Syrian army forces in the northwest of the country withdrew earlier this week from the fertile Ghab plain, bringing various Islamist groups battling the regime of Bashar al-Assad closer to the historical heartland of his Alawite sect.
The Reuters news agency cited a military source on Tuesday saying the army had been ordered to pull back after two weeks of attacks from rebels with artillery and guided antitank missiles.
The rapid advance so close to an area of such importance to Assad underscores the difficulties facing the army and the manner in which Syria is splintering: Assad said last month the army faced a manpower shortage and had given up some areas in order to defend others of greater significance.
The regime has also lost territory in central and southern Syria in recent months, five years into a conflict that began as a peaceful uprising against the Assad family’s dictatorship.
On Tuesday, Assad’s patron, Russia, held talks with Saudi Arabia, the main backer of the rebellion, in Moscow. Although the two sides failed to reach an agreement, the mere fact that they spoke bilaterally underlined that Assad has become less relevant to ending the war.
Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told CNN two days later that the regime was prepared to start talks with peaceful opposition groups. “The Syrian government is ready to be a major party in negotiations that will lead to a settlement that will meet and satisfy the needs and the aspirations of the Syrian people,” he said.
But the regime locked up and killed many of its peaceful and non-fanatical opponents, allowing the rebellion to morph into a violent and mostly Islamist insurgency against Assad’s minority government.
There is even evidence that Assad abetted the rise of the self-declared Islamic State, a group so radical it is shunned by Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the al-Nusra Front, that is taking part in the assault on the Ghab plain.
Al Qaeda-linked groups previously came close to the Alawite areas in 2013, capturing half a dozen villages on the northern edge of the Nusayriyah Mountains before they were repelled by the army.
Loyalist forces, including militants from the Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorist organization, later also retook the area between the capital Damascus and the city of Homs to the north, once a hotbed of rebel activity, restoring a supply line into the homeland of Assad’s tribe which has largely escaped fighting.
The Alawite provinces are the main recruiting ground for Assad’s core praetorian guard units who have proved to be among the most effective in combatting the insurrection. Situated on the Mediterranean coast, they also provide the regime with a crucial lifeline to the outside world.
Alawites, who adhere to an offshoot of Shia Islam, have largely stood by the Syrian leader. As the conflict has taken on a sectarian character, many fear reprisals from Sunni Muslims who are the country’s majority population but have been suppressed for decades.
Earlier in the war, reports surfaced that Alawite militias were eradicating Sunni towns in the Nusayriyah Mountains, raising suspicion that the regime was carving out a homogenous redoubt for the group.
The total death toll of the war is estimated between 220,000 and 320,000 while nearly half of Syria’s population has been displaced. Entire cities, including Aleppo, once Syria’s commercial capital, lie in ruins.