Russian warplanes.”
The armed opposition also found themselves hamstrung by the new situation, and the de facto siege lit a fire under Jaish al-Fatah’s South Aleppo contingent. Just a week after the rebel coalition completed their South Aleppo offensive, on June 25, loyalist forces went on the offensive at Mallah. Having no time for consolidation or catching their breath, Jaish al-Fatah was forced to send reinforcements North in order to supplement the existing rebel contingent in the area. Not only were the rebels one step behind loyalist forces, but they would now also have to throw everything they had into a defensive posture on a very exposed frontline in order to prevent loyalist forces from physically laying siege to E. Aleppo city. And it would take its toll.
The below map is an attempt at illustrating where Jaish al-Fatah employed SVBIEDs during this time, as well as how loyalist forces successively advanced South in order to link up with their Aleppo city contingent in order to finalise the physical siege. For a better quality image, press here or open the image in a new tab.
In the first few days of the loyalist push at Mallah, rebel positions were blanketed with hundreds of Russian air strikes. And while the rebels initially managed to hold the line, loyalists soon began advancing South toward Castello Road. It also didn’t help that the loyalist-held areas directly Northeast of Mallah were sat on an elevated position, allowing them to fire down on rebel-held areas at will. By June 28th, loyalists had approached Arab al-Salloum and were inching on the edge of the Southern Mallah farms, allowing their artillery pieces to properly get a fix on the road itself.
The following day, Jabhat al-Nusra sent off their first SVBIED of the campaign. The driver, a Syrian man called “Abu al-Mundhir al-Hamawi” was filmed delivering his goodbye speech next to his modified BMP-1 in the vehicle’s forward hide site. It’s likely that al-Hamawi was disabled as a result of injuries sustained during fighting, as another individual removed a crutch from the roof of the BMP-1 as al-Hamawi was climbing in through the top hatch.
Equipping SVBIED drivers with AK-pattern rifles might sound like a pointless detail given the end goal of his mission, but this is consistently done by both Jabhat al-Nusra (later HTS), as well as by IS. On top of being fitted with a suicide belt, the rifle is meant to provide the driver with another means of attack (read: death) in case the vehicle fails to detonate (e.g faulty wiring) or is disabled before reaching the intended point of detonation.
The detonation of the vehicle was filmed from quite far away, from a location that was geolocated to within Kafr Hamrah, a town Southwest of Mallah.
By using specific points of reference in the footage, a specific line of sight was drawn from the filming location in the direction of where the blast originated. By using historical satellite imagery and analysing the line of sight, a likely location was found along the line of sight, just on the frontlines at Mallah. While the lack of accurate audio in the video itself prevented an accurate measuring of the distance between the two points, this location is a very good candidate.
When attempting to geolocate the exact site of an SVBIED detonation, footage of the blast is key. If that doesn’t provide enough details, one relies almost entirely on analysing historical satellite imagery from around the time the attack was claimed. With Aleppo, the closer you get to the city, the more destroyed the areas are, which makes identifying SVBIED blast signatures all the more difficult.
However, there are some signature details that differentiate SVBIEDs from other detonations such as air strikes, artillery, etc. Size-wise, an SVBIED can only be matched by an air strike. So, a large crater is usually either of the two. SVBIEDs usually have more extensive lateral destruction shooting out from all sides though, and often quite large dust marks in their vicinity in the immediate aftermath as a result of the large smoke plumes.
In the following days, loyalists at Mallah expanded their control in the Arab al-Salloum area, while their forces in Aleppo proper were preparing an assault on rebel forces who were clinging on to the outskirts of Leyramoun and al-Resafa neighbourhoods. After a limited loyalist push between the two neighbourhoods towards Castello road resulted in marginal gains, Jabhat al-Nusra dispatched an SVBIED in the area in order to stem the advance of their opponents.
Attempting to draw forces away from the area where Castello road inched closest to to loyalist frontlines, the target of the SVBIED was chosen more to the East. Diverting from the standardised employment of SVBIEDs based on BMP-1s, Jabhat al-Nusra would this time use what looked like an up-armoured flatbed truck.
The driver, a disabled Saudi foreign fighter named “Abo Moaz al-Jazrawi”, briefly spoke to the camera while sat in a different vehicle, after which he – donning a suicide belt – was lifted from his wheelchair into the up-armoured SVBIED.
Heading out from the forward hide site, al-Jazrawi approached the target – a loyalist position called “Shabeeb factory” – and managed to achieve a direct hit by detonating the vehicle right next to the building, which resulted in a massive explosion.
