BEIRUT: Syrian jihadi and rebel militias overran a sprawling government military base in Idlib province Monday, achieving the year’s biggest victory against the regime of President Bashar Assad.
The Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, along with the powerful Ahrar al-Sham militia and other allies, seized the Wadi Deif base after a fierce, two-day push that sent hundreds of regime troops fleeing the area, as regime warplanes pounded the area in a bid to secure their retreat.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-regime monitoring group based in Britain, said 31 government troops were killed in the assault on the base, along with a dozen fighters from the Nusra Front and its allies, although some pro-Nusra social media outlets said nearly 80 rebels had been killed.
A military commander from Ahrar al-Sham claimed in a video statement that around 200 regime troops were killed in the offensive, while several hundred were wounded.
Pro-regime media outlets acknowledged the takeover, as some detailed the withdrawal by government forces to nearby locations in order to regroup.
Syrian warplanes pounded Idlib province throughout the day, carrying out a total of 34 strikes – 25 by fighter planes and nine barrel bombs dropped by helicopter – according to the Observatory.
One of the strikes killed at least 11 civilians in the small town of Kfartahim in northern Idlib, it said.
The Ahrar al-Sham commander said the takeover of Wadi Deif, which includes the nearby Hamidieh base, meant the rebesl had seized the “jewel of the north” from regime forces.
He said some 2,300 insurgents were involved in the offensive, with 800 commandos leading the assault against nine major entry points to the sprawling base, also believed to house a huge fuel depot.
Outlets affiliated with the rebel Free Syrian Army said that of the several hundred troops who fled, a large number surrendered to the rebels.
The local, anti-regime media activist group Edlib News Network said a major who commanded the Hamidieh post was captured, while “dozens” of troops surrendered.
The Observatory’s Rami Abdel-Rahman said that a helicopter evacuated senior military commanders from the site Sunday evening, after it became apparent that the rebels were poised to overrun the location.
Abdel-Rahman told Al-Arabiya television that the Nusra Front and a number of Islamist militias, along with a small number of FSA groups, now controlled between 70 and 80 percent of Idlib province.
The Nusra Front and its allies defeated two leading FSA groups in Idlib province last month, the Hazm Movement and the Syrian Rebel Front, both of which have benefited from U.S. training and weaponry. Some jihadi accounts of the battle claimed the weaponry was used in the assault that began Sunday.
The FSA media outlets added that eight tanks were seized at Hamidieh, along with other vehicles, while some ammunition depots were rocked by explosions during the fighting.
In addition to containing a huge fuel depot, the bases were used to shell dozens of surrounding villages and towns, activists said.
Charles Lister, from the Brookings Doha Center, told AFP the victory might pave the way for a “major offensive” against the provincial capital Idlib, which remains in regime hands.
Meanwhile, government troops and paramilitary allied groups continued to advance north of Aleppo against a number of rebel groups – the Observatory said at least 14 rebels were killed as the regime forces seized two buildings in the strategic Mallah region north of the city.
The rebels, using a TOW missile, managed to destroy a tank in the battle, it said, adding that the Nusra Front and several other militias were rushing reinforcements to the area.