Regime forces push deeper in rebel-held Hama backed by air campaign to ‘finish off the battle’

AMMAN:Regime forces were on the offensive in northwest Syria on Monday, attempting to capitalize on the collapse of opposition defenses amidst a Russian-backed air campaign that “has left no stone unturned,” rebel military sources on the ground tell Syria Direct. 

Syrian Arab Army (SAA) soldiers and allied militias took control of Halfaya on Sunday, a town in the northern Hama countryside formerly under opposition control since August 2016.

Rebel fighters retreated from the town amidst a “scorched-earth campaign by Russian warplanes that has left no stone unturned,” a rebel military commander with the Free Syrian Army-affiliated Jaish a-Nasr who requested anonymity told Syria Direct on Monday.

 Syrian Army and National Defense soldiers entering Halfaya on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Victory Qawem.

Syrian state news agency SANA reported the regime victory in Halfaya on Sunday, adding that the SAA took the town after “demolishing the last group of terrorists from Jabhat a-Nusra [now Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham] and those under their leadership.”

Pro-government forces on Monday attempted to storm the remaining rebel holdings in northern Hama province—a pocket of territory just below Syria’s northwestern Idlib province— in an attempt to breach rebel defenses along two different fronts.

‘Finish off the battle’

The regime’s ground offensive in the northern Hama countryside is accompanied by a Russian-backed air campaign that has launched dozens of airstrikes on rebel-held towns in the area.

“We are now fighting Russia,” Mohammad Rasheed, a spokesman for Free Syrian Army-affiliated Jaish a-Nasr, told Syria Direct on Monday, “a nation that is throwing its military weight in to finish off the battle.”

Russian and regime aircrafts are targeting rebel military equipment, Rasheed added, crippling the opposition’s ability to hold their positions.

According to initial estimates by Airwars, a London-based monitoring group which tracks international airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, Russian aircraft were involved in 31 alleged “casualty events” in northern Hama alone since March 21. The raw data Airwars provided to Syria Direct on Russia airstrikes for April is yet to be verified by the monitoring group.

The US-led coalition, which conducts airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, overtook Russia in most casualty events for the past three months.

“Our April tracking strongly suggests Russia will once more hold the dubious honor of most alleged civilian casualty events from international airstrikes,” Airwars director Chris Woods told Syria Direct on Monday.

Jamad al-Hawamy, a citizen journalist in the northern Hama countryside, estimates that dozens of airstrikes are hitting rebel towns north of the provincial capital daily.

Al-Lataminah after two parachute bombs strike the northern Hama town on Monday. Photo courtesy of Rupert Novovski.

 

‘Hit and run’

The Assad regime’s latest ground offensive comes one week after pro-government forces rolled back all territorial gains made by rebels last month in the northern Hama countryside.

Rebel factions Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham and Jaish al-Izza announced a pair of coordinated military offensives on March 21, with the stated goal of taking the provincial capital of Hama city and the nearby military airport.

Though rebel forces in Hama province launched three similar—and unsuccessful—offensives in the past four years, opposition commanders told Syria Direct at the time the campaign began last month that the current effort would be more coordinated and organized than previous ones.

“This is not a hit-and-run battle. It’s open warfare this time,” Eyad al-Homsi, a spokesman for participating faction Jaish a-Nasr, told Syria Direct the day after the offensives began.

More than a month since the battle began, however, rebel sources on the ground tell Syria Direct that a prolonged battle and airstrikes by Russian and regime warplanes are tearing away at the opposition’s defenses.

The Free-Idlib Army, an FSA-affiliated faction participating in the Hama offensive, released an online statement Saturday asking for all factions in the region to support opposition forces in northern Hama.

“There is a danger threatening the liberated areas,” read the statement. “We, the Free Idlib Army, announce a general call to arms…to unite and coordinate together to face and overcome the tyrannical forces.”

However, since the release of the statement, regime forces have advanced further north against rebel forces that appear unable to maintain an organized defense.

“There isn’t any assistance coming from other fronts to relieve pressure,” rebel spokesman Rasheed told Syria Direct.

“No one has any fixed positions,” he added. “These are not conventional battles—they’re hit and run.”

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.

Abdulaziz a-Jolani

Abdulaziz is from Quneitra and lived in Outer Damascus. He graduated with a degree in accounting before moving to Jordan. He previously worked as a photographer in Syria.

Hasan al-Rhmoun

Hassan is from Outer Damascus. He previously studied to be a teacher in Syria but couldn’t complete his education due to the war. He moved to Jordan in 2012.