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Rebels launch massive
northwest Syria campaign

Over 10,000 insurgents mobilized to follow up on the successful Idlib offensive of late March.

A video purports to show rebel attacks on Jisr al-Shughur. (YouTube)
Jisr al-Shughur attack. (Ahrar al-Sham)
A video purports to show Army of Islam troops preparing for the Jisr al-Shughur battle. (YouTube)
FSA rebels destroy a vehicle with a TOW vehicle. (FSA

BEIRUT – Rebels led by the Al-Nusra Front have launched a blistering three-pronged offensive aimed at consolidating their Idlib victory and rolling back the regime in northwest Syria.

 

Insurgents mustered over 10,000 troops to attack a corridor of regime-held territory stretching south of Idlib from Ariha westward to Jisr al-Shughur and then down to the Al-Ghab plain that straddles the Latakia and Hama provinces.

 

Islamist battalions and other rebel units in the Army of Conquest coalition that seized Idlib in a dramatic late March offensive announced the start of the campaign Wednesday.

 

The Al-Nusra Front said that it was striking Jisr al-Shughur, a Sunni-populated town that lies along a key regime supply route linking the Idlib and Latakia provinces.

 

“Good tidings to our people in Jisr al-Shugur, we are at the walls of the town,” the Al-Qaeda linked group said in a statement.

 

“We have sworn to God that we will not be satisfied […] until we tear out the roots of the dictator, so that he can be replaced by the rule of Islam, and its mercy and justice.”

 

If the rebels seize Jisr al-Shughur, they will isolate heavily fortified regime bases in a pocket of territory near Ariha, from where the regime has aimed to launch a counter-attack to regain Idlib slightly over 10 kilometers to the north.

 

As Nusra touted its advances near the strategic town, a coalition of rebel units further to the south announced they were launching a battle in the Al-Ghab plain, which provides a supply line into Jisr al-Shughur and serves as the regime’s first defensive line for Latakia.

 

A field source in the Free Syrian Army told Al-Jazeera on Thursday that the campaign was more than a localized battle, and aimed instead to “kick regime forces out of the bases surrounding the city of Idlib, and seize the regime’s supply route between Latakia and Idlib.”

 

Battlefield balance

 

Following the announcement of the campaign, fierce clashes exploded across northwestern Syria amid heavy shelling between the belligerents, regime airstrikes and a series of car bombs.

 

The Al-Nusra Front ramped up its media efforts with the start of the operations, publicizing numerous photos and even maps showing off their purported successes, while a number of videos proliferating on social media showed the heavy fighting.

 

Engagements focused on three key battlefields: regime bases near the town of Ariha, the town of Jisr al-Shughur, and regime positions in the Al-Ghab plain.

 

Ariha front

 

A video released by Nusra shows a suicide bombing in the Qarmeed base.

 

Nusra led a series of attacks on the regime’s Qarmeed and Mastouma bases near Ariha, which rebels have unsuccessfully aimed to seize after the fall of Idlib.

 

“Violent clashes are continuing to rage in the vicinity of the Mastouma and Qarmeed bases south of Idlib between over 10,000 Army of Conquest fighters from Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, Jund al-Aqsa and other Islamist battalions on one side and pro-regime forces on the other,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Thursday.

 

The monitoring group added that both sides were fiercely shelling each other, while Nusra had detonated two explosive-laden vehicles near the Qarmeed military base.

 

On Thursday morning, the group claimed it had liberated the Horsh, Moukhalil and Batata checkpoints in the vicinity of the base as well as the Asfin heights and publicized a series of videos and pictures purporting to show its gains.

 

Meanwhile, the Observatory reported later in the day that the Islamist fighters had “seized five checkpoints near Qarmeed.”

 

The Qarmeed base lies to the east of the Mastouma military base, which hosts one of the regime’s largest concentrations of troops in the Idlib province.  

 

Nusra militants engaged pro-regime forces south of Mastouma on Wednesday, damaging a regime tank and injuring a number of soldiers, according to the Observatory.

 

The monitoring group added that regime jets conducted six air strikes on areas near the two key bases, but could not confirm any casualties in the raids.

 

Jisr al-Shughur front

 

A video released by Nusra shows its preparations for the Jisr al-Shughur battle.

 

Rebels have also launched a fierce assault on the town of Jisr al-Shughur approximately 30 kilometers to the west of the Ariha battlefield.

 

“Clashes are continuing between Nusra fighters, [fellow] Islamists and other rebels on one hand and pro-regime forces on the other near checkpoints and concentrations of pro-regime forces near Jisr al-Shughur,” the Observatory reported Thursday.

 

The monitoring group added later in the day that the rebels had seized the northern entrance of the strategic town.

 

Nusra, for its, part said it had seized the Zelito, Saqiya, and Ain al-Sabeel checkpoints outside the town and captured three soldiers.

 

“Ain al-Sabil checkpoint in the north of Jisr al-Shughur was completely liberated after the detonation of a rigged BMP truck which one of our [fighters] was able to park at the checkpoint before returning safely,” the Islamist group claimed on Twitter.

 

Amid the heavy fighting, the SOHR reported that the regime was conducting airstrikes in the Jisr al-Shugur region as the belligerents continued to shell each other.

 

Al-Ghab plain front

 

Rebels on Wednesday announce the start of the battle in the Al-Ghab plain. 

 

In conjunction with the assaults in the Idlib province, a coalition of Islamist and FSA rebel groups launched a wide-ranging offensive in the Al-Ghab plain.

 

The Islamist Ahrar al-Sham as well as the FSA-affiliated Mountain Falcons Brigade, Al-Ghab Falcons, Steadfastness Front and First Coastal Division all announced Wednesday they were starting the battle along with the Ajnad al-Sham and Sham Front groups.

 

Reports emerged of heavy fighting in the region, which stretches for approximately 63 kilometers along the Coastal Mountain Range outside Latakia.

 

“Fierce clashes are raging between [Islamists] and [FSA] rebels on one side and pro-regime forces on the other in the vicinity of regime checkpoints in the Al-Ghab plain amid shelling between both sides,” the SOHR reported Thursday.

 

The monitoring group said the day before that rebel fighters had “detonated an explosive-laden vehicle at a regime checkpoint in the Sarmaniya area, which has witnessed intense clashes.”

 

Meanwhile, a correspondent in the activist Syrian Coast News told Al-Jazeera that “violent clashes are ongoing at most of the checkpoints in the western villages of the Al-Ghab Plain.”

 

“Seven regime soldiers have been killed while two tanks have been destroyed,” he added.

 

“Pro-regime forces are requesting assistance from their [cohorts in the] coastal region and Hama.”

A video purports to show rebel attacks on Jisr al-Shughur. (YouTube)

Good tidings to our people in Jisr al-Shugur, we are at the walls of the town.