Syrian rebels claim control of strategic air base

Hard-line Islamists lead drive to limit Assad's air power

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BEIRUT -- After weeks of fighting, 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 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 strategic victory for the Islamist fighters, who have concentrated on peeling off air bases from the Assad government. If they can deprive the government of its bases, it will be harder for President Bashar al-Assad's forces to resupply, move troops and unleash the punishing 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 Islamic 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 still able to use MIG fighters to shell it, Mr. Taftanazi said.

Many Syrians remain wary of the rebels, alarmed by the role of hard-line Islamist groups such as Nusra in the uprising.

The current round of fighting lasted 10 days, according to another rebel, who gave his name as Hazem al Shami. "This is the biggest attack against the regime from the beginning of the revolution until now," Mr. Shami said in a phone interview that may have reflected more bravado than sober analysis. The rebels had tried 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."

U.N. and Arab League special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met in Geneva with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov in an effort to find common ground on Syria.

Both countries say they agree on a peace initiative for Syria from last summer, but Russia refuses to back Washington's demand that Mr. Assad step down from power for a transitional government.

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