Operation to Help Daraa and the broader Jihadi landscape in North Latakia

Dera’ya Destek Operasyonu (meaning “Operation to Help Daraa”) is the name given to a July 9, 2018 attack on Assad regime held positions in Northern Latakia by Fursanu al-Iman or “Knights of Faith” (Fursan’ul İman in Turkish and فرسان الإيمان in Arabic), a small and relatively unheard of Turkmen group. Fursanu al-Iman have been active on social media since at least late May (their now deleted or removed Telegram channel was created on May 29 of this year), yet this appears to be their first significant military engagement. A 9:49 length video was released by the group documenting the Operation, which claimed to have caused 80 Assad regime causalities, with 9 Officers killed and a Lieutenant captured. Jihadi group Ansar al-Islam have also used this same title to refer to this Operation, which they also took part in.

It is my intention in this article to examine details regarding this Operation, including, motivations, goals, factions involved and weapons used, as well as give a brief overview of rebel groups active in the area with a focus on the Jihadi ecosystem in North Latakia as it stands in 2018.

Background

The military situation in Daraa around the time of the raid, showing the advance of the Russian-backed Assad regime assault

The title of the Operation refers to the Assad regime’s assault on the Southern de-escalation zone, which was made up primarily of Daraa governorate but also included parts of Quneitra and al-Suwayda. After a long period of relative calm, clashes began to intensify in late May, and after a significant and prolonged build-up of Assad regime forces and associated militias, a pitched battle began on June 18, 2018. The guarantors of the Southern de-escalation zone failed to either restrain the Assad regime’s flagrant violations or aid the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army forces that were under attack; the United States and Jordan refused to intervene, while the Russian Federation militarily intervened on the side of the Assad regime with its Air Force and Military Police. Despite the US State Department releasing a statement before the assault began in earnest claiming that they would “take firm and appropriate measures” in response to an Assad regime military offensive on the South, this rhetoric proved to be hollow. After the attack had commenced the US released another statement to Southern Front rebels that was summed up by an Opposition Commander as “in other words, they are saying you’re on your own.” The result was yet another de-escalation zone was taken over by a joint Assad regime and Russian offensive as had happened beforehand in Homs and Eastern Ghouta, leaving Idlib the only de-escalation zone left. Important to note is that the de-escalation agreement dynamics are radically different in the North and South of Syria — while the Southern agreements were worked out between the United States, Jordan and Russia, in the North the agreements were negotiated between Turkey and Russia and involve Turkish Army troops on the ground.


The logos of the three groups involved in the Operation

The three factions related to Operation to Help Daraa are the following:

  • Ansar al-Islam: A Jihadi group known to have Iraqi Kurdish among them
  • Fursanu al-Iman: A Syrian Turkmen group of 160 special forces that identifies as part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA)
  • Islam Dagi Taburu: A Syrian Turkmen Sunni Jihadi group
Islam Dagi Taburu propaganda images released in late April and early May 2018 (the group do not seem to have released its own unique propaganda of their involvement in the Operation)
Ansar al-Islam propaganda of their part of the Operation the day before Fursanu al-Iman from Shawwal 24, 1439 ( June 8, 2018)
Fursanu al-Iman propaganda images show a handgun and a PKM used during the Operation

The Operation

The first images related to this Operation to surface were published by Ansar al-Islam, a group that has long fought on several Northern Syrian fronts, including taking part in the Battle of Aleppo and manning ribat points in Hama. These images showed the group raiding a regime camp and setting fire to buildings and vehicles, as well as showing them seizing a POW and displaying several KIA regime militia members. Ansar al-Islam mention both Fursanu al-Iman and “Mujahideen [of] Mount Turkman” (مجاهدي جبل التركمان) as also being involved. This latter group was confirmed to Turkish Syria analyst Ömer Özkizilcik as being Islam Dagi Taburu, who have long been active in the Jabal al-Turkmen region. The equipment and tactics used by the groups involved are notable, and make it possible that they were trained by Malhama Tactical, a small organization of military instructors who provide training to Jihadi extremist groups — according to its Abu Salman Belarus (who claims to be the group’s Commander) who I was able to talk to in direct messages, Malhama Tactical has “almost 10 members.”

