DAMASCUS — Rebels on Tuesday overran a military airbase and captured dozens of warplanes, a day after seizing control of Syria’s largest dam as they pushed an assault on strategic targets in the north of the country.
The military advance came as prospects for a political solution to Syria’s civil war faded and as U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to accept an offer of dialogue by an opposition leader.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rebels captured a military airport in Al-Hajjar in Aleppo province, and in the process seized for the first time a fleet of deployable warplanes including MiG fighter jets. During their assault on the airport, the rebels killed, injured or imprisoned some 40 troops, the Britain-based watchdog said, adding that the rest of the troops pulled out, leaving behind ammunition and warplanes.
Soon afterward, the air force used fighter jets to bombard the airport to try to dislodge rebels there, the Observatory said, adding that warplanes also carried out raids near the international airport, which has come under a rebel assault.
Speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, a military source in Aleppo confirmed the rebel capture “after 48 hours of fierce combat” but downplayed the importance of Al-Jarrah.
“It is a very small airport, used for training purposes,” he said. “There are only small amounts of unusable ammunition left there and several planes that have long been out of action.”
The Observatory said the rebels captured “dozens of fighter jets, most of them type MiG 17, and others type Sukhoi L39.”
Activists meanwhile reported the launch of rebel offensives on the Aleppo international airport and Nayrab military airport nearby, although the military source denied any such assaults. Closed since Jan. 1, “Aleppo’s international airport has in the past suffered attacks, but tightened security measures and the Syrian army’s bravery has stopped armed men from getting anywhere near there,” said the army source.
The Observatory meanwhile also reported a rebel capture of the main road linking Aleppo province to neighboring Raqa and a checkpoint near Aleppo’s airport. Activists in Aleppo have told AFP that fighters in the north have shifted their focus from city battles to the capture of military airports and bases.
“They are important because they are an instant source of ammunition and supplies, and because their capture means putting out of action the warplanes used to bombard us,” Aleppo-based activist Abu Hisham said via the Internet.
While the rebels have notched up victories in northern and eastern Syria, they have yet to take a major city in the war-ravaged country almost two years into the revolution. The capture of Al-Jarrah airport came just more than a month after rebels overran Taftanaz airbase, the largest in northern Syria.
Amateur video shot by rebels overrunning Al-Jarrah and distributed via the Internet showed a fleet of warplanes lining the airport’s runways.
“Thank God, Ahrar al-Sham (Islamist rebels) have overrun the military airport” at Al-Jarrah, said an unidentified cameraman who shot a video at the site. “MiG warplanes are now in the hands of Ahrar al-Sham. And here is the ammunition,” the cameraman added, filming two Russian-made fighter jets similar to those used by the army since last summer to bombard rebel targets.
The authenticity of the video was impossible to verify.
The battlefield assaults came just hours after the U.N.’s Ban urged Assad’s regime to view an offer for talks with Syrian National Coalition chief Moazal-Khatib as “an opportunity we should not miss — a chance to switch from a devastating military logic to a promising political approach”.
Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Ban described as “courageous” Khatib’s offer for talks.
Khatib said in late January he was prepared to hold direct talks with regime representatives without “blood on their hands,” on condition the talks focus on replacing Assad. The Assad regime has said it was open to talks but without conditions attached.
The U.N. Security Council, currently divided over Syria, “must no longer stand on the sidelines, deadlocked, silently witnessing the slaughter,” said Ban.
According to U.N. figures, more than 60,000 people have been killed in violence across Syria since the eruption of an anti-Assad revolt in March 2011.