LONDON: Rebels launched a deadly rocket attack on Latakia, the coastal heartland of President Bashar al-Assad, yesterday (Thursday) as part of a milestone attempt to overrun the government's most precious territories.
Islamist fighters have forced government troops to the very edge of Sahl al-Ghab, a fertile plain at the base of the mountains where Mr Assad's ancestral village of Qardaha is located.
Two people were killed and 14 injured in the attack, which hit Latakia's city centre and waterfront. State television ran footage of smoke billowing from charred vehicles apparently from the site of the explosions.
The area is home to Syria's Alawites, a Muslim minority sect from which a disproportionate part of the ruling class, including the Assad family, hails.
Rebels from the Army of Conquest, an umbrella group of Islamist factions including the dominant Ahrar al-Sham and the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, are now eyeing the nearby town of Joreen as an entry point to Latakia's mountains.
"The battle continues, the crowds are ready - prepared for the battle of Joreen," said Ahmed Qura Ali, a spokesman for Ahrar al-Sham.
Four and a half years into Syria's civil war, pressure on the regime is ratcheting up. Increasingly reliant on funding from its foreign allies, it has been forced to retrench operations outside its eastern strongholds.
Experts said the attack on Latakia signalled the start of a new phase in the war. "The rebels have wanted to achieve this for a long time, not because they wanted to target Alawite heartlands, but because they wanted to exert the same leverage that the Assad regime has had on villages and towns across Syria," said Hassan Hassan, an associate fellow at the London-based think tank Chatham House.
In Latakia, there was consternation and fear. "You're all thieves, outside you are stealing everything, and now you come and attack us and maim us?" railed one resident in a pro-government news outlet.
Among Syria's Alawite community, Mr Assad faces rising criticism for turning its sons into cannon fodder. In some cases, mothers have hidden young men to avoid a compulsory draft; others have recently taken to the street in protest.