BEIRUT: Syria’s opposition-in-exile vowed Sunday to launch efforts to turn the newly seized provincial capital of Idlib into its base of operations, in a bid to maintain the momentum generated by a five-day battle that resulted in a shockingly sudden regime withdrawal.
Supporters of the regime and the opposition spent much of the weekend digesting the news that government forces had abandoned the northwestern town, amid reports that the regime would soon launch a fierce counter-offensive.
The provisional government, which is affiliated with the Turkey-based National Coalition opposition umbrella group, issued a statement in which it promised to work with all rebel factions in a bid to finally relocate inside Syria, and thus meet a long-standing demand of opposition figures and groups inside the war-ravaged country.
“The Syrian provisional government will strive to make the free city of Idlib an example to the entire world about what Syrians want for the future of their country,” it said. “It will begin sending its [government bodies] to work inside the city, along with the local council for the province of Idlib, to begin coordinating with its partners and with the [militias] and influential forces to make the city a headquarters for administering liberated regions of Syria.”
Idlib fell after a battle that cost just over 70 rebel lives, according to the “Army of Conquest” coalition of militias that announced the campaign last week. A spokesman for the Army of Conquest told The Daily Star Sunday that the precise number of regime dead remained unclear, due to the presence of many bodies under the rubble of destroyed buildings, adding that 53 troops and paramilitaries – all Syrians – were taken prisoner by the rebels.
The overwhelming majority of the rebel casualties were from Idlib province, he added. Another component of the militia forces involved in the attack were from Homs – they were evacuated from the city when the last rebel-held neighborhoods were seized by the regime last year as part of a negotiated agreement. Of the 71 rebel dead, 58 were from Idlib, eight from Homs, two from Hama, and three were non-Syrians, according to several sources.
Observers have been poring over the political and military repercussions of the developments, which many have portrayed as a victory for the Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.
But the Army of Conquest coalition, the spokesman said, includes several groups that are considered part of the rebel Free Syrian Army. The leading groups are thought to be Nusra, whose militants used suicide truck bomb attacks to lead the battle last week, and the powerful Ahrar al-Sham militia, which is one of the few militias in Syria that enjoys a presence throughout the country. Five other militias were also involved.
Outraged regime supporters claimed that “thousands” of Islamist fighters had streamed across the border from Turkey to enable the rebel victory, claims that were dismissed by opposition sources.
The spokesman also dismissed another reason for Idlib’s fall cited by some regime supporters – the failure of two nearby Shiite villages, Foua and Kafraya, to send reinforcements as the battle raged.
“The only explanation is that they [in the villages] were certain that Idlib would fall anyway. This really didn’t affect the regime, because they were [also] certain that the reinforcements wouldn’t amount to anything,” he said.
Anti-regime activists and rebel groups were busy Saturday and Sunday celebrating the victory, with footage quickly circulating of rebels greeting civilians throughout the city, and destroying a statue of the late President Hafez Assad.
A prominent anti-regime media activist, Hadi al-Abdullah, conducted an “interview” with several paramilitary fighters trapped under the rubble of a collapsed building. They are unseen, but the corpses of a few of their comrades are in plain view.
When Abdullah questions why they didn’t surrender when given the opportunity, one of them says, “We were scared,” adding that he had only recently been recruited into the ranks of the army.
The Army of Conquest spokesman said the men in the video were eventually rescued and are now in detention.
Observers of the conflict are now eyeing Idlib as an extremely important test of the opposition’s political cohesiveness as well as its ability to hold territory. Some supporters of the Nusra Front have begun trumpeting the news that the group’s shadowy leader, Abu Mohammad al-Golani – would make an important address this week about Idlib.
But the head of the powerful Ahrar al-Sham militia Sunday issued a statement denying that any “Islamic emirate” was in the works.
The militias, according to Hashem al-Sheikh, “have not come to create for themselves a local power base or an emirate.”
He urged residents of Idlib to take part in a “civilian administration” that would take over running local affairs in the vacuum created by the regime’s departure.
Sheikh added that if the regime opts for the tactic of bombing Idlib, the rebels would respond in kind by targeting Foua and Kafraya, now isolated to the north.
Aron Lund, the editor of the Carnegie Endowment’s Syria in Crisis blog, wrote Sunday that “militarily ... the Idlib defeat puts Assad in a difficult spot as he needs to foresee the next rebel assault and deploy accordingly.” But an equally large political challenge awaits the opposition, he added.
“The fall of Idlib is not without its risks for the rebels. Previous attempts by opposition groups to govern urban areas in Syria have been disastrous failures,” Lund wrote.
“They have by and large failed to produce anything other than chaos and economic collapse, with what they refer to as liberated territory now suffering from chronic infighting, predatory criminal bands and the brutal imposition of ultraconservative Islamist norms.”
For now, the scenes from Idlib have featured three flags – those of the Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham and the “independence” flag symbolizing the FSA – all being hoisted in celebration. Observers will be watching whether the coexistence will continue, as well as whether the city of Idlib will now become the target of relentless regime airstrikes and possibly turn into a ghost town instead of the “capital” of the opposition.
Rebels inside Idlib
Interview with regime fighters under the rubble (warning: graphic scenes)