BEIRUT – Rebel groups operating in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province banded together to launch a major offensive they hope will topple the provincial capital, while fears are mounting over a potential chemical attack in the region.
“Good tidings to our people in Idlib: we are at the walls of Idlib the mighty,” the newly-formed Jaysh al-Fatah said in a statement published on their recently-launched Twitter account.
Jaysh al-Fatah brings together Al-Nusra Front and the recently merged Ahrar al-Sham and Suqour al-Sham Brigades as well as Jund al-Aqsa and Liwaa al-Haq, among others, in a local coalition to fight the regime.
The group added in its statement that “the vast armies of your sons the jihadists on the path of God have resolved, seeking victory from God, to liberate this good city [Idlib] of good people.”
“We call on you, our people, to stay in your houses in the days following the release of this statement, until God grants us and you victory and liberation.”
Jaysh al-Fatah also called on Sunnis in Idlib fighting on behalf of the regime to drop their arms and “repent to God and return to Islam.”
“We declare […] a general amnesty for everyone who repents to God, throws down [their] arms and stays in their house.”
The newly formed group’s heralding of the offensive comes after reports last week that rebels—with Nusra at the forefront deploying 3000 fighters—were planning to advance on Idlib from all sides amid increased shelling of the town.
Pro-regime forces currently hold a strip of land stretching approximately 9 kilometers north of Idlib, while rebels hold the towns of Binnish of Sarmin, 8 kilometers northeast and southeast of the city respectively.
The insurgents, who lost control of Idlib in the early spring of 2012 to regime forces, have maintained frontlines near the city, and fighting in the province has been mired in a back-and-forth stalemate ever since.
The Al-Nusra Front and allied Islamist battalions continued to deploy around Idlib Tuesday morning as shells rained down on the city.
“Islamist and Al-Nusra Front fighters shelled the city of Idleb this morning, and then regime forces responded by shelling areas around the city witnessing military build-up by Nusra and Islamist fighters,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
The monitoring group added that areas near Idlib saw fighting that pitted the Al-Nusra Front and Islamist factions against regime forces and allied militants
Pan-Arab Al-Aan television reported late Monday that rebel formations were close to surrounding the provincial capital.
“Idlib is almost completely surrounded, only the Idlib-Mastumeh road that goes to Ariha [15 kilometers south] and from there to Latakia remains open,” the Dubai-based network said.
“That is the only road that the regime uses. If this road is cut it will mean that the province is under a complete siege.”
The station added that the regime also controls two villages northwest of Idlib, Al-Fuaa and Kafriyeh, which are “strongholds for Shiite militias, both Hezbollah and the IRGC.”
Meanwhile, the pro-opposition Eldorar news outlet, which maintains an Islamist editorial tone, said Monday that rebels “have continued to target Assad forces checkpoints and barracks on the outskirts of Idlib as well as the villages of Al-Fuaa and Kafriyeh with heavy weapons.”
“Several rebel factions have shelled Assad forces on checkpoints in the northern part of the city as well as barracks, structures and other military positions with [home-made] Jahannam shells, mortars and heavy weapons, killing several soldiers,” the report added.
Pro-regime outlets have also reported on the planned offensive, with Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar reporting last week that government troops had been conducting aerial raids west of Idlib to foil any advances.
The Idlib Resistance News Network Facebook page, in turn, said Tuesday that rebels were heavily shelling the city.
“Hateful shells continue to fall on the city’s neighborhoods, and schools and mosques in the city of Idleb.”
The pro-Assad page struck a hopeful note, saying the “Syrian army stands ready for any scenario,” while at the same time implicitly confirming rebels were seeking to press an offensive.
Fears have mounted among the ranks of Syria’s opposition and rebels of chemical strikes in the region, after last week’s purported chlorine gas attack on Sarmin east of Idlib.
Alaraby Aljadeed reported Tuesday that rebels had begun to carry gas masks with them while the masks were also handed out to civilians.
“The Al-Nusra Front has also brought in additional shipments in the last two days in case the regime uses gas during the battle,” the London-based daily added.
“Meanwhile, dozens of families have been evacuated from areas near the city of Idleb, like Binnish and Sarmin, to other areas far away from the potential battle.”
Al-Aan television, in turn, cited a local source as saying that “the regime is trying to use chemical [weapons] in the village of Sarmin.”
“This is meant to send a clear message to the rebels that if the city of Idlib is liberated, all of the Idlib Countryside will meet the same fate as the village of Sarmin.”
A rebel field commander operating in the Idlib countryside told Al-Aan that “the regime, by using chemical weapons, is seeking… to [warn] that the Idlib province will be a target for chemical weapons if it is freed.”
“A [no fly zone] must be enforced in this area while the city of Idlib is not liberated. Then the regime will not be able to target Idlib province with poison gas,” said the rebel commander, who goes by the name Abu Saeed.
Early last week, the Syrian regime reportedly dropped two barrel bombs filled with chlorine gas, causing dozens of cases of asphyxiation. Videos circulated social media showing the victims of the attack, which the opposition Syrian National Coalition called a chemical strike.
However, pro-regime Al-Akhbar newspaper claimed days afterward that the Syrian air force had targeted an Ahrar al-Sham warehouse containing chlorine.
The Lebanese daily added that the ensuing explosion “caused a foul smell to spread through the village that led to 200 cases of suffocation, most of whom were militants.”