The blast was filmed in a Southeastern direction, with the target building geolocated to the Western edge of Aleppo city’s Al-Resafa neighbourhood, located exactly on the frontline. Despite a follow-up infantry assault resulted in the building being seized, the overall attack was largely symbolic in nature as it changed nothing.
Back at Mallah, loyalist forces were on the move again. After realising that they faced the most resistance when attempting to advance Westwards into opposition-held Mallah, they simply chose to bypass it entirely. While still putting pressure on rebel-held Mallah, loyalists advanced South around it, capturing the Southern Mallah farms entirely by July 7. This area, which overlooked Castello Road from just a kilometre away, reinforced the de facto siege and made the journey in and out of Aleppo via Castello road a suicide mission.
Two days later, on June 9, Jaish al-Fatah commenced a counteroffensive in the area. However, instead of facing the loyalist contingent at the Southern Mallah farms head on, the push came further North at Mallah in an attempt to disrupt the loyalist advance and force a withdrawal.
As usual, Jabhat al-Nusra would provide the counteroffensive with a bang, in the form of two up-armoured SVBIEDs. The first vehicle was a BMP-1 driven by a Syrian man called “Abu Dujana al-Shami”. Interestingly, it appears that Jabhat al-Nusra themselves recognised that a de facto siege had already been implemented at this point, noting in their written claim of the attacks that “the battle to break the siege on the city of Aleppo began with two martyrdom operations […]”.
As the SVBIED approached its target, the Jaish al-Fatah support units suppressed the general target area using anti-aircraft technicals, mortars, and tank shells, while the mechanised infantry was getting ready. Shortly afterwards, al-Shami initiated his vehicle’s main charge, setting off a massive detonation. A video released by Jabhat al-Nusra months later actually included a brief clip that showed al-Shami’s July 9 SVBIED detonating on its target, a building just along the Northern Mallah frontline. Although the footage itself was desaturated, it was possible to geolocate the area it was filmed from (the Eastern outskirts of Haritan looking Southeast toward Mallah) and thus draw a narrow line of sight in the direction of the blast.
After the vehicle detonated, the armoured vehicles began rolling in the direction of the smoke plume. As they approached the frontline, footage from a JaN-operated drone showed multiple BMP-1s shuttling fighters toward a bombed out block of houses while tanks fired at fleeing loyalist fighters. Interestingly, this drone simultaneously captured the exact detonation site of the day’s first SVBIED. Smoke could be seen emanating from a collapsed house in the centre of the second image below, indicating it had just been hit by something. By comparing historical satellite imagery it was possible to determine that it had indeed been hit by an SVBIED, with the resulting crater visible on the road. By using the line of sight from the desaturated JaN footage, it was possible to confirm that it showed the first July 9 SVBIED.
On a side note, the small smoke ring shooting off from the main smoke plume is an extremely rare event that sometimes happens when SVBIEDs detonate. Although this has almost never been documented in Syria, multiple instances were photographed during the battle of Mosul.
Either way, Jaish al-Fatah would engage in intense fighting in this area for some time, and would actually make some advances. Footage from the initial advance illustrated the human toll the Mallah endeavour took on Jaish al-Fatah’s ranks, as a group of fighters running along an earth berm were struck by mortar shells. The use of artillery and mortars was extensive during these offensives, turning some areas into moon-like barren wastelands.
As the sun set the evening of July 9, a second SVBIED would be dispatched in an effort to build off of the limited gains they had made earlier during the day. Although Jabhat al-Nusra didn’t release an identity of or footage showing the blast, the latter was captured on video by a team of pro-opposition activists covering the battle. The location from where they were filming was geolocated to the Northeastern outskirts of Kafr Hamrah, also looking in the direction of Mallah.
By measuring the time between when the SVBIED detonation is first visible in the video and when the sound of the detonation is heard, it was possible to calculate an approximate distance (around 4000 metres). Combining that with the line of sight, it was possible to locate the site where the vehicle likely detonated, a field further Northeast toward the loyalist-held areas of Mallah, in the vicinity of the most fortified position in the area. It’s possible that the SVBIED was detonated by loyalist fire as it approached the target.
At the end of the day, Jaish al-Fatah only made minor territorial gains, and the two SVBIEDs used during the day had little to no effect at all in terms of “breaking the siege”. The loyalists, on the other hand, continued advancing South and reached Castello Road on July 9, further bypassing most of the heavy fighting taking place at Mallah.
