A Syrian military source said on Tuesday the army had retreated to new defensive lines in a region of vital strategic importance to President Bashar al-Assad, seeking to avoid losses at the hands of advancing rebels.

The insurgent advance into the Sahl al-Ghab plain in northwestern Syria has brought rebels including the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front to the eastern edge of mountains that form the historical heartland of Assad’s Alawite people.

The rapid advance so close to an area of such importance to Assad underscores the difficulties facing the army and the manner in which Syria is splintering: Assad said last month the army faced a manpower shortage and had given up some areas in order to defend others of greater significance. […]