A number of villages located on Syria’s strategic Sahl al-Ghab plain have fallen to the troops of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, taking control of the region from opposition groups who had advanced in the area as they push towards the Mediterranean Sea.
Overnight air strikes launched by regime warplanes forced the opposition fighters to retreat from the villages of Mansoura, Tal Waset, Khirbat al-Naqus, and the Al-Tamnia checkpoint, local sources reported.
Fighting between rebels and regime forces, backed by allied militias, continued into Tuesday, leaving at least four people dead in one particular village, a fighter from the Ajnad al-Sham rebel group said.
Control of the plain, most of which is located in the Al-Suqaylabiyah District of the northwestern Hama Province, will allow the regime to hold on 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 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 Sahl al-Ghab plain is also used as supply-line for regime troops as well as a launching pad for attacks on the rebel-held Idlib Province.
A coalition of prominent rebel groups known as the Fatah Army - including Ahrar al Sham, Failaq al Sham, Jund al Aqsa, from the Ajnad al-Sham, 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 to the north of Sahl al-Ghab in the Idlib province.
In March 2014, rebels 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 regained 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.