ANTAKYA, Turkey – Syrian rebels say they have seized a military air base in Aleppo province, almost a year after they laid siege to the facility, one of the last remaining government holdouts in the northern Syria province.
The final thrust, they said, was kicked off by two suicide bombers - foreign fighters with the Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham – who attacked loyalist soldiers with explosives-laden armored vehicles. A 12-hour firefight ensued and by nightfall Monday, rebel fighters from the Islamist group as well as several Free Syrian Army brigades claimed full control over the airport.
On Tuesday, a powerful car bomb exploded in the Damascus suburb of Jaramana, killing 18 people and injuring 56 others, the official Syrian Arab News Agency reported. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.
Online video said to be taken from the airport showed rebels walking around damaged helicopters on the runway as well as several armored vehicles. The videos also showed several dead bodies, said to be those of government soldiers.
State media denied the rebel reports and said that airport guards were fine and that the opposition fighters had suffered severe losses in and around the airport. The airport was not in service and had no military equipment or aircraft, state media said.
Rebels have engaged in a siege of the Minnagh airport, near the Turkish border, for 10 months, during which time they had taken large parts of the facility but were unable to seize full control of it, which they have blamed on a lack of adequate weapons. Government soldiers have been stationed in the heavily armored headquarters and past rebel attempts to storm the area left many dead, rebels said.
Minnagh "was a source of strength for the regime in the suburbs ad we destroyed it and raised the morale of our fighters," said First Lt. Adnan Sayade, a commander with the North Storm brigade. “And [Shiite villages] Nubil and Zahra have been supporting them, and we broke that link. And now we are coming for Nubil and Zahra.”
For the rebels fighting President Bashar Assad and his loyalist forces, which in recent months has increasingly included Hezbollah fighters, a victory at the airport is seen as significant after several recent losses elsewhere. Government forces retook the strategic town of Qusair in June and last week overran an important district in the central city of Homs. They have also been advancing in some rebel-held suburbs of Damascus.
But the opposition fighters have been making their own strides in northern Syria and most recently in the coastal province of Lattakia, seen as an Assad loyalist stronghold.
“Our spirits cannot be described,” Sayade said, adding in a reference to the upcoming celebration marking the end of Ramadan, “This is our Eid and in two days we will celebrate another Eid.”
“It’s a big blow for the regime,” said Bashir Al-Saleh, a spokesman with the Tawheed brigade, which played a small role in recent months in the fight for Minnagh.
The takeover helps solidify opposition control in northern Syria, he said, though the government still holds military airports and the Aleppo airport as well as air power from neighboring provinces from which they attack rebel-held communities nearly daily.
Minnagh, which had only helicopters, not warplanes, regularly bombarded surrounding towns and villages with artillery, he said.
Following the takeover, he said, government planes attacked nearby towns, killing about 10 people.