Syrian rebels patrol an area in the northwestern Syrian town of Jisr al-Shughur on January 25, 2013
Syrian rebels patrol an area in the northwestern Syrian town of Jisr al-Shughur. In Syria's war-torn Idlib province, rowdy children leap around about a rifle-shot's distance away from a regime checkpoint, playing next to armed rebel fighters in green gardens. © Aamir Qureshi - AFP
Syrian rebels patrol an area in the northwestern Syrian town of Jisr al-Shughur on January 25, 2013
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Herve Bar, AFP
Last updated: February 5, 2013

Syrian rebels tighten noose around key Idlib city

In Syria's war-torn Idlib province, rowdy children leap around about a rifle-shot's distance away from a regime checkpoint, playing next to armed rebel fighters in green gardens.

Insurgents have tightened their noose around the city of Jisr al-Shughur, held by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, but refrain for now from staging further attacks, and an eerie calm prevails in surrounding villages.

In the hilltop hamlet of Ayni Seda, residents live as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening. But below, trucks and troops pass over Jisr al-Shughur's Roman-era bridge that straddles the Orontes River.

Villagers come and go nonchalantly, in the line of sight of regime snipers and artillery gunners taking cover behind sandbags that dot the roofs of houses in the centre of town.

"The soldiers told us that if one bullet is fired from here, they'll destroy the village," says Radwan Haji, a local member of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA).

The rebels therefore stay still.

Army snipers fire the occasional shot at a house "when they see unusual activity," a neighbour says.

Jisr al-Shughur and Idlib city, the provincial capital, are the two key urban areas in the Sunni-dominated region on the border with Turkey that remain under the control of the Damascus central government.

After six months of fierce fighting and heavy losses, the rebels have captured a string of army checkpoints, military bases and loyalist strongholds.

Some residents, exhausted by the bloodshed, say the rebel advance has been slow but the insurgents insist that Assad's troops cannot curb their progress.

Despite the relative calm that prevails east of Jisr al-Shughur, fierce clashes have raged in the north and west of the city.

"The city is surrounded by rebels in the north, the east and the west," Hassan, the second-in-command of the FSA's Hurriya (Freedom) brigade, said.

"From each direction we are one kilometre (less than a mile) from the city," he added.

Only the road from the south that leads into Idlib city remains rebel-free.

Hassan says the rebels are being prevented from advancing on that axis because of the presence of three to four villages home to Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam and the religious community from which Assad hails.

Rebels north of Jisr al-Shughur captured the towns of Darkush and Zarzur three months ago, and in recent days they seized the Christian villages of Al-Yaqubia and Janudia which dominate the Orontes valley.

Most of Al-Yaqubia's residents have fled, and the houses are shut and boarded up but some doors and shutters have been kicked in and rebels occupy several homes along the main street.

The black-clad fighters of the jihadist group the Al-Nusra Front, who are omnipresent elsewhere in the province, are not to be seen in and around Jisr al-Shughur, but the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham brigades are present.

The rebels plan to capture the city, Hassan says, but want to "spare the lives of the many civilians who are held hostage there by the army."

"They're using the population as a shield and have turned the city into an open-air prison."

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