UPDATE 2000 GMT: A demonstration in Homs celebrates news of the rebel advances in Idlib and in Busra al-Sham in Daraa Province in southern Syria:
UPDATE 1330 GMT: Information from inside Syria indicates that Syrian forces in Idlib have lost their major line of defense around the city, the perimeter of the ring highway.
The inner ring defense has been overrun at a few points, with rebels now moving against barriers inside the city. To the south, Syrian troops are fighting at the last highway checkpoint.
Crucially, the road from Ariha to the south has been cut, hindering regime attempts at reinforcements from Latakia Province via Jisr al-Shoghour. The Syrian military is likely to put a priority on reopening the route to tip the balance in Idlib back in its favor.
Rebels launched an offensive on Tuesday to capture Idlib in northwest Syria, attacking the city from the north, east, and west.
The attack started with three vehicle-borne suicide bombings, two by members of the Jund al-Aqsa faction and one by a fighter from Jabhat al-Nusra, on regime checkpoints.
Rebels claimed by Tuesday afternoon that they had overrun five checkpoints, seizing territory to the east of the city. Later reports said some fighters were inside Idlib.
Sources also indicate that the regime-held village of al-Fuah, to the north of Idlib, is cut off and the important road link to Ariha is almost unuseable.
Seven factions are involved in the offensive, including Jabhat al-Nusra, Jund al-Aqsa, Jaish al-Sunna, Liwa al-Haq, Ajnad al-Sham, and Faynad al-Sham.
Fighters from Ahrar al-Sham challenging regime forces:
Ahrar al-Sham forces advance on checkpoint between al-Fu’ah and Idlib:
The Syrian military insisted on State that regime forces were repelling “attempts by terrorists groups to infiltrate the outskirts” of Idlib.
Claims circulated on Tuesday that Syrian warplanes tried to counter the offensive with more chlorine attacks on opposition-held areas near Idlib. Syrian civil defense said the targets were Binnish (see photos) and Salh al-Rouj, while footage of victims was posted from Qmenas, east of Idlib:
“The casualties are unfortunately mostly women and children. Luckily, there have been no deaths so far,” said Rami Abu Zubeyda, a doctor at a field hospital in Binnish. The Syrian Revolution General Commission said 20 people, mostly children, were hospitalized in the town.
Video from Binnish:
Regime helicopters used chlorine gas last week on Sarmin, killing six members of a family and wounding more than 100 others.
The regime has held Idlib city, the provincial capital, throughout the four-year conflict, but rebels have controlled most of the province since 2012.
Idlib had a pre-war population of about 165,000. It would be the largest city to fall to the opposition since Raqqa — now controlled by the Islamic State — in autumn 2013.
European Diplomat: US Negotiating with Assad Regime Over Imprisoned Journalist Austin Tice
According to an unnamed European diplomats, US officials are negotiating with the Assad regime for the release of journalist Austin Tice, who went missing in August 2012.
The diplomat told the French newspaper Le Figaro that the talks started weeks ago, with “an emissary representing the US government” visiting the imprisoned journalist.
Tice disappeared while reporting for McClatchy, the Washington Post, and other news organizations. The Assad government has never admitted publicly to holding the reporter.
Le Figaro said the negotiations involve a “high-ranking American diplomat”, a Czech diplomat in Damascus, and Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mikdad.
The Czech Embassy has overseen US interests in Syria since the American Embassy closed in 2012.
Assad Hosts Iraqi Foreign Minister
President Assad hosted Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari on Tuesday, putting out a statement on “the successes made by the people and armed forces of Iraq and Syria against terrorist organizations”.
No details of the conversation were offered by State media. Instead, outlets highlighted Assad’s declaration of the “great importance to have a real international will to grapple with terrorism and face up to the countries backing it”.
Sources: Rebels Claim Victory in Busra al-Sham in South
Rebels have taken the historic town of Busra al-Sham in Daraa Province in the south, completing the offensive that began over the weekend.
The sources claim the last regime troops in Busra are holed up in the Roman ruins, with the Syrian airforce trying to save the situation with barrel-bombing.
The opposition’s advance in Busra, with a pre-war population of about 15,000, opens up the route to Sweida Province and to another crossing point on the Jordanian border.
The Southern Front rebel bloc announces the liberation of the town:
Rebels at the Roman theater:
— Thomas van Linge (@arabthomness) March 25, 2015
And in the National Hospital:
Busra had a pre-war population of about 15,000. A significant town in Roman times, it retains architecture from the period.