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Why the Opposition Can’t Fight in the Coastal Mountains

Syria’s coastal mountain region is challenging fighting terrain for the opposition groups in the area, made only more difficult by Russia’s intervention on behalf of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

Written by Saleem al-Omar Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Syrian civil war1
Members of opposition groups attack bases of the Bashar al-Assad regime on a hill on the border between Latakia and Idlib in Syria, October 10, 2016. Beha El Halebi / Anadolu Agency.Beha El Halebi / Anadolu Agency

Frequently, activists of different stripe call for revenge against the regime for Aleppo or the Damascus countryside by opening the Syrian coastal front where, during the last four years (prior to the Russian intervention), the opposition controlled wide swathes of the mountains. That is, until the Russians forced the opposition groups to withdraw, and only a few small hills on the Turkish border remained outside of regime control.

Most of those calling for this action do not know the difficulty of fighting in the mountains. In this regard, Syria’s mountainous coast resembles, to a great extent, Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain. The regime recognized the difficulty of controlling this territory without the intervention of its Russian ally. But when Russia threw its weight behind the Syrian regime in 2016, opposition forces suffered a series of setbacks. One of the first results of Russia’s intervention was securing the Russian air base Hmeimim, which takes its name from that of the nearby mountain. The base is located on the Mediterranean seacoast 12 miles (20km) south of Latakia. In the process of securing the base, Russian forces drove out rebels from the hard-to-access mountain range.

Fierce fighting against the regime’s army began in 2012. Popular backing provided support for these battles, which allowed the opposition to take near-complete control of the towns of Jabal al-Akrad, the most important of which was the city of Salma. A similar situation happened in Jabal Turkmen, where more than 40 towns and villages revolted against the regime – the most prominent being the town of Rabiyya, the main Turkmen stronghold in the region. For its part, the regime responded by striking the towns and villages where it had lost control. It was able to drive out local residents from these towns, but regime forces were unable to advance and establish control until 2016, when Russian airstrikes completed what Assad’s forces had started.

On the other hand, many jihadist fighters who visited the coastal mountains recognized the difficulty of the geography. They also studied all the failed attempts made by the regime prior to Russian intervention and came away nearly sure that these mountains would remain out of Assad’s control. In addition, there were no essential facilities, like oil wells or industrial complexes, to make it worth fighting for – just mountains.

Because of this, the area was converted into training camps and, with the exception of local residents, the number of opposition fighters and jihadists dwindled. Muslim al-Shishani, commander of the Islamist militia Junud al-Sham, opened a large encampment close to solicitation points in order to train fighters, training hundreds of locals and people from outside the immediate locale. However, most of the jihadists continued to see the area only as a place to rest and resupply, though a few brought their families and settled there.

As a result, the actual number of fighters on active fronts, which stretched for more than 30 miles (50km), probably never exceeded 5,000 – all of them carried the banner of the Free Syrian Army. They had no advanced weaponry, save for several tanks. Most carried older weapons. They were also short of ammunition and shells, forcing them to adopt a defensive, rather than an offensive, posture. Accordingly, the opposition made limited advances and, almost as soon as they did, the regime regained the initiative and took back what they lost. The last of these was the Battle of Kessab in 2014, where the opposition controlled the city for just three months and lost 600 fighters.

Skirmishes continued until September 2015, when Russia declared it was intervening in Syria on the pretext of fighting terrorism. Despite the fact that the so-called Islamic State was not present in the region, Russia targeted the mountain town of Salma. According to local sources, Russia launched as many as 1,000 airstrikes, killing about 500 and injuring 1,100 opposition fighters, most of them local residents. Jabal Turkmen, home to a prewar population of 50,000, was largely evacuated by locals.

With Russian support, Assad was able to reinforce his rule, and the mountains turned into a death trap for the opposition. Forced evictions followed the airstrikes, and refugee camps became the only relatively safe areas. The opposition had not taken into account the possibility of Russian intervention. Battles of attrition dragged out, but local fighters recognized that the fight for this area was lost. Under shadow of Russian aircraft, it would become a slaughter. Local fighters estimated that retaking these mountains would require more than 10,000 fighters armed with better weapons.

At that time, Jaish al-Fatah, a coalition of Islamist groups originally formed in Idlib, was the main opposition force in the region, but its attempts to retake the mountains were an abject failure. Soon after, they announced their withdrawal from the region and turned to the defense of Aleppo. Most of the opposition leaders became convinced that controlling these mountains was impossible as, shortly after the Russian intervention, the regime built defensive lines on the mountains and hills. Additionally, they supplied their fighters with large quantities of ammunition that enabled them to tighten their control, whereas the opposition forces in the area lacked the equivalent manpower, arms and even ammunition.

The strength and fighting experience in the ranks of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the coastal mountains deteriorated and, as the fighting progressed, they found themselves in an increasingly desperate position. As they did not build trenches or sand berms, they suffered heavy losses against the rapid advance of the Russian-backed regime. The one factor that enabled them to maintain control throughout the four years was popular support in communities opposing Assad, but now neither civilians nor military opposition members remain in these mountains. Abu Taha from Ahrar al-Sham says, “When we were in Salma, the buildings were collapsing on us one after another, strike after strike. At the time, we had nothing save a single tank, from the FSA. In the battle defending Salma we lost dozens of local youth, and hundreds more were seriously injured. We lost communication with the inside [of the city]. We called them repeatedly but could do no more than that. We withstood the bombardment for two months. When we finally withdrew, of the several dozen vehicles in the city, fewer than 10 were left.”
At the present time, the coastal mountains have turned into a genuine regime stronghold requiring significant resources. Retaking the mountains might require the intervention of international powers rather than the small groups of the opposition that subsist on the basic assistance Turkey and Qatar provide for them. Most of the major leaders from the opposition, both moderate and Islamist, have no intention of waging a battle in the coastal region either now or in the long term because they recognize the cost and they lack the capability. The regime’s observation posts that are spread across the mountaintops observe any movement by the opposition. Any opposition attacks in the area will be met by swift retaliation – not only from the regime army on the ground, but also from Russian fighter jets, for whom control of this region has become a red line they will not relinquish.

This article was originally published by the Atlantic Council and is reprinted here with permission.

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