x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Syrian rebels capture regime air base

Helicopter forces have played a major role in the regime's continued offensive against rebels but it is unclear whether Al Assad's foes are strong enough to hold the base they took control of on Friday.

Rebels struck a blow against the Assad regime on Friday but the UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, said that there had been no further progress on the diplomatic front. Salvatore Di Nolfi / EPA
Rebels struck a blow against the Assad regime on Friday but the UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, said that there had been no further progress on the diplomatic front. Salvatore Di Nolfi / EPA

DAMASCUS // After months of fighting, Syrian rebels finally overran a major helicopter base in the country's north yesterday, opposition groups said.

The advance came as the UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met senior Russian and US diplomats in Geneva in the latest effort to end a political deadlock over Syria.

Given the government's reliance on air power, the Taftanaz airbase in Idlib province is among the most important military facilities to have been taken by the rebels.

Helicopter forces have played a major role in the regime's continued offensive against rebels and opposition areas, with gunships attacking dissident neighbourhoods and acting as a supply lifeline between besieged army bases.

But it remains unclear whether rebels are strong enough to hold the base, or even if they will attempt to do so. In previous cases, militants have scoured camps for weapons before pulling back, destroying what they could not take with them.

"The way the war is being played out, it is a matter of two weak sides facing one another, with neither the regime nor the opposition particularly strong any more or able to deliver really decisive blows," said an independent political analyst based in Damascus.

"It is a war of attrition."

While the rebels appeared to have made gained ground on the battlefield, there was no advance on the diplomatic front.

Mr Brahimi held talks in Geneva yesterday with US deputy secretary of state William Burns and Russian deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov.

After the meeting, he said the war "has gone for far too long", but he admitted progress had stalled.

"If you are asking me whether a solution is around the corner, I am not sure that is the case," Mr Brahimi said. "What I am certain of is that there is an absolute necessity for people to continue to work for such a peaceful solution."

Diplomatic efforts have failed make any meaningful headway since the start of the Syrian crisis almost two years ago, and apparently unbridgeable divisions remain inside the country and at an international level.

Russia has made no significant step to dilute its alliance with Syrian president Bashar Al Assad, acting both as his principle arms supplier and shield in the UN Security Council, where Moscow has vetoed resolutions critical of Syria's regime.

Lately Russian officials have also poured cold water on the idea that they can persuade Mr Al Assad to stand aside. Instead they are seeking a deal that does not require his resignation.

Meanwhile the US has sided firmly with the opposition trying to remove Mr Al Assad, insisting that he is the major obstacle to a peaceful settlement and must go before progress can be made to end a war that has already killed more than 60,000 people.

But Washington has stopped short of providing the advanced weapons rebels have said they need to defeat loyalist forces.

Despite continuing problems with material supplies, rebel units led by the Nusra Front claimed to have seized the Taftanaz airbase yesterday.

On Thursday, the official state news agency Sana reported its forces had successfully repelled an attack on Taftanaz by "terrorists". There was no immediate comment from the government on the latest rebel claims.

The authorities in Damascus say they are facing an international conspiracy, not a genuine revolution.

They insist the rebels opposing them are foreign Islamist militants inspired by Al Qaeda, not Syrians demanding an end to more than 40 years of autocratic Al Assad family rule and domination by feared secret police units.

While backing the opposition, the US has classified the rebel Nusra Front a terrorist organisation - a rare example of agreement between Washington and Damascus.

Composed of Syrian and foreign fighters, the Nusra Front has become one of the most effective rebel forces on the battlefield, and has claimed responsibility for a series of bombings in the capital Damascus.

While the Nusra Front frequently co-operates with other, more secular rebel units gathered under the Free Syrian Army umbrella, it remains independent and disagreements between the various insurgent factions is far from uncommon.

Tensions rose earlier this week with the assassination of an Free Syria Army commander, widely believed to have been carried out by a rival Islamist group, in revenge for an earlier killing of one of its leaders by secular rebels.

The fractured nature of Syria's opposition is one of the reasons Mr Brahimi has described his mission as "almost impossible".

Hopes he would find a way to succeed were dealt a crippling blow in a speech by Mr Al Assad on Sunday, in which the Syrian leader presented a plan he said would end his country's crisis.

Mr Brahimi dismissed the blueprint - including a demand for rebels unconditionally put down their weapons plus a pledge to crush, not negotiate with, principal opposition groups - as narrow and uncompromising.

 

psands@thenational.ae