Top-5 events on the battleground in Syria that changed war’s prospects in 2016

Sputnik– As Syria was in the focus of media attention in 2016, Sputnik decided to recall breakthrough events of the outgoing year on the battleground in the Arab country that have changed the prospects of the war.

Aleppo Liberation Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city which used to be the country’s economic capital, has been mired in the civil war since August 2012 with the western part of the city has been controlled by the Syrian army while the eastern part was occupied by various Islamist and rebel groups, including al-Nusra Front terrorists.

In early February 2016, the Syrian Armed Forces supported by militias and the Russian Aerospace Forces broke the four-year blockade of the settlements in the north of the Aleppo province. The government forces cut off main supply routes of terrorists running from Turkey to the northern Aleppo’s suburbs.

The Syrian army and militia achieved a significant breakthrough in their fight against terrorists after the Russia-US-brokered ceasefire announced on February 27. During summer, Aleppo was caught in fierce battles between the Syrian army and militants. In early August, the Syrian army blocked the major part of the militant forces in Aleppo.

Some 5,000 to 8,000 militants from various groups united under the leadership of the al-Nusra Front terrorist group which later renamed itself after allegedly breaking ties with al-Qaeda. The terrorists continued their attempts to unblock the supply routes for their accomplices in the eastern districts and to break the blockade.

On September 22, the government forces began a military operation in the eastern districts of Aleppo. To avoid civilian casualties, the Russian Aerospace Forces and the Syrian Air Force stopped airstrikes in Aleppo on October 18. On October 23, the Syrian army launched an offensive in the southern part of the city. The hostilities resumed after a three-day humanitarian pause announced to let civilians and militants leave the eastern part of the city. Terrorists refused to leave and threatened to execute civilians who wanted to flee.

On October 30, militia units reported that the terrorists used shells containing poisonous gas to attack them and Syrian Army units deployed near the military academy in southwestern Aleppo.

Throughout November, the Syrian army gained considerable ground in eastern Aleppo, gaining control of approximately half of the territory from militants. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, by late November the government forces liberated over 40 percent of eastern Aleppo. In December, Russia sent field hospitals, surgeons and medical equipment to Aleppo to help the residents. On December 5, a mobile Russian military hospital was shelled in Aleppo, presumably by Syrian rebels. During the attack two Russian medics were killed and one was injured. Following the attack, Russian authorities said that Syrian rebels “had exact coordinates” of the hospital that means that those parties who support militants were also responsible for the deaths of Russian doctors. However, the US State Department denied giving coordinates of the Russian mobile hospital to the Syrian opposition.

On December 7, the Syrian army liberated two more districts in eastern Aleppo bringing the total number of them to 47. Breaking through the defense lines of militants in the historic part of the city, the Syrian government forces forced the terrorists to flee to the southern districts, their last enclave of resistance. Government troops liberated over 80 percent of eastern Aleppo, which had been controlled by terrorists since 2012.

During the battle for Aleppo, Russia had repeatedly contributed to establishment of humanitarian pauses in the city, all of which were undermined due to the UN humanitarian bodies’ inability to deliver aid and because of the militants’ attacks on civilians and the army. On December 8, the Syrian army suspended fighting for the largest relief operation to allow civilians leave the city. An operation to evacuate militants and their families, as well as civilians who wanted to leave eastern Aleppo, was held with the assistance of the Russian center for Syrian reconciliation and Red Cross staff. Numerous convoys with civilians and militants who laid down arms left the city for Idlib and Turkey.

On December 16, the Russian Defense Ministry said that the Syrian army’s operation to liberate militants-controlled eastern Aleppo ended, however, several hotbeds of militants’ resistance remained.

On December 22, last militants left eastern Aleppo, thus the Syrian army gained full control over the city. Syrian President Bashar Assad called the liberation of Aleppo a “watershed moment.”

After the liberation of Aleppo, numerous reports of atrocities committed by militants in the eastern part of the city have been confirmed. The Syrian army found bodies of kids tortured to death by terrorists, while food suplies delivered by the Western countries in eastern Aleppo was consumed only by militants, while civilians starved.

Palmyra Victory and Sudden Daesh Offensive

The Syrian Arab Army, backed by the Russian Air Force, liberated Palmyra on March 27, 2016, nearly a year after it was captured by Daesh terrorist group in May 2015.

During the invasion, the militants destroyed a number of ancient objects, including the necropolis, the Arch of Triumph, as well as the temples of Baal Shamin and Bel. After the victory, Russia sent a demining squad to clear the ancient city from bombs. Some 19,000 explosives have been defused.

During 2016, Daesh several times attempted to regain control over Palmyra, however, the attacks were repelled by the government forces.

