Syrian rebels seize key air base, activists say

Published on NewsOK Modified: January 11, 2013 at 3:47 pm •  Published: January 11, 2013
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BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels and Islamic militants overran a major military air base in the north Friday and, buoyed by the victory, intensified their offensive on two other bases in their most aggressive campaign yet to erode the air supremacy on which the regime of President Bashar Assad has increasingly relied the past year.

The rebels control the ground in large parts of the north, but they have been unable to solidify their grip because they - and civilians in rebel-held regions - come under withering strikes from aircraft stationed at a number of military bases in the area.

The Taftanaz air base in Idlib province is the largest air base yet to be captured by the rebels. It is the biggest field in the north for helicopters the military uses both for strikes on rebels and for delivering supplies to government troops still in the north to avoid the danger of rebel attacks on the roads.

Shortly after they captured the Taftanaz field, rebels in the neighboring province of Aleppo intensified their assault on the Mannagh air base and the international airport of the city of Aleppo, which includes a military base. Rebels have been trying to capture the two sites since last week, along with a third airfield known as Kweires.

The latest fighting came as international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi expressed little hope for a political solution for Syria's nearly 2-year-old civil war anytime soon after meeting Friday with senior Russian and U.S. diplomats at the United Nations' European headquarters.

Brahimi, who is the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria, met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns. The talks were part of his attempts to find some traction for an international peace place calling for creation of a new, provisional government in Damascus that has so far gone nowhere.

Brahimi spoke with Assad in late December about the plan during a visit to the Syrian capital. Days afterward, Assad went on state TV with a defiant speech and a plan of his own, offering to oversee a national conciliation conference while rejecting any talks with the armed opposition and vowing to continue fighting them.

The speech was widely condemned, though Russia, one of Assad's closest allies, said elements of it should be considered. Russia, along with China, has used its veto at the U.N. Security Council to shield its last Mideast ally from international sanctions.

"We are very, very deeply aware of the immense suffering of the Syrian people, which has gone on for far too long," Brahimi told reporters after his talks in Geneva on Friday. "And we all stressed the need for a speedy end to the bloodshed, to the destruction and all forms of violence in Syria.

But if you are asking me whether a solution is around the corner, I'm not sure that is the case," he said.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Brahimi's talks Friday produced "some progress" but that more work was needed. Asked to see where views between the U.S. and Russia converged, she said all parties support the idea of a transitional government that would be agreed to by the regime and Syrian opposition, and would have full executive powers.

"I'm obviously going to let the Russians speak for themselves, but it's hard to imagine how you would have a transitional government with Assad still part of it," Nuland told reporters.

More than 60,000 people have been killed since March 2011 in Syria's conflict, which has turned into an outright civil war driving hundreds of thousands from their homes and across the borders into neighboring countries.

Neither side has been able to gain a decisive military edge. But the capture of Taftanaz showed the creeping progress of rebels in the pocket of northwest Syria where they have been trying to solidify their control.

The fall of the base is a new embarrassment for the regime, a sign of its fraying hold in the north. It also provides a strong boost for the arsenal of the rebels, who partially rely on weapons looted from the military.

It chips away at the regime's air power in the north, but is far from eliminating it. There remain several other, smaller helicopter bases, and regime warplanes that also strike the area operate from bases further south. The capture wouldn't affect the military's airpower against rebels in other parts of the country.

"It is a moral blow but will not change the reality on the ground," said Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese army general who heads the Beirut-based think tank Middle East Center for Studies and Public Relations. He noted the regime has more than a dozen military bases around the country.

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