Thursday 3 December 2020

Inside the Rebel Wave of Smash N’ Grab Raids That Plagued Idlib

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

A video uploaded by the National Front for Liberation shows off spectacular drone footage as fighters of the National Front for Liberation (NLF) and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) fight their way to the regime-held town of Abu Dafna located to the northeast of Maarat al-Numan, Idlib Governorate, on the 19th of January 2020. The attack offers a glimpse into the attacks that government forces have been facing ever since launching the Idlib offensive in April 2019, and clearly shows some of the strengths and weaknesses of the parties involved during the battle. This video doesn't offer the whole story however, and because the early stages of this attack are documented extremely well, we will attempt to break down the footage released and paint a clearer picture of these attacks using Abu Dafna as an example.

But before going into detail about the actual battle itself, it is important to understand the background of similar 'local overmatch/smash and grab' attacks mostly taking place in Idlib and to a lesser extent, West Aleppo. Since years incapable of directly challenging government forces and the aerial superiority they bring with them, Idlib's rebel and jihadist groups (henceforth both referred to as rebels) instead rely on a series of hit-and-run attacks to help them maintain the status quo. By launching coordinated attacks on exposed flanks of government-held territory, rebels are able to seriously influence the situation on the ground by making every town captured by the regime a potential (local) catastrophe for the forces now tasked with defending it.

While the smash and grab attacks don't lead to any lasting territorial (re)gains as a rule, the goals of these mini-offensives are in fact different from those of more conventional offensives that aim to neutralise an enemy force or capture a contested area:

- With no real prospect of holding any town in the face of heavy artillery bombardments and airstrikes without suffering extensive losses or pouring precious resources and manpower into constructing fortifications and tunnels, putting up a fight for every town only to lose it with the loss of most of its defenders is a 'luxury' rebels are no longer able to afford, and thus not a viable tactic for anti-Assad forces in Idlib. In this regard, it makes perfect sense for rebel factions to preserve their manpower for later use in hit-and-run tactics that have the potential to inflict heavy casualties among regime forces, stall its future offensives and capture weaponry and ammunition with much fewer casualties in return.

- As recently captured towns often serve as the vantage point from which new government offensives are launched, routing the soldiers who occupy it means that any planned government offensive in that area has to abandoned until its soldiers recapture the lost ground, establish new defence positions and restock weaponry and supplies. While this merely accomplishes stalling regime forces rather than outright defeating them, the prospect of victory for rebel forces is now perhaps more distant than it has ever been, with the situation on the ground hugely in favour of the Syrian government. With no other front requiring a major troop buildup to prevent it from falling as was common during earlier stages of the war, the Syrian regime is currently in a position where it can comfortably commit most of its forces to Idlib until victory is achieved or a political settlement is reached. With President Bashar al-Assad having vowed to liberate ''Every Inch of Syria from Terrorism'' on multiple occasions, an attempt at the former scenario seems increasingly likely.

- As the tide of the war slowly shifted in favour of the regime, rebel forces lost the offensive posture many groups managed to cling on to for much of the war. With the rebels everywhere on the defensive, Idlib has largely been cut off from the largest supplier of weaponry and ammunition to factions opposing the Syrian government: The Syrian Arab Army. The latter's failure redistribute, protect, or at least destroy major arms depots like Ayyash ensured a seemingly endless supply of vehicles, weaponry and ammunition to opposing forces in Syria. Nowadays mostly relying on small batches of munitions purchased on the black market or received from foreign powers, the only way for rebels in Idlib to stock up on heavier equipment like tanks is through smash and grab attacks on poorly defended but overstocked regime positions. One such raid on a SyAA position near Barsah, some four kilometres away from Abu Dafna, in mid-January this year yielded one T-62, two BRM-1(K)s, one BMP-1, two anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) launchers and missiles amongst various other spoils. [1] [2] Although a far cry from earlier heavy-arms hauls like Brigade 93, which rewarded its capturers with at least 32 T-55 tanks, the spoils gained in such attacks are apparently enough to outweigh any losses inevitably taken. [3]

