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Regime in new Latakia campaign

Beirut, March 10, 2015

The Syrian regime has launched a new offensive under the cover of heavy aerial bombardment in the northeastern outskirts of Latakia, amid opposition fears of massacres in the mountain region.

The government’s latest military campaign, which comes in conjunction with offensives in Aleppo and the south, aims to take the town of Salma, a rebel stronghold approximately 35 kilometers northeast of Latakia.

Rebels first seized Salma—one of the Latakia provinces majority Sunni-populated towns—in December 2012, and have since launched a number of operations from the area, which constitutes the insurgent-held front line to Latakia and the Assad family’s hometown of Qardaha.

“The regime hopes its campaign… will prevent a repeat of attacks like the recent car bombing in Assad’s hometown of Qardaha, put an end to opposition shelling of pro-regime villages in the coastal region, and protect its Al-Nawba Mountain observation point,” Alaraby Aljadeed reported Tuesday.

“If the regime advances beyond [rebel-held mountain areas] the Latakia-Aleppo road will be threatened and, as a result, the regime will have cut off the opposition’s supply line.”

The regime’s campaign—dubbed “At your service Syria”—has pitted government troops backed by National Defense Force militias and Iranian fighters against a coalition of rebel units, including those of the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham and Nusra Front as well as the Free Syrian Army’s First Coastal Division, which named their defensive operations “At your service God.”

The launch of the regime campaign has raised worries among the Syrian opposition, with the National Coalition warning that pro-Assad troops might commit massacres in the region.

“The regime offensive raises real fears of possible genocidal crimes against the residents of the area,” the Coalition said in a statement issued Saturday.

“Over 6,000 residents of the area have fled their villages and have sought refuge along the border with Turkey for fear of the advance of regime forces.”

Battlefield balance

In the pre-dawn hours of March 5, government troops launched an offensive in the mountains outside the town of Dorin, which lies a few kilometers south of the regime target of Salma in the Jabal al-Akrad region.

“The Syrian army supported by the National Defense Force troops surprised the militants in the countryside of Latakia,” Pro-Hezbollah daily Al-Akhbar said in its report on the battle.

“In parallel, the army launched another attack on the town of Kinsabba [nine kilometers north of Dorin], to prevent the arrival of any militant reinforcements.”

The regime achieved initial successes in its operations, seizing the Dorin area by March 7, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which reported that at least 19 pro-regime troops were killed in the fighting, while rebels lost 14 fighters.

The regime’s ground campaign in the region has been coupled with heavy bombardment, including jet strikes, helicopter barrel bombings and artillery fire, the Observatory reported.

Pro-Syrian regime outlets touted the strategic importance of the fall of Dorin, which at an altitude of approximately 800 meters offers vantage points and lines of sight over surrounding rebel-held areas.

“The fall of Mount Dorin will [facilitate] military action against militants… in Salma because of the reconnaissance coverage provided by the mountain,” a military source told Al-Akhbar.

In the days following the regime’s opening advance, back-and-forth fighting has raged in the vicinity of Salma and the Nabi Younes mountaintop southeast of the town, according to the Observatory, without any substantial territorial gains by either side.

Amid the regime’s aerial bombardment of loactions in the Jabal al-Akrad area, rebels have fired rockets and mortars at regime positions, with the Observatory reporting deadly strikes on Dorin.

The Islamist Ahrar al-Sham claimed rocket strikes on Slanfeh and Aramo, regime positions south of Dorin, while the FSA’s First Coastal Division said it had struck government posts in Dorin as well as Nabi Younes, the highest point in the region.

Regime’s operational goals

A commander from the First Coastal Division—the largest FSA formation in Latakia Governorate—said in an interview that the regime had attacked the rebels’ mountain position to raise the morale of Assad supporters.

“[The regime] chose to enter via Jabal al-Akrad, because the surrounding villages are Alawite, while the villages around Jabal Turkman are Sunni,” Akil Jumaa told Alaraby Aljadeed.

“It chose to enter via Jabal al-Akrad to distance the opposition from pro-regime villages and because of the losses it suffered in Aleppo,” the FSA military official claimed.

“The regime wants to raise the morale of its supporters by storming Salma,” which he called the “key to regime control of Jabal al-Akrad.”

The rebel leader also vowed that his forces were “ready to confront the regime and Hezbollah forces preparing to invade. Salma will be their grave.”

“The formula in the coast will be changed in the next two days,” Jumaa boasted.  

Meanwhile, a former FSA commander told the London-based daily that “the regime is taking advantage of weak resources on the Jabal al-Akrad and Jabal al-Turkman fronts, and working to advance on these fronts.”

