BEIRUT – A coalition of Syrian rebels has routed regime forces from a series of positions on the outskirts of the regime’s coastal enclave, threatening to sweep into Alawite-populated areas.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Tuesday that fierce clashes, which began after Monday midnight, continued to rage in western Idlib province and northern Hama province’s Al-Ghab Plain between regime forces and an assortment of Islamist factions.
“The Islamist factions have managed to advance and take control [of a number of villages],” the monitoring NGO said in its report.
“The fighting has caused the death of 5 members of the attacking factions and at least 12 regime forces members.”
The rebel offensive on the Al-Ghab Plain comes after reports emerged in recent weeks that Iran had taken over operational command of the key military front after rebels seized the nearby Idlib province in early June following weeks of sweeping military advances.
The Iraqi Kurdish Bas News outlet on June 8 reported that major command changes had been conducted on the Latakia-Hama-Idlib front after Iran Revolutionary Guards Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani visited the front.
A Hama-based media activist said that the Syrian regime’s chief of operations in the area, General Jamal Younis, had been removed from his post and replaced by an Iranian general known only by his moniker Iffari, who set up his headquarters in the village of Jourin.
Threatening pro-Assad heartland
Regime troops and a tank withdrawing from Tallet al-Sheikh Elias to Al-Farikha. (YouTube/Ahrar al-Sham)
The recent fighting’s importance lies in the fact that it has moved frontlines closer to areas in Syria’s coastal region adjacent to the Al-Ghab Plain, where the Jourin base is located, according to a report by Dubai based Al-Aan TV
“[The battle aims] to weaken the regime’s popular [support] base. Also, the areas the Army of Conquest is attacking are a human reservoir that supply the combat zones with shabiha,” the outlet said, using a derogatory term to refer to pro-government fighters.
Al-Aan also cited a rebel military source as saying that although the mostly Islamist coalition was seeking to capture Alawite villages, residents had nothing to fear.
“The battle’s goals are clear. They are not based on racism and displacing the residents of the targeted Alawite areas,” the source, from the FSA’s Al-Ghab Falcons, said.
“All the targeted areas house concentrations of Assad’s army… Civilians are safe from the declared battle.”
The source also said it was “necessary to transfer the battle to areas that supply the regime with manpower in order to weaken it, and to draw attention to the fact that the Syrian battle with Assad’s army is ongoing in all parts of Syria.”
The FSA official’s comments come days after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad conceded in a rare public address that the regime was facing manpower shortages and could not defend all areas of the country with equal strength.
“Everything is available [for the army], but there is a shortfall in human capacity,” Assad told dignitaries in Damascus on Sunday.
The Syrian regime in recent months has struggled to recruit young men into its armed forces as it suffers setbacks across the country.
Alawites, who form the backbone of the Syrian regime, have avoided mandatory military service, forcing the regime to create a special Coastal Shield Brigade in a bid to bring in men who have skipped their compulsory military duties.
Rebels in Sallet and Tallet al-Zuhour shortly after it's capture: (YouTube/Army of Conquest)
The fighting has pitted the Syrian army and pro-regime militias against the Al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, Jund al-Aqsa and other Islamist groups backed by the FSA-affiliated Al-Ghab Falcons and Mountain Falcons.
“The Islamist factions have managed to advance and take control of the Zizoun station and part of the village Al-Ziyara in the Al-Ghab Plain, as well as Tel Hamki, Tallet Khattab, the village of Al-Mushrifa, Tallet al-Zuhour, and Marj al-Zuhour [near] Jisr al-Shughour,” the SOHR reported Tuesday.
“Yesterday night, they took control of Tel Wasit, Tel Aawar, and Tel al-Sheikh Elias while preliminary shelling with dozens of projectiles by [rebel] factions targeted regime controlled areas.”
The report elaborated that “regime vehicles and pro-regime militants were seen withdrawing from Jisr al-Shughour’s Al-Farikah area towards the Al-Qarqour area on the edge of the Al-Ghab Plain.”
“There has been confirmed information that rebel factions have taken control of the village of Farikah and its surroundings.”
Meanwhile, a media activist, identifying himself as “Ibrahim al-Idlibi,” gave Alaraby Aljadeed details of events in some of the areas where fighting took place.
“Army of Conquest fighters took control of the Tel Aawar area to the south of Jisr al-Shughour in rural Idlib, Tallet Elias southeast of Al-Jisr and the Al-Janzara checkpoint in the Al-Rouj Plain,” Idlibi said.
The London-based daily explained that the importance of the first two locations comes from the fact that Tel Aawar overlooks part of western rural Idlib towards the Mahmbel-Jisr al-Shughour road, while parts of Jisr al-Shughour itself are within range of the elevated Tallet Elias.
Al-Aan television, in turn, reported that fighting was ongoing Tuesday at the entrance of Al-Ziyara, which lies parallel to the village of Jourin – “the regime army’s main base” in the Al-Ghab Plain, according to the Dubai based station.
“The rebels destroyed a BMB vehicle at the entrance of the Al-Ziyara area… as news emerged that the regime had sent a military column… from the [nearby] Tel Milh, Al-Julma and Al-Sheikh Hadid checkpoints.”