As the battle for Hama intensifies, the battlefield has become increasingly more complex after the Islamic State’s recent capture of Tabqa Airbase. The absence of the Syrian Arab Army in the Ar-Raqqa Governate leaves the city of Salamiyyah (Hama Governate) susceptible to Islamic State attacks and possibly a siege. Another component that further complicates the clarity of the battlefield is the multiple offensives the FSA/Jabhat Al-Nusra and the Syrian Arab Army have launched against one another in west Hama. According to sources in the Hama Governate, both sides have at least two major offensives against each other and the same goals: cutoff supply routes and the advancement of their troops.
Jabhat Al-Nusra leads two major offensives: the siege of Mhardeh (west Hama) and Hama Military Airport. While, there are many groups involved in the fighting; it is easier to associate most opposition groups with the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Jabhat Al-Nusra is leading the operations under the command of their leader and founder, Abu Mohammad Al-Jolani. Al-Jolani is believed to be in the vicinity of Mhardeh – possibly in Halfaya – overseeing the operations and commanding his forces. For Jabhat Al-Nusra, Hama’s centralized location is critical because it is the gateway to southern Aleppo and northern Homs.
The opposition forces main attack is at Mhardeh, where they are currently besieging the predominately Christian town from the northeast. The majority of the firefights have been reported at the Mhardeh Power Plant; an area that is heavily fortified by the civilian-led National Defense Forces (NDF). If the militants can breakthrough the frontline defenses, they will be able to enter the imperative village. Jabhat Al-Nusra does face resistance from the NDF near the Bateesh Checkpoint, located east of Mhardeh. If Jabhat Al-Nusra can maintain control of the Bateesh Checkpoint, the SAA reinforcements will have trouble trying to break the siege.
Syrian Arab Army/National Defense Forces/Mouqawama Souri:
For the Syrian Arab Army Central Command, there is no front more vital than western Hama because of the proximity to the M-5 Highway, linking Aleppo and Damascus through Homs and Hama. To show its importance, the Central Command concentrated the SAA’s Special Operations Unit, the “Tiger Forces” to the Khattab and Military Airport fronts. Similar to Jabhat Al-Nusra, the leader of the Tiger Forces, Col. Soheil Al-Hassan, leads the operation to recapture Khattab (south of Mhardeh) from the village of Al-Sheyha. So far, the SAA has gained ground in Khattab, capturing FSA positions in the south and linking up with the NDF troops caught behind enemy lines. Capturing Khattab will create a dilemma for Jabhat Al-Nusra at Halfaya because if the NDF is successful in repelling the attack, there is the possibility of a flank from the south and the west.
North of Mhardeh is the besieged village of Morek; an area that has been under attack by the Syrian Arab Army for two months. Morek’s proximity to the southern Idlib city of Khan Sheikhoun (captured by the Islamic Front at the end of Spring) is one reason why the SAA Central Command has highly advertised this battle. Morek’s rough terrain has created problems for the SAA tanks, as the rebels anti-tank TOW missiles have made it extremely difficult to enter the village.
Assisting the SAA at Morek is the Mouqawama Souri (Syrian Resistance); they are a predominately Alawi militia that are politically aligned with the communist movement. Mouqawama Souri fighters tend to be concentrated near the coast and Wadi Al-Ghaab; however, they have been present on the Homs front.
Unlike the SAA and Opposition Forces, the Islamic State does not have a major presence in Hama just yet; this is likely to change in the coming months as the I.S. looks to expand its operations. The Islamic State will have to fight through the Syrian Arab Army’s defenses at the Khanasser-Salamiyyah Highway (M-42 Highway). If they are successful, Salamiyyah will be under siege in east Hama. The Islamic State has attacked Salamiyyah before, but they were not able to penetrate through the NDF’s defenses.