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Assad’s forces battle jihadists for key terrain in Latakia

For more than a week, forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad have attempted to capture Kabani, a key location in the coastal Latakia province. Assad’s men have met stiff resistance from jihadists in the area, including groups linked to al Qaeda.

One of those jihadist organizations is the al Qaeda-affiliated Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), which is primarily comprised of ethnic Uighur fighters. Days after the fighting began, the TIP posted several pictures from the scene of the battle, including a few showing corpses and one of its small arms spoils.

The TIP’s success during the first part of the battle was confirmed by its enemies. Al Masdar News, a pro-Assad regime outlet, reported on May 12 that the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) suffered “heavy casualties” during its initial attempt to capture Kabani from the TIP and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). The SAA fired missiles in advance of the assault, but this didn’t lead to success. Over one week later, according to the same pro-Assad source, the SAA was still trying to take Kabani.

Various pro-jihadist sites have shared images of deep trenches, which have purportedly helped the TIP, HTS and others withstand the SAA’s aerial barrage.

Online sources connected to HTS have accused Assad’s men of using chemical weapons during their latest assault on Kabani (also sometimes spelled as Kabana, or Kabanah). It appears they are accusing Assad’s loyalists of using chlorine, which would be unsurprising given the regime’s track record using chemical compounds. However, the use of chlorine or any other chemical weapon has not yet been confirmed in this instance.

Separately, the TIP produced a lengthy video promoting the idea that Russia faces defeat in Syria, just as the Soviet Union lost to the mujahideen in Afghanistan. The video opens with scenes from the 1980s jihad, including footage of the Soviets’ retreat.

Other images in the TIP production underscore the group’s jihadist lineage, as figures such as Mullah Omar (the Taliban’s founder), Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (the founder of al Qaeda in Iraq), and Abu Muhammad al-Julani are all shown. The last man, Julani, heads Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which is the TIP’s close battlefield partner in Syria.

One of the other figures flashed on screen is Ibn al-Khattab, an infamous jihadist in Chechnya who was backed by Osama bin Laden before his death in 2002.

The TIP’s video also includes various images of its men fighting in Syria. In one scene, the jihadists prepare a large projectile. FDD’s Long War Journal cannot confirm if the weapon is operable, but the TIP clearly wants its enemies to think that it retains significant weapons in its arsenal. Interestingly, jihadists have posted a separate version of the image without the TIP’s watermarks, an indication that it has probably been widely shared by the group’s ideological comrades. The image of the projectile, with the TIP’s watermark, can be seen below.

Other jihadists are fighting in Latakia as well.

The Incite the Believers coalition is among them. This joint venture, which includes Hurras ad-Din (the “Guardians of Religion” organization, or HAD), Ansar al-Din and Ansar al-Islam, was established in Oct. 2018. HAD is led by al Qaeda veterans.

The leaders of HAD and HTS have had serious disputes over the direction of the jihad in Syria. The two sides reached a new accord in February, promising to adjudicate their disputes in common sharia courts and coordinate on the battlefield. Despite lingering issues, it appears that is what they are doing in Latakia and elsewhere.

On May 14, Incite the Believers released a set of photos documenting a raid on a mountainous outpost manned by Assad’s loyalists. The jihadists apparently infiltrated behind enemy lines before killing several of their foes. The images include square brackets superimposed on top of Assad’s men — basic graphics that are intended to highlight the drama of the sneak attack. Past photos produced by the coalition utilized the same trick.

One of the seventeen photos published online by Incite the Believers on May 14 can be seen below:

The Incite the Believers operations room raided an Assad regime position at Tal Rasho.

Seeking to capitalize on news of the battles in Latakia, Hama and elsewhere, Incite the Believers has advertised a new fundraising effort online. A Twitter feed associated with the jihadists also posted a picture (seen below) showing a flier from the campaign. A contact number and Telegram address are included in the lower right hand corner for those interested in donating.

Incite the Believers has released other promotional materials related to the recent heavy fighting as well, including updated infographics trumpeting the Assad regime’s purported casualties and losses.

Other insurgent forces, including the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front (NLF), are battling Assad and Russia elsewhere as well. The Syrian air force and Russia are carrying out a bombing campaign that has created yet another humanitarian crisis in northwestern Syria.

Thomas Joscelyn :Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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