BEIRUT (Reuters) - Insurgents in Syria are deploying more men and weapons, including significant quantities of anti-tank missiles, to resist ground attacks by the Syrian army and its allies, backed by Russian air strikes, rebels and a monitoring group said on Tuesday.
With help from Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iranian soldiers, Syria is trying to drive insurgents from western areas that are crucial to President Bashar al-Assad’s survival, and has recaptured a number of towns in the provinces of Hama and Latakia.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based group tracking the war, said a battle continued for control of the town of Kafr Nabuda in Hama province, which the army said it captured on Monday. At least 25 fighters on the government’s side were killed, it said.
The Observatory’s director Rami Abdulrahman identified most of the reinforcing fighters as members of jihadist groups.
“The (rebel) reinforcements stopped the regime from taking Kfar Nabuda,” he said.
A number of rebel groups backed by Assad’s foreign enemies and operating under the banner of the “Free Syrian Army” have deployed anti-tank missiles along a frontline stretching from Kafr Nabuda to the town of Maan some 30 km (20 miles) to the east, said Fares al-Bayoush, a former Syrian army colonel who heads the Fursan al-Haq group.
The aim is to stop government forces advancing north from Morek to rebel-held Khan Shaykhoun, both towns on a north-south highway linking the city of Hama to Aleppo and Idlib.
The rebels have been using guided anti-tank, or TOW, missiles to hit tanks and other army vehicles. “We have an excellent supply of missiles,” Bayoush said.
“TOW launching platforms have been deployed along the entire frontline,” he told Reuters from Syria, via an internet-based messaging system. “We will, God willing, move to attack, not just defence.”
Foreign states opposed to Assad have supplied TOW missiles to a number of rebel groups via an operations room in Turkey, one of the states in the region that wants Assad gone.
The rebels are hoping for more military support from Arab states, notably Saudi Arabia, which has warned Russia that its intervention will escalate the war and inspire more foreign fighters to go to Syria to fight.
But Bayoush and another commander of a foreign-backed rebel group said that military support had not increased.
“The situation is so far good: continued supplies of rockets and ammunition, but no clear increase,” said the second commander, who declined to be identified.
Abdulrahman said: “There are many TOWs being used. It increased in the last days, and it has proven its effectiveness”.
The government’s first aim is to advance north towards Idlib province, nearly all of which was captured by rebels this year in an attack spearheaded by Islamists including the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and the powerful Ahrar al-Sham group.
Hezbollah has redeployed all its fighters in Syria to take part in the battle in the northwest, according to sources familiar with political and military developments in Syria.
A Hezbollah officer was killed on Monday in Idlib province, a Lebanese security source said. A senior Hezbollah commander, Hassan al-Haj, was also killed in the same area in recent days.
On the rebels’ side, men and weapons also arrived in the strategically important Ghab Plain on Monday, said Abu al-Baraa al-Hamawi, the nom de guerre of a rebel from the Ajnad al-Sham insurgent group, which is fighting in the area.
The Ghab Plain abuts the Alawite mountains that form the heartland of Assad’s Alawite sect.
The reinforcements came from factions including the Turkistan Islamic Party, a foreign jihadist group also operating in the area, and Syrian rebel groups, he said.
“The reinforcements that arrived are from the groups that were already present. It is an increase in numbers and equipment,” Hamawi said. “One of the factions has TOW missiles.”
He said the rebels had thwarted an attack by pro-government forces on the town of al-Mansoura in the Plain, and that government forces had suffered losses.
But Abdulrahman of the Observatory said there was conflicting information on which side controlled the town.
Additional reporting by Laila Bassam; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Kevin Liffey