- In view of the developments, on August 19, 2019, Turkey sent a military convoy to the Khan Sheikhoun region. It was composed of dozens of armored vehicles and tank transporters. The convoy was accompanied by fighters from a rebel organization supported by Turkey (Faylaq al-Sham). In ITIC assessment, the objective was to take control of the M5 highway north of Khan Sheikhoun to support the rebel organizations defending the city and halt the advance of the Syrian army northward towards Aleppo. The convoy was attacked from the air (reportedly by Russian and Syrian aircraft). Three people were killed and 12 wounded (apparently operatives of a Syrian rebel organization supported by Turkey).
Right: Tank transporter in the Turkish convoy (Twitter account of TRT, the Turkish state TV station, August 20, 2019). Left: The Turkish army armored convoy north of Khan Sheikhoun (Khutwa, August 19, 2019).
- It was the first move of its kind made by the Turkish regime since the beginning of the Syrian ground offensive. In ITIC assessment its objective was to support the rebels, both the organizations operating under the aegis of Turkey and the jihadist Headquarters for the Liberation of al-Sham, which plays the main role in the fighting against the Syrian army. Sending the convoy created significant military friction between Turkey (which supports the rebel organizations) and Russia (which supports the Syrian regime). However, apparently both countries have an interest in containing the event and will try, despite the difficulty involved, to return to conducting dialogues (given the Syrian army victories, which gave Russia the upper hand in dealing with Turkey).
Syrian army achievement southwest of Idlib
- After the collapse of the ceasefire declared by the Syrian regime on August 5, 2019, the Syrian army initiated a ground offensive southwest of the Idlib region. The Syrian army was victorious and gained control over a series of villages and hills west and northwest of Khan Sheikhoun, one of the large rebel-controlled cities.
Right: Khan Sheikhoun (circled in black). The M5 passes through it. The villages to the west and southwest of Khan Sheikhoun were captured by the Syrian army during the past two weeks (Wikimapia – Bing Satellite). Left: Some of the villages captured by the Syrian army (Google Maps).
- The recent Syrian army victories are the first of their kind since the ground offensive for Idlib began more than three and a half months ago. In some instances the rebel organizations, particularly the Headquarters for the Liberation of al-Sham, fought fiercely (for example in the village of ‘Abadin northwest of Khan Sheikhoun). However, generally speaking the Syrian army conquered most of the villages relatively easily.
- The advance Syrian forces reached the western and northern outskirts of Khan Sheikhoun (August 18, 2019). According to some reports, Syrian army forces entered the city itself and there was fighting. Apparently the Syrian army seeks to capture Khan Sheikhoun, then intends to take control of the southern part of the Idlib region as it proceeds north to the city of Idlib (which is the stronghold of the Headquarters of the Liberation of al-Sham and other rebel organizations).
- On August 18, 2019, the Syrian army captured a hill (Tallat Nimr) controlling the area about a mile north of Khan Sheikhoun, thereby gaining control of the M5 highway leading north. That prevented the rebels from bringing reinforcements to Khan Sheikhoun and tightened the encirclement around it, although it is still incomplete.
The Nimr roadblock (red location pin) north of Khan Sheikhoun on the highway leading to Aleppo (the M5) (Wikimapia – Bing Satellite)
- In the meantime a Syrian force is approaching Khan Sheikhoun from the east. It has taken control of the village of Sukayk and its nearby hill (about six miles east of Khan Sheikhoun). However, the rebel organizations, especially the Headquarters for the Liberation of al-Sham (which employs suicide bombers) are fighting fiercely in the area. Therefore, the advance of the Syrian army towards Khan Sheikhoun from the east has stalled and the city has not been completely surrounded.
Right: Suicide bomber from the Headquarters for the Liberation of al-Sham detonates car bomb on the road leading to Sukayk. The attack apparently targeted a Syrian tank located next to the structure seen in the picture. Left: The car bomb explodes. The tank does not seem to have been damaged (Abaa’ August 15, 2019).
Turkish military convoy attacked en route to Khan Sheikhoun (updated morning of August 20, 2019)
- The Turkish convoy crossed the border at the Kafrloseen border crossing, about 18 miles west of Aleppo, passed through the city of Idlib and continued south on the M5 highway towards Khan Sheikhoun. When it reached the village of Ma’r Hatat, about eight miles north of Khan Sheikhoun (four miles south of the city of Maarat Naaman) it came under massive rocket fire and was attacked from the air by Russian and Syrian planes (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, August 19, 2019). Reportedly, Russian aircraft attacked Faylaq al-Sham vehicles accompanying the convoy, killing one operative and wounding two (Khutwa and syria.net, August 19, 2019). The Turkish ministry of defense announced that three Syrian nationals had been killed in the aerial attack, and 12 wounded (Zaman al-Wasel, August 19, 2019).
The Ma’r Hatat area, where the Turkish army convoy was attacked (marked with red location pin), to the north of Khan Sheikhoun (marked in orange and yellow) (Wikimapia)
The Turkish military convoy whose advance was halted north of Khan Sheikhoun (Khutwa, August 19, 2019).
- The attack on the convoy led to mutual Syrian-Turkish accusations and different versions:
- The Syrian regime condemned the entrance of the military convoy into Syrian territory. According to an official Syrian foreign ministry source, the convoy aimed to reach Khan Sheikhoun to rescue operatives of the Headquarters of the Liberation of al-Sham which was yielding to the Syrian army. In addition, it was reported that the foreign ministry considered the Turkish behavior as another example of Turkey’s regime unreserved support for the terrorist organizations (Sana, August 19, 2019).
- The Turkish ministry of defense said that a Turkish military convoy had been attacked from the air near the city of Maarat Naaman while it was en route to “Observation post number 9” (south of Khan Sheikhoun). Its mission, according to Turkey, was to secure the post, keep the supply lines open and prevent more civilian losses. The Turkish foreign ministry condemned the attack, saying it contradicted existing agreements and cooperation between Turkey and Russia (Yeni Safak and al-Andalou News, August 19, 2019).
 Before the Syrian civil war broke out about 53,000 people lived in Khan Sheikhoun. Reportedly. today the city is almost empty (Daily Sabah, Turkey, August 20, 2019). ↑
 Faylaq al-Sham is an Islamic rebel organization founded in March 2014 by officers who deserted the Syrian army. It has several thousand operatives and belongs to the National Liberation Front which fights alongside the Headquarters for the Liberation of al-Sham against the Syrian army in the Idlib region. ↑
 Called by the Syrians the Jabhat al-Nusra (the al-Nusra Front). ↑
 Observation post number 9 lies a little less than four miles south of Khan Sheikhoun, near the town of Murak. It was established by the Turks on April 7, 2018, near the contact line between the Syrian army and the rebel organizations (one of 12 Turkish observation posts on the outskirts of the Idlib region). ↑