LATAKIA, Syria – Opposition groups across Syria have largely been on the defensive since Russia intervened in the conflict in support of the Syrian government. In the coastal Latakia province, however, rebel forces launched an offensive in June, and subsequent retaliation from the government means that control of towns in the area is alternating between rebel and government forces almost daily.
The suburbs of Latakia, Syria’s largest coastal province, have been a disputed area since the beginning of Syria’s six-year conflict. While the provincial capital, also called Latakia, has remained under government control, the port city’s suburbs were the scene of some of the earliest anti-government protests and, later, violent battles.
The focal point of the current battle in Latakia is Salma, a village located about a half mile (800m) above sea level between the Latakia, Hama and Idlib countrysides. The small village is both a vulnerable area for government forces, and a strategic stronghold for opposition forces. Salma had been under rebel control since July 2012, serving as a vantage point to target nearby government territories, and as a supply route connecting to other rebel held areas. But in January 2016, with the help of Russian airstrikes, Syrian government forces were able to capture the small, albeit important, village of Salma.
Lorenzo Trombetta, a journalist and scholar specializing in the contemporary history of Syria, pointed out the dual perception of Salma. For government loyalists, it is a symbol of “victory against terrorism.” For the opposition, Salma is the symbol of “crimes committed by the regime.”
“Beyond the symbolic dimension, its importance is due mainly to the fact that whoever controls Salma could easily target military and civil positions towards Latakia city and the coastline,” Trombetta said.
Before forces allied with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad seized the town earlier this year, it was the main launchpad from which opposition fighters fired missiles onto the provincial capital. But since late 2015, Salma has become even more coveted because of its proximity to a newly established Russian airbase only 18.6 miles (30km) away, outside the city of Jabla.
Unlike during the January battles, the opposition has now prioritized the Latakia battle, and the retaking of Salma, over other ongoing clashes across Syria and have adopted new tactics. Ali al-Hafawi, a former Ahrar al-Sham spokesperson for the Latakia coast region, said the rebels have been advancing at night. With many of the fighters fasting during the hot summer days that coincided with f Ramadan, rebel fighters used the cooling temperatures and their knowledge of the terrain to ambush government forces during the night, and have continued to use this tactic.
The current offensive in Latakia is being spearheaded by Jaish al-Fath, or Army of Conquest, an umbrella opposition group consisting of local and foreign fighters from armed opposition factions including Ahrar al-Sham, Faylaq al-Sham, the Turkistan Islamic Party and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria. Elements from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have also joined the ongoing fight, said Hafawi.
Jaish al-Fatah chose not to send reinforcements in the previous military campaign in January. The Ahrar al-Sham spokesman told the news site Syria Direct that repeated requests for reinforcements were not answered because rebels in Syria’s north were “giving priority to the Aleppo front.”
Forces allied with the Syrian government launched a major offensive on Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, in February. Earlier this month, pro-government forces made a significant advance in their operations, cutting off Castello Road, the last supply route to the opposition-held areas of the city. Eastern Aleppo is currently under siege and nearly 300,000 civilians remain inside with no access to humanitarian aid.
Dr. Abdul Munim Zein al-Din, the general coordinator between the opposition factions, told Syria Deeply in a phone interview that the recent decision to launch this offensive in the coast while rebels suffered setbacks elsewhere was made through a “shura,” or Islamic voting process.
“There were contradicting opinions in regards to the fighting in coastal areas. Some believed that Hama was a higher priority and so some factions were preparing for those battles,” said Zein al-Din. “Others called for fighting in the coastal areas. I personally was in support of directing ourselves towards either the Syrian coast, or towards southern, rural Aleppo, because they are both in great danger.”
The current offensive in Latakia has seen rebels retake a number of suburban villages that were previously lost following the Russian intervention. Stretching alongside 6.2 miles (10 km) of the international highway connecting Latakia to rebel-held Idlib, the villages were a strategic territorial gain for the rebels. By reaching the two points of Mount Abu Ali and Mount al-Qal’a, rebel forces have been able to reopen the supply road that connects the rebel-held western Idlib suburbs with the previously isolated Mount Turkmen. Salma is the gateway to the rebel-held mountain range of Jabal al-Akrad, a vital supply route on the Turkish border.
However, many of the rebels’ recent victories were short lived. The town of Kinsabba, for example, has alternated hands at least five times within the last two weeks, as both rebels and government forces try to maintain control of the town, which lies on the road to Salma.
“Each issue has its own very particular circumstances,” said Zein al-Din, adding that the main reason behind the opposition factions’ disagreements is the lack of an independent and recognized judicial committee.
Opposition forces fighting in the battle for Salma may also face new obstacles in their offensive. Jabhat al-Nusra, a key faction fighting in Latakia, has faced increasing issues with different rebel groups elsewhere in the country. Most recently detaining two rebel leaders from moderate factions. Locals in the rebel-held Idlib countryside have also protested the militant group’s rule in the town of Maarat al-Numan in the past few months.
Jabhat al-Nusra is also the target of a military and intelligence partnership proposed by the U.S. to coordinate airstrikes with Russia against the al-Qaida affiliate. Writer and university professor Sami Moubayed says the proposed military coordination may see the U.S. sacrificing groups on the ground to please their Russian counterparts, including small groups like those in Latakia working alongside Jabhat al-Nusra.
“If the U.S.-Russian partnership agreement passes, many of these groups will collapse both in the Latakia countryside and elsewhere,” Moubayed said.
Others, like Trombetta, are skeptical that targeting Nusra militants would break the overall stalemate in Latakia.
“No matter what U.S. and Russia decide to do with Jabhat al-Nusra,” he said, “fighting in the Latakia northeastern countryside will continue within the ongoing dynamic.”