Syrian authorities on Friday trumpeted the escape of dozens of soldiers trapped for weeks in a besieged hospital in a northern town even as Al Qaeda-linked militants said they had overrun the entire area and scored another victory against the government.
The official Syrian news agency said the escape was made possible by an unspecified “tactical maneuver,” coupled with artillery fire and airstrikes against the rebels in the vicinity of the National Hospital in the town of town of Jisr al Shughur, in northern Idlib province.
“The soldiers have been freed and left the hospital, carrying their dead or injured,” reported the state news agency.
The pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, confirmed that dozens of Syrian soldiers had fled the hospital complex but said their fate was unknown.
The hospital and the holdout troops there had become an important symbol for militants and the government alike. The militants had employed artillery and suicide attacks in an attempt to blast their way into the hospital.
Once the soldiers had fled, Al Qaeda-linked fighters said they overran the hospital area, completing their takeover of strategic Jisr al Shughur, about 50 miles southwest of Aleppo city.
Syrian forces have been fighting a grueling war on numerous fronts for more than four years against an array of insurgent groups, including Al Qaeda-linked factions and Islamic State, an Al Qaeda-breakaway group. The fall of Palmyra raised new questions about the ability of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s overstretched army.
Assad had vowed in a televised speech this month that not only would the soldiers in the hospital be rescued but that an insurgent victory in the town would be reversed. “The army will soon reach those heroes who are surrounded in Jisr al Shughur hospital and the battles will not end then,” Assad said.
However, a government counter-offensive led by the forces of Col. Suhail “The Tiger” Hassan failed to dislodge the insurgents.
Once the soldiers were reported freed, Syrian government satellite TV channels beamed images of civilians expressing their relief and delight or shedding tears of joy over the safety of “the heroes of Jisr al Shughur.”
“This is the Friday when we broke the siege, for your eyes O Bashar,” said one government supporter on a Facebook “fan page” for Hassan.
“Our boys in the hospital are now in the safe hands of the men of the brave Syrian army, we kiss your hands, O Tiger.”
The hospital complex had been the last part of Jisr al Shughur still in government hands after a rebel offensive this month. The town sits strategically close to the government stronghold of Latakia.
Opposition video Friday showed images of what were described as government soldiers dashing for cover across a field. Off camera, rebel fighters can be overheard furiously ordering gunners to adjust their aim.
The hospital compound had been under siege by a rebel umbrella organization known as the Army of Conquest, a coalition of seven Islamist groups headed by Al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front and Ahrar al Sham factions.
Al Qaeda-linked forces fought alongside a small number of so-called moderate rebel groups operating under the banner of the West-supported Free Syrian Army. It was the latest illustration of how West-backed factions, relatively weak in the battlefield, cooperate with more powerful extremist groups.
In an Al Nusra Front video celebrating the fall of the hospital, militants are seen walking through the grounds, flashing grins and victory signs as the camera pans over decrepit hallways.
“Here is the hospital from which you challenged us,” says one militant, speaking directly to Assad.
“Allah willing, we will defeat you, not just in the Jisr al Shughur hospital but all over Syria.”
In March, the Al Qaeda-linked coalition wrested control of the city of Idlib, the provincial capital. The proximity of Idlib province to the Turkish border has made it an ideal operating zone for Syrian rebel groups with rear supply bases in southern Turkish cities such as Reyhanli and Antakya.
The Turkish government has called for Assad to step down and has provided logistical and other aid to various rebel groups. But the takeover of Jisr al Shughur also opened the possibility of attacks on Latakia, on the Mediterranean coast, 35 miles southwest.
Bulos is a special correspondent.