Idlib: Last Syrian rebel stronghold
06 Apr 2017 - 17:36
Beirut: The northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, site of a presumed chemical attack, is the last remaining rebel bastion after six years of civil war.
The Idlib battleground
Idlib city has taken in masses of displaced Syrians, swelling its population from nearly 120,000 people before the war began in 2011 to around 200,000 today.
Before fighting broke out, the majority of Idlib's inhabitants worked in agriculture, mainly cotton and cereals, or commuted to the neighbouring province of Aleppo.
The surrounding province is strategically important, sharing a border with Turkey, which backs the rebels.
It is also adjacent to the coastal Syrian province of Latakia, home to President Bashar al-Assad's clan and a regime stronghold.
On March 28, 2015, a coalition of Islamist rebel groups including Ahrar al-Sham and jihadists from the Al-Nusra Front, now known as Fateh al-Sham Front, seized the Sunni-majority city.
It was a serious setback for Assad because it was the second regional capital to fall after Raqa, which became an Islamic State group (IS) stronghold.
On April 25 the same year, the rebel coalition captured Jisr al-Shughur, one of the government's last outposts in the province.
Syrian warplanes, and later Russian jets, have repeatedly targeted cities and towns in Idlib province.
Idlib province has been hit by several suspected chemical attacks, most recently on Tuesday in Khan Sheikhun.
At least 86 people, including 30 children, died after air strikes on the town of Khan Sheikhun, and doctors said victims showed symptoms consistent with the use of a nerve agent such as sarin.
In 2016, a UN commission found helicopters from two regime-controlled air bases dropped chlorine barrel-bombs on the Idlib villages of Qmenas, Talmenes and Sarmin in 2014 and 2015.
Fuaa and Kafraya
These two Shiite towns in Idlib province have remained loyal to Assad and are besieged by mainly Sunni Islamist rebels.
Along with Zabadani and Madaya, two towns near Damascus surrounded by government forces, they make up the "Four Towns" agreement.
The agreement has seen simultaneous evacuations and aid deliveries to all four areas.
In late March, another deal was struck that would see more than 30,000 evacuated from the four towns, but its implementation has been delayed over last-minute negotiations.
Next regime target
Thousands of rebels and civilians from across Syria have been bussed into Idlib province as part of local truces struck with government forces in their hometowns.
As early as December 2015, a security source in Damascus said Russian and Syrian forces had been training in Latakia province to prepare for an offensive against Idlib.
"In the next stage, Idlib will become the major destination and most important target of joint Russian-Syrian military operations," the source said.
In December 2016, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura warned that unless a comprehensive ceasefire agreement was reached, "Idlib will become the next Aleppo".
The army retook the whole of Aleppo city from the rebels in December last year.
In January 2017, fighting erupted between Fateh al-Sham militants and members of other rebel groups for regional influence.
The Syrian opposition split into two factions, one opposed to any talks with the regime in Damascus that included Fateh al-Sham and took the name Tahrir al-Sham, and others that were willing to join talks, and who allied themselves with the Salafist group Ahrar al-Sham.
Idlib province's site of Ebla is the seat of one of ancient Syria's earliest kingdoms, and home to a famed collection of clay tablets dating back to 2400-2300 BC and discovered in 1964, which bear witness to the invention of the first alphabet.
But according to APSA, the association charged with protecting Syrian architecture, tunnels have been dug on the site, which has been looted, and it has been ravaged by fighting between army and rebels.