DAMASCUS: Rebels on Thursday launched an assault on Wadi Daif, one of the few army bases in northwestern Syria still in the hands of loyalist forces, as they tightened their control of provinces bordering Turkey.
The assault came as Spain announced it had recognised the Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, boosting the opposition's bid to win wide support for its campaign to topple President Bashar al-Assad.
Several rebel brigades joined forces for the attack on the fortress-like base in Idlib province, while the army responded with heavy fire and shelling, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Rebel fighters who control vast swathes of territory in north and northwestern Syria have made significant gains in past days, including for the first time shooting down regime attack aircraft with surface-to-air missiles.
Analysts said the use by the rebels of the advanced weaponry marked a potential turning point in their prolonged war with forces of President Bashar al-Assad, in which more than 40,000 people have died according to a count by the Britain-based Observatory.
As the battle for the army base raged, regime warplanes shelled rebel positions around Tishrin dam in northern Aleppo province, which was captured by the insurgents earlier in the week, the Observatory said.
Assad's forces also launched air strikes on rebel positions in orchards extending from Kfar Sousa district in the southwest of Damascus province to Daraya, further away from the city limits, the watchdog said.
Since the end of July, the Syrian regime has used its aerial superiority to try to suppress the growing insurgency, bombing rebel-held areas across the country and causing high casualties.
The potential game changer came on Tuesday when insurgents downed an army helicopter with a ground-to-air missile in the northern province of Aleppo, with a warplane shot down with a similar weapon on Wednesday in the same area.
"It's a turning point," said Riad Kahwaji, expert at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA).
"If the Syrian air force starts losing several aircraft every day, that will be a significant turning point because the regime will lose its superiority and will no longer be able to use its main means of delivering strong fire power effectively," Kahwaji told AFP.
In southern Damascus, rockets struck areas between the rebel strongholds of Al-Hajar al-Aswad and the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmuk, the Observatory said.
The attacks came a day after simultaneous car bombings killed 54 civilians and wounded 120 others in a pro-regime neighbourhood of the town of Jaramana, just outside Damascus.
Jaramana has now been targeted by four such bomb attacks in three months. It is home to predominantly Christians and Druze, an influential minority whose faith is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
The regime of Assad, himself from the Alawite offshoot of Shiite Islam, insists it is fighting foreign-backed terrorists.
On the ropes by an increasingly daring rebellion, the regime is reducing its territorial ambitions to focus on Damascus, central Syria and Alawite bastions, as it digs in for a long war, analysts said.
In Madrid, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's government said it had recognised the National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and had invited the head of the group, Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, to visit Spain.
France on November 13 became the first Western state to recognise the newly formed National Coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people and it was swiftly joined by Britain.
Paris has also suggested arming opposition fighters.
The International Campaign to Ban Landmines, meanwhile, said on Thursday that Damascus was the only government in the world to lay new landmines this year in its campaign against rebels.