After a weekend of fighting that left dozens dead in northwestern Syria, regime forces continued their attempt to rescue a besieged group of more than 200 troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad on Monday.
The pro-Assad group has been holed up in a hospital complex in Jisr al-Shughour since a coalition of mostly Islamist rebel factions, including al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, overran the city on April 25. Clashes have continued since then, and the Syrian army began a concerted counteroffensive last week after Assad promised to relieve the encircled force.
Renewed fighting erupted at the besieged hospital on Sunday morning when al-Nusra detonated a massive truck bomb outside a central building in an attempt to break into the compound. Government troops and allied militias advanced from outside Jisr al-Shughour to around a mile from the hospital complex, while regime jets launched at least 40 airstrikes on rebel positions, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). At least 60 pro-government fighters were killed or injured, and 28 rebels died, the SOHR reported.
A 30-year-old rebel named Abu Amar, currently in Jisr al-Shughour with the hardline Ahrar al-Sham group, told VICE News via phone that fighting continued on Monday, with regime forces attempting to advance toward the city from a checkpoint in Furaykah, a village to the south. He said neither side had made significant progress around the hospital.
The state-run SANA news agency said Monday, however, that government forces had killed "scores" of rebels during operations close to the hospital, and insisted that opposition groups had suffered a "dramatic collapse." Reports from the ground appear to undermine these claims.
Senior regime military figures are said to be among those in the hospital complex. Activists have suggested that officers from Assad's key ally Iran might also be present, along with prominent Syrian commander Col. Suhail al-Hassan.
Jisr al-Shughour became a temporary home to local government offices after rebels captured the provincial capital of Idlib in March. A number of civil servants are also thought to have taken refuge in the hospital complex after an unexpectedly rapid rebel advance saw the city overrun. When VICE News visited shortly after the rebel victory, jubilant fighters said they'd routed government troops in a matter of hours.
A Saudi al-Nusra fighter, who gave his name as Abu Mohammed and spoke with a black scarf wrapped round his face, described a coordinated offensive with a large contribution from non-Syrians.
"Every brigade and organization took their position and most of those who attacked were foreign fighters," he said, describing how a group from Turkmenistan — likely the so-called Turkistan Islamic Party — attacked and defeated the regime's strongest positions in the north, before fighting shifted westward and government troops retreated. From there, the Saudi said, the rebels quickly overran the rest of the city. "They took other places easily and the brothers moved from all directions, worked together and connected together early in the morning and completely liberated the town."
When regime troops retreated, the fighter added, they left small groups behind without informing them of the withdrawal. The abandoned units reportedly continued fighting.
At the time, rebel commanders were confident that they would easily take the hospital complex in a matter of days, but despite repeated attempts, including an earlier suicide truck bomb attack by al-Nusra, they have made little progress. As Abu Mohammed spoke, regime jets roared overhead, launching attack after attack. The bombardment proved effective, killing a number of al-Nusra fighters in the central area of the city that day.
Taking Jisr al-Shughour was a symbolic victory for the rebels. It was the first place in Syria to see defections from Assad's army when the uprising began in 2011, and the spot where security forces brutally put down anti-regime protests in June 2011. Dozens were also killed during a previous uprising there in 1980 that was crushed by Hafez al-Assad, the current president's father.
The city is tactically important too, and many have seen its fall as a sign that Assad's hold on the country is weaker than ever. The city lies on the road between Aleppo and Assad's Mediterranean stronghold of Latakia, and could allow a rebel advance toward the coast and Hama's fertile Ghab plain.
The rebels appeared to be on the decline after gains by both government forces and Islamic State militants, with disparate factions infighting and shifting allegiances for months. Assad's grip on power was assumed to be relatively secure, but the rebels have inflicted a series of defeats on government forces, and the total capture of Jisr al-Shughour could consolidate opposition control of the northwest.
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Salem Rizek contributed reporting from Jisr al-Shughour