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Friday, October 27, 2017

2017 Hama Offensive: A Hostage Raid?

October 29, 2017
(rough, incomplete)

This is sort of a side-issue connecting or perhaps feeding into the April chemical massacre in Khan Sheikhoun that I explored a bit, and the bits I found seems worth sharing.

The issue is: the opposition's 2017 Hama offensive, with dramatic and scary advances from March 21-24, followed by days of occupation over several new towns. It was routed and reversed by March 31 by the Syrian Arab Army and allies, who also kicked opposition forces out of Halfaya and Taibet Al-Imam, to lessen the chances of a recurrence. The changes both ways were dramatic and perhaps not well-considered. Here's my crude mapping from what I found so far.

As the Wikipedia article explains the motive: "The rebels aimed to capture Jabal Zayn al-Abidin and attack the Hama Military Airport, and reportedly advanced to within 7 kilometers of Hama city." Video: The first village to fall in the hands of the Mujahideen is the village of Arza in the northern countryside of Hama 3-23. Reports out of Hama on the 30th give Arza, Al-Shikhah to the south, and the Point 50 army base to the north vacated by rebels on the 30th. See map to see how close al-Shikha would out them to Hama and the airport. Somewhere I saw the intent was to send a message to "the regime" that the war was not over.

It was a costly gambit. Might there be more reason to embark on the adventure that lost them Halfaya and Taibet al-Imam? Other possible motives:

-  to provoke the government into some reaction, or to create the conditions where a faked response would seem more believable.

- Just have brief access to things or people they usually wouldn't?

Was this Hama offensive, at least in part, a mutli-front hostage raid? Previously we've seen reports that some 250 civilians kidnapped and shipped north before the Islamists left.  as prev. covered Idlib CW false-flag covers for Islamist massacre - this is a pattern that recurs in previous CW incidents -  the victims are "displaced" or seem to be hostage. This wasn't reported at first, perhaps kept quiet amid negotiations, until a bunch of people died in Khan Sheikhoun on April 4.

Only on April 4 did sources inform Al-Masdar News about " 250 people from Majdal and Khattab were kidnapped by Al-Qaeda terrorists last week." What was suddenly new: "Local sources have claimed that many of those dead from the chemical weapons (in Khan Sheikhoun that day) were those from Majdal and Khattab." They also heard from a family member of an abductee that “the jihadists then took them all to Khan Sheikhoun.”  How that could be known, aside from a victim ID from there, is unclear. There's been no further news I'm aware of on these supposed matches. I'm skeptical of the claim, but it's possible. Tactically, out of fear that such could be proven, the jihadists might keep any hostages from this offensive for later swaps - and use other hostages they seized more quietly.

Al-Namechange front and their Islamist allies were likely planning Ghouta II - if possible, they might even want to approximate, but probably not match its death toll - something well into the triple-digits, like 300, might be great. Coincidentally, they tried to take Mahradeh, Ma'an, they took Majdal and Khattab, they took people. Some 250, it's said, just days before about 100 died in Khan Sheikhoun a ways north.

Adding to This...
For what it's worth, here's a little review. This is also in part a big list of videos and some materials for further study. Already interesting little things are turning up buried in this imagery. What I could use more of, from any reader who understands spoke Arabic, is some translation of what people say in these videos (or anything especially interesting, anyway)
Not comprehensive, just mostly from a Youtube search and a few previously-known reports for context ...and a decent Wikipedia article 

The Hama offensive (March–April 2017) was a military offensive launched by Syrian rebel groups led by Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) north of the city of Hama, as part of the Syrian Civil War. The offensive began on 21 March 2017, and the rebels aim to recapture areas recaptured by the Syrian Armed Forces in the 2016 Hama offensive, as well as pushing into Hama city.[59][60][61]
Wikipedia: "According an SAA Tiger Force commander, there were about 6,000 HTS and allied militants involved in the offensive."

Also "The offensive was coordinated with rebel forces in Damascus' eastern suburbs, who launched their own operation in March 2017." That will be the Saudi-backed Jaish Al-Islam, most likely.

