BEIRUT: Northern Latakia province has become, seemingly all of a sudden, the latest location to host an episode of the Syrian uprising-turned-war, with political, sectarian and other concerns outweighing for now the purely military moves on the ground.The province has seen periodic violence throughout the war, but mainly in the form of regime artillery and airstrikes on a number of opposition-held towns and summer resort areas in its mountainous interior.
But the “Anfal” offensive, which was launched more than a week ago, targets the northwestern corner of the country in areas adjacent to Turkey and Idlib province, where rebels also hold territory.
The campaign is being spearheaded by the Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda affiliate, and two members of the Islamic Front, Ahrar al-Sham and Ansar al-Sham. They have been joined by the rebel Free Syrian Army, which is playing a very limited supporting role.
The rebels appeared to have surprised the regime as they swiftly captured a string of villages and towns near the Turkish border, among them Kasab, an Armenian resort town of several thousand inhabitants.
They also seized the tiny adjacent hamlet of Samra, which lies on a road leading to the Mediterranean.
After they seized Samra, a video emerged of several jihadists at the isolated cove, where they took a short celebratory swim. They have posted several pieces of video footage of themselves at the site.
It is an easy, exposed target for any government vessel, and is of little military significance, but the seizure of a toehold on the sea, though largely symbolic, is part of a wider campaign that is stirring up the sectarian and ethnic fears of reprisals and counter-reprisals.
The fighting, which has also affected a number of Alawite villages in the area, has sent thousands of the community fleeing for the city of Latakia on the coast.
Regime propaganda over the rebels’ treatment of minorities, particularly Armenians, Christians and Alawites, has quickly moved into a higher gear, and the combustible mix is made even more explosive by the presence of a sizable Turkmen community in rural Latakia and the provincial capital.
The National Syrian Turkmen Bloc, a member of the opposition-in-exile National Coalition, Sunday accused regime paramilitaries of murdering two Turkmen minors and dumping their bodies in a public park in Latakia’s Ali Jamal neighborhood, home to members of the community.
Reports differed as to whether one or both victims were decapitated.
The group released a statement warning others to “not test the reaction of the Turkmen – our hostility is fiercer than our friendship.”
Activists noted over the weekend that regime supporters have taken to social media to call for supporters to expel Syria’s Turkmen, referred to derisively as “agents of the Ottoman state” of Turkey, annihilate them, or commit human rights violations and other atrocities against the community’s women.
Latakia also contains a few majority-Sunni neighborhoods, where raids and arrests by the regime have reportedly been stepped up since the Anfal campaign began, as the authorities view these areas as supportive of the armed opposition.
Activists say that the Anfal offensive has led to a huge jump in tension in the city, as the casualties from the campaign rise. The city is already host to refugees from other parts of Syria, and now mainly Alawite and Christian displaced have joined their ranks.
An anti-regime activist, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, told The Daily Star that the move to “open the coast front” was a bad decision.
“The Alawite community in Latakia, right before the campaign, was becoming increasingly fed up with the coffins returning every day” belonging to Alawite soldiers and paramilitaries fighting elsewhere in Syria, he said.
“This offensive has shifted their anger – it is now being focused on the rebels, whom they fear are targeting them in their home villages, because of their sect.”
Meanwhile, some activists and the insurgents themselves have engaged in a counter-offensive, trying to prove that they have no intention of engaging in sectarian pogroms.
After the Islamist rebels entered Kasab, several pieces of footage were circulated on social media. One YouTube video purports to show militants inside an Armenian church, completely intact, where they say they have posted a guard to protect the structure.
Another shows fighters interacting with three civilians. They promise them safety and also give them the option of leaving safely.
A fighter tries to calm an older woman, herself displaced from Latakia and wearing a hijab, when she begins to sob.
“Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid,” he says.
In a video statement issued last week by an Islamist fighter, summing up the first week of the Anfal campaign, the speaker denied charges of oppressing minorities, but spoke specifically of the Armenians of Kasab.
He says that the Caliph Omar did not single out the Christians of Jerusalem for violence when he conquered the city in the seventh century, and that the insurgents would not pursue such a policy.
Armenian political organizations have also split over Kasab, between those who talk about “ethnic cleansing” – although no such massacres have been reported – and those who maintain the Armenians are not being targeted for their ethnic affiliation.
For now, the deaths have been largely military, at least in the Kasab region, but the insurgents have moved closer to Alawite villages and the city of Latakia, which they can target with artillery and rocket fire.
For the regime, at stake is its ability to limit casualties and return the displaced, while for the rebels, it has provided a much-needed morale boost after the loss of the town of Yabroud near the Lebanese border earlier this month.
It is also notable for a rare instance of public solidarity – the Islamist fighter also denied rumors that the FSA commander for Latakia had “betrayed” the Islamist factions during the campaign.
The fighter says that the FSA provided what ammunition it could, and that it was both needed and appreciated. The rhetoric and actions of the FSA and the Islamic Front and Nusra Front toward each other has not been particularly warm in the past. But even if the rebels manage to hold territory, now largely depopulated, what would they accomplish?
Whenever the insurgents seize an area, they only gain the dubious honor of becoming a target for regime artillery and aircraft.
In Kasab and surrounding areas of Latakia, the violence is also destroying wooded areas, which are among Syria’s most beautiful panoramas, as forests go up in smoke.
Under all these conditions, particular to the Latakia front now opened by the rebels, one question that hangs over the Anfal campaign is whether it will turn out to be a fleeting achievement for the insurgents, prove an inconclusive stalemate, deal a significant blow to the regime and its allies or stir up a hornet’s nest in response.