BEIRUT – Syrian rebels said Friday that they had seized a strategic air base in northwestern Idlib province, depriving the government of its ability to carry out helicopter airstrikes in the area.
The Taftanaz air base has been used by the government to stage helicopter attacks on rebels in the province, adjacent to the Turkish border. The campaign to seize it had been spearheaded by hard-line Islamic fighting groups, such as Jabhat Al-Nusra, or the Al-Nusra Front, which is affiliated with al-Qaida.
“It was fully liberated, today in the morning. There are no elements from the regime at all, and now the FSA (Free Syrian Army) has complete control,” a rebel said Friday in an interview by Skype. He called himself Ismaili Taftanazi, after the name of the air base.
The Syrian government had no comment on the status of Taftanaz, but if the claim is confirmed, it would amount to a major victory for the Islamist fighters, who have concentrated on peeling off air bases from the Assad government.
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If they can deprive the government of its bases, it will be harder for Assad’s forces to resupply, move troops and unleash the aerial strikes that have become a trademark of the nearly 22-month war.
A rebel victory would also solidify control of rebel-held territories in Idlib. The base is the province’s biggest airstrip for attack helicopters. Finally, it would provide a morale boost to fighters carrying out a similar campaign on the three major air bases in Aleppo province.
The rebels, while apparently winning the battle, were not on the verge of seizing the entire province, where the government still holds the city of Idlib and several key military installations. Even after losing the base, the Syrian air force was able to use MiG fighters to shell it, Taftanazi said.
Many Syrians remain wary of the fighters, alarmed by the role of hard-line Islamist groups such as Al-Nusra in the uprising.
The current round of fighting lasted 10 days, according to another rebel, who gave his name as Hazem al Shami. The rebels had been trying to seize Taftanaz for months.
In Friday’s assault, the rebels said they pounded the base with a few tanks, artillery, mortars and heavy machine guns.
“Taftanaz is an important victory,” said Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The rebels showed their ability to take positions even if it takes a long time. … (And) it shows a paralysis in the regime command. They can’t figure out how to deal with these situations. You have to wonder what effect it has inside the regime. What tales are being told in the inner circle about the air force’s effectiveness.”
White said he expected the victory would free up fighters to help rebel efforts to take at least another two critical bases in Idlib.
The rebels captured 15 to 20 helicopters that were damaged and at least two tanks and one rocket, according to rebels and to White, who surveyed footage posted on YouTube. Videos displayed the rebels showing off their captured tanks, helicopters and other spoils.
The rebel claims that they had captured the base came as the international envoy on the Syria crisis, Lakhdar Brahimi, met with senior Russian and U.S. officials in Geneva in hopes of reviving efforts to find a political solution to the conflict.
Brahimi made clear afterward that no agreement was close and repeated the need for a political solution to the conflict, which began as a movement demanding democratic reform.
Material from The New York Times is included in this report.