AMMAN: Regime forces backed by Russian airstrikes launched a broad ground offensive against a string of rebel-held towns just north of Hama city, Ibrahim a-Shamali, a Hama-based journalist with the Ummaya Media Center, told Syria Direct on Wednesday.
“Regime artillery and rocket forces fired a heavy barrage against north Hama villages, backed by Russian airstrikes,” said a-Shamali, adding that the villages include al-Latamneh, Kefr Nabudah, Kefr Zita, and al-Habit.
Following the artillery and warplane bombardment, which began Tuesday but intensified in the early hours of Wednesday, regime armor and infantry units attacked at least five rebel-held villages north of Hama, fighting from multiple directions.
“The regime somehow thought Russia’s strikes would give them a rebel-free, scorched land, but instead, they have only intensified our resolve to continue our fight,” Capt. Jameel a-Salih, commander of Tajammua al-Izza, a TOW-operating FSA affiliate allegedly trained and armed by the CIA through the Turkey-based Military Operations Center, told Syria Direct on Wednesday.
Regime-held north Hama borders the southern Idlib countryside, ruled by a mix of Victory Army and FSA-affiliate rebel brigades.
A rebel pocket, or salient, dips south from the southern Idlib countryside, towards regime-held Hama city, about 20km to the southeast. The rebel salient lies surrounded from the south, east and west by regime-held villages, lands and towns (see map below). The rebel pocket covers the villages of al-Latamneh, Kefr Nabudah, Kefr Zayta, a-Sayyad, and al-Habit–all targets of pre-ground-campaign Russian air and regime artillery strikes.
At its base, on the Hama-Idlib border, the rebel salient measures approximately 13km from east to west. Essentially, it is this opening the ground and air attack is attempting to close, strangling the rebels and civilians inside.
A successful regime offensive to crush the north Hama rebels would secure Hama province, while aiding the defense of the Sahel al-Ghab plains to the northwest. With nowhere to go, rebels trapped inside al-Latamneh and Kefr Zayta will have no choice but to abandon the besieged towns.
Rebel territory (green) dips south toward Hama city in a salient covering a constellation of villages, many the targets of recent Russian airstrikes. By simultaneously attacking from the east and west, the regime intends to amputate and then erase this rebel kessel. Map courtesy of Agathocle de Syracuse.
Regime forces, however, appear to have met fierce rebel resistance. Armed with advanced US- and Russian-make anti-tank guided missiles, rebel fighters have reportedly smashed several regime tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers.
“So far, we’ve killed six tanks, four BMP infantry fighting vehicles and one armored personnel carrier,” Ahmed al-Ahmed, a spokesman for the Shaam Legion, a moderate Islamist brigade participating in the battle, told Syria Direct on Wednesday.
A fighter with the Brigade 13 FSA-affiliate in a-Sayyad fires a US-manufactured TOW anti-tank missile, reportedly against a regime tank moving north from Morek to Khan Shakun.
Wednesday's Hama offensive follows a regime infantry and armor buildup, similarly heralded by Russian warplane sorties, south and north of a second rebel pocket northwest of Homs city earlier this week.