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Syrian Rebel Forces Set Sights on Latakia

Al-Qaeda and affiliated jihadist groups have reportedly taken the lead in an offensive on Syrian Alawite villages.
A Syrian soldier stands next to a car with "Free Army" written on it in Haffeh town near Latakia city June 14, 2012. The Syrian town of Haffeh was smouldering and nearly deserted on Thursday after days of clashes between government forces and rebels, while activists reported more army assaults on pro-opposition areas across the country. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT) - RTR33LTX

Just hours after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s speech vowing victory over the rebels and “terrorist” groups in several areas of the country, those groups have launched a major offensive on the Latakia countryside in northwest Syria, the regime's stronghold.

The offensive, which the rebels have named "the battle for the liberation of the Syrian Coast,” has surprised the regime forces, said a Syrian source close to the government who spoke to Al-Monitor Aug. 5 on condition of anonymity.

He added that about 2,000 fighters from jihadist organizations, including Jabhat al-Nusra and the State of Iraq and Al-sham groups known to be affiliated with al-Qaeda, have been behind the assault that came from the village of Salma to the Alawite villages located in Al-Haffa, call the operation “the campaign of grandsons of Um al-Mo’menin Aisha,” the controversial wife of the Prophet Muhammad.

This military strike has both a strategic importance and a symbolic one. On the strategic level, the villages are located on high hills that allow those who hold them to control the areas located below. Latakia is the main port in Syria and crucial to the rebels' goal of toppling the Assad regime.

The symbolic importance of controlling those villages stems from their location in Latakia governorate, the bastion of the Alawites and stronghold of Assad and his regime.

While the opposition sources say that their forces are 20 km (12 miles) from Qardaha, Assad’s hometown, the Alawite cleric Sheikh Muwafaqq Ghazal told Al-Monitor in an exclusive interview on Aug. 7 that the rebels are now about 33 km (20 miles) away from Qardaha.

Ghazal said that the 70% of the residents of Latakia governorate and half of the residents of the city of Latakia are Alawite.

He added that the rebels, mainly foreign jihadis, have occupied more than ten villages in the Latakia countryside, including Balluta, Baruda, Estreba, Barmase, al-Hanbushieh, Nabateh, al-khratta, Bab Abdallah, Aramo, Bayt Khodor, Domzine, Obin and Abu Makka.

Ghazal asserted that the rebels have killed more than 100 people in sectarian massacres against the villages residents, most of them women and children. He added that the fighters have kidnapped about 150 of the Alawite residents of those villages, among them his cousin, the Alawi cleric Sheikh Badr Ghazal, who has been in a religious mission to Baruda village.

While the latter has appeared to be tortured in a YouTube video released by the rebels, Ghazal told Al-Monitor that there is no information about the fate of the elderly cleric. The opposition fighters accused him of issuing a fatwa calling for jihad against the rebels.

More than 200 people have been killed in the clashes, including government soldiers, while the residents of the village have fled to Latakia. Ghazal said that the army has managed to liberate the villages of Bab Abdallah, Aramo, Bayt Khodor, Domzine, Obin and Abu Makka.

SANA, the Syrian official news agency, reported on Aug. 6 that the army has taken control of the villages of Aramo, Estreba, Talla, Bayt al-Shakuhi and Kafraya, and it destroyed a refuge of Jabhat al-Nusra in Obin village.

Ammar Assad, the Syrian member of parliament from Latakia, stated in an interview with Al-Monitor on Aug. 6 that the situation is better now and that there are a lot of rumors that seek to weaken the morale of the army and the residents. He added that the army is doing its best to re-establish control of these villages that the rebels occupied Aug. 4 and 5.

One wonders how the Syrian government left this strategic area without a real and secure defense by the army, not only just the “Popular Committees” militia. This question led to some criticism by pro-government bloggers on social media.

When asked how the rebels have succeeded in controlling these strategically important sites, Ammar Assad said that the attack was a surprise offensive and pointed to some "traitors," but did not provide further details.

Ghazal confirmed the existence of treason among some elements of the army. While the rebels have announced that their aim is to occupy Al-Haffa city before the Eid al Fitr, Aug. 8, on their way to Qardaha, a Syrian source revealed to Al-Monitor that the opposition's goal is to control the hill of Al-nabi Younes and other hills in the Kurdish Mountains, which are very important in the battle on the Syrian Coast, and especially the capital of Latakia.

The source explained the difficulty of fighting battles in this area, which is composed of mountains and forests that allow to the fighters to hide and hinder the tanks' mobilization. He added that a dangerous effect of the offensive on Latakia’s countryside will be to provoke sectarian strife in the province, which is home to Alawites and Sunnis as well as other minorities. He indicated that the Syrian government has avoided addressing the sectarian massacres executed by the rebels and al-Qaeda in those Alawite villages, to avoid promoting sectarian revenge by angry Alawites against their Sunni neighbors.

Latakia governorate, which covers about 2,297 km (1,427 miles) and is home to more than a million people, is the only governorate in Syria with an Alawite majority. It was historically part of the Alawite state that existed from 1920 to 1936 during the French mandate. Some Arab analysts have explained the offensive on Latakia province as a sectarian Saudi war on the Alawites in Syria, while Syrian officials say that the real goal of the offensives in the Syrian provinces is an attempt to achieve any victory to exploit in the political negotiations at Geneve II, if that ever takes place.

Haytham Mouzahem is a Lebanese analyst specializing in Middle Eastern and Islamic affairs. On Twitter: @haytham66