BEIRUT: Fears are mounting of a surge in sectarian-driven violence in Syria’s northern coastal province of Latakia in retribution for a Sunni Islamist-led rebel offensive on President Bashar Assad’s Alawite stronghold.
The three-day offensive, targeting Alawite villages close to Assad’s hometown of Qardaha, has seen some 200 people killed, according to activists.
Hundreds, possibly thousands of Alawite civilians have fled the villages seeking refuge in the coastal city of Latakia itself, residents told The Daily Star, following a large-scale assault by some 2,000 opposition fighters, led by Al-Qaeda linked groups.
The onslaught saw Islamist fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, the Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham and the Mujahedeen Brigade, along with Free Syrian Army brigades, claim control of 11 Alawite villages in the mountainous region east of Latakia by Tuesday afternoon.
The assault took them within 20 kilometers of Assad’s heavily fortified hometown of Qardaha, also the burial place of his father, Hafez Assad.
The offensive on Assad’s Alawite heartland is largely seen as morale-boosting retribution, following recent gains made by government troops and Assad loyalist militias against largely Sunni opposition areas in Homs and elsewhere in recent months, often resulting in large numbers of civilian casualties.
The offensive also coincided with rebel gains in the north, where Islamist fighters took control of Minnig military airport after months of conflict.
“It is not sectarian, but when you see what they [Assad’s militia’s] are doing to people, arresting them and killing them, bombing them in their houses, that’s what prompted the attack,” said Ammar Hasan, an activist with the Latakia News Network, via telephone from Latakia.
“The Alawites are now feeling the pain that we felt when they bombed our areas,” he said, adding that some 300 of the 1,500 to 2,000 fighters were from “Libya, Morocco and Tunisia.”
Analysts and residents said what would amount to short-lived military gains by the rebels paves the way for a new chapter of sectarian bloodletting in the country wracked by civil war.
The coastal areas of Latakia and Tartous have remained largely immune from the violence besetting the rest of the country. Along with Alawites, seen as loyal to the regime, the area has served as a haven for numbers of civilians – including Sunnis and Christians fleeing violence from other war-torn cities.
“The government is going to strike back as a result of this,” said Syria expert Joshua Landis. “There will be widespread panic.”
Rather than pushing Alawites to abandon the Assad regime, the assault would galvanize both camps, he said.
“[The Alawites] will criticize the government only in that they will say ‘you have to defend us,’” he said.
He said the military affront was largely symbolic. “There is a strong desire on the part of every Sunni militia to hurt Assad in his home, and we saw that in the response to some of the videos on social media. They want to hurt Assad. They want revenge.”
Video footage taken by activists showed rebels firing Russian-made Konkurs anti-tank missiles from a rocky terrain, and praying next to a tank after taking the army position overlooking Qardaha.
One Alawite Syrian man outside the country who asked that his name not be used said his family, living in the loyalist stronghold in Latakia, was terrified.
“They are afraid of the war approaching, but I am not afraid for them. They are inside the city, so it will take a fall of regime for them to be at risk,” he said.
“But other [Alawite] villages are now empty. They have all gone to Latakia.”
Hasan, the activist, admitted that the fortifications in Qardaha meant taking the town would be “difficult but not impossible.”
Landis said the attacks could signal a new spate of sectarian revenge against Sunnis in the region.
“Tit-for-tat wars generally backfire,” Landis said, pointing to the brutal slaying of possibly hundreds of Sunni civilians in Baniyas, south of Latakia, at the hands of Alawite loyalist militia in May.
“Whenever there has been any activity in this region the retribution against the Sunni population has been immediate and brutal,” he said. “The Sunnis who have taken refuge on the coast are in an extremely precarious position now.”
Diplomats, meanwhile, say the coastal area and its mountain villages could be the scene of a bloodbath against the region’s Alawite population if Islamist hard-liners do end up gaining the upper hand in the conflict.
In a strategic gain for the opposition, Islamist fighters Tuesday took control of the Minnig airbase, consolidating rebel control over a key supply route from Turkey into Aleppo.
The opposition Syrian National Coalition announced the “full liberation of the airport,” saying its capture “will have a strategic effect on the course of battle throughout the north.”
A statement issued by nine brigades that took part in the operation, including the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, said: “The airport has been fully liberated. The remnants of the Assad gangs are now being chased.”
Activists said the fall of Minnig Airport now exposed two nearby Shiite villages, where Hezbollah fighters have been training loyalist militia.
Assad’s forces tried to prevent the fall of the airport by launching an armored offensive from Aleppo last month, backed by guerrillas based in the two Shiite villages, Nubbul and Zahra.
Also Tuesday, 18 people were killed in a car bomb attack in the largely loyal satellite city of Jaramana, outside Damascus.
State media said women and children were among those killed, but it was not immediately clear who was behind the attack.