In a major setback for Syrian President Bashar Assad, al Qaida’s affiliate in Syria and forces from four other Islamist groups captured the city of Idlib on Saturday, the second provincial capital to fall to Islamist extremists.
Videos posted on the Internet showed fighters carrying Nusra’s black flag destroying statues and portraits of Assad in Idlib’s main squares and its government buildings, including the Baath party headquarters and the headquarters of military intelligence.
Anti-government activists said the Islamists killed at least 50 government soldiers in the fighting, but that most of the government’s troops had fled to the al Mastuma camp about 10 miles south of Idlib and to the nearby city of Ariha, both of which remain in government hands. The Islamists also seized at least six tanks from government forces.
The capture of Idlib underscores the complexity of the Syrian battlefield. Two years ago, the government lost control of Raqqa, the other provincial capital to fall to Islamists; that city is now the de facto capital of the Islamic State. The Islamic State once was allied with Nusra but is now its bitter foe. The United States is waging a bombing campaign against the Islamic State and also has struck Nusra Front targets. The Assad government is battling both the Islamic State and Nusra.
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Before departing Idlib, government troops allegedly executed 15 prisoners who were being held at military intelligence headquarters.
The whereabouts of Idlib’s mayor, Khair Eldin al Sayyed, was not known, but activists said he apparently escaped with other senior government employees to the city of Jisr al Shugur, west of Idlib.
Before the war began three years ago, Idlib had a population of about 100,000, but many of its residents have fled to nearby Turkey. A large number of civilians fleeing combat elsewhere in Syria have taken over their abandoned homes.
The Nusra-led final push into Idlib began on Tuesday, when its forces combined with four other groups – Ahrar al Sham, Jund al Aqsa, Jaish al Sunnah and Failaq al Sham – to form a 6,000 man force they called the Fateh Army. The rebels targeted 24 regime checkpoints around Idlib, sending suicide bombers – Nusra’s most effective weapon – against six, followed by ground force attacks.
At least two of the suicide bombers were from other Arab countries, according to the activists.
“I saw fighters who attacked without fear, while Assad soldiers were running away from them,” Ali Ankeer, an activist, said in a telephone interview with McClatchy.
Moderate fighters once supported by the United States played no role in Idlib’s capture. They had been routed from the province by Nusra over the past three months, and starting in December, the United States had cut their salaries and supplies.
Turkey, a member of NATO that’s been accused of turning a blind eye to Nusra activities in the past because of its key role in the fight to topple Assad, offered mixed reaction to the group’s capture of Idlib.
“Of course Turkey is happy that Idlib is controlled by the opposition front and that Assad lost ground,” said one official, who noted that capturing Idlib would also weaken government troops battling for control of Aleppo, once Syria’s most populous city where government and opposition forces are still battling.
But a Foreign Ministry official said it was “impossible for Turkey to support Nusra” and called contrary statements “a provocation of the Assad regime.” Neither official was willing to be quoted by name because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Officials of the Free Syrian Army, the moderate rebel force backed by the United States, also offered mixed messages. Gen. Ahmad Rahhal, the FSA’s commander, called the ouster of government forces from Idlib “a victory for the opponents of the Assad regime” and predicted it would reshape the military landscape in Syria.
But Osama Abu Zayd, a legal adviser to the moderate rebels, accused Turkey in a statement of having closed the border to Syria to block supplies to the moderate rebels, to Nusra’s benefit, and another moderate rebel leader in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli said Turkey had shipped weapons to Nusra that previously would have gone to the moderate rebels. He asked not to be named for security reasons.
The capture of Idlib leaves Nusra and its allies in control of an area the size of Lebanon in northern Syria, stretching from Aleppo to the province of Latakia in the west. The only major town remaining under government control in the area is Jisr al Shugur.
Alhamadee is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent Duygu Guvencic in Ankara contributed.