May 27, 2014
Opposition fighters led by Jabhat a-Nusra seized control of the town of Khan Sheikhoun in southern Idlib province on Monday, giving rebels control of a stretch of the M5 highway connecting Damascus with central and northern Syria.
Months of fighting in and around the town came to a head on Sunday when rebels seized the regime’s al-Khazanat military base to Khan Sheikhoun’s east following twin suicide car bombings by Jabhat a-Nusra. One day later, rebels stormed the a-Salam checkpoint on Khan Sheikhoun’s western flank, completing their takeover of the town and claiming regime tanks in the process.
The victory “is extremely important for rebel morale,” says Abdallah Jadaan, an Idlib-based correspondent for pro-opposition Syria Mubasher.
But the rebel capture of the town has come at a price. Jadaan tells Syria Direct’s Mohammad al-Haj Ali that government forces have “responded harshly” to the rebel gains, targeting Khan Sheikhoun with warplanes, barrel bombs and missiles since Monday.
Q: What's the importance of the Battle of Khan Sheikhoun in terms of the rebels' bigger goal of winning the war?
The city of Khan Sheikhoun is considered an important strategic region for both the rebels and the regime, seeing as it is located on the international Aleppo-Damascus highway.
By liberating the city, rebels gained control of the highway and can cut reinforcements off from major regime military installations in Maarat a-Nauman, specifically the Wadi a-Daif and al-Hamidi camps. So its liberation is extremely important in raising rebel morale.
Q: Did the rebels take the entire town of Khan Sheikhoun? How?
Yes, rebels now control the entire town of Khan Sheikhoun after they announced the Echo of Anfal campaign almost two months ago. Rebels attacked the checkpoints surrounding the town with all different types of weapons, and gained control over 21 regime checkpoints. The fighting ended yesterday with the liberation of al-Khazanat military camps southeast of Khan Sheikhoun and the a-Salam checkpoint west of the town.
Q: Were the rebels able to take control of any part of the highway? Who controls the highway at points close to Khan Sheikhoun?
After the rebels were able to capture the checkpoints in the city of Khan Sheikhoun and the surrounding checkpoints, they took control of the international Aleppo-Damascus highway at the point that connects Mourik, to the north of Hama, and Hesh, about 20 km to the south of Maarat a-Nauman. Previously the regime's army had controlled the area completely, up to the Wadi a-Daif Camp to the east of Maarat a-Nauman.
Q: Why the escalation in this area now?
As a result of battles raging in the city of Mourik, rebels were able to cut off the highway leading to Khan Sheikhoun. The rebels exploited these ongoing battles to attack checkpoints in Khan Sheikhoun, and even the checkpoints that sit along the international Aleppo-Damascus highway all the way to Maarat a-Nu'man.
Q: What is the connection between the Battle of Khan Sheikhoun and the Battle of Jabal al-Arbayin?
As a result of successive [rebel] victories in the southern outskirts of Idlib, the regime forces centered in the outskirts of Idlib collapsed, and the rebels launched a battle in Jabal al-Arbayin in order to reduce pressure on the rebels in southern Idlib, and at the same time ramp up the pressure on regime forces.
Q: How has the regime reacted? Where is the closest regime military presence to the village?
The regime reacted harshly. MiG warplanes have conducted several air raids, helicopters dropped barrel bombs on the city of Khan Sheikhoun and most villages and towns in the southern outskirts of Idlib, and several land-land cluster missiles were launched towards the area from the Hama military airport. As for the closest regime military presence, that would be the checkpoints centered in the town of Hesh from the northern side, and the military checkpoint to the south of the city of Morek from the southern side.