BEIRUT: Government forces flushed opposition fighters from their last strongholds in northwestern Syria near the Turkish frontier Sunday, seizing the Armenian town of Kasab and restoring government control over a nearby border crossing, activists and state media said.
The developments came as regime airstrikes pounded bases in eastern Syria belonging to the Al-Qaeda splinter group ISIS in coordination with the Baghdad government, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The military’s advances fully reversed the gains rebels had made during their three-month campaign in Latakia province, the rugged coastal region that is the ancestral heartland of President Bashar Assad.
The counteroffensive’s success is the latest blow to the rebels, who have suffered a string of recent setbacks.
Islamist rebel factions along with the jihadist Al-Qaeda affiliate the Nusra Front launched their surprise assault in Latakia in March, pushing south from the Turkish border to seize a string of villages in the mountainous terrain. The military, nervous about an incursion in a bastion of government support, dispatched reinforcements to blunt the rebel advance and eventually turn the tide.
After months of bloody clashes, army troops backed by fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah Sunday seized the seaside hamlet of Samra before also taking the town of Kasab and its adjacent border crossing, said Rami Abdel-Rahman, the director of the Observatory, an anti-regime group.
He said there were minor clashes still taking place west of Kasab, a predominantly Armenian Christian resort town whose residents fled after the rebels seized control.
The Syrian army command issued a statement saying that it “restored security and stability to Kasab.” It also said the operation “smashes the illusions” of the rebels securing a sea port in Samra or a buffer zone along the border to use as “a base for launching terrorist acts against the Syrian people.”
Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV, which has a reporter embedded with Syrian troops, broadcast live footage from Kasab that showed a blown-out stone building with a smoldering wooden staircase. Soldiers in camouflage uniforms milled in the streets, and the rocky hills typical of the area could be seen in the background.
Engineering units were clearing mines and dismantling booby traps in Kasab, Syria’s pro-government Al-Ikhbariya TV said.
The regime made dislodging rebels from Latakia a priority for strategic as well as symbolic areas. The province is a stronghold of Assad’s minority Alawite sect and losing control of even a portion of it was an embarrassment to the government.
Pro-opposition media outlets said the rebels blamed the loss of territory in Latakia on inadequate ammunition supplies, while pro-regime media countered this claim by showing significant quantities of rockets and other materiel that were seized when the positions in Kasab were overrun.In eastern Syria, the airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), which has spearheaded a weeklong jihadist offensive in Iraq, have been more intense than ever, the Observatory said. “The regime air force has been pounding ISIS’ bases, including those in the northern province of Raqqa and Hassakeh in the northeast,” which borders Iraq.
The regime was responding to the fact that ISIS “brought into Syria heavy weapons including tanks” captured from the Iraqi army.
In Raqqa, the air force bombed the area surrounding ISIS’ main headquarters in Syria, as well as the group’s religious courts, said the Observatory, adding there were no reported casualties.
Photographs sent by activists in Raqqa that could not be independently verified showed craters in the ground and rubble in front of the main gates of the headquarters, a former town hall.
The Syrian regime Saturday also bombarded ISIS’ headquarters at Shaddadi in Hassakeh, home to a frontier crossing from Iraq that is under the jihadists’ control.
Abdel-Rahman said the strikes were the regime’s most “intense” against ISIS and they were being carried out “in coordination with the Iraqi authorities.”
The government in Baghdad has been gearing up for a counteroffensive against ISIS in areas where it and other Islamist militants have advanced in northern Iraq in the past week. ISIS espouses a radical interpretation of Islam, and aims to set up a state stretching across the Syria-Iraq border. It has been accused of committing widespread human rights abuses in Syria.
Once welcomed in Syria by rebels seeking Assad’s overthrow, the well-armed and well-organized ISIS soon gained the opposition’s wrath because of its quest for hegemony and systematic abuses, against both rebels and civilian populations under its control.
A war pitting Syrian rebels against ISIS has killed more than 6,000 people, mostly fighters, since it broke out in January.
Pro-opposition media also reported a series of gains by rebels in recent days. In Deraa’s Tal Jammou, a coalition of rebel groups overran a military post and killed or captured dozens of regime troops Friday, according to statements and video footage posted on the Internet. The Observatory said 10 rebels were killed in the attack.
Also, insurgents claimed they killed 40 regime troops Saturday when they detonated a building in the east Damascus neighborhood of Jobar. Pro-opposition groups released a video purporting to show Zahran Alloush, the head of a leading Islamist militia, exhorting rebels to press ahead with their offensive against government forces there.
Alloush heads the Islam Army, one of seven members of the Islamic Front alliance. The “break the walls” campaign is meant to put pressure on regime forces in the eastern part of the capital.
In the nearby Qalamoun region, rebels also claimed the takeover of the village of Aasal al-Ward while fierce clashes raged Sunday around the village of Rankous, the Observatory said.