Fighters with the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front and other Islamist groups have seized two major army bases in Syria's northwestern province of Idlib, rebel activists said.
After two days of heavy fighting, the groups - including Jund Al-Aqsa and Ahrar Al-Sham - took control of the bases Monday in Wadi Deif and Al-Hamidiyeh, about 22 miles south of Idlib near the town of Maaret Al-Numan, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition monitoring group with a network of observers in Syria.
The base at Wadi Deif lies strategically on the main north-south highway linking Syria's two biggest cities, Damascus and Aleppo.
An account linked to the Nusra Front tweeted photographs and videos of jubilant fighters mounting the attack with tanks and heavy cannons.
One photo showed a militant using what they claimed was a U.S.-made anti-tank missile--presumably commandeered from Western-supported fighters in the area who had been routed by Islamist groups in November.
Rami Abdul Rahman, who leads the United Kingdom-based Observatory, called the rebels' seizure of the bases a significant victory – particularly since they had been touted by the Syrian government as secure.
"Idlib is now almost completely under the control of Islamist fighters," Abdul Rahman told the Saudi Arabian news station Al-Arabiyah on Monday.
Syrian government officials provided no statement on the rebel claims.
The takeover comes as part of a bid to establish new front lines in the long-running conflict as United Nations officials try to gain support for a conflict "freeze" in embattled Aleppo, Syria's largest city, which lies about 100 miles north of the bases.
The city has effectively been divided into warring factions.
The Syrian revolution began three years ago as largely peaceful anti-government protests but rapidly devolved into a vicious sectarian civil war that has ravaged the country and left, according to some estimates, more than 200,000 dead.
Bulos is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Molly Hennessy-Fiske contributed to this report.