Middle East

National Hospital standoff in Idlib ends

Smoke rises from the national hospital, after what activists said was shelling by warplanes loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the town of Jisr al-Shughour, Idlib province May 22, 2015. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

BEIRUT: A highly watched siege in Syria’s Idlib province ended Friday when dozens of regime troops escaped the National Hospital complex in the town of Jisr al-Shughur, while others were either killed or taken prisoner by rebel groups.

Syrian President Bashar Assad telephoned the commander of besieged forces, Col. Mahmoud Sabha, after he and his comrades made it to safety, according to state news agency SANA.

Assad congratulated them on their bravery “during the lifting of the siege” by the Syrian army, and offered condolences over the losses.

SANA did not give details about the numbers of troops who made it to safety, or those who were killed or captured, although it was believed some 150 were in the facility.

Assad’s intervention in the Jisr al-Shughur siege was a notable departure from previous military setbacks for the regime, when the authorities largely remained silent about the course of events.

During a public appearance on May 6, Assad vowed that his army would lift the siege on the National Hospital, with morale among regime supporters dipping after a series of battlefield losses in Idlib and Deraa provinces in the past two months.

“Soon, the army will reach those heroic defenders in the National Hospital in Jisr al-Shughur,” Assad said during the appearance, to mark Martyrs’ Day.

Pro-opposition sources, meanwhile, called the day’s developments the latest blow for the regime as its troops were not rescued by a nearby army contingent, but were instead forced to abandon the hospital after a nearly three-week siege by the Army of Conquest coalition of rebel groups.

A fighter with the Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, told an opposition media outlet that the rebels allowed the troops to leave the National Hospital to the south and then pursued them by setting ambushes and engaging in close-quarter fighting.

Another account of the events maintained that the regime troops decided to leave after they discovered that rebels were tunneling under the complex and would soon detonate the buildings.

Supporters and opponents of the regime closely followed the developments during the day on social media and Internet media outlets, reporting the latest rumors and circulating photographs and video of the departure of regime troops.

Video footage circulated by the Nusra Front showed dozens of soldiers running single-file next to an orchard as the insurgents fired away at them. Ironically, the same images were used by loyalists to celebrate the successful end to the siege.

Opposition sources claimed that “dozens” of troops were either killed or captured in the aftermath of the decision to abandon the hospital.

They identified two generals by name as among those killed, and circulated photographs of several troops they claimed were captured. Pro-regime sources, meanwhile, claimed up to 80 troops made it to safety – supporters of both sides spent the day demanding names and other evidence of the various claims being made.

Although many expected the besieged troops to head for Hama province to the south, one pro-regime outlet gave the names of 14 troops who made it to Latakia province to the west, as well as listing the names of two other officers who were killed.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said that regime forces pounded the area with at least 60 airstrikes and 250 artillery strikes during the day to help secure the flight of the soldiers.

The ending of the siege came immediately in the wake of this week’s dramatic seizure of the town of Palmyra in the middle of Syria by ISIS jihadis, who had no part in the Jisr al-Shughur battles.

Battlefield losses and casualties for the regime have been steadily mounting in recent days, according to the Observatory and other sources.

Dozens of troops and pro-regime paramilitaries were killed during nearly a week of battles in and around Palmyra, or by ISIS militants when they summarily executed loyalists who stayed behind in the town after many of its defenders withdrew from the area.

The Observatory said that the regime also lost at least 48 troops, with at least 150 others wounded, during three days of clashes this week in remote parts of Homs province near Palmyra.

It said 30 ISIS fighters were killed in the battles, which saw the jihadis seize the Jazal oil field. Syrian regime troops Thursday abandoned the Tanf border crossing with Iraq, south of Palmyra, in yet another setback for the regime.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 23, 2015, on page 1.

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