AMMAN: Hardline Syrian rebels in northeast Hama province are fighting on Tuesday to drive back Islamic State forces that swept into the area a day earlier and captured more than a dozen villages, a rebel spokesman and sources on the ground told Syria Direct.
Battles to drive out Islamic State (IS) fighters from northeast Hama province "are ongoing," Emad Mujahid, the official spokesman for the hardline rebel coalition Hay'at Tahir a-Sham (HTS) told Syria Direct on Tuesday.
On Monday, IS fighters advancing from the Uqayrbat region 20km away in eastern Hama descended upon and swiftly captured 16 villages in HTS-held territory. The IS forces were armed with tanks, heavy weapons and 20 pickup trucks, HTS spokesman Mujahid said.
A statement posted on Nashir, one of the Islamic State's official news outlets, on Monday announced the group had launched a "wide-scale attack on positions of the apostates," referring to HTS. IS said it had captured four HTS fighters, weapons and ammunition during the course of the attack.
Members of HTS—an Islamist rebel alliance led by a former Al-Qaeda affiliate—launched a counter-offensive and, as of mid-afternoon on Tuesday, recaptured approximately one third of the villages captured by IS, Ahmad al-Yasin, a local citizen journalist told Syria Direct.
HTS fighters prepare for counter-IS offensive in east Hama province on Monday. Photo courtesy of Ebaa News Agency.
But while it is clear that the Islamic State launched an attack in Hama province, it is not immediately apparent how the forces who led that drive reached HTS positions.
While official IS media did not state where the attack originated, every source in Hama who Syria Direct spoke to on Tuesday said that the IS fighters came from Uqayrbat, a desert region of approximately 2,600 square kilometers in the province's east.
But if Monday’s offensive indeed originated from Uqayrbat, IS forces—along with their heavy weapons and armored vehicles—had to cross at least 20km of territory ostensibly controlled by regime forces.
IS captured Uqayrbat in 2014, but regime forces recaptured significant portions of the area in the past several months, Syrian state news agency SANA reported last month.
HTS released a statement via the encrypted messaging app Telegram on Monday accusing the Syrian regime of coordinating with IS to allow fighters safe passage through government-controlled territory to Hama.
The latest Hama offensive bears similarities to an attack by IS earlier this month in Homs province, where the militant group's forces were able to capture the town of Qaryatayn, hundreds of kilometers inside regime-held territory.
In northeastern Hama province, the latest battles between HTS and IS have displaced for a second time some 500 people who had previously fled there from Uqayrbat, Ahmad al-Hamawi, a member of the Uqayrbat Local Council headquartered in Hama province, told Syria Direct.
"They initially wanted to stay with relatives here rather than go to the camps," said al-Hamawi. "But with the danger from this attack, they were moved."
"IS would view them as apostates for fleeing IS territory previously," said al-Hamawi.