BEIRUT — Islamic militants seeking to topple President Bashar Assad took full control of a strategic northwestern air base Friday in a significant blow to government forces, seizing helicopters, tanks and multiple rocket launchers, activists said.
The Taftanaz air base in the northern Idlib province is considered the biggest field in the country's north for helicopters used to bomb rebel-held areas and deliver supplies to government troops.
Rebels from al-Qaida affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and other Islamic groups have been fighting for weeks for control of the sprawling facility and broke into it on Wednesday evening. Activists said the rebels seized control of buildings, ammunition and military equipment after ferocious fighting at dawn.
"As of now, the rebels are in full control of the air base," said Idlib-based activist Mohammad Kanaan.
The rebels had been attacking Taftanaz for months, launching a fresh offensive on it in early November. While its fall will embarrass the regime and dent helicopter operations, it will do little to stop airstrikes by government jets, many of which come from bases farther south.
It is also unclear if the rebels will be able to retain control of the facility. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said government warplanes bombed the air base after the rebel takeover Friday.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Observatory, said it is the first major military airport to fall into rebel hands.
The rebel assault was part of a wider campaign to chip away at the Syrian government's air supremacy, which it has relied upon increasingly over the past year as it lost control of large swaths of territory. Airstrikes by warplanes and helicopters have proved the main obstacle to opposition fighters.
Amateur videos posted online by activists showed rebels celebrating inside the air base, some kneeling and kissing the ground and others showing off booty including multiple rocket launchers.
Kanaan, the activist in Idlib, said the rebels seized tanks and helicopters at the base, but added that most if not all of the helicopters were damaged from the fighting and were nonfunctional.
"The regime bombed them to keep the rebels from using them," he said. The Observatory said around 20 helicopters were captured but that none were in working order.
While acknowledging that the capture of the base itself would not stop government airstrikes, Kanaan said the achievement, and seizure of ammunition, put "another big nail in the coffin of the regime."
Taftanaz lies near the highway between the capital Damascus and the northern city of Aleppo, a major front in the civil war that has stood at a stalemate for months.
Activists estimate that around 700 rebels are involved in the offensive on Taftanaz, almost all of them Islamic militants. They include members of Jabhat al-Nusra, affiliated with al-Qaida, and groups with a similar Islamic ideology.
Members of al-Nusra, which the U.S. has branded a terrorist organization, have been among the most effective fighters in the rebels' battle to oust Assad.
The opposition has seized several other air defense bases in the north and Damascus suburbs, making off with weapons and ammunition, but in most cases has not managed to retain the facilities.