Syrian rebels and government forces have clashed over another coastal town in Latakia province, as opposition fighters slowly pressed their advance in the heartland of President Bashar al-Assad’s minority Alawite sect.
The fighting in the town of Qastal Maaf on Wednesday comes a day after opposition fighters seized their first coastal strip since the uprising began three years ago and a few days after they captured a border crossing.
Rebels were hoping that the clashes would draw more Syrian soldiers to the area, relieving some pressure on the fighters who have been badly weakened elsewhere in the country, Mohammed Abu al-Hassan, an activist in Latakia, said .
“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],” he told the Associated Press.
Qastal Maaf lies about 16km from the border crossing of Kassab, which the rebels seized on Sunday, severing one of the Assad government’s last connections to its northern Turkish neighbour and a predominantly Armenian Christian town of the same name.
It is approximately the same distance from the coastal patch of the village of Samra, which the rebels seized on Tuesday – their first small foothold by the Mediterranean since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011.
Activist Abu al-Hassan said the Samra coastal strip could be used by rebels to smuggle weapons. He said the sandy shore, backed by rocky mountains, was a smugglers’ point for decades, for its close access to Turkey and the nearby presence of deep water.
The Turkish government has allowed Syrian rebels, as well as weapons, to move with relative freedom across the frontier with Syria.
Samra, however, has no port, and Syrian military aircraft would likely bomb rebels trying to use any sea passage.
Activists in Latakia say the rebels’ mission of keeping their new gains in the province will prove difficult. The regime is so far in control of most of the high hills nearby, making opposition fighters in lower areas an easy target.
On Tuesday, rebels managed to capture a strategic hill known as “Observatory 45”, south of Kassab. Activists told Al Jazeera opposition forces would have to capture several other such hills to make it possible to sustain their grip.