The thumbs-up a top rebel commander flashes at me as he returns to this Turkish border town from the front-lines of northern Syria’s battlefields speaks volumes.
There has been little for Syrian insurgents to cheer about in recent months. Even a few weeks ago this man was downcast and appeared adrift and unable to imagine an end to a war that has claimed the lives of 6,000 of his men.
But a new Islamist alliance of brigades backed by al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra is moving ahead aggressively against the forces of President Bashar al-Assad and the emboldened insurgents, fresh from two significant battlefield gains, say that the four-year-long civil war is entering a new and critical phase—one that didn’t appear likely, or even possible, as recently as February.
And as the gains pile up, talk is intensifying within Jabhat al Nusra, and especially among the group’s Syrian commanders and fighters, of breaking with al Qaeda—a move they hope might entice the West to support this offensive and impose a no-fly zone across northern Syria.
The capture of the cities of Idlib and, last weekend, Jisr al-Shughour had major symbolic significance. This is where the armed rebellion against Assad began in June 2011, after Assad’s security forces fired on a funeral demonstration. And it has boosted the fighters’ morale. The newly confident Sunni rebel militias are focusing now on objectives to the south, seeking to block Syrian government supply lines from the regime’s coastal stronghold of Latakia. That would force the Assad regime to supply it’s remaining forces in the province of Idlib and the city of Aleppo only from Damascus.