Syrian rebel groups Thursday said they had seized the town of Ariha – the last regime-held urban center in Idlib province – after launching their campaign earlier in the day.
The latest blow to the regime of President Bashar Assad came at the hands of the Army of Conquest rebel coalition, made up of seven groups and led by the Al-Qaeda affiliate the Nusra Front and the powerful Ahrar al-Sham militia.
The government continues to control tiny pockets of Idlib province, including the besieged military airport of Abu Dhuhur.
The rebel groups and anti-regime activists said that skirmishes were continuing to take place on the outskirts of Ariha after some of the town’s defenders withdrew to nearby villages.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said an unspecified number of civilians were killed during the clashes, which coincided with airstrikes by regime aircraft.
The Observatory said the seven militias making up the Army of Conquest were battling regime troops, paramilitaries from the National Defense force, Hezbollah fighters and Iranian officers.
Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman, in remarks to AFP, described the rebel push as a “lightning” offensive.
The deputy head of Ahrar al-Sham, Abu Issa Sheikh, said prior to the battle that controlling Ariha would free up an area for rebels to use in pushing onward against regime-held territory in the provinces of Aleppo, Hama and Latakia, which all border Idlib, as well as Homs and Damascus to the south.
The fall of Ariha comes on the heels of a string of regime setbacks in Idlib province: the provincial capital, the town of Jisr al-Shughur, military bases in Mastoumeh and al-Qarmid, and the National Hospital in Jisr al-Shughur, where defenders were holed up during a nearly one-month siege after the town fell.
Reports Wednesday said Assad had replaced his top commander for Idlib province, Maj. Gen. Wahib Haidar, with Maj Gen. Jihad Sultan, to address the recent setbacks.
Ironically, the weekly Friday protest slogan selected by anti-regime activists will be “Ariha – meeting you soon,” following expectations that the rebels would soon press ahead with their campaign in Idlib.
Also Thursday, two regime airplanes exploded at the T-4 air base in rural Homs province, killing at least five regime troops.
Regime sources denied that ISIS militants were responsible for the incident, while the Observatory, citing various sources, said the mishap took place when the planes’ weapons were being loaded.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military has started training Syrian opposition fighters in Turkey to combat ISIS, an expected expansion of a program that first launched in Jordan weeks ago, a U.S. official told Reuters.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, did not offer details on the size of the first group of recruits undergoing training in Turkey or the specific start date.
And a senior Iranian official rejected the idea of a Syria no-fly zone, which Turkey wants, saying it would be “a mistake” and would not restore security to the region.
“Talk of the establishment of a buffer and no-fly zone is the repetition of previous mistakes and will not help with security and stability in the region,” Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said, speaking in Kuwait.