Terror in Syria: a US distraction from Gaza

Khalil Nasrallah, The Cradle, May 30, 2024 —

Western-backed terrorist strongholds in Syria have not remained untouched by the Israeli military assault on Gaza. With the broad activation of the Axis of Resistance in support of Gaza, particularly in Lebanon, it didn’t take too long before Washington began to mobilize its extremist foot soldiers in Syria’s north.

Soon after the 7 October Al-Aqsa Flood Palestinian resistance operation – and even before the war’s trajectory became clear and Hezbollah’s intentions were understood – terrorists in Syria began to escalate their operations. Terror attacks were recorded in northern Latakia and the western Aleppo region, where Hezbollah, Iranian advisors, and the Syrian army are concentrated, as well as along the demarcation line between areas controlled by the state and those controlled by the militants.

This escalation was almost certainly not a coincidence, given the history of similar mobilizations triggered during crucial political and military events in Syria. It is well established that Washington supports terrorist armed groups in northwest Syria to keep the Syrian army and its allies in a state of attrition, serving US and Israeli interests – most notably in the eastern part of the country where the US maintains an illegal military presence.

Moreover, there are clear indications that the uptick in terrorist attacks after 7 October was linked to the war on Gaza. This strategy seems designed to distract resistance forces, particularly Hezbollah, and sends a message that escalation by resistance factions would activate other fronts to alleviate pressure on Tel Aviv.

Idlib, the main northern sanctuary for the terror militias, presents a complex front, not only militarily but also due to its political entanglements and involvement in various regional dynamics. The conditions for launching a major operation there were unfavorable before 7 October and remain unfavorable in the ongoing war.

US support for subversive activities in Syria before 7 October

Before the Hamas-led resistance operation, US efforts were focused on supporting subversive activities in Syria, explicitly backing Al-Qaeda offshoot Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) led by Abu Mohammad al-Julani. 

With British intelligence assistance, Washington sought to strengthen ties with Julani following a series of operations by the Syrian government and its allies in 2020. These military offensives culminated in the recapture of the Aleppo–Damascus M5 motorway and significant territory south of Idlib.

The hostilities concluded with the 5 March ceasefire agreement between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during the latter’s visit to Moscow, marking a new phase in the regional conflict.

On several occasions, the US attempted to rekindle hostilities to influence Turkish–Syrian negotiations, which were sponsored by Moscow and Tehran, aiming to restore relations and reduce tensions between Ankara and Damascus. 

However, these talks faced several obstacles, including Erdogan’s domestic political considerations and the challenges posed by US policies regarding the Syrian crisis.

Between 2020 and 2023, the Syrian army and its allies imposed military conditions that restricted the militants’ capabilities, preventing them from launching large-scale operations. Reports indicate that during this period, the militants focused on enhancing their drone warfare capabilities, allegedly with support from French, British, and US intelligence.

These drones were used in several attacks, most notably the 5 October 2023 assault on a graduation ceremony at a military academy in Homs, central Syria, which resulted in over 150 military personnel and civilian casualties.

Post-7 October: Shifting focus and new frontline dynamics

The impact of the terrorist attack in Homs quickly faded as the world turned its attention two days later to the Qassam Brigades storming military sites and settlements around the Gaza Strip, capturing dozens of soldiers and settlers, prompting Israel to declare a state of war. As regional powers shifted their focus to the Gaza Strip, the situation in Idlib subsequently took a different turn.

In late December, terrorists launched a large-scale attack in the western Aleppo area, reaching the 76th Regiment near Urm al-Kubra. Hezbollah and the Syrian army managed to repel the assault, inflicting heavy casualties on the terrorists, many of whom were Uyghurs from China’s Xinjiang region. 

Following, several other attacks tried to exploit the broader regional conflict, particularly the tensions in southern Lebanon. These attacks were influenced by external forces and extended beyond Julani’s leadership.

The attacks continued sporadically until the beginning of February, when the Syrian army, supported by Russian forces, introduced FPV (first-person view) suicide drones into the battle. These drones, which had demonstrated high effectiveness in Ukraine, significantly hindered the terrorists’ movements along the front lines to logistical points behind them.

The ability to curb the front lines suggested that disruptive tactics Washington might employ at any stage, especially in Idlib, could be neutralized. This came after the US had agreed to a truce in eastern Syria, accepted the status quo, and made concessions to prevent its bases from being targeted. These developments indicated the Resistance Axis’ capability to manage and prepare for new challenges, maintaining regional stability despite external pressures.

The steadfastness of resistance forces in Syria

Several indicators show that despite US attempts to create distraction fronts for resistance factions, Hezbollah remains steadfast in its fight against terrorism in Syria. 

Hezbollah, along with other resistance forces such as Iraqi factions and Iranian advisors, has maintained a presence that supports the ongoing confrontation. Ultimately, the Syrian army and its allies have been successful in countering US distraction tactics through significant terrorist organizations, especially in Idlib. 

This success offers several insights for the future. The Resistance Axis forces had anticipated such tactics and responded effectively, adapting to the circumstances of each stage. The American–Israeli reliance on terrorism to alter realities on support fronts has proven to be an unrealistic and losing strategy.

The outcomes of the current conflict may create political conditions favorable for a wide-scale military operation in Idlib in the future. Additionally, resistance forces are not isolated in their efforts to counter terrorist fronts, with Russian involvement playing a significant role that cannot be overlooked.

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