Mannagh helicopter base finally fell early yesterday nearly 24 hours after rebels, led by al-Qaeda-linked militants, launched an all-out offensive against it.
The Aleppo Media Centre said rebels finally captured it before dawn. Videos from the battlefield showed rebels inspecting captured helicopters.
Mannagh, in the north of Aleppo province, is deep inside territory dominated by the Syrian opposition. Rebels have been trying since last year to capture it, but faced strong resistance from defenders.
Rebels seized part of it in June, and since then its fall has been widely expected. The air base is the largest to fall in rebel hands since opposition forces captured the Taftanaz base in the northern province of Idlib in January.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the final assault on Mannagh was led by members of the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. It began early on Monday when a Saudi suicide attacker blew up his armoured personnel carrier – presumably captured from government forces – outside the command centre of the sprawling compound.
It said the rebels then began advancing, capturing vehicles and buildings inside the base. It did not say how many government troops were killed but said at least ten rebels died in the fighting. The Observatory added that rebels took prisoner a number of government troops.
Syria’s main opposition bloc, the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, congratulated Syrians on the capture of the base. It said rebels “fully liberated the Mannagh air base and will transfer it from a regime tool for oppression to a minaret of liberation.”
Amateur videos released by activists showed rebels walking inside the base amid damaged helicopters.
“Thanks to God, the airport was fully liberated and here are the spoils,” said the narrator as rebels could be seen standing in front of an armoured personnel carrier and green wooden ammunition boxes.
The capture of Mannagh could now free hundreds of opposition fighters to reinforce other fronts, including the sieges of the nearby Shiite-majority regime-held towns of Nubul and Zahra.
Syria’s conflict has taken on an increasingly sectarian tone in the last year, pitting predominantly Sunni Muslim rebels against members of Mr Assad’s Alawite sect.
Charles Lister of Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre said the fall of the airport “underlines the leading strategic impact being played by militant Islamists, particularly in northern Syria”.
He said it will also likely prove a turning point within the wider conflict in Aleppo province.
Meanwhile, rebel fighters have continued a new offensive into the mountain stronghold of Mr Assad’s Alawite sect driving hundreds of villagers to seek refuge on the Mediterranean coast.
Since launching the surprise assault at dawn on Sunday, the mainly Islamist rebel brigades led by two al-Qaeda-linked groups have captured half a dozen villages on the northern edges of the Alawite mountain range, activists say.
Mohammad Moussa, a Free Syrian Army commander, yesterday said rebel forces were on the outskirts of the hilltop village of Aramo, which is 12 miles from Qardaha – Mr Assad’s hometown and burial place of his father, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria with an iron fist for three decades. As evidence, the rebels released a picture showing one of their men at a road sign reading Qardaha.
“The objective is to reach Qardaha and hurt them like they are hurting us. The Alawites have been huddling in their mountain thinking that they can destroy Syria and remain immune,” Ahmad Abdelqader, an activist with the Ahrar al-Jabal Brigade said.