Fursanu al-Iman footage

Video details that appear at the start of the footage including the location, date, groups involved and the Operation's objectives (“ The target: to storm 13 Assad [regime] points”)
Footage shows Fursanu al-Iman preparing for the Operation in what appears to be the early morning
Footage shows Fursanu al-Iman marching through forests in order to advance on Assad regime positions
A Fursanu al-Iman member equipped with an AKM that has a suppressor attached
The Fursanu al-Iman member behind the person in front carries what could possibly be an RPO-A Shmel, an RPG-27, or an RShG-1 on their back
This unusual rifle not usually seen in Syria is shown in the video—it could possibly be an AKU-94, a bullpup conversion/modification of a Kalashnikov rifle
The Fursanu al-Iman fighter on the left is likely holding an RPG-26
M1938 mortars appear to have been used at the beginning of the Operation
A multiple grenade launcher (MGL) is used extensively during the Operation
A Fursanu al-Iman fighter making use of a grenade
A Fursanu al-Iman fighter using a Kalashnikov with a scope attached (possibly an Aimpoint Pro or clone)
A Fursanu al-Iman attacking an Assad regime position with body armor scattered around it
Assad regime weapons including several PKMs, smartphones, wallets and ID cards are displayed in a room full of ghanima
Notable among the ghanima seized from the Assad regime forces during the Operation was a Kornet ATGM
Statistics from Operation to Help Daraa (left) and statistics from Operations since January 2018 (right)
Total mujahideen and Assad regime militia casualties after the Operation when regime militia killed in sniper operations since January 2018 are added, making clear that for each mujahideen loss, 13 regime militia were killed
Evidence of Assad regime losses is shown from social media such as Facebook
Assad regime ID cards are also shown as evidence of regime losses
Fursanu al-Iman burn several Assad regime positions using gasoline

Ansar al-Islam footage

Near the beginning of the Ansar al-Islam footage, a fighter is seen carrying an Iraqi Tabuk Sniper Rifle with a suppressor and a bulky scope, possibly a Pulsar Apex XD75 thermal imaging riflescope
Ansar al-Islam fighters are seen traveling through forests en route to Assad regime positions
Ansar al-Islam fighters are seen in the footage planning attacks using both old fashioned and modern methods
The footage is broken into 3 sections
The last moments of an Ansar al-Islam fighter who was martyred during the Operation are shown from several angles, including a cam worn by the fighter himself
Ansar al-Islam mortars are used in the mountainous terrain
As in the Fursanu al-Iman footage, Ansar al-Islam fighters are seen extensively burning down regime positions
Ansar al-Islam fighters are seen traveling on roads and even stopping to celebrate the Operation unmolested by the regime
As in the Fursanu al-Iman footage, the same ghanima is seen here in the Ansar al-Islam footage
Statistics for the ghanima seized in the Operation are provided

Similar recent Operations

Jihadi and FSA groups confirmed active in the Northern Latakia region in 2018 (masked icon on the top right of a logo indicates the group has been legally designated as a terrorist organization by a Western country such as Canada, the US or the UK)

The Northern Latakia front is the scene of many clashes and has been fertile ground for many similar attacks by radical groups this year, in addition to attacks by mainstream FSA groups and Islamists including ATGM strikes by 1st and 2nd Coastal Divisions, Grad shelling by Syrian Liberation Front, a raid by Jaysh al-Ahrar, and an exceptional drone attack attributed to the Free Alawite Movement by Opposition media. These attacks have largely continued despite the fact that a Turkish Army observation point was established in the Zaytouna area on April 4, 2018, part of the Astana agreement negotiated between Russia and Turkey.

Historically throughout the conflict, the area has hosted many micro-Jihadi groups, which have been primarily documented by Syria analyst Joanna Paraszczuk — possibly the only indispensable analyst working on Syria. These groups are usually formed around charismatic Islamist figures from the Russian Federation, an example being Tarkhan’s Jamaat (also known as Katibat İbad Ar-Rahman). Once recognizable group Ajnad al-Kavkaz, known for its well planned attacks on various fronts such as Northern Latakia and for its association with Malhama Tactical, suspended operations in late 2017. Despite appearing to be a typical Jihahi group, Syria analyst Levent Kemal has confirmed that one of the groups involved in Operation to Help Daraa, Fursanu al-Iman, identifies as part of the FSA. Similarly, other small active groups in the area that seem to have a straightforward Islamist or even Jihadi orientation such as 2nd Liwa Sultan Abdulhamid also describe themselves as FSA.


