Earlier this month, opposition fighters in Syria’s northeastern Latakia province announced the launch of what they are calling the “Anfal” campaign to capture territory along Syria’s Mediterranean coast. The coastal provinces of Latakia and Tartous hold both symbolic and strategic significance, forming the ancestral homeland of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite sect and Syria’s only access to the sea.
On March 22, rebel forces headed by Islamic Front member group Ansar a-Sham and including Jabhat a-Nusra and Ahrar a-Sham claimed to have captured large areas of the northern Latakia town of Kasab, including the last regime-held checkpoint along the Syrian-Turkish border. They subsequently reported additional gains including the “Tower 45” military base on Jabal Turkman and the town of a-Samara along the coast.
Syrian rebels and government forces continue to battle for control of Tower 45, a military base and surveillance site that overlooks the Latakia region.
While the rebels say they are ready for this battle, it is not clear they have the political and military support to sustain a prolonged campaign. Still, opposition leaders are praising the rebels’ early gains and heralded the Anfal campaign as a key stage in Syria’s war. “It’s this front—along with Damascus—that is the most important and that will bring down the regime,” says Ahmad Rahal, a Latakia-based rebel general who served as a general in the Syrian navy until defecting to the Free Syrian Army in October 2012.
Rahal tells Syria Direct’s Raneem Qubatrus that opposition politicians have been reluctant to support the Anfal campaign for fear of alarming Alawites on the coast, but that these concerns are overblown. “Syria only has two sects,” he says, “that of the regime and that of the revolution.”
Q: Can you explain the opposition’s strategy in opening this new front?
The battle for the coast has been open since the end of 2011, with military operations being mounted occasionally, but there’s been a shortage of reinforcements to this front. There are people who feel it’s not in their interests to support a battle there, based on the stated goal of protecting minorities. There was pressure from some high-level opposition politicians who have forbidden this battle, hoping to keep it as a bargaining chip. But it’s this front—along with Damascus—that is the most important and that will bring down the regime.
Q: What makes the coast so important?
The regime distributes weapons in the hills of the coastal region, and every other day the army uses these weapons to shell the surrounding villages and areas—this kills many people, and it’s how the regime has continued to control the area. This is why we had to open this front, and why we have to take the hills and border crossings—particularly the Kasab crossing, since it was the last crossing under regime control. There is also a criminal named Ali Kayali, who is a defected Turkish general living in the the al-Baseet area; he has 3,000 fighters, most of them from Turkey’s Alawite sect, and their job is killing. Kayali sends killers and car bombs to destroy and kill in areas of southern Turkey with Syrian refugees in them, including assassinating opposition leaders living there.
It was also critical that we take Kasab, the last regime-held border crossing between Syria and Turkey, in order cut off smuggling operations. Also, if we can manage to take control of the port in Tartous [south of Latakia], we can stop the reinforcements being delivered to the regime by sea.
Q: Some observers are concerned that this campaign could take on a sectarian dimension given the concentration of Alawites on the coast. Is this a valid concern?
This notion is completely incorrect. Who said that the coast is all Alawite? It contains one million Sunnis; no single city has 100 percent Alawites, although the villages around them are Alawite. Rural Latakia is 30 percent Sunni. The Alawites on the coast are not our enemies—our disagreement with them is that they should have joined the revolution and spoken out against this brutal regime that is killing its people. But this won’t make us kill them—we fight only those who take up arms against us. There is no sectarianism in this revolution. Syria only has two sects: that of the regime and that of the revolution.
Q: What are the opposition’s main achievements thus far in Latakia?
Our most important achievement was capturing the last regime-held border crossing along the Syrian-Turkish border, stretching along the border from Naba al-Mur toward Kasab and until the village of a-Samara. We’ve also been able to control the Tower 45 [military base on Jabal Turkman] and the villages of a-Nabain and Tal a-Nisr. We are now moving south. Tuesday night there were heavy clashes between [pro-Assad militias
Q: What is the importance of the Tower 45 base for both the opposition and the regime?
The regime initially took control of Tower 45 in November 19, 2012. The base determines who controls the areas between Hasab, Kasab, Naba al-Mur, and most of Jabal Turkman. Controlling this hill allows us to protect our backlines and to protect civilians from shelling.
Q: What can you tell me about humanitarian conditions in Latakia?
The regime has established a field hospital in the Zahrain area; it’s not transporting anyone to other hospitals in Latakia except those with serious injuries and the dead. The regime has a shortage of medical crews, so it’s using students from Tishreen University’s medical schools for medical support. This shows that the regime has many injuries—our initial information suggests that the regime has lost between 1,000 and 1,200 until now.
Q: Where have displaced people been going?
We issued a warning to the people of [northern Latakia] that we would be undertaking military operations in the area that could be destructive. Some of them departed toward Latakia city or Turkey, while some moved toward Jabal Turkman. Kasab is now empty of civilians. The regime evacuated people from Alawite areas like Ain al-Baida, Mishirta, Sit Markho, and Karsana, fearing that massacres would happen. We’ve been told that civilians are living in public parks in Latakia city and there’s o space for more people.