BEIRUT – Syrian regime forces backed by Hezbollah have continued to gain ground in the mountains north of Latakia, advancing around the rebels' main stronghold in the rugged region amid intense Russian bombardment.
In the past hours, pro-regime troops have advanced on four axes of attacks around the village of Salma, a heavily fortified mountain redoubt that overlooks vital rebel supply lines linking the Latakia and Aleppo provinces.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Monday morning that intense clashes had raged overnight around the Sunni-populated area, which was first seized by Free Syrian Army brigades in mid-2012.
The monitoring NGO said that the battles pitted Lebanese Hezbollah forces and Syrian regime troops backed by the National Defense Forces and Baath Brigades militias on one side against Islamist brigades—including Al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham—as well as the FSA-linked First and Second Coastal Divisions.
"Information suggests that there have been a large amount of human losses in the ranks of both sides," the Observatory added.
In an earlier report, the NGO said that after the Syrian regime and its allies had launched a fierce assault at dawn on Monday, the combined forces had made advances in the area.
"The clashes have coincided with dozens of strikes by Russian warplanes as well as intensive shelling by regime forces… amid an advance by Hezbollah and regime forces in the area."
The recent fighting comes after the beleaguered rebels holed up in the Jabal al-Akrad region northeast of Latakia have been dealt a series of defeats in recent weeks as Russia's Air Force continues to pound their positions.
Salma—which is approximately 50 kilometers northeast of Latakia and sits at an elevation of 850 meters above sea level—overlooks a vast stretch of Jabal al-Akrad.
Encroaching on Salma
A video shows pro-regime forces fighting outside Salma. (YouTube/Syria al-Hadath)
Both pro and anti-regime media outlets have reported on the recent regime offensive outside Salma, which if successful would deal a serious strategic blow to rebels in northwest Syria.
The anti-regime Orient News said Monday morning that "Assad's forces had launched simultaneous attacks to try and storm the Salma area from four fronts."
The outlet reported that Russian jets had launched dozens of raids in the area, in some of which cluster bombs were used.
Meanwhile, pro-Damascus Al-Mayadeen television touted the regime's advances on the outskirts of Salma, saying that the Syrian army was "preparing to enter" the Sunni-populated village.
"The Syrian Army is advancing in northern Latakia countryside and has taken control of a number of strategic hills and elevations around Salma… while the militants let out cries for help," the Beirut-based network claimed in a report filed late Sunday night.
It specified that pro-regime troops had "seized most of the surrounding hills and elevations, the last of which - Kadeen and Wadi Nabaa Miro - were taken today."
Al-Mayadeen added that the regime forces had opened up four fronts to advance on Salma: specifically from the direction of Kafrdabla Castle, Dorin and Sahla Haseeko, Al-Koum and Jabal Nawba, as well as Koflika and Ghazaleh.
"Now the forces of the army and the NDF are at the city's northern and eastern entrances."
The network also reported that Russian and Syrian jets were conducting intensive raids around Salma.
Despite the purported regime advances, Al-Mayadeen cautioned that rebels were expected to "stand fast" at their well-fortified positions in Salma.
NOW's English news desk editor Albin Szakola (@AlbinSzakola) wrote this report. Ullin Hope translated the Arabic-language source material.