On Friday, rebel fighters launched an offensive in the Alawite heartland of Latakia, establishing control of small parts of a coast that has, until now, belonged exclusively to the Assad government.
In the last six days, rebel brigades took control of Kasab, a Armenian Christian village on the Mediterranean. In response, the Syrian Army launched air strikes against opposition positions, though Latakia’s mountainous terrain gives the rebels a greater advantage than they have had in other areas of the country.
As the offensive continues, Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at Oklahoma University and editor of Syria Comment, and Aymenn al-Tamimi, a Shillman-Ginsberg fellow at the Middle East Forum, explained the developments on the ground.
Syria Deeply: Who are the main groups in the rebels’ Latakia offensive?
Aymenn al-Tamimi: There was an offensive last year in the summer on Latakia. Composition-wise, in terms of who’s behind it, this week’s is quite similar to last year’s. Jihadi types are spearheading the offensive, and you’ve got a minor FSA component. The main difference this time is that there’s no ISIS, because ISIS left Latakia recently: they withdrew out to the east.
There are Kataib Ansar al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham, which are aligned with the Islamic Front, but they have muhajireen components as well. And they’re [largely] behind this offensive. There’s a Chechen component leading Kata’ib Ansar al-Sham [foreign fighters from Chechnya who are fighting with the rebels]. Then there’s Jabhat al-Nusra, and then Harakat Sham al-Islam: a group founded by Moroccan muhajireen and closely aligned ideologically with Jabhat al-Nusra. These are the main groups. There’s also a minor FSA component.
SD: And on the government side?
Tamimi: You have the Syrian army, you have the National Defense Force, you have the Baath brigades and Muqawama Souria, which is based in Latakia, and so given the situation, they’re of course going to play a role in the fighting.
SD: What is the reason for the rebels’ offensive?
Tamimi: This didn’t come out of nowhere. There’s been movements of weaponry across from Aleppo governorate in the days leading up to the official beginning of the Anfal battle, which is the name for this offensive. The purpose is largely the same at last year’s: it’s intended to score, at the minimum, a psychological victory against the government by striking at what the government sees as its heartland. [This includes] killing Hilal al-Assad. So far, it’s a morale blow against the government.
Joshua Landis: They want to hurt Assad and the Alawites. When they made their offensive last year into Latakia [city] going across the mountains [to areas that are] lower down, they were trying to get within rocket distance of Qerdaha, the president’s town, which they were able to achieve.
But they also want to hit Alawites in their [ancestral] home and make them feel insecure, which they have now succeeded in doing. The rockets have scared people, they’ve caused a great deal of anxiety and made them feel vulnerable. Until now Syrian soldiers’ families had a sense that they are protected from this war because they have had relative security compared to most Syrians. So the rebels wanted to take the fight to the Alawite areas along the coast.
This is a region that was poorly guarded. The Alawites had left the National Security Forces to defend it, people like Hilal al-Assad, who were Shabiha, and not regular military guys in charge, so that they wouldn’t have to squander military resources. But this left them very vulnerable because these weren’t professional military guys with professional military skills.
So here’s a poorly guarded area that’s highly symbolic and hurts the government after its victory in Yabroud, which has been a big moral defeat for the opposition. An offensive there is a way to lift morale that seems fairly safe because you have a long line of egress back into Turkey.
SD: There are reports that suggest the rebels actually entered via Turkey.
Landis: It’s unclear whether they came across the Turkish border. It’s hard to believe that Turkey let them across but it’s not impossible, but they would be able to use it to run back to should they get pounded.
Tamimi: Members of the Muqawama Souria have told me that the “terrorists” have come across from Turkey with the help of Turkish intelligence and are launching an attack on Latakia, and that’s their perspective: all of them being terrorists, that’s how they characterize it. I think Turkey has probably facilitated some rebel movement across the border into this Latakia offensive, in particular with the small FSA component.
SD: How even is the playing field in Latakia?
Landis: The Syrian air force is always the game changer. In Yabroud, it’s a barren area with high visibility, and anyone who’s got an air force has a tremendous advantage. But Latakia isn’t like anywhere else in Syria, it’s mountainous and has forestation, and this levels the playing field for the rebels. Here they can grab the high points and then they’re staring down at any invading Syrian military.
SD: What is the terrain like where the offensive is taking place?
Landis: If you look at the terrain, it’s a little point reaching up to Turkish territory: the air force can’t fly in there. So the rebels are relatively protected: in essence they found a little no fly zone. The Syrian army had to come back at great expense and try to drive them out, which is what they’re doing now. There’s only one road leading into Kesab and they can mine that road, lay IEDs all over the place. This offensive is not just symbolic — this is a way for the rebels to level the playing field the way they could not in Yabroud, where the Syrian army had a tremendous advantage.