Damascus (AsiaNews / Agencies) - A coalition of pro-Islamist movements has wrestled one of the last government strongholds from the army in the province of Idlib, in the northwest of the country.
According to the London based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (Osdh), with a "lightning offensive " in the last hours jihadists have won the city of Ariha. The group renamed Jaish al-Fateh (Conqueror Army) is composed of fighters from the al Nusra Front - an offshoot of al Qaeda in Syria - and other fundamentalist movements.
The Syrian army has yet to confirm the defeat in battle and says there is still fighting going on in the area.
The fall of Ariha would mean that the rebels have almost total control the province of Idlib, bordering Turkey. Since last March the area has been the scene of a major Jihad offensive, which has already led to the fall of major cities such as the same Idlib and Jisr al-Shughour.
Now only two Shiite villages, several military posts and the military airport of Abul Douhour remain under government control.
In addition to border with Turkey, Idlib borders with the province of Latakia, a real government stronghold and heart of power of President Bashar al Assad and the Alawite family.
Meanwhile, the leader of al Nusra Front has reported an order received from the operational head of al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who said Syria was not to be used to launch attacks on the West. In an interview with Al Jazeera, Abu Mohammed al-Julani stressed that the Front is committed to the conquest of Damascus and the ouster of Assad. He also promised protection for minorities, once the president is deposed.
Since the beginning of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al Assad in 2011, more than 3.2 million people have fled the country whilst another 7.6 million have become internally displaced. At least 200,000 people have been killed in the fighting, many of them civilians. Last year was the worse.
In the spring of 2013, IS emerged out of the cauldron of Syria's civil war, with all its violence and brutality. From that point, it advanced rapidly, seizing large swathes of Syrian and Iraqi territory.
Now the jihadist militia controls "over 95 thousand square kilometers" in Syrian territory, which constitutes 50% of the whole country. They dominate in the provinces of Deir Ezzor and Raqqa and have built a strong presence in Hasakeh, Aleppo, Homs and Hama.