Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat—Syrian rebel forces managed to seize a government air force base close to Aleppo after two days of fighting, according to activists from the Syria opposition, while fierce fighting continues around Damascus.
Video footage of jubilant rebels in control of the Al-Jarrah airbase was posted on the internet, and showed rebels celebrating the capture of both combat jets and helicopters. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based opposition group, claimed that five opposition fighters were killed in the operation, while 40 government soldiers were killed or captured, as was a quantity of arms and ammunition.
The rebels have focused their attacks on government air bases in recent weeks, in an attempt to degrade the firepower available to the government, and undermine its ability to move troops and supplies by helicopter.
The airfield, in Aleppo province, is located close to the Al-Furat (Euphrates) dam, Syria’s largest, which was captured by the rebels yesterday. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said yesterday that "elements from (Al-Nusrah Front), (Ahrar Al-Tabaqah Regiment), and (Uways al-Qarni Regiment) seized control of the strategic Euphrates Dam in the town of Tabaqah in the countryside of Al-Raqqah Governorate and also control of neighborhoods in the town of Al-Thawrah which was built to house the dam workers." The Observatory claimed that "the regular forces did not demonstrate any real resistance. On the contrary, the security organs' commanders fled by helicopters to Tabaqah's military airport and many security elements fled from the town's neighborhoods."
Luay al-Miqdad, the Free Syrian Army's (FSA) media and political coordinator, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the capture of the dam was part of the rebel’s strategy to seize territory in the north and east of the country, where the authority of the central government in Damascus was weakest.
He said "the Syrian regime is militarily weak in Al-Raqqah Governorate and cannot disperse its land forces deployed in the capital inside the governorate's areas, which facilitated the operation to control the dam." He stressed that the FSA fighters in most eastern areas "belong to the area's social fabric and are not strangers, which undermines the regime’s attempts to use money to plant sedition and incite the tribes against each other."
The ‘Euphrates’ is the third dam that the opposition regiments have seized, and follows the capture of the Baath and Tishrin dams in the same area. The dam reportedly supplies electricity to many towns in the area, as well as the city of Aleppo, and controls access to Lake Assad, Syria’s largest reservoir, strengthening rebel control of the area. The Observatory told reporters that rebel commanders had ordered their soldiers not to interfere with the dam’s operations, and that its staff were working normally.
The first Turkish casualties of the fighting in Syria since the mortar attack that left 5 Turks dead in October also occurred on Monday, when a minivan with Syrian license plates exploded at the border crossing between the towns of Bab al-Hawa in Syria and Cilvegozu in Turkey.
A Turkish Foreign Ministry official said at least 10 persons were killed, among them four Turks and six Syrians, and around 50 were injured by the explosion. Turkish Prime Minister Reccep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters: "A vehicle loaded with bombs was able to reach our customs gate because the customs gate on the Syrian side is not working and is not being controlled".
Meanwhile, in the south of the country, fighting continues in the capital of Damascus after rebels launched a series of attacks in and around the city from its strongholds in the suburbs, with some units reportedly advancing to within a mile of the city center in recent days. The government has responded with artillery and air strikes on opposition-held areas, in what some residents said was the most intense fighting in the area in months, as both sides battled for control of the suburb of Jobar and a strategic ring-road nearby.
Local residents and activists said Al-Assad's army sent armored reinforcements to Jobar, abuts Al-Abbasid Square, after the opposition fighters seized control of one of the regular forces' positions in the area, the third one since the fighters stormed Jobar last week. An opposition activist in Damascus who