While on full display in Idlib, the Idlibi 'local overmatch/smash and grab' are anything but new to the Syrian conflict. Indeed, these tactics are remarkably similar to those employed by the Islamic State, which had to defend large swathes of seemingly indefensible desert territory in Central Syria. As IS lacked the manpower to properly defend each frontline of its shrinking territory, it instead deployed small numbers of local fighters that conducted stalling tactics until reinforcements arrived. By allowing its opponents to slowly advance, often encountering only symbolic resistance, it could muster a force large enough to beat back the offensive. Often relying on the element of surprise to achieve maximum effectiveness, IS would appear seemingly out of nowhere, laying ambushes and sending in VBIEDs in the ensuing confusion, usually then followed up by a (counter)offensive of its own to revert all gains made and even take a shot at pushing through the routing enemies' defences, as displayed in the government's disastrous Tabqa offensive in 2016. [4]

Perhaps even more valuable is the comparison with the Islamic State's defence of the towns and villages surrounding Azaz near the Turkish border during the ill-fated Northern Aleppo offensive in March-June 2016. Faced with a U.S.-equipped force of Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters supported by Turkish artillery and U.S. close air support, IS fighters undertook organised retreats during the day, only to return to the same area under the cover of darkness at night. These surprise raids often caught FSA fighters completely unaware, with significant losses in manpower and equipment as a result. [5] Although IS would lose control of this region as a result of a joint FSA-Turkish offensive launched in September the same year, it not only managed to stall and repel the earlier offensive launched against them in March, but its own counteroffensive nearly wiped out the FSA's foothold in this part of Syria.

The major obstacle for any 'local overmatch/smash and grab' attack are precision-guided bombs and missiles wrecking havoc from above. While this proved to be less of a problem for the small bands of Islamic State fighters roaming through Azaz at night, the attacks in Idlib - almost always carried out during daytime - usually see the deployment of technicals, armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and sometimes tanks, which present an easy target for preying eyes in the sky. As they are doing so, the RuAF is often already present over the battlefield, observing and later striking the attackers with its unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and aircraft. These precision airstrikes proved to be decisive in determining the outcome of several 'smash and grab' raids already. [6] In a raid on the village of Hamamiyat, the entire convoy tasked with capturing it got annihilated by Russian bombs, leading to the loss of three T-55-based APCs, five technicals and a bulldozer, with human casualties undoubtedly very severe. [7] In mid-February this year, an entire rebel armoured convoy on the offensive near Miznaz, West Aleppo met the same fate, with devastating results. [8]

Another obstacle these attacks usually have a fair chance of running into are strategically placed mines or small clusters of mines placed on roads to block off avenues of approach. In addition to forcing rebel vehicles to drive around them (which for technicals often is an impossible feat in the muddy fields of Idlib), they have occassionally taken out vehicles as well, such as the ACV-15 APC seen below (mines are marked by black squares).

In its normal configuration, a 'smash and grab' raid consists of several squads of inghimasi (shock troops) carried to the frontline in one or more T-55/T-62-based APCs and up-armoured technicals that have also been converted to APCs. In typical fashion, most attacks are preluded by a barrage of artillery and rocket fire, with VBIEDs sometimes preceding the attack to soften up enemy defences. With no effective means to counter or at least disrupt Russian airpower, the rebels' best defence against bombs is simply bad weather preventing fighter-bombers from effectively operating in the skies of Idlib, as was the case during the attack on Abu Dafna.

This leads us to the attack depicted in the video, one in the series that ended up resulting in high losses for the rebels (said to have included the death of at least 20 fighters and the destruction of numerous vehicles) and literally no spoils captured. The casualties among regime forces defending the town are believed to have amounted to roughly a dozen. Its poor results set aside, the footage gives us a great insight into the development of the attack.

The strength of the rebels during the attack on Abu Dafna, jointly conducted by the NLF, HTS and Incite The Believers Operations Room, is wholly unknown. As indicated by footage shot by Syrian state television after the conclusion of the attack, rebels appear to have mounted their attack on the town from two different approaches, both of which would make it to Abu Dafna (although only one is followed by the drone).

The strength of the government forces located in and around Abu Dafna is similarly unknown, but at least 36 soldiers could be seen fleeing from one defensive position alone. This, combined with the presence of five tanks, six BMP-1s and a single ZSU-23 in and around the town, makes it likely that sizeable contingent was indeed present, likely in preparation for a future offensive in this area or because a fresh unit had just rotated into the town.

