Over the weekend, fighting broke out in the Jabal al-Akrad Mountains surrounding Latakia City. Fighting started at dawn in the village of Salma, with rebels attacking Alawite villages. The battle has been anticipated; Latakia province, on Syria’s western coast, could see some of the most intense anti-Alawite violence thus far in the conflict.
We asked Charles Lister, analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre in London, to decode the symbolism of yesterday’s siege and how long it will go on.
Syria Deeply: What’s happening right now in Latakia?
Charles Lister: The offensive was launched yesterday morning. From gathering together reports and statements from the opposition and more neutral sources, it’s certainly the case that yesterday was extremely important, both in the size and scope of the offensive. It seems like there’s been a combination of organized [anti-government] groups present in northern Latakia joined yesterday by other groups from Aleppo and Idlib.
Unverified claims in opposition-based statements suggest that this had been planned for as much as three months. The opposition gained significant ground: they seized at least three or four government villages and three or four [regime] military positions, which sets them up perfectly today to continue their momentum. The next few days will be key to see if they can sustain the type of momentum that they had yesterday, but a lot of that will depend on the stance the government security forces take. A large number of paramilitary personnel have been deployed to Latakia City, which suggests that a defensive posture is most likely.
SD: I’ve been watching Latakia very closely for eight months, and I’ve visited, and the strength of this push took me by surprise.
CL: There’s always been the awareness that something like this could happen in Latakia and that it would be launched from the north, and that it would involve jihad and Salafist-type groups. It emphasizes the increasing strategic influence being imposed by the Islamist portion of the opposition. Latakia, right at the very northern tip, has been a stronghold for foreign fighter-based groups for almost a year now. Since the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham in late May, those groups have reached out to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and at least one of them has become a front group. This offensive underlines how the Islamic State has continued its reach into Latakia, and also the great ability of these Islamist groups to coordinate, on a very effective level, these multigroup offensives.
SD: What will we see in the next week?
CL: It depends on how the military presents itself, whether it takes an offensive role or whether it just waits and defends the key municipalities. I have very little doubt that the militant forces will have little issue in continuing their momentum, but an awful lot will depend on how much the government can deploy.
It’s highly symbolic – [rebels are] attacking the heartland of Assad and Alawite power, and the fact that this offensive has been dominated by Islamist and jihadi groups has been very symbolic of the balance of power within the wider opposition. It does represent the relative inability of moderate opposition forces to lead the conflict from the front.
SD: What are the challenges for each group? I got the impression that Latakia in particular would be a hyperlocal battle. The rebels I was with knew every rock, every tree, and that has to be an advantage.
CL: Yesterday does seem to have been a case where locally based groups had that type of local knowledge, and it does seem like three local groups [Suqor al-Aaz, Katibat al-Muhajireen and Kataib Ansar al-Sham, part of the Syrian Islamic Front] were primarily coordinating the offensive. That plays into the militants’ advantage. Externally based groups don’t have the local knowledge. They don’t know where you have to go to hit most advantageously. That’s the challenge the government faces. You’ve got small local groups [in Latakia] who maintain local knowledge, and they coordinate closely and effectively with [larger, wider] groups. And as such, they’ve made fairly significant progress in attacking Latakia in the last 24 hours.
I don’t see that many challenges faced by Islamist groups at the moment. But such a symbolic offensive like this does present a challenge to the moderate opposition. This story has created significant amounts of attention both in and outside the country. There have been allegations recently that the Islamist groups are not fighting in Syria’s interest and don’t take a front-line role in the fighting. But yesterday they were there on the front lines fighting within a highly symbolic offensive.
SD: How long will this offensive last?
CL: It depends on how the [Assad] military reacts. If they take a defensive posture and they reinforce the core towns, it’s possible it could peter out within the week. If they go on the offensive, there’s more of a risk that militants could make progress by exploiting the natural insurgent advantages: local terrain knowledge and the element of surprise.