The government’s control of Observatory 45, a key hilltop base in Latakia province, has been repeatedly challenged by rebel forces in the past week. Fighting in the Alawite-strong region escalated when rebel forces carried out a surprise offensive on troops there on March 21, with fighters from the Syrian army battling the Islamic Front and Jabhat al-Nusra.
Two weeks ago rebel forces captured the coastal Christian-Armenian town of Kessab and a nearby border crossing with Turkey, their first foothold along the Mediterranean coast. In response, the army has intensified its air assault on rebel strongholds in the area. This weekend, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said barrel bombs have begun dropping near Latakia city.
We asked Aymenn al-Tamimi, Shillman-Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Forum, to weigh in on the changing situation on the ground.
Syria Deeply: What’s the situation on the ground right now?
Aymenn al-Tamimi: The clashes are ongoing. Observatory 45 is still in government hands. Some of the activists have put out a claim of the taking of Observatory 45 again, but I haven’t seen any confirmation of that yet. In fact, one such activist group, Islamic Kessab, admitted on Monday it had made a mistake claiming the retaking of Observatory 45. I also saw Twitter posts over the last few days claiming Ansar al-Sham retook Observatory 45: actually, the YouTube videos the Twitter postings relied on showed no such thing, but merely showed clashes in the area.
There was an interview [Sunday afternoon] with one of Harakat Sham al-Islam’s fighters and he just said that the clashes were ongoing. On the other side government forces have advanced to the periphery of Kessab. This includes [Assad-loyal militia] the Muqawama Suriya and the Syrian army.
Further, rockets have been landing on Latakia city [starting Sunday], and activist groups like “Islamic Kessab” are reporting Grad missile strikes on “Nusayri [Alawite] villages.”
SD: Control of the area around Observatory 45 apparently switched hands multiple times since the start of the offensive. How long could this go on?
Tamimi: This will be ongoing. One should expect the fighting to continue. My own expectation remains that these offensives are not repelled quickly, it takes time. Eventually we are going to go back to the previous status quo, and ultimately the offensive will be repelled.
SD: Have there been any changes in rebel leadership?
Tamimi: Around Observatory 45, the leadership of the offensive was originally Ahrar al-Sham, then it was handed over to Harakat Sham al-Islam, and now they’re continuing the fight. Along with them are fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra and Ansar al-Sham.
SD: Rebel forces have taken substantial losses in the last week. How motivated are they to keep fighting?
Tamimi: I don’t think the rebels have yet lost the motivation to keep fighting. When the Harakat Sham al-Islam fighter was asked why the rebels were fighting in light of the heavy losses, he said, “This is in God’s hands, these battles and wars,” so no, I don’t think they’ve yet decided that the offensives are futile. They’re going to have to learn that by being beaten back by force. I don’t think they’re intending to withdraw just yet, and I don’t think that will change. I think they’ll have to be pushed back by government forces.
SD: Reportedly, the moderate rebel leader in Latakia this week accused the Syrian National Coalition of failing to honor its promises to fighters on the ground there. Does the SNC have a role in this offensive?
Tamimi: As regards battalions that are tied to the opposition in exile in this offensive, it’s a very minor role indeed. The people who are leading this offensive aren’t tied to the opposition in exile. So it’s not surprising that they would the opposition-in-exile’s motives and accuse them of not supporting the offensive. These kinds of accusations come up all the time, rival factions betraying each other in these offensives and so on. So the accusations don’t come across as any kind of surprise to me.
SD: How is the government feeling going into the second week of the offensive?
Tamimi: I think they believe in total victory and they think they can withstand the offensive, and they’re justified in thinking that.