Syria Live Coverage: The Insurgents Close on Hama

Wednesday, December 19, 2012 | James Miller in EA Live, EA Middle East : Insurgents in Taibet al Imam, near Hama, on Tuesday

Tuesday’s Syria Live Coverage: A Battle for Hama?

1449 GMT: According to the Local Coordination Committees, 37 people have been killed nationwide so far today:

    24 martyrs were reported in Damascus and its Suburbs; including 6 who were field-executed in Kafarsouseh and 4 in Daraya, 5 in Daraa, 4 in Hama, 2 in Homs, 1 in Aleppo, and 1 in Deir Ezzor.

See our note on the casualty figures published by the LCC.

1427 GMT: Yesterday large parts of northern Hama province fell to the rebels. Today, those areas are being shelled by artillery and rockets. However, so far there seems to only be one report of note that suggests that the Syrian security forces are directly attacking any of the towns that fell yesterday from the ground. The LCC reports that security forces have surrounded checkpoints in Hayaleen, on the western edge of the towns captured yesterday (map). Unlike some other towns, it is not clear that all the rebels every completely dislodged all of Assad’s forces here. In other news, there are scattered reports of gunfire inside Hama city. This video claims to show gunfire near Al Assi Square, the home of the governor’s offices (map).

The buildings seem to place that right here (map):

1340 GMT: The Guardian’s Martin Chulov spoke with Matthew Weaver today after returning from a tribute for Abu Furat, an important rebel commander who was killed in Aleppo several days ago. Chulov talked about how Furat was trying to hedge against the “creeping jihadi elements” who are gaining power in parts of Syria.Chulov also gives his assessment on several key areas of the insurgent fight to topple Assad. He says that the air force is flying higher, striking less often, and the rebels are now able to launch bolder attacks on the ground. We’ve certainly seen this, as more artillery, tanks, armored vehicles, 4x4s, and heavy machine guns have been used. A strong airforce would make the use of these weapons nearly impossible. Chulov says that northern Syria is being lost by the regime, and the tide has turned.

Chulov also says that the regime airstrikes on the Yarmouk Palestinian camp changes everything – Palestinians are increasingly turning away from the regime and are picking up arms against Assad at a high rate. After the air strikes, the Palestinians and the Free Syrian Army have won a decisive victory, expelling Ahmed Jabril and his pro-Assad militia. His assessment – “that fight was a rout.”

Chulov also downplays the fighting in Daraa and Hama:

    The regime does have a pretty good hold on Hama, on the Alawite heartland areas, and on the south. They don’t have a hold, or much of one, on northern Aleppo where they are losing. In Damascus they are not losing, but they are not winning either. In the east of the country, Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaida group has stormed most bases and is now in control of Hassaka.

    In the coming days and weeks the main focus will be on Damascus more so than Homs, Hama or Deraa where the attritional series of battles with rebels on the outskirts and the regime in control of the centre will continue.

We’re not so sure. Yesterday’s developments in Hama were dramatic, though it’s still too early to see if the rebels can press the attack further than the rural areas in the north. We’ll certainly know more in the next week, but if the rebels can pose a significant threat to Assad in Hama, and Homs, they can pose a direct military threat to the capital following that battle. In Daraa, the rebels are not as strong, and the fighting there is at least a distraction and at most a drain on Assad’s resources, but it is not likely to be decisive. However, enough “distractions” and “drains” could have, and arguably are already having, a cumulative effect on the regime’s ability to fight this war.

A warning – Chulov does not directly speak to this issue, but there is a real risk that if the fighting in Hama and Homs is not decisive for either side, there is a real risk of sectarian violence in its worst form. The countryside west of Hama and northwest of Homs has already been the site of some of the worst massacres of this conflict. There are militias, both Alawite and Sunni, with terrible reputations. The rumors are stark. These areas have no real authority left, as strong rebel groups like Al Farouq have largely left to fight elsewhere, and the regime has turned these areas over to “shabiha” and local security forces and militias. A decisive victory for the rebels could reintroduce law and order. Of course, if more radical rebels were to take hold here, it could spell disaster. However, if these villages are caught in the same situation that has persisted across much of the north, caught between two warring factions, the consequences could be severe. Hardship breeds violence more than anything, and if the conflict is ever to break down on purely sectarian lines, it is far more likely do so in these villages than in many more central regions of the country.

James Miller takes over today’s live coverage. Thanks to Scott Lucas for getting us to the afternoon.

1313 GMT: Claimed footage of residents queuing at a bakery in a regime-held area of Aleppo:

1310 GMT: The United Nations has appealed for $1.5 billion to provide life-saving aid to Syrians suffering from a “dramatically deteriorating” humanitarian situation.

The call for $519.6 million for aid within Syria and $1 billion to meet the needs of up to 1 million Syrian refugees in five countries is the “largest short-term humanitarian appeal ever”.

Inside Syria, UN aid agencies aim to help 4 million people in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, including an estimated 2 million displaced from their homes. Outside the country, more than 525,000 refugees have already been registered.”Unless these funds come quickly we will not be able to fully respond to the lifesaving needs of civilians who flee Syria every hour of the day — many in a truly desperate condition,” UN regional envoy Panos Moumtzis said.

1140 GMT: Ian Rivers, the last missing member of the NBC television news team that was abducted last week, has put out a video announcing he is with Syrian insurgents and is safe. The US network’s journalists were freed by an insurgent brigade yesterday after a firefight in which two captors were killed.

