Top Syria rebel visits fighters in Assad homeland

BEIRUT (AP) — The military commander of Syria’s main Western-backed opposition group visited rebels in the coastal province that is President Bashar Assad’s ancestral homeland following recent opposition advances in the area, a spokeswoman said Monday.

Over the past week, rebel fighters in Latakia province have swept through a string of villages that are populated by members of Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. The advances have not shifted the strategic balance in the area, but they did embarrass the regime in a region that has been under tight government control since the Syrian revolt began more than two years ago.

Assad’s forces have launched a counteroffensive to try to dislodge the rebels, and activists say fighting is raging over several villages in the mountainous region.

In a video posted on the opposition Syrian National Coalition’s Facebook page, rebel military chief Gen. Salim Idris walks with a small group of fighters through hilly terrain. Dressed in civilian clothes with a shoulder holster and a pistol, Idris tells them that he visited the front to see the “important achievements and great victories that were made by our brother rebels in the coast.”

“We are here to confirm that the command is fully coordinating with the coastal command,” he said.

Coalition spokeswoman Sarah Karkour said the visit to Latakia took place Sunday. She did not specify whether he went to the newly captured territory.

Idris is the leader of the Coalition’s Supreme Military Council, a loose umbrella group of more secular-minded opposition brigades that serves as the main conduit for Western aid to rebels fighting to oust the Assad regime. He has little more than nominal control, however, over the hundreds of rebel factions that make up the constellation of opposition forces on the ground.

The most effective and efficient rebel groups — the Islamic extremist factions — don’t even recognize Idris’ authority.

In recent months, there have been a rising number of clashes between al-Qaida-linked factions and more moderate opposition brigades. The infighting has undermined the opposition’s overall effort to topple the Assad regime.

Despite their ideological differences, Islamic extremist groups and more secular-minded rebels also frequently coordinate their efforts when its suits them and there is a mutual benefit.

That has been the case in Latakia, activists say, where more moderate rebel groups fighting alongside al-Qaida-linked jihadi factions, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, captured 11 Alawite villages last week.

The offensive forced residents of the villages to flee their homes and left at least 60 civilians dead, activists say. Another 400 civilians, mostly Alawites, are missing and are presumed to be in rebel custody in the area, according to activists who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

The gains in Latakia by anti-Assad fighters have provided a small boost to the opposition after weeks of government victories in central Syria and around the capital, Damascus.

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