Rebel alliance captures Syrian city
strongholds on the Mediterranean Sea.
The rebel factions overran the city of Jisr Shughur, 55 miles southwest of Aleppo, after a punishing fourday campaign against government forces that made use of suicide bombers, mor BEIRUT tars and explosive devices.
The operation was headed by the Islamist alliance that calls itself the Army of Conquest and includes Al Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Front.
Rebels posted images of smiling fighters flashing victory signs or stepping on tattered posters of Syrian President Bashar Assad in what they claimed was the city’s center.
Al Nusra Front also posted pictures on its official Twitter account, showing corpses of what it said were prisoners executed by Assad’s forces before their retreat from the city.
Accurate casualty figures were not released, but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition watchdog group with a network of activists, said the bodies of more than 60 progovernment fighters were on the streets of the city.
Government forces “were successfully redeployed” to the city’s perimeter so as to “avoid civilian casualties,” Syrian state news outlet SANA said Saturday.
“[Our armed forces] are fortifying their defensive positions and directing concentrated attacks on terrorist gatherings and their supply lines in Jisr Shughur,” SANA said.
A later news bulletin quoted a military source saying government forces were “waging violent battles at the entrances of Jisr Shughur city as well as points leading to it and killed tens of terrorists.” The government refers to the opposition fighters as terrorists.
Rebels also reported heavy airstrikes against the city after the government’s withdrawal.
The government news report also heaped scorn on Turkey, accusing its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the Turkish government of facilitating the entry of hundreds of opposition fighters from across the border, less than eight miles from Jisr Shughur.
The Turkish government has been a staunch supporter of anti-Assad rebels, allowing southern cities along the 560-mile border it shares with Syria to become rear supply bases for the opposition.
The fall of Jisr Shughur would mark the second major rebel victory in the last few weeks, if effect ending the government’s presence in Idlib province.
Last month, the Army of Conquest overran Idlib, the provincial capital, making it the second city to fall completely into rebel hands after the northeastern city of Raqqah, the de facto capital of the Islamic State militant group.
Despite Jisr Shughur’s relatively small size — a population of 44,000 in 2010 — its takeover paves the way for the city to become a significant staging area for attacks on the coastal city of Latakia, 35 miles to the southwest in the Alawite heartland considered to be the leading bastion of government support.
Hard-line Islamist Sunni opposition groups consider Alawites infidels who should be killed. Alawites are members of a heterodox mountain sect related to Shiite Islam whose membership includes Assad, the president.
Government supporters expressed their alarm at the fall of Jisr Shughur.
“Our army, our people all of you who can bear arms ... the homeland is in danger,” wrote Khalil Khadhri on the official Facebook page of SANA news. “What is that you are waiting for to come to you from the heavens? Go and achieve victory.”
AL NUSRA FRONT posted an image showing what it says are its fighters in Syria’s Idlib province. Rebel factions that included Al Nusra overran the city of Jisr Shughur after a four-day campaign.