Islamic militants seeking to topple President Bashar Assad took full control of a strategic northwestern air base Friday in a significant blow to government forces, seizing helicopters, tanks and multiple rocket launchers, activists said.
The Taftanaz air base in the northern Idlib province is considered the biggest field in the country’s north for helicopters used to bomb rebel-held areas and deliver supplies to government troops.
Rebels from al-Qaida affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and other Islamic groups have been fighting for weeks for control of the sprawling facility and broke into it Wednesday evening. Activists said the rebels seized control of buildings, ammunition and military equipment after ferocious fighting at dawn.
“As of now, the rebels are in full control of the air base,” said Idlib-based activist Mohammad Kanaan.
The rebels had been attacking Taftanaz for months, launching a fresh offensive on it in early November. While its fall will dent helicopter operations, it will do little to stop airstrikes by government jets, many of which come from bases farther south.
It is also unclear whether the rebels will be able to retain control of the facility. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said government warplanes bombed the air base after the rebel takeover Friday.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Observatory, said it is the first major military airport to fall into rebel hands.
Read tomorrow's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for full details.