Retaking the Night: Low-Light Capabilities in Idlib

Retaking the Night: Low-Light Capabilities in Idlib

Thermal and Night vision optics have been a factor in combat in Syria for years, but ever since the Winter 2019-Spring 2020 fighting which saw opposition factions lose large quantities of territory, the ability to fight at night (or lack of) has come into sharp relief for factions there, in particular HTS (Hayat Tahrir al-Sham) which is by the most powerful military capability in Idlib.

The loss of territory was enabled in most cases by the overwhelming firepower of the Russian Air Force, but was also greatly assisted by the improved training and equipping of the "Elite" former Tiger Forces (Now named 25th Special Mission Forces Division) of the SAA with not just T-90/T-72B3 tanks with night vision capabilities, but much larger quantities of night vision goggles and Russian thermal optics; mainly the PT-3 and PT-10 series alongside 1P34/58 Soviet night vision scopes. Ironically, this is widely seen as a response to limited quantities of HTS thermal optics enabling the group to retake the town of Kafr Nabudah in May 2019, capturing quantities of equipment, although the town was again lost a short while later when greater SAA resources were focused on the area.

A Fortuna One 3XL thermal optic on sale in February 2020 for the massive sum of $6000.

When the Turkish intervention (and subsequent Russia-Turkey agreement) put a pause to fighting in March 2020, and both sides licked their wounds, it appears that HTS leadership made a decision to attempt to dramatically increase the low-light capability of the group, and to more specifically invest in tactical capabilities that are aimed at blunting the offensive power of the "Tigers" during their night attacks. However, as the group is a former AQ affiliate and widely recognised as a terrorist organisation this could not be overtly carried out and hence relied on local ingenuity and covert procurement with the likely assistance of elements of the Turkish state.

HTS fighter with Fortuna TWS mounted on a PK-pattern machine gun, April 2020

This advancement seemingly started in April 2020. It has taken multiple forms: Firstly, widespread procurement of commercial  TWS (Thermal Weapons Sights) for distribution to ribat points on the front lines, additional training with these force multipliers at night, and most curiously the adaption of commercial TWS to be used with RPG (Rocket-Propelled Grenade) launchers and most significantly ATGM (Anti-Tank Guided Missile) systems.

As to the former, this procurement has been unstated by HTS officially, but has represented itself in a large quantity of video and photo sets released by HTS-aligned media organisations (as well as those under the branding of Fateh Mubeen Operations Room, the Turkish-assisted operations room that brings together the NLF (National Front for Liberation/Al-Jabhat al-Wataniya lil-Tahrir) and other forces with HTS for co-ordinated actions). One of the first references was a video release from HTS in late April 2020 detailing one of the newly formed "Thermal Sniping Companies", which despite the name are not purely dedicated to precision rifle fire but wider deployment for low-light fighting. This was the first time that HTS had publicly displayed thermal optics that had been adapted for use with RPG-7 launchers.

This capability was new, and if actualised could demonstrate a tangible threat to the armoured vanguard of SAA night attacks; in previous attacks the SAA was able to use the NV capability of tanks to punch through opposition lines. It appears that HTS has realised this, and is forming Tank-killer teams with thermal equipped RPGs to spot and target columns at night. It requires some work to adapt commercial optics with reticles not suited for AT use (instead, merely for Hunting) for use in this way. The models seen in the April video are Fortuna One 3M/3L/XL (Or 6M/3L/3XL) rifle optics; these were soon to be accompanied by altogether more interesting developments.

In late May 2020, HTS again published a photoset via Ebaa News, showing the graduation of yet more "Thermal Sniping Companies". It appears that at this point the group intended to use quantities of men equipped with high numbers of thermal optics as a roving force able to respond to SAA attacks in different parts of Idlib.

At this point, informal social media channels belonging to HTS fighters, and also those in foreign HTS subgroups (Such as Tavhid Va Jihod, Xhemati Alban, or Liwa al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar) also started displaying greater quantities of thermal optics.  These had been seen before, but an increase was perceivable. Foreign fighter groupings previously had TWS in greater quantities as compared to locals regardless.

