Syrian Regime Advances In Aleppo; Russian Military Officer Killed In Action

February 3, 2016
Smoke rises after airstrikes by pro-Syrian government forces in Anadan city, about 10 kilometers away from the towns of Nubul and Zahraa, Northern Aleppo countryside, Syria February 3, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

Live Updates: The Syrian regime — backed by Russian airstrikes and foreign fighters from Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon — have made significant gains around Aleppo. This development comes as news is breaking that a Russian military officer has been killed in action somewhere in Syria.

The previous post in our Putin in Syria column can be found here.

Syrian Regime, Backed By Russian Airstrikes & Foreign Fighters, Wins Significant Victories In Aleppo Province

The Syrian regime has made significant advances today in Aleppo province, winning battles in multiple areas, breaking the rebel siege of several towns, and possibly encircling the city of Aleppo.

Meanwhile, SANA, the Syrian regime’s news/propaganda outlet, reports that the siege of two regime towns, both of which have long been surrounded by Syria rebels, has been broken:

Sources on the ground told SANA’s correspondent on Wednesday that Army and Armed Forces units operating in Aleppo’s northern countryside, in cooperation with groups of popular committees, broke the siege imposed on Nubbul and al-Zahra towns by terrorist organizations.

ِِArmy units advanced towards Dweir al-Zeitoun,Tal Jbeen and Hardanteen towns to which security and stability were restored on Tuesday.

Scores of terrorists were killed, most of them from Jabhat al-Nusra during the operations, some others fled away leaving arms and ammunition, while some of them turned themselves along with their arms to the army and the popular groups.

Army units completely cut off supply routes coming from the Turkish territories to terrorists fortified in Mayer town in a new advance leading to more victory.

Anything SANA writes needs to be verified, but in this case sources in the opposition confirm that the rebel siege of Nubbul and al-Zahra has been broken. 

The Telegraph reports that Aleppo may now be completely encircled by the Assad regime’s coalition of fighters:

Syrian government forces cut rebel supply lines to Aleppo under cover of Russian air power on Wednesday, in what could be a pivotal moment in the five-year war. 

After three days of intense fighting and aerial bombardment, regime forces, believed to include Iran-backed Shia militias, broke through to the formerly besieged regime enclaves of Nobul and Zahra. 

In so doing, they cut rebel-held eastern Aleppo off from outside help. With regime forces to the south and west and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant to the east, the part held by non-Isil rebels is now surrounded. 

By nightfall, rebel forces were mounting a final stand from a mile-long patch of territory north-east of Aleppo. But local media activists aid the opposition forces were on the verge of withdrawal, facing massive bombardment from Russian and regime air strikes. 

Syrian regime encircles Aleppo under Russian air power

Syrian government forces cut rebel supply lines to Aleppo under cover of Russian air power on Wednesday, in what could be a pivotal moment in the long civil war. After three days of intense fighting and aerial bombardment, regime forces, believed to include Iran-backed Shia militias, broke through to the formerly besieged regime enclaves of Nobul and Zahra.

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Feb 04, 2016 02:54 (GMT)

The United Nations says the Russian-backed campaign has killed hundreds of civilians, including three international aid workers, and has displaced thousands. Reuters reports:

“The U.N. has received reports of displacement of hundreds of households in north-east towns of Bayanoun, Hariyatan, Anadan, Hayan and Rityan of Syria following an unprecedented frequency of air strikes in the past two days,” a U.N. spokeswoman said in a statement to Reuters. 

— James Miller
Opposition Sources Claim Russian Officer Was In Fact Killed By FSA In Latakia With TOW

Following the news that Russian says one of their military officers has been killed in Syria, there are now reports from opposition sources that offer a slightly different, and more plausible account.

According to the Revolutionary Forces of Syria Media Office, the officer was in fact killed not by ISIS, but by the Free-Syrian-Army-aligned Northern Division in Latakia with a US-made TOW missile, not mortars.

This would make much more sense than an ISIS attack, given that the Russian Ministry of Defence said that the officer had been helping the Syrian army familiarize themselves with new hardware. Russian military equipment is being used by regime forces primarily in the Latakia and Aleppo regions, whereas it is hard to conceive of locations along the front with ISIS, at which Russian officers would be garrisoned for this purpose.

The Syrian Local Coordination Committees (LCC) give an even more specific locationMarj Khawkha in the Jabal al-Akrad (Kurd Mountain) area.

