BEIRUT: Syrian rebels captured a military base in the strategic Homs province Thursday as opposition fighters fought to expand territory under their control near the Lebanese border, activists said.
The central region is important to President Bashar Assad because it links Damascus, his seat of power, to one of his main allies, Hezbollah.
The Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights said opposition fighters took control of the entire Dabaa military complex in Homs Thursday afternoon, after weeks of fighting with government forces.
Dabaa is a former air force base and has an airfield which hasn’t been used since the fighting broke out more than two years ago. Instead, the army has based ground troops in the facility to fight the rebels, the Observatory said. It did not say how many – if any – troops were at the base when it was captured.
The base is located near Al-Qusair, a contested central Syrian town near a key highway between Damascus and the coastal enclave that is the heartland of Syria’s Alawite community.
Assad’s government accuses those who have turned against it of being foreign-backed terrorists.
The U.S. and its European and Gulf allies have backed the opposition but there are concerns over extremist elements, such as the Nusra Front, which Washington has designated a terrorist group, and the Obama administration opposes directly arming the rebels.
Israel shares Washington’s concerns. In an interview with the BBC that aired Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Jewish state had “the right to act to prevent that from happening.”
Netanyahu said Israel fears that Syrian chemical weapons or sophisticated anti-aircraft systems the rebels seek to counter the regime’s superior airpower will come under control of Al-Qaeda militants or Hezbollah.
“Obviously we’re concerned that that the weapons that are groundbreaking and could change the balance of power in the Middle East would fall into the hands of these terrorists,” Netanyahu said. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the issue would be discussed at a Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul this weekend.
“Everybody has now accepted a concern about extremist elements who have forced their way into this picture, and there is a desire by all parties to move those extremist elements to the side and to give support, I believe, to the Syrian opposition,” Kerry said. “That’s a big step forward.”
Speaking to U.S. senators, Kerry also warned that Syria could fragment into rival enclaves.
“Time is not on the side of a political solution. It’s on the side of more violence, more extremism, an enclave breakup of Syria.”
The aim of Saturday’s Istanbul meeting is “to get everybody on the same page with respect to what post-Assad” Syria will look like, Kerry said, highlighting the need to ensure that “Qataris, Saudis, Emirates, Turks, Europeans” all have the same goals in mind.
Analysts warned Thursday that Jordan was being dragged into Syria’s conflict as more and more U.S. troops head to Amman.
“The escalation has become public. At the beginning of the crisis Jordan was trying to deal with it calmly, but now things are heading toward confrontation,” Labib Kamhawi, a writer and political analyst told AFP.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel revealed Wednesday that some 150 U.S. military specialists have been deployed in Jordan since last year and that he had ordered a U.S. Army headquarters team to bolster the mission, bringing the total American presence to more than 200 troops.
“These personnel will continue to work alongside Jordanian Armed Forces to improve readiness and prepare for a number of scenarios,” Hagel said.
Late Wednesday, Obama met with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal. Saudi Arabia is among the Gulf states believed to be sending arms to rebels.
Obama is in the middle of a string of meetings with Middle Eastern allies focusing in part on Syria. He hosted Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan at the White House Tuesday and will also meet leaders of Turkey, Qatar and Jordan in coming weeks.
The joint U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, is scheduled to brief the Security Council Friday behind closed doors.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon dismissed speculation that Brahimi would resign from his post, saying Wednesday that he will continue to work as the joint special representative, stressing the importance of the U.N.’s work with the Arab League.
Syria’s “prospects may seem dim,” Ban said, “but I remain convinced that a political solution is possible.”