Hilal al-Assad, a cousin of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, was killed yesterday along with seven of his men in fighting near the Turkish border. Hilal Assad led the local National Defense Force, one of various militia groups loyal to the regime.
Syrian opposition fighters are stepping up their offensive in the coastal province of Latakia, a stronghold of President Assad’s supporters. Hard-line Islamist fighters, including elements of Jabhat al-Nusra, have captured the northwestern town of Kasab near the Turkish border as well as a nearby border crossing.
Video posted online by rebels shows gunmen in Kasab — less than 40 miles north of Latakia city — as well as apparently in control of the border.
Gains in territory, no matter how small, will be welcomed by opposition forces, which have suffered a series of recent defeats as Syrian government forces move to drive them out of areas near the Syrian/Lebanese border and cut off their southern supply lines.
However, some believe that progress in Latakia is unlikely to alter the overall course of the war while the disparity in equipment and support between the heavily armed Syrian government and poorly equipped rebels remains so stark. “The balance of power is very heavily tilted towards the regime and it doesn't look like it's going to change,” said Nadim Shehadi, an associate fellow with Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Programme. “I don’t think it’s useful to follow little battles…. Overall, I think the regime definitely has the upper hand because of the backing it has and the lack of backing for the opposition.”
Nevertheless, the attacks do appear to mark a change in opposition tactics. Previously, Shehadi said, rebels decided not to attack Latakia in an apparent effort to avoid antagonizing the region’s Alawite population and dragging the conflict into further sectarianism. “The significance of Latakia is that it's on the coast and it’s close to the Assad stronghold, so it’s getting close to home with Assad,” he says. “Before this there was almost an embargo of operations there. Now, it’s obvious that things have changed.”
Meanwhile, a Turkish F-16 downed a Syrian jet near Kasab after it flew into a buffer zone between the two countries. Video appeared to show the aftermath.
“If you violate my airspace, our slap after this will be hard,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said. The Syrian military responded by describing the incident as “blatant aggression.”
The exchange doesn't necessarily signal a progressing escalation in hostilities, however. Syrian forces downed a Turkish jet in June 2012 with no real ramifications, and neither side appears to desire engaging in a protracted conflict. Syria’s forces are already stretched thin, and Erdogan is struggling to cope with a mounting political crisis at home.