Thu, 18 Jul 2019

WASHINGTON - Syrian rebel groups have launched a major offensive this week against government troops in a Syrian province in what is seen by analysts as a new twist to the ongoing conflict in the northwestern part of the country.

Rebel fighters affiliated with the Turkish-backed National Front for Liberation said Tuesday that they have begun targeting Syrian regime forces in the northern part of Hama, a province bordering the flashpoint province of Idlib, which is the last rebel stronghold in Syria.

The new assault is primarily aimed at targeting villages from which government forces launch attacks on Idlib, according to a rebel source quoted by German news agency DPA.

This "military operation that opposition groups have started positions belonging to regime troops came about after government forces deployed military reinforcements in the countryside of Hama and Idlib in order to launch a large military offensive," the unidentified rebel source said.

Hama province has largely been under the control of the Syrian regime with parts of it briefly captured by rebel groups and Islamic State (IS) militants during different stages of Syria's civil war.

For weeks, Syrian government troops, backed by Russian warplanes and Iranian militias, have been trying to dislodge rebels from Idlib. Dozens of civilians have been killed in the recent escalation across Idlib, according to local media.

Distraction strategy

Assaulting areas like Hama at this point could be an attempt by the rebels to distract the regime from focusing on it, some analysts charge.

"This offensive is to move the battle to regime-held areas as opposed to keeping in rebel-held areas, which has been Idlib for a long time now," said Rami Abdulrahman, director of Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Syrian war monitor.

"There is a Russian military presence in Hama. So rebels are also seeking to threaten Russian forces there," he told VOA.

But other experts view this offensive as an extension of the ongoing battle between rebels and Syrian government forces.

"For rebels, the battles of Idlib and Hama is one battle because to be able to enter Idlib, they have to first battle regime troops in northern Hama," said Ahmed Rahal, a former Syrian army general who is now a military analyst based in Istanbul.

Impasse for Russia

Rahal added that such battlefronts could create a new impasse for Russia as Moscow has been seeking to assert the control of its embattled ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"The Russians are in an awkward position. They clearly didn't accomplish their objectives to retake Idlib from opposition fighters and now Hama is under threat," he told VOA.

Fabrice Balanche, a Syria expert at the University of Lyon in France, echoes Rahal's assessment about the ongoing battle for northwestern Syria.

"More than the Syrian regime itself, Russia has been trying so hard to remove rebels and extremist groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham from the entirety of Idlib," he said.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a powerful Islamist group that was once al-Qaida's Syria branch, controls large territory in Idlib.

Recently, HTS claimed responsibility for a missile attack against the Russian Hmeimim air base in the nearby province of Latakia.

Turkey's role

With hopes to end the violence in Idlib, Turkey and Russia signed an agreement in September of 2018 which required Turkey to remove extremist elements from Idlib, while Russia would stop the Syrian regime from carrying out attacks on the province.

Several months into the deal, however, both sides have so far been unable to fully implement a ceasefire. This, experts believe, has caused tensions between the two powers.

"Turkey is not happy about Russia's insistence to retake Idlib from rebels," Balanche said.

"So by launching an offensive in Hama, Turkish President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan wants to tell Moscow that Turkish-backed rebels can still create problems for Russian forces elsewhere in Syria," he said.

Yielding to pressure

While Syrian regime forces seem to have the upper hand in recent battles against opposition fighters, some experts believe this time around rebel fighters are poised to shift the balance.

"Opposition forces appear to be more organized which could make this offensive [on Hama] very costly for the Assad regime," military analyst Rahal said.

"That's why we are seeing Hezbollah and other Shi'ite militias are being deployed to the frontlines once again," he added.

Since the beginning of Syria's conflict in 2011, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias have played a central role in recapturing major cities from rebel forces.

Depleted from years of fighting on different fronts across the country, experts express doubts about the capability of Syrian government troops to get involved in yet another unpredictable battle with rebels.

"The Syrian regime could yield to this pressure from rebels, because they understand that they don't have enough resources to protect Hama and engage in a large battle in Idlib at the same time," analyst Balanche said.

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