A rebel force led by Islamist factions overran a major northwestern Syrian city on Saturday, rebel sources said, in what would represent an important victory for the country's beleaguered armed opposition.
The Army of Conquest, a coalition of Islamist groups that include Al Nusra Front, Al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, and the hard-line Islamist Ahrar Al Sham faction were said to have taken control of Idlib on Saturday, after five days of heavy clashes with forces loyal to President Bashar Assad.
“The city of Idlib has been completely liberated and the mujahedin are chasing the remnants of the [government forces] in their attempt to escape,” a message on Al Nusra Front’s official Twitter account said on Saturday.
It also published images of fighters tearing down pictures of Assad from state buildings and destroying a statue depicting Assad's father and political predecessor, Hafez Assad.
Syrian state news outlet SANA, however, disputed the claim, saying that “units of the army and armed forces were able to stop the terrorist groups.”
They “are inflicting great losses against the terrorists,” it said. Syrian state media label the armed opposition fighting to take control of the country as “terrorists” and “mercenaries.”
Opposition supporters also posted video depicting bearded militants greeting the city's inhabitants and freeing inmates from the state prison.
If true, it would make Idlib, 37 miles southwest of Aleppo and a scant 20 miles from the Turkish border, the second major city to fall into the rebels' hands and would leave only two cities in Idlib province still under government control.
The Syrian crisis, which began more than four years ago as a series of peaceful antigovernment uprisings, soon devolved into an all-out sectarian war that has resulted in the deaths of 220,000 civilians, according to various estimates.
The rural province of Idlib was one of the first areas to rise in protest against Assad's rule. As the crisis turned violent, it became the focus of a rebel campaign and, due to its proximity to the Turkish border, developed into a major rebel staging area.
In the last few months, Al Nusra Front had consolidated its control of most of Idlib province, but the attack Saturday would mark the rebels' most successful thrust into Idlib city, the provincial capital.
Its seizure by the opposition represents a rare victory for the rebels operating in the northern parts of the country, who have been plagued by internecine fighting. Al Nusra Front expelled West-supported opposition factions in January from the area, scooping up much of the equipment and supplies given to the groups by the U.S.
It was unclear whether the so-called moderate opposition groups of the Free Syrian Army had contributed to the campaign, but Col. Riyadh Asaad, the symbolic head and founder of the Free Syrian Army, said Saturday on Twitter that the “liberation of Idlib city was a purely internal revolutionary decision.”
It “had nothing to do with the ‘Mafias of the political opposition’ and its thieves who have [benefited from] the revolution,” he said, a direct rebuke to the West-supported Syrian National Council political body.
Bulos is a special correspondent.