May 26, 2014
By Alex Simon and Mohammad al-Haj Ali
AMMAN: Opposition fighters led by Jabhat a-Nusra wrested control of the last regime-held checkpoint in the Idlib town of Khan Sheikhoun on Monday, giving rebels control not only of the town but also another piece of the M5 international highway connecting Damascus with central and northern Syria.
Less than 24 hours after the town’s capture, it was not immediately clear that the rebels could hold it. But as long as Jabhat a-Nusra controls that part of the highway, “it can cut reinforcements off from major regime military installations,” said Abdallah Jadaan, an Idlib-based correspondent for pro-opposition news network Syria Mubasher.
Rebel fighters claim regime weaponry after seizing the a-Salam checkpoint.
Photo courtesy of @mhmadgasem99221.
For months Khan Sheikhoun has been divided into zones of government and rebel control, with rebels having launched a major offensive on government positions in March.
Islamist battalion Feilaq a-Sham released video Monday purporting to show its fighters climbing on government tanks in the the a-Salam military base on Khan Sheikhoun’s western flank. The footage comes a day after rebels claimed the al-Khazanat military base to Khan Sheikhoun’s east following twin suicide car bombings by al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat a-Nusra.
“Khan Sheikhoun’s liberation is extremely important in lifting rebel morale” on the heels of major losses in Homs to the south and Aleppo to the north, Jadaan told Syria Direct on Monday.
The rebels were able to take Khan Sheikhoun, Jadaan said, because they already hold the town of Mourik, 5 km south of Khan Sheikhoun along the M5. Mourik allowed Jabhat a-Nusra to cut regime supply lines at that point on the highway, depriving areas north of it.
Government forces quickly responded to the rebel gains with a punishing aerial campaign, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reporting that regime helicopters had targeted the town with barrel bombs Monday afternoon. Jadaan added that government MiGs had conducted multiple air raids over Khan Sheikhoun, and that regime forces had targeted the area with surface-to-surface missiles fired from the Hama military airport.
State media has, for its part, largely remained silent, with the exception of a report from pro-Assad Lebanese daily al-Mayadeen that Jabhat a-Nusra emir Abu Badr al-Kuwaiti had been killed as rebels stormed a regime base in Khan Sheikhoun.
The violence in and around Khan Sheikhoun coincided with four suicide attacks carried out Sunday by Jabhat a-Nusra and the Islamic Front’s Suqour a-Sham against regime bases the Jabal al-Arbayin area almost 50 km to Khan Sheikhoun’s north.
Jadaan suggested that the assault on Jabal a-Arbayin was linked to the fighting in Khan Sheikhoun.
“Rebels launched a battle in Jabal al-Arbayin in order to reduce pressure on the rebels in southern Idlib,” the pro-opposition journalist said.
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