The attack was preluded by a barrage of rocket fire on defensive positions around the town. At least ten elephant rockets (popularly known as thicc grads, which pair a standard artillery rocket with a much larger warhead) would be used in addition to regular artillery to pound government positions.

The first clue of an impending attack occurs at 0:14, when an artillery round lands some 150 metres away from the parked AFVs, and even closer to a group of soldiers walking down the road. Although one would expect that this would have alerted regime forces further inside Abu Dafna, these later appear to be caught completely unpreprared for the attack on the town.

The next shot, starting at 0:19, shows one of the attacking fighters preparing for battle. In an effort to help friendly forces distinguish the assaulting fighters from defending government forces, the first group wore arm bands identifying them as friendlies. In addition to being equipped with a GoPro camera, this fighter wears a knit cap from the Dutch Hardware store-chain GAMMA.

Next is the departure of the T-55-based APC, which has been converted to hold an open-topped armoured cabin instead of the turret, mirroring developments in several other nations that have begun converting tanks to APCs. Apparently well received by its operators, nearly all of the Idlib rebels' T-55 and T-62 tanks (and at least a single T-72AV) would be sacrificed for the conversion to APC, a process that quickly became standardised. This process would entail the installation of a dozer blade and the removal of the turret, with the resulting cabin space large enough to hold roughly five occupants, their weaponry and ammunition and often a pintle-mounted 12.7mm DShK heavy machine gun. Most vehicles also received additional armour consisting of spaced and slat armour, and sometimes even a roof to shelter its occupants from shell fragments and the environment.

In addition to the T-55-based APC, rebel forces used several other converted vehicles in the attack on Abu Dafna, including a number of up-armoured Toyotas modified to the role as DIY APC. While outwardly largely similar to any other Toyota truck modified as troop transport, these vehicles are in fact equipped with an armoured cabin on the rear of the vehicle, bulletproof windows and armoured plating, providing near all-round protection against small arms fire and shell fragments. A more detailed look of one of such vehicles be seen here.
A more advanced iteration of these vehicles has meanwhile entered service as the al-Buraq APC (Buraq refers to a mythical creature in Islamic tradition said to have been the transport for prophets). Several improvements over the earlier iteration are apparent, and its more professional look is readily appreciated. In common with the previous version, al-Buraq APCs feature a cabin over the body of the vehicle, allowing for the carriage of several fighters. These vehicles are currently entering service in large numbers with several Idlibi rebel factions and even with HTS' paramilitary police force.

0:35 begins with the 'Storming Battalion's' march to the combat zone. Clearly aware that their exploits are being recorded by a drone, some fighters smile for the camera and raise their index fingers as a symbol of Tawhid, which represents monotheism and is often (incorrectly) assumed to be a gesture exclusive to fighters of the Islamic State. The T-55-based APC is followed by the two up-armoured Toyota APCs, which rely on the T-55 to attract the brunt of the enemies' fire. 

A top-down view of the T-55 APC shows that a lack of space forces two of the fighters to sit on the engine deck rather than inside the armoured structure. As the newly added side skirts severely limit the driver's view, he can be seen sticking his head out to help him navigate the terrain. Although the chances of the driver getting hit by small arms fire are extremely small, any well-trained sniper team would likely have little problems neutralising him as he drives straight towards an enemy position. This would have stopped the APC dead in its tracks, making it an easy target for (anti-)tank fire or RPGs.

Unfortunately for the attackers, the smoke plumes created by the T-55's diesel engine are quickly carried away by the wind to the wrong side, thus offering little protection to the Toyotas. Before the installation of smoke grenade launchers on later generation (or upgraded early generation) Soviet T-series of tanks, older models already possessed the ability to lay down a smoke screen by injecting vaporised diesel fuel into the exhaust system.

Apart from the 'thicc grads', several other means of fire support were used in this battle, including mortars, a 106mm M40 recoilless rifle (RCL) and several technicals with a range of different anti-aircraft guns used in the fire-support role. Curiously, the field of view from the ZU-23 gunner's perspective was blurred in the video.  

