Original by Yevgeniy Krutikov published by Vzglyad; translation by J.Hawk
Syrian government forces, supported by militias and Russian airpower, occupied all the strategically important towns and terrain features in Latakia province. In the near future, we can expect the offensive’s continuation into Idlib province and a breakthrough toward the border with Turkey, which would mean a complete defeat of all jihadi and pro-Turkish forces on this most important front of the Syria war.
Attention has been shifting from one sector of the front to another, depending on how rapidly events have been unfolding. Due to the rapidity changes in Aleppo, the events in Latakia have receded into the background, even though that province is at least as important. In some respects they are more important, both in terms of Syria’s internal politics and its relations with Turkey. The news that the Syrian government army has taken under control one of the last militant bastions in Latakia should not be underestimated.
In order to appreciate the importance of events in Latakia, one has to remember the history of the Syrian civil war.
Ankara began to interfere in Latakia’s political affairs, particularly in its northern, border part, just as the protest movement in Syria got underway.Turkey-supported militants attempted to launch an uprising as early as spring 2011 in Kinsabba, but government forces quickly suppressed it. The militants were clearly from the outside, since the majority of the population actively opposed them. Even the Turkomen supported the government, not only the local Alawites.
During the summer of the same year, pro-Turkish fighters retreated eastward and organized a rebellion in Jisr-ash-Shugur, a key highway intersection whose control makes it possible to exerts influence into strategic regions of Syria’s north and west. The north, west, and north-west are the most densely populated parts of Syria, the rest is just desert with occasional towns-oases. It’s also the most fertile part of the country, whose coastline is teeming with activity. Even now the coast, with the ports of Tartus and Latakia through which all of Syria’s international trade, as well as humanitarian and military aid, passes, is the foundation of the Syrian government’s power. The fighting in and around Aleppo are strategically important too, but they are not as vital as defending Latakia province. Losing the coastal zone would mean a complete defeat for Bashar Assad’s government. This, incidentally, partly determined the choice of Hmeimim as the base for Russian Aerospace Forces.
The fighting in Latakia has always been difficult and bloody, though it remained relatively unnoticed by the media. As one goes from the coast toward the Turkish border, the fertile lands are replaced by rolling hills and then by densely forested mountains. Pro-Turkish and jihadi forces have spent many years entrenching themselves, and offensive operations in such terrain and climate are very difficult. That’s why the fighting for Salma lasted as long as it did. Moreover, that battle was crucial not only for the local situation but for the whole of Syria. If the terrorists succeeded in retaining control over Salma-Kinsabba-Gmam, they could have then launched an offensive from the mountains toward the coastal plain, straight toward Latakia and the M1 highway. The Turks viewed it as a mortal blow that Assad’s government would not have survived. The Turks bet on the local Turkoman population, using the pretext of protecting that minority to supply weapons and other “humanitarian aid.” The majority of region’s inhabitants at the start of the war were Alawites, whom the jihadis and pro-Turkish groups began to actively hunt. Now it’s not even clear what the national and religious composition is, since whole towns were razed to the ground and their inhabitants either were killed or became refugees.
When during the summer of 2011 Damascus understood what rebel victory could mean in this part of Latakia, even combat helicopters were sent to suppress the revolt in Jisr-ash-Shugur. The three-day assault on the city was the bloodiest event in the initial stage of the civil war. Several thousand refugees crossed the border into Turkey, and some regular army units joined the jihadis and pro-Turkish forces. The city was taken and cleared.
After that, thanks to UN mediation between Assad government and the opposition, a ceasefire was reached which the opposition used to rearm and receive reinforcements. Government forces at the time were already experiencing shortages of personnel and equipment, and after the ceasefire the most experienced units were redeployed from northern Latakia to other sectors of the front which have become more critical.
After the ceasefire expired, the rested and well-armed pro-Turkish forces launched a three-pronged offensive: toward Kinsabba, Salma bypassing Jisr-ash-Shugur, and directly toward Jisr-ash-Shugur. Fighting there turned into slaughter, because even with the direct participation of Turkish military advisers, it proved impossible to capture Kinsabba and Salma from the march. They succeeded only after a year, then turned it into a fortress. Kinsabba switched hands several times, one time the pro-Turkish captured the city and carried out a massacre of non-Muslim or not-quite-Muslim population, mainly Armenians and Alawites. Government forces expelled the rebels a day later only to find mountains of corpses.
Ultimately the jihadis captured strategic locations, but the attempt to continue the offensive toward the coastline failed. The decision hung by a thread. Turkish aircraft bombed government positions on more than one occasion. Pressure was exerted against the whole frontline in Latakia’s foothills. Pro-Turkish forces reached Gmama’s outskirts and the situation became critical by autumn of 2015. One could heroically hang on to the ruins of Kinsabba, to a couple of hills around Salma, but the loss of the coastline was then only a matter of time and Turkish military instructors’ skill. Advancing along highway M4, the jihadis and Turkomen were gradually occupying Latakia province.
Turkomen forces turned out to be the least effective, so Ankara gave them only symbolic functions. However, relying on al-Nusra was also a dubious proposition, therefore Turkey deployed a brigade of “grey wolves” on the Latakia front, and also battle-hardened units consisting of fighters from Northern Caucasus and Central Asia.
In the meantime, opposition and jihadi forces on other sectors kept a low profile, as if observing how the Syrian state is collapsing. Even ISIS stopped after taking Palmyra and held its breath.
It’s at that moment that Syria’s government turned to Russia for help. The Turkish offensive in Latakia–until recently the most promising and successful military operation of the war–was done. That province became the focus of Russian Aerospace Forces during the first month of its operations in Syria. That province was also the first to see modern weapons delivered by Russia, including Smerch and Uragan MRLs, TOS-1A rocket flamethrowers, Msta-B howitzers. The al-Nusra and Turkish offensive ran out of steam, forcing these units to adopt a positional defense along the Salma-Rabia-Kabir line. But government forces did not feel strong enough to push the enemy off the heights it occupied, due to the difficult terrain. Fighting once again turned into a slugfest which went on for several months. The attention shifted to other sectors of the front, Latakia was partly forgotten, even though that’s where the war’s outcome was being decided.
But Turkey’s leaders had not forgotten of Latakia. The pro-Turkish forces fought for every hill, even though Russian airstrikes forced them to retreat toward the border. Turkey rapidly began to lose control over the Latakia front situation and could not even think of a coastal offensive. It’s at that critical moment the Su-24 was shot down by a Turkish fighter, with Turkomen militants who turned up exactly where they were needed killing a Russian pilot.
Russia, however, replied by stepping up the pressure, and government forces soon retook Salma. After that, the al-Nusra and pro-Turkish forces united front collapsed, mercenary brigades turned adn ran, and government forces advanced 30km on several sectors without meeting opposition.
Right now the fighting in Latakia is also “eclipsed” by the events around Aleppo and the information war concerning Turkish pressure on the Kurds in that region. At the same time, government forces supported by Russian airpower are already prepared to retake Jisr-ash-Shugur and to finally trap pro-Turkish forces against the border. The Jebel-al-Turkoman hills are nearly entirely occupied, and those parts which are not occupied are surrounded. Turkish logistics have been nearly shut down. And if Turkey loses a second proxy force in Syria, after having lost the one in Aleppo, Ankara will totally lose its ability to influence the events in Syria.