Damascus (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Syrian rebels linked to al-Qaeda have seized control of a key airbase in the north-western province of Idlib after a two-year siege, Syrian state TV announced. The defeat represents a blow for President Bashar al Assad and government forces.
The Abu al-Duhur airbase was the regime’s last position in the province, which is now almost entirely in rebel hands. The fall of the base was helped by dust storms, which hampered Syria's air force.
Since early spring, the coalition behind the attack, the self-styled ‘Army of Conquest’ – which includes al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, the al-Nusra front – has seized various cities, including Idlib and Jisr al-Shughour.
Late last month, they stepped up their offensive against Abu al-Duhur, using suicide attacks to seize the entrance to the airbase and several positions on its outskirts.
In announcing the fall, Syrian state TV conceded that government troops had "evacuated their positions and moved to another point".
With the airbase’s capture, the Syrian military has been completely driven out of Idlib province, this according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Only the predominantly Shia villages of al-Fo’ua and Kafarya are still held by pro-government militias and Lebanese Hezbollah forces, not the Syrian army.
Although this is another blow for President Assad and his overstretched forces, the province was already all but lost to the rebel coalition.
The latter's success has come both from uniting a variety of rebel militias into a single fighting force and a rapprochement of sorts between their main backers, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. This has allowed a new flow of cash and weapons into rebel hands.
In total 240,381 people have died in Syria since March 2011, when unrest against the Assad regime turned into an armed uprising led by a variety of opposition groups.
This is up from 230,618 on 9 June, including 11,964 children and 71,781 civilians. A third of the dead are government soldiers: 88,616, including 50,570 regular soldiers.
According to United Nations figures, more than 10 million people have been displaced by fighting. At least 4 million have gone to neighbouring countries – Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq – with 150,000 applying for asylum in the European Union. Another 6.5 million are internally displaced, people who have had to abandon everything but still chose to remain in the country.