Thanks Mr. Morant for his help in writing this post, in particular for the identification of material.
After analyzing the attack of the Syrian rebels on 3 of the 4 checkpoints surrounding the Hamadiyah military base (Idlib province) in July 2014, with Mathieu Morant1, I propose this time to reconsider another operation by Syrian rebels, in a completely different military context. The siege of Mleha indeed does not take place in rural areas, where stood the base of Hamadiyah (although it adjoins the town of Maarat al-Numan), but close to the capital, Damascus, in a space densely urbanized. I focus here voluntarily, again, about the rebel side, and I did only mention the regime forces when the text needs it. Actors and forms of combat are changing but we can also distinguish common features, tactically, in the insurgent landscape. The analysis will focus here specifically on the successful attempt to break the blockade around Mleha by the rebels, especially from outside, August 3, 2014, which is the work mainly of one of the most powerful rebel formations : Jaysh al-Islam.
Mleha : a 135 days-siege (April 3rd/4th-August 2014, 14th)
The city of Mleha, southeast of Damascus, was the scene of a fierce battle between the Syrian regime and rebels since April 2014 to 14th August. Regime forces begin their assault on April 3, even though they also renew their offensive against the Jobar neighborhood in the east of the capital. Mleha is indeed considered one of the entrance of the eastern Ghouta, still held by the rebels, despite the cordon set up by regime forces around the latter region (which also had taken the chemical attack of the month of August 2013) and fighting in Qalamoun (since fall 2013), neighboring mountainous region of Lebanon where some supplies to the eastern Ghouta come from. On May 2, the rebels launched an attack and come to occupy the northern part of the neighboring town of Jaramana, where many Druze serve in the pro-régime forces2. The next day, regime forces strike back and move to the heart of the city on May 4 ; Hezbollah plays a significant role in this breakthrough. On May 5, a contingent of rebels arrives from Duma and assaulted regime forces who install the siege of the locality.
|Maps of the conflict in Damascus and its region, 2013-2014.|
At that time, the regime has already committed to Mleha the Republican Guard (which leads the siege), some surviving elements of the old 4th Armored Division, another praetorian force of the regime, the National Defense Forces, Iranian military advisers, Iraqi militia (including the new militia Liwa al-Assad Allah Ghaleb3), other militias (like the Arab Nationalist Guard4) and even Hezbollah5 (a full brigade), ie much of the range of the forces at his disposal. Iranian drones are also seen in May over Mleha. The air raids are particularly strong over the city. Regime forces, as they encounter too much resistance, withdrew to let the aircraft and artillery to crush all opposition, probably to limit losses in infantry. This does not preclude the General Hussein Ishaq, commander of the air defense system (a branch of the air force) to be killed in battle May 18th6. Into rebel side, fighting is mainly driven by Jaysh al-Islam7, Zahran Alloush group's (member of the Islamic Front), al-Nusra and some other local armed groups, such as al-Rahman Corps8 (a brigade in Mleha ; another, equipped with American TOW operates in eastern Qalamoun), but also the brigades and battalions al-Habib al-Mustafa9, members of the Islamic Union Ajnad al-Sham10, the rival coalition for Jaysh al-Islam in the east of Damascus, born in November 201311.
|Map showing Mleha in Damascus Region (yellow circle).-Stéphane Mantoux.|
Trapped inside the city surrounded by the regime since 9/10 July, the rebels attempted a first breakout on July 16, preceded by the explosion of a suicide bomber from al-Nosra. Several hundred fighters then try to force the blockade the August, 3rd, joining the rebels surrounded. But the regime tightens the noose and the besieged, shelled by aviation and artillery, were forced to evacuate the city ten days later. The last 400 insurgents evacuate Mleha towards Kfar Batna and Jisreen, to the north, leaving behind their dead and heavy weapons. The Islamic Front also evacuated the village of al-Bulaha. The fighting in the last two days of the siege were particularly fierce : pro-regime Iraqi fighters have lost 45 killed, claiming killing 115 rebels. The rebels managed to keep using, for instance, many tunnels for their logistics (including one measuring more than a mile long) making progress particularly hard for pro-regime forces12.
