Syrian rebels eye Latakia in new advance
DUBAI - In the countryside of Latakia, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s home province, two renowned rebel commanders recently posted on social media a photograph of themselves smiling next to one of the main roadways. They have good reason to smile as the rebel coalition Conquest Army has made significant gains that put the roads to Latakia and the strategic coast within striking distance.
Rebels have rapidly swept through the remaining areas held by regime and foreign Shia militia fighters in the southern countryside of Idlib province. They have also secured a number of villages in the Al-Ghab plain, which serves as a key supply route to Latakia.
The rebel advances pose a particularly embarrassing turn of events for Assad and his Iranian military backers, a day after giving a speech in which he said his forces had retreated from some areas to consolidate his defences along more secure lines. It is a position that has become increasingly difficult to sell to the Alawite constituency on which the government heavily depends to man the National Defence Forces.
The rapid advance of the Conquest Army for the first time seriously threatens the Alawite heartland. Massive amounts of ammunition and arms were captured as regime forces mounted a hasty and disorganised retreat.
Closer to Damascus, Lebanese Hezbollah fighters were confronted with sturdier resistance than anticipated as they attempted to capture the mountain town of Zabadani.
This area was particularly of value to the Shia militant group due to its location along key line of supply and communication linking the Hezbollah command in Lebanon with Damascus.
Assad’s forces also attempted to storm the rebel-held suburb of Jobar — a few kilometres from the centre of Damascus — only to be repulsed despite a marked advantage in airpower and long-range artillery.
Rebels have also faced setbacks, as a string of suicide attacks — likely attributable to the Islamic State (ISIS) — was launched against Islamist commanders as they met in northern Syria.
In northern Aleppo, recent Turkish and coalition air strikes will ensure that ISIS is no longer positioned to launch surprise assaults into the flanks of rebel forces as it did earlier in 2015. And while the rebel Southern Front failed in its attempt to storm Deraa city, rebel commanders remain confident that a new push will soon cut off the remaining regime garrison and eventually clear the town of Assad militia forces.
ISIS finds itself on the defensive in Aleppo, where its forces are spread thin and it faces the possibility of a two-front war. Coalition and Turkish military planners would do well to leverage this new-found momentum and coordinate a sustained air campaign to pave the way for Sunni Arab rebel forces to push into the “triangle of death” in eastern Aleppo along the towns of Al-Bab, Minbej and Jarabulus. Doing so would make it increasingly difficult for ISIS to defend the approaches to Raqqa from a combined Arab and Kurdish assault.
Rebel advances have also been fraught with the question of how to maintain governance in the areas that are now falling under their control. In Idlib, the transfer of power to local civilian councils has been delayed. New tensions have flared between Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda branch operating in the area, and some of the nationalist rebel brigades — a fissure that could easily explode into open internecine Sunni conflict.
Reports have surfaced that the Americans sternly warned the rebels not to make a move against Damascus — fearing that a precipitous fall of the regime would bring about further chaos. But it remains unclear if rebels have been similarly warned from making a concerted push towards the Mediterranean coastline.
If they are to sustain their gains, rebels must improve their capacity to work with local councils to provide essential services and civilian governance in areas that have been liberated. This is much easier said than done.
Nonetheless, as a fundamental rule of insurgency, the non-military aspects of warfare — services, governance, public security — will prove just as crucial to success for either side.