DAMASCUS: Syrian rebels have launched a fierce offensive against President Bashar Assad’s troops in four northern provinces in a bid to reverse a string of defeats, an activist group and rebels said Monday.
The offensive follows several victories for the regime along the Lebanese border – in the Qalamoun region north of Damascus, and around Krak des Chevaliers, a renowned Crusader castle west of the city of Homs.
The rebels, including the jihadist Nusra Front, seized a key area on the border with Turkey Monday, gaining full control of the Kasab crossing, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The takeover came even as the air force bombarded rebel positions in Kasab, in Latakia province, the heartland of Assad’s Alawite sect, a day after Turkey shot down a Syrian warplane in the area.
“It is clear that the opposition factions launched a fierce offensive in northern Syria after the battle for Qalamoun,” said Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman.
The Observatory said rebel sides suffered 23 wounded during the fighting in the Kasab region, while government troops, backed by paramilitaries, had six killed and an undetermined number of wounded. It added that the regime was sending reinforcements to the area.
In Latakia, a funeral was held for Assad’s cousin Hilal, head of the paramilitary National Defense forces in the province, who was killed Sunday in Kasab. The Islamic Front, which has two of its seven members fighting in Latakia, said Hilal Assad was killed by a Grad rocket strike.
Al-Arabiya television said two other cousins of the president, Ali and Kifah, were killed in Monday’s fighting.
Separately, the pilot of the warplane downed by a Turkish F-16 received a hero’s welcome in his village in Hama province. After ejecting from his plane he reportedly landed in a village near Kasab. Damascus has denied Ankara’s claim that the plane strayed into Turkish airspace.
The rebel assault has also focused on Latakia, Idlib and Aleppo provinces, as well as in the north and west of Hama province.
“The rebel fighters have advanced in all these areas, while the regime has clearly retreated,” Abdel-Rahman told AFP.
In Idlib province, rebels have seized 15 army checkpoints in recent days while in Aleppo, the rebels have advanced inside the city and in parts of the neighboring countryside.
In the Hama town of Morek, which lies on a key supply route linking the center of Syria to Aleppo, rebels have fought off repeated attempts by the army to break through their lines, the Observatory said.
Rebels say the advances are connected.
“After the battle for the coast [Latakia] began, the army withdrew many of its fighters from Idlib to go fight there,” said Col. Afif al-Suleimani, who defected from the army and now heads Idlib’s rebel Military Council.
“This opened a gap here in Idlib and we took advantage of it, and went on the offensive,” he told AFP by Skype.
According to rebel spokesman Ibrahim al-Idelbi, a key factor behind rebel factions taking the initiative was the withdrawal around two weeks ago of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) from most of northern Syria.
A broad coalition of moderate and Islamist rebels has been fighting the Al-Qaeda splinter group since Jan. 3. Thousands of fighters on the two sides have been killed. Mounting allegations of serious abuses by ISIS turned other groups against them.
“ISIS’s exit from the area is a key factor in the advances. Now, rather than having two enemies, the rebels have one [Assad’s regime],” Idelbi told AFP.
Omar al-Jeblawi, an activist in Latakia, said: “The regime is very angry. They are using all their force – army and paramilitary – to try to stop the rebels, who in turn are trying to advance toward the sea.”
Kasab’s predominantly Armenian residents have fled because of the violence, the Observatory’s Abdel-Rahman said, while activists say that the city of Latakia has received hundreds of displaced people from the Kasab region.
After three years of war, Syria’s government now controls only eight of the 19 official land border crossings with its neighbors Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey.