Major rebel offensive aims to clear Idlib

By Ammar Hamou, Moutasem Jamal and Brent Eng

AMMAN: A coalition of opposition groups known as the Victory Army made major advances in consolidating its control over northeast Syria on Thursday, a day after opening several fronts simultaneously against the regime in Idlib and Hama provinces and only a month after seizing control of the provincial capital of Idlib from the government.

Rebels launched coordinated assaults on regime positions in the city of Jisr a-Shughour and the Qarmid military base in east and central Idlib province respectively, as well as attacked several towns along the regime supply route in the al-Ghab plains of northern Hama province. These movements are raising serious questions about the Syrian government’s ability to maintain its presence in Idlib and may have implications that are felt throughout the country.

“The fall of Idlib [and] reactivation of Hama front will have a direct impact on the Aleppo front [and] means more pressure in the south,” Syria analyst Hassan Hassan posted on Twitter Thursday.

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Nusra fighters march to take the Qarmid military base. Photo courtesy of @JNIdlib_2.

In addition to taking the regime positions, the Victory Army also aims to isolate the centrally located regime-held city of Ariha—one of two remaining government-controlled cities in Idlib province along with Jisr a-Shugour—and the nearby regime military base of Mastuma, from Latakia and Hama provinces.

The attack is being led by the Islamist group Ahrar a-Sham but includes several other prominent rebel groups including Jabhat a-Nusra, Jaish al-Islam, Ansar al-Islam and Junud a-Sham. The pro-regime news channel Al Khabar TS said that the number of rebel fighters attacking the three positions totaled 12,000. Syria Direct could not independently confirm the figure.

The rebel operation to take Idlib province comes amidst talk of turning northern Syrian into a de facto safe zone, said Hassan Hassan.

By targeting Jisr a-Shughour, which straddles the border between Idlib and Latakia provinces, rebel forces hope to “sever the supply line that runs between Ariha and the [regime-dominated] province of Latakia,” Abu Yazid, an official spokesperson for Ahrar a-Sham, told Syria Direct on Thursday.

The Victory Army captured four military checkpoints on the outskirts of Jisr a-Shugour Wednesday but had not won control of the city by Thursday, said Abu Yazid. The rebel seizure of the checkpoints was confirmed by the pro-opposition Idlib News Agency.

Ahrar a-Sham forces coming from Jabal Akrad in Latakia province to the west of Jisr a-Shugour joined other Ahrar a-Sham and Victory Army fighters from the north to attack the city, said Abu Yazid.

The attack on Jisr a-Shughour “has been planned since Dec/Jan [and] is both inherently linked to Idlib, but [also] directed towards opening Latakia,” said Brookings analyst Charles Lister over Twitter on Thursday.

Days prior to the fall of Idlib city to the Victory Army in March, the regime evacuated the city’s leaders to Jisr a-Shughour in anticipation of the rebel attack, according to the pro-opposition Syrian Media Organization.

Meanwhile, Jabhat a-Nusra fighters tried to penetrate the Qarmid base—situated just north of Ariha and adjacent to the Mastuma base—Wednesday after a suicide car bomb blew up a regime checkpoint on its perimeter, according to the official Nusra Twitter account for Idlib. 

Tariq Abdul Haq, the pseudonym of an Idlib-based pro-opposition media activist, refuted opposition claims made on Wednesday that Nusra and other rebels had won control of Qarmid, telling Syria Direct that fighting for the base was ongoing as of Thursday.

At the same time, rebels also led by Ahrar a-Sham attacked several villages in the al-Ghab plains—located between northern Hama and southern Idlib provinces—on Wednesday in an attempt to cut off a second regime supply line to Idlib, Jawad al-Hamwi, a Hama-based media activist and director of the pro-opposition Hama Revolutionaries Union , told Syria Direct Thursday.

“The rebels targeted military checkpoints [near the villages] with Grad missiles and heavy artillery fire,” said al-Hamwi, “in addition to a Nusra fighter who detonated a suicide car bomb at one of the checkpoints.”

The fighting resulted in the rebel takeover of at least one rebel village Wednesday, with battles ongoing at three others on Thursday, reported the pro-opposition Orient News. 

The several-pronged attack is the first major move for the Victory Army in the Idlib province since it won control of Idlib city—only the second provincial capital to fall completely out of regime hands—at the end of March.