Malek Kurdi said the regime’s goal was “to reach locations that will allow it retake the Latakia-Jisr al-Shughour road.”

“Making gains in these areas [raises] the morale of its members. [The regime] considers them part of its future state,” he added.

“In the best case scenario [gains in the area] will strengthen its position in the international arena so it can regain control of the rest [of Syria], starting from [the coast].”

However, Kurdi asserted that the regime would not succeed in its plans, saying that insurgents would be able to “acclimatize to sparse resources and engage in guerilla warfare in the same way the FSA did at the beginning of the revolution.”

Manpower shortage

The regime has tried to make up for troop shortages by pressing navy troops into the battle and enlisting the help of Iranians, Alaraby Aljadeed reported.

A former department chief with the regime’s Marine and Coastal Artillery and Rockets Branch gave details of naval forces participating in the campaign.

“Most people killed in the battle for the coastal region have been from the navy, as the regime has nothing left but the navy and the National Defense Force,” Othman Asbro told the daily.

“The navy has no infantry left,” said Asbro, who documented the names of 21 navy college members killed in recent fighting. “Now, it is only made up of administrative and maritime specialists, signalmen, radio operators, navigators, torpedo-men, coastal artillerymen and boatmen.”

He added however that the regime still has “Navy Seals Battalion 509, which has around 200 members trained in actual marksmanship, and Coastal Artillery Regiment 99 in the village of Arab al-Malek” south of Latakia.

Fighters from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have also reportedly joined the regime’s coastal campaign, with an opposition activist telling Alaraby Aljadeed that “strange people flocked to the town of Jableh for around a month before the battle for the coast [began], via Hamimim Airbase.”

These strangers, he said were able to “walk around the town as they pleased.”

Jableh Local Coordination Committee spokesperson Abu Mulhim al-Jablawi said he believed they were “IRGC fighters, as they disappeared from the town around three days before the battle for the coast began.”

“The regime called all members of its military units to the battle, including NDF [militias]. Only military intelligence members are left in the town,” he added.

“Last Friday saw the first absence of Air Force and Political intelligence [members] in front of the mosques. They usually stand at the doors after prayers to stop demonstrations from starting.”

With help from his allies, Syria’s Assad looks set to stay

Beirut, March 10, 2015 by Tom Perry and Laila Bassam

As the United States and Iran negotiate the final stages of a nuclear deal, they are still oceans apart on another area of conflict: the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Assad seems more likely to survive the Syrian crisis than at any point since it began four years ago. Iran’s support is as solid as ever to its confident-looking ally in Damascus.

The days when Assad was largely absent from view and his mere appearance was news have given way to almost daily reports on his activities; recent visitors included four French members of parliament who defied their government’s policy to see him.

The civil war has no doubt left Assad weakened, but he is stronger than the groups fighting to topple him. Powerful states still want to see him gone, but they have shown less resolve than allies who are standing by him.

As the crisis approaches its fourth anniversary, the demand for Assad’s departure is heard less often from his Western foes. Their attention has instead switched to fighting Islamic State, an enemy they share with him.

While the United States and his Arab enemies bomb the jihadists in the north and east, Assad and his allies have launched a major offensive against mainstream rebels and Islamists in an area of greater importance to them, the southern border zone near Israel and Jordan. In Damascus, observers close to the government see this as the start of a phase that will end the conflict on Assad’s terms.

Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah is backing the southern campaign and Iranian advisers are in the field - mirroring the situation in Iraq, where they are helping to oversee operations against Islamic State, said a senior Middle Eastern official familiar with Syrian and Iranian policy.

“The battle in Syria is still a very long one, but without existential threats for the government,” he said.

The continued support for Assad has defied the hopes of Western governments that it might wane as a slump in oil prices makes it more expensive for Tehran to prop up the devastated Syrian economy, or as Iran negotiates with world powers for a deal over its disputed nuclear program.

“The Iranians still view Assad as the top man,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because his assessment was based on private conversations. “He is the focal point of their relationship with Syria.”

Russia, too, shows no sign of abandoning a leader who finds himself at the center of two struggles: between Moscow and the West, and between Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite Islamist Iran.

A senior U.S. State Department official said support provided to Assad by backers including Iran had allowed him to avoid a negotiated end to the conflict, and described Iran’s role as “destructive”.

“We continue to coordinate with the international community on ways to limit Iran’s efforts to resupply the Assad regime with the means to perpetuate its brutality against the Syrian people,” the official said.


A confident-looking Assad has meanwhile embarked on a public diplomacy campaign, giving five interviews since December. Three were with organizations based in the Western states most opposed to his rule: the United States, France and Britain.

