Syrian opposition prepares battle for regime heartland

Syrian opposition prepares battle for regime heartland
Analysis: Recent victories in Idlib province mean rebels can threaten Latakia, long seen as the regime's heartland, but the region is heavily defended.
5 min read
06 May, 2015
Syrian opposition forces will encounter heavy regime defences on the coast [Getty]

After the string of recent opposition victories in nearby Idlib province, residents of the Syrian coast now fear the fighting that has laid waste much of the rest of the country might spread to their previously safe haven.

The Syrian opposition has captured the cities of Idlib and Jisr al-Shughour and numerous other villages in Idlib province, which lies to the east of the coastal province of Lattakia, regarded as the heartland of the regime. The majority of its inhabitants belong to President Bashar al-Assad's Alawi sect, make up the backbone of the Syrian regime's military.

The former deputy chief of staff of the Free Syrian Army, Malek al-Kurdi, said: "The regime knows very well that its end will be on the coast. If opposition forces take control of the coast, they will deprive the regime of its heartland and its popular base, which it relies on for its war in all areas of Syria. The Jabal al-Akrad and Jabal al-Turkman areas are the regime's Achilles' heel on the coast, and they expect to be attacked there."

Preparing for an opposition attack

Kurdi said that in preparation for an opposition attack, Syrian regime forces had set up fortifications isolating the opposition-held Jabal al-Turkman area of Latakia province from the rest of the coast. These fortifications are located on the summits of dozens of mountains in the coastal region.

They stretch in a crescent from the summit of Mount 45 in northern Latakia province and pass through the villages of Kafrayah and Dourein before ending on Mount Nabi Yunis in the Jabal al-Akrad area of Idlib Province. Kurdi said that these fortifications were unlike those seen anywhere else.

The regime knows very well that its end will be on the coast.
-Col Malek al-Kurdi.

Kurdi added that defensive trenches had been dug around these mountains, surrounded by minefields. Each fortified position contains one or two tanks, one or two BMP armoured vehicles, a rocket launcher, a 120mm cannon, a mortar unit, automatic weapons of different types and one or two infantry units.

"All these positions are connected and they make up a strong defensive position," he said. "Another defensive line may have been dug between 3km and 5km behind this.

Open road to the coast

"Mount Nabi Yunis is the most strategic position. It's height is 1,565m and the rocky mountain terrain makes it difficult to capture. There is no possibility of cover for attackers."

However, its capture would allow for the control of a TV broadcast tower on neighbouring Mount Nabi Mattah, and the city of Slonfeh in Latakia province.

The lieutenant-colonel said he knew that fighting in the coastal region would be difficult. The area's mountainous geography, its pro-regime demographic, and the regime's uniquely strong defensive lines all work against the rebels. The battle will be of existential importance for both sides, he said.

Mohammed al-Haj Ali, the head of the First Coastal Battalion, the Free Syrian Army's strongest military formation in Latakia, is optimistic.

He said: "The road to the coast is now open for the opposition military factions. When the opposition fighters in the coastal area unite with those in the interior, that will be the end for the regime.

"The regime will not relinquish control of its heartland easily but there will be battles on the coast very soon."

Preparations for war

The official spokesman of the Syrian revolutionary Local Coordination Committees in the coastal city of Jableh, Abu Mulham al-Jablawi, said some Alawi families loyal to the regime had fled to Lebanon because of the opposition advances and the general feeling of suspense and despair.

He added some members of the security forces and the pro-regime shabiha had disappeared from the streets, and that the call-up of reserves had stopped.

Jablawi said that two weeks ago 48 young men were arrested and drafted into the army in Jableh, however since then no one else had been drafted.

In Latakia and the coastal town of Banias, the situation appears different. Media activist Banan al-Hasan told al-Araby al-Jadeed: "The regime forces in Latakia city are in a state of alert. They have increased the number of checkpoints. There have been more funerals for regime soldiers because opposition forces have opened new front lines against the regime in all areas of Syria and regime supporters are becoming disillusioned."

An anonymous activist in Banias said regime forces were increasing their presence in that city as well.

The regime will not relinquish control of its heartland easily but there will be battles on the coast very soon.
-Mohammed al-Haj Ali.

Some of Syria's pro-regime media have recently hinted that the coastal area could break away from Syria and become an independent Alawi-majority state if the Syrian conflict excalates further.

However, if the Syrian regime loses the coast to the opposition, it will be split off from its support base and confined to Damascus and a group of scattered enclaves in Syria's interior.

Bases of power

The regime's most important base on the coast is Bassel al-Assad International Airport, 18km north of Latakia. After the Syrian revolution began in 2011, it was changed from a civilian to a military airport and used as a base for bombing Syrian cities. If the fighting on the coast starts in earnest it is likely to become the regime's most important supply line.

Another important regime base is the huge Yahudiya military barracks which guard the entrance to the city of Latakia and house various armoured and mechanised units.

The Ras al-Basit Military barracks, 35km north of Latakia on the coast, houses one infantry and one artillery battalion and a radar station.

The barracks' artillery strikes the oppositions strongholds in Kassab and Jabal Turkman. There are also anti-aircraft missiles at the barracks, located very close to the presidential palace in Burj Islam.

The base played an important role in the al-Anfal military operation last year, when the regime recaptured the only portion of coastline the opposition managed to take control of during the Syrian conflict.

Despite the regime's strong presence in its coastal heartland, the Syrian opposition's recent victories in Idlib province have given the anti-regime forces new confidence, even though they realise their task on the coast will not be easy and that the Assad regime will defend the area more fiercely than anywhere else in Syria.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.