On the morning of 9 October, IS fighters launched a surprise offensive against HTS positions in northeastern Hama Governorate. The IS fighters who participated in the attack had come from Wadi al-Adhib, an IS-controlled region separated from rebel-held Greater Idlib by the strongly fortified, government-controlled Sabboura-Ithriya highway.
How IS fighters managed to cross government lines has been debated. Naturally, many pro-rebel personalities on social media accused the government of facilitating the transfer of IS fighters across the highway. HTS itself joined in on the accusations. Pro-government sources, however, vehemently denied that any such deal had been cut.
While help from pro-government forces isn’t entirely out of the question, it is much more likely that the IS fighters arrived as part of a refugee convoy which crossed from Wadi al-Adhib on the morning of 9 October, the same time the attack began.
The 9 October refugee convoy was one of several that have crossed the Sabboura-Ithriyah highway since August bringing displaced people from the Uqayribat region into Greater Idlib. In fact, these convoys are a major source of the current conflict between HTS and IS. As recently as mid-September, IS’ Wilayat Hama and HTS in al-Rahjan were said to have cordial relations. The friendship soured, however, when HTS began taking the preventative step of detaining any IS fighters who arrived among the displaced.
Soon after, IS made the decision to initiate a military offensive against HTS. The immediate aim of the offensive was to free IS detainees being held in al-Rahjan. Broader aims were to carve out a new operations zone for the continued existence of Wilayat Hama and potentially gain a foothold in Greater Idlib.
The first day’s campaign was a success for IS. The group published a statement claiming the capture of twelve localities:
- Rasm al-Ahmar
- Sarha al-Shamaliyah
- Umm al-Fawr
- Wadi al-Zarub
- Jubb al-Tablaqiya
- Abu Laffah
- al-Murayjeb al-Jumalan
In its statement, IS uncharacteristically downplayed its gains. In reality, IS not only gained these areas, but significant areas to the west and north as well. IS’ statement didn’t even mention the capture of al-Rahjan. It’s unlikely these omissions were intentional. The most probable reason is the poor communication lines that would naturally arise between IS fighters in a desolate and far-flung region and the centralized media offices.
While HTS fighters were unsuccessful in crushing the attack, they were able to contain it. On the first day, HTS pushed back IS fighters from from Qasr ibn Wardan and expelled them from al-Andarin and Buyud.
After successful containment of the IS offensive, HTS assembled elite forces and started a counteroffensive. On 11 October, HTS captured Umm Miyal and Talihan. On 12 October, HTS captured Abu Kahf, al-Hasnawi, and Abu al-Ghar. That day, al-Rahjan was also attacked, but IS managed to repel the assault.
Finally, on 13 October, HTS took al-Rahjan and also captured Sarha. Clashes were reported near al-Shakusiyah, but IS continues to occupy the village. The two villages captured on the 13th were among the largest in the pocket, and their loss represents a serious blow to IS’ five day-old presence in Greater Idlib.
As of 14 October, IS retains control of the following settlements north of the highway: Abu Laffah, Hasrat, Jubb al-Tablaqiyah, Murayjeb al-Jumalan, Nufaylah, Rashjan, Rasm al-Ahmar, al-Shakusiyah, and Wadi al-Zarub. Furthermore, an unverified Facebook source has claimed that the hamlet of Dush, north of Sheikh Hilal, is also under IS control.
In addition to HTS’ counteroffensive, government forces have begun attacking IS positions south of the highway.
In the coming days, it is highly probable that HTS will annihilate IS north of the Sabboura-Ithriyah highway, while pro-government forces will continue to tighten the noose around Wadi al-Adhib. Ultimately, Monday’s impressive surprise offensive did little to nothing to change the ultimate fate of Wilayat Hama.
A full-size version of the above map, which was created using data from Google Maps, can be found here. Please note: a minor error was found in the previous (6 Oct.) version of this map. On that map, the villages of al-Aliyah and Bughaydid, west of Sheikh Hilal, were incorrectly placed outside of government control. They are, in fact, government controlled. The error is fixed on the current map.