But it seems unlikely to end Assad’s pariah status in the West and among his Arab enemies. U.N. reports detail the army’s use of indiscriminate violence, including barrel bombs. U.S. officials often say he is a leader who has gassed his own people, a charge the government denies.

The war has killed some 200,000 people and displaced close to half the population, according to U.N. figures. Damascus accuses its Western and Gulf Arab opponents of seeking to destroy the country by providing aid to an insurgency now dominated by jihadists who pose a threat to the West.

The state’s territorial grip is much reduced, but it still controls the most populous areas. The rest is divided among jihadists, mainstream rebels and a Kurdish militia that has emerged as an important partner in the U.S.-led battle with IS.

The overstretched military and allied militia have suffered big losses this past year. Even with its air force, the army has been unable to finish off insurgents on important frontlines such as Aleppo.

Insurgents repulsed a recent offensive to encircle rebel-held parts of Aleppo, killing at least 150 soldiers and pro-government militiamen, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based group that monitors the conflict.

But neither Aleppo nor Islamic State-held parts of the country matter to Assad as much as the corridor stretching north from Damascus through Homs and Hama and then west to the coast.

Assuming the army and allied militia win, the battle against the insurgents in the southern border zone would eliminate one of the last big threats to Assad.

It would prevent his foreign enemies from funneling military aid to rebels via Jordan, and enable Assad to preserve a frontier with Israel. That is a big consideration for Damascus, Hezbollah and Iran, which have all sought to build popular legitimacy around the struggle with Israel.

“This is considered a qualitative shift in the war we are waging,” said Damascus-based strategic analyst Selim Harba.

Mohamed Kanaisi, editor of the state-run Baath newspaper, said: “Military progress must lead to a political solution. The other forces will be forced to deal with the Syrian government.”


The idea of an outright military victory runs counter to the widely held view in the West that the war can only end with a compromise. Diplomacy aimed at promoting such an outcome has gone nowhere since peace talks collapsed a year ago.

Western officials are seeking ways to prop up what is left of the mainstream opposition so it can go to future negotiations on a stronger footing. The United States is planning to train and equip rebels to fight Islamic State.

But the scale and focus of the program seem unlikely to change the power balance quickly, if at all.

Assad appears to be betting that the U.S.-led campaign against Islamic State will force Washington to engage with him, particularly as Iraqi forces prepare to take back Mosul in northern Iraq. An effective campaign against IS in Iraq can only be waged with cross-border cooperation that would stop the jihadists from regrouping in Syria.

Assad says he is already being kept abreast of the U.S.-led air strikes in Syria via third parties including Iraq.

Western officials dismiss the idea of rehabilitating him as a partner in the fight against IS: even if they staged a U-turn, Assad would be incapable of winning back all of Syria, they say.

“You can’t get away from the idea that a Syria with Assad at the helm is never going to be a united one. He cannot reunite Syria. If we cave in on that it will not fix the problem,” said one Western official.

The senior U.S. State Department official said: “We maintain our firm belief that Assad has lost all legitimacy and must go. There can never be a stable, inclusive Syria under his leadership.”

Train-and-equip: fighting for pluralism in Syria

March 9, 2015 by Nicholas A. Heras

This month, the United States and several of its Middle Eastern allies will begin training Syrian fighters through a revamped train-and-equip program that will form the core first class of Syria’s non-jihadist armed opposition. At this stage, the program will seek to identify, train, and support 5,000 Syrian rebel fighters a year for three years, and will likely involve the cooperation of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and could also include Jordan. Optimally, the end game of this reportedly more robust train-and-equip program will be a Syria that emerges from its civil war with a pluralistic government, the Assad regime removed, and the more ideologically radical elements of the Syrian rebel movement defeated and marginalized.

The need for a competent rebel force on the ground is heightened by the reality that the large segment of the Syrian population that supports the uprising will continue to need protection and security, but will want it provided by an alternative to the Assad regime. This force will also need to be strong enough to secure the local areas in which it is located and to impede the advances of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), currently the major policy objective driving the revamped program. As proposed today in a Foreign Policy article by former Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, a refashioned rebel army with a unified command and control structure that can enforce discipline within the ranks will be vital, as will its need to appeal to Syria’s minority communities.

Ford referred to the current train-and-equip program as “too little, too late,” and he makes a compelling argument for the administration’s need to either “undertake a major effort or walk away.” But while a target of 15,000 fighters trained over three years may sound insufficient to fundamentally shift the conflict, the effort can have great impact if it serves as a standard-bearing “train-the-trainer” model that builds up over time, from community to community.

