Syrian opposition fighters overran a military air base and captured warplanes, gaining ground in northern Syria in another military setback for President Bashar al-Assad’s forces which have come under intensifying attack across the country.
The airport is the latest military facility to fall under rebel control in a strategic region situated between Syria’s industrial and commercial center and the country’s oil- and wheat- producing heartland to the east.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rebels captured the military airport at al-Jarrah, seizing for the first time a fleet of warplanes including MiG fighters.
Video footage showed fighters from the Islamic Free Syria Movement inspecting the airport. Several fighter jets were shown on the ground at the airport and in concrete shelters.
Abu Abdallah Minbij, one of the opposition commanders who planned the attack on the airport, said by phone that two operational MiG jets and ammunition were found intact at the base, along with 40 disused fighter jets.
“The airport was being used to bomb northern and eastern rural Aleppo. By capturing it, we have cut the regime’s supply line from Aleppo to the east,” Minbij said.
He said the army will now struggle to send reinforcements to stop a rebel advance in the adjacent Raqqa province, where rebels have captured the country’s largest hydro-electric dam this week.
In Sfeira, a nearby town in rural Aleppo, footage showed opposition fighters surrounding a captured tank in the middle of the town, with the body of three soldiers on the ground.
During the assault on the air vase, the rebels killed, injured or imprisoned dozens of troops, the watchdog said, adding withdrawing troops also left behind ammunition.
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.”
But Colonel Abdel Jabbar al-Okaidi of the opposition Free Syrian Army insisted the rebels achieved a “major advance” in Aleppo province and said there would be “more surprises” soon.
In the first direct government response, Syria’s minister for “national reconciliation”, Ali Haidar, said he was willing to travel abroad to meet Moaz al-Khatib, the Cairo-based president of the Syrian National Coalition opposition group.
Authorities had previously said they would talk to the “patriotic opposition” - figures who have not allied themselves with the armed rebellion. But most centrist opposition figures have left the country since Abdel-Aziz al-Khayyer, a proponent of dialogue and non-violence, was arrested last year.
“I am willing to meet Mr. Khatib in any foreign city where I can go in order to discuss preparations for a national dialogue,” Haidar told the Guardian newspaper.
But Haidar said the authorities rejected any dialogue that aims “to hand power from one side to another” and insisted that formal negotiation must take place on Syrian soil.
The main push for talks on a transition is coming from U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, a veteran diplomat who helped mediate an end to civil war in neighboring Lebanon and warned that Syria could become a failed state.
The Syrian uprising, in which 70,000 people have been killed, has been the bloodiest of the Arab revolts that already toppled four autocrats in Libya, Egypt, Tunis and Yemen.
With the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, dominating power in Syria, the conflict has deepened the Shi’ite-Sunni divide in the Middle East.