Just one week after suffering a highly-publicized defeat at Yabroud, rebel forces surged ahead in the northwestern province of Latakia, home to Bashar al-Assad's ancestral town of Qardaha. Opposition forces seized the Kasab border crossing, which had been the last regime-controlled point between Syria and Turkey, and moved on to surrounding strategic points. Although opposition forces had attempted a similar offensive last August, the renewed push could see unexpected rebel wins in the Alawite heartland.
"It's of huge strategic importance since it's a border point and can allow us to reach a maritime route," said Banan al-Hassan, a media spokesperson based in Latakia. Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a researcher and fellow at the Middle East Forum, told NOW that rebels will "undoubtedly" receive support and reinforcements from Turkey via the Kasab crossing, and that he had noted some evidence that it was already taking place.
The continuing offensive is seeing collaboration between the Islamic Front's Ahrar al-Sham, Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, Ansar al-Sham, and Sham al-Islam, another group ideologically aligned with Al-Qaeda. Smaller Free Syrian Army (FSA) components are also present, according to Tamimi, who added that Chechen contingents were leading operations in the province.
Across Syria, rebel forces are heavily engaged in significant offensives in Idlib, northern Hama, and the southern provinces of Deraa and Quneitra. Losses in Yabroud and the suburbs around Damascus have been devastating. With so many critical fronts already in action, why open a new one?
According to Charles Lister, researcher at the Brookings Institution, a new battlefront is precisely the point. "The offensive puts government forces in a dilemma," he told NOW. The Syrian Arab Army is already receiving much-needed support from Hezbollah, the local paramilitary Syrian National Defense Force, and Iraqi Shiite militias. Recognizing that the regime will do what it can to protect its sectarian and tribal ties in Latakia, opposition groups could be attempting to stretch out pro-Assad forces as much as possible. "Having fought long-hard gains south in the Qalamoun, the strategic choice now is whether to divert resources from elsewhere to push back the Latakia offensive or to hope that a slower response will eventually regain lost territory," Lister said.
There's also a strong symbolic component. Morale among opposition forces took a significant hit after Yabroud's takeover in mid-March and other losses in the Damascus suburbs. The renewed and well-publicized offensive in Latakia has demonstrated the opposition's ability to target Assad's heartland, Lister said. "To seize the last government-controlled crossing with Turkey, and to reach the Mediterranean, all serve to bolster opposition morale and to remind the government that it is not 'winning' the whole battle," he added.
This year's push toward the coast may be more successful than August's. Then, amid news of sectarian violence perpetrated by the rebels, government forces were able to reverse opposition gains in a matter of weeks. Syrian activists and analysts alike say that might not be the case this time.
"While casualties have been high among combatants, there is little sign of the anti-civilian violence that was discernible early on in the previous offensive," said Lister. He attributed this difference to the absence of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the Al-Qaeda-inspired group typically described as one of Syria's most brutal and ruthless jihadist organizations. FSA groups, as well as brigades from the Islamic Front, have been engaged in clashes with ISIS in several Syrian regions, which could have led to the latter's exclusion from the Latakia offensive.
The renewed push is also different strategically and operationally. "It's been well-prepared for a number of months," Hassan told NOW. Tamimi said he had noted weaponry movements for over a week prior to the start of the offensive and that it was clearly pre-planned and "not merely a spontaneous decision."
"The strategic goals are different, too, like the Kasab crossing," Hassan said. Instead of going straight for the port of Tartous, where rebels say reinforcements for the regime are still coming in, opposition groups decided to use the border point to then attempt to establish a passageway to the sea, she added.
Hassan told NOW that morale among opposition fighters has been very high this week. After major victories in Kasab and Samra, rebels were eyeing other "observation posts" in Latakia's hilly geography, such as Jabal al-Turkman and Jabal al-Akrad.
Others are less enthusiastic. Lister told NOW opposition fighters have a greater chance this year of securing victories, though he still expects them to be minimal. Tamimi said he believed the offensive would ultimately fail, though boosts to morale would be significant in the meantime.
"It's a good example of what this whole offensive is about," Tamimi said. "Strike at the regime heartland, and even if you don't conquer ultimately, you can score psychological blows."