Syrian rebels advance in Hama province
Syrian rebels launched a wide-scale military operation against Assad's army in Hama province. (AFP/File)
A Syrian rebel alliance has launched a major offensive in northwest Syria, pushing back government troops in an area bordering President Bashar Assad’s coastal heartland, a monitoring group said.
Since Monday night, the Army of Conquest alliance has seized a number of positions from the Syrian army in Sahel al-Ghab, a large plain in Hama province bordering Latakia, bastion of the Assad clan.
In a video published by the alliance, which is anchored by Ahrar al-Sham and the Nusra Front, a commander boasts of the “liberation” of several strategic hilltops, checkpoints and a power plant.
The bearded military leader said that “the army of Assad retreated to Alawite villages,” referring to the sect to which Assad belongs.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring group, the Army of Conquest’s advance in the Ghab plain, which also borders Idlib province, is highly significant.
“After this advance, there is nothing left for the regime in Idlib province – which is almost completely held by rebels – except the Abu Dhuhur airport and two Shiite villages, Foa and Kafraya,” Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.
“And in Hama province, the positions taken by the rebels were the first line of defense for several towns held by the regime as well as Alawite villages,” he added.
Abdel-Rahman said the first village likely to be targeted by rebels would be Jourin, where the Syrian army operates a command base for its forces fighting in the Ghab.
The Army of Conquest seized control of Idlib city, capital of the province by the same name, on March 28. Since then, it scored a series of major victories that put it in control of a vast majority of the province, which borders Turkey.
Syria’s armed forces withdrew to reinforce their positions in Latakia in case of a rebel attack there.
Meanwhile, government forces and a Kurdish militia have driven ISIS fighters out of Hassakeh city in the northeast, a month after the hard-line group attacked it, the Observatory said. It said clashes were continuing in the city’s southern outskirts but that Hassakeh itself was now free from ISIS fighters.
The group launched a major attack on the city on June 25, focusing initially on the government-held south of Hassakeh. The ensuing battle drew in the Kurdish YPG, which held north Hassakeh, resulting in the US-backed Kurds fighting ISIS in close proximity to government forces shunned by Washington. The YPG militia has repeatedly said it does not coordinate with Syrian regime forces against their shared enemy, ISIS.
The Observatory said scores of ISIS fighters, government troops and allied pro-government militia had been killed since the beginning of the June offensive.
Last week, a YPG spokesman said the militia was in near-full control of the city, a statement at odds with Syrian state media reports of a strong performance by the military.
The government has been focusing on trying to shore up its control over big population centers in western Syria, including the capital Damascus, but Hassakeh is one of several areas where it has also sought to preserve control in recent fighting.