An eerie silence hangs over what was once a busy highway that cuts through the mountains and makes for Latakia city. Abu Yassin, who lives in one of the Sunni villages in Jebel Akrad drove his vehicle, the only one on the road, passed the carcases of burnt-out tanks, abandoned government checkpoints and row upon row of empty villages. In the distance, war was raging. Government helicopters circled over front line towns, dropping barrels filled with explosives and metal debris on buildings below with deafening effect. Rebel fighters shot back with anti-aircraft guns hidden amid narrow buildings or in nearby forests that cover the mountainsides.
It is here, in this mountainous Mediterranean coastline of Syria’s Latakia province, that Syria’s president Bashar Al Assad may hope to make his last stand. For centuries, this was his and his people’s homeland, the verdant terrain belonging to his minority Alawite sect.
Now many in this sect regard the enclave comprising the coastal cities of Latakia and Tartous and mountains to the east as their last chance of making a breakaway Alawite state to protect them against the rebellion. But the rebels have already won control of much of his land. The vision of a haven is now more pipe dream than project.
Slipping across the border from Turkey, insurgents have waged a largely unreported war. Inching forward, the rebels now hold the two large mountain ranges of Jebel Akrad and Jebel Turkman that make up the north of the province. As they advanced, Alawite families grabbed their possessions and fled. “We have six Alawite villages under our control now, but there are no Alawites left here,” said Abu Yassin, a rebel fighter. “They believe that if Bashar Al Assad goes, they will all be killed so they all fled to areas the regime controls.”
Those Alawite villages now stand abandoned and desolate. Many showed signs of a hasty exit. Front doors were left swinging on their hinges, personal possessions – shoes, clothes, books were scattered on the floor. Bullet holes and shelling damage dented outer walls and many shops were scarred from fires. Most of the Alawite families fled to Latakia, Tartous or to the nearby “Alawite Mountain”. From across Syria, Alawite families who fear they will become the victims of sectarian attacks – whether they support the government or not – have begun building homes in these high retreats. But even these are now within the rebels’ sights.
Lying less than two miles away, the “Alawite Mountain” is clearly visible from the front line town of Salma. Government helicopters and jets bombard the town day and night and shelling has reduced most of the buildings to rubble and potholed the roads. But they have been unable to stop the rebel advance. Soon there may be nowhere for the president to go. “We are planning to take the ‘Alawite Mountain’ and move on Latakia,” said Abu Taher, a rebel commander in Salma. “If we allow the Alawite state to be a fact on the ground then all the minority groups will say ‘we want our state’ and the country will be torn apart.
Moderate fighters such as Abu Taher are adamant that only those Alawites “with blood on their hands” will be punished “for their crimes”. Should any of the jihadist fighters that have infiltrated some of the rebel groups try to attack Alawite civilians they “will be defeated [by local rebels]”. But even among local Sunni opposition there are frightened whispers that with a rebel victory in these mountains and then in Latakia city below them, it would be difficult to prevent revenge killings.
Sunnis and Alawites have long lived peacefully as neighbours in this area, but the war is tearing apart this society. A couple both older than 80, Ahmad Barakat and his wife, refused to leave when the rebels came to their rural Alawite village of Ain Al Ashara. Rebels led by Shaikh Ayman Othman, had promised villagers they wouldn’t be harmed. But when Shaikh Othman was killed in battle, a second more sectarian-minded militia stormed the village and the villagers’ lives became a nightmare.
“They stole everything: They took all the cars and broke into all of our homes. After that residents said they thought they would be killed so they fled to Latakia,” said Barakat. As he spoke fat tears rolled down his wife’s cheeks. “Three months ago they arrested my son,” the father said. “He had not done anything wrong. “A man demanded ransom money of 1.5 million Syrian pounds. They gave me three days to get the money. When he came again he took the money but they haven’t returned our son.”