REBELS launched a dawn assault on a strategic airbase in the north of Syria yesterday, trying to disrupt airstrikes by warplanes and helicopters that pound rebel-held towns and give the regime of president Bashar al-Assad a major edge in the continuing civil war.
The assault, reported by activists, comes a day before the start of a key international conference in Qatar at which allies of the rebel fighters will aim to organise the opposition’s political leadership and unite their ranks. The leadership-in-exile has been widely seen as ineffective and out of touch with fighters on the ground so far.
Rebel forces attacked the Taftanaz airbase early yesterday in fighting with government forces that continued into the afternoon, the anti-regime activist Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Separately, three Syrian tanks entered the demilitarised zone in the Golan Heights, according to Israel’s armed forces. A military spokeswoman said Israel had complained to the United Nations peacekeeping force in the area about the incursion by tanks yesterday. The relatively low-key response suggested Israel did not see their intrusion as an immediate threat.
During yesterday’s airbase attack, Syrian rebels were joined by fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda-inspired Islamist group made up of foreign jihadis, according to the UK-based Observatory. Al-Nusra fighters, who are considered among the most experienced and disciplined among the opposition forces, have led attacks on other airbases in the north in past months.
The Taftanaz base mainly houses military helicopters, near the main road between the capital Damascus and the northern city of Aleppo, where rebels and Assad forces have been battling for control for months.
Online activist videos claim to show the battle, with rebels firing rockets and mortars, and smoke rising over buildings and an airstrip. An activist speaking in the video identifies it as an attack by rebels and Jabhat al-Nusra on the base. The videos appear genuine and are consistent with other reports from the area.
The capture and retention of the base would be a major success for the rebels, who often complain they are outgunned by Assad’s forces.
Airstrikes have been one of the most effective and feared weapons of the regime in the civil war. Rebels managed to seize control of a pocket of territory around Aleppo, but government warplanes and helicopters continue to blast towns they hold from the air. In the fierce fighting over Aleppo itself, warplanes swoop in almost daily to strafe or bomb rebel-held districts.
Rebels repeatedly target military airports and runways and often try to shoot down military jets to curtail the regime’s air power, even though they lack anti-aircraft weapons.
In an August attack on the Taftanaz base, rebels claimed to have badly damaged ten military helicopters.
Activists say more than 36,000 people have been killed during Syria’s 19-month-old conflict, which began in March last year as a largely peaceful uprising but has transformed into a brutal civil war.
Several attempts for a truce have failed, including the UN-supported four-day ceasefire that was meant to coincide with the major Muslim holiday of Eid earlier this month, leaving the international community at a loss for ways to end the war.
The fragmented Syrian opposition will attempt once again this weekend to forge a common policy to gain international respect, obtain weapons and, most importantly, topple Assad.
“An alternative to the regime is dearly needed,” said Riad Seif, a liberal politician who is battling cancer and managed to leave Syria only a few months ago after having been imprisoned. “We are talking about a temporary period that begins with forming a political leadership until a national assembly that represents all Syrians meets in Damascus, once Assad falls,” Seif said in an interview in Amman, Jordan. He spoke after talking to opposition figures in advance of the meeting of the wider opposition movement in Doha, capital of Qatar. Divisions between Islamists and secularists as well as between those inside Syria and opposition figures based abroad have thwarted prior attempts to forge a united front.
On Wednesday, the United States called for an overhaul of the Syrian opposition’s leadership, saying it was time to move beyond the Syrian National Council, the largest of the groupings abroad, and bring in those “in the front lines fighting and dying”.
Secretary of state Hillary Clinton, signalling a more active stance by Washington in attempts to form a credible political alternative to Assad, said the Qatar meeting would be an opportunity to broaden the coalition against him.
Unlike previous efforts that failed to come up with a unified leadership, Seif said the Doha assembly will be more inclusive, representing a myriad of religious and activists’ groupings as well as more members of Assad’s minority Alawite sect and Kurdish political leaders.
Among those Seif met in Amman was former Syrian premier Riad Hijab, who defected to Jordan three months ago and is playing a major role in the new effort led by Seif. He also met with Suhair al-Atassi, an organiser of peaceful street demonstrations early in the revolt, and physician Kamal al-Labwani, a long-time political prisoner who is now an outspoken advocate for armed struggle.
“We have ten million Syrians who need everything from housing to security to public services, and a regime we have to take every possible measure to remove to avoid more losses,” Seif said, referring to inhabitants of areas under rebel control or where central authority had collapsed.
The charismatic 66-year old, who has had cancer for years, is one of Syria’s most prominent dissidents.
Having been assaulted by Assad’s security forces at a pro-democracy demonstration early in the revolt, he commands respect on the ground as well from opposition figures, whose bickering has undermined the rebellion and made western and regional powers wary of recognising the opposition.