Jaysh al-Islam : an example of a rebel group
Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam), the group that controls most of the rebel forces during the siege of Mleha, is the result of the reconstruction of the Syrian insurgent landscape after chemical attack of 21 August 2013 and the agreement negotiated with the regime. The group was born September 29, 2013 from the merger of fifty armed groups operating mainly in the Damascus area. The core of the movement is, however, Liwa al-Islam13, one of the most powerful of the rebel groups, born in summer 2011 and which became Liwa al-Islam in 2012 ; this is one of the most active factions of Damas14. Very critical of the Free Syrian Army and of the external political representation of the uprising, Liwa al-Islam, led by Zahran Alloush, receives the support more and more marked of Saudi Arabia15. Nearly two months later, Jaysh al-Islam joined six other groups to be the most powerful coalition so far of the Syrian uprising, the Islamic Front, created November 22th 201316. Zahran Alloush also takes head of military operations of this new coalition, among which Jaysh al-Islam is alongside Ahrar-al-Sham and Liwa al-Tawhid, two other groups among the most powerful of the insurgent landscape.
|Liwa al-Islam flag..-Source : http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/4/40/Jaysh_al-Islam_logo.jpg|
|Jaysh al-Islam flag.-Source : https://www.facebook.com/islamarmynews/photos/a.561350980635794.1073741825.561251493979076/561353073968918/?type=1&permPage=1|
Zahran Alloush, head of Jaysh al-Islam, is known for his fiery speeches emphasizing a sectarian war, which puts him hard with other rebels, including within the Islamic Front . He is also a fierce opponent of ISIS since 2013, became Islamic State (IS) in June 2014, that can be seen at the time of escalation to the anti-ISIS rebel offensive in January 201417. However, Alloush has long good relations with al-Nosra, with which the group fought in the Damascus area. In July 2014, Jaysh al-Islam announced its merger with another component of the Islamic Front, Suqur al-Sham. Here we find fractures already existing in the creation of Islamic Front in November 2013. The two groups were in fact part of a previous coalition, the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Syria, born in September 2012, alongside Liwa al-Tawhid, another formation of the Islamic Front. In contrast, other components of the Islamic Front, including Ahrar al-Sham, were themselves integral part of the Syrian Islamic Front, formed on 21 December 2012. Jaysh al-Islam and Suqur al-Sham then grouped under their banner other large groups in a new alliance with 18 signatories, including the Syria Revolutionaries Front18, Harakat Hazm19, Jaysh al-Mujahideen20, the Islamic Union Ajnad al-Sham21, Noureddine al-Zanki brigades, the al-Sham legions22, Liwa al -Haaq and Protection Shields. Since 20-21 July, Jaysh al-Islam is at the point in the fight against the presence of the Islamic State in Yalda, a highly contested southern Damascus suburb, along with the Islamic Union Ajnad al-Sham, al-Nosra and FSA groups23. Jaysh al-Islam wants at all costs to avoid the IS sets up in the Damascus area, which it considers its turf.
