March 27, 2014
By Alex Simon, Firas Abd and Raneem Qubatrus
AMMAN: Syrian rebels are claiming early victories this week in what they are calling a critical new battle along Syria’s Mediterranean coast, which include capturing a sliver of northwest Latakia’s coastline.
Admittedly under-supplied, the rebels, who say they have been preparing for this battle for months, seem to be opening the new front in order to divert regime forces from other areas. What is not yet clear is whether they believe they can win in the heart of Assad country, a region that is one of the linchpins of the regime’s power.
“The regime won’t fall unless Damascus and the coast fall,” said Abu Faysal, 29, the head of the Latakia Local Coordination Committee’s media office.
Rebel fighters posed next to the Mediterranean Sea after advancing into the coastal village of a-Samara.
While Latakia province today has a slight Sunni majority, it is the historic heartland of Syria’s Alawites and retains an Alawite majority population in rural areas such as the Assads’ home village of Qardaha.
While the rebels hope to over-extend the regime’s forces, they may be doing the same to themselves.
“There is a consensus about the need to open up a front on the coast and that Latakia cannot be an exception from the war, no matter how unprepared they are or what danger the citizens face,” said Banan al-Hasan, 30, a spokesman for the Revolutionary General Council in Latakia.
“There’s very little support for rebel battalions, which has made every bullet precious,” said Abu Faysal.
It is a sentiment echoed by one of Latakia’s rebel commanders, General Ahmad Rahal, Deputy Defense Minister in Syria’s opposition government-in-exile.
“There’s been a lack of reinforcements to the [Latakia] front,” Rahal told Syria Direct Wednesday.
“There are people who feel it’s not in their interests to support a battle there based on the stated goal of protecting minorities,” he added. “There was pressure from some high-level opposition politicians who have forbidden this battle.”
General Rahal’s superior, the Syrian National Coalition’s Defense Minister Assad Mustafa, was quoted on Thursday denying the claims that prominent opposition figures had objected to the new campaign.
“We support the battle for the coast, and all battles being waged by revolutionaries on all Syrian soil,” said Mustafa, according to the pro-opposition news site All4Syria.
Last Friday, rebel groups headed by the Islamic Front’s Ansar a-Sham and Ahrar a-Sham along with Jabhat a-Nusra announced the start of what they are calling the “Anfal” campaign to seize territory along Syria’s western coast.
One day later, they claimed to have captured large areas of the northern Latakia town of Kasab, including the last regime-held crossing along the Syrian-Turkish border.
Intense fighting has ensued, with rebels reporting the capture of the strategic “Tower 45” base at the apex of Jabal Turkman, as well as the coastal village of a-Samara, where fighters filmed themselves wading into the Mediterranean.
The Syrian National Coalition likewise released a statement Sunday lauding the opposition’s progress in Latakia, declaring that the advance in Kasab “will have great impact on military developments on the ground in the coming days and weeks.”
Pro-Assad Syrian daily al-Watan refuted opposition claims, insisting that “terrorists have not succeeded in exerting their control over any town of strategic point” in the area and that the Syrian army had killed a total of 700 “terrorists” since fighting broke out Friday.
In addition to the symbolic and strategic value of Latakia as Assad’s homeland and a gateway to the Mediterranean, rebels have suggested that the recent campaign will stretch regime forces and alleviate pressure on rebels elsewhere in Syria.
“During the last battle in Latakia, in August 2013, the regime called up reinforcements from Idlib, Hama and Homs,” Abu Faysal said. “Many shabiha and Alawite fighters left Damascus and other areas and returned to Latakia to defend their villages. We expect the same will happen during this battle.”
Analysts echoed Abu Faysal’s prediction, but questioned the rebels’ ability to sustain their campaign in the event of a major regime counteroffensive.
“The regime will not tolerate a rebel presence and momentum so close to its geographic core adjacent to Latakia, regardless of the cost elsewhere,” said Faysal Itani, a fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council.
“When the regime and its foreign militia allies decide to commit and concentrate resources in certain geographies, with a narrowly defined mission, they tend to overwhelm the rebels,” Itani said.
Rebels and regime forces alike understand the stakes, said Ahmad Rahal, the Latakia-based rebel leader. “This [coastal] front and the Damascus front are the two more important, and they can bring down the regime.”
Last August’s rebel offensive in Latakia fizzled out after roughly a month, with activists stating that opposition figures had failed to provide political and material support.
The opening of a new front in Syria’s Alawite heartland now brings new focus to the role sectarianism is playing on the battlefield. At least one rebel leader says their goals are strategic rather than sectarian.
“The Alawites on the coast are not our enemies,” said Rahal.
“Syria has only two sects—the regime and opposition. We will fight only those who bear arms against us.”
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