Syrian army seeks to regain control of Jisr al-Shughour

After militants from Jabhat al-Nusra took control of Jisr al-Shughour in northern Syria, the army is preparing an operation to regain the city, in light of its strategic importance.

al-monitor A Jabhat al-Nusra fighter carries a shell near a Jabhat al-Nusra flag in Jisr al-Shughour, after rebels took control of the area, April 25, 2015.  Photo by REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah.

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turkey, syria, jabhat al-nusra, idlib, hama, civil war

Apr 27, 2015

Irrespective of the historical symbolism of Jisr al-Shughour, which was one of the main Muslim Brotherhood strongholds in the 1980s, Jabhat al-Nusra taking control of the city two days ago constituted a breach in the on-the-ground scene in northern Syria that is connected to Turkey, as well as in central Syria, which represents a point of support and link between Syrian fighting groups. This necessitates a re-evaluation and speedy study of the developments and the start of a military operation [to regain control of the city] that is more than just a “reaction,” according to a field source. The latter clarified that this operation went beyond the scope of the former operation prepared by the Syrian army to regain control of the city of Idlib, which Jabhat al-Nusra took control of.

The strategic importance of this small city pushed the Syrian army command to issue an urgent military statement, following the withdrawal of army troops to the city of Ariha and the concentration of a small force to defend the national hospital on the outskirts of Jisr al-Shughour. This hospital is currently treating a number of wounded soldiers, along with injured civilians who were subjected to hundreds of shellings over the past week.

The statement stressed that what happened in Jisr al-Shughour is a “reconsolidating” and deployment in its surroundings, thus confirming the importance of the city and the determination of the military leadership to regain control of it. This is something that was not seen in the city of Idlib, despite it also falling into the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra. The militants’ takeover of Jisr al-Shughour disrupted the supply lines to the city of Ariha and the troops stationed there, and could enable the militants to isolate army forces stationed in the Qarmeed and Mastouma bases on the outskirts of Idlib.

The field source told As-Safir that the Syrian army forces withdrew from the city — with a population of more than 150,000 people — because of the high human costs that would come from staying there as a result of the abundance of rockets being fired on the city on the one hand, and the heavy weapons used by militants in their attack on the other. According to the source, the latter shows “the extent of support the al-Qaeda-affiliated factions are receiving for their attacks on Syrian army points,” in reference to the open Turkish support. This support has transformed factions that were fighting like “gangs” into a formation that resembles the “regime army.” This requires an intensified use of warplanes to target the heavy weaponry, something that cannot be done in light of the population density and proximity between militants and army forces. Thus, the army withdrew and a path was opened for civilians to exit in order to reduce casualties.

The Syrian army withdrew toward the city of Ariha, and its forces spread out in the vicinity of the national hospital. The latter is, to this point, still in under government control, amid conflicting reports about the arrival of support and the breaking of the siege on it.

At this time, Nusra militants are continuing with their attacks on the villages surrounding Jisr al-Shughour, whereby they were able to penetrate the village of Ishtabraq, whose residents hail from sectarian minorities. The militants carried out a massacre against 30 citizens remaining in the city, among them women and children. Meanwhile, other village residents fled across agricultural land to neighboring villages and cities.

The army’s first response to the takeover of the town was to intensify air raids on the sites where militants had concentrated, whereby warplanes carried out a large number of sorties targeting positions in the city and its vicinity. This led to a “large number of dead from among the ranks of extremist factions,” according to a military source. The latter said that the most prominent of these raids involved targeting a large Jabhat al-Nusra convoy in the Sawamia region of the city, which killed more than 50 militants and injured around 100 others.

The Syrian army and the factions supporting it retook the initiative on the fighting lines between rural Idlib and Hama, whereby they gained control of the Tanmia checkpoint in the village of Zara. They were also able to reinstate their forces in the village of Ghania, to the south of Jisr al-Shughour, thus putting the city in a difficult position. This came in conjunction with an intensification of the activity of troops stationed in Ariha and the stabilization of troops in the Mastouma and Qarmeed bases, despite the desperate attempts by militant factions to gain control of the two bases.

The Turkish militant noted in a statement that it had sent two F-16 aircraft to the border with Syria the day before yesterday [April 25], after a Syrian army Sukhoi Su-24 plane had approached the border. The statement noted that the latter plane had withdrawn after coming within 1.2 nautical miles of the Turkish border.

The field source explained that the most important point in the army’s plan involves stabilizing the stationed forces and tightening the noose on militants’ sites, through surrounding them from multiple axes. The source stressed the strategic importance of Jisr al-Shughour, noting that the disruption of supply lines to some army points necessitated continuing the military action, reconnecting forces and breaking the siege on them as a first step. This is in order to complete the military operations on the outskirts of Idlib, eventually reaching the city itself — meaning the city will witness a decisive battle, the results of which will determine the future of Idlib and its outskirts.

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