1:22 shows the impact of the 'thicc grads' raining down on the town. It does not appear to have hit any structures actually used in its defence. Of course, using an oversized warhead on a 122mm rocket, the fact that one actually landed in the town itself is already a minor miracle.


The long march towards the first of many hurdles to clear. The fact that the rebels successfully managed to advance along a straight road without meeting any serious resistance or obstacles raises serious questions about the competence of at least some of the defenders. The presence of a single ATGM launcher could potentially have stopped the assault dead in its tracks before it even began, especially when employed in combination with anti-tank mines placed on and along the road, which would have forced the APC to slow down and drive around them (potentially disabling it by the mines placed next to the road), or have one of its occupants get out and push the mines to the side to allow the APCs to continue their advance.
As the rebels further advance along the road, the T-55-based APC is fired upon by a defensive emplacement on the edge of town. Although these rounds are unlikely to penetrate the newly added armoured structure protecting the occupants, and certainly won't penetrate the hull armour, the two fighters sitting on the engine deck have to duck for cover in order not to get hit. 
In response to the bullets flying past, the gunner of the APC returns the gesture to the source of the fire in an effort to pin the enemy gunner down, thus offering some degree of protection to the more vulnerable Toyota-based APCs to the rear, which by now are also benefitting from the smoke emitted from the T-55's engine.
At this point the T-55-based APC has already made it 650 metres down the straight road completely unharmed. While the apparent lack of an ATGM launcher and the failure to mine the road prevented the defenders from doing serious harm to the vehicle, it is now entering RPG range, and one of the defenders indeed fires a single RPG at the vehicle, which misses.
The placement of mines also left much to desire, as they were placed too close to the defence position and could be easily avoided by the T-55-based APC simply by driving around them, and by the Toyotas by stopping in front of them and unloading their passengers there (which was already close enough to the defensive positon anyway). Note the mines in the lower left corner, which should have been deployed much further down the road, preferably spaced 100 metres apart.

The sight of an armoured behemoth slowly closing in on their position and the one RPG targeting it missing must have demoralised the defending regime forces to such an extent that they saw no other option but to abandon their positions and run away on foot. Over thirty soldiers fled, ironically outnumbering the number of attackers. The fact that these soldiers almost immediately fled rather than standing their ground and fighting off the attackers from the high ground says much about their training and motivation.

2:12 shows the fighters disembarking while the Toyotas are still being fired upon from the persisent heavy machine gunner on the edge of town (which would be the least of their worries as will soon become evident). Note that the fighters all walk in the track marks left behind by the T-55-based APC, where they can be sure no landmines are located. An impressive 11 fighters disembark from one Toyota alone, the same number that can be transported by an M113!

The extremely poor placement of mines is again clearly evident here, with the T-55-based APC simply having driven around them to go to the same place it wanted to go to. Because the T-55-based APC acts as a transport vehicle rather than an infantry fighting vehicle that can fight alongside the troops it just delivered to the frontline, the vehicle stops its advance here and isn't seen again throughout the rest of the video.

The 30+ soldiers that manned the defensive position flee along with the BMP-1 IFV. They aren't seen again throughout the duration of the video, likely indicating that they fled deeper into the town than the rebels managed to advance.

Rebel fighters meanwhile arrived at the now abandoned defence fortification that was meant to stop them in the first place.

A T-72 'Ural' engages rebel forces approaching the town. Ironically or tragically depending on your perspective a fleeing soldier that sought to use its arrival as an opportunity for escape is caught in the blast of the 125mm 2A46 cannon, of course much to his own fault. The targets that the T-72 is engaging are actually the two Toyota-based APCs, which failed to make it out in time, with devastating results.

Regime forces continue their retreat further into the town. Had the defenders established a second defensive line closer to the first one, they could have fallen back to their secondary positions while still holding on to the edge of town, in turn averting deadly house to house combat by preventing the enemy's entry into the town.

This drone footage gives a good view of the limited visibility during the battle, which surely played into the advantage of the rebels. Also note the berms erected around the edge of town, which would have prevented the attackers from using the many trees and bushes here as cover for their advance had the defenders committed to holding their position.

