Syrian rebels seize key air base

The capture of Taftanaz shows the creeping progress of rebels in northwest Syria VIDEO

Topics: Video, aol_on, Syria, Free Syrian Army, Bashar al-Assad, Civil War, Middle East, Big story you missed,

Syrian rebels seize key air base

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels and Islamic militants overran a major military air base in the north Friday and, buoyed by the victory, intensified their offensive on two other bases in their most aggressive campaign yet to erode the air supremacy on which the regime of President Bashar Assad has increasingly relied the past year.

The rebels control the ground in large parts of the north, but they have been unable to solidify their grip because they — and civilians in rebel-held regions — come under withering strikes from aircraft stationed at a number of military bases in the area.

The Taftanaz air base in Idlib province is the largest air base yet to be captured by the rebels. It is the biggest field in the north for helicopters the military uses both for strikes on rebels and for delivering supplies to government troops still in the north to avoid the danger of rebel attacks on the roads.

Shortly after they captured the Taftanaz field, rebels in the neighboring province of Aleppo intensified their assault on the Mannagh air base and the international airport of the city of Aleppo, which includes a military base. Rebels have been trying to capture the two sites since last week, along with a third airfield known as Kweires.

The latest fighting came as international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi expressed little hope for a political solution for Syria’s nearly 2-year-old civil war anytime soon after meeting Friday with senior Russian and U.S. diplomats at the United Nations’ European headquarters.

Brahimi, who is the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria, met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns. The talks were part of his attempts to find some traction for an international peace plan calling for creation of a new, provisional government in Damascus that has so far gone nowhere.

Brahimi spoke with Assad in late December about the plan during a visit to the Syrian capital. Days afterward, Assad went on state TV with a defiant speech and a plan of his own, offering to oversee a national conciliation conference while rejecting any talks with the armed opposition and vowing to continue fighting them.

The speech was widely condemned, though Russia, one of Assad’s closest allies, said elements of it should be considered. Russia, along with China, has used its veto at the U.N. Security Council to shield its last ally in the Middle East from international sanctions.



“We are very, very deeply aware of the immense suffering of the Syrian people, which has gone on for far too long,” Brahimi told reporters after his talks in Geneva on Friday. “And we all stressed the need for a speedy end to the bloodshed, to the destruction and all forms of violence in Syria.

But if you are asking me whether a solution is around the corner, I’m not sure that is the case,” he said.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Brahimi’s talks Friday produced “some progress” but that more work was needed. Asked to see where views between the U.S. and Russia converged, she said all parties support the idea of a transitional government that would be agreed to by the regime and Syrian opposition, and would have full executive powers.

“I’m obviously going to let the Russians speak for themselves, but it’s hard to imagine how you would have a transitional government with Assad still part of it,” Nuland told reporters.

More than 60,000 people have been killed since March 2011 in Syria’s conflict, which has turned into an outright civil war driving hundreds of thousands from their homes and across the borders into neighboring countries.

Neither side has been able to gain a decisive military edge. But the capture of Taftanaz showed the creeping progress of rebels in the pocket of northwest Syria where they have been trying to solidify their control.

The fall of the base is a new embarrassment for the regime, a sign of its fraying hold in the north. It also provides a strong boost for the arsenal of the rebels, who partially rely on weapons looted from the military.

It chips away at the regime’s air power in the north, but is far from eliminating it. There remain several other, smaller helicopter bases, and regime warplanes that also strike the area operate from bases further south. The capture wouldn’t affect the military’s airpower against rebels in other parts of the country.

“It is a moral blow but will not change the reality on the ground,” said Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese army general who heads the Beirut-based think tank Middle East Center for Studies and Public Relations. He noted the regime has more than a dozen military bases around the country.

The battle also showed the strength of Islamic militants in the rebel ranks. The assault on Taftanaz was carried out by fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida-affiliated group that includes many non-Syrian jihadis, and by other Syrian brigades with a similar hard-line Islamist ideology.

Fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra, which the U.S. has branded a terrorist organization, have been among the most effective in the rebel ranks.

They launched their siege of the sprawling base in November and finally broke into it Wednesday evening. After fierce fighting lasting until dawn, they swept over the entire facility.

“As of now, the rebels are in full control of the air base,” said Idlib-based activist Mohammad Kanaan.

After sunset, troops bombarded Taftanaz with artillery from nearby areas, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based anti-Assad activist group that gathers information from operatives on the ground. Rebels have been forced to abandon previous bases they have captured because they are too exposed to regime strikes.

But, as in previous captures of smaller bases, weapons were the key prize.

Video taken by activists inside the base and posted online showed rebels dismantling ammunition from a heavy machine gun in the base and loading the ammunition into a truck. In other videos, rebels are seen celebrating inside the base, some kneeling and kissing the ground and others showing off booty including multiple rocket launchers. Kanaan said tanks were also captured.

The videos appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting on the events depicted.

One video showed helicopters in the field, some destroyed, some seemingly intact. It was not clear whether any were operable. The Observatory said around 20 helicopters were seized but none were in working order. Rebels have seized helicopters in the past, but there’s been no reported case of them flying one.

“These are the helicopters that belonged to Assad’s regime and now they are the helicopters of the Syrian people,” said the video’s narrator, who spoke with an Arabic accent indicating he was from North Africa.

In one video, at least six dead men in military uniform were seen on the ground outside one of the housing units in the base. Two other dead men were seen inside the building. “They refused to defect. We have been urging them to defect since our attack began 10 days ago,” the rebel narrating the video said.

Another video released by the Observatory showed at least four dead men in uniform, including two in pilots’ uniforms, in what appeared to be a trench.

There was no immediate word on casualties among rebels.

Until the fall of Taftanaz, the biggest capture had been that of the Marj al-Sultan base just outside the capital Damascus. The base was mostly used for fixing helicopters but the rebels captured several choppers in it.

Also Friday, a car bomb killed one person in Damascus, activists and state media said. The Observatory said the dead man was a police general, while state-run news agency SANA said the dead was a civilian.

Rebels said Friday that a senior rebel commander was gunned down this week by rival fighters in northern Syria.

Thaer al-Waqqas, a northern commander with the al-Farouq Brigades, was shot dead at a rebel-held position in the town of Sarmada, near the Turkish border Wednesday. A rebel, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the incident, said al-Waqqas had been wanted by the al-Qaida affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra group for suspected involvement in the September killing of Sheikh Firas al-Absi, a member of the group.

There are dozens of opposition groups and rebel brigades fighting in the civil war and the killings raised the specter of infighting between rebels seeking to topple Assad. Rivalries are common and there have been several several instances of rebels fighting each other over ideological and other differences.

Al-Farouk brigades, in a posting on its website, said al-Waqqas was killed by “the gangs of treachery and treason who claim to be fighting under the banner of the revolution.”

It vowed to revenge his killing.

 

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>