by Isabel Nassief and Charlie Caris
In response to recent regime gains in Qalamoun and Aleppo, rebels began a surprise operation in Latakia province in order to divert pro-regime forces fighting on other fronts. The operation began on March 21 when rebel forces launched the “Spoils of War Battle” [Muarakat al-Anfal, which refers to a Sura of the Quran] in the northern countryside of Latakia province. Two days after the fighting began, on March 23, rebels seized the last regime-held Turkish border crossing at Kassab, a small majority-Armenian village. The regime responded by intensifying airstrikes on the towns of Kassab and al-Sakhra, prompting Turkey to shoot down a Syrian MiG-23 for what it claims was a violation of Turkish airspace. In the first two weeks of the offensive, rebel forces have made notable gains, seizing several strategic locations and villages including Tower 45, Qastal Ma’af, Nabain, and Samara on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.
In late March, the regime escalated its counteroffensive by intensifying shelling on opposition positions in Latakia, particularly Kassab. The regime continued to mobilize thousands of National Defense Force (NDF) fighters to retake areas seized by the rebels and has also diverted forces from Hama, Aleppo, Idlib and Tartous. After the death of Hilal al-Assad, the NDF commander in Latakia and cousin of President Assad, social media sources indicate that Col. Suhail al-Hassan was sent to the coast to take over regime military operations on the coast. Hassan was previously in charge of regime operations in Aleppo city, and his reassignment from the Aleppo front indicates the significance of the coast to the regime. Furthermore, there have been unconfirmed reports of NDF fighters refusing to join the fight on the coast as well as unrest within Latakia’s Alawite population.
International and Western media outlets have reported extensively on the Anfal offensive, but have focused overwhelmingly on the potential danger to the hundreds of Armenian residents in Kassab, one of the first towns to be seized. Despite reports from pro-regime media that rebel forces had planned to target Armenian civilians, it appears that rebel fighters have in fact approached religious minorities and institutions with considerable care. In response to the media campaign known as #SaveKessab, rebels posted numerous videos standing in front of intact Armenian Orthodox churches and escorting Armenian civilians to the Turkish border. Rebel fighters aligned with the offensive have so far refrained from engaging in the type of religious and ethnic violence that led to accusations of war crimes in August, 2013, during the previous Latakia offensive. The Islamic Front even went so far as to release an English language statement disavowing sectarianism that said, “The Islamic Front has never had nor will it ever hold, malevolent intention towards any religious or ethnic group in Syria.”
Fighting between rebel and regime forces continues in the villages of al-Nabein, Qastal Ma’af, Samra, and particularly over Tower 45, the highest point in the entire province and a strategic position.
Groups involved in the March, 2014, Latakia offensive
Four main groups are waging the “Spoils of War Battle” [Muarakat al-Anfal] in the northern region of Latakia province. The leading group in the offensive is the Ansar al-Sham Battalions, a Latakia-based Islamic Front signatory founded by Abu Omar al-Jamil in September, 2012. The group’s military commander, Abu Musa al-Shishani, reportedly led the main assault against the Kassab border outpost.
The other three main groups are the Sham al-Islam Movement, a group of mostly Moroccan fighters led by the now deceased former Guantanamo detainee Ibrahim bin Shakaran; a Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) contingent led by Abu Ahmed al-Turkmani; and an Ahrar al-Sham contingent led by senior HASI member Abu al-Hassan. Saqr al-Jihad, the former leader of the Suqour al-Izz Battalion which now follows JN, was also reportedly instrumental in planning the operation. In addition, the Chechen foreign fighter group Junud al-Sham, under the command of Muslim al-Shishani, has participated in the fighting.
A separate effort, led by the SMC-affiliated Western and Central Front [al-Jabhat al-Gharbiya wal-Wusta], was announced on March 21, 2014 under the command of Col. Mustafa Hashem. Among the groups represented is the Sham Legion, which has been linked to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Despite overlapping areas of operation with the Spoils of War Battle, the SMC-affiliated operation, entitled the Mothers of the Martyrs Battle [Muarakat Umahat al-Shuhada], has not coordinated effectively with groups in the Spoils of War Battle. FSA brigades have so far played a marginal role in the overall coast offensive and have been unable to unify their efforts with other rebel groups. Some FSA leaders, including Col. Hashem, have accused JN in particular of refusing to cooperate and even opening fire on allied brigades in Kessab.
Syrian Coalition president Ahmed Jarba visited Latakia to inspect rebel gains and unconfirmed reports suggest that the Coalition offered the Islamic Front’s Ansar al-Sham $500,000 in support of the battle. This is notable because FSA forces are playing only a supporting role in the offensive. The visit by Jarba represents a concerted effort by the political leadership of the opposition to build stronger ties to all of the units fighting on the ground.
The current fighting in Latakia demonstrates important dynamics within both regime and rebel ranks. For the regime, the Latakia offensive has exposed cleavages within the regime’s security apparatus. Though the regime has claimed the momentum in other areas such as Qalamoun and Aleppo city, rebel gains in Latakia have successfully opened a new front thereby putting the regime on the defensive in Latakia and diverting its attention, primarily from the Aleppo front.
For rebels, the current operations in Latakia indicate improved strategic planning since the previous coastal offensive in August 2013. Rebels have also announced a number of “Echo” operations in other provinces, namely Idlib and Quneitra, to capitalize on the regime’s defensive posture in Latakia. As fighting continued in northern Latakia province in the first week of April, for example, rebels launched a series of offensives in southern Idlib province along the M5 highway. On April 3rd rebels announced the “Echo of the Spoils of War Battle” [Muarakat Sada al-Anfal] to liberate the town of Khan Skeikhoun on the M5 highway in southern Idlib province. The following day rebels seized the town of Babolin, which lies north of Khan Sheikhoun on the M5 as fighting continued in the surrounding towns of Kafrbasin, al-Salhiya, and Rab al-Jour. These rebel gains are tactically significant and put pressure on regime forces in Idlib as well as impede the regime’s ability to resupply and reinforce the Latakia front from Hama.
These rebel offensives have demonstrated an improved concept of operations in which rebels are increasingly targeting previously uncontested regime strongholds in addition to critical supply lines. Furthermore, rebels appear to be simultaneously leveraging positions on multiple fronts in order to redirect regime attention away from critical rebel support zones, namely Aleppo and Qalamoun.