This increase of TWS appearances was not confined to social media; greater quantities and previously unseen commercial thermal optics appeared for sale on local markets, most notably the Chinese Saim SCL35 2-8x, which appeared in late Summer 2020 alongside the typical types usually seen for sale- Pulsar, Fortuna and ATN models.

Freshly Imported Pulsar Apex XD50 Thermal Optics having just come over the border with Turkey, March 2021

Note that these optics are not indicative of Turkish military assistance; they are easily available from tactical/hunting stores across Europe, and trivially smuggled. It is likely that HTS procurement efforts are focused on these illicit channels, as well as to support and enable individual purchases.

Across 2020 and 2021 further video and image releases arrived, showcasing such capabilities for sub-units within several Liwa (Brigades), including Liwa Uthman bin Affan, Liwa Omar bin al-Khattab, Liwa Saad bin Abu Waqqas and Liwa Talha bin Ubeid Allah. According to an expert on the ORBAT (Order of Battle) of HTS, "HTS evidently seeks each of its Liwas to have at least 1 company (Saraya) unit-likely a part of the appox 150 strong Special Forces unit of the Liwa to maintain thermal contact-line fighting capabilities. Based on visual formations, I estimate the Special Forces 'Saraya al-Harari' size for each Liwa to be between 20 and 50 fighters.

In the 7 month window from Nov. 2020 to June 2021, reporting of sniping actions by several TG-based local reporters included the attributed Liwa name. This window closed after June 2021.

It is regularly observed that HTS has specially-designated sniping companies ('Saraya al-Qanas') within each Liwa. When a sniping action with thermal capabilities is documented, it also carries the same 'al-Harari' designation. For reported thermal sniping within this window, Liwa Abu Bakr al-Siddiq dominates with 14 reports. Three other Liwas also had between 2 and 4 reports. At first glance this might suggest that thermal sniping capability is doled out only to select Liwas. However, I believe that this concentration is a product of where the sniping company was deployed during this time along the contact line (more in Jebel al-Zawiya, East Idlib & West Aleppo fronts). And so I have no reason not to believe that the 'Sniping Companies' of every Liwa are also equipped with thermal sniping capabilities."

During the 2020-2021 period rare and often unofficial video releases documented the use of thermal optics to kill SAA fighters on the front lines at night; one example of this was clip that was passed to me by a contact in Idlib of a HTS sniper armed with a Mosin-Nagant rifle using TWS to hit an SAA soldier on the contact line in West Aleppo.

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However, this remained uncommon. Occasionally images from this activity, sometimes by foreign fighters, appeared, such as this behind-the-scenes image taken after a "thermal sniping session" by LMA in September 2020, which reportedly killed at least 2 SAA fighters in one evening.

Video also appeared on Idlibi Telegram channels showing the connection of the Popular Pulsar Apex XD75 optic to a smartphone in order to record shots.  Another common tactic was the use of large battery banks (intended for Smartphones) to power thermal optics via USB connections, thereby enabling much longer operation times.

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West Aleppo: A HTS sniper on the fronts with a suppressed highly modified Mosin-Nagant and Pulsar Apex XD50 TWS (EPS3i battery pack), October 2021

More developments were to come, though. This came in June 2021, although it is likely that the actual importation was rather prior to the first media showing the first ever documented use of the Turkish PARS 675-series TWS mounted on RPG-7 to destroy tank targets.

This was worthy of attention, as these optics are not available for commercial purchase, unlike all others mentioned previously. They would also offer superior performance, greater resistance to battlefield conditions, and most importantly the ability to customise the reticle. This was exploited in order to insert a reticle very similar to that used by the classic magnified RPG optic, the Soviet PGO-7.

This immediately solved an issue that according to a HTS source "was very difficult to solve and took many months"; utilising TWS meant for commercial hunting rifles with RPG without a combat-usable reticle. Previously, some software modifications was possible but this was fraught with issues. The procurement of these PARS optics indicates a Turkish decision to assist HTS with its efforts to combat the SAA with more than just already known assets (Such as artillery, ammunition and ATGMs) but to assist an attempt to blunt one serious regime advantage. It is unclear if this effort will succeed.

This effort was made even clearer in August 2021, when further photosets were released clearly showing the Turkish optics in use with HTS during training. Significantly, the force that has most often been the clear recipient of Turkish Aid, the NLF, has not demonstrated this capability.

