Rebels, including members of U.S.-backed groups and al Qaida’s Nusra Front, captured the strategic town of Jisr al Shughur in northwest Syria on Saturday, the second major setback for the government of President Bashar Assad in Idlib province in a month.
The loss of Jisr al Shugur all but closes the government’s land supply routes to two major bases in the west of Idlib, Mastuma and Ariha, both of which are surrounded by rebel forces and can now be supplied only by air. Rebels captured the provincial capital, Idlib city, on March 28.
The latest rebel victory came surprisingly quickly, apparently aided by U.S.-supplied TOW anti-tank missiles. Islamist groups announced the battle only Wednesday. The government troops fled to the neighboring provinces of Latakia and Hama.
Gen. Ahmad Rahhal, who defected from the Syrian army and now works with the moderate rebels, called it a strategic victory for the anti-Assad forces that would strengthen their ability to move their own supplies between three provinces – Idlib, Hama and Latakia. But he told McClatchy the forces “still have a lot of work to do” and noted the government still has hundreds of troops in the two bases under siege.
The precise role of the moderate rebels and Nusra in the battle was in dispute, though accounts of the fighting made clear that U.S.-supplied rebel groups had coordinated to some degree with Nusra, which U.S. officials declared a terrorist organization more than two years ago.
Supporters of the moderate rebels sought, however, to discredit claims from the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors fighting in Syria, that Nusra had led the fighting and that it and Islamist groups were responsible for the city’s capture.
Muhammad al Faisal, a reporter with the opposition Orient TV network, who is now in Jisr al Shughur, told McClatchy that many moderate rebel groups had taken part in the assault on the city, something the Syrian Observatory report did not note.
Gen. Ahmad Berri, the deputy chief of staff of the pro-Western Free Syrian Army, said half the fighters in the attack were affiliated with the FSA. He said moderate rebels destroyed nine government tanks. He also acknowledged that Nusra had deployed one suicide bomber and one car bomb in the fighting.
Videos posted on social media showed that U.S.-supplied TOW missiles played a critical role, destroying dozens of government tanks and vehicles. The opposition run Masar News Network reported that rebel forces captured dozens of regime troops as well as three tanks and three other armored vehicles.
Berri said the main factor behind the victory was surprise. The government forces were expecting the attack to target the town of Ariha from the east. Instead, the rebels, including fighters from the Islamist Ahrar al Sham group, opened the fight from the west and cut the supply routes quickly.
Government forces withdrew to the west and south to Jourin and other towns in the mountains of Latakia.
The official SANA news agency posted a brief item about the fighting, saying that the army “is conducting heavy battles against the terrorist groups” in Jisr al Shughur and is “reinforcing its defensive lines around the city,” wording that suggested it had retreated.
Masar Press, an opposition news service, reported that rebels killed two regime tanks in the village of Al Qahera and bombed the town of Az Zyara with Grad missiles. Both towns are south of Jisr Al Shughur, attacks that may indicate the direction of future battles.
The cooperation between U.S.-supplied rebels and Nusra in the battle could prove controversial. The U.S. in recent months has severed relationships with some moderate rebel groups that had surrendered weapons to Nusra.
Video posted on social media Saturday showed fighters from two major groups that still receive U.S. support, Division 13 and the Sukur al Ghab Brigades, participating in the fighting, including firing TOWs.
Among the moderate rebel groups deployed, Berri said, were the The Coastal Division, Division 101, Division 13 and Sukur Al Ghab Brigades.
Activists sympathetic to the moderate rebels said Ahrar al Sham, an Islamist group that also has links to al Qaida but has not been designated a terrorist group, played a more important role than Nusra. Another group that took part in the fighting was the Rahman Brigade, which is affiliated with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.
The battle itself was announced by the Fateh Army, an umbrella group that Ahrar al Sham and other groups established on March 24, just four days before they and the Nusra Front seized the city of Idlib.