BADROUSIEH, Syria (AP) — Syrian rebels pressed their offensive deeper into the coastal heartland of President Bashar Assad’s Alawite sect on Wednesday, battling government troops backed by warplanes for control of at least two villages in the heavily wooded and mountainous terrain, activists said.
Opposition fighters from several conservative and hard-line Islamic groups, including the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front, launched their assault Friday on the northern stretches of Latakia province along the Turkish frontier. So far, they have seized a border crossing, and also gained control of an outlet to the sea for the first time since Syria’s uprising began three years ago.
While modest in terms of territory, those gains have buoyed an armed opposition movement that has suffered a series of recent setbacks on the battlefield. Over the past month, Assad’s forces, backed by his allies from the Lebanese Hezbollah militant group, have captured towns and villages along Syria’s border with Lebanon, squeezing the flow of rebel fighters and materiel across the frontier.
A Latakia-based activist who identified himself as Mohammed Abu al-Hassan said rebels were hoping that the offensive in Latakia would draw more Syrian soldiers to the area, relieving some of the pressure on harried opposition fighters elsewhere in the country.
“The thinking is to open a battle that will make the regime rush to fight,” Abu al-Hassan said via Skype. “The regime can’t imagine losing the sea (of Latakia). They will bring reinforcements, and that will lessen the pressure (elsewhere).”
On Wednesday, rebels were battling government troops in the Latakia villages of Qastal Maaf and Nabaain, activists said. Syrian military jets were conducting airstrikes around to try to push back the opposition fighters, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“So far, it is attacks and retreats, nothing is certain,” said Abdurrahman.
Both villages are south of the Armenian Christian town of Kassab and the nearby border crossing, which rebels seized on Sunday.
The Syrian government took a group of reporters Wednesday to the village of Badrousieh, about 15 kilometers (9 miles) south of Kassab and some 3 kilometers from Nabaain.
Badrousieh is a picturesque village on a hilltop surrounded by mountains overlooking the sea – a pine wooded area with orange and lemon and olive groves as well. The idyllic scene was broken every few minutes by the roar of outgoing artillery aimed at rebel held areas, followed shortly after by the distant thud as the shells landed.
A field commander told reporters that “terrorist groups” with the “clear support” of the Turkish government attacked Kassab from four fronts.
The commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, claimed that the fighters battling the Syrian army included Turkish soldiers and special forces dressed up like Nusra Front militants. He did not offer any evidence to support his claims.
Syria’s Foreign Ministry sent a letter to the U.N. Secretary General on Wednesday accusing Turkey of using its tanks and artillery to support the attack against Kassab. The letter urged the Security Council to condemn what it called Ankara’s “flagrant aggression” against Syria.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry dismissed the allegations as “totally unfounded and untrue.”
A former Assad ally, Turkey is now one of the Syrian rebellion’s strongest supporters. Ankara has allowed rebels, as well as weapons, to move with relative freedom across its frontier, but there is no indication of direct Turkish involvement inside Syria.
The Syrian commander said armed groups are in full control of Kassab, but that Syrian troops are still stationed in Nabaain as well as Qastal Maaf and engaged in heavy fighting there.
He said around 50 Syrian soldiers were killed as well as “hundreds” of terrorists, most of them foreigners including many Chechens, in the past four days.
“The situation today is better than the days before, hundreds of gunmen have been killed and you will hear good news in the coming days, God willing,” the commander said.
The rebels advanced on Qastal Maaf on Tuesday after seizing a hilltop area known as Observatory 45. Activists said the strategic post was important because it enjoys a commanding view of the surrounding mountains and green plains below.
The Syrian commander said the rebels moved on Observatory 45 under after a pounding the position for three days with mortars and artillery. They then detonated a BMW packed with explosives at the entrance to the post, and attacked under the cover of smoke and fog.
He said the rebels have since been pushed back. They no longer at the point but in nearby areas
On the coast, rebels captured a small, rocky strip known as Samra on Tuesday.
The activist Abu al-Hassan said the area could be used by rebels to smuggle weapons. He said the shoreline there at the foot of rocky mountains was used by smugglers for decades because of its close access to Turkey and the nearby presence of deep water. Still, Samra has no port, and Syrian military’s airpower would likely be able to prevent rebels from using any sea passage to great effect.
Syria’s conflict has killed more than 140,000 people, displaced at least a quarter of its pre-war population of 23 million and triggered a humanitarian crisis across the region.
Associated Press writers Ryan Lucas, Diaa Hadid and Yasmine Saker contributed to this report.