Rebels, including members of U.S.-backed groups and al-Qaida’s Nusra Front, captured the strategic town of Jisr al Shughur in northwest Syria on Saturday. It was the second major setback for the government of President Bashar Assad in Idlib province in a month.
The loss of Jisr al Shugur all but closes the government’s land supply routes to two major bases in the west of Idlib, Mastuma and Ariha, both of which are surrounded by rebel forces and can now be supplied only by air. Rebels captured the provincial capital, Idlib city, on March 28.
The latest rebel victory came surprisingly quickly, apparently aided by U.S.-supplied TOW anti-tank missiles. Islamist groups announced the battle only Wednesday. The government troops fled to the neighboring provinces of Latakia and Hama.
Gen. Ahmad Rahhal, who defected from the Syrian army and now works with the moderate rebels, called it a strategic victory for the anti-Assad forces that would strengthen their ability to move their own supplies between three provinces – Idlib, Hama and Latakia. But he said the forces “still have a lot of work to do” and noted that the government still has hundreds of troops in the two bases under siege.
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The precise role of the anti-Assad forces in the battle was in dispute, though accounts of the fighting made it clear that U.S.-supplied rebel groups had coordinated to some degree with the Nusra Front, which U.S. officials declared a terrorist organization more than two years ago.
Supporters of the moderate rebels sought, however, to discredit claims from the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors fighting in Syria, that the Nusra Front had led the fighting and that it and other Islamist groups were responsible for the city’s capture.
Muhammad al Faisal, a reporter with the opposition Orient TV network, who is in Jisr al Shughur, said many moderate rebel groups had taken part in the assault on the city, something the Syrian Observatory report did not note.
Gen. Ahmad Berri, deputy chief of staff of the pro-Western Free Syrian Army, said half the fighters in the attack were affiliated with the FSA. He said moderate rebels destroyed nine government tanks. He also acknowledged that Nusra deployed one suicide bomber and one car bomb in the fighting.
Berri said the main factor behind the victory was surprise. The government forces were expecting the attack to target the town of Ariha from the east. Instead, the rebels, including fighters from the Islamist Ahrar al Sham group, opened the fight from the west and cut the supply routes quickly.
Government forces withdrew to the west and south to Jourin and other towns in the mountains of Latakia.
The cooperation between U.S.-supplied rebels and the Nusra Front in the battle could prove to be controversial. The U.S. in recent months has severed relationships with some moderate rebel groups that had surrendered weapons to the Nusra Front.