A loose alliance of Islamist rebel groups seized control of a northwest Syrian city on Saturday, officials said, opening a pathway into Syrian government strongholds on the Mediterranean Sea.
The rebel factions overran the city of Jisr al-Shughur, 55 miles southwest of Aleppo, after a punishing four-day campaign against government forces that made use of suicide bombers, mortars and explosive devices.
The operation, dubbed the Battle of Victory, was spearheaded by the Islamist alliance that calls itself the Army of Conquest and includes the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.
Rebels uploaded images of smiling fighters flashing victory signs or stepping on tattered posters of Syrian President Bashar Assad in what they claimed was the city's center.
The Nusra Front also uploaded pictures on its official Twitter account, depicting corpses of what it said were prisoners executed by Assad’s forces before their retreat from the city.
Accurate casualty figures were not released, but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition watchdog group with a network of activists on the ground, said the bodies of more than 60 pro-government fighters were on the streets of the city.
Government forces “were successfully redeployed” to the city's perimeter so as to “avoid civilian casualties,” according to Syrian state news outlet SANA on Saturday.
“[Our armed forces] are fortifying their defensive positions and directing concentrated attacks on terrorist gatherings and their supply lines in Jisr al-Shughur,” SANA said.
A later news bulletin quoted a military source saying government forces were “waging violent battles at the entrances of Jisr al-Shughur city as well as points leading to it and killed tens of terrorists.” The government refers to the opposition fighters as terrorists.
Rebels also reported heavy airstrikes against the city in the wake of the government’s withdrawal.
The government news report also heaped scorn on Turkey, accusing its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the Turkish government of facilitating the entry of hundreds of opposition fighters from across the border, less than 8 miles away from Jisr al-Shughur.
The Turkish government has been a staunch supporter of anti-Assad rebels, allowing southern cities along the 511-mile border it shares with Syria to become rear supply bases for the opposition.
The fall of Jisr al-Shughur would mark the second major rebel victory in the last few weeks, effectively ending the government’s presence in Idlib province.
Last month, the Army of Conquest overran Idlib, the provincial capital, making it the second city to fall completely into rebel hands after the northeastern city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State militant group.
Despite Jisr al-Shughur’s relatively small size -- a population of 44,000 in 2010 -- its takeover paves the way for the city to become a significant staging area for attacks on the coastal city of Latakia, 35 miles to the southwest in the Alawite heartland considered to be the leading bastion of government support.
Hard-line Islamist Sunni opposition groups considers Alawites, members of a heterodox mountain sect related to Shiite Islam whose membership includes Assad, infidels who should be killed.
Government supporters expressed their alarm at the fall of Jisr al-Shughur.
“Our army, our people all of you who can bear arms ... the homeland is in danger,” wrote Khalil Al-Khadhri on the official Facebook page of SANA news. “What is that you are waiting for to come to you from the heavens? Go and achieve victory.”
Bulos is a special correspondent.