Jan 26, 2013

The Battle for Latakia Part One

JEBEL TURKMAN, Syria – On a sunny day here, there are chirping birds and not-so-distant echoes of bombs and rockets dropping on civilian homes.

My Kia, driven by a Free Syrian Army minder, careens down steep, narrow roads and arrives at a tree-shrouded safe house operated by the FSA.

Inside, fighters from the Al Sultan Selim al Woal Battalion get ready for their afternoon patrol to the front line on this swath of mountain. Of the 10 brigades and 6,000 fighters who police these woods and valleys, they’re the first responders, the jocks.

We’re three kilometers from the front and 35 kilometers from Latakia City, a stronghold of the privileged Alawite sect and their leader, beleaguered President Bashar Assad. He’s the most hated man on this hill. For the past six months of fighting, the FSA and what’s left of a rapidly depleting Syrian Army have been waging a bloody guerilla war in the mountains that border the city.

It’s rough terrain – freezing in winter, densely wooded, and impossible to navigate even with satellites. The local FSA fighters grew up here. They know every rock, every escape route. They say that’s been their saving grace in a battle against a regime outfitted with bombs and rockets.

Until now, Latakia has been largely ignored in the international media, trumped by mass slaughters in Homs, Hama and Aleppo and by airport takeovers in Damascus. But what happens in Jebel Turkman and its neighbor, Jebel Akrad, is crucial to the outcome of the Syrian conflict.

“The [rest of the] fighting will be in Latakia, because the regime’s power is all in Latakia,” says Major Abu Suheil, head of the provincial military council. “If we finish them there, we win. Latakia’s fighting will stretch on longer than anywhere else in Syria.”

Confident that they have sufficiently weakened the regime in the mountains, FSA leaders in Latakia Province plan to march to Latakia, in a final battle that Major Suheil says will be “bloody.” About 10,000 of the FSA’s fighters from Turkman and Akrad will join the urban battle.

“All of the Alawites who support Assad live just outside the city” he says. This includes Qardaha, the president’s ancestral homeland. “So that’s where most of the fighting will take place. It will be face-to-face.”

They will make their move once they have the necessary supplies and when Aleppo, now a disputed city, is fully under rebel control. His strategy will be to control the roads leading from the mountains to Latakia, ensuring that regime forces and shabiha, it’s irregular militia, cannot retreat back into the woods.

Implementing it will be difficult. He says he has information that the regime, desperate not to lose its last stronghold, has recruited fighters from Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the Kurdish PKK, and the Turkish Alawites, who fight in a unit called the Iskandaroon Brigade.

The end game isn’t to remove Assad. “After he falls, there will be big fighting between the FSA and the Shabiha,” the Major says. “It will take at least two months if we have the proper supplies. If not, it will take longer.”

But even as it prepares its assault, the FSA still faces a major problem in the mountains. Even with significant gains on the ground, the establishment of well-oiled training camps, and sophisticated military operations that have exhausted Assad’s army and encouraged defections, the Syrian government’s air force still has total command of the sky.

The FSA’s local leaders admit it has made little headway in securing the anti-aircraft weaponry it will need to take down bomber jets and helicopter gunships. They police these skies day and night, forcing terrified drivers to pull to the side of the road when they see little silver bodies gleaming high in the sun.

On a recent night, while bombs rattled the windows of a mountainside house used by the Hateen Battalion in Jebel Turkman, its leader, a weary, chain-smoking 55-year-old nicknamed Abu Adnan, swears he’s getting the anti-aircraft weaponry that will prove crucial to the outcome of this battle. But he says he cannot tell me from where and when the stash will come. Over three days in Turkman and Akrad, I speak with four other battalion leaders. Each one said that they haven’t been unable to secure anti-aircraft rockets.

In Al Ghassanieh, a hard-hit Christian village in Jebel Akrad, near the border with Idlib province, I explore a rocketed home with Abu Ahmad (his nickname). Dignified and handsome, he wears mismatched camouflage. He’s the leader of the Al Wad Al Haq Battalion and a former officer in the Assad army.

Today, he’s wide-eyed with glee over news that the Syrian Army is so depleted that it’s been reduced to recruiting female Alawites to fight. A special training camp has been set up for them somewhere on the mountain.

Like so many others, Abu Ahmad defected five months ago, when the rebels began to get a major grip on power over this desolate stretch. But the rocket craters littering the streets around him are daily reminders of what’s missing.

“We need anti-aircraft weapons,” he says, our feet crunching over rubble, eyes drifting to the pink walls of what was once, probably, a little girl’s room. “We haven’t received any yet. It’s possible to win here without them, but it would be a disaster, with a lot of people getting killed.”

His house is at the edge of a deserted ghost town. Look out the window, someone urges. Less than three kilometers away, we can see a regime checkpoint.

Everything else is barren. Our voices echo in this apocalyptic guerilla war zone.

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