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 Sunni villages in Jebel Akrad, drove his vehicle, the only one on the road, past the carcasses of burnt-out tanks, abandoned government checkpoints and row upon row of empty villages.
In the distance, war was raging. Government helicopters circled over frontline towns, dropping barrels filled with explosives and metal debris on buildings below with deafening effect. Rebel fighters shot back with anti-aircraft guns hidden amid narrow buildings or in nearby forests that cover the mountainsides.
For centuries, this was his and his people's homeland. Slipping across the border from Turkey, insurgents have waged a largely unreported war. Inching forward, the rebels now hold the two large 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." Those Alawite villages visited by this correspondent now stand abandoned and desolate, most showing signs of a hasty exit.
Most of the Alawite families fled to Latakia, Tartous or to the nearby Alawite Mountain. From across Syria, Alawite families who fear they will become the victims of sectarian attacks – whether they support the government or not – have begun building homes in these retreats. But even these are now within the rebels' sights.
Government helicopters and jets bombard the frontline town of Salma and shelling has reduced most of the buildings to rubble and potholed the roads. But they have been unable to stop the rebel advance. Soon there may be nowhere for the president to go.
"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." (© Daily Telegraph, London)