Late on January 15, pro-government forces, led by the 25th Special Mission Forces Division, resumed their offensive operations in Greater Idlib. Since then, they have taken control of several villages including Barsah, Nouhiya, Tell Khatrah, and Khirbat Dawud, west of the Abu al-Duhur airbase. The airbase liberated in January 2018 became a useful foothold for army units operating in the area.
On January 16, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham launched a counter-offensive recapturing Abu Jurf. However, it was not able to deliver any notable blow to the advancing government troops.
The ground operation followed the resumption of airstrikes on weapon depots and fortified positions of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda) and other radical groups. On January 15, the Syrian Air Force bombed the industrial zone and the al-Hal area of Idlib city-destroying multiple vehicles and several buildings. Airstrikes were also reported near Ma`arat al-Nu`man, Ma’ar Shoreen, Tell Kersyan and other areas along the M5 highway. Over 20 airstrikes hit targets in the southwest of Aleppo city that recently became the target of regular shelling from Turkish-backed militant groups. The especially intense shelling took place on January 16, with more than two dozen rockets pounding the city.
Pro-government sources speculate that southwestern Aleppo will become the target of the large-scale army offensive. Meanwhile, the army is obliterating salient militant positions on the frontline east of the M5 highway. This is needed to ease future military efforts to retake the highway from the radicals and liberate Maarat al-Numan, Khan al-Sobol, and Saraqib. The developments of the last two years demonstrated that despite any ceasefire and de-escalation agreements, the highway will remain closed as long as militants control these three towns.
Turkey and Russia also seem to be preparing for a new round of violence in Greater Idlib. Turkish Minister Hulusi Akar said on January 15 that Ankara and Moscow were in talks to establish a “security zone” to allow civilians to take shelter during the winter. He claimed that the reason is that civilians do not want to go to government-controlled areas. Pro-Damascus sources say that al-Qaeda-linked militants just sabotage the exit of civilians via humanitarian corridors, just under the nose of Turkish observation points.
On January 15, ISIS cells ambushed a group of Republican Guard troops in southern Deir Ezzor. The terrorists destroyed a BRDM-2 vehicle and a mini truck and killed at least 9 soldiers. Earlier on the same day, the Israeli Air Force carried out a strike on the T4 airport in Homs province. The Syrian Air Defense reportedly intercepted several missiles, but at least 4 of them hit the target.
The T4 airport is the base for Iranian-backed operations against ISIS the central part of Syria as well as hosts Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles.