Syria's Islamist rebels won a pivotal victory March 28. Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and their smaller allies seized the western city of Idlib after a four-day offensive. The groups used multiple vehicle-borne improvised explosives to target key parts of the city's outer ring of defenses manned by loyalist forces. The attackers then carried out multi-directional attacks to exploit the gaps the bombings created in the loyalists' positions. They punched deep through two belts of defenses around the city before the loyalist forces could successfully respond and re-establish their defensive lines. The rebels are still conducting operations to eliminate the remaining pro-government forces, but the major fighting is finished — the Islamist rebels now control the city.
Idlib is the capital and largest city in the northwestern province of the same name. It is the third provincial capital the government has lost after the Islamic State seized Raqaa to the east and rebel groups took Quneitra to the south. The city's fall comes at the end of a long period of consolidation by Jabhat al-Nusra and its Ahrar al-Sham allies in Idlib province, where they scored large victories against the Syrian military, such as the seizure of the major military bases around Maarat al-Nuaman. Jabhat al-Nusra has also driven out a number of more moderate U.S.-backed rebel forces such as the Syria Revolutionaries Front and Harakat Hazm.
By taking Idlib, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham have cemented their status as some of the most competent armed factions in the Syrian civil war. This enhanced prestige will make absorbing smaller rebel factions easier, especially for Ahrar al-Sham, which has a less extreme ideology compared to Jabhat al-Nusra. Indeed, the group absorbed Suqour al-Sham in a landmark agreement March 22. As long as Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra can avoid infighting and continue their close relationship, they should be able to maintain their considerable momentum and largely drive out the loyalist forces from the rest of Idlib province. Moreover, as Ahrar al-Sham continues to garner prominence on the battlefield, outside parties interested in shaping Syria's political landscape such as the United States will have to lean on Turkey and Qatar, the group's primary backers.