As of mid-January 2020, the Syrian regular forces and allies have escalated attacks on the cities and towns of western rural Aleppo, those located near the Damascus-Aleppo International Highway, dubbed M5. In this report, Syrians for Truth and Justice/STJ managed to record two assaults against residential neighborhoods, which resulted in the death or injury of many civilians, women, and children included.
On January 21, 2020, warplanes, believed to be Russian, carried out an attack on the town of Kafar Ta’al, western rural Aleppo, which affected a house of one of the families there, killing nine of its members, including four children and their parents.
A few hours later, a second attack was aimed at the residential neighborhoods of the town of Kafr Nouran, western rural Aleppo, killing nine people, among whom were women and children, and wounding 12 others.
The two attacks sent many people on a flight of displacement to the northern border areas, which might be an indicator that the Syrian regular forces may have been seeking to force the residents out of their homes in these areas in a step to take them over, especially those located near the M5 International Highway, which extends between Damascus and Aleppo while it has been completely controlled on February 11, 2020.
The two attacks had actually coincided with violent confrontations in the southern and western rural parts of Aleppo, involving the Syrian regular forces and armed organizations—including armed opposition groups, of which a number are on the world’s lists of terrorism. On January 26, 2020, the Syrian regular forces managed to advance on several fronts in southern rural Aleppo, in villages and towns such as Khalsa, Qarasi and Khan Tuman. On January 27, 2020, however, the armed opposition groups regained control over the Cables Storehouse in the town of al-Sahafyeen, western Aleppo, in addition to taking over several posts in the town of 5th al-Rashideen, also west of Aleppo. In a counter-attack on January 29, 2020, the Syrian regular forces controlled a number of posts, such as Khan Tuman warehouses, the town of Zaytoun and the outskirts of the town of al-Sahafyeen, backing these advances by taking over the 5th Al-Rashideen, Khaldiya, Qarasi, Hamira, Qala’agiyeh and Ma’arata in western rural Aleppo on January 31, 2020.
These clashes took place in conjunction with others, which the two parties waged in southern and eastern rural Idlib, also located near the Damascus-Aleppo International Highway, dubbed M5. On January 28, 2020, the Syrian regular forces took over the city of Ma’arat al-Nu’man, southern rural Idlib, which was followed by their control of several villages and towns in southern and eastern rural Idlib, such as Babila, Ma’asaran, Jaradah, Khan al-Subul, Ma’ardibsa, Kafr Batikh, Neirab, Abu Jarif and Hazan, in addition to the city of Saraqib and its countryside on February 6, 2020.
On February 14, 2020, STJ released a briefing that covers key events accompanying the escalation started by the Russian and Syrian forces at the onset of 2020.
This violent escalation against western rural Aleppo, which is seated near the Damascus-Aleppo International Highway/M5 and is controlled by the armed opposition, was matched with missile attacks, where the bombs landed on several neighborhoods of the city of Aleppo, controlled by the Syrian Government. These missiles, eyewitnesses said, were launched from the western parts of the province of Aleppo, including al-Lairamoun Factories, al-Rashideen District, and western Aleppo countryside, held by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham/HTS and other opposition armed groups, while news reported the latter’s intention to embark on an attack against the neighborhoods of the city of Aleppo in retaliation to the military operations and the shelling conducted by the Syrian Government in the province of Idlib and rural Aleppo.
In the wake of the news, speculating military operations, a statement was issued by the armed opposition groups, joining forces under the al-Fath al-Mubeen Operations Room on January 20, 2020, in which the groups vowed to target the posts and barracks of the Syrian regular forces and the militias supporting them in the city of Aleppo and called the city’s residents to clear from these sites.
The missiles hit three neighborhoods in the control area of the Syrian regular forces in the city of Aleppo, drastically affecting the neighborhood of Jamiyat al-Zahra first, the neighborhood of New Aleppo next and then the neighborhood of al-Sukari. According to STJ’s female field researcher, the missiles caused the death of 11 people, two children, four women, a university student and three men included, and the injury of nearly 29 others in January 2020.
