A rebel fighter stands near the wreckage of a Syrian army tank in the northwestern Jabal al-Akrad region
A rebel fighter stands near the wreckage of a Syrian army tank in Burj Al-Khasad in the northwestern Jabal al-Akrad region of Syria on September 14. © - AFP/File
A rebel fighter stands near the wreckage of a Syrian army tank in the northwestern Jabal al-Akrad region
Herve Bar, AFP
Last updated: September 20, 2012

Mountains close to the Mediterranean are a threat to Assad

Rebels in Jabal Akrad, a mountainous hinterland above Syria's Mediterranean port of Latakia, are threatening the strongholds of President Bashar al-Assad's Alawite allies.

Bordering Turkey, Jabal Akrad (Kurdish Mountain) is Kurdish in name only, as it was settled by Arabs in the 13th century.

It offers a magnificent panorama of mountains capped by evergreen forests and orchards, cut by rocky ravines and foothills with villages nestled among them.

It is populated mostly by Sunni Arab peasants who embraced the protests against the Assad regime soon after they erupted last year, and the armed struggle that followed.

But scattered along the outskirts of the region are villages of Alawites, who belong to the same offshoot of Shiite Islam as Assad. Some have been exercising a careful neutrality, but most are fervent supports of the regime and provide it with militia.

Early on, the rebels seized the entire region, provoking a bloody fightback. In June, the army recaptured Haffeh, a strategic Sunni enclave near Latakia surrounded by hostile Alawite territory.

But in the mountains, the regime had no alternative but to withdraw its isolated forces to focus on cities, a number of higher areas and strategic axes.

"Jabal Akrad is now almost entirely under the control of the mujahedeen," says Dr Habib, the sole physician in a makeshift hospital set up in the basement of a building in Salma.

"The army has attempted raids, but they are constantly pushed back and the rebels gained the upper hand. So the military retaliates by bombing civilians indiscriminately."

Lacking even an operating room, Habib treats up to 70 patients a day -- civilians and combatants -- and says he is sick and tired of this "mad regime that crushes its people under bombs."

The shelling is constant on Jabal Akrad where tracts of forest have been devastated by flames the bombing has kindled.

On Wednesday, five members of one family were killed in Akko.

Last week, a mother and her two children were torn apart by a rocket in Kansseba.

In Salma, the main town in Jabal Akrad, almost every building bears scars of shelling. Every day helicopters can be seen flying overhead, opening fire indiscriminately with heavy machineguns.

Motorcycles have replaced cars, which are too conspicuous as targets from the air.

Fuel is expensive and there has been no electricity or running water for four months.

Faced with shortages, people who have not fled have organised. The land has been generous this season, fulfilling some of their needs. Food aid and medicines arrive from Turkey, thanks to charity and individual initiatives.

Clad in a black tracksuit, Abu Motea delivers sacks of flour and cooking oil from morning to night. Some of the supplies come from the other side of the border, brought by his Syrian NGO "Nour al-Huda" and the Turkish Red Crescent.

This self-described "supporter of non-violence," with his kind blue gaze, travels the winding roads of the Jabal in a rickety old minibus to distribute food to civilians and mujahedeen alike.

For among these mountain-dwelling peasants in arms, the rebels have the support of all.

But that help stops on the outskirts of the Alawites villages, where there are army positions and areas controlled by the shabiha (pro-regime gunmen).

It's too risky to go, even for a pacifist like Abu Motea.

Distrust and animosity between Alawite and Sunni villages here is old, and the possibility of massacres is great.

"The risk is there. That is why we made our families leave the most exposed areas," says Abu Baddih, a rebel commander in the Jabal.

Even so, the history of these villages is intertwined.

"We lived together for hundreds of years. Informal ties still exist between our villages, and Alawites live in peace in the Jabal Akrad," says Abu Baddih.

"The sectarian war is a trap fabricated by Bashar," adds Dr Habib. "The problem is not between Sunnis and Alawites, but between the people and this barbaric regime."

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