BEIRUT — Syrian government aircraft scattered leaflets over the northern city of Idlib on Wednesday demanding that rebels surrender, as the two sides battled for control of a highway the regime uses to transport weapons from a coastal stronghold to its troops fighting in opposition-held areas in the north.
The battle for the highway leading from the mountainous Latakia province along the Mediterranean coast into the neighboring province of Idlib is crucial to rebel efforts to retain control of the villages and towns they hold.
They dynamited a highway bridge near the city of Jisr al-Shughour and demolished other parts of the road, said Fuad al-Deek, an activist via Skype, based in Idlib province. Syrian troops fired mortar shells and conducted airstrikes to try dislodge the rebels, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists on the ground.
Idlib holds strategic value to the rebels because it borders Turkey, which has been a critical source of weapons shipments and other supplies. Latakia province, meanwhile, is predominantly home to members of the president’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.
Syria’s conflict began in March 2011 with largely peaceful protests against Assad’s rule but escalated into a civil war in response to a brutal government crackdown.
The conflict has taken an increasingly sectarian bent, with mostly Sunni rebels assisted by foreign fighters. Assad’s forces are bolstered by fighters of the Lebanese Shii’te group Hezbollah.
Deek said the rebels fighting for the Idlib highway were from two Islamic brigades, Suqour al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham.
He said they were struggling to obtain weapons to keep up their fighting, despite a recent influx of arms from Gulf Arab states.
In recent months, rebels have accessed more powerful weaponry, including antitank missiles and surface-to-air missiles, probably supplied by Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
The UN estimates that more than 93,000 people have been killed in Syria since the anti- Assad revolt began in March 2011.
With so much blood shed and the country still contested, the regime’s call Wednesday to surrender was highly unlikely to find takers on the rebel side, either Syrians or foreign fighters.
One of the leaflets dropped in Idlib and addressed to foreign fighters read: “Abandon your weapons and return to your family.”