Syrian rebels have taken over the city of Idlib from forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, inflicting a major blow to the Syrian regime and signaling the significant advance of Islamist groups in the country.
A coalition of Islamist rebel groups, including the al Qaeda-affiliated al Nusra Front, captured more than a dozen checkpoints from Assad government forces in and around Idlib, according to the Long War Journal. Images and reports of Islamist forces celebrating the takeover of the city quickly circulated Saturday on rebel-affiliated social media accounts.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported that the rebels had taken control of the area after four days of fighting with regime forces. The UK-based monitoring group said seven rebels and many regime soldiers were killed or captured in the fighting Saturday.
Video footage posted online shows Islamist fighters cheering and praying in the streets of Idlib, and firing their weapons in celebration after the battle.
Rebel fighters were also recorded smashing and burning a statue of former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in the city. Other images posted by Islamist-affiliated sites showed fighters in front of the governor's palace and municipal buildings in Idlib.
Idlib is only the second Syrian province after Raqqa, now the de facto capital of the Islamic State, to fall under Islamist control since fighting began. The takeover of Idlib is the second major defeat of Assad's forces in less than a week, after rebels captured the city of Busra, in southern Syria.
An Islamist coalition called Jaysh al Fateh was formed with the specific goal of taking Idlib. According to Long War Journal, which tracks the global war on terror, in addition to al Nusra Front, members of Jaysh al Fateh include Ahrar al Sham and Jund al Aqsa. The coalition is not aligned with the Islamic State, which controls other large swaths of territory in northeast Syria.
With a population of 100,000 people, Idlib is the capital city of the province of the same name. It is strategically located in northwest Syria between Damascus, the capital, and Aleppo, the country's largest city.
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