Syrian army takes hold of key central town
Syrian government forces took hold of the town of Helfaya Friday, a central town known for frequent shifts between government and rebel control. (AFP/File)
Government forces have captured a central Syrian town that has changed hands several times during the civil war, the military and activists said Friday.
By retaking the town of Helfaya in Hama province, troops will be better positioned to defend nearby Christian and Alawite communities that support President Bashar Assad. Central Syria is a communal patchwork, with large communities of Christians, Ismailis and Alawites, many of whom fear Sunni extremists among the rebels.
The Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front is known to be active in Hama province and has been behind attacks in recent weeks on the Christian town of Mhardeh, west of Helfaya.
The army command said that the offensive aims “to wipe out terrorists in northern parts of Hama.” It added that “a large number of terrorists were killed in the fighting, many of them foreign fighters.”
Rami Abdel-Rahman, the head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists inside Syria, said Helfaya was captured by the army Thursday.
Abdel-Rahman and a Hama-based activist who goes by the name of Yazan Shahdawi said the army offensive was commanded by one of Syria’s best-known officers, Col. Suheil al-Hasan, who is also known as “The Tiger.”
Hasan is said to be one of Assad’s favorite soldiers. In May he led a force that was able to lift a monthslong siege imposed by rebels on the central prison in Aleppo, once Syria’s largest city and commercial center. Last year, his forces captured the strategic town of Khanasser between central regions and Aleppo. The army’s next target appears to be the rebel strongholds of Kafr Zeita and Morek, which are on the highway that links Hama with Aleppo, Shahdawi said.
Pro-opposition media outlets blamed various rebel groups and the Nusra Front for withdrawing from Helfaya in the face of the government offensive. Some reports attributed the pullout to the rebels’ desire to muster their forces elsewhere, and specifically to send fighters to areas where the rebels are battling the Al-Qaeda splinter group ISIS.
But others questioned why the insurgents focused their attention on Helfaya in the first place, since it lacks significant military value.
Nusra fighters said their leader, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, had been leading the offensive and gave an emotional speech to rally his fighters as they moved into the area several weeks ago. Abdel-Rahman said the Nusra Front fighters had staged a sudden withdrawal from Helfaya. “In the last week they called in other fighters because they couldn’t continue,” he said.
The Nusra Front had massed some 1,500 fighters in Helfaya in recent weeks in apparent preparation for an attack on Mhardeh, it added.
The government offensive in Hama province is expected to relieve pressure on the Hama military airport, which in recent weeks has come under bombardment by rebel militias. Dozens of combatants on both sides had been killed in the week since government forces and allied fighters launched their counter offensive in the area, the Observatory said.
Also Friday, the Observatory said the death toll from government air raids on the Damascus suburb of Douma rose to 42, including seven children.
Abdel-Rahman said several funerals were held in the suburb Friday amid intense shelling by government forces. Among those killed were an unspecified number of rebels. Activists posted videos on YouTube showing the destruction caused by the raids in Douma, a frequent target of deadly strikes.
People could be seen carrying the charred remains of victims amid scenes of panic as firefighters battled to put out blazes in several buildings.
Meanwhile, the leader one of the largest rebel militias in the Damascus area, Zahran Alloush of the Islam Army, has issued a chilling warning that he would begin summarily executing any regime pilot held prisoner by his group.
A statement by Alloush, widely circulated on pro-opposition media, said the threat came in response to the regime’s wave of airstrikes on Douma, claiming that Thursday’s strikes killed more than 80 people and wounded over 200.
“Prepare yourselves, you criminals. Your comrades thought that they would never fall into our hands, or that they would be able to fly in the skies freely,” he said, on his Twitter account. Alloush gave no information on the number of pilots his group claims to have captured over the course of the war, but the Islam Army is active throughout Rural Damascus province, where several downings of regime aircraft have been claimed.
Also near the capital, rebel groups and ISIS militants have agreed a non-aggression pact for the first time in a suburb of the capital, the Observatory and activist groups said. The Observatory said the agreement was agreed between ISIS and moderate and Islamist rebels in Hajar al-Aswad, south of the capital. Under the deal, “the two parties will respect a truce until a final solution is found and they promise not to attack each other because they consider the principal enemy to be the Nussayri regime.”
Nussayri is a pejorative term for the Alawite sect, to which Assad belongs.