0940 GMT: A before-and-after image of the centre of Homs:

0820 GMT: The new military commander of the insurgency, General Salim Idris, has played up the threat of the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons.

Idris said insurgents are closely monitoring the chemical weapons sites but do not have the means to seize and secure them.

Idris said opposition fighters could defeat the regime within a month if supplied with anti-aircraft weapons. Without foreign help, the effort could take “one, two or three months”.

The commander, who was interviewed in the insurgent base in Antalya in Turkey, said he spent much of Tuesday near Hama, observing the capture of five regime checkpoints.

0750 GMT: Three days after we published Amal Hanano’s “Requiem for Aleppo”, C.J. Chivers posts a vivid account in The New York Times of life in the stalemate of war:

    Winter is descending on Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and the bloodied stage for an urban battle, now running into its sixth month, between rebels and the military of President Bashar al-Assad.  As temperatures drop and the weakened government’s artillery thunders on, Aleppo is administered by no one and slipping into disaster. Front-line neighborhoods are rubble. Most of the city’s districts have had no electricity and little water for weeks. All of Aleppo suffers from shortages of oil, food, medicine, doctors and gas.  Diseases are spreading. Parks and courtyards are being defoliated for firewood, turning streets once lined with trees into avenues bordered by stumps. Months’ worth of trash is piled high, often beside bread lines where hundreds of people wait for a meager stack of loaves. One of the Middle East’s beautiful and historic cities is being forced by scarcity and violence into a bitter new shape. Overlaying it all is a mix of fatigue and distrust, the sentiments of a population divided in multiple ways.  Aleppo’s citizens scavenge and seethe. And along with the sectarian passions of civil war, some residents express yearnings for starkly opposite visions of the future: either for a return of the relative stability of the Assad government or for the promises of Islamic rule.  Others see a grim hope, calling the tearing apart of their society a period that one day will be remembered as this ancient city’s ultimate test.

0710 GMT: Unsurprisingly, State news agency SANA has a far different perspective on Tuesday’s developments: “The Reality of Events: Terrorists Killed in Damascus Countryside, Deir Ezzor and Idleb, Weapons Confiscated in Daraa”. An extract:

    A unit of the armed forces carried out a qualitative operation on Tuesday, killing a number of terrorists in al-Dhiyabieh in Damascus countryside.

    An official source told SANA that the group of the terrorist nicknamed Abu Ayman was eliminated. The terrorists Abdul-Ghani Bkheit, Mohammad Hamada and Fares al-Rahwas were identified among the dead.

    Meanwhile, another army unit destroyed a hideout for terrorists from the so-called “Islam Brigade” in Zamalka in the eastern Ghouta….

    Meanwhile, a unit of the armed forces eliminated terrorists groups who were perpetrating acts of killing and looting the private and public properties in al-Hajar al-Aswad in Damascus countryside. A source stated that among the terrorists killed were Yaser Yahya Eid, leader of a so-called group “Ansar Allah” in al-Hajar al-Aswad along with Mohammad Sultan Hussein, Rizk Abu Aisha, Walid al-Akrami, Mohammad ahmad al-Jolani and Mohammad al-Louis.

SANA does not mention the fighting near Hama or the battle in Yarmouk in southern Damascus.

0610 GMT: We opened yesterday’s Live Coverage with the question, “Battle for Hama?”. The answer throughout Tuesday was “Yes”, but I did not anticipate the force of the response. Reports indicate that insurgents have taken a series of towns and suburbs near Syria’s 4th-largest city, where President Assad’s father Hafez killed tens of thousands of people during an uprising in 1982. By late afternoon, multiple sources were claiming that fighting in the Tareeq Halab (Aleppo Street) district in northern Hama, poossibly extending as far as the Hamidiyeh district.

EA’s James Miller assessed:

    How have the rebels taken this much territory so quickly? The answer lies partially in the two-pronged threat of the insurgency…..

    In the last 6-8 months, the insurgents have never gained a clear military advantage in Hama. Instead, many fighters from Hama traveled south to Homs or north to Idlib and Aleppo to try to establish opposition strongholds in these cities. However, during that entire time the populous of Hama, and its youth, remained defiant. In the last months Hama has become home to a “hit and run” insurgency. Ambushes would be triggered, quick skirmishes would be fought, even the insurgents never had the ability to actually take or hold territory.

    However, with the insurgents swinging down from Idlib Province, and with the Assad regime paying more attention to Damascus, the time is right for an offensive. As the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic brigades pushed south, they amy find a weakened regime that was not looking for a fight. While there have been nearly constant artillery attacks against towns across Hama Province for two days, there have been few pitched battles. Instead, regime forces appear to have either pulled back, deserted, or simply vanished in the face of the oncoming rebel force. Hama was far from the only dramatic setting on Tuesday. Fighting continued in the Palestinian refugee camp Yarmouk in southern Damascus, as the insurgents tried to take control of the area, and the Local Coordination Committees of Syria are claiming — though we have no confirmation — that the opposition now hold the nearby Hajar al Aswad district. The insurgents also advanced in Deir Ez Zor Province in the northeast. The Local Coordination Committees claim documentation of 128 people killed on Tuesday, including  42 in Damascus and its suburbs and 21 in Daraa Province.