BEIRUT -- Syrian rebels on Friday said that after a weeks-long battle in northwestern Idlib province they had seized a strategic air base, depriving the government of its ability to carry out helicopter airstrikes in the area.
The Taftanaz air base has been used by the government to stage helicopter attacks on rebels in the province, adjacent to the Turkish border. The campaign to seize it had been spearheaded by hardline Islamic fighting groups, such as the Al Nusra front, which is affiliated with Al Qaeda.
“It was fully liberated, today in the morning. There are no elements from the regime at all, and now the FSA [Free Syrian Army] has complete control,” said a rebel, who called himself Ismaili Taftanazi, in a Skype interview.
The Syrian government had no comment on the status of Taftanaz, but if the claim is confirmed, it would amount to a major strategic victory for the Islamist fighters, who have concentrated on peeling off air bases from the Assad government. If they can deprive the government of its bases, it will be harder for Assad’s forces to resupply, move troops and unleash the punishing aerial strikes that have become a trademark of the nearly 22-month war.
A rebel victory would also solidify control of rebel-held territories in Idlib, where the two sides are locked in battle. The base is the province’s biggest airstrip for attack helicopters. Finally, it would provide a morale boost to Islamic fighters carrying out a similar campaign on the three major air bases in Aleppo province.