This article was originally published by Syria Deeply.
By Orwa Ajjoub and Mais Istanbelli
"Many young Syrians have left the country, and the military is in need of men to fight, so the checkpoints try to catch those who dodge their mandatory military service," a resident of Latakia tells Syria Deeply. With opposition groups having taken both nearby Jisr al-Shughour and Idlib, about an hour away by car, residents of the strategically important city of Latakia are girding for a potential battle.
Latakia is Syria’s primary seaport in the Northwest region. The city has not experienced as much of the devastating civil war as other cities because the Assad government has defended it vigorously. However, an opposition commander with the Salam Battalion in Jaish al-Fatah, who identified himself as Abu Maan, told Syria Deeply that he believed entering the city was now possible.
“Taking over Jisr al-Shughour was more important than taking over the city of Idlib itself. Jisr al-Shughour is a strategic point in the Southwest governorate of Idlib and is the point through which the regime transports the army’s supplies between the coast, al-Ghab and Ariha,” he said.
“The government always understood its importance and therefore had, for almost four years, stationed many troops in Jisr al-Shughour. Now, the road to the outskirts of Latakia is open to us, and I believe that this coastal front is the most urgent and important battle because controlling it means defeating the regime on its home turf.”
Residents of the city now fear the worst.
Syria Deeply spoke with one of them, Amjad, a 28-year-old English literature student at the Tishreen University in Latakia, to get a sense of how residents are preparing for the potential battle ahead.
Syria Deeply: How has opposition taking control of Jisr al-Shughour affected Latakia?
Amjad: The streets are more crowded due to the influx of those who fled from Jisr al-Shughour. Electricity is shut off for 12 hours every day. When the dollar exchange rate increased from 250 Syrian pounds to 350 Syrian pounds, prices increased. Later on, the rate decreased but not the prices. People keep complaining, even on social networking websites.
Syria Deeply: Where are the displaced people staying?
Amjad: The government provided shelters in schools and many people were sent to Latakia Sports City, which consists of numerous stadiums and stretches for 5 km. The Sports City is equipped with tents, and recently prefabricated homes were added. I am not sure what the numbers are, but I heard that there are 200,000 displaced people in Latakia.
Syria Deeply: How do people in Latakia feel after the opposition threatened to enter the city?
Amjad: The opposition’s proximity to Latakia is what everyone talks about these days. People expect that Latakia is next, after Idlib and Jisr al-Shughour. When the opposition took over Idlib, people in Latakia were disappointed, but when they took over Jisr al-Shughour, people were scared; they stayed home and the streets were empty. Later on, people heard rumors that General Suhail al-Hassan was appointed to head the military operation to recapture Jisr al-Shughour for the regime. Al-Hassan has won many battles, like the Aleppo prison battle and the al-Shair Field battle. He has an excellent reputation and people in Latakia see him as the number-one military man in Syria. They believe in him more than they believe in Assad himself. This news gave people a sense of safety, and they went back to their normal lives. At the end of the day, all we have is words. No one knows what is really going on.
Syria Deeply: Do people have any plans in place for what to do if the opposition takes over Latakia?
Amjad: Some people believe that the regime will crush the armed opposition groups and that the situation will soon become better. Others plan on arming themselves and staying home to protect their families. They would rather sacrifice themselves and their family and not let the opposition get hold of them. If the opposition takes over Latakia, they will probably block the road to Tartous. Displaced people might return to their home cities, but supporters of the regime from Latakia would have nowhere to flee but Cyprus.
Syria Deeply: Has the Syrian government taken any extra security measures in Latakia following the fall of Jisr al-Shughour?
Amjad: Military security has been stepped up since the latest threats. There are check points within the city itself now. Many young Syrians have left the country, and the military is in need of men to fight, so the checkpoints try to catch those who dodge their mandatory military service. Security measures have been increased at the university as well. The Tishreen University in Latakia has eight gates. Only one is open and is guarded by an officer who searches those who want to enter. Students are required to present a national ID, a student ID, and proof of current enrollment in order to enter the campus.
Syria Deeply: Do civilians own or carry weapons in Latakia?
Amjad: Most people are armed because most of them have joined groups like the National Defense, the People’s Committees, or the Baath Brigades. These groups train young men to fight alongside the army or to protect the city if needed. There is also Bustan al-Basha, a charitable organization owned by Rami Makhlouf [Assad’s cousin]. It helps poor people, but it also recruits young people to fight with the military. They pay a monthly salary between 20,000 and 25,000 Syrian pounds [$80-$100]. There are also other militant groups that support the Syrian regime. They are funded by businessmen like Ayman Jaber and Riyad Shalish, who is also Assad’s cousin. The members of these militant groups usually wear civilian clothes. Many Latakians were killed fighting with the army and serving their country. More than 150 people from my neighborhood were killed in service. Their pictures are hung along the main street. All streets in Latakia are like this.
Syria Deeply: What do people in Latakia think about the army?
Amjad: People are scared. The once invincible image of the military is now tarnished, but people have nothing left but hope. Parents want all young men to join the army—except for their own kids. The only young men who are not enrolled in the army are university students. The army is our only hope that Syria would become peaceful again.
Orwa Ajjoub and Mais Istanbelli is a contributor to Syria Deeply.
[Photo courtesy of Syria Deeply]