MARCH 28, 2015
Insurgents Seize Much of Key Syrian City
By ANNE BARNARD
BEIRUT, Lebanon -- A coalition of Islamist insurgents, including a branch of Al Qaeda, seized most of the northern Syrian city of Idlib on Saturday after four days of heavy fighting. It was an unusually dramatic front-line shift in a four-year war that has long appeared to be at a stalemate even as it grows more bloody and complex.
If the insurgents cement their hold on Idlib -- as they appeared to be doing in videos that showed them in control of government buildings in the city's center -- it would be only the second time during the war that the government has entirely lost control of a provincial capital, after the loss of Raqqa two years ago.
The northeastern city of Raqqa was seized by fighters that included members of the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda's branch in Syria. It was a victory celebrated at the time even by more moderate opponents of President Bashar al-Assad but it later proved to be disastrous for the opposition.
The Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh, soon took over the city and used it as a base to expand its extremist rule. The group not only terrorized many Raqqa residents but dealt a strategic blow to the opposition, as global powers came to see it as a security threat and made stopping it a higher priority than ousting Mr. Assad.
So while some Idlib residents celebrated Saturday, cheering as fighters ripped down posters of Mr. Assad or embracing insurgent relatives who returned to the city for the first time in years, others streamed out of the city, with convoys of loaded cars and trucks blocking roads.
The Syrian American Medical Society estimated that 100,000 more people could be displaced by the fighting in Idlib, which is already crammed with people displaced from elsewhere.
Given the dire experience of other cities during the war, there is a formidable list of ways things could go wrong.
The government could unleash a new campaign of aerial bombing, the tactic it has used in insurgent-held areas of Aleppo and in the Damascus suburbs. Insurgents could take revenge on pro-government residents. Or Nusra, seeking to compete with the Islamic State, could attempt to declare an emirate, its answer to ISIS's self-declared caliphate.
Nusra and the other groups that participated in the takeover oppose ISIS, but Nusra and others have their own records of extremism and brutality. The operation, which fighters said was planned for months, was directed, they said, by a new organization formed for the battle, called Jaish al-Fatah. Under it were Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, an ultraconservative group, and other Islamist groups. In previous joint operations Nusra, which includes foreign fighters and Syrians, has influence greater than its numbers because it is willing to use suicide bombers.
Ahmad Kara Ali, a spokesman for Ahrar Al-Sham, said in an interview that his group would not allow any other group to "monopolize power" in Idlib. "We are counting on the awareness of the Syrians and the rebels not to let any of the parties to repeat the experience of Daesh," he said.
But he acknowledged that the group had no guarantees from Nusra that it would not attempt a takeover, adding: "We have no guarantees from any faction. We don't eliminate any scenario."
Videos from Idlib after the battle showed men waving the black flag used by Nusra and other jihadist groups. "Crush them, we crush them, the Assad family, we crush them," a crowd shouted as one man waved a sword. "All the people are happy."
Maher Samaan and Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.