Rebels take control of key Assad air base

Fighters' prize comes as part of strategy to choke off regime's airpower

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 January, 2013, 4:02am


Rebels fighting the Bashar al-Assad regime scored a significant victory yesterday when they took control of one of Syria's most important northern airbases, seizing tanks, helicopters and large amounts of ammunition.

Fighters had laid siege to the Taftanaz base near the town of Idlib for months. After seizing several buildings on Wednesday they stormed the sprawling complex yesterday morning. "As of now, the rebels are in full control of the air base," Idlib-based activist Mohammad Kanaan said.

A video from the scene shows jubilant rebels ripping down a large poster of Assad at the entrance gate. Others wave from the upper story of a barracks. Trucks carry off boxes of ammunition. The bodies of four government soldiers lay sprawled in a pit.

In another video, captured Sunni government soldiers claim their Alawite officers fled the base a few hours earlier, abandoning them to their fate. Government forces appear to have removed most of the 60 helicopters stationed at Taftanaz, leaving behind 20 that were apparently non-functional.

The fall of the base is an asset loss for Damascus. In recent months the rebels have systematically targeted airbases across the country in an attempt to choke off the government's key military advantage: airpower. Taftanaz has been used to launch repeated helicopter strikes against opposition strongholds in nearby Aleppo, Syria's divided northern city, and elsewhere.

Fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra and other radical Islamist groups spearheaded the Taftanaz attack, punching through when previous attempts had failed. The US claims Jabhat al-Nusra is allied to al-Qaeda.

The organisation does not deny it's al-Qaeda links, but is trying to eschew its bloody past in Iraq by engaging in community outreach programmes and avoiding sectarian rhetoric.

The development will alarm Western countries, which are increasingly concerned after almost two years of fighting at the rise of Islamist militias in Syria.