|Zahran Alloush.-Source : http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-1LpsQAe_DAk/UrzCjMRNfPI/AAAAAAAAFB8/8gq9j2jK0XE/s1600/20131123-185350.jpg|
Another important feature of Jaysh al-Islam is being a rebel group fairly well supplied with heavy weaponry. On 6 October 2012, Liwa al-Islam capture two SA-8 Gecko launchers with at least six missiles24. Jaysh al-Islam use SAM missiles, especially against helicopters : January 17, 2014, a Mi-17 is perhaps shot down by a SA-8 above Daraya, south of Damascus25. Even more impressive though purely symbolic, Jaysh al-Islam has been able to recover two planes L-39ZA on Kshesh airbase, which fell 12 February 2013, where just three squadrons operated using this plane ; the group was able to put online a video where we see the L-39 evolve over a runway26. Jaysh al-Islam would have taken advantage of Saudi money to bribe an officer of the 4th Armored Division, praetorian unit of the Assad regime, and acquire two tanks T-72AV and 2 combat vehicles BMP-1, without we have more details on this case. In addition, the group has developed its own craft workshops to develop the captured armored vehicles, and changes are perhaps his greatest originality compared to other rebel groups equally well equipped with armored vehicles. Its fleet includes several tanks : some T-72AV, with one locally modified (frontal armor and reinforced rear), some T-72M1 and T-55, with one T-55M whom the shield was again changed in their workshops. Several armored vehicles BMP-1 and AMB-S complement the fleet of Jaysh al-Islam. Caught in large numbers in the region of Damascus, ZSU-23/4 are often used for ground support, as shown in the example of Mleha. While it is difficult to establish the exact number of tanks and armored vehicles in service with Jaysh al-Islam, some videos released by the group show 2 T-72AV, 1 T-72M1, 3 BMP-1, 1 AMB-S and 2 ZSU-23/4 move in convoy : it is not the most impressive fleet of the Syrian uprising, and Jaysh al-Islam in fact makes only limited tactically use of it, as shown by the example chosen in the siege Mleha. However, it is important to know this fleet to understand the condition of the battle27.
|Armored vehicles of Jaysh al-Islam, with ZSU 23/4 in the lead.-Source : https://pbs.twimg.com/media/Bj5bAcpCEAAGGMJ.jpg:large|
Break the Blockade : Sunday, August 3, 2014
On Sunday, August 3, 2014, the rebels based outside Mleha launch an attack to rescue hundreds of insurgents trapped in the city since July 9, so 24 days28. This attack is combined with a push from the besieged to the outside. It opens with the explosion of a suicide bomber of al-Nosra launched on the positions of the regime in a BMP-1 packed with explosives29. The aviation is particularly active in supporting the regime forces against ground attack and launch 5 raids on Mleha for a single day, 5 August30. The offensive to open a way to the besieged Mleha is conducted primarily by Jaysh al-Islam, who loses fighters, like Abdul Rahman al-Dirani31. From August 7, however, the regime managed to close around the headquarters of the defenders of the city. On 12 August, they are no less than 11 air raids that hit Mleha32 and 22 artillery strikes33. On August 13, there are still seven air raids and a dozen missile strikes on the city34. On August 14, the last 400 rebels trapped in Mleha withdraw from the town35. According to the local council of the city, the rebels lost 400 killed during the siege of four months, while a thousand fighters regime would lost their lives, not to mention dozens of vehicles destroyed in combat36. According to the same source, the next day, the militiamen of the National Defense Forces begin to sack the city37.
|Abu Alaa al-Tunisi, kamikaze from al-Nosra in front of the BMP-1packed with explosives.|
|Red circles : regime positions around Mleha, for the siege ; yellow arrows : the breakout of the August 3rd.-Stéphane Mantoux.|
|Red circles : regime position ; yellow : movements and forces of the rebels.-Stéphane Mantoux.|
The first video posted by Jaysh al-Islam on the breakthroug,h August 3, shows the insertion of the first fighters across the corridor north of Mleha, but beaten by an open fire of the regime from both west and east. This corridor is the necessary step to link up with the besieged. Infantrymen, wearing a blue bandana to avoid fratrices shots, rush short to rally the protection provided by buildings, by hiding behind a carcass T-72 which remained on the ground. At least one of the attackers was killed during the advance. Suppressive fire is provided by a RPG-7 shooter38. In this first video, the attackers may be moving from the north, on the west side of the corridor west of the Rubber Plant, which would suggest, as confirmed by a the following videos, the goal is to prevent the firing on the corridor by cleaning the west and east sides. A second video shows a building invested by Jaysh al-Islam with food, in particular, abandoned by the men of regime39. The third video reveals some material taken in the same building : a bulletproof vest, a Dragunov sniper rifle, a RPG with ammo40. The fourth video shows a T-72 of Jaysh al-Islam crossed a berm in front of the mosque Dalati, on the east side of the corridor, then progressing eastward to cover the infantry assault on the building immediately south-east of the mosque, occupied by regime forces and which also permits to fire on the corridor41. The building was taken after an assault from at least a dozen infantrymen, including a RPG shooter (it seems that it is the building which is seen before, with the spoils). A fifth video, a little longer, posted a little later, on August 10, provides an overview of the assault. It shows commanders of Jaysh al-Islam in a visual recognition of the corridor and they determine the areas of assault on a screen showing a satellite view of the battlefield : we see, as confirmed by the previous videos, the attempt junction with the besieged involves cleaning the sides of the corridor. A T-72, previously seen, and a ZSU-23/4 of Jaysh al-Islam cover the infantry. The camera also films a raid of a MiG-23 attacked by several anti-aircraft guns mounted on pickups42.
