Al Assad regime retreats as rebels continue Syria offensive
BEIRUT // Syrian troops retreated as regime warplanes bombarded Al Qaeda-led rebel fighters on Friday, a day after the insurgents overran the last government-held city in the key northwestern province of Idlib.
Opposition forces now control the vast majority of Idlib after Al Nusra Front and its allies in the Army of Conquest overran Ariha and surrounding villages on Thursday.
It was the latest blow to loyalist forces who have been battling myriad rebel groups for four years, after the fall of the ancient city of Palmyra to ISIL last week.
“The lightning offensive ended with a heavy pullout of regime forces and their allies Hizbollah from the western side of the city,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.“We can’t even say there were real clashes with the government in Ariha.”
The Army of Conquest — Jaish Al Fatah in Arabic — also seized villages around Ariha as regime warplanes bombarded the city.
Mr Abdel Rahman said 13 regime loyalists had been executed by rebels inside Ariha, and another 18 were killed in fighting on its outskirts.
The rebel alliance has won a string of victories in Idlib, including the provincial capital, the key town of Jisr Al Shughur, and a massive military base.
Government forces had pulled back to Ariha, which Mr Abdel Rahman said was heavily defended by fighters from Iran and Hizbollah.
But the city fell to the Al Nusra-led alliance “in a few hours,” he said.
Syrian president Bashar Al Assad’s regime still holds the Abu Duhur military airport and a sprinkling of villages and military posts in Idlib, but a Syrian security source said that the province was no longer a priority for loyalist forces.
“The territories that are vital to protect for the regime are Damascus, Homs, Hama, and the coast,” he said.
Idlib province borders Turkey to the north, coastal regime bastions to the west, and the flashpoint province of Aleppo to the east.
Mr Abdel Rahman said the regime was suffering from a serious lack of fighting forces.
“Even with the support of Iran and Hizbollah, it cannot make up the soldiers... If this continues, the regime might lose Aleppo,” he added.
* Agence France-Presse
Updated: May 29, 2015 04:00 AM