The crew of a ZSU-23-4 SPAAG stationed in the town decides it has had enough and flees the scene. In danger of being outflanked and with its field of fire severely limited by the abundance of buildings and vegetation, this was probably a wise decision. Although the position of this vehicle during the earlier stages of the attack is unknown, had this vehicle been deployed in an effective position near outpost covering the main road leading into Abu Dafna, its four 23mm cannons could have covered much of the approaches used by the forces storming the town.


A soldier is narrowly missed by an RPG grenade that was aimed at the T-72 tank stationed just in front of him.

Unlike the ZSU-23, the T-72 holds its position at the edge of town and even moves forwards to give the gunner a better firing position for his next shot. When it moves backwards again, rebels (which can be seen below while entering a house under construction in the lower left corner) are already close to outflanking the tank. The soldier just right of the house unintentionally walks straight into the view of the rebels, and is shot.

As the T-72 reverts back into town, a wounded soldier is dragged away to safety by his comrade, putting himself at great risk of getting shot as well by the rebels that meanwhile took positions in the unfinished building and vineyards south of the tank.

At 3:53 a rebel fighter attempts to break the resistance of the T-72's persistent crew by firing an RPG at it. Although it's unknown whether the RPG hit actually disabled the tank or simply convinced the crew that further resistance was futile, the entire crew appears to have made it out alive, and can be seen running towards their comrades further into the town. Although it can be argued that the crew would have been better off retreating earlier along with their tank, the fact that they actually held their position and offered resistance as opposed to the 30+ soldiers who ran away at first sight of the enemy actually warrants some credit. 

The footage cuts after this, presumably because the drone got shot down or more likely, because the battle turned in favour of the defenders from this point on. 

Footage shot by Syrian state television shows the aftermath of the attack, including some of the vehicles destroyed during their advance towards Abu Dafna. Also seen again are the up-armoured Toyota-based APCs, one of which was appears to have been completely wrecked by a 125mm tank round fired from the T-72 that took up position in the town, and in doing so smartly covered the approach of the attack covered in this article.

Although not seen during the attack itself, the remains of two more disabled Toyota pickup trucks that were converted to APCs can also be seen.

More interesting however are the remains of what appears to be an improvised armoured fighting vehicle, as this destroyed vehicle is in fact one of at least three highly modified BTR-60 APCs seen undergoing modifications in early January this year.

While most factions have so far refrained from deploying BTR-60s in any serious numbers, rebels in Idlib are meanwhile forced to make the most out of their badly depleted inventory of armoured fighting vehicles, as several of its T-55/T-62-based APCs have already been lost to anti-tank fire, Russian precision-guided munitions or simply due to being abandoned in the field.

This particular BTR-60 was upgraded by the addition of slat armour around the body of the vehicle, rubber pannels added to cover the weak spot between the panels and wheels and through new armoured windows, replacing the bulletproof windshields onto which steel covers could be lowered. Unfortunately for its operators after the effort they put in upgrading this vehicle, it got completely destroyed during this attack.

Another variant was actually based on the R-145BM turretless communications vehicle variant of the BTR-60, with the same layout of armour, but with the slat armour on the front of the vehicle removed, presumably after it fell off or was found to block the view of the driver too much. Their attachment points can still be seen, however.

It apparently redeployed to al-Bab some time later, and would later be destroyed near Miznaz village, West Aleppo.

In the end, the attack paints a clear picture of the 'smash and grab' mini-offensives and the widely different outcomes that they result in. Although this offensive ended in failure, a necessity to maintain the status quo will undoubtedly result in more attacks of this type being carried out in the future, at least until a permanent ceasefire finally determines the situation in and around Idlib. Until then, further offensives and large losses of life are to be expected, continuously increasing the type of warfare that has come to typify this stage of the Syrian War.

[2] During Operation Spring Shield, launched in retaliation after the killing of 33 Turkish soldiers in an airstrike, some two dozen additional AFVs were captured by rebels, with many more destroyed by Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones.
[3] Islamic State captures Brigade 93 in largest heavy-arms haul of Syrian Civil War 
[4] No end in sight: Failed Tabqa offensive reveals underlying shortcomings of regime forces  
[6] 12 Hours. 4 Syrian Hospitals Bombed. One Culprit: Russia 

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