By retaking the town of Halfaya in Hama province, troops will be better positioned to defend nearby Christian and Allawite communities that support President Bashar Assad. Central Syria is a communal patchwork, with large communities of Christians, Ismailis and Allawites, who mainly back Assad, himself an Allawite, and fear Sunni extremists among the rebels.
The al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front is known to be active in Hama province and has been behind attacks in recent weeks on the historic Christian town of Mahradeh, which is west of Halfaya.
The latest victory by government forces came two days after President Barack Obama said for the first time that he would authorize U.S. airstrikes in Syria against the Islamic State group. Syria has criticized Obama’s move because it was excluded from a coalition coming together in the battle against the extremist group.
The army command said in a statement that the offensive aims “to wipe out terrorists in northern parts of Hama.” It added that “a large number of terrorists were killed in the fighting, many of them foreign fighters.”
Rami Abdurrahman, the head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists inside Syria, said Halfaya was captured by the army on Thursday.
Abdurrahman and a Hama-based activist who goes by the name of Yazan Shahdawi said the army offensive was commanded by one of Syria’s best-known officers, Col. Suheil al-Hassan, who is also known as “The Tiger.”
The army’s next target appears to be the rebel strongholds of Kfar Zeita and Morek, which are on the highway that links Hama with Aleppo, Shahdawi said.