Rebel al­liance cap­tures Syr­ian city

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Nabih Bu­los — A loose al­liance of Is­lamist rebel groups seized con­trol of a north­west Syr­ian city on Satur­day, of­fi­cials said, open­ing a path­way into Syr­ian gov­ern­ment Bu­los is a spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent.

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 Twit­ter ac­count

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.

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