BEIRUT // The once-forgotten front line in north-western Syria has come to the fore again as a new rebel alliance churns out a series of major victories against the forces of president Bashar Al Assad.
In just five weeks, the success of Jaysh Al Fateh - or The Army of Conquest - in Idlib province has put the Assad regime on the back foot, demoralised government troops in distant outposts and rallied rebel momentum.
Analysts say the alliance’s victories illustrate the growing dominance of Al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat Al Nusra, and a growing consensus by regional allies of Syria’s rebels to back more hardline forces.
The formation of Jaysh Al Fateh was announced on March 24 as a union of seven mostly hardline rebel militias, most notably the powerful Jabhat Al Nusra and Ahrar Al Sham groups.
Four days later, the coalition captured the provincial capital of Idlib. The only other provincial capital to have fallen from government hands is the eastern city of Raqqa, currently held by ISIL.
On Saturday, Jaysh Al Fateh continued its offensive to capture the city of Jisr Al Shughour. On Monday, they seized the Qarmeed army base from government forces after a Jabhat Al Nusra suicide bomber detonated a truck filled with explosives at the base’s entrance.
The advances in Idlib province have put the rebels within striking distance of regime strongholds in Hama and Latakia, the heartland of the Alawite sect and a bastion of government support.
The government’s control in Idlib has been reduced to a small finger of territory hugging the M4 highway.
“The regime appears to be weaker than ever in the history of the conflict,” said Lina Khatib, director of Beirut’s Carnegie Middle East Center.
The losses in Idlib were “a result of the regime’s growing manpower problems”, said Noah Bonsey, a Syria analyst with the International Crisis Group.
He said the Assad government was “unable to replace lost manpower with equally effective Syrian manpower”.
Going forward, Mr Bonsey said, the regime’s biggest defence challenge will be “dealing with the blow to morale from the speed of these rebel gains in Idlib”.
Ms Khatib said she does not expect to see a government attempt to retake Idlib.
“The places the regime has lost so far are not of strategic importance to it,” said Ms Khatib. “The Syrian army will not expend its energy on trying to retake Idlib.”
Rather, she said, the Syrian army will look to reinforce its power in places like Latakia and Damascus.
Ms Khatib credited the recent advances to the rebels’ major regional stakeholders - Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey - aligning their strategy and coordination more closely than before.
“Without this regional blessing, we would not be seeing on the ground support reaching these groups,” she said.
Joshua Landis, director of the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies, said the US-led bombing campaign against ISIL that began last year allowed the militant group’s main rival - Jabhat Al Nusra - to expand, prosper and dominate.
No longer forced to battle ISIL on its flanks, Jabhat Al Nusra was free to consolidate power and turn its attention to moderate rebel groups which they easily routed, establishing dominance in north-western Syria.
Al Nusra’s defeat of moderate rebel factions “really placed Nusra as the alpha male, the alpha wolf among the militias”, said Mr Landis. “All other militias began to cow down or genuflect Al Nusra.”
And as Free Syrian Army fighters became disillusioned with their units’ inability to gain ground against the regime, Jabhat Al Nusra attracted more and more recruits.
In a report released by the Washington-based Atlantic Council on Tuesday, analyst Faysal Itani said that the US-led air campaign against ISIL had led to a “near-collapse” of moderate, nationalist rebel forces by allowing Jabhat Al Nusra’s expansion.
Rebel successes spearheaded by the Al Qaeda affiliate is likely to irk the US, which is still seeking to arm and train more moderate rebel units that could be used to fight ISIL. But in an environment where extremist forces are dominant and actively fighting the regime, a US-backed force mandated only to fight ISIL could be viewed negatively on the ground.
“These fighters are more likely to be seen as American mercenaries than champions of the Syrian people,” Mr Itani said in the Atlantic Council report.
Ms Khatib said there is still hope for moderate rebel factions if they get the support they need.
“If the west empowers moderate rebels enough, this might attract back a significant number of fighters who had left and this will change the composition of Jabhat Al Nusra,” she said.
But, she noted, Jabhat Al Nusra is well aware of powers vying for influence and has worked to counter that by adopting a softer approach and entering into power sharing agreements with rebel units.
So far, it has not imposed Islamic governance on captured areas.