Ten days later, on July 19, another loyalist push expanded their control South of Mallah, putting them at the doorsteps of Wadi al-Kabirah as well as reaching Westward until the Eastern outskirts of Kafr Hamrah, further cementing Jaish al-Fatah’s inability to prevent a physical implementation of the de facto siege. On the same day, Jaish al-Fatah carried out yet another fruitless offensive at Mallah, in complete disregard of what was taking place further South near Castello road.
A day later, on July 20, the final SVBIED of the campaign would be employed. The attack, which was carried out by Jabhat al-Nusra, utilised a modified BMP-1 as shell vehicle. No footage of the vehicle or the detonation was released, and the identity of the driver was also withheld. Still, unofficial footage of the resulting smoke plume was published online.
Another picture of the smoke plume taken from the same angle was geolocated, showing that it was taken from the outskirts of Haritan, pointing towards Mallah. And although historical satellite imagery was analysed along the line of sight, no clear candidates were located. The territorial progress map for Mallah has a provisional mark denoting the July 20 SVBIED, which was placed approximately along the contemporaneous frontline.
During fighting on July 20, Jaish al-Fatah also lost a number of armoured vehicles, which were captured by loyalist forces in Mallah. By this point, all hope was lost. A de facto siege of Aleppo through aerial assaults had been in effect for almost two months, and every time loyalists moved closer to Castello road it became easier to target it with artillery and mortars as well. After almost a week of consolidation, the final move was implemented. As the loyalist contingent in Aleppo city advanced North through Khalidiyah neighbourhood, the Mallah contingent crossed Castello road and reached for Sheikh Maqsoud. With the YPG-controlled enclave facilitating the final stage, loyalists took over the entire Al-Resafa neighbourhood, linking up the two contingents and realising the physical siege of Eastern Aleppo city.
But as rebels North of Aleppo city, exhausted from a month of gruelling warfare at Mallah, withdrew from their last remaining areas just before the loyalists laid siege to Eastern Aleppo on July 27, few could have imagined that the siege would only last for ten days.
During the South Aleppo (April-June) and Mallah (June-July) offensives in 2016, Jaish al-Fatah employed a total of fourteen up-armoured SVBIEDs (nine and four respectively). In Southern Aleppo, as part of a multi-stage retributive (and preparatory) offensive across the countryside that specifically targeted elevated positions and loyalist strongholds, and in Mallah as part of a doomed effort to prevent a physical siege from being imposed on Eastern Aleppo city.
As usual, Jabhat al-Nusra was the main actor responsible for the use of SVBIEDs during this time period, with 13 out of 14 attacks (93%) attributed to them. The other attack was perpetrated by Ahrar al-Sham. Although it was not possible to establish which group the driver of the June 9 Khalsa SVBIED belonged to, it’s possible he too was an Ahrar al-Sham fighter.
The inter-group dynamics and logistics that goes into these SVBIED attacks can be quite intricate at times, as was illustrated in my previous article on the SVBIEDs of the 2015 Idlib offensive:
Traditionally, groups like Jabhat al-Nusra have utilised an arbitrary waiting list for prospective SVBIED drivers, sometimes requiring people to wait between one and two years before it was their time. In practice, this functioned more like a lottery for those on the top of the list. A driver could be chosen one day for a mission, but discarded for the next attack if the one he was chosen for was never launched.
In the case of Abu Qaswara, the Saudi foreign fighter with Jabhat al-Nusra in “Dugma: The Button”, his attack was aborted due to a blocked road. Despite not being chosen for the next attack, he was contacted by Abdullah al-Muhaysini (who supervised Jaish al-Fatah), and was asked to conduct an attack using the abandoned up-armoured SVBIED on the perimeter of the Jisr al-Shughour hospital. Jisr al-Shughour was TIP’s responsibility, but when they failed to complete an attack using one of Jabhat al-Nusra’s creations, one of JaN’s own men (Abu Qaswara) was called upon.
So, to summarise; Within Jaish al-Fatah there are (were) three major groups employing SVBIEDs in battle. In descending order of importance, these were Jabhat al-Nusra, TIP, and Jund al-Aqsa. The difference in size between these groups (along with the uneven distribution of resources that came with it) meant that they were restricted in terms of how many attacks they could reasonably carry out. The availability of proper shell vehicles, explosives, and manufacturing expertise all played into this. Being the largest group among the three, Jabhat al-Nusra would teach units of the other two about SVBIED manufacturing, and within the framework of Jaish al-Fatah occasionally provide them with pre-made SVBIEDs if required.
