A high price for rebel infighting in Hama as regime forces regain territory

AMMAN: A ground advance by Syrian loyalist forces has wiped out weeks of opposition gains in the north Hama countryside after two major opposition factions withdrew from fronts with the regime to fight each other, rebel spokesmen tell Syria Direct.

Islamist and FSA rebel factions have been battling regime forces in the north Hama countryside since late August in an offensive launched to reduce pressure on Aleppo city. Rebel forces—including Jund al-Aqsa and Ahrar a-Sham, the two factions at the heart of the latest infighting—made rare gains there against the regime in recent weeks.

That advance came to an end over the weekend after Jund and Ahrar withdrew their forces from positions on the frontlines with the regime in order to battle each other over accusations of kidnappings and killings. Regime loyalist forces handily recaptured five villages on Sunday “without fighting,” a rebel commander told Syria Direct the same day.

Syrian state media agency SANA reported that “units of the military and armed forces, in cooperation with allied forces” took control of a handful of north Hama countryside villages on Sunday, the first major loyalist gains there in weeks.

“The regime has exploited the infighting to put pressure on the fronts and advance,” Eyad al-Homsi, the military spokesman for Jaish a-Nasr, one of the FSA factions currently fighting in Hama, told Syria Direct on Sunday.

“The infighting emptied fronts and positions held by Jund al-Aqsa and Ahrar a-Sham over the weekend,” said Mahmoud al-Mahmoud, a military commander and spokesman for the FSA’s Jaish al-Izza, one of the main rebel groups participating in the Hama battles.

 An FSA fighter in the north Hama countryside on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Jaish al-Izza.

“We did what we could to stop the advance of regime forces,” said Jaish a-Nasr spokesman Eyad al-Homsi. “But severe bombardment led to the regime recapturing a number of villages, which are defensive lines for strategic areas.”

“We issued commands to withdraw from some positions to preserve the lives of our personnel and prepare a counterattack,” said al-Homsi.

Continuing in the eradication of Jund’

Intra-rebel clashes, killings and kidnappings in Hama and Idlib provinces began late last week when Ahrar a-Sham accused Jund al-Aqsa of kidnapping a number of their fighters. Those tensions exploded on Saturday after Jund reportedly captured and executed a prominent Ahrar military commander, Abu Munir a-Dabous, in Idlib province.

“With the martyrdom of Munir a-Dabous, the final chapter of this gang begins,” Ahrar military commander Abu Saleh al-Tahhan tweeted on Saturday, referring to Jund al-Aqsa.

The same day, 15 rebel jurists issued a fatwa calling it “obligatory to fight this faction,” referring to Jund al-Aqsa. The document accused Jund of “wreaking havoc with their suicide operations, IEDs and assassinations,” and of sheltering members of the Islamic State (IS).

Other rebel factions in Hama and Idlib provinces including Nour e-Din a-Zinki, Failaq a-Sham, Fastaqim Kama Umirt, and others have since supported Ahrar, the largest faction in Syria, in its battle against Jund.

The latest battles are not the first time that Jund and Ahrar have clashed. Tensions date back to at least 2015, and the factions battled in Idlib this past July and September, with multiple casualties on both sides.

The latest few days of battles have reportedly left casualties on both sides, while exact numbers of the dead are difficult to verify. Fighting continued on Monday, with reports that Ahrar a-Sham forced Jund out of several villages in Idlib province. An unclaimed suicide car bombing also reportedly targeted an Ahrar a-Sham checkpoint in the rebel-held Idlib town of Saraqeb on Monday, killing several of the group’s fighters.

Monday’s bloodshed points to the apparent failure of efforts by Jund al-Aqsa to put an end to the violence on Sunday by pledging allegiance to Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, the former Syrian affiliate of Al-Qaeda.

In a handwritten statement, Jund al-Aqsa said it pledged allegiance to Jabhat Fatah a-Sham “to prevent bloodshed and overcome the internal fighting with Ahrar a-Sham.” The note was signed by Jund’s Abu Diab al-Sarmini and Fatah a-Sham’s leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani.

Despite the pledge, Ahrar a-Sham vowed to continue to fight Jund al-Aqsa. “The revolutionary factions are continuing in the eradication of Jund,” Ahrar spokesman Ahmed Karali tweeted on Sunday.

Rebels allied with Ahrar a-Sham rejected Jund al-Aqsa “by any name,” in an online statement by 13 factions on Sunday. “Its members must choose between quitting or joining the fronts with other factions.”

As the factions fight each other—and lose ground—Hama and Idlib civilians “are suffering the most,” a journalist in the Hama countryside told Syria Direct, requesting anonymity.

“Families have fighters in both factions,” he said, “so it’s a big rift within a single family.”

Military checkpoints and ongoing clashes in Idlib and Hama villages have terrified civilians, trapping them at home, he said.

“Civilians are angry and annoyed, especially after the regime’s swift advance in taking back the positions it had lost,” said the journalist.

“They’re worried, and trying to calm the factions down by any means.” 

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.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.

Razan Yasin

Razan is from Douma in East Ghouta. She holds a degree in pharmacy from the Islamic Society College. She wants to write about Syrians’ daily life during wartime.