BEIRUT: Fierce fighting erupted in the outskirts of Maaret al-Numan Monday evening as regime forces attempted to consolidate gains made over the weekend in the strategically important city, activists and analysts said.
Battles raged just south of the city as opposition fighters tried to prevent Bashar Assad’s forces from gaining ground on the Damascus-Aleppo highway, which Maaret al-Numan straddles.
“Clashes have been very heavy in the village of Babuleen, which is 100 meters or so above the highway, as the rebels have been trying to stop the regime gaining ground there,” Rami Abdel-Rahman, the director for the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told The Daily Star.
A day earlier, regime troops pushed through rebel lines and entered Wadi Daif and Hamidieh military bases, which had been entrapped by opposition forces for six months. Abdel-Rahman told The Daily Star 50 rebels were killed during the regime’s push to retake the bases, revising an earlier toll of 35. Breaking through the rebel fortification around the bases in Syria’s northwest Idlib province constitutes a significant breakthrough for Assad’s troops in the area, analysts said.
The government successes mark “an important tactical victory for the Syrian armed forces,” Torbjorn Soltvedt, senior MENA analyst at Maplecroft, told The Daily Star, adding that the “tactical gains could increase the regime’s chances of retaking the north-south highway.”
The recapture of Wadi Daif and Hamidieh is also an important strategic success for the regime in Syria’s protracted 25-month civil war as it provides government access to the bases without having to resort to airpower.
“The rebels have demonstrated the ability to bring down the regime’s helicopters and planes, and the regime is reluctant to lose any more of its equipment to rebel operations," Elizabeth O’Bagy, a Syria analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, told The Daily Star.
Following the breaking of the blockage, the Syrian army was able to drive six lorries of weapons into the bases Sunday.
“Not having to use its planes will help prevent the possible loss of more air power, and allow the regime to focus its use of air power in resupplying other areas, particularly in the north,” O’Bagy added. More broadly, she noted, the regime’s air power was its biggest advantage, “so protecting it as much as possible is important to the regime’s ability to maintain the upper hand.”
Rebels have wrested much of the countryside of Idlib from regime forces, although government troops still control many military bases in the region from which they launch attacks on opposition-held areas.
Activists in Maaret al-Numan blamed the rebel Martyrs for Syria brigade for causing its own defeat by pulling too many troops out of the area, highlighting the internal friction within the disparate opposition groups.
“Even though the rebel groups in the area conduct joint operations and attempt to cooperate together, the operations lack a certain amount of coherence, the leadership lack an understanding of important field requirements ... and looting keep groups factionalized,” O’Bagy said.
These internal divisions prompted the Al-Qaeda-aligned Nusra Front, which is notable for its strategic successes as well as its Islamist ideology, to fill the leadership vacuum in Maaret al-Numan.
“However, since Nusra’s operations and focus have shifted to Raqqa and areas in the eastern parts of the country, some of these forces have been moved and their ability to directly oversee operations has been compromised,” O’Bagy told The Daily Star. Raqqa, in the northeast of the country, was the first city to be completely held by rebel forces.
While the opposition is yet to apportion blame for the regime’s breakthrough, the government is looking beyond Maaret al-Numan, hoping to use the bases to strengthen their fragile supply lines into the north, particularly Aleppo, where rebels predominate.
Elsewhere, in the capital airstrikes targeted rebel enclaves, while fresh clashes between troops and rebels raged to the east of the Damascus, the Observatory said.
“At least one civilian was killed in an airstrike on Qaboun” in northeast Damascus, it said, “while regime troops pounded the district of Jobar” in the east.
Amateur video distributed by the Syrian Revolution General Commission, a network of activists on the ground, showed a cloud of gray smoke rising after the raid.
The regime also used warplanes to bombard the rebel-held towns of Yabroud, Douma and Harasta east of Damascus, as well as Sbeineh southwest of the capital, the Observatory said.
Meanwhile, “fierce clashes raged on the edges of Jobar [in eastern Damascus], near Abbasiyyin Square,” the group said.
Rebels view the square as a strategic target because it lies well within the confines of the capital, the regime’s main bastion of power.
The SRGC, meanwhile, reported the army’s use of heavy artillery fire on Yarmouk, an area where Palestinians predominate, in southern Damascus, with tanks also striking other rebel enclaves nearby.