|A T-72 of JAI.|
|Infantrymen of JAI behind a T-72.|
|Fighters of JAI take cover behind a destroyed T-72.|
|Fighters of JAI run to assault. They wear a blue strip to avoid fratricide fire.|
|Fighters of JAI move probably in the west part of the corridor, to the west of Rubber Plant.|
Islamic Front43, the coalition which includes Jaysh al-Islam, has also posted a few more videos relating to the operation of 3 August. The pictures depict a second T-72 tank led by Jaysh al-Islam, which protects advance of a dozen of infantrymen44. A second video shows a squad of infantry, with a RPG shooter, progress through the buildings and enjoy the protection of the T-72 tank parked near45. A third sequence depicts the ZSU 23/4 Shilka of Jaysh al-Islam, which the emblem painted on the side of the vehicle, used to fire against buildings46. In a last video, one of the T-72 also intervenes to pound the same objective as the Shilka47.
|A MiG-23 above JAI's fighters.|
|A fighter of JAI shows a captured SVD.|
|Among the spoils, a RPG.|
|East for the corridor, JAI's fighters are assaulting a building occupied by regime forces ; they are throwing grenades inside.|
|Assault among gardens.|
|A fighter shoot with his AK-47 to cover his companions.|
|Behind the wall around the building assaulted above. The squad has a RPG shooter.|
Another group that participated in the battles of Mleha is the brigades and battalions al-Habib al-Mustafa48 and which belong to the Islamic Union Ajnad al-Sham, the rival coalition of Jaysh al-Islam on the Damascus area, but strengthened its cooperation with it for several months. On 4 August, the group puts online video showing the destruction of a T-72 tank of the regime in Mleha49. A second video suggests that the group actually participated in the attempted connection between besieged and forces outside of town50. Another video posted later, on August 8, shows the tunnels used by the defenders inside the city and the proximity of the front lines in the urban context : you can see the flag of the regime and improvised barricades by regime forces51. Two days after the fall of Mleha, August 16, the group launches the trailer of an upcoming documentary devoted to the siege52. For its part, the Islamic Union Ajnad al-Sham, a coalition which includes the unit, is posting a short video the Aug. 8 showing attack on the 3rd August into the corridor north of Mleha explained on screen with a projection53.
|Not far from brigades and battallions al-Habib al-Mustafa, regime positions with flag of the regime.|
|August 3rd : a T-72 burned by missile.|
|A RPG shooter with his weapon.|
|Posed picture of a fighter.|
|An another T-72 of the regime tries to help the other which is hit.|
|Tunnel in Mleha.|
|August 8th : a video maken by IUAAS about the breakout of August 3rd. We recognize the map of the corridor.|
Last group to take part in the battles of Mleha is the al-Rahman Corps54, including a brigade (another fight in the Qalamoun and has TOW missiles). The unit is filming the explosion of BMP-1 SVIED launched by al-Nosra to facilitate the assault on corridor55. We then see the infantry exchanging fire with the positions of regime56. The men in the group wear blue bandanas to avoid fratricide fire, like those of Jaysh al-Islam, which probably indicates a certain degree of coordination among the groups involved. The al-Rahman Corps also committed several armed pickups with heavy machine guns, one with a ZPU-2, another with a 23 mm gun, one with a 14.5 mm gun57. On 6 August, the group puts online video showing the use of a 23 mm gun mounted on makeshift lookout for sniping58. Another video shows the use of a improvised gun59. On 14 August, a video shows the use of several mortars60.