On December 11, Daesh attacked and recaptured Palmyra, which had been liberated from the terrorists by the Syrian Army with the help of Russian warplanes in late-March. The ancient city had suffered for eight months under Daesh control. Some 4,000-5,000 militants, including hundreds of suicide bombers and armored vehicles, took part in the attack.

According to the Russian reconciliation center in Syria, Daesh managed to move considerable forces from Mosul in Iraq and the Syrian provinces Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa, where the United States-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had stalled their planned attack on the group. Terrorists began attacking the city on Saturday. Their offensive was thwarted by the actions of the government forces supported by Russian aviation.

Despite the defeat, they resumed their attack on the city from the northern, eastern and southern sides.

Meanwhile, President Assad said that the timing of the attack correlated with Washington’s decision to lift restrictions on arms supplies to Syrian opposition groups. On December 15, the Russian General Staff reported that the Syrian Army supported by Russian warplanes stopped the terrorists from further advancing in Palmyra.

The first deputy chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the Russian General Staff Viktor Poznikhir said that the situation in the city had stabilized due to the Syrian Army’s operation with Russia’s aerial support. Russia also helped Syrian government forces to launch a counteroffensive.

On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin commented on the Daesh offensive on Palmyra. According to the Russian leader, the situation in Palmyra was a result of discordant actions of different players in Syria. “Everything that happens in Palmyra is the result of uncoordinated actions between the so-called international coalition, Syrian authorities and Russia,” Putin said. Deir Ez-Zor Attack on Syrian Army by US-Led Coalition Jets

Despite repeatedly calling for the resignation of President Bashar Assad, countries of the US-led coalition had abstained from attacking the Syrian army fighting against terrorists.

On September 17, US-led coalition aircraft carried out four strikes against the Syrian army near the Deir ez-Zor airport, leaving 62 soldiers killed and some 100 wounded. The Pentagon said that the airstrike was a mistake and was intended to target Daesh militants, while a number of Syrian officials stated that the attack was intentional.

On November 11, the Pentagon released a report which claimed that the US-led coalition’s forces struck the Syrian army in Deir ez-Zor as a result of an “unintentional, regrettable error.”

“In this incident, ultimately, we made an unintentional regrettable error primarily based on human factors in several areas in the targeting process,” US Air Force Brig. Gen. Richard Coe told reporters during a press briefing. The Pentagon also said that the US-led coalition’s strikes on Syrian army positions would have continued if Russian military officials did not call their colleagues via a deconfliction channel. The deconfliction channel is part of a memorandum of understanding on safety of flights in Syria’s airspace signed by the US Defense Department and Russian Ministry of Defense in October 2015. Operation Euphrates Shield

On August 24, Turkish forces, supported by Free Syrian Army rebels and US-led coalition aircraft, began a military operation dubbed the Euphrates Shield to clear the Syrian border town of Jarabulus and the surrounding area from Daesh terrorist group.

This is the first Turkey’s incursion into Syria, however, earlier Turkish forces attacked Kurdish positions in Syria from its side of the border. The operation has been widely criticized both by the Syrian Kurds and Damascus, who have accused Ankara of violating Syria’s territorial integrity.

As Jarabulus was retaken, the joint forces of Ankara, the coalition and Syrian rebels continued the offensive southwest.

On November 29, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a controversial remark, saying that the Turkish armed forces’ military operation in Syria is designed to put an end to the rule of Assad. However, later the Turkish leader stopped voicing calls for Assad’s immediate resignation.

On December 30, the Turkish General Staff said that Turkish forces have eliminated 1,171 militants from the Daesh terrorist group, as well as 291 militants from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) since the beginning of the Operation Euphrates Shield. Turkish armed forces and allied Free Syrian Army (FSA) units are tightening their noose around the Daesh-held city of al-Bab. In an interview with Sputnik Turkey, FSA division commander Taha Atraç said that the city of al-Bab will be liberated “within the next few days.” Al-Bab is one of Daesh’s last remaining strongholds near the Turkish border. Capturing the city is of strategic importance to Turkey in order to prevent the Syrian Kurds taking it and unifying their own territories. Nationwide Ceasefire in Syria Backed by Russia, Turkey

On December 29, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that the Syrian government and armed opposition groups reached an agreement on a ceasefire on Syrian territory, taking effect at 00:00 on Friday. Russia and Turkey took the role of the ceasefire guarantors, but other countries may also be invited, according to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

This is the first time Russia and Turkey, not the United States is the guarantor of rebels’ abidance by the truce in Syria.

On December 30, Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin said that the ceasefire in Syria that entered in force on Friday has “holding adequately.”

He also said that the maps included in the newly-announced Syrian ceasefire deal establish locations of the Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly known as al-Nusra Front, and Syrian opposition groups. It it yet to be seen how the ceasefire will hold in 2017, however, the very fact of the agreement gives hope that Syria will gradually finally return to peaceful life.