BEIRUT: Syrian government forces pressed on with an offensive to retake villages in the regime stronghold of Latakia Sunday after they were overrun by rebel forces last week, both opposition activists and state media said.
As loyalists from Latakia, home to the majority of President Bashar Assad’s Alawite sect, continued to battle mainly Sunni Islamist rebels there, both opposition and loyalists appeared to step up a media campaign of claims and counter-claims of sectarian-driven violence, fueling fears that Syria’s civil war is increasingly becoming an all-out Sunni-Shiite feud.
Government forces continued to shell the village of Salma in the northern Latakia countryside Sunday, using aircraft and heavy artillery, in the second day of bombardment after 20 people were killed there a day earlier, according to activists.
Rebel forces headed by Sunni Islamist groups aligned with Al-Qaeda claimed to have overrun about a dozen loyalist villages in the province Wednesday, bringing them within about 20 kilometers of Assad’s heavily fortified and fiercely loyal hometown of Qardaha.
State media SANA said Syrian army forces had “restored stability” to the towns of Obin and Qommat Al-Nabi Ashaaya, in the north of the province, as well as Khirbet al-Baz, Esterba, Bilata and Aramo, further to the south east.
It said rebel groups had incurred “huge losses” in the operation.
Meanwhile, Ammar Hasan, an opposition activist with the Latakia News Network, told The Daily Star by telephone from the province that government forces were continuing to attack the Sunni rebel-held town of Salma, in the eastern mountainous region.
“They are using MiG aircraft and rockets,” Hasan said. “They are using helicopters to provide cover for the army advances.”
He said thousands of Syrian government troops had been deployed to the region from several governorates across the country, also claiming that Hezbollah fighters were involved in the offensive.
With media access severely restricted in Syria, none of the claims could be independently verified.
Hasan denied reports, flooding pro-Assad Facebook pages and other social media sites from the region, that the rebels were targeting civilians in the Alawite neighborhoods.
One Facebook page, “We are all your lions, Bashar Hafez Assad,” printed a list of over 70 names of “martyrs” and missing, including dozens of women and children they say were killed and detained in the villages of Hamboushieh, Ballouta, Nabata and Abu Makkeh. They described the campaign as “sectarian cleansing” carried out by U.S.-backed Wahhabi and Salafist gangs affiliated with the opposition Syrian National Coalition.
Residents and opposition activists in Latakia and elsewhere have acknowledged the rebel assault prompted hundreds, if not thousands of Alawite villagers to flee to the city of Latakia on the coast, effectively emptying some Alawite villages surrounding Aramo, to the east.
However, they deny that civilians have been targeted.
“All these are rumors,” Hasan said. “They are not attacking unarmed civilians. To the contrary, we are leaving the women and children and have even taken three Alawites to hospitals.”
He said all those injured in the fighting were members of pro-Assad militias known as “shabbiha” or thugs.
But he admitted that “a few women” had been detained among “about 30 people captured,” in the offensive, saying they were to be used as a bargaining chip “for exchange of women prisoners being held by the regime.”
In a video widely circulated by opposition groups over the weekend, a Free Syrian Army leader is shown talking to an elderly Alawite man.
After asking the man his sect, the FSA leader tells the man he will not be hurt by the Sunni group.
“Don’t worry, we will not hurt or kill you and you know why? Because the Prophet said: ‘Don’t kill an elderly, or a little child or a woman.’ This is what our religion says.”
“And yours? [It says] kill him!” he tells the man.
One secular opposition activist, identifying himself only as Masour, told The Daily Star that while he partially agreed with the sentiment in the clip, he feared its foundations.
“It is propaganda,” he said. “It is a big part of the nature of the conflict that cannot be hidden. They will need more time and suffering to know that it is wrong.”
In what appeared to be an attempt to allay those fears, the Syrian National Coalition, in a statement issued Friday about the Latakia operations, paid tribute to the Free Syrian Army for their “commitment to the values and ideals of the Syrian Revolution,” saying they had pledged to “protect civilians and families in the area.”
“The statement emphasizes that the role of the FSA is not to target civilians but to protect them from Assad forces,” it said.
It also warned FSA battalions “against taking any action that might jeopardize local residents in the areas of military operations.”
One Alawite resident in Latakia told The Daily Star there was “no pretense [to the war] anymore.
“It’s purely sectarian now.”