Rebels liberate Idlib province

May 29, 2015

The Syrian regime has lost control of the Idlib province following swift rebel advances, making it the second province to fall out of the regime’s hands.

Late Thursday, the Army of Conquest coalition of rebels stormed into Ariha, the last sizeable town in the northwest region, sending regime troops fleeing in the direction of the Al-Ghab Plain that straddles the Latakia province to the south.

Rebels on Friday morning pursued the escaping government fighters, with the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights reporting that “clashes continue to rage between the Army of Conquest… and regime forces fleeing Ariha.”

“Rebels have seized areas in the vicinity of Ariha… making the [Idlib province] the second one to fall almost fully out of regime control,” the monitoring NGO said.

The Syrian regime in March 2013 lost the city of Raqqa following an offensive led by the Al-Nusra Front, after which ISIS stormed through the surround province, capping their advances by capturing the Tabqa military base and killing hundreds of regime troops.

The latest setback for Damascus in Idlib comes after the Army of Conquest began a series of offensives in the province in the early spring that saw them take the provincial capital in late March, the strategic town of Jisr al-Shughur on April 25, and key military bases and holdouts throughout May.

Pro-Damascus media outlets had repeatedly touted that regime forces were launching counterattacks in Idlib, however all the hastily conducted maneuvers were repelled by the rebels, who with their Thursday victory in Ariha collapsed the regime’s thin salient of defensive positions.

Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, which supports the Bashar al-Assad regime, on Friday morning said that “the entire Idlib province is outside of the control of the Syrian state, with the exception of a number of small villages and the besieged Abu Dhuhur Airbase.”

“The fall of Ariha… has given a new morale boost to [rebels] after their large advances in the province since March.”

Battle for Ariha

The Army of Conquest captured Ariha on Thursday shortly after the Islamist groups in the coalition announced the start of their offensive.

“The Army of Conquest has seized full control of Ariha following clashes with regime forces backed by National Defense Force militiamen, Hezbollah fighters and Iranian officers,” the Observatory reported Thursday night.

The report specified that the Islamist Al-Nusra Front, Jund al-Aqsa, Ahrar as-Sham, Jaysh al-Sunna, Liwaa al-Haq and Sham Legion all took part in the assault.

The rebel seizure of Ariha came swiftly, with SOHR director Rami Abdel Rahman telling AFP it was “lightning offensive that ended with a heavy pullout of regime forces and their allies Hezbollah from the western side of the city.”

Meanwhile, a rebel fighter told Alaraby Aljadeed that “Ariha fell after only four hours of fighting.”

Al-Akhbar painted a picture of the swift regime withdrawal from the town amid the rebel advance.

“Units fought to maintain their positions within the town to cover the entire withdrawal, enabling [the army] to move… south of the town, while other groups fought furiously until late Thursday at the entrance of the city to support the withdrawal.”

The battle followed intense shelling between both sides while regime jets conducted a number of airstrikes in a failed bid to prevent the fall of the town, which has a population of approximately 60,000 people.

Pro-opposition Al Souria Net reported that the regime fired a number of Scud missiles at the outskirts of Ariha as the rebels pressed their ultimately successful offensive.

Al-Akhbar, in turn, said that the rebels had fired over 1000 mortar rounds in the week leading up to the battle.

Last regime holdouts

Despite the sweeping rebel victories throughout the Idlib province, the regime still holds three remaining positions which are surrounded by insurgents.

The first two are the Shiite towns of Al-Fuaa and Kafriyeh, both of which are located north of the provincial capital of Idlib and are garrisoned by local militias.

Rebels have threatened to reciprocate against regime airstrikes on Idlib positions with shelling of the two villages, which are completely besieged.

Meanwhile, the regime still maintains a presence in the Abu Dhuhur Airbase, which is located on the eastern edge of the province.

Nusra has besieged the airbase for approximately a year and a half, with reports emerging in recent days that rebels were moving to launch an offensive to seize the facility. The regime, in turn, has picked up its airstrikes around the area in a bid to hold off its fall.

Report by NOW Lebanon:
Photo of some of the Army of Conquest rebels who liberated Ariha from Syrian Network