AMMAN: Syrian rebels led by Jund al-Aqsa “took complete control” of the key town of Morek in the northern Hama countryside early Thursday, striking a major blow to an ongoing regime campaign to drive out rebels and secure northwest Hama province.
“Rebels took complete control of Morek and the tank battalion adjacent to it,” Sharif Muhammad, the spokesman for the pro-opposition Hama Media Center told Syria Direct Thursday.
Morek lies on the M5 Hama-Aleppo highway, an essential artery in maintaining control of western Syria.
Opposition fighters and activists announced on social media early Thursday that the town had changed hands after two consecutive days of fighting.
“A little while ago, your brothers in Jund al-Aqsa were able to complete the battle in Morek, which has been completely liberated,” a post on the group’s Twitter page read on Thursday. “The ranks of the army have collapsed” and withdrawn to the south, according to the brigade.
Jund al-Aqsa fighters pose in Morek on Thursday. Photo courtesy of Jund al-Aqsa.
A Jund al-Aqsa video clip posted online Wednesday showed its fighters bombarding regime positions in Morek with preliminary mortar, heavy artillery and rocket fire.
News of the victory swiftly gained traction in pro-opposition Arabic media, with pro-opposition news site Enab Baladi calling it on Thursday “the largest victory for the opposition since Russian intervention.”
“Taking control of Morek means the beginning of retaking the [M5] highway,” said HMC spokesman Muhammad, “allowing rebels to begin operations pushing towards Hama city.”
The Jund al-Aqsa brigade is an Islamist rebel group formerly affiliated with the Victory Army coalition, and is one of several armed rebel groups currently battling regime forces in the northern Hama countryside.
In addition to Morek itself, fighters also “took the tank battalion adjacent to it,” and heavy weaponry left behindby regime forces, Muhammad said.
Celebratory Jund al-Aqsa rebels drove tanks and trucks bearing the group’s black flag emblazoned with the shahada, or testimony to Allah, through the town’s streets, in a video by pro-opposition Orient News on Thursday, as the channel’s correspondent walks through streets filled with rubble.
Rebels have not released a number of those killed from their ranks in fighting for Morek, Muhammad said.
Syrian state media did not report the fall of Morek on Thursday, while pro-regime news page Damascus Now reported that rebels had “taken control of the town of Morek” after “the withdrawal of the Syrian army.”
The loss of the town comes as a blow to a regime campaign launched in early October with Russian air support to push into and eliminate a pocket of rebel control extending into the northern Hama countryside from southern Idlib.
The fall of Morek to rebels, if it holds, “will cut supply lines to the regime, which is working to regain control of the south Idlib countryside” from the mixture of Victory Army and FSA-affiliated rebel groups that currently control it, the HMC spokesman told Syria Direct.
Morek is vitally important for both rebels and regime forces, he adds, as it “is considered the entrance to the northern Hama countryside and the southern Idlib countryside.”
The town had been held by the regime for about a year.
Victory Army-affiliated and other rebel groups have seized multiple regime positions in the northern Hama countryside in recent days, including the Tel Uthman military base on Wednesday. The base was “primarily responsible for most of the bombardment of towns and villages in the northern Hama countryside,” Muhammad said, as well as towns and villages in the Sahl al-Ghab plains region.
The gains come amidst the “Battle of Hama” launched by multiple rebel brigades on October 22 to make gains in the northern Hama countryside.