ANTAKYA // Syrian rebels captured a major airbase in the north of the country yesterday and fighting continued in Alawite strongholds of Latakia, as opposition forces sought to negate recent military gains by the regime.
As in many rebel successes, the fighting was led by militants from Jabhat Al Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis), two Al Qaeda-affiliated groups.
Rebel fighters took control of Mannagh military airport, 37 kilometres north of Aleppo, according to activists and the opposition Syrian National Coalition.
It said rebels "fully liberated the Mannagh air base and will transfer it from a regime tool for oppression to a minaret of liberation".
The eight-month battle for Mannagh culminated with a suicide bombing on the remaining regime troops fighting in the compound, said the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
State television insisted that regime units continued to fight and had inflicted "heavy casualties" .
Fighting continued on the third day of a surprise offensive by Free Syrian Army (FSA) units and Islamist fighters in Latakia province, a regime bastion and heartland of Syria's Alawite community - the minority Shiite sect to which president Bashar Al Assad belongs.
"The FSA has taken six sites used by the regime forces and are trying to take a piece of high ground used by the regime army to fire artillery at the rebels," said a spokesman for the FSA in Latakia province.
He said opposition forces remained about 25km away from Qurdaha, and were not attempting to capture the village.
Qurdaha is of enormous symbolic importance because it is the birthplace of former president Hafez Al Assad, who bequeathed control of Syria to his son 13 years ago.
Reuters reported yesterday that rebel fighters, including Al Nusra andIsis were fighting hilltop to hilltop in the mountainous region near Syria's Mediterranean coast, using advanced anti-tank missiles.
More than 30 rebels and regime loyalists have been killed in recent fighting there, according to rights monitors.
"The idea is to show the Alawites and the regime that they are not safe even in their home areas, and that they will suffer as the rest of Syria has suffered. They will not be exempt from the war," said an opposition activist with close links to a number of rebel fighting units.
"The idea is not to take Qurdaha, but to make them pay a price as the rest of the country is paying a price," he said.
But news reports quoting rebel fighters involved in the operation have indicated the fighters do aim to take the village.
A former officer in Syria's military intelligence, an Alawite from Latakia, said any such effort would fail and would be of little benefit for the rebels.
"It's not a good strategy to attack Qurdaha now, the regime is still strong and the FSA doesn't have the power on the ground to hold what it takes there," he said.
He defected from the security services after the start of the uprising in March 2011.
"If the FSA want to attack now, they have to strike then fall back, not try to take and hold territory. The regime has enough military power left over to defend itself in the Latakia mountains," he said.
From its peaceful beginnings, Syria's uprising has turned into a proxy war involving regional and international states, with Iran, Russia and Lebanon's Hizbollah movement backing the regime, while the West and Arab nations support the rebels.
Sectarianism, pitting Shiite against Sunni, has taken an increasingly prominent role in the war, with radical Shiites and radical Sunnis playing a major part in the conflict. Sectarian massacres have killed hundreds of people.
The rebel advances in Latakia have prompted fears that Sunni extremists will seek to avenge mass killings by Shiite-dominated regime units if they overrun Alawite majority areas.
"Many of the Alawites think if the rebels win they will be killed by the Sunnis and there is some truth to that now," said a rebel from the FSA who has fought regime troops in Damascus and Deir Ezzor.
"The Alawites fighting for Bashar have done the most terrible things and they will be made to pay, these villages will be burned. I'm a liberal and I'm saying that," he said.
More than 100,000 people have been killed since the start of the uprising, according to the United Nations.