AMMAN: Rebel forces in northwestern Syria have launched their fourth offensive in four years to “reach the heart of Hama city” and take control of the nearby military airport.
Islamist coalition Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS) and FSA-affiliated Jaish al-Izza announced a pair of coordinated military offensives in the northern Hama countryside on Tuesday night. Hours later, rebel forces had captured numerous towns north of the provincial capital.
Three rebel spokesmen told Syria Direct on Wednesday that the renewed military offensive in the northern Hama countryside would relieve pressure on rebel forces battling the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) in eastern Damascus. But they all stressed that the attack was not just a diversionary tactic but rather an all-out effort to breach the fortified regime bastion of Hama city, a long-sought prize for Syria’s northern rebels.
An HTS SVBIED detonates at a regime checkpoint in Souran on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Ebaa News Agency.
“This is not a hit-and-run battle. It’s open warfare this time,” Eyad al-Homsi, spokesman for FSA-affiliated Jaish a-Nasr, told Syria Direct on Wednesday.
Rebel forces last attempted to take control of Hama city in September 2016, Syria Direct reported at the time. The previous offensive—dubbed “Go Forth with God”—saw rebels advance to within 10km of Hama city.
The advance, however, stalled one month later when Islamist and FSA-affiliated opposition factions withdrew from the frontlines in order to fight each other. The outbreak of infighting among the factions allowed SAA forces to regain the northern Hama towns that the rebels took in the preceding weeks, Syria Direct reported in October.
Rebel forces launched similar campaigns in 2015 (“Victory from God”) and 2014 (“Badr a-Sham”), both with the same stated goal: reach the Hama airport and conquer Hama city.
‘The battle has begun’
In the past 24 hours, rebel forces—including HTS, Jaish al-Izza, the Free Idlib Army and Jaish a-Nasr—took several regime-held towns and checkpoints in Hama’s northern countryside. The offensive began Tuesday evening with two SVBIED operations by HTS on checkpoints north of the town of Souran.
Since then, fighters with Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham took control of Khattab and its supply warehouses, approximately 10km north of Hama city.
FSA-affiliated rebel groups also launched missiles at the Hama military airport, which lies just west of the provincial capital. The Free Idlib Army, a faction participating in the offensive, claimed that they destroyed two regime warplanes with heavy artillery fire from their positions in the northern countryside.
“After a months-long military standstill, the battle has begun to restore the revolution,” a spokesman for HTS told Syria Direct on Wednesday. “Everyone can see how quickly we are progressing.”
Rebel forces are currently seven kilometers from Hama city, Abu Mahmoud, a military commander for Jaish a-Nasr told Syria Direct on Wednesday.
The target, rebel commanders told Syria Direct, is the Zain al-Abdeen Mountains, an elevated area which overlooks Hama city six kilometers to the north.
Fighters walk amidst destruction in Souran, Hama. March 22, 2017. Photo courtesy of Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images.
“The last line of defense for Hama and its military airport is the Zain al-Abdeen Mountains,” said Jaish al-Izza spokesman Murad al-Hawai. “If we can control it, Hama’s military will fall.”
Hama’s military airport, a base for regime planes that launch airstrikes on northern Hama and Idlib provinces, has been a target of opposition forces in the northwest for several years.
“The main goal is to reach the Hama airport as an introduction to a later battle to conquer Hama city,” Salim al-Abrash, a rebel commander for A-Sham Legion told pro-opposition Syria Mubasher in June 2014.
Opposition forces had just launched the “Badr a-Sham” campaign in the northern Hama countryside. After almost three years, the rebels’ goal remains the same.
As Syria’s rebel forces pushed south toward Hama city on Wednesday afternoon, regime reinforcements began mobilizing. Photos of tanks and heavy artillery heading toward Hama province circulated online.
The dual offensives in northern Hama seem to have done little to detract from the regime’s focus on eastern Damascus. SAA forces battled with rebel groups on Wednesday in the industrial area between the eastern Damascus neighborhood of Qaboun and the opposition-held East Ghouta suburbs.