It started on the eastern front on March 21, when "two Tahrir al-Sham suicide bombers detonated two large car bombs against government positions in the town of Suran." Soon the SOHR was confirming this and parts of Maardis were overrun.

- Souran 3-22 video, Hadi Abdullah: Video from inside the city # liberated photos in the suburb of Hama and explain the latest details of the battles and where the liberation arrived

March 21 video: "Free Army of Idlib Preface to the Assad forces inside the town of Khattab in the northern suburb of Hama."  - firing improvised rockets into Khattab. Some of the effects of this is shown in later videos. (see Tour of the town of Khattab newly liberated 3-23  which just barely avoids showing us at 0:11 a possible weapon that's large, yellow, and cylindrical)

Chemical Warfare?
Perhaps the most interesting thing found so far, panned over in that last video, gets its own explanatory post  here: A 44-liter chlorine tank is seen in Khattab after rebels were done firing things on the town and were in control of it. It's the same kind the Ilslamists usually say falls from regime helicopters, but seems to have deformed differently than usual. Here it landed by the apparent city hall and adjacent army position, and they never mentioned it. Just a couple days later, the same exact tank was reportedly dropped from a regime helicopter on a cave hospital in Al-Latamnah, in the first publicized area chlorine attack of the year. How many non-publicized chlorine uses were there before that? Just this one, or more? And who was behind it?

Surrounding Mahradeh
An important goal of the offsensive, apparently, was encircling Mahradeh, a sizeable Christian-majority city by Sunni Halfaya, long targeted with shelling, siege and raiding when possible. March 23: Al-Azza army frees the shaliot barriers The northern gate of the town of Mahara in the northern suburb of Hama. Shaylut checkpoint (Wikimapia), just across the demarcation line, and just north of Mahradeh. Here we see Jihadis cheering with the smokestacks of Mahradeh power station behind them, a bunch of Christian infidels just to the right of that.

Then they got it largely surrounded, taking Mahradeh's south flank - March 24 Army of Glory "controls the villages of Majdal and Maarazaf in the countryside of Hama following battles with the regime forces. March 25 - signs: the other towns are west and north of Mahradeh, so this must be south of it, so Majdal or Maarzaf. 

On 3-22 (maybe premature) it was announced "The army of pride controls the highway between the towns of Mahreda and Hama and the regime" An Al-Masdar report of March 23 adds "The insurgents expanded their assault and attacked the predominantly-Christian city of Mahardah, shelling it with mortar shells and homegrown rockets and cutting off the road linking it to the provincial capital."

3-24 video: Magdal village in the countryside of Hama after liberation from the grip of the regime.

3-25 Syrian Event Center video: Our correspondent from the heart of the city of Majdal after the control of the Free Army on the outskirts of Hama. A dead soldier is seen, details unclear but he lays awkwardly. His shoes have been removed - customary for Islamist execution. They weren't taken off right here but somewhere prior. There's also lots of wire tangled around his feet, as if crudely bound. His arms aren't visible, perhaps bound behind his back. An unclear large object lays near his head (or ?). This is how the regim's grip was loosened, to "liberate" this town.

3-25 Mahmoud al-Hamwi:  A tour of (Maarzaf) village in the countryside of Hama confirms the control of the army of pride over what the regime claims." That's even further west on Mahradeh's south flank.
Rhabat Khattab army base
A field tour of one of the surrounding barriers in the town of Khattab in the countryside of Hama
Mahmoud al Hamwi March 22 

3-24 SMART news https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WIy5GALcZII
Mahmoud Hamwi Smart camera enters the town [sic] of Rahba Khattab in the countryside of Hama after the control of the military factions
Rahbet Khattab army base, just north of town
Hadi Abdullah at Khattab base 3-23 video: From inside the village of Rahabat Khattab after being completely liberated from the Assad forces within the battle to liberate Hama

Another video just after the takeover on 3-22 is mostly filmed at the same army base, but opens with another killed defender on the roadside in another, unclear spot at the edge of town. In camouflage gear, he also seems executed. There's a pool of blood from his head, which seems to be partly missing. Presumably, a gun was used, but that's not clear. His shoes were also removed before they killed him, laid neatly next to him. He wasn't fighting or even running, although he doesn't appear bound.

