Idlib waits for zero hour

The Syrian army prepares to try to retake the northern city of Idlib from Jabhat al-Nusra.

al-monitor Residents and rebel fighters inspect a building fire after what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on al-Dubeit neighborhood in Idlib city, after Jabhat al-Nusra took control of the area, April 5, 2015. Photo by REUTERS/Ammar Abdallah.

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war, syrian army, syria, jabhat al-nusra, idlib, is, daraa, civil war

Apr 8, 2015

As soon as Idlib fell into the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra, all eyes were on the Syrian army’s reaction, which announced that what happened was a regrouping operation. The army withdrew its forces and the factions supporting it from inside the city of Idlib and repositioned them in Mastoumeh camp, while the government centers were moved to the city of Jisr al-Shaghour. The scene was thus ready for a crushing battle in the city [of Idlib], which is under constant bombardment.

A field source told As-Safir that what is currently happening is a preparatory, violent bombing operation targeting the gunmen’s positions in the city. The majority of [Idlib’s] residents were displaced to neighboring towns and villages since Jabhat al-Nusra and its allies stormed the city 12 days ago. Meanwhile, [the residents] wait for “zero hour,” when a military operation will be launched to regain the strategic city, which is located in the northwestern corner of Syria and is close to the Turkish border. The Syrian army’s positions were reinforced, and the plan to effectively implement this operation was put in place — with no rush — especially since this operation will entail a direct confrontation with the thousands of gunmen who are coming from the open Turkish border.

In the past few days, the Syrian army reinforced its presence in the Mastoumeh camp, and brought reinforcements from Hama. Col. Suheil al-Hassan and his forces moved to the camp, which explains the heavy bombardment of the city and confirms their determination to regain [Idlib]. The colonel, nicknamed “Tiger,” is considered one of the most prominent officers to have fought Jabhat al-Nusra in Aleppo and Hama, as well as the Islamic State (IS) in the countryside of Homs.

The source added: “In all the battles he has fought, the colonel proved his superiority over the jihadists’ tactics. He has extensive experience in turning the tables and winning battles; he is patient and uses heavy firearms to protect the infantry’s movements.”

For its part, Jabhat al-Nusra, anticipating the operation to regain the city, attacked the Syrian army’s positions. For two days straight, the gunmen launched what they called “the battle for the liberation of Mastoumeh camp.” They were able to enter the [camp] and [stay in it] for several hours, before they found out they had fallen into a trap set up by the Syrian army and the factions allied with it. The army was able to encircle the gunmen inside the village and fought a street war that resulted in the killing of more than 50 Jabhat al-Nusra gunmen, according to the same source. This has pushed the gunmen to stop their attack and retreat, as the army repositioned on the strategic hill that represents the first defense line for the camp, where the forces are concentrated.

Jabhat al-Nusra continues its siege on the villages of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya, which are under constant bombardment. The residents of these two villages are defending them, amid constant fear of Jabhat al-Nusra invading. This [potential invasion] threatens the lives of 50,000 civilians living in the villages, and foretells a humanitarian catastrophe. Jabhat al-Nusra has already set up checkpoints close to the two villages, while the confrontation lines are close to the villages’ borders with Binnish, the Bruma farms and Maarrat Misrin.

The two villages witnessed some crises due to the siege, despite the Syrian army’s helicopters regularly dropping aid. In this context, the field source said, “The residents only get a little food and medical supplies because the villages are small, and it is hard for them to get out of there and try and get the supplies that were dropped outside [the villages’] borders.” The source explained that a bread crisis has started to emerge.

Meanwhile, IS is intensifying its attacks against the city of Salamiyah and its countryside, in an attempt to penetrate the city that links northern Syria to the rest of the Syrian provinces. The supply line to Aleppo goes through Salamiyah. The latter was attacked several times by explosives, which led to the killing of eight civilians and the injury of others. This occurred only days after IS carried out a massacre against the residents of Mabouga village in Salamiyah’s countryside, during which dozens were killed, including women and children who were burned and tortured. This was not followed by an attack against the Aleppo road and the city, or the Syrian army and National Defense Forces’ positions — knowing that these forces are protecting the city. For its part, the Syrian air force heavily targeted the positions of IS fighters, but no information from an independent source about the operation’s results are available.

On the other side of the country, the clashes continue in Kafr Shams in the northern countryside of Daraa, where reporters affiliated with Jabhat al-Nusra are circulating images showing, according to them, [their] advance in the town. [Kafr Shams] is considered a contact point between Jabhat al-Nusra and the Syrian army, following violent battles in Deir al-Adas. Kafr Shams is close to Jadieh, whose hills are located close to the artillery battalion that is targeting the armed groups’ positions in the depth of Houran’s countryside in Inkhil, Jasim and al-Harah.

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