|Alawite cleric Ghazal in captivity (R) and earlier in military fatigue next to Ural|
Syrian rebels are pushing toward President Bashar al-Assad's hometown of Qardaha in Latakia province.
By Monday, the second day of their surprise offensive in the heartland of Assad's minority Alawite-cum-Shiite sect, the rebels had captured some 11 Alawite villages.
The villages include Aramo, 20 kilometers from Qardaha, and Baruda, where the rebels seized visiting Alawite cleric Badreddin Ghazal, a diehard Assad militant.
You can see above a photo of Sheikh Ghazal in military fatigue standing alongside Mihraç Ural aka Ali al-Kayyali, the man I dubbed in May “the ethnic cleanser of Banias,” who was also suspected of masterminding the twin Turkish bombings in Reyhanli.
There is already talk of a “prisoner swap” underway, which would see Ghazal released in exchange for setting free the women held by Assad’s shabiha in Latakia’s sports stadium.
"The rebels are not far from Qardaha, and the threat to Qardaha has moved from being conceivable to being a real one," Sheikh Anas Ayrout, a member of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) who is from the coastal city of Banias, told Reuters.
Monzer Makhous, the SNC representative to France and future Syrian ambassador in Paris who belongs to the Alawite community, tells the leading Saudi daily Asharq Alawsat, “The Free Syrian Army’s advance into the coastal region is vital, if only to prevent the regime from carving out a sectarian canton” there.
|Saudi suicide Moaz (R) and the Minnigh explosion|
Also Monday, the armed opposition captured the key Minnigh airbase in the northern province of Aleppo after an eight-month battle, seizing several tanks and other munitions and taking the base commander and soldiers prisoner.
Warplanes from the base had struck at villages across northern Syria.
Activists on Facebook today give credit for the Minnigh victory to a young Saudi suicide bomber who used an armored vehicle laden with explosives to breach the airbase defenses.
The Saudi suicide was named as “Moaz al-Abdelraheem.”
Egyptian military strategy analyst Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Safwat el-Zayyat last night described Syrian rebel gains in Latakia province as “very significant.”
He told Aljazeera TV’s Syria news anchor that when the armed opposition is able to move from Salma (a village northeast of Latakia) to within five kilometers of al-Haffah, which is the principal gateway to Latakia city, the questions become: Are the rebels planning to widen their bridgehead? Do they intend winning control of Jabal al-Akrad and the hills overlooking Latakia? Are they after cutting Latakia’s roads to Idlib or Aleppo or both?
“All this,” said Zayyat, “shows the regime has no military presence on the ground. It is unable to handle two battlefronts concurrently.”
Zayyat also took issue with yesterday’s report by Human Rights Watch, saying ballistic missiles used by the Syrian military is killing civilians and many children.
He said the HRW report “comes too late. The regime started using ballistic missiles in December 2012 – first against the rural areas in Idlib province.”
Ballistic missiles, said Zayyat, “are meant to leave what the military call ‘large footprints.’ So the regime using Scud missiles with a speed of mach 4, a payload of half a ton or more, and a lethal circuit of some 200 meters against village homes can only be described as a war crime of the first order.”