Assad's Forces Lose Idlib to Syrian Rebels

An Islamist rebel coalition ousted the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government from the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib on Tuesday, a monitoring group has confirmed.

Abdel Rahman, the director of the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a monitoring group that uses an extensive network of sources on the ground in the country, confirmed the loss of territory to Newsweek.

Rahman also confirmed that rebel fighters of the Jaysh al-Fateh coalition, which includes the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, had captured the strategic air base of Abu al-Duhur in the region, bringing to an end a two-year siege. Syrian state TV also confirmed the loss of the air base.

Approximately 120 of Assad's forces were killed, wounded or arrested in clashes for the air base, and the only pro-government presence remaining in Idlib were Shia defence forces in two towns as all regime forces had withdrawn during the defeat, he said.

The air base had been under siege for two years by the Islamist rebels and it appeared that they took advantage of a sandstorm that has swept across Syria and much of the Middle East in the last two days.

Michael Horowitz, security analyst at Tel Aviv-based geopolitical risk consultancy the Levantine Group, says that the loss of the strategic air base is a serious setback for Assad. It may allow the rebel coalition to continue westward and possibly carry out offensives against coastal regime-held areas that have remained relatively untouched since the onset of the four-year civil war, or eastward towards Aleppo province which is contested by the Assad regime, ISIS and other rebel groups.

"The neutralization of one of the last regime positions in the area will likely enable Jaysh al-Fateh to prepare its next offensive," says Horowitz. "With the Idlib province secured, it is possible that this offensive will aim at other, more significant targets on the Syrian coast or near Aleppo.

"The loss of the air base itself is not a significant loss of territory, nor is in fact the loss of the Idlib province, which was already largely under control of anti-regime forces," he adds. "What is more worrying for Assad is what's next, and whether the Jaysh al-Fateh coalition will mount other offensives on critical areas of the country, such as the northern coast."

Idlib province borders Latakia province, a key Assad heartland where Russia hosts a naval base in the coastal city of Tartus. The regime has continued to lose territory and strategic assets in the ongoing war with various Islamist factions, especially as loss of air bases such as Abu al-Duhur has limited the Syrian military's capability to conduct airstrikes against rebel forces.

Earlier this week, the regime lost its last oil field, Jazal, to ISIS who now control a number of key oil fields in the country, the majority in the country's east near Raqqa, the de-facto capital of their self-proclaimed caliphate.