BEIRUT, LEBANON (7:10 A.M.) – The battle for northwestern Syria has been ongoing for a week now and it appears far from over as Syrian troops prepare to storm the key town of Kabani in the northeastern countryside of the Latakia Governorate.
With all eyes on Idlib, it is easy to miss the upcoming battle for the strategic mountaintop town of Kabani, which overlooks much of the Latakia-Turkey border.
Kabani, which is located on the highest peak in Latakia, has long been under the control of the jihadist rebels, dating back to the first major offensive inside the governorate.
Over the last few years, the jihadist rebels have been able to wreak havoc on the Syrian Army troops in the area, often preventing them from inching closer to the Idlib Governorate.
With several units from the 4th Armored Division, including their elite 42nd Brigade (Ghiath Forces), already deployed at the southern slope of the Al-Zuqayqat Mountain, the Syrian Arab Army is hoping to finally force Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and the Turkestan Islamic Party to abandon their posts and retreat towards Jisr Al-Shughour City.
Gateway to Idlib:
The battle in northeastern Latakia is often overlooked because of the absence of constant combat; however, it is arguably the most important operation in all of northwestern Syria.
Should the Syrian Army make the decision to push deep into the Idlib Governorate, it won’t be from northern Hama, despite the international media’s focus on this part of the Turkish-Russian demilitarized zone.
The Syrian Arab Army would choose northeastern Latakia as their path to Idlib because of the high ground and the location of the Aleppo-Latakia Highway.
In particular, the high ground would come in handy during an assault on the strategic city of Jisr Al-Shughour, which has been under jihadist control since Jaysh Al-Fateh’s Spring 2015 offensive.
If Kabani is captured, the Syrian Army can fight their way down to Jisr Al-Shughour and impose fire control over large parts of the city from the mountains near the Turkish border.
The ongoing battle in northwestern Hama is getting the most publicity at this time because of the intensity of the firefights and prevalence of airstrikes.
However, this offensive in northeastern Hama is limited and focused on squeezing the militants out of the last areas outside of the Idlib Governorate.
Seizing Qal’at Al-Madiq and Kafr Naboudeh were major morale boosts for the Syrian military, but the militants still possess the high ground at the Zawiya Mountains, which are located just north of these two towns.
The Syrian Army could push into the Zawiya Mountains and attempt to seize the historical city of Ma’arat Al-Nu’man, but it appears they prefer to negotiate with the tribes in the region to possible reconciliation agreement.
According to a military source in Hama city, the Syrian military and tribal chiefs from the cities of Ma’arat Al-Nu’man and Khan Al-Sheikhoun are holding talks about avoiding hostilities and implementing a reconciliation deal similar to that of Daraa.
If an agreement is reached, government institutions would return to these subdistricts, but the local rebels would provide security to the area.
There are four major foreign players in northwestern Syria: Iran, Turkey, Russia, and Qatar.
Of the four countries influencing this region, only Qatar does not have a physical presence on the ground.
As shown in the map above, Turkey currently has the most observation posts in northwestern Syria, while Russia possesses the second most.
Iran does have a major presence in southern Aleppo, but other than some allied factions from the Local Defense Forces (LDF) in northern Hama and Latakia, they do not have much influence over the Syrian military troops in the northwestern part of the country.
It is important to note: Russia is the primary foreign force backing the Syrian Arab Army offensives.
Some Iranian-backed LDF troops are helping defend the recently captured areas, but they have been sidelined for the most part by the Tiger Forces, who are leading this operation.