* Islamist units claim victory at military base
* Syrian military strikes back with air strikes
* Videos show fighters on helicopter
By Erika Solomon and Alexander Dziadosz
BEIRUT, Jan 11 Rebels seized a strategic air
base in northern Syria on Friday after months of fighting,
activists and insurgents said, further weakening President
Bashar al-Assad's grip on the region.
Rebels had fought for the base used by military helicopters
in Idlib province for months, but it only fell after Islamist
units reinforced them earlier this month.
The Syrian military struck back hours after fighters
captured the base, launching air strikes on the area, the
pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
"Taftanaz base is being bombarded by Syrian war planes,
which are trying to destroy the airport after it was seized by
fighters," it said.
These came from several Islamist battalions strong in
northern Syria such as Ahrar al-Sham, the Islamic Vanguard and
al-Nusra Front, which has links to al Qaeda.
The United States has branded Nusra a terrorist organisation
although it enjoys wide support in Syria for its combat skills.
Rebels from the Islamic Front, an alliance of several
Islamist units, said Taftanaz is the largest helicopter base in
northern Syria and the second largest in the country.
They posted an online video showing armed men in camouflage
jackets tearing down posters of Assad and shouting "Allahu akbar
(God is Greatest)" at what they said was the Taftanaz base.
The videos could not be verified independently. The
government has imposed strict curbs on foreign media access.
In another video, men climbed atop a helicopter, hoisted
assault rifles in the air and displayed a black Islamic flag. At
least four corpses, said to be government pilots, lay in a dirt
hole in another video.
Since the summer, rebels have been surrounding and attacking
government air bases to ground warplanes and helicopters that
have pounded their positions and made it harder to take and hold
The Taftanaz base had been used to attack areas in the north
and supply other bases in the Idlib area, the Observatory's
director Rami Abdelrahman said
"Loss of the base could make it hard for the army to hold on
to any control in Idlib," he said, adding all the helicopters in
the base were broken and working aircraft had been moved to
three other locations.
Yezid Sayigh, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East
Centre in Beirut, said Taftanaz's capture would help the rebels
as they try to secure a continuous area in the north.
But he played down the broader military significance,
pointing out it had taken the rebels months to take a base the
government already could not use because of the fighting.
"This is a tactical gain rather than a strategic gain,"
Despite capturing territory across the country's north and
east, the rebels have been plagued by divisions, a lack of
equipment and disorganisation.
They have also seen their support from civilians erode in
some areas because of poor discipline, looting and bad living
The United Nations says at least 60,000 people have been
killed in Syria since peaceful protests began in March, 2011 and
then developed into an armed revolt after a security crackdown.