Rebels in northwest Syria see territory gains wiped away by regime’s ‘scorched-earth’ campaign

AMMAN: A fourth failed attempt to capture the Hama military airport has failed, with rebels in northwest Syria blaming the regime’s scorched-earth campaign” for a string of losses in territory gained over the last month.

Rebel factions Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham and Jaish al-Izza launched a pair of coordinated military offensives in the northern Hama countryside on March 21. The ostensible goal of the campaigns was to take the provincial capital of Hama city and the nearby military airport.

Though rebel forces were within seven kilometers of the capital at the height of the campaign a few weeks ago, the military offensive failed to breach regime fortifications near Hama city.

Despite failing to achieve their stated goals, two military sources on the ground told Syria Direct on Monday that the ongoing battle has succeeded in inflicting heavy losses in the regime ranks and relieving pressure on rebel offensives in other areas.

“The battle achieved many aims, exhausting the regime’s forces,” First Lieutenant Mohammad al-Mahmoud, military spokesman for Jaish al-Izza, told Syria Direct on Monday. “It took the regime 25 days to take back the rebel positions through a scorched earth policy and heavy shelling.”

 Syrian government forces near the town of Qumhanah. April 1, 2017. Photo courtesy of Stringer/AFP/Getty Images.

The rebels have driven back “several” regime attempts to break their lines, said Mohammad Rasheed, a spokesman for Free Syrian Army-affiliated Jaish a-Nasr, which participated in the fighting.

‘The battle continues’

Regime forces regained control over the northern Hama city of Souran on Sunday night, after a “violent buildup” of airstrikes and shelling pushed rebel fighters to retreat, Rasheed, the Jaish a-Nasr spokesman, told Syria Direct on Monday.

Syrian state news agency SANA reported on Monday that the Syrian Arab Army had “restored security and stability” to Souran, as well as a checkpoint to the east of Taybet al-Imam, a rebel-held city to the south.

One month ago, Souran was the first major victory of the rebel campaign in northern Hama. Fighters with Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham—an Islamist coalition including Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, formerly Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate—captured the city within hours of announcing the offensive, paving the way for a ground assault with shelling and two SVBIED attacks.

Rebel factions then proceeded to take more than a dozen towns and military checkpoints, but the offensive stalled seven kilometers north of Hama city. Opposition forces failed in several attempts to overtake the regime’s stronghold in the town of Qumhanah and reach the nearby Zain al-Abdeen Mountains, a military post used by the regime to shell the northern countryside.

Despite losing Souran, the final remnant of last month’s successes, “the battle continues and our retreat does not mean the end,” said Jaish al-Izza spokesman al-Mahmoud.

“Rebel factions are coordinating to distribute themselves across the fronts in order to repel the regime’s attacks,” Jaish a-Nasr’s Rasheed told Syria Direct.

The northern Hama offensive has succeeded in relieving pressure on ongoing rebel offensives in eastern Damascus and the al-Manashiyah district of Daraa city while inflicting heavy casualties among the regime’s ranks, the military spokesman added.

The regime’s counter-offensive similarly shows no signs of relenting. Pro-government forces continued their campaign on Monday near two rebel towns in the northern Hama countryside with a ground offensive toward Taybat al-Imam and bombardment of Halfaya.

A ‘fierce aerial campaign’

In addition to strikes on frontline areas, regime and Russian warplanes reportedly conducted dozens of airstrikes on rebel-held towns in the northern Hama countryside over the past two days.

“Since Sunday, there have been more than 50 air raids on the northern countryside, and that is just a preliminary estimate,” Mohammad Hamada, a spokesman for the Hama Civil Defense, told Syria Direct on Monday.

 Halfaya on Monday. Photo courtesy of Al-Amawi News.

Civil Defense members responded to airstrikes in Kafr Zeita, al-Lataminah and several other rebel-held towns north of the provincial capital in recent days.

The strikes are part of a “fierce aerial campaign” that has hit civilian areas in addition to rebel-regime frontlines, said Hamada. Regime forces are also launching rocket fire on opposition-controlled towns from the Zain al-Abdeen Mountains, the Civil Defense official added.

Despite losing ground, rebel forces are still using their positions in the northern countryside to target the Hama military airport and weaken the regime’s airpower.

Fighters for the Free Syrian Army-affiliated Jaish al-Izza claim to have interrupted the airbase’s operation on Sunday after launching dozens of GRAD missiles at the military airport.

We could see the flames rising from the airport from the rebel-held areas of the northern Hama countryside,” al-Mahmoud, spokesman for the rebel faction, told Syria Direct.

 

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.

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

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.