Syrian armed opposition forces fighting in the so-called "Battle of One Army" have finally succeeded in their advance on the governorate of Hama. Regime forces are now very close to completing the siege around the cities of Hama and Mehardeh after taking control of several pro-regime villages and towns.
The regime has begun to reinforce its troops and militias in the Hama Military Airport and the western countryside of the governorate. Meanwhile, the Islamic State has arrived in the eastern countryside of Hama after taking control of Assad's last stronghold at the Tabqa Airbase in Raqqa province – an operation which left the path to the eastern countryside of Hama open, especially the road between Tabqa and Salamiya. These developments threaten a fierce and open battle around the city.
The geographic, demographic and military conditions of the governorate are as follows:
The governorate of Hama is located in the central region of Syria on the banks of Orontes river and in the center of the international road which connects Damascus with Aleppo. The governorate is surrounded by Badiat ar-Rasafa in the east, Aleppo and Edlib to the north, Homs to the south and south east.
The governorate spans over 10,000 square kilometers. Its population before the revolution was about 1,850,000 people and consists of five geographic zones:
1. Salamiya forms the eastern countryside of the governorate. The city and its countryside are inhabited by 200,000 – 250,000 people, 60% of whom are Ismailis and 20-25% of whom are Alawite. Sunnis consist of less than 15% of the population. Salamiya and its countryside stayed under regime control, except of small areas in its eastern countryside.
2. Hama is located on the Orontes River and on the international road that connects Aleppo with Damascus. This region includes the city of Hama and its countryside. The population of the city is 700,000, most of whom are Sunni, in addition to Kurdish, Turkmen and Christian minorities, while the population of its countryside is about 250,000 people, of whom 60% are Sunni while the rest are Alawite. Regime forces have controlled the whole city since the outbreak of the revolution, but the countryside has seen major changes recently when the armed forces with the Islamic Front, Ahrar al-Sham, the Nusra Front and some Free Army factions extended the area under their control from Soran to Morek, to include pro-regime regions of Shiha and Arzeh and to besiege other villages in the outskirts of Hama city. These opposition forces were able to advance in many regions including the road between Hama and Mehardeh, the Military Airport in the east (the road between Hama and Misiaf) and the international highway between Aleppo and Damascus to the north and south of the city. This means that the city is now surrounded by opposition forces.
3. Mehardeh city is located in the north west of the governorate. Most of its population are Christians, numbering more than 50,000 people, while most of the inhabitants of its countryside are Sunni. The total population of the region of Mehardeh is about 125,000 to 150,000 people, half of them Christian. Here, too, opposition forces were able to open a new front; in addition to the northern front of Kafer Zeta to Girnaz froms the front of Mehardeh city, opposition forces have reached the eastern neighborhoods of the city, while the advance from the west at the Tal al-Meleh region on the road between Mehardeh and Sqielbiyah continues.
4. Misiaf is the basic stronghold of the regime in the governorate, located in the southern west of Hama close to Tartus governorate. The population of the city and its countryside is about 250,000 people, most of whom are Alawites, with Sunni, Shiite, Ismaili, Christian and Murshidi minorities. The regime fully controls Misiaf region.
5. Al-Ghab (Sqeilbiyah) is a large plain in the far west of the governorate. The region consists of Sqeilbiyah the city, (populated by a Christian majority, and its countryside. The population of the whole region is 250,000 people, including Christians and Alawites in equal majorities, while there are also Sunni and Murshidi minorities. Regime forces and the People Protection Units control most of the region, except the Kafer Nbuda region which borders the opposition-held countryside of Edlib.
The strategies of the regime and the opposition:
The opposition wants to control Hama and Mehardeh regions first, then take the the north and east of Salamiya region in order to cut the regime supply line, especially the road between Salamiya, Khanaser, Sfera and Aleppo, which is regime's strategic line.
The opposition wants to advance in the governorate of Hama to break the siege around opposition forces in the northern countryside of Homs at Talbisa, Rastan, and Houla.
The opposition wants to advance towards Misiaf and Sqeilbiyah in order to threaten the regime in its main strategic stronghold in the west of the Orontes River.
Thus the main goal of the armed opposition in Hama is to turn the military balance upside down in the northern and central fronts. Furthermore, the opposition wants to play a major role in fighting IS, if the international community decided to intervene, especially if there was an air cover and if quality weapons were provided.
As for the Syrian regime, it will try to hold its control over several strategic points. It will try to strengthen its control over the region in the west of Orontes River betwen Misiaf and Sqeilbiyah for two main reasons – to keep the roads of supply open towards Hama Military Airport, and to hold the road of military supply towards Jisr al-Shughur in Edlib.
It will try to hold Hama Military Airport to use it if Hama falls to opposition hands, and hold the southern countryside of Hama to prevent the opposition from reaching the northern countryside of Homs.
it will try to hold the road between Salamiya, Khanaser and Aleppo, the main road of supply for regime forces in the north.
Thus the main goals of the regime are to keep its control over the supply roads to the north, and to besiege the opposition forces within a specific geographical area (the city of Hama and its northern countryside). Furthermore, the regime wants to make political and military gains, one of which is to withdraw from the city of Hama and its Sunni countryside, then shell these areas in order to destroy this region and displace its inhabitants so that to complete the demographic change which started in Homs.
The regime's other important goal is to force the minorities in Hama to participate directly in the battle against opposition (mostly extremist Sunni) forces. The minorities in concern are Ismailis in the east and Alawaits and Murshidis in the west.
The interference of IS:
If the Islamic State decided to advance to Salamiya through Badiat ar-Rasafa, it will definitely change the balance of the equation in the battle of Hama, mainly through:
– Cutting the road of Salamiya- Khanaser- Aleppo, and hence besiege regime's forces in the north.
– Expected massacres, especially against Ismailis and Alawites in the eastern countryside.
– Expected confrontation with the Islamic Front and al-Nusra Front, and hence weaken the opposition forces fighting against the regime.
– Expected massacres against the Sunni people in the city of Hama and its countryside. Those massacres are expected to be committed by regime forces.
What will distinguish the battle of Hama is not only launching the stage of civil war through the involvement of minorities. It will also show the regime as a protector of minorities and a partner in fighting terrorism. The regime has already benefitted from the conflict between Kurds and Arabs in the Hassaka governorate and it will benefit from the expected conflict between the armed opposition and the Druze minority in the south.
If the regime lost the road from Salamiyah to Aleppo, and if it withdrew from specific regions in Hama, Mehardeh, Salamiya, the consequences will be disastrous for the civil war and the divisions within Syria, especially if the regime loses Aleppo later.
The regime will keep its control over Hama Military Airport and the western and southern countryside of Hama governorate, as these regions are already parts of the regime's promised future state.
Translated and edited by The Syrian Observer