Monday, 27 March 2017
Syrian opposition’s Hama offensive: Is it a way out of the deadlock?
'Less than a week ago, Syrian rebels launched a surprise blitz on Assad regime-held towns in northern Hama province. Though it is not yet clear what the aim of the offensive would be, the rebels captured 16 towns and strategic locations of which so far the regime’s allies from Iraq with the help of the Russian air force could only recapture one small town (Kawkab).
The offensive was executed by a wide rebel alliance, ranging from Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) – listed as a terror organization in the EU and US – to moderate brigades of the Free Syrian Army. While critics reason that the Hama push is merely an “al-Qaeda offensive”, this has no basis in fact. It is true that HTS makes the largest groups participating and that suicide bombers paved the way into Souran and other locations. Still, HTS would have no chance if not supported by moderate rebel groups, using strong weapons systems like TOWs and Grad missiles – all foreign-supplied.
So, liked or not by actors abroad, Syrian rebel groups launched a united offensive that could only be as successful as seen because units cooperated beyond ideological differences.
The regime and Russia reacted in their well-known way: Brutal and rogue. While Russian jets and Iraqi militias – so far – showed only little capacity to push back rebel forces at the front, their air-dropped bombs and artillery systems hit opposition-held towns far behind the front in Idlib and Hama provinces, targeting educational institutions, hospitals and civilian homes. Dozens of innocent people got killed in conventional and chemical weapons attacks, a tactic aimed at breaking the will of the rebels by killing their families far from the fighting fronts.
But will the offensive unblock the diplomatic and military deadlock engulfing the country since the Turkey-Russia-Iran Astana negotiations and the alleged ceasefire that started late last year? Several factors indicate some strategic movement.
While Assad never stopped trying to advance in East Ghouta and west of Aleppo since January, groups under Turkish influence widely adhered to the negotiated ceasefire. But as the regime did not stop its offensives and Russia moved closer to the Turkish border, providing the YPG west of Manbij and recently in Afrin with de facto protective shields against Turkey, Ankara seems to have run out of patience with a “ceasefire” that only benefitted pro-Assad parties.
The Hama offensive with all its participating groups and seemingly recently-arrived permissions and weapons shows that the rebels still have the ability to advance and even hold ground against an apparently superior Assad-Russia-Iran alliance – when working together and getting the logistical support needed to do so. At the same time, the offensive is not likely to signal the beginning of a general U-turn in dynamics and it remains to be seen if rebels can hold the land they captured, let alone further advance as thousands of Shia militants reinforced weak Assad militias in the area.
But it is a distinct indication that outside actors, supporting Syrian opposition groups, are not (yet) willing to accept a creeping victory by Iran and Russia and their proxy Assad on the ground in Syria. The message to the Assad coalition is clear: If you keep ignoring the ceasefire like you did over the past two months, it will not hold and you will suffer under it like the people you keep attacking do. The question remains however if this message reaches its intended recipients and if they are able and willing to react differently than applying more military force and killing more innocent civilians.'