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Syrian rebels gain skills as forces advance

Syria's opposition forces are hoping that a new military command will bring needed international support for the fighters, as rebel forces advance on President Bashar Assad.

PT1M15S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2blss 620 349

AN EERIE silence hangs over what was once a busy highway that cuts through the mountains and makes for Latakia city.

Abu Yassin, who lives in one of the nearby Sunni villages in Jebel Akrad, drove his vehicle, the only one on the road, past burnt-out tanks, abandoned government checkpoints and row upon row of empty villages.

It is here, on the Mediterranean coastline of Syria's Latakia province, that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may hope to make his last stand.

For centuries, this terrain belonged to his minority Alawite sect. Now many of them regard the enclave comprising the coastal cities of Latakia and Tartus and mountains to the east as their last chance of making a breakaway Alawite state to protect them against the Sunni majority rebellion.

But rebels have already won control of much of his land.

Slipping across the border from Turkey, rebels now hold the mountain ranges of Jebel Akrad and Jebel Turkman that make up the north of the province. As they advanced, Alawite families grabbed their possessions and fled.

''We have six Alawite villages under our control now, but there are no Alawites left here,'' said Abu Yassin, a rebel fighter. ''They believe that if Bashar al-Assad goes, they will all be killed so they all fled to areas the regime controls.''

Front doors were left swinging on their hinges, personal possessions were scattered on the floor. Bullet holes and shelling damage dented walls and shops were scarred from fires.

Most of the Alawite families fled to Latakia, Tartus or to the nearby ''Alawite Mountain''.

Lying less than three kilometres away, the mountain is clearly visible from the front-line town of Salma.

''We are planning to take the 'Alawite Mountain' and move on Latakia,'' said Abu Taher, a rebel commander in Salma.

''If we allow the Alawite state to be a fact on the ground then all the minority groups will say, 'We want our state,' and the country will be torn apart.''

Abu Taher is adamant that only those Alawites ''with blood on their hands'' will be punished ''for their crimes''.

But among local Sunni opposition there are whispers that with a rebel victory in these mountains and then in Latakia city below them, it would be difficult to prevent revenge killings.

A couple aged over 80, Mr and Mrs Ahmed Barakat, refused to leave when the rebels came to their Alawite village of Ain al-Ashara.

Rebels led by Sheikh Ayman Othman had promised villagers they wouldn't be harmed. But when Sheikh Othman was killed in battle, a second more sectarian-minded militia stormed the village and the villagers' lives became a nightmare.

''They stole everything; they took all the cars and broke into all of our homes. After that residents said they thought they would be killed so they fled to Latakia,'' said Mr Barakat.

As he spoke, tears rolled down Mrs Barakat's cheeks.

''Three months ago they arrested my son,'' he said.

''A man demanded ransom money of 1.5 million Syrian pounds [$A19,800]. They gave me three days to get the money. When he came again he took the money but they haven't returned our son.''

TELEGRAPH