Latakia offensive breaks coastal peace
After a car bomb exploded in the heart of the village that was the birthplace of Syria's president Bashar al-Assad, and the regime's headquarters in Latakia was shelled by opposition fighters, it appears that Damascus is no longer willing to tolerate such symbolic embarrassments in its heartlands.
Latakia province is the home of the Assad dynasty, and an area where the regime enjoys almost universal support.
Coast and the cities
Recently, pro-regime villages that surround Latakia city have been targeted by rebel artillery, shattering the peace of this once sleepy coastal strip of Syria.
Further inland, the Syrian regime is embroiled in a number of battles in Aleppo, Homs, Idlib and Daraa.
After four years of fighting, the regime has so far failed to break the deadlock in Syria's most heavily populated areas, which remain under opposition control.
Seeing as there is no breakthrough in the interior, Jabal Akrad ["Kurd Mountain"] in the Latakia coastal range has become the next target of regime forces.
With a shortage of Syrian recruits, Damascus is having to rely on its navy for aerial cover, as well as support from the Iranian military.
Defector Othman Aspero, a former head of coastal defence artillery divisions, has documented the names of 21 sailors killed during a recent battle between the regime and opposition on the Mediterranean coast.
Aspero says that the regime is only left with administrative, artillery, and patrol divisions, with few troops available for fighting on the ground.
Damascus is understood to have 200 combat divers from Battalion 509, although other marine units have suffered heavy losses during the fighting.
Abu Molhim al-Jabalawy, a spokesperson for the Local Coordination Committees, a Syrian activist group, said the regime would rely heavily on Iranian military support for a new ground offensive in Latakia, and this is hardly surprising.
"There has been an influx of foreign troops to Jableh, south of Latakia, about a month before the coastal battles, through Humaimam military airport. They wandered around the city as they pleased," he said.
He describes the foreign fighters as having "tough skin".
"They were very tall and had wide muscular bodies, and dressed in black with strange logos sewn onto their uniforms," he said.
Jabalawy believes that they were most likely from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and they left the city three days before the coastal offensive against opposition forces opened up.
"The regime pulled all its forces and redirected them to the [coastal] battle, including its National Defence Forces. Only units from the military intelligence remained in Jableh."
On Friday, Jableh residents were suprised to see no intelligence agents at their usual posts, outside mosques during prayers, monitoring worshippers.
The Battle for Syria, as the campaign is being called, aims to achieve a number of strategic goals.
First, it would ensure that there would be no repeats of the car bombing in Assad's hometown of Qardaha. It would also put to an end the frequent shelling of loyalist villages and towns on the coasts.
Morale is reportedly cracking in the regime strongholds due to repeated artillery shelling.
Securing Latakia province could also guarantee the protection of military outposts and observatories in Mount Nawbah, and the safety of pro-regime villages.
The re-taking of opposition strongholds in Latakia such as Dorien, and possibly Salma, is vital for the regime to secure the whole of the province.
|We are ready to confront the regime and Hizballah forces on the coast. Salma will be their grave.
- Aqeel Juma, Nasr Brigade (FSA)
These were some of the first areas to fall to the opposition during the Syrian uprising, although some reports indicate the regime is beginning a successful advance here.
Salma is about 48 kilometres from Latakia city, and overlooks a wide stretch of the Kurd mountain range.
If regime-allied troops advance further in this area, the army could secure the main Latakia-Aleppo road, which would then cut off one of the opposition's most important supply routes.
"The regime is exploiting the weaknesses of the opposition on the Kurd and Turkman mountain range fronts," said Malik Kurdi, the former deputy director of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
"[The regime] aims at advancing on these fronts by slowly moving forward its line of defence, which would allow it to capture locations to regain control of the road between Latakia and Jisr al-Shoghour."
Securing these areas in the regime's heartland would boost morale for Damascus' supporters, he said, and could be the possible base of a regime-controlled territory if Syria were eventually to be dissected.
"The area is considered part of a future state, or at least part of a federation of states, if the reality is that we end up with such a situation in the future," he said.
"This would, at best, strengthen the regime's position internationally in preparation for regaining control over the rest of the [Syrian] territories."
The opposition, too, seem only too aware of the implications this could have on their long-term strategies.
Opposition leaders say that a retreat by rebel forces in Dorien, following heavy regime bombing, was necessary to save the lives of fighters and allow them to regroup behind a much stronger line of defence in Salma city.
"[Regime forces] chose to enter the area via the Kurd Mountain, because the surrounding villages are Alawite, where the villages surrounding the Turkman Mountain are Sunni," said Aqeel Juma, commander of the FSA's Nasr Brigade.
"If the regime enters through the Kurd Mountain they will be able to keep the opposition away from the villages loyal to the regime. Following the losses it suffered in Aleppo, the regime wants to raise morale among its supporters by attacking the coast and Salma."
He said that Salma was considered to be the key goal of the regime to enable it to control the rebel-held Kurd Mountain.
From there, the regime would be able to advance to Nawbah Mountain and Burj al-Qasab, and then separate the Kurd and Turkman mountain ranges.
"Dorien didn't fall in a day, but over the course of two years of heavy bombardment and an exhaustion of resources. However, we are ready to confront the regime and Hizballah forces that are preparing to attack the coast. Salma will be their grave," said Juma.
The balance of power in the coastal region will shift in the next couple of days, he predicted, and that the FSA and other opposition groups will shift their tactics to "unconventional warfare".
This is what led to the rebels' success in Latakia during the early days of the war, and Juma believes this tactic will help the opposition capture more land in the regime's heartland.
This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.