Rebel fighters in Syria have advanced on a number of villages located along the northwestern Syrian coast as they close down on the pro-regime stronghold of Latakia.
According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), President Bashar al Assad’s troops pulled out of the villages of Mansoura, Zeyara and Tal Waset in the al Suqaylabiyah district of the Hama province.
Rebels reportedly launched a counteroffensive in the area after losing control of the strategic Sahl al Ghab plain last week.
Control of the plain, most of which is located in the al Suqaylabiyah district, will allow the rebels access to the coastal al Ansariyah mountain range which stands between Sahl al Ghab and the Mediterranean coastal city of Latakia.
Latakia, which is currently under regime control, is home to President Bashar al Assad’s minority Alawite sect.
Tartus, another key city on the Syrian coast, hosts the country’s second largest port as well as Russia’s only repair and replenishment naval base in the Mediterranean
The advance towards the coast comes after a coalition of prominent rebel groups - known as the Fatah Army (Army of Conquest) - including Ahrar al Sham, Failaq al Sham, Jund al Aqsa and the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front took control of the northwestern city of Idlib in March.
The rebels later moved on to capture the city of Jisr al Shughour, which is located in the Idlib province.
In March 2014, rebel groups temporarily took control of the mainly Armenian town of Kessab along the Turkish border in the Latakia province. It was the first time in the war, which started in 2011, that rebels forces had reached the Syrian coast.
Within three months, however, regime forces recaptured the town, pushing the rebels back inland.
Over four years of fighting in Syria has left over 230,000 Syrians dead, according to UN estimates.
More than 6.7 million are displaced internally while at least 5 million have fled the country to neighbouring countries of Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan.