Regime in new Latakia campaign

The Syrian government, faced by manpower shortages, has thrown all of its resources into the offensive.

The Ahrar al-Sham fire rockets at regime positions in Slanfeh. (YouTube)
Pro-regime troops attack Dorin. (YouTube/National Defense Force)

BEIRUT – The Syrian regime has launched a new offensive under the cover of heavy aerial bombardment in the northeastern outskirts of Latakia, amid opposition fears of massacres in the mountain region.


The government’s latest military campaign, which comes in conjunction with offensives in Aleppo and the south, aims to take the town of Salma, a rebel stronghold approximately 35 kilometers northeast of Latakia.


Rebels first seized Salma—one of the Latakia provinces majority Sunni-populated towns—in December 2012, and have since launched a number of operations from the area, which constitutes the insurgent-held front line to Latakia and the Assad family’s hometown of Qardaha.


“The regime hopes its campaign… will prevent a repeat of attacks like the recent car bombing in Assad’s hometown of Qardaha, put an end to opposition shelling of pro-regime villages in the coastal region, and protect its Al-Nawba Mountain observation point,” Alaraby Aljadeed reported Tuesday.


“If the regime advances beyond [rebel-held mountain areas] the Latakia-Aleppo road will be threatened and, as a result, the regime will have cut off the opposition’s supply line.”


The regime’s campaign—dubbed “At your service Syria”—has pitted government troops backed by National Defense Force militias and Iranian fighters against a coalition of rebel units, including those of the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham and Nusra Front as well as the Free Syrian Army’s First Coastal Division, which named their defensive operations “At your service God.”


The launch of the regime campaign has raised worries among the Syrian opposition, with the National Coalition warning that pro-Assad troops might commit massacres in the region.


“The regime offensive raises real fears of possible genocidal crimes against the residents of the area,” the Coalition said in a statement issued Saturday.


“Over 6,000 residents of the area have fled their villages and have sought refuge along the border with Turkey for fear of the advance of regime forces.”


Battlefield balance


In the pre-dawn hours of March 5, government troops launched an offensive in the mountains outside the town of Dorin, which lies a few kilometers south of the regime target of Salma in the Jabal al-Akrad region.


“The Syrian army supported by the National Defense Force troops surprised the militants in the countryside of Latakia,” Pro-Hezbollah daily Al-Akhbar said in its report on the battle.


“In parallel, the army launched another attack on the town of Kinsabba [nine kilometers north of Dorin], to prevent the arrival of any militant reinforcements.”


The regime achieved initial successes in its operations, seizing the Dorin area by March 7, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which reported that at least 19 pro-regime troops were killed in the fighting, while rebels lost 14 fighters.


The regime’s ground campaign in the region has been coupled with heavy bombardment, including jet strikes, helicopter barrel bombings and artillery fire, the Observatory reported.


Pro-Syrian regime outlets touted the strategic importance of the fall of Dorin, which at an altitude of approximately 800 meters offers vantage points and lines of sight over surrounding rebel-held areas.


“The fall of Mount Dorin will [facilitate] military action against militants... in Salma because of the reconnaissance coverage provided by the mountain,” a military source told Al-Akhbar.


In the days following the regime’s opening advance, back-and-forth fighting has raged in the vicinity of Salma and the Nabi Younes mountaintop southeast of the town, according to the Observatory, without any substantial territorial gains by either side.


Amid the regime’s aerial bombardment of loactions in the Jabal al-Akrad area, rebels have fired rockets and mortars at regime positions, with the Observatory reporting deadly strikes on Dorin.


The Islamist Ahrar al-Sham claimed rocket strikes on Slanfeh and Aramo, regime positions south of Dorin, while the FSA’s First Coastal Division said it had struck government posts in Dorin as well as Nabi Younes, the highest point in the region.


Regime’s operational goals


A commander from the First Coastal Division—the largest FSA formation in Latakia Governorate—said in an interview that the regime had attacked the rebels’ mountain position to raise the morale of Assad supporters.


“[The regime] chose to enter via Jabal al-Akrad, because the surrounding villages are Alawite, while the villages around Jabal Turkman are Sunni,” Akil Jumaa told Alaraby Aljadeed.


“It chose to enter via Jabal al-Akrad to distance the opposition from pro-regime villages and because of the losses it suffered in Aleppo,” the FSA military official claimed.


“The regime wants to raise the morale of its supporters by storming Salma,” which he called the “key to regime control of Jabal al-Akrad.”


The rebel leader also vowed that his forces were “ready to confront the regime and Hezbollah forces preparing to invade. Salma will be their grave.”


“The formula in the coast will be changed in the next two days,” Jumaa boasted.   


Meanwhile, a former FSA commander told the London-based daily that “the regime is taking advantage of weak resources on the Jabal al-Akrad and Jabal al-Turkman fronts, and working to advance on these fronts.”


Malek Kurdi said the regime's goal was “to reach locations that will allow it retake the Latakia-Jisr al-Shughour road.”


“Making gains in these areas [raises] the morale of its members. [The regime] considers them part of its future state,” he added.


“In the best case scenario [gains in the area] will strengthen its position in the international arena so it can regain control of the rest [of Syria], starting from [the coast].”


However, Kurdi asserted that the regime would not succeed in its plans, saying that insurgents would be able to “acclimatize to sparse resources and engage in guerilla warfare in the same way the FSA did at the beginning of the revolution.”


Manpower shortage


The regime has tried to make up for troop shortages by pressing navy troops into the battle and enlisting the help of Iranians, Alaraby Aljadeed reported.


A former department chief with the regime’s Marine and Coastal Artillery and Rockets Branch gave details of naval forces participating in the campaign.


“Most people killed in the battle for the coastal region have been from the navy, as the regime has nothing left but the navy and the National Defense Force,” Othman Asbro told the daily.


“The navy has no infantry left,” said Asbro, who documented the names of 21 navy college members killed in recent fighting. “Now, it is only made up of administrative and maritime specialists, signalmen, radio operators, navigators, torpedo-men, coastal artillerymen and boatmen.”


He added however that the regime still has “Navy Seals Battalion 509, which has around 200 members trained in actual marksmanship, and Coastal Artillery Regiment 99 in the village of Arab al-Malek” south of Latakia.


Fighters from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have also reportedly joined the regime’s coastal campaign, with an opposition activist telling Alaraby Aljadeed that “strange people flocked to the town of Jableh for around a month before the battle for the coast [began], via Hamimim Airbase.”


These strangers, he said were able to “walk around the town as they pleased.”


Jableh Local Coordination Committee spokesperson Abu Mulhim al-Jablawi said he believed they were “IRGC fighters, as they disappeared from the town around three days before the battle for the coast began.”


“The regime called all members of its military units to the battle, including NDF [militias]. Only military intelligence members are left in the town,” he added.


“Last Friday saw the first absence of Air Force and Political intelligence [members] in front of the mosques. They usually stand at the doors after prayers to stop demonstrations from starting.”

The Ahrar al-Sham fire rockets at regime positions in Slanfeh. (YouTube)

The regime called all members of its military units to the battle, including NDF [militias]. Only military intelligence members are left .