Turkey welcomes fall of key city in Syria’s north
Uğur Ergan - ANKARA
Opposition fighters demolished a statue of Hafez al-Assad after they captured Idlib in northern Syria. AA photoTurkish officials have expressed their satisfaction at the seizure of the northern Syrian city of Idlib by opposition forces, stressing that the Ankara-supported Free Syrian Army (FSA) was part of the winning side.
The coalition that seized Idlib city on March 28 was composed of the al-Nusra Front, the official Syrian affiliate of al-Qaeda, as well as several Islamist factions.
“The al-Nusra Front and its allies have captured all of Idlib,” the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, according to AFP. “There is still a group of soldiers fighting in the security quarter of the city, but they will not be able to reverse the situation,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman added.
“Turkey is content that the opposition has captured Idlib. Our support for the FSA will continue,” a Turkish official told daily Hürriyet on condition of anonymity. The official also stressed it is wrong to credit only al-Nusra for the success, which “boosted” the FSA’s morale.
The jihadist group al-Nusra also announced the capture of the northwestern city on its official Twitter account.
“Thanks be to God, the city of Idlib has been liberated,” the group tweeted, also posting photos of its fighters in front of the governorate building, the city council building, a local prison, and a police station in the city.
Idlib is only the second provincial capital to be lost by the regime in more than four years of war.
Execution of prisoners reported
Meanwhile, Syrian government forces apparently executed at least nine prisoners in Idlib before Islamist fighters overran the provincial capital, AFP quoted the Observatory as reporting.
More than 215,000 people have been killed since anti-government protests, which erupted in March 2011, were brutally repressed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and in the civil war which followed.
The country has been ravaged by warring factions, including jihadist groups.
Earlier, a Syrian security source acknowledged, “terrorist groups had infiltrated the outskirts of the city,” but state media did not report Idlib’s fall.
Official news agency SANA reported that army troops were “regrouping south of the city of Idlib in preparation to face an influx of thousands of terrorists coming from Turkey.”
The government has regularly accused Turkey, a backer of the uprising against al-Assad, of providing support and sanctuary to “terrorists.”
The first provincial capital to fall was Raqqa, in the north, which was seized by rebels in March 2013. The rebels were subsequently ousted by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has made Raqqa the de facto Syrian capital of its self-proclaimed Islamic “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq.
The Observatory said street fighting had raged through the night after the rebels entered Idlib Friday evening in an assault that began three days earlier.
Around 2,000 al-Nusra and allied fighters took part in the battle, according to the Observatory, while the regime launched some 150 air strikes in a bid to hold off the attack.
At least 130 people were killed in the fighting, according to the Observatory, which said some of the city’s residents had fled. Around 200,000 people lived in the city before the conflict, but the population has swelled since with Syrians displaced from other areas.
Bastion of al-Nusra
Idlib province as a whole is a bastion for al-Nusra, which ousted several rebel groups, including Western-backed organizations, from the region in November after the group announced plans to establish an Islamic “emirate” in the area, which analysts say is intended to rival ISIL’s “caliphate.”
Idlib’s fall leaves the regime with few remaining strongholds in the province, which borders Turkey.
Government forces are still present in the cities of Jisr al-Shugur and Ariha in addition to the Abu Duhur military airport and five military bases.
Meanwhile, Idlib’s capture came as U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed anger and shame at the world’s failure to stop the conflict.
“I confess to you my anger and my shame,” he told an Arab summit in Egypt. “Anger at observing the Syrian government, extremist and terrorist groups and terrorists relentlessly destroy their country. Shame at sharing in the collective failure of international and regional communities to decisively act to stop the carnage that has afflicted the Arab brothers and sisters of Syria,” he said.