Rebel fighters laid siege to a strategic military base in northern Syria and have reportedly been repelled by government forces. The attack precedes a major opposition summit with the objective of uniting rebels under a new leadership.
The fighting took place at the Taftanaz airbase. The base, housing mainly military helicopters, lies between Syria’s capital and the embattled city of Aleppo, which has become the frontline in the Syrian civil war.
A video posted online showed troops assaulting the base in a dawn raid. The footage also showed how a number of battalions took part in the attack including the extremist Islamist group Al-Nusra Front, affiliated with Al-Qaeda.
Rebels firing rockets were shown in the Youtube videos, with smoke then rising over nearby buildings and an airstrip. However, the footage cannot be independently verified.
Capturing the airbase, which deploys regime air power in the northern region, would be a major achievement for the rebels. The opposition groups complain their efforts inside and outside Aleppo are constantly curbed by government air strikes.
Opposition reports, if true, suggest that the rebels have been winning strategic ground in Aleppo over the last few days. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claimed that opposition forces had pushed Assad’s troops out of the Saraqeb, a strategic location in northern Syria, leaving Idlib town and its surroundings "completely outside the control of regime forces".
The capture of Taftanaz airbase, which also lies along the north-south highway linking Aleppo with Damascus, would mean rebels get a further tactical advantage in the northern region and potentially cut off reinforcement routes to the commercial hub of Aleppo, analysts say.
Later on Saturday, however, the Syrian state outlet SANA said government troops had defeated the rebel forces at Taftanaz, killing many rebel fighters. The pro-Assad forces also “destroyed [the rebels’] vehicles, which were equipped with machine guns, in addition to destroying a weapons carrier.”
Syrian state media maintain that Damascus continues to “cleanse” what it has branded as “terrorists” from the region. Syria is going through the 19th month of a deadly civil conflict, which has claimed over 32,000 lives and made over estimated 420,000 people refugees.
The escalation in the fighting comes ahead of a major opposition summit in Qatar this weekend which is set to discuss creating “a government in exile.”
The US has been pushing the hitherto fragmented opposition forces to unify under a representative umbrella group, which would provide a viable alternative to President Bashar Assad.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also called for dismissing Syrian National Council as it “can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition” as it is based in Istanbul, well outside the Syrian conflict.
Though the SNC lashed out at Washington’s comments dubbing them “unacceptable dictates”, the meeting in Doha will still focus on that very unified body. The opposition groups will discuss a government in exile which will be dubbed the Syrian National Initiative.
The SNI is expected to include 14 SNC members, three members of the Kurdish National Council, representatives of on-the-ground fighters, as well as dissidents and religious leaders. The US reportedly favors long-time dissident Riad Seif to take the lead.
The opposition groups who gathered in Qatar’s capital of Amman said Saturday that Assad’s stepping down remains a standing pre-condition to start any negotiations with the government.
"Assad and his entourage leaving power is a non-negotiable precondition for any dialogue aimed at finding a non-military solution, if that is still possible," they said in a statement.
The United States, along with France, Turkey, Qatar and several other European and Gulf nations, are openly advocating Assad’s removal.
At the same time, Russia and China continue to push for a ceasefire and negotiations between government forces and the rebels with a view to paving the way for a peaceful political transition.