Syria’s rebels continue advance in Hama offensive, hold gains inside Damascus
UPDATE 0745 GMT: Anti-Assad forces have launched their assault to take the key village of Qomhana with a suicide vehicle bombing.
#Qomhana update: intense clashes raging since 7 hours now as Regime putting strong resistance. Rebels seized parts & main clashes in center.
— Qalaat Al Mudiq (@QalaatAlMudiq) March 24, 2017
Meanwhile, a local source says the leading faction Ahrar al-Sham has joined the offensive with attacks between Kafr Naboudah and Karnaz in northwestern Hama Province (see map).
Ahrar and other rebel groups have already taken Tel Sakhr and are attacing Mugayr and Bureydij, according to pro-rebel activists.
The Islamist bloc Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham had said on Thursday that Ahrar is excluded from the offensive because of political disputes between the groups.
Syria’s Assad regime and its allies are showing uncertainty in the face of a sudden rebel offensive which has closed within a few miles of Hama city.
The advance, accompanied by rebel attacks in northeastern Damascus, has changed the political and military narrative of a resolution of the conflict favoring President Assad, who has refused any transition in which he will give up power.
On Thursday, the Islamist bloc Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Free Syrian units consolidated gains in which they have taken about 40 towns, villages, and checkpoints to close within 5 km (3 miles) of Hama city and the Hama military airport. They moved further west, surrounding the mainly-Christian town of Mhardeh, promising no attack because of religious sensitivities but awaiting a possible withdrawal of pro-Assad militias.
On Thursday night, there was heavy fighting near the village of Kawkab, taken by rebels earlier in the day, while the regime held on to Qomhana, last occupied by rebels in 2014.
A pro-rebel activist tweeted late Thursday:
In counter attacks trying to recapture Kawkab, the regime lost 2 Tanks, 1 BMB and several dozen fighters (40+) in 6 failed attacks
— Orontes River (@river_orontes) March 23, 2017
A “Syrian military source” insisted that the regime is summoning reinforcements for a counter-offensive: “We have absorbed the attack and we are consolidating defense lines set up in the areas breached.”
However, the movement of reinforcements has been hindered by the cut-off of main routes. Rebels control roads from northern Homs Province and Latakia Province, while the Islamic State, battling pro-Assad forces east of Aleppo city, have occupied the Aleppo-to-Hama road.
Pro-Assad airstrikes have tried to check the rebels, but some of the largest attacks by Russian warplanes have been retaliatory raids on civilian areas in Idlib Province, far from the frontline.
Pro-opposition Orient News reports from Ariha, bombed on Thursday:
Syrian State news agency SANA avoided any acknowledgement of the difficulties but put out the line, “Army units, in cooperation with the supporting forces, have consolidated the repelling lines they set up earlier in the face of the terrorist groups which had infiltrated some of the towns and military points in the northern countryside of Hama and are engaged in fierce clashes with these groups”. It asserted that “a large number of terrorists” had been killed and three tanks and five armored vehicles destroyed.
Inside Damascus, there was little apparent movement after rebel gains since Sunday in the northeastern section of Jobar. The rebel forces, led by Faylaq al-Rahman and Ahrar al-Sham, continued to hold Abbassiyeen Square, the Fares Khoury road, the bus garage, and part of the industrial area.
The offensive has also established an overground link with the Damascus suburb of Qaboun, which pro-Assad forces have been trying for weeks to overrun in defiance of a 2014 “reconciliation” agreement. Rebels had been moving between Jobar and Qaboun through a series of tunnels.
Syrian State media maintained from a “military source”, that “hundreds of terrorists from Jabhat al-Nusra” — who actually has a small role in the offensive — “and groups affiliated to it were killed or injured as a result of the army’s successive strikes against their movements in several directions”.
The UN warned that, despite the rebel advance, the opposition-held suburbs such as Qaboun, Barzeh, and Tishreen are in a humanitarian crisis. Jan Egeland, the head of the UN’s humanitarian operations, said about 300,000 people are cut off from aid.
“Starvation will be just around the corner unless we get there in the coming weeks,” he said.
Pro-Assad Activist Calls for Use of Chemical Weapons
Amid the rebel advance, a pro-Assad activist has called for the use of chemical weapons.
Paul Antonopoulos, who writes for the Al Masdar blog, tweeted:
— Paul Antonopoulos (@oulosP) March 22, 2017
Ironically, Al Masdar has distorted reports by the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to claim that rebels, rather than the Assad regime, have pursued chemical attacks in Syria.
TOP PHOTO: Rebel armored vehicles moving towards Qomhana in northern Hama Province on Friday