Rebels Gain Control of Government Air Base in Syria

Rebels Gain Control of Government Air Base in Syria

U.S.-backed Syrian rebels appeal for antiaircraft missiles
Rebels Reassert Control Over Latakia Countryside
Suicide Attacks Will Win the War for the Rebels

Source: The New York Times – by Anne Barnard and Hwaida Saad (Rebels Gain Control of Government Air Base in Syria)

Rebel fighters on Monday swept into a sprawling government air base in northern Syria where isolated government troops had fought off their attacks for nearly a year, and by early Tuesday controlled almost all the base, seizing several tanks and other munitions and taking soldiers prisoner, rebel and opposition groups said.

The victory, said by the groups to have been led by two foreign men in an armored vehicle who carried out a suicide attack to breach the defenses of the Minakh air base, was bound to boost the morale of an insurgency that has faltered in recent months with rebels fighting among themselves and losing long-held ground to the army.

Such gains have sometimes been reversed within days, as the government strikes back from the air. But if it holds, the rebels’ seizure of the Minakh base in Aleppo Province will challenge the government’s assertion that it is rolling to victory and demonstrate the complexity of the Syrian battlefield, which neither side has been able to control and where momentum shifts from place to place and week to week.

Even as the battle at Minakh was raging, the government was celebrating its own victory in the central city of Homs, where the defense minister toured the shattered Khalidiyeh neighborhood, long held by insurgents, and posed in front of the Khalid bin al-Waleed mosque — a 13th-century landmark that had been a rebel rallying point and was heavily damaged in the fighting.

Yet to the north, a large rebel force armed with tanks and rocket launchers pushed deeper into an area that has long been a relatively quiet government stronghold, the coastal mountains of Latakia Province, sending civilians fleeing.

The dueling victories show the de facto splitting of Syria into zones of government and rebel control. The government appears committed and strong in the corridor leading from Damascus north through Homs to its coastal stronghold. But in the north it has lost the ability to maneuver through most roads and rural areas and struggles to hold on to isolated military outposts.

In recent months, as the government, aided by a new influx of fighters from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, crushed rebels in some Damascus suburbs and in Homs Province, insurgents have chipped away at defenses in places like Latakia and around the Minakh air base.

Warplanes from the base had struck at villages across northern Syria, and the base, in flat fields with little cover, had presented its own challenge. But as rebels began to acquire antiaircraft weapons from Qatar and other donors, shooting down helicopters and warplanes, it became harder for the army to restock the base by air, stranding the soldiers with dwindling supplies.

A rebel fighter, Ahmed Farzat, said in a Skype interview that he had helped 10 soldiers defect from the base on Monday. “They tried to kill the head of the base a few days ago, but failed,” Mr. Farzat said. “He was trying to flee with other soldiers in a tank, but thank God he was captured later.”

The insurgency has been plagued recently, especially in northern Syria, by infighting between elements of the Free Syrian Army umbrella group, led by army defectors, and radical Islamist groups that include foreign fighters. The dividing lines between the groups and the alliances between them are blurred and shifting, and while it is too early to say who played the decisive role at Minakh, Islamist battalions and Free Syrian Army fighters seem to have worked together there.

The base was first besieged by a Free Syrian Army brigade called North Storm, and joined by fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham and a group calling itself Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar. Muhajireen means emigrants, and the group, which carried out several suicide attacks at the base, is led by Russian speakers from Chechnya and other parts of the Caucasus.

Mr. Farzat said Chechen Islamist fighters near the airport had refused to let the defecting government soldiers flee, so he helped them escape by another route. “I give the Islamic fighters credit for the liberation,” he said.The seizure of the base could have an impact on the stalemated fight for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, by freeing up rebel fighters and antiaircraft weapons to put pressure on Aleppo’s airport, which rebels have been unable to take despite months of trying. It could also dampen the morale of government troops in other remote outposts.

Abu al-Haytham, a rebel fighter who fought for months to seize Minakh and is now in Turkey, called the capture of the base a morale booster and “a strike against the regime.” But, he added, “it won’t change anything on the ground — we just got some vehicles and ammunition.”

In Latakia, the rebel offensive, involving more than 1,500 fighters led by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, accelerated what had been a gradual rebel push into a province whose government-held central city has been a relatively secure haven for displaced Syrians from war-torn areas.

Government forces withdrew Monday from a number of villages in the coastal mountains, said Ammar Hassan, an opposition activist in close touch with rebels.

He said rebels had seized four mountaintop military posts that had been shelling villages below, and were trying to advance farther toward the coast and toward Qardaha, the ancestral mountain village of President Bashar al-Assad’s family.

The advance brought fighting deeper into the heartland of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam to which the Assad family belongs, heightening fears of sectarian conflict. Alawites here have long feared they would face revenge killings by the mostly Sunni insurgents, and pro-government Alawite militias have been accused of killing Sunni civilians in the area.

Some Alawites remained in their villages as rebels advanced, and a few wounded Alawites were treated in makeshift rebel hospitals, said Mr. Hassan, who added, “Of course the majority of the residents fled to the city.”

Rebels Gain Control of Government Air Base in Syria


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