by: Jennifer Cafarella
Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) seized control of Ariha, the final regime stronghold in Idlib Province, alongside allied Islamist rebels on May 28, 2015. This victory secures effective control over Idlib Province to JN and rebel forces, the second Syrian province to fall out of Assad’s control after ISIS-held Raqqa. A number of isolated and besieged regime positions remain in Idlib, including the Abu ad-Duhor military airbase that has been under JN siege since December 2014. Regime forces have reportedly begun to withdraw from villages along the Ariha- Jisr al-Shughour road as they absorb the loss of Ariha, indicating that JN and rebel forces are unlikely to face considerable resistance as they move to consolidate control over remaining pockets of regime-held terrain. Moderate rebel forces in the province played relatively marginal roles in the recent advances, often limited to providing artillery and other support to hardline Islamist and jihadist groups allied to JN. As a result, JN and its allies are likely to acquire a high level of influence in the governance and security structures that emerge in the newly-“liberated” province as a consequence of their significant military contributions to anti-Assad victories. This is a major strategic setback for the U.S. in Syria, as it cements JN gains in northern Syria to date, validates its methodology, and provides considerable momentum to its carefully tailored effort to mold rebel-held Syria into a post-Assad state that is governed by Shari’a law and ultimately a component of al-Qaeda’s envisioned global Caliphate. The regime continues to respond to military defeats with the indiscriminate use of airpower, barrel bombs, and weaponized chlorine gas attacks, and can be expected to maintain its effort to punish civilian populations in Idlib as anti-Assad forces formalize their control.
For more on JN strategy and intent in Syria, see: "Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria: an Islamic Emirate for al-Qaeda," Jennifer Cafarella, Institute for the Study of War, December 2014