War in the Latakia countryside in Syria holds special political and military dangers. But the battles there have been expanding between the Syrian army and a coalition of Islamist jihadist groups, in what may turn out to be a major milestone in the Syrian war.
For the first time since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis more than two years ago, there is an open sectarian attack on an Alawite-majority area. With the arrival of jihadist groups and foreign fighters, such as al-Qaeda, the Muhajireen Brigade and the Libyan Brigade, at the doorstep of the main Alawite stronghold near the coast, the war has taken a clear sectarian bent.
Over the past several months, that Islamist bloc has been calling for moving the fight to the coastal front and fighting an open war against the “Nusayris” [Alawites]. Within the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), there have been calls by some, led by Sheikh Anis Ayrout, to open an “Alawite front” to match what is happening in the Sunni areas.
The military campaign, dubbed “The Descendants of Aisha, Mother of the Believers,” started Aug. 4, when it entered 10 Alawite villages: Astarba, Boumka, Bayt al-Shakouhi, Ballouta, Barouda, Arama, Darj Nabata, Darj Tala, al-Hamboushi and Jabal Dourin. The Syrian army has recovered Bayt al-Shakouhi and prevented the gunmen from entering Kefraya.
Media sources in the Syrian opposition reported to As-Safir that the jihadists claimed that 200 men and women from Alawite villages have been captured by fighters of al-Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and a jihadist coalition. All have been eager to move the war to the Alawite region. The jihadist coalition includes Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, the Muhajireen Brigade, Soqour al-Sham, Soqour al-Izz and the Libyan Brigade. The latter brigade, which mobilized 200 Libyans to the region, recently lost one its most prominent leaders, Abu Moaz al-Libi, a veteran jihadist from Afghanistan.
The sources said that militant groups in the region are not revealing the fate of those captured by the attackers. Yet one of the captured includes Sheikh Badr el-Ghazal, a prominent Alawite cleric, who looked injured in pictures posted on social networking sites. Dozens of villagers from the towns that were attacked have fled to the mountains. Preliminary reports said that 136 civilians were killed in the first wave of attacks.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that an unknown number of civilians were killed or executed in the field. If the Syrian army recovers the villages taken by surprise, many fear uncovering a massacre.
The SNC has finally resolved to support an attack that may risk turning the Syrian war into an open sectarian conflict. On their website, the SNC greeted the military operation from which all Free Syrian Army (FSA) battalions, except Ahrar al-Sham, were absent.
The SNC considers the operation a move to liberate the Syrian coast. This is in spite of the fact that the operation is taking place in an area where the opposition has few supporters in the major population centers, and has included sectarian cleansing of civilians just because they are Alawites.
Many opposition armed groups had sent letters to the SNC complaining about the delay in arms. They considered delaying an attack on the coast to be tantamount to a decision to delay removing the regime.
The president of the Syrian National Council, George Sabra, said, “The victories achieved in Jabal al-Turkman and the Latakia countryside, in addition to the military progress in the Damascus countryside, confirm that the regime will soon be defeated militarily.”
Turkey has decided to make a breakthrough on a front that has been quiet for months. The move risks expanding the Syrian conflict to include actions against minorities in the north and west. The tools for that fight are Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, which is using Turkish support to fight a large-scale war against the Kurdish areas. The Kurds have resisted Turkish and Saudi dominion.
Kuwaiti Salafist preacher Shafi al-Ajmi, who is funding Ahrar al-Sham, tweeted that the war on Latakia’s countryside was decided two months ago. He said that 40 factions are participating in that fights, 26 of which are being led by Ahrar al-Sham.
ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani announced the war's shift to Alawite areas when he said last week that the “breaking the walls” phase had ended. This particular phase began last Ramadan, and ended with the escape of al-Qaeda prisoners from Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison and the bombing and displacement of the residents of Okrob, an Alawite village in the Syrian Hama countryside.
Militarily, the battles in Latakia’s countryside suggest an intent to change the war’s direction. The two sides are fighting fierce battles involving aircraft to control five strategic mountain observation posts north of Latakia. The outcome would determine the future of the war on the coast. The Syrian army still controls the strategic Nabi Yunus Hill, which is the highest and most important observation post in the area, despite attempts by the Islamist coalition, the Libyan Brigade and ISIS to advance toward that hill. The armed opposition has committed hundreds of fighters for that battle. They have been brought from other fronts in Hama and Idlib, according to Abdullah Ali, a Syrian expert on jihadist groups.
According to Ali, “The battles waged by the jihadist groups in Latakia’s countryside aim to cut the supply lines between rural Idlib and Latakia, after the FSA succeeded in controlling Basnaqoul and opened the highway between Ariha (in Idlib) and Latakia.”
Nabi Yunus Hill saw one of the fiercest battles in Latakia’s countryside that aimed at securing control over the mountain passes between Idlib and Latakia.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights the attackers currently control the observation posts of al-Barouda, Tala and Anbata. The Syrian army neither confirmed or denied this information.
The two sides have begun sending reinforcements to fight the battle for the observation posts. Additional brigades have started arriving at Jabal Salma, after leaving Jabal al-Turkman, to help the jihadists. Meanwhile, hundreds of Baath fighters, National Defense Forces, People’s Committees and Syrian army infantry units are heading to the region.