Syria rebels advance in Latakia, establish first coastal toe-hold

Syrian rebel advances into Latakia, a bastion of support for Bashar al-Assad, prompted a furious government response and fears among religious minorities.

A general view shows the Armenian Christian town of Kasab after rebel fighters seized it March 24, 2014.

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Syrian rebels took parts of Latakia Province this week, securing their first coastal foothold and one in the heart of a regime stronghold. Latakia is President Bashar al-Assad's home province.

The offensive there began on Friday, when Islamist rebels took a Turkish border crossing and the nearby village of Kasab, Reuters reports. Latakia and neighboring Tartous Province are Syria's Alawite heartland. The Alawite faith, which the Assad family and many members of the regime inner circle belong to, is an offshoot from Shiite Islam.

The regime has responded to the offensive with reinforcements and airstrikes. Reuters cites the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights as reporting that 14 regime fighters and six rebels were killed in fighting Tuesday and 75 wounded rebels were brought across the border to Turkey for treatment.

The border crossing adjacent to Kasab gives rebels easier access to regime territory from Turkey. Most of the border region is already under rebel control.

The Associated Press reports that the rebel push on the coastal region is an effort to draw regime power away from other parts of Syria where rebels have faltered:

Rebels were hoping that the clashes would draw more Syrian soldiers to the area, relieving some pressure on the opposition fighters who have been badly weakened elsewhere in the country, said an activist in Latakia who identified himself as Mohammed Abu al-Hassan.

"The thinking is to open a battle that will make the regime rush to fight," Abu al-Hassan said. "The regime can't imagine losing the sea (of Latakia). They will bring reinforcements, and that will lessen the pressure (elsewhere)."

The opposition recently lost its foothold in the Qalamoun region, adjacent to the Lebanese border, just north of Damascus. The defeat, which sent thousands of refugees and likely many rebel fighters fleeing into Lebanon, cut the Syrian rebels off from critical smuggling routes used both to send supplies to rebels and to ferry fighters back and forth. 

Much attention has been given to Kasab, where support for the regime runs deep, borne out of fear of persecution by rebel elements. The village is made up largely of Armenian Christians, who had a fraught history in the region, particularly Turkey, long before the Syrian war broke out.

Christians in Syria typically back the regime, which, made up largely of members of the Alawite minority, has a reputation for protecting religious minorities, The Wall Street Journal reports:

For many of Kassab’s Armenian-Syrians, the Nusra Front occupies one side of the same coin the Turks do as well – an existential threat in a war where initial concepts like freedom and democracy have been sidelined by minorities’ concerns, steeped in thousand-year-old memories of past injustices perpetrated across the region. Better the devil you know, than the one you don’t, is the common Christian refrain.

Armenian-Syrians expressed outrage Sunday over radical Islamist rebels taking over Kassab, which they said would threaten the town’s Christian inhabitants, many supporters of President Bashar al Assad’s forces. Kassab residents cheered on Damascus in the fight against rebels this weekend, believing the alliance with Mr. Assad — an Alawite, another religious minority — a safer bet to protect their interests.

Armenian-Syrians blamed Turkey for rebel advances in Kassab — as Ankara has long turned a blind eye to rebels crossing their borders and weapons flows — and equated a win by Nusra with the Armenian genocide.

Islamist rebel groups have become notorious for brutal tactics and hardline Islamist rule, which has eroded their support among anti-Assad Syrians. However, perhaps cognizant of Kasab residents' fears, they released videos of fighters protecting a church and helping local elderly residents, Reuters reports.

The Associated Press reports that, according to antigovernment activists, the rebels also captured a coastal tourist area named Samra on Tuesday. It is tiny and lacks a port, so its capture is more symbolic than strategic -- the first holding with direct access to the Mediterranean. The rebels posted a video of themselves sitting by the sea.

Mr. Hassan, mentioned in the first AP report, said that Samra could be used to smuggle weapons, and that it has been a popular smuggling point for decades. 

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