This is just outside the town of Salma, which was captured by the regime, supported by Russian forces, in January.

The presence of Russian troops in Salma has been verified by analyses of news reports from the town:

Identification of the Russian Ground Forces in Salma, Syria – (English)

We continue to identify the Russian servicemen which execute criminal orders of the Kremlin's regime in Syria. We have already caused butthurt to the Russian officials and media by the series of publications with the personal information about the Russian pilots bombing peaceful Syrian citizens.

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Feb 03, 2016 20:42 (GMT)

This makes it a very feasible area for a Russian officer to be killed in.

According to the LCC report, not one, but three Russian officers were killed, along with four officers of the Syrian army.  

We also note that another rebel group, Ahrar al-Sham, released this video today which purportedly shows them targeting a “gathering of officers in the village of Marj Khawkha near Salma” with unguided rockets and mortars:

However, there is one detail about this video that is easily missed — this is a very unique weapon that is featured in this video, one not produced in the Middle East.

Almost all of the weapons used by rebels have been captured from the Syrian regime. They are, then, Russian-made, like most of the arms in the Middle East, and ammunition is readily available as a result. This weapon, however, is different.

The rocket launcher in this video appears to be a Rak-12, a weapon that was manufactured in Croatia. The weapon is similar to the Chinese Type-63, often seen in use by both rebels and the Syria regime, but it uses different ammunition.

In 2013, before he joined The Interpreter, James Miller helped break the news that a series of Croatian weapons had landed into the hands of a newly-reorganized alliance of Syrian rebel groups. Those rebel groups appear to have been armed — and likely trained — by a foreign power, likely a collaboration of the American CIA, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. One of those weapons was the Rak-12:

EA WorldView – Home – Syria Exclusive: New Arms for Insurgents — The Case of the Croatian Multiple Rocket Launcher

A rebel spokesman shows off a new weapon, possibly a Croatian Rak-12 UPDATES: This weapon has been spotted several times on the battlefield. Scroll to the bottom for details. To date, most of the insurgent arsenal in Syria has been captured from the regime's army.

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Feb 04, 2016 02:03 (GMT)

Before he was editor for The Interpreter, now-editor-in-chief Michael Weiss wrote about how these weapons appeared to be coming either directly from Croatia or through Libya, bypassing a European Union arms embargo:

Who just started arming Syria rebels?

The Council of the European Union renewed its arms embargo on Syria this week by another three months, with the slight amendment to allow for "greater non-lethal support and technical assistance for the protection of civilians."

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Feb 04, 2016 02:11 (GMT)

But the ammunition for these weapons dried up in March of 2013, as the newly-formed rebel coalition captured large parts of Damascus province. The theory at the time was that Washington did not want the rebels to overthrow the regime, but instead wanted to facilitate a brokered peace.

That peace never came, and areas captured by those rebels were hit by the regime’s massive chemical weapons attack just five months later.

In the last year, Syrian rebels have been using TOW anti-tank missiles, provided by the United States and its allies. In December and January, however, the supply of those missiles appeared to have dried up, and the regime advanced. Now we are once again seeing both TOW missiles, and for the first time in a long time, evidence of Croatian weapons, in use by Syrian rebels who are, by all accounts, losing territory. 

James Miller, Pierre Vaux

Russian Military Officer Killed In Syria

The Russian state media outlet TASS, quoting an official in the Russian Ministry of Defence, reports that a Russian military officer has been killed in Syria (translated by The Interpreter):

As a result of a mortar attack by ISIS terrorists of a military garrison, where one of the units of the Syrian army is deployed, an officer received lethal wounds


The Russian military adviser was in Syria tasked with helping familiarise the Syrian Army with new weaponry supplied under existing international agreements on military-technical cooperation.

As we reported yesterday, Russian military equipment like the T-90 tank — and possibly Russian soldiers — have been reported to have taken place in front-line military operations as part of the Syrian regime’s new offensives in Aleppo province and elsewhere.

Regime Advances North Of Aleppo With Devastating Russian Air Support

air strikes Aleppo Azaz civilian casualties Hezbollah Iran Russian air strikes in Syria Russian military intervention in Syria Russian support for Bashar al Assad Shia militia Syria Syrian Civil War T-90s Turkey

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Feb 04, 2016 01:08 (GMT)

The TASS report did not mention where the Syrian military official was killed.

James Miller, Pierre Vaux