Syrian factions advanced to within a few kilometres of the government-held city of Hama today in a major assault in the western region of Syria critically important to the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad, a war monitor reported.
The offensive was launched yesterday after an attack in the capital Damascus, where heavy fighting persists, showing the lingering threat posed by the opposition even as the Assad regime enjoys the military upper hand thanks to Russian military support and Iranian-sponsored Shia jihadist militias.
The Hama offensive also includes Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters who had agreed to a truce in December brokered by Russia and Turkey, underlining the bleak prospects for UN-backed peace talks that are due to reconvene in Geneva on Thursday.
Opposition negotiators boycotted the last peace talks in the Kazakh capital Astana, accusing Russia, Iran and the Assad regime of failing to adhere to the terms of the December ceasefire agreement. The Hama offensive represents a return to hostilities to prevent the regime from making further gains under the guise of a truce.
A Syrian regime military source told Reuters the army was sending reinforcements against the opposition thrust, adding that the insurgents had mobilised large numbers for the assault.
An opposition commander told pro-opposition Orient TV that insurgents planned to open yet more fronts.
The Observatory, a Britain-based war monitor, said insurgents had captured the towns of Soran, 20 kilometres north of Hama, Khattab, ten kilometres northwest of Hama, and Al-Majdal, six kilometres west of Khattab.
The assault on Soran began on Tuesday with two car bombs being deployed in addition to rockets and artillery.
The areas of Hama province targeted in the latest assault form part of Syria’s pivotal western region where Al-Assad has shored up his rule during the six-year-long war with crucial military support from Russia and Iran.
“There are fierce battles between the two sides,” the military source said.
Although the FSA are involved in the operation, the attack is being spearheaded by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, or the Syrian Liberation Organisation (SLO), an alliance of Islamist factions dominated by a group that was formerly Al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in the Syrian war.
“The battle – praise be to God – has been prepared for a long time and all capacities have been prepared for it so that we can wage a long battle,” an FSA commander identified as a lieutenant in the Jaysh Al-Ezza, or Army of Dignity, told Orient TV.
The rebels and opposition factions have been on the backfoot since Russia deployed its air force to Syria in 2015 to bolster the Assad regime. They suffered their worst setback of the six-year war in December when government forces seized eastern Aleppo from the opposition.
Syrian regime forces, supported by Iranian-backed sectarian Shia militias, have been pressing their military edge despite the December truce, winning back more areas including one near Damascus, the Wadi Barada valley, the source of the capital’s water supply.
The escalation in Hama province follows two opposition assaults on government-held areas in Jobar in Damascus, launched by opposition fighters from the Eastern Ghouta, an opposition stronghold east of the capital that is currently besieged by the regime.
State media said today that the army was waging fierce clashes with insurgents in northern Jobar and that the air force was pounding insurgents and their supply lines in the area.
The Army of Dignity commander said the opposition attack in Hama was coordinated with the one in Damascus. He also said that more attacks would be launched “in a number of other areas”.
The increase in fighting between the rebels and the army came in the run-up to new peace talks in Geneva.
But the obstacles facing peacemaking were on display last week when Turkey-backed rebel groups shunned talks in Kazakhstan aimed at firming up the December ceasefire and criticised Russia for failing to get its allies to adhere to the truce.