Regarding the chauffeurs, they didn’t always belong to the group taking responsibility for the attack. In the case of Ahrar al-Sham, they would sometimes carry out SVBIED attacks while claiming they were RC-VBIEDs. But this was still within the framework of their own group. In other cases, such as the June 9 Khalsa attack, it’s possible an Ahrar al-Sham fighter conducted the attack on behalf of Jabhat al-Nusra. This is actually not far-fetched, as Jabhat al-Nusra (and later HTS) habitually claim every single attack, even those where the vehicle is driven by fighters belonging to other groups, such as Katibat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad and Harakat Muhajirin Ahl-Sunnat.
As for the origins of the drivers, most were Syrian. Even though all identities weren’t released by Jabhat al-Nusra, they were kind enough to release an infographic months later which detailed the origins of all SVBIED drivers during the S. Aleppo and Mallah offensives. Out of the 13 SVBIED attacks claimed by Jabhat al-Nusra, only nine identities were originally released. Out of those, seven were Syrian nationals while the other two were Saudis. The infographic puts the number of foreigners to three though, which gives more credence to the rumour of the third Al-EIS attack being carried out by a German. With the help of the infographic we can thus put the number of domestic drivers to 10, which means Syrians carried out at least 77% of Jabhat al-Nusra’s SVBIED attacks between April-July 2016.
When looking at the shell vehicles, it’s difficult to draw clear conclusions based on the available footage, as the SVBIEDs themselves were only visually documented in half (7) of the attacks carried out between April-July. However, out of the visually documented cases, the overwhelming majority (6 out of 7, or 86%) were based on BMP-1 armoured personnel carrier variants. This was an increase compared to the Idlib offensive, where 8 out of 11 ( or 72%) of all visually documented SVBIEDs were based on BMP-1s. However, the infographic points to most of the unobserved SVBIEDs during April-July 2016 being based on BMP-1s as well.
The biggest difference compared to the Idlib offensive was how most of the visually documented BMP-1 SVBIEDs had received armour kits covering the sides and front of the vehicle, a telltale sign of both the dramatically increased ferocity of the battles in Aleppo, as well as an initial move toward standardisation on the part of the manufacturing teams.
Another interesting development took place as well. Although the main charge of the vehicles was not documented in any case, it’s quite clear that something changed in certain cases. The June 6 attack, as well as the June 9 & June 29 attacks, all exhibited signs of an alteration in the composition of the main charge. While it could be seen most clearly with the June 6 attack, it was quite clear across the board. As the vehicles detonated, bright white sparks with smoke trails shot off.
According to Scott Stewart, it’s possible that the rebels incorporated pieces of unexploded ordnance from Russian air strikes that included white phosphorous. Others theorised that the effect may have been the result of thermite or remnants from incendiary devises incorporated into the main charge.
The way an SVBIED behaves as it detonates can usually tell you a little bit about the composition of the main charge. For example, a frequently observed phenomenon is a “rain” of small orange particles, which signifies the presence of of aluminium powder/paste (ammonal). This was quite clear with the third Al-Eis SVBIED, especially on the drone footage of the blast.
If you paid attention to my previous article on the SVBIEDs of the 2015 Idlib offensive, you might remember that attacks that were planned as suicide bombings regularly turned into parked VBIEDs, where the drivers of the vehicles were able to reach their targets, park the VBIEDs, and retreat back to safety. Some drivers would even carry out multiple parked VBIED attacks before an attack necessitated them physically pressing the button.
However, there is not a single reported case of a parked VBIED attack during the entirety of the South Aleppo or Mallah offensives. This is another indicator of the severity and difficulty of the fighting in Aleppo compared to Idlib. Despite Jaish al-Fatah’s success in recapturing some of their lost territory in the South Aleppo countryside, Mallah was a sign of things to come. The Mallah offensive was the first time Jabhat al-Nusra began employing multiple SVBIEDs in a defensive posture, a situation that would become more and more common afterwards, eventually culminating in the 2019-2020 Greater Idlib offensive.
However, the fighting in Aleppo was not done for the year just yet. Jaish al-Fatah still had cards up their sleeves, one of which they would reveal just days after loyalist forces implemented the siege of Eastern Aleppo. The rebel coalition was going to break the siege, but from a different direction.
In the next and final instalment of this article series, I will finish the story of Aleppo by covering the first battle to break the siege (July-August ’16), the final battle to break the siege (October-November ’16), as well as detail how fighting for the city ended.
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