Kassab falls to Syrian opposition gunmen

The Syrian city Kassab, located along the Turkish border, has fallen to opposition gunmen, yet the city’s low-lying position has forced the gunmen to control it from the surrounding hills rather than by their direct presence in the city.

al-monitor A general view shows a church among residential buildings in the Armenian Christian town Kassab after rebel fighters seized it, March 24, 2014.  Photo by REUTERS/Stringer.

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syrian army, syria, latakia, jabhat al-nusra, christian

Mar 27, 2014

The Armenian town Kassab has a lot of archaeology and history, but it may soon drown in a flood of lead and rubble. The town has been emptied of its people and the gunmen have spread in the streets and churches. There has been fighting in and around the town, and there’s information that it will soon be a scene of a battle between the Syrian army and hard-line Islamic factions, if there is no urgent settlement by intermediaries that find in the history of the town and its symbolism enough reasons to spare it destruction.

The fighting has continued for the fifth day in a row in the hills and villages around Kassab in the northern Latakia countryside, particularly in the villages Samra, al-Nabain and Jabal al-Nisr. There have been no violent clashes in the town itself, which for the first time was stripped of its crosses. Jabhat al-Nusra members destroyed them when they entered town. This was confirmed by Abu Qatada al-Masri, who posted on his Twitter account pictures of al-Nusra members destroying crosses inside the churches.

The fighting in the area was hit and run, to the extent that control over some areas changed hands several times between the gunmen and the army over a period of hours. It is difficult to talk about the final outcome of these battles because they are subject to field developments that are changing by the hour. This may be what happened at Point 45 and Jabal al-Nisr, where the gunmen of radical factions imposed their control on Jabal al-Nisr just hours after the attack started last Friday [March 21].

The army regained that location on the same day, but pulled out on Sunday after the militants seized control of the surroundings. But the gunmen, in turn, couldn’t climb the mountain and take up post on its peak after what happened yesterday [March 26] at Point 45, which was vacated by the Syrian army in the wake of a suicide bombing by al-Nusra in preparation for a major offensive. That forced the army stationed at the observatory to withdraw toward the town of al-Qastal most likely.

The reason for this is that Point 45 is the highest point in the region and oversees Jabal al-Nisr, and therefore the gunmen could not establish themselves at the top of Jabal al-Nisr, despite their effective control of the area and its surroundings because they fear the artillery and tanks stationed on Point 45. The tanks and cannons there can easily strike the peak of Jabal al-Nisr, thus the gunmen took position on the top of Jabal al-Nisr only after the army evacuated its positions at Point 45.

A jihadist source told As-Safir that al-Nusra’s suicide bombing was carried out by a BMB transport loaded with bombs and driven by a suicide bomber named Abu al-Muthanna Fahd al-Qassem. The transport was launched from the Farnalq forests and was displaying the Syrian flag, not al-Nusra’s flag. That allowed it to reach the peak at Point 45 and enter the yard of the observatory, where the bomber blew himself up.

Perhaps those who saw the BMB transport thought it contained reinforcements sent by the army. The explosion killed one colonel, and the final number of dead and injured is still unknown. al-Nusra’s dead included Saudi nationals Saleh Bin Ali Bin Saleh al-Ghannam Abu Sahha, Muhammad al-Ghannam Abu Walid al-Qusaimi, Abu Maryam and Azzam al-Ihsai (the real names of the last two are not known). Al-Nusra’s wounded were Abu Mohammed al-Ameriki, who was transferred to an Antakya government hospital in Turkey. The blast also killed a number of Syrian gunmen led by Abu Hussein al-Ansari.

Yesterday, the Syrian army was able to recover Point 45 after artillery and aerial bombardment made ​​it impossible for al-Nusra elements to stay there. Thus they withdrew a few hours after their arrival. But the Syrian army did not reoccupy Point 45, rather, the army left it empty and tightened control over its surroundings.

According to a field source that spoke with As-Safir, al-Nusra lost dozens of gunmen at Point 45, pointing out that the bombing on Point 45 was “pinpoint, heavy and of quality.”

Contrary to rumors, the source confirmed to As-Safir that the Syrian army evacuated the area of Nab al-Murr two days after it obtained control of it due to the depression (a slight valley), which exposes it to the hills around it. Therefore, it may be less costly to shell Nab al-Murr from afar than to set up a post there. Nab al-Murr is an important infiltration route to Jabal al-Nisr and Point 45. What may have encouraged the army to evacuate Nab al-Murr is its ability to shell Jabal al-Nisr and Point 45, noting that Nab al-Murr lies between these two mountains.

The Syrian army also gained control of Nabain, located at Kassab’s western entrance, after violent battles by army soldiers, who evacuated Jabal al-Nisr and joined their colleagues in Nabain. The field source told As-Safir that the army does in fact control this area despite media reports claiming otherwise. In fact, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported that the Syrian army gained control of the area.

The armed factions that attacked Kassab — among them Jabhat al-Nusra, Ansar al-Sham and the Islamic Front — have tried to extend the clashes toward Qustul Maaf, but they failed and withdrew. Then they targeted Qustul Maaf with mortars from nearby villages like Kanisa, Atra and al-Sawda.

As for Kassab's future in the coming days, it's uncertain. There is the possibility that it could join the list of destroyed cities, though some consider this unlikely, not because of any settlement or mediation, but because the city sits on a low spot surrounded by hills, making it difficult for insurgents to fortify their positions. So, they chose to fortify their positions in the nearby hills. Few gunmen have stayed in Kassab itself, which is free of any Syrian army presence. Will Kassab be saved by the intercession of its history and location?

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