On the same note, rural Aleppo-based media activists reported that the missiles which landed on the neighborhoods of New Aleppo and Jamiyat al-Zahraa may have been launched by armed opposition groups, given that in both neighborhoods there are confrontation sites, especially since the Syrian regular forces had used their artillery to bombard civilian gathering points in these two neighborhoods, as they put it. The activists also affirmed that the neighborhood of al-Sukari is void of any military fronts, saying that the opposition is, thus, unlikely to have perpetuated the attacks aimed at the neighborhood.
In a former report, STJ documented four violent attacks which targeted crowded popular markets, especially in Jabal al-Zawiya near the M5 International Highway, as these attacks claimed the lives of many civilians, including women and children. The report covered the period from early December 2019 to early January 2020.
Photo no. (1) – Map showing the distribution of military powers in the provinces of Aleppo and Idlib up to February 14, 2020. Photo credit: Syrialivemap.
In total, this report is based on (13) testimonies and interviews conducted with eyewitnesses, who have been contacted by phone/internet by STJ’s female researchers in the province of Aleppo in January 2020. Additionally, it references numerous open sources that document the incidents mentioned here.
1.Two Violent Attacks on Residential Neighborhoods in Western Rural Aleppo:
On January 21, 2020 alone, STJ recorded two violent attacks on residential neighborhoods in the cities and towns of western rural Aleppo, located near Damascus-Aleppo/M5 International Highway. The attacks catalyzed the displacement of many of these locations’ residents towards the border areas, and it was noticed that there were no military combat activities in the vicinity of the target areas.
1. House Shelling Kills Entire Family in Kafr Ta’al Town:
Located in western rural Aleppo, near the Damascus-Aleppo/M5 International Highway, Kafr Ta’al is considered an agricultural area with a population that consists most prominently of farmers. In addition to its local residents, the town is a home for many families displaced from the southern and eastern rural parts of Idlib, as it is seated about 10 km away from the city of Atarib. The town has become relatively calm, for the recent attack resulted in the displacement of many of its residents while only 25% of its total population remained there.
Photo no. (2) – A satellite image shows the location of the town of Kafr Ta’al near the Damascus-Aleppo/M5 International Highway.
Details of the Incident:
On January 21, 2020, at about 11:38 pm, a family home in the town was hit by warplanes, believed to be Russian, rendering all the family members dead, according to Mohammad Hudhud, a relative of the family. He narrated the following to STJ:
“The first raid took place in the afternoon. The bombing targeted my cousin’s house, located on the village’s outskirts. The missile hit the center of the house and turned all the family members to shreds. The raid killed my cousin Abdulqadir, who was a farmer, his wife, Dalia Abdulhay and their five children— Manar al-Omar (16 yrs.), Marwa (14 yrs.), Fadwa (12 yrs.), Abdo (10 yrs.) and Aya (3 yrs.). The attack was sudden, especially since the area has not been bombarded for a long time. Triggered by the brutality of the massacre, the village’s residents fled, and only a few left to the border areas.”
 Of the key armed groups that took part in the Aleppo battles are Hayat Tahrir al-Sham/HTS, the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army, Ansar al-Tawhid and the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement, which was the last to join this operations room.
 “A Short Briefing on the Humanitarian and Military Situation in Idlib.” STJ, February 14, 2020. Last visited: February 23, 2020. https://stj-sy.org/en/a-short-briefing-on-the-humanitarian-and-military-situation-in-idlib/.
 Such as the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army.
 “The Bombing of Idlib’s Marketplaces by Syrian Regular Forces and Allies, a Repeated Pattern.” STJ, January 14, 2020. Last visited: February 23, 2020. https://stj-sy.org/en/the-bombing-of-idlibs-marketplaces-by-syrian-regular-forces-and-allies-a-repeated-pattern/.
 The town is controlled by HTS.