The 2016 Southern Aleppo campaign is a series of military operations that started on 1 April when the Islamist rebel Army of Conquest, led by the al-Nusra Front, launched an offensive south of Aleppo. The main objective of the operation was to recapture territory they had lost during the large-scale government offensive in late 2015.
First offensive (April 2016)
In the afternoon of 1 April, rebel forces launched the offensive, targeting the strategic village of Tel el-Ais, that overlooks the Damascus–Aleppo highway. The operation started with preparatory shelling hitting the village’s southwestern flank. This was followed up by a ground assault that included an attack conducted by three suicide car bombers against government positions. According to one report, the bombers did not reach their targets, while according to another, they managed to clear the way for the rebel infantry. Still, the attack on Tel el-Ais was eventually repelled. However, soon after, the rebels launched a second assault, and early on 2 April, they captured Tel el-Ais. The Al-Nusra Front claimed they ambushed government troops as they were withdrawing from the village.
As of early 3 April, a counter-attack had not yet started as government forces were awaiting the arrival of the final batch of ammunition and vehicles. Later in the day, a rebel source stated 100 government vehicles were seen heading towards the southern countryside of Aleppo. At 10 p.m. that evening, the Army counter-attack started and government forces reportedly captured several points on the eastern and northern perimeter of Tel el-Ais, coming to within a few hundred meters of the village. Still, by the morning, two attacks to breach the village itself had been repelled, although the main assault had not yet taken place as airstrikes continued.
On 5 April, a Syrian Air Force plane was shot down in the area of Tel el-Ais by the Al-Nusra Front, with the pilot captured. During the day, members of the Iranian 65th Airborne Special Forces Brigade reportedly arrived in Hader. For the first time since February, Russian air-strikes were conducted in the southern Aleppo countryside, in preparation for the Army counter-attack. Late on 5 April, the Iranian special forces, supported by Syrian Army troops, attacked the village. In the early hours of the next day, it was incorrectly claimed they recaptured Tel el-Ais. Still, pro-opposition SOHR confirmed government troops made progress in the area of Tel el-Ais. During the day, the rebels temporarily withdrew from the village due to heavy shelling before returning. Elsewhere, the military captured Zorba, but it was recaptured by the rebels one hour later. The same day, another large Army convoy arrived in the area.
Second offensive (May 2016)
On 5 May, the United States and Russia agreed on a cessation of hostilities in Aleppo for 48 hours. However, fighting continued in the city and surrounding areas. The same day, the Army of Conquest militants, supported by Jund al-Aqsa and the Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria (TIP), advanced and captured the village of Khalidiyah, west of Khan Tuman and southwest of Aleppo. The rebels then launched artillery attack on Khan Tuman. During the fighting, the Army destroyed a car bomb with a rocket. Around 7 a.m. on 6 May, the rebels captured Khan Tuman, as well as five other nearby villages. In all, 62 pro-government fighters and 57 rebels were killed in the rebel assault. During the clashes, an air strike hit a heavy concentration of rebels, killing 18 fighters.
Following the capture of Khan Tuman, hundreds of government reinforcements, including Palestinian militiamen, were sent to help recapture the town. Preparations were being made for a counter-attack, with Russian air-strikes reportedly hitting rebel positions in the area. On 7 May, government troops recaptured three villages. The counter-attack against Khan Tuman started on 8 May, and was reportedly repelled. By 11 May, the fighting in the area of Khan Tuman left 173 fighters dead on both sides and more than 300 wounded. Among those killed on the rebel side were 35 Turkistan Islamic Party members as well as a number of Uzbeks. Among pro-government dead were 55 Afghans, Iranians, Iraqis and Lebanese.
Fourth offensive (mid-June 2016)
On 14 June, al-Nusra led a fresh jihadist assault in the southern Aleppo countryside, targeting the villages of Khalsah and Zeitain, controlled by a number of pro-government forces. The jihadists initially captured Zeitain, whilst heavy fighting continued in Khalsah. On 15 June, the National Defence Forces, Hezbollah and allied forces launched a counter-attack and succeeded in recapturing the village of Zeitan, whilst also repelling the jihadist assault on Khalsah. It was reported that over 20 jihadist fighters had been killed, whilst a rebel T-72 tank and 2 BMP’s were destroyed. On 16 June, a pro-government counter-attack against Maratah was repelled. During the night of 17 and 18 June, the jihadist rebels led by al-Nusra imposed full control over the villages of Khalsah, Zeitan and Birnah, despite suffering heavy losses, including the death of a top commander. Overall, 186 fighters on both sides were killed in the fighting over the previous four days, 100 rebels and 86 pro-government fighters.