New Islamist alliance seizes Idlib from Syrian troops
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Jaish al-Fath – an alliance of Islamist groups led by al-Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of al Qaeda – overran Idlib on Sunday in a lightning offensive, seizing the northeastern provincial capital from forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Idlib is the second provincial capital that Damascus has lost since the civil war erupted four years ago this month. After Syrian forces withdrew from Raqqa, the province quickly became the main stronghold of the Islamic State group inside Syria.
The Islamist victory has sparked fears that Idlib could soon emerge as the headquarters of the al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front in much the same way.
"This is a symbolic defeat for Damascus, which had maintained control of this provincial capital since 2011, even while all the surrounding areas were lost to the rebels – Islamist and otherwise," said FRANCE 24’s Wassim Nasr, a specialist in jihadist movements.
The Syrian regime lost its hold on the province – which is home to major cities including Jisr al-Shughour and Ariha as well as the Abu al-Duhur military airport and five military bases – in just five days of fighting.
A pragmatic alliance
Behind the lightning offensive on Idlib was Jaish al-Fath (also known as Army of the Conquest or Army of Fatah), a military alliance of convenience that was announced in a communiqué on March 24.
"There are many factions – including Ahrar al-Sham and al-Nusra – ranging from those with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood that accept the democratic process to the Syrian branch of al Qaeda. These factions do not agree politically, but they banded together for the conquest of Idlib," said Nasr.
The pragmatic alliance proved successful on the battlefield. Armed notably with US anti-tank missiles, which al-Nusra had seized from moderate Syrian rebel groups, Jaish al-Fath fighters made rapid progress in Idlib against troops loyal to Damascus.
Using a communications strategy orchestrated by al-Nusra, they announced their victories on social media.
On March 27 they took control of Idlib’s Faculty of Arts and its Faculty of Agriculture. On March 28, fighters posted pictures of themselves in front of the city’s administrative buildings, including the police headquarters, city hall, the central bank and various high schools. Overnight they seized the city’s so-called security quarter, where the central prison and government headquarters are located.
On March 29 the al-Nusra Front announced the "liberation" of Idlib on its official Twitter account. "The city of Idlib has been liberated and the mujahideen have chased out the last chabbihas (militias loyal to Assad), who have fled," the group wrote.
Hours earlier, a Syrian security source acknowledged that "terrorist groups have infiltrated the outskirts" of the city.
Syrian army 'repositioning'
Faced with the rapid advance of some 2,000 jihadists, Damascus appeared to anticipate being routed from Idlib.
"The Syrian regime relocated parts of its administration to Jisr al-Shughour several days ago," said Nasr.
But the Syrian army is not yet admitting defeat, conducting nearly 150 air strikes in the past four days, according to figures from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Syrian troops "are repositioning on the outskirts of Idlib in order to face the terrorist battalions ... and be in the best position to repel their attacks", a Syrian security source told AFP.
"Will the army be able to retake the city quickly? I don’t think so,” Nasr says. “But Idlib will probably now be bombed like other cities.”
Before control of the city changed hands on Sunday, Idlib remained one of the few parts of the region to be spared by the Syrian army’s air strikes, which target rebel-held areas.
Idlib had fewer than 200,000 inhabitants before the start of the Syrian conflict, but thousands of those displaced by the fighting have since settled in the city. State services were still functioning, with officials receiving their salaries and students pursuing their studies at university.
But now it is the black flag of al-Nusra that flies in the corridors of Idlib’s Faculty of Arts, and bodies riddled with bullets lie in the hallways where Islamist fighters have replaced the students.