AL-BASSIT/BADROUSIEH, Syria: Rebels pressed their offensive deeper into the heartland of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s Alawite sect Wednesday, battling government troops backed by warplanes for control of at least two villages in the wooded and mountainous terrain, activists said.
Fighters from several conservative and hard-line Islamist groups, including the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, launched their assault Friday on the northern stretches of Latakia province along the Turkish frontier. So far, they have seized the Kasab border crossing, and also gained control of an outlet to the sea, via the nearby village of Samra, for the first time since Syria’s uprising began three years ago.
The modest gains have nonetheless buoyed an armed opposition movement that has suffered a series of recent setbacks on the battlefield.
A Latakia-based activist who identified himself as Mohammad Abu al-Hasan said rebels were hoping that the offensive would draw more soldiers to the area, relieving some of the pressure on harried opposition fighters elsewhere in the country.
“The thinking is to open a battle that will make the regime rush to fight,” Abu al-Hasan said via Skype. “The regime can’t imagine losing the sea [of Latakia]. They will bring reinforcements, and that will reduce the pressure [elsewhere].”
Rebels were battling government troops in the Latakia villages of Qastal Maaf and Nabaain, activists said. Aircraft were conducting airstrikes around to try to push back opposition fighters, according to a Britain-based activist group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“So far, it is attacks and retreats, nothing is certain,” said Rami Abdel-Rahman, the head of the Observatory, which also reported that the regime was rushing reinforcements to the area.
Both villages are south of the Armenian town of Kasab and the nearby border crossing, which rebels seized Sunday.
An AFP correspondent, who was with troops in the village of Al-Bassit, 15 kilometers west of Kasab, reported seeing columns of smoke rising over a mountain separating it from the border crossing.
“The army is relentlessly bombarding Kasab to stop the rebels from digging in,” an officer told AFP, adding that the nearby rebel-held village of Samra was also being targeted.
Omar al-Jeblawi, an activist on the ground, confirmed heavy shelling, and airstrikes, near the border.
“There is a heavy bombardment of Kasab, using tanks and planes,” Jeblawi told AFP by telephone.
The officer said thousands of rebels had participated in a Friday assault on Kasab, in fighting that had killed 50 soldiers and left hundreds of rebels dead.
For its part, the Observatory said around 100 fighters had been killed on each side.
The government took a group of Associated Press reporters to the village of Badrousieh, about 15 kilometers south of Kasab and some 3 kilometers from Nabaain.
Badrousieh is a picturesque village on a hilltop surrounded by mountains overlooking the sea – a pine wooded area with orange and lemon and olive groves as well. The idyllic scene was broken every few minutes by the roar of outgoing artillery aimed at rebel-held areas, followed shortly after by the distant thud as the shells landed.
A field commander told reporters that “terrorist groups” with the “clear support” of the Turkish government attacked Kasab from four fronts. The commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, claimed that the fighters battling the army included Turkish soldiers and special forces dressed up like Nusra Front militants. He did not offer any evidence to support his claims.
For his part, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said his country was ready to take any measures, including cross-border military operations, against threats to its national security.“The Turkish Republic is a powerful state and never hesitates to take any measures to protect its national security if need be,” he told AFP.
The Syrian commander said armed groups were in full control of Kasab, but that Syrian troops were still stationed in Nabaain as well as Qastal Maaf and engaged in heavy fighting there.
He said around 50 Syrian soldiers were killed as well as “hundreds of terrorists,” most of them foreigners including many Chechens, in the past four days.
“The situation today is better than the days before, hundreds of gunmen have been killed and you will hear good news in the coming days, God willing,” the commander said.
The rebels advanced on Qastal Maaf Tuesday after seizing a hilltop area known as Observatory 45. Activists said the strategic post was important because it enjoys a commanding view of the surrounding mountains and green plains below.
The Syrian commander said the rebels moved on Observatory 45 after pounding the position for three days with mortars and artillery. They then detonated a BMW packed with explosives at the entrance to the post, and attacked under the cover of smoke and fog.