Update: IS Loses Additional Ground in NE Hama

N-E Hama Map.png

The following article is Part 3 in Skylight Syria’s coverage of NE Hama. Part 1, which covers the background of IS in the region, can be found here. Part 2, which reports events that occurred between 9 and 13 October, can be found here. This article will cover the events of 14-18 October.

The situation for what little remains of IS’ Wilayat Hama has become critical in recent days, following advances by HTS and pro-government forces. IS, which at one point controlled roughly a third of the land area of Hama Governorate, has seen its holdings in the region reduced to less than a dozen small villages. The group is now on track to lose a third Wilaya in the month of October, following the capitulation of IS forces in Wilayat Kirkuk and Wilayat al-Raqqa.

On 14 October, clashes were reported between HTS and IS near Sarha. Sometime around this time, IS recaptured Sarha. However, this was not reported at the time, as IS media has not reported on the Hama battles since their initial advance on 9 October and HTS media has only reported HTS gains.

On 15 October, HTS was once again on the offensive. That day, HTS captured the small hamlets of Musatriha and Shukhitar. Following the battle, HTS media released footage showing the battle and the summary execution of four captured IS fighters.

On 16 October, IS recaptured Abu al-Ghar from HTS. That evening, Basel Fargo reported on Facebook that pro-government forces would be initiating an offensive against IS in Hama the following day.

Indeed, the following morning, government forces launched an offensive which resulted in the capture of all IS territory south of the Sabboura-Ithriyah highway. Hezbollah media listed the following locations as captured:

  • Jibal al-Tanahij (Tanahij Mountains)
  • Khirbat al-Tanahij
  • Wadi al-Adhib
  • al-Bihuth al-A’lamiya (Scientific Research)
  • al-Sib
  • Sadd al-Sib (al-Sib Dam)
  • al-Rawda
  • Harmala
  • Abd al-Amir
  • Jubb Eid
  • al-Jarouh
  • Umm al-Ghazal
  • Wadi al-Zarub
  • Wadi Mazlouf
  • Wadi Hasu al-Ramil

Not all of the above locations have been positively identified. The inclusion of Wadi al-Zarub suggests government forces also captured areas north of the Sabboura-Ithriyah highway, though it is not clear if the name is referring to the village or simply to a nearby river valley.

17 October also saw an important advance for HTS, with that group capturing Abu al-Ghar, Sarha, Sarha al-Shamali, and the unidentified locations of Jirdawi and Hamawi Farms.

18 October began with an unconfirmed report of a Russian airstrike on HTS in al-Rahjan. Later, pro-IS media reported that al-Rahjan had been recaptured by IS.

In spite of the recapture of al-Rahjan, it is likely that, over the coming days, the remaining IS-held villages will fall to HTS, as there is little this tiny, besieged pocket of IS fighters can do to reverse the overall trend of defeat. It is highly unlikely that government forces will make any further advances in the area. In fact, it was claimed that the units leading the operation will be sent to Deir al-Zour.

A full-size version of the above map, which was created using data from Google Maps, can be found here.

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Update: The Situation in NE Hama Governorate

 

NE Hama updated map.pngThe following is a follow-up to a previous piece published on 6 October. More background regarding IS in Hama and, specifically, in Wadi al-Adhib can be found in that article.

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:

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.

On 13 October, government forces captured Abu Hakfa, Maksar al-Shamali and al-Janoubi, and Abu Kahf.  The status of Abu al-Fashafish and a few adjacent hamlets is not clear at the present time.

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.

Map: The Wadi al-Adhib Pocket

Wadi al-Adhib Map

Since 4 October, in the wake of government advances east of the city of Salamiyah, many sources (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) have incorrectly declared the Hama Governorate to be cleared of IS fighters. This assertion is not correct. In fact, IS still controls a small area to the south of the Sabboura-Ithriyah road which includes a few hamlets as well as the region of Wadi al-Adhib, the site a major refugee crisis that has lasted around six weeks thus far.

The pocket was formed on 2 September following the fall of the village of Jarouh. After that, most mapmakers incorrectly assumed the area had been evacuated by IS and began marking it as under government control. One notable exception is the strongly anti-government Nors Studies, which continues to show the area as controlled by IS.

Government forces aren’t currently attacking IS forces in the pocket, but the settlements are occasionally subjected to air raids. A 17 September air raid reportedly targeted the villages of Abu Hakfa, Rasm Amun, and Rasm al-Tinah. A raid was reported on Abu al-Fashafish on 5 October. IS fighters in the area are said to maintain cordial relations with HTS fighters on the north side of the Sabboura-Ithriyah road. This rare example of HTS-IS cooperation in 2017 exists probably due to the fact that most IS fighters in this area are locals who were previously involved with other rebel groups.

Government action against the pocket has likely been complicated by the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the area. Hundreds – possibly thousands – of displaced people from the villages around Uqayribat have funneled into the pocket and into Wadi al-Adhib hoping to cross over to the rebel-held “Greater Idlib” region. The refugee crisis, which has been ongoing since late August, has garnered significant coverage from pro-rebel Arabic language sources but not English language sources.

Reports of evacuations of civilians have been intermittent since August. Evacuations were first reported in late Augustearly September, on 20 September, on 25 September, and, most recently, in early October. These evacuations have only covered civilians and government forces have refused to allow IS fighters to leave the area.  Some of the refugees have tried to escape across the road, while a few others have surrendered to government forces. Unconfirmed reports exist of as many as 80 refugees killed attempting to cross the road on 26 September (more info), while pro-government sources have claimed the killing of IS fighters attempting the same escape. The most recent reports indicate that, along with IS fighters, a large number of civilians are still in the area, though most have been evacuated.

A full-size version of this map, which was created using data from Google Maps, can be found here. Please note: some areas have been marked “Contested or Unclear” because conflicting information exists over the control of those regions.