The Syrian army struck a blow against armed groups yesterday [June 15] by recovering the city of Kassab in the northern Latakia countryside after militants took control of it at the end of March. The army also recovered the village of Umm Sharshouh in the northern Homs countryside. Thus, the army recovered two important sites that armed groups had captured in two separate phases.
Yesterday morning [June 15], a Syrian army spokesperson announced the "restoration of security and stability to the city of Kassab and its environs in the northern Latakia countryside."
He said in a statement that "after a series of successful critical operations, units of our armed forces, in cooperation with national defense, tightened control of the town of al-Nabain and the surrounding de facto ruling councils," and referred to the "strategic geographic location that is characteristic of the region." He said that these developments end the opposition’s "illusions" of "trying to secure access to the sea and establishing a buffer zone along the border with Turkey."
The parameters of this development had begun a few days ago with an air and artillery campaign that clearly affected the gunmen’s positions in the areas around Kassab. The Syrian army seized the most important highlands, especially the so-called Burj Sirtel and then the town of al-Nabain, whose recovery signaled that regaining Kassab was near. Last week, the army was able to control the peaks 1017, 714 and Mount 803.
However, progress toward the city happened the night before last and at dawn yesterday [June 15]. There was information that the Syrian flag was raised atop the municipal building in the middle of Kassab, at a time when opposition websites said something similar but with an opposing tone.
Twitter users close to Jabhat al-Nusra wrote at dawn yesterday that "the attack was the deadliest in six months," asking faraway factions for a "[general call] to reach the point of Kassab as soon as possible."
But the call, which was made the night before last, was largely ignored. It was accompanied by wholesale withdrawals from the more than nine brigades present in Kassab, including Jabhat al-Nusra, one of whose Twitter supporters wrote, "There are no answers about why the Kassab front quickly collapsed."
In a counterattack involving tanks, Jabhat al-Nusra tried to break the momentum of the Syrian army units and national defense forces, but to no avail.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, "Jabhat al-Nusra fighters and allied Islamic battalions withdrew from the Syrian town of Kassab, which borders Turkey and which they had controlled in March, in the face of the advance by the regime forces."
Yesterday, some said that the remaining fighters in Kassab belong to Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, Ansar al-Sham, Ansar al-Sharia and some elements of the Battalion of Chechen Mujahedeen. The remaining fighters withdrew to the villages of al-Atira and al-Kabira, which administratively belongs to Rabia, a border town in the Latakia countryside. Rabia was hit by several barrel bombs dropped by the Syrian air force.
The announcement of a state of alert by the Turkish army on its border with Syria hampered the escapees’ attempt to reach Turkey. Later, it was confirmed that the Turkish army closed all border crossings that lead to Turkish territory in the face of "yesterday’s allies," the battalions that occupied Kassab in March.
Perhaps Ankara’s decision to classify Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organization played a role in the Turkish decision to close the border and in the rapid collapse of that front. Several months ago, it appeared that the Turks had really wagered on that front and on the possibility of linking it with the Aleppo and Idlib countrysides to secure sea access for the fighters. That was despite the difficulty of the operation, as the Syrian state apparatus is heavily present nearby.
Among the reasons why the army succeeded yesterday was the resignation of the commander of the so-called "military council in the coast" Bashar Saadeddin with nine other leaders of the "military council" in four main fronts in Syria. They resigned because of “unkept promises to provide arms and aid.” What also echoed in the battle of Kassab was when some formations failed to provide actual support for the "brothers in arms," including several battalions under the label of the Free Syrian Army.
An opposition activist near the Kassab front ruefully said, "We should have worked to retrieve al-Sirtil [tower] and the points dominated by the army. But we didn’t know why such a withdrawal happened. ... No one knows why the withdrawal [happened]."
It’s important to note that pressure by the Syrian army, its three-month siege on the area and the area’s supposed lack of military depth were some of the reasons why danger from Kassab declined. But there are other possibilities. Jabhat al-Nusra may have wanted to prevent the collapse of more important fronts, such as the eastern front, which the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is preparing to fully capture, perhaps in a battle that begins in Deir ez-Zour and later moves to Hassakeh province.
Yesterday, there were reports about the arrival of a new batch of American military vehicles captured by ISIS in Iraq, including Abrams tanks, Humvees, and other transport vehicles. ISIS is preparing those vehicles in the al-Shadadi area in the Hassakeh countryside for the next battle. ISIS may also want to move those vehicles to Syria to protect them from being targeted by aircraft in Iraq.
The battle of the eastern region is very important for Jabhat al-Nusra, whose elements and positions are being shaken due to hits by the Syrian army on the one hand and by the advances being made by ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra’s sister in the global jihad. Jabhat al-Nusra’s opportunities are shrinking in the eastern region in particular in the face of three key opponents: ISIS, the Syrian army and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, which control the Syria-Iraq al-Yaarabiya crossing. Kurdish peshmerga forces seized control yesterday of the al-Rabia crossing on the Iraqi side.
So after yesterday’s [June 15] Kassab battle, Jabhat al-Nusra’s influence has shrunk, as it has shrunk in the Aleppo countryside, part of [Aleppo], part of the Idlib countryside and in the Deir ez-Zour countryside, in a cumbersome attempt to maintain a foothold there.
Except for its forces in Daraa, where it can be considered as the main source of power, Jabhat al-Nusra’s control is still limited to some areas of Hama and around Khan Sheikhoun and in a narrow area north of Homs. Yesterday, army forces tightened the noose around Jabhat al-Nusra by recovering the village of Umm Sharshouh and the surrounding farms (which had fallen a week before) as a prelude to controlling the nearby hills. Controlling those hills would allow the army to bomb anywhere on northern Homs and would strengthen the army’s monitoring of the main areas where the gunmen are located, especially the towns of Talbisa, al-Dar al-Kabir and Deir Maala. Government sources said earlier to As-Safir that the government is trying to achieve national reconciliation in those towns to spare them the battle intended to liberate all of Homs’ countryside. Rastan is considered the main gathering center for armed groups there.
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