Hama: Jund al-Aqsa spearheads major offensive after defeat in Aleppo
On August 29th, 2016, the usually quiet northern Hama frontline exploded – both literally and figuratively. Frustrated by recent military failures in the Aleppo theatre, a coalition of opposition factions spearheaded by the controversial Jund al-Aqsa launched a major assault on Syrian government checkpoints south of al-Lataminah. Jund al-Aqsa is notorious for its extremely radical leadership, and has previously been accused of assisting the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Shaam (ISIS, or the Islamic State) in some of their operations. However, they were unchallenged in launching a new attack and were even supported by local rebel brigades. The government defenses crumbled beneath the onslaught of veteran fighters which, coupled with suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (SVBIEDs) launched by Jund al-Aqsa, seized multiple checkpoints and captured the town of Halfaya. Government forces, disorganized and suffering failure of communications systems, were thrown into disarray and panic. This set the stage for major operations in the region north of Hama.
The rebel assault was primarily led by Jund al-Aqsa, a faction that is technically allied with Jabhat an-Nusra and their opposition coalition, but included several other FSA and Islamist elements as well. On the second day of battle, a number of FSA battalions – Jaish al-Nasr, Jaish al-Izza, and Jaish al-Tahrir – showed up to the fight and helped capture Taybat al-Imam. Islamist battalions were rumored to be present at the fight as well, with Ahrar ash-Shaam, Ajnad al-Shaam, and the Turkestan Islamic Party all reportedly deploying fighters to the new frontline as regime forces struggled to regroup. Despite recent conflict between Ahrar ash-Shaam and Jund al-Aqsa, the two factions did not come to grips throughout the Hama offensive, fighting instead as a cohesive group.
As the battle moved into the second day Jund al-Aqsa, aided by a number of Free Syrian Army (FSA) battalions, namely Jaish al-Nasr, Jaish al-Izza, and Jaish al-Tahrir, successfully captured Taybat al-Imam. Islamist battalions were rumoured to be present during the fight as well, with Ahrar ash-Shaam, Ajnad al-Shaam, and the Turkestan Islamic Party all reportedly deploying fighters to the new frontline as regime forces struggled to regroup. Despite the recent conflict between Ahrar ash-Shaam and Jund al-Aqsa, the two factions did not come into conflict throughout the Hama offensive, fighting instead as a cohesive group.
After the loss of Taybat al-Imam on August 31st, government forces were able to regroup despite armour and vehicle losses, including the loss of an Aerospatiale Gazelle that was shot down by Jaish al-Izza. An attempted counterattack on opposition lines by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) was repelled, resulting in significant losses among government ranks. After this, Jund al-Aqsa’s notorious reputation was reaffirmed when images and a video of its fighters decapitating captured NDF soldiers surfaced. Unsuccessful Syrian counterattacks continued with heavy losses, although rebel assaults on Ma’an and Kawkab were also stymied by frustrated and determined defenders. The SyAAF targeted enemy positions to little effect.
As Ahrar ash-Shaam confirmed their presence on the battlefield by firing rockets at Hama Airport and other military bases, Jund al-Aqsa spearheaded another offensive on the town of Ma’ardes, which was crucial due to its position north of Hama and its fortified military base. Early in the morning on September 1st, the attack began in earnest. Launching drone bombings11 and mortar strikes on the base and town, the rebel coalition forced regime defenders to rout, and Ma’ardes fell within hours. Government journalists later confirmed this despite denying earlier reports, and yet more SAA reinforcements were rushed to Hama to shore up defenses closer to the city. Further government counterattacks that day were repelled with minor losses on both sides. The opposition coalition had gained significant ground, but the battle was not yet finished. As night fell, new frontlines were demarcated and both sides regrouped and prepared to push vigorous offensives against one another; the opposition wished to press on towards Ma’an and Hama city, and the government wanted to recapture lost villages and restore the previous status quo.
On September 4th, Jaish al-Nasr and Jaish al-Izza both announced the start of a new offensive to capture Ma’an, to the northwest of Suran and Ma’ardes. Despite great enthusiasm within the opposition ranks, the first attack launched from Atshan failed to gain any ground which resulted in heavy shelling from the rebel factions. Howitzers and mortars were fired on Ma’an and the SyAAF took to the skies to bomb enemy positions in retaliation for the bombardment. After their initial failure, Jund al-Aqsa regrouped and launched an even larger attack on both Ma’an and Kawkab, but this too was repelled. Images of abandoned BMPs and dead fighters proved the SAA claims of victory, and the rebel coalition was forced to pull back without any gains.
Between the 5th and 8th, the skirmishes and bombardment continued, with little ground gained beyond the SAA recapture of Ma’ardes. With reinforcements reportedly arriving again on the 10th the government appeared to have the upper hand as they shelled Taybat al-Imam and and Suran with impunity. However, their victories were short-lived; the next day, Jund al-Aqsa and the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) launched a surprise assault on Kawkab catching the defenders off-guard. Despite heavy fighting, the rebels were able to penetrate all enemy checkpoints and capture the town, which was later confirmed by activists who reported from within the town. Jaish al-Nasr then attempted to capitalize on their success with attacks on Ma’an and Ma’ardes, but both assaults failed and resulted in significant casualties.
Currently, both sides are regrouping, reinforcing, and preparing for another round of significant fighting. The likely focus of future fighting will be Qomhana and Jabal Kafraa, as the mountainous terrain north of the city is crucial for any future attacks on Hama proper. Despite recapturing Ma’ardes, it is unlikely that the government will have a chance at regaining all of their lost ground; the opposition has had time to shore up defenses in Taybat al-Imam and Halfaya, and the SAA in the area lacks the offensive capabilities necessary to decisively regain lost terrain. The best strategy for the government would be to reinforce their defenses in Ma’ardes and Qomhana, and deny their enemies any terrain advantage. Losing Jabal Arbaeen and Jabal Kafraa would be a devastating blow to their plans in the Hama theatre, and losing Qomhana would mean that the opposition is at the gates of Hama. It is imperative for them to retain what ground they do hold, and attempt a counteroffensive if they sense a weakness in their opponents’ defenses.