An Abu Amara Special Task Force statement from Telegram

Abu Amara Special Task Force carried out a covert attack on January 10 at an Assad regime ammo depot near the Broadcasting Station at Slinfah (prior to the establishment of the Turkish Army observation point at Zaytouna). This was after planting an improvised explosive device leading to 20 killed. It is mentioned that the depot is within a security zone as it overlooks Hmeimim Air Base used by the Russian Air Force.


Guardians of the Religion Organization propaganda images describing “Clashes with the Nusary [Assad regime] army inside their positions” (left and center) as well as a screenshot from footage they released showing the use of a suppressor attached to a Kalashnikov (right)

Organization of Guardians of the Religion (Tanzim Houras al-Deen), an al- Qaeda linked group, carried out a raid at Ard Alwata, Latakia on Ramadan 17, 1439 (June 1, 2018). Footage associated with the raid shows tactical training as well as the use of a Soviet AGS-17 Plamya [АГС-17 Пламя] automatic grenade launcher — a type of weapon also seen in use by Malhama Tactical.

Tactical training in the Organization of Guardians of the Religion footage that is reminiscent of training done by Malhama Tactical
The AGS-17 Plamya as seen in the Organization of Guardians of the Religion footage (left and center), and a Malhama Tactical propaganda image from late 2017 showing the same weapon type being operated (right)
From the footage, an Organization of Guardians of the Religion fighter is seen with what is likely an RPG-22 on this back (left), and a later propaganda image from Dhu al-Qidah 21 [July 11] shows a fighter near Jurin, Hama with what is likely a Turkish HAR-66 on his back as well as a suppressor visible on his rifle (right)

The HTS raid of June 19 was reported by Ebaa Agency (the unofficial media branch of HTS), and images of the attack featured AK-74M rifles with suppressors and 40 round magazines

Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (a US designated terrorist organization and the successor group of Jabhat al-Nusra) less than a month prior to the Operation to Help Daraa conducted a joint raid on June 19 with Islam Dagi Taburu. This attack claimed to infiltrate 12 km behind enemy lines in Jabal al-Turkmen and leave 17 regime killed, also featuring rarely seen innovations such as suppressors attached to rifles.

Conclusion

Long term, it appears the North Latakia area provides a unique strategic advantage for rebel groups and allied Jihadi forces fighting alongside them. These rebels factions arrayed against the regime have proven tactically superior, with a better ability to use the mountainous terrain to their benefit, and with Arab and Turkmen groups from the area clearly having a greater motivation to fight for areas they come from. Rumors of the Tiger Forces active in the area make little difference, as in the past, other so-called “elite” regime forces deployed in North Latakia were defeated by local rebel factions, such as the Desert Falcons (Suqour al-Sahra) militia and the now defunct Navy Commando Regiment (Fawj Maghawir al-Bahr).

The regime were ultimately only able to advance with overwhelming firepower provided by the Russian Air Force since Russia’s intervention in Syria in late 2015. A constant in the Syrian conflict is that foreign powers have always been willing to protect their troops stationed in Syrian territory — short of a Turkish-Russian deal behind the scenes, it’s unclear how the regime can make good on any threatened offensive. However, these raids by extremist factions pose issues for the Turkish and Russian dynamic. They appear to be constantly occurring every few days, and achieving consistent casualties among regime forces, with the latest attack taking place on August 7. While these raids are propaganda victories for the rebel factions involved, it remains to be seen the effect this has on the tumultuous Russian and Turkish relationship and ultimately the continued existence of the Turkish Army observation points which hold the Assad regime at bay and make these attacks possible.


Special thanks to @AbraxasSpa, @MENA_Conflict and especially @Everest65_ for help identifying weapons (see the article “Keeping it Quiet — Suppressor Use by Jihadis, Militants & More” for further details on Jihadi weapons), @IbnNabih1 for helping find footage and images, and thanks again to analysts @leventkemal and @OmerOzkizilcik for help with details regarding Turkmen groups