|The BMP-1drived by the foreign fighter of Al-Nusra has exploded.|
|Improvised 23 mm for sniping.|
|Homemade canon in action, Al-Rahman Corps.|
|The fire is open on regime positions.|
Type/Number of armored vehicles
2 T-72 tanks at least (1 AV et 1 M1) and 1 ZSU 23/4 Shilka used for ground fire.
|The MiG-23 seen closer.|
|Recon from the commander of JAI before the attack.|
|Some shotscreens of the ZSU 23/4 with the emblem of JAI.|
|Some screenshots of the T-72 from JAI, 2 or 3 are used in the battle.|
|A JAI's fighter killed during the advance in the west of the corridor.|
|Before the attack, JAI's commanders shows the way of attacks in a satellite view of the battlefied. Again we recognize the corridor.|
Analysis of the rebel attempt to break the blockade imposed by the regime to Mleha, August 3, offers interesting conclusions, especially when compared to those issued at the time to complete our first article on the assault of the checkpoints around the Hamadiyah military base. In this case, rebellious side, there is a major player, Jaysh al-Islam. The al-Nosra front has merely provided a suicide bomber who, as so often in the Syrian conflict, acts as "consumable artillery" to compensate for the lack of firepower -the group has still not communicated about the last moments of Mleha siege. The rebels, unlike Hamadiyah, seem to lack artillery here, even homemade : the guns/mortars are much less prevalent than in Idlib province. The other two identified groups have played a lesser role in the breakthrough. Jaysh al-Islam embodies probably pretty well the degree of military sophistication reached by the most powerful rebel groups after three years of war. Training Zahran Alloush's group has an armored component whose crews, we know from the publicity that the group has made, benefit from training in a school of mechanized war61. Videos of the engagement of August 3 clearly show the need to preserve the T-72 and ZSU 23/4 of the destruction, even if the tanks in particular provide protection for advancing infantry, as to Hamadiyah. We also note that vehicles make not an extreme consumption of ammunition. Moreover caution prevails since the numbers of vehicles in relation to the available fleet is altogether limited. More broadly, the rebel planning is measuring by the size of the operation, which aims to re-establish contact with the besieged isolated in the city for nearly a month. Visual recognition couples to briefings from satellite images to facilitate progress. The fighters wear armbands blue to avoid fratricide fire, a precaution which had already noted in Hamadiyah. The tunnels, which have played a large rôle to the rebel side during the siege of Mleha, probably facilitated the delivery of forces and logistical supply. However, there is no evidence of attention paid to the injured (no stretchers or corpsmen are visible, which is not to say that there are not). Note also that tactically, Jaysh al-Islam builds a real plan of operations by choosing to target the buildings on either side of the corridor north of Mleha who are required by the plan, and that threaten with their fires the joining operation. These buildings are attacked under cover of tanks, infantry advancing enjoying cover offered by the urban context. The regime, meanwhile, give little news on this rebel operation, rests primarily on firepower to win, setting up a cord to strangle the rebels defending Mleha and reinstalling the siege a few days after the successful breakthrough (that who may testify as to their level of training provided by foreign advisers, Iranians, etc). Insurgents have evacuated Mleha August 14 and retreated around ; but the success of the regime was particularly expensive. It took four months of siege, including almost three of intense urban combat, to drive and encircle the rebels, with likely heavy losses in men and vehicles that the regime can ill afford. Not far from Mleha, northwest, insurgents also always fight in the neighborhood of Jobar, east of downtown Damascus, and until recently were able to launch attacks towards it.
27Thanks to Mathieu Morant for bringing many details about the armored vehicles of Jaysh al-Islam.