Syrian rebels seize key airbase in north

Sat, Jan 12, 2013, 00:00

Rebels fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad 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 storey of a barracks. Trucks carry off boxes of ammunition. The bodies of four government soldiers lay in a muddy pit.

Officers fled

In another video captured Sunni government soldiers claim their Alawite officers fled the base early yesterday, abandoning them to their fate. Government forces appear to have removed most of the 60 helicopters stationed at Taftanaz – leaving about 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 had 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 its al-Qaeda links, but is trying to eschew its bloody past in Iraq by engaging in community outreach programmes and avoiding sectarian rhetoric.

Embolden rebels

The development will alarm western countries, who are increasingly concerned, after almost two years of fighting at the rise of Islamist militias in Syria. Ultimately the seizure may do little to halt airstrikes by government jets, many of which come from bases further south. But it will undoubtedly embolden the rebels, who are still besieging other bases, and whose command structure is improving.

The regime responded by launching punitive air strikes on Taftanaz, which lies near the highway between Aleppo and the capital Damascus.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said this was the first major military airbase to fall into rebel hands. Mr Kanaan, the Idlib activist, said the rebels seized helicopters, but added that most if not all were already damaged from the fighting. “The regime bombed them to keep the rebels from using them,” he said.

Yezid Sayigh, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, said Taftanaz’s capture would help the rebels as they try to secure a continuous area in the north. But he played down the broader military significance, saying it had taken them months to take the base. “This is a tactical gain rather than a strategic gain,” Mr Sayigh said.

Meanwhile Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN-Arab league envoy to Syria, met with Russian and US diplomats yesterday in an attempt to find a political solution to the conflict. – (The Guardian)