That said, the scale of this assistance is unclear. I believe that it can be stated with high confidence that HTS (with Turkish/MIT assistance) is attempting to add significant thermal capability to not just rifles and machine guns but to RPGs also, as part of of the "Thermal Sniping Companies" role as a roving QRF (Quick Reaction Force) to respond to regime attacks. HTS is also engaging in a wider goal of giving standard fighters who are responsible for manning Ribat points on the front line greater quantities of TWS in order to deter probes.

HTS "Special Forces" with suppressed AKM; what seems to be Fortuna One 3M/6M and in the background more thermals. 

A Truly Novel Capability

The developments described above are all of interest to observers of military affairs but ultimately still are relatively undramatic, though they have the potential to cause serious casualties. What is potentially much more innovative is new efforts by HTS, possibly driven by the dedicated Uzbek subgroup of Tavhid Va Jihod, to adapt commercial thermal weapons optics to use with the groups' collection of powerful ATGM (Anti-Tank Guided Missiles) which have been so effective so far during day fighting but have only been very rarely been used at night (Once in July 2019 by the NLF, for example). HTS has captured a few NV optics for ATGM, such as multiple 1PN86-VI night sights for 9K115-1 Metis-M systems in February 2020, and at least one 1PN79-2 Thermal optic for 9P135 pattern launchers (These fire 9M111/9M113 ATGM) in the same time period. These were put to use only a month later in the vicinity of Saraqib and again in May and June against SAA assets but they remained available only in very low quantities.

In April 2021 an image appeared online from a Tavhid Va Jihod-affiliated outlet showing a 9P135M GLS with a curious milled aluminium "sleeve" with an easily recognisable rail section, as well as apparent extensions to the tripod legs. This was the first time that a (previously rumoured) small scale HTS programme of attempts to adapt commercial TWS to ATGM systems was revealed, albeit unofficially.

Soon afterwards, this system appeared once again with the same group, again showing the 9P135M with this curious sleeve. No official HTS outlets had mentioned any thermal (or Night Vision) ATGM capability whatsoever, so it remained possible that this was some kind of independent TvJ effort. Sources within Idlib have mentioned some efforts in this direction, but this was not revealed.

However, with this proverbial "cat out of the bag" the group revealed a very similar modification to a 9P135(M) GLS with 9M111 series ATGM operated by Syrian HTS fighters, not foreigners. Once again, the added aluminium "sleeve" could be observed. However, no thermal or night vision optic could be seen, given it was daylight and HTS' apparent reluctance to actually reveal this new capability. It is is still unclear, for example, if this requires two ATGM operators or some other modification; at present it seems to be intended to replace the built in GLS optics entirely and utilise the zoom function of some TWS.

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In another image released on December 21st, 2021 with an entirely different ATGM system (BGM-71D/E TOW), a milled aluminium rail could be seen added to the top of the optics. Curiously, in a video release shortly after this rail was conspicuously blurred, drawing my attention to it but indicating that HTS does not intend to deliberately draw attention to low-light ATGM capabilities. This suggests that HTS' programme of ATGM upgrades may be wider spread than initially assumed, although this remains very unclear.

So far, HTS has not shown any thermal-equipped ATGM teams in action, although these images indicate that at the very least testing with various systems is being carried out. If these were to function effectively they would be another tool for the group (with Turkish drones overhead) to to blunt night attacks by the SAA.

Conclusions

I have attempted to display and analyse some of the innovations apparently developed by HTS (and allied groups) in Idlib, apparently with some Turkish assistance. This includes far wider individual TWS distribution and much improved low light anti-armour capability. For those interested in advanced military capabilities developed by Non-State armed groups this may be a useful indicator of future trends, but fundamentally these changes are a result of local conditions and a measure of local ingenuity. Approximately 2 years ago, a Russian state attempt to track users of TWS (via hidden GPS units) that had been smuggled into Idlib was discovered and disrupted, indicating that there is no misconceptions amongst pro-Assad forces just how powerful night operating capability is; it would be unwise for misconceptions to exist for Western analysts also.

It remains to be seen just how effective these developments will be for the group, given the massive military disadvantage it faces on the ground; but it does indicate a realistic (and expensive) effort to mitigate the advantages enjoyed by SAA Elite offensive units.

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