Fight for town of Qomhana, north of Hama city, shapes up as key point in advancing rebel offensive


UPDATE 1915 GMT: Claims are circulating of a regime chemical attack on a town in northern Hama Province, with a doctor among the victims.

Dr Shajul Islam reports from a hospital in Idlib Province, where victims from Latamneh are being treated:

The slain doctor, whose photograph was posted on Twitter, has been named as Ali Darwish.

UPDATE 1900 GMT: An officer in the Jaish al-Izza faction describes progress in the northern Hama offensive and says the Free Syrian Army will not attack the mainly-Christian town of Mhardeh:

UPDATE 1745 GMT: Multiple reports say pro-Assad forces have withdrawn from Tadaf, south of al-Bab in northern Aleppo Province, leaving the area to Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies.

The reports indicate that the forces have moved to northern Hama Province to help back the rebel offensive.

When the pro-Assad troops moved into Tadaf in late February, it was seen as a challenge to the Turkish-rebel advance, with clashes between the two sides until an uneasy accommodation was brokered by Russia.

ORIGINAL ENTRY: Syria’s rebels have launched the battle for the key town of Qomhana in northern Hama Province.

On the fourth day of an offensive which has taken a series of towns and villages and moved within 5 km (3 miles) of Syria’s fourth largest city Hama, rebels briefly moved into Qomhana to the north.

Local sources reported fierce resistance to the attacks, led by the Islamist bloc of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and units of the Free Syrian Army.

Qomhana is considered one of the key points to hold before any entry into Hama city, because of its role as a staging area and position overlooking the Hama hills. It has a much larger concentration of pro-Assad fighters than the area of northern Hama Province taken so far, and was one of the key recruiting areas to rebuild the “Tiger Forces”, the prominent militia, when the original force was decimated in 2015.

The rebels also face the challenge of a large civilian population which, in contrast with other towns and villages in the area, is more sympathetic to the regime.

Claimed footage of destruction of a regime tank inside Qomhana:

Elsewhere in Hama Province on Friday, rebels consolidated their hold of the more than 90 square km (35 sq miles) taken this week, repelling pro-regime attempts to retake the village of Kawkab. In the northwest of the province, the leading faction Ahrar al-Sham joined the fights: with other factions, it launched an assault between Kafr Naboudah and Karnaz.

Pro-Assad warplanes continued airstrikes to try and fend off the attackers, and also continued retaliatory strikes in opposition-held Idlib Province.

TOP PHOTO: The Islamist bloc Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham launches the attack on Qomhana in Hama Province with a suicide vehicle bomb on Friday

Russia Knocks Back Talk of US-Backed Raqqa Offensive

Supporting the Assad regime, Russia’s Defense Ministry has dismissed talk of an imminent US-backed offensive to take the city of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s central position in Syria.

The Ministry’s spokesman, Major General Igor Konashenkov, dismissed the statement of French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian that the battle would start in the coming days: “Friday’s optimism of the French Defense Minister, who announced Raqqa is encircled, has some specific national sources of inspiration which are not related to reality and situation on the ground.”

Konashenkov continued with a swipe at the US:

These rosy slogans about the encirclement and speedy victory of the (US-led) coalition in Iraq’s Mosul have ended up with heavy casualties among Iraqi forces and a growing humanitarian disaster. Even the biggest optimists have stopped hoping that Mosul will be fully recaptured from Islamic State this year.

It is evident for any military expert that liberation of Raqqa will not be an easy stroll for the international coalition.

He then played the Assad regime’s card, saying that “all the forces that fight against terrorism” had to be involved in the Raqqa operation.

At Geneva Non-Talks, Regime Turns Attention to Raqqa

With political talks in Geneva on Friday reduced to an empty display because of the absence of the opposition-rebel bloc, the Assad regime turned its rhetoric to the battle for the Islamic State-held city of Raqqa in northern Syria.

The lead regime negotiator, Bashar al-Ja’afari, denounced the involvement of either American or Turkish forces in operations to recapture Raqqa, ISIS’s key position in the country: “Any military presence on our territory without the approval of the Syrian government is an illegitimate presence.”

The US is supporting the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, and has put in hundreds more personnel in recent weeks. However, any SDF assault faces the objections of Ankara, which considers the Kurdish militia YPG — the key element in the coalition — part of the Turkish Kurdish insurgency PKK.

A Turkish-rebel force has advanced in northern Aleppo Province, to the west of Raqqa, but faces resistance if it considers any move on the city. Russia as well as the US have deployed forces and equipment in support of SDF positions such as the city of Manbij.

Ja’afari, who met UN envoy Staffan de Mistura on Friday, said no one can fight the Islamic State without coordinating with the Assad regime:

Those who are truly fighting Daesh are the Syrian Arab army with the help of our allies from Russia and Iran.

Direct U.S. military intervention in Syrian territory as well as arming factions in Syria and encouraging them to challenge the authority of the state does not serve the fight against terrorism.

Political talks, brokered by Russia and Turkey, were returned in the Kazakhstan capital Astana and Geneva from last January. However, they have made no progress, and the opposition-rebel bloc has suspended involvement because of the Assad regime’s failure to observe a substantial ceasefire, release political detainees, and end sieges.

Regime Regains Factory in Damascus Fight

Pro-Assad forces have retaken a textiles factory as they try to reclaim territory seized by rebels in northeast Damascus this week.

After days of fighting, shelling, and airstrikes, pro-regime troops moved into the Spinning Factory in the industrial zone between Jobar and the Damascus suburb of Qaboun.

The rebel offensive, launched last Sunday, took a series of buildings in Jobar, the scene of battles since 2012. The rebels also established an overground link with Qaboun, one of three towns which pro-Assad forces have been trying overrun for weeks.

A pro-rebel activist says the regime has now regained the lost territory, which included Abbassiyeen Square, the bus garage, and factories: “The whole area was leveled, over the last days hundreds of airstrikes over a small area….No one can stay there.”