From the outset, however, the train-and-equip program will have to answer questions about how its objective for the state will be an improvement over the current Syrian republic which encompasses diverse sectarian and ethnic backgrounds, despite the authoritarian power of the Assad family, the corrupt Ba’ath syndicate deep state, and its brutal security system. Nevertheless, the current Syrian republic, its advocates point out, has a longer and more practiced history of relative pluralism than that of the Syrian opposition, which has largely been splintered by factionalism and its armed groups heavily influenced by militant Islamist ideology. These are valid points, and the United States and its allies will need to address them in order to build up the capacity of the opposition to participate in a transition from the Assad regime.

Thus, United States’ strategic objective for guiding the train-and-equip program should be to build into the training a firm ideological component that seeks a pluralistic and democratic order in Syria, promoting the equal rights of all of Syrians. This will be a challenge, as the U.S.-led effort must reconcile the previous influence of its participating partners, particularly Qatar and Turkey, who have much-criticized records of influencing the armed opposition toward a more militantly Islamist ideological position. It will also need to respect and incorporate, but also moderate, the conviction of many Syrian rebel fighters that they are on a religious mission to fight a corrupt regime. Achieving the right balance in this ideological model, and making it stick for the entirety of the rest of the conflict to follow, would be an accomplishment with potentially exponential effects on the course of the war and its aftermath.

In theory, empowered Syrian rebel groups could stand their ground against both ISIS and the Assad regime, strengthening local governance, and coordinating humanitarian assistance distribution. If performed in a careful, phased manner, the train-and-equip program could focus on the local level to empower rebel communities through humanitarian assistance that is funneled through the vetted rebel groups. The focus should be on building the capacity of the vetted armed opposition to deliver social goods to their communities that are in dire need. This is a means to unify military and humanitarian assistance to the rebels in order to maximize the soft power of the United States on the Syrian opposition.

If the train-and-equip program begins to show success in accomplishing this objective, it will present an active threat to the Assad regime’s narrative that the Syrian rebel movement is a terrorist front bent on targeting and destroying Syria’s pluralism. This would make it the target of the regime and its Iranian allies and their auxiliaries, such as Hezbollah and Shi’i jihadist militias, likely producing another policy dilemma for the administration: whether or not to actively protect the empowered rebel movement it has been building. This will be an important question that could bring the U.S. closer to war with Iran, as it would spell a legitimate threat to their important proxy. This type of rebel rule could potentially establish a pluralistic precedent that could assuage the fears of Syria’s regime-loyalist communities, many of them ethnic and sectarian minorities such as Christians, Druze, and Alawites whose eventual buy-in and participation would be required to achieve a transition from the Assad regime.

However, at this initial stage of the revamped train-and-equip program is the complicating reality that throughout the country moderate Syrian armed opposition groups actively cooperate with the often more powerful rebel factions that seek to establish a fully-functioning sharia state in post-Assad Syria. Syria’s armed opposition is largely, although not completely, composed of groups whose fighters are Sunni Arabs. These factions range from militant Salafist groups such as the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya, to groups that have a vision of a state governed by Islamic law that more closely resembles that espoused by the Muslim Brotherhood, such as Liwa al-Tawhid, Jaysh al-Islam, and Suqur al-Sham. Many of the fighters in these groups originally joined rebel militias that did not promote a sharia state. However, over time they came to adopt this ideology due to the devolution of the Syrian conflict into one characterized by sectarian anger and ideologically influenced by financial backers in the Gulf Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait.

It is difficult to know for certain which of these groups can be integrated into an expanded train-and-equip program, or if the fighters of these groups are, on average, true ideologues seeking a post-Assad sharia state. Some joined the more militant Islamist factions merely for financial reasons, and may be able to pass the requirement of supporting a pluralistic, inclusive Syria. Nevertheless, Washington is presented with a significant policy dilemma. The pressure of the war has led to greater convergence, operational cooperation, and resource sharing within Syria’s rebel ranks across the ideological spectrum, and the task of vetting fighters and separating them according to ideological distinctions will likely be quite difficult.

The train-and-equip program will thus need to build a sustainable ideological model for the Syrian armed opposition movement. It should seek to work slowly and methodically, acknowledging that not all of the fighters for the revamped opposition army were always perfectly aligned with the vision for a democratic and pluralistic Syria. Realizing this, however, does not preclude the U.S. and its allies from acting now, with the soft power of financial assistance and the hard power of weapons and training, to forcefully insist on an ideological standard for the new rebel army. This effort is as much a struggle to build a pluralistic and democratic model for the Syrian armed opposition, as it is to bring the fight to ISIS and transition from the Assad regime.

Nicholas A. Heras is the Research Associate in the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS)