IS' Hama incursion threatens Nusra's gains

Looking to further overpower Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State continues to attack Syrian villages near the city of Hama.

al-monitor A rebel fighter runs past a vehicle near the Morek front line in the northern countryside of Hama, March 16, 2015.  Photo by REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi.

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syrian army, jabhat al-nusra, islamic state, idlib, isis, hama

Apr 1, 2015

The Islamic State's (IS) attacks on villages in the Hama countryside over the past several months are part of the group's repeated attempts to take control of the transportation routes linking the provinces of Hama, Aleppo and Damascus.

Yet, the latest developments in Idlib and the Syrian army's loss of control over the province’s headquarters to its very strong enemy Jabhat al-Nusra have added another dimension to IS attacks in Hama.

The IS attack on Sheikh Helal village has not achieved its goal of blocking the Raqqa highway, which branches out into the Khanasir-Athriya road — the Syrian army’s main supply route to Aleppo. Less than a week later, [IS] launched at dawn yesterday [March 31] a fierce attack on the Mabouja village, killing and injuring dozens of residents and defenders, such as the Syrian army and its ally the Baath Brigades. This is while dozens of the residents fled to neighboring villages, out of fear for their lives.

IS had re-established the so-called “Wilayat Hama” earlier this year, after it took control of some villages in December, most notably Rasm al-Ghijyeh, Mazarei, Zaabeh and Um Tueini, which allowed it to approach Mabouja.

A source on the ground told As-Safir that IS attacked from two axes, namely the southern axis in the villages of Oqeirbat and Suha, and the eastern axis at the Salba thermal power station. The attackers managed to enter the village from its northern and eastern sides, then committed a brutal massacre of residents in their houses. Some sources estimated that the victims totaled 75, with more than 100 wounded. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights issued a statement about the burning and beheading of citizens.

IS media sources said the group took control over Mabouja village, seized weapons and ammunition, and abducted nearly 50 people. A source on the ground denied this information and confirmed that the Syrian army, backed by the Baath Brigades, managed to expel the extremist group from the village a few hours after they entered it. The source noted that violent clashes erupted between the two parties, killing of at least 10 IS members and wounding others. This is while warplanes conducted air raids on IS-controlled villages, such as Oqeirbat, Suha, Qulayb al-Thawr, Salba, Hamada Omar and Abu Dalia, targeting IS strongholds and its fighters' bases.

Mabouja village is geographically important. IS' control of the village allows it to advance toward al-Sabboura area, which is a crucial center for Syrian army units and allied forces six kilometers [3.7 miles] away. It is located along the Raqqa highway, so control of Mabouja would allow IS to block the Syrian army's Salamiyah-Aleppo supply route through Khanasir. This is a key goal that IS sought to achieve from the attacks.

Remarkably, Jabhat al-Nusra sources did not hide their fear that IS' goals exceed the mere cutting of supply lines along the Raqqa highway. The sources noted that within Jabhat al-Nusra leadership circles, there are fears that it would be targeted in one way or another by these moves.

On the one hand, IS’ goal may be the formation of a barrier preventing Jabhat al-Nusra from controlling additional villages in Hama's eastern countryside, in preparation for the establishment of demarcation lines to attack it in that region. This is because the Raqqa highway, which is under the Syrian army’s control, separates IS-controlled villages from Jabhat al-Nusra-controlled villages in the eastern countryside of Hama. Therefore, IS' control of the village means a face-to-face confrontation between the two parties.

On the other hand, after Jabhat al-Nusra took control of Idlib's city center a few days ago, it is likely that IS leadership believes that this development poses a threat to their stronghold in Raqqa by the so-called Sahwa groups. It also escalates the rivalry, strengthens Jabhat al-Nusra and could potentially attract additional supporters and fighters. Thus, there is open talk within Jabhat al-Nusra circles on the genuine fears of IS launching a pre-emptive war to abort this achievement through a direct attack on Idlib from two axes, namely the Raqqa axis and the eastern countryside of Hama axis.

Whether Jabhat al-Nusra’s fears are realistic or whether they reflect the deep impact of its losses in Deir ez-Zor, which caused it to believe that IS is chasing it everywhere, the repercussions of the Idlib battle are present in the recent attack on Mabouja in another way. A specialized military expert told As-Safir that what happened in Idlib has forced the Syrian army to place [Idlib] as a priority, out of fear that the situation could further deteriorate. Thus, the reinforcement of its forces, which were gathered in the south of the city, has been a measure that cannot be postponed. Some of these reinforcements were withdrawn from Hama countryside, which may have weakened its presence there and facilitated IS’ recent attack. Such developments would place pressure on the Syrian army in Idlib, and may impede its task of conducting the counterattack that has been talked about for long.

On the other hand, SANA quoted a military source as saying that “the units of the army are in full control of the western mountain range of Zabadani, after having eliminated the last terrorist groupings in Shir an-Nusur and Zahrat al-Zaitoun.”

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