Extremist Syrian rebels close in on Assad stronghold
BEIRUT // Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate and its allies seized the last major government-held city in Idlib province on Saturday, in a blow that could expose the regime’s coastal heartland to rebel attack.
The capture of Jisr Al Shughur in the northwestern province comes nearly a month after the same coalition of opposition forces, known as the “Army of Conquest”, overran the provincial capital.
The city’s fall opens up a strategic assault route for the rebels to neighbouring Latakia province on the Mediterranean coast, a bastion of president Bashar Al Assad’s regime, analysts said.
The Britain-based monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the bodies of at least 60 regime loyalists had been seen on the streets of the city, which was overrun by thousands of rebels.
In the wake of the capture, the Observatory said government planes carried out at least 30 air strikes on and around the city.
“At least 10 people have been killed in the city in the strikes, both civilians and fighters, and dozens more are injured, with the toll expected to rise,” said the monitoring group’s head Rami Abdel Rahman.
The Observatory also reported that government forces summarily executed at least 23 prisoners in a detention facility before they withdrew.
State media did not acknowledge the city’s fall, saying only that “units from our valiant army successfully redeployed on the outskirts of Jisr Al Shughur to avoid casualties among innocent civilians”.
State news agency SANA said “aircraft bombed groups of terrorists in the Jisr Al Shughur region, and destroyed dozens of military vehicles and killed terrorists”.
The militants hailed victory on their official Twitter account.
“The mujahideen have entered the city centre. The city has been liberated,” Al Nusra said.
One of the group’s official accounts published multiple photographs of Al Nusra fighters in the city, some holding their black flag and others reciting “prayers of thanks” for the city’s capture.
It also published a photo of some of the prisoners reportedly executed by government forces, showing at least 14 bodies, some piled on top of one another, in a room with blood-smeared walls.
Jisr Al Shughur became the regime’s de facto provincial capital after the Army of Conquest coalition overran Idlib city last month.
With the loss of Jisr Al Shughur, the regime holds only a few areas in the east of the province, including the town of Ariha, a military base in Al Mastumah and an airbase at Abu Duhur.
But an activist from Idlib said that both Ariha and the Al Mastumah base were now under rebel siege, along with another military base called Al Qarmid.
While last month’s capture of Idlib city was hailed by many in the opposition because it was only the second provincial capital entirely lost by the regime, the seizure of Jisr Al Shughur may prove to be strategically more important.
“This city is more important than Idlib city because it is close to Latakia province and regions controlled by the regime in the north-east part of Hama province,” Mr Abdel Rahman said.
It lies on the road leading to the regime’s Latakia bastion, and is also close to the border with Turkey, which is a leading backer of the uprising against Assad.
“For the opposition as a whole, it would open up the route into Latakia from Idlib and Hama, which could significantly enhance any future offensive on Latakia,” said Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at Brookings Doha Centre and a Syria specialist.
“That would be very dangerous for the regime.”
He said the capture could also pose a new threat to the regime in neighbouring Aleppo province, which lies to the east of Idlib.
“At the end of the day, this needs to be seen as more than just an offensive on Jisr Al Shughur, there’s a much bigger strategy playing out.”
* Agence France-Presse