Syrian army and militia troops loyal to President Bashar Assad pushed back a rebel offensive in the mountain heartland of his Alawite sect, officials and activists said on Monday.
Islamist rebels launched a surprise offensive two weeks ago into the northeastern province that has otherwise escaped fighting in the civil war, capturing a military airport north of Aleppo and half a dozen villages east of the port city of Latakia while advancing on the leader’s hometown of Qardaha. The assault killed up to two hundred civilians, activist said, and drove hundreds of Alawite villagers out to the coast.
The area is the main recruiting ground for Assad’s core praetorian guard units who have proved to be the most effectively in combatting the rebellion along with fighters from the Lebanese militant organization Hezbollah — which is also financed by Syria’s ally Iran.
Army reinforcements managed to repel the invasion. Jets also bombed the Sunni village Salma on the edge of the an-Nusayriyah Mountains which shield the Alawite homeland on the coast from the Sunni provinces in the east. Salma was the launchpad for the rebel attack.
According the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group that is based in the United Kingdom and sympathizes with the uprising, Assad’s forces retook all the military observation posts the rebels had seized and regained control of nine Alawite towns. Syrian state media reported that the army had “dealt with the last terrorist groups” in the area and confiscated their weapons.
The offensive highlighted the sectarian divide in Syria three years into its civil war and threatened Assad’s suspected strategy of shielding the Alawite province as well as major cities in the west of the country, including the capital Damascus, from an insurgency that has effectively taken control of swaths of the Euphrates River valley in the east.
Reports of ethnic cleansing earlier surfaced from towns in the an-Nusayriyah Mountains, raising suspicion that the regime was carving out a homogenous enclave for Assad’s Alawites, while some of the heaviest fighting this year took place in and around the city of Qusayr, strategically situated on the highway from Damascus to Homs, a hotbed of rebel activity, as well as Tartus on the Mediterranean coast, a government stronghold where Russia maintains a naval facility.