"Regime thug," Alawite, or otherwise, executing captives is a war crime. Here, the foreign-supported Islamists openly show us two examples, but Human Rights Watch et al. don't seem to have even noticed.
People seen under occupation:
Mujahideen liberators liberate many villages in the northern Hama countryside, 3-23, location unclear (hand-painted sign is hard to read - could almost be al-Shikha or al-Sheer, but seems more like al-Shalq, which doesn't seem to exist...) empty streets, some (homes?) have had fires inside.

"Believe it or not the system of (rural) Hama depends on the dogs guarding its leading officers." 3-23. At an apparent base or home of an officer, perusing files. A civilian dog is seen, likely crippled (hasn't left, doesn't move), is tossed a pack of cigarettes. No one hurts the dog on camera - the cameraman seems slightly amused, except the dog is boring, so he become just indifferent.

3-22 Khatab, Assi Press in the newly liberated town of Khattab - one man interviewed expresses joy at being liberated. 3-23 Al-Jazeera, Khatab - desolate. 3-22 Khatab - Mahmoud Hamwi talks to some fighters. No civilians around. - Khattab 3-24 SMART News - a few adult male civilians walk about. 

The village of Khattab in the countryside of Hama after its full liberation, March 26:
As a Jihadist fighter explains the situation (no translation of content), one old man comes out and watches the presenter from behind, apparently unnoticed. Shortly, a jihadist truck arrives and nudges him out of frame by driving right at him at low-mid speed. When the man sees its speed, he's startled, and quickly moves out of harm's way as seen here. Then the presenter notices him, and the video cuts.

People seen leaving/moving around:
3-22 Khatab, Assi Press A woman rides in truck loaded with bedding, and it seems nothing else but a generator (has a blue tank and a machine half)? They seem to be leaving, but could be arriving, or just going to another part of town. 

The amount of bedding is noteworthy: it seems far more than one home's worth Is there a group including women these folks are helping arrange collective housing and bedding for? Some shaken-loose "displaced" people who've decided to all shack up in one convenient and hard-to-escape locale? (the woman could be a liaison to "deal with the women" among the hostages, who would likely be kept somewhere nearby for the moment.)

In a video given as March 22, in Khatab, and overcast (Qassioun News), it's explained opposition forces "ensure the exit of civilians from the town of Khattab north of Hama after the opposition control." People ride a horse, some tractors, several motorcycles and even a few cars along a nondescript country road, with lots of bedding, rugs, pots and pans, a couple of portable generators perhaps, and so on.The location and direction are unclear, but it seems they're headed left down a slope into a misty area - likely then east towards the river

Who this is leaving and why is not explained. Generally the opposition likes people to stay put, as human shields, or to be arrested, if heretics/enemies. They often don't like and even shoot people who try to flee upon liberation (or so it seems to me - the fleeing regime forces are usually blamed, sometimes it's said to steal peoples' cars to flee in, though the cars are often left right there.).

Perhaps these are minorities, allowed safe exit - at least as long as this video is rolling, and so displaced Sunni families get their homes (if they get to stay that long). Or they're letting people of all stripes who fear the next round of fighting to seek safer places. Either way it seems more of a PR move than their norm. But if this were about snatching the maximum number of people, would they just let all these folks drive off?  Well, it's not clear where they're headed, and how freely. But they aren't tied up, anyway. There's no one on foot, and no gaps in the traffic. This movement feels organized, as in "here's your time to leave, single-file, move in the approved direction and don't stop."

A blue truck alone comes the other way along the shoulder, getting just close enough at video's end to make out a white patch at the back end for W77 or 77W. The white floral design on the front and apparently windows on a blue Super-Porter truck marks it as part of that system considered here.

These trucks are a bit of a mystery, but apparently linked to Jabhat al-Nusra, but no longer for openly military activities. They sometime haul materials, and a few of them were seen hauling victims of the April 4 sarin attack in Khan Sheikhoun, and then in the days after moving belongings of people who no longer lived there. Famously a W77 truck was seen ramming itself into a crowd of Shia civilians in Aleppo, largely children, before the driver blew himself up with a powerful car bomb that killed or wounded several hundred in the infamous April 15 Rashidin Massacre.

Was this W77 truck in occupied Khattab on its way to pick up some other civilians with special relocation arrangements?

Counter-Offensive and Return to Normal Life
The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) counter-offensive took days to start or take off, but areas were being abandoned by the 30th at least, and then it went quickly - before the 31st was out, virtually all gains of the previous days were reversed and, as noted above, the army later pushed rebels out of two cities they had held, to push them further back from Hama to decrease the chances of that kind of offensive ever happening again.

3-31 Ruptly videos after SAA in Khattab - no civilians seen
SAA re-took Khatab, Al-Majdal, Soubein (Khirbat as Sabila?), and Al-Shayr (al-Sheer - next to the former).

SANA March 31, Khattab - empty but for army, clearing mines, booby traps, and roadblocks (some of each are shown), explanations given in Arabic.

Northern Hama: The people of the towns of Khattab and Arza return to it after the Syrian Arab army returned security - April 1 video - many happy civilians seen - praising Jaish Arabi Souriya (SAA), waving to and talking to pro-government SAMA TV's reporters. Many of them drive the same kind of loaded odd tractors seen leaving on the 22nd.

Sputnik in Khattab April 3 as life returns to normal

Back to the Alleged Kindappings
As noted above, reportsI'd heard before were of 250 civilians kidnapped - though not mentioned until April 4, and in context of being the real victims of the Khan Sheikhoun attack. From what I've found in this further search, I can add a few points of detail to this, but not much. considered town-by-town, where specifically people might have been abducted from:

Some from Majdal?
Wikipedia: "On 23 March,... Pro-government al-Masdar News reported that the rebels carried out a massacre of Alawites in the village of al-Majdal, killing up to 30 of them.[57] According to an opposition source, Sham FM radio reported that this was denied by Mohaled Hazzouri, the governor of Hama.[67]"
massacre denied probably means the hostages had not been killed, but were held alive. 30 of them.
Alawites lived there.
cited: https://www.almasdarnews.com/article/map-update-syrian-rebels-massacre-civilians-press-major-offensive-syrias-hama/
Reports came in that jihadi rebels massacred up to 30 civilians – mostly women and children – in the Alawite-populated village of Majdal.
Hama governor (Mohamed) Hazzouri told Sham FM radio the reports were untrue. (Mohaled in origina, but this is an error. There's no such name.) Report also notes:"Opposition activists said the governor may face regime reprisals over his statement" (ooh!) and Hama "is critically important to Bashar Assad and his fellow Alawite-sect supporters."

Wikipedia: Rebel forces led by Tahrir al-Sham then proceeded to attack Suran and the nearby villages of Maardis and Ma'an. The rebels captured the three villages by 22 March,[63] but this was denied by Hezbollah.[59]" (Hezbollah frequently man the defenses of Shi and Alawi villages especially, to protect from raids and massacres.
Ma'an is an Alawi village long sitting at the front-line - I noted the moves against it here on March 23 because it was already the site of two Islamist victory massacres so far - In late December, 2012 Islamist rebels were unclear if they did or didn't overrun the town as intended, at the time they claim a regime massacre happened there, leaving 23 civilians beheaded and then burned...). Again they raided Ma'an in February 2014, killing several and abducting around 80 civilians, mostly women and children.  - the latter was followed some weeks later by alleged chlorine helicopter attacks in the area, said to kill a handful of civilians between them - nearly all listed as "displaced," from a variety of places that are never admitted to be Ma'an. (see here)
- March, 2016 offensive: The Islamists claim they took it, Hezbollah defenders deny it. Probably it was never overrun, but it possibly was. If  so, it was likely evacuated first, but it's possible people were killed or seized here. And they tried to get in, either way. Was some of what they were looking for perhaps still in Ma'an?

Gareth Porter has reported:
"The list of victims appended to that NGO report shows (#72-80) that Amer Nayf al Nayef from Hama province and eight members of his family—the only victims on the list not from Khan Sheikhoun itself – had all died that day. Last September Syrian Voice, a news website with contacts in the opposition, identified Amer Nayef as the head of the Hama Province Council’s relief office. "
This was after a Nusra-led offensive in September 2016 that displaced "thousands," who were being re-settled further north. He spoke about helping with that, but hasn't been heard from in connection to the more recent offensive and possible mass displacement that came just before he died along with some of those people, and probably all the family members living with him. The victims listed, from SNHR report:
    54- Amer al Nayef, lawyer, from Ma’rzaf, Hama
    55- Alaa al Nayef, from Ma’rzaf, Hama
    56- Mohammad al Nayef, from Ma’rzaf, Hama
    57- Alaa Mohammad al Nayef, from Ma’rzaf, Hama
    58- Alaa Mohammad al Nayef’s wife, from Ma’rzaf, Hama
    59- Sister of Alaa Mohammad al Nayef’s wife, from Ma’rzaf, Hama

As I mused here at ACLOS:
So the relief director (for the rebel side presumably?) and his whole family moved voluntarily to help the others who moved voluntarily, and then they all died from the sarin? It sounds like he was either helping, or voluntarily claiming that, in public statements. So he wasn't likely a prisoner. He could be a facilitator of the mass-abduction. Could he and his family have been sacrificed afterwards to help seal this especially important secret? Hm, possible. Otherwise, this could complicate the overall picture emerging here.

Not Zawr al-Ballah? 
Zawr al-Ballah ("Sunni village") is suggested by Wikimapia as the best area fit for Al-Zuwar ( الزوار - visitors). There are at least 4 others in the same area with Zuwar in the name, all along the river, but there's no place named "Al-Zuwar," where people were said to be exposed by a likely Russian sarin gas attack on March 30, in a Masar Press news story, while Latamnah was only hit with chlorine gas dropped by the Syrians. (ACLOS) It anything happened in Zawr al-whatever, it would be a fake airstrike, and the victims would be captives relocated from other towns to a small, 100% Sunni place, probably because they weren't actually Sunni. But any such story failed to stick, and instead, some civilians and a lot of fighters were said exposed by Syrian sarin attack a ways north near Latamnah, with 169 affected, one boy comatose but no one dead (ACLOS). Sarin was later confirmed as in something related to this incident. There's talk of a second sarin attack at the same time in a different, closer Al-Zuwar town, but still no further details about it. It's not clear if this other attack claim is being buried poorly or being kept alive poorly.

Out-of-Towners, as Listed
Rebels records for Khan Sheikhoun CW massacre - 6 from overrun Maarzaf (all in the Nayef group, as addressed). The VDC lists "Samer", age 18, as the only victim from Khattab. Another report lists a woman from Khatab killed, 89 of 91 listed in this SNHR report is Mrs. Hend Nabhan Duhna, from Khattab. Samer is listed the same, no family name (so 2 Khattab people in that report). That SNHR report claims 31 fatalities were of people hailing from other areas - that's one in three of 91 total. No one from Majdal is listed (that way) by any of these.

VDC lists 88 victims (all but the 4-07 entry on this list of 89 with one very delayed death and the rest on 4-4) Out-of-towners include: the 6 Nayef folks from Maarzaf and "Samer" from Khattab, 2 Rahal men from Kafraltoun (in that area, SE of Majdal, just off the controlled highway), men named Reslan and Rahmoun from Tamanaah (near Souran) ... and a bunch of others given as from Latamnah and many from Morek, both rebel-held the whole time. The majority are listed as from Khan Sheikhoun itself, any or all of these given details could well be falsified, although some of them seem to be anchored by genuine-seeming social media accounts, etc. The true mix of fact and fiction in who was killed and why remains impossible to settle. It remains possible people snatched in this offensive and mega-raid were used or, given the overly-obvious nature of doing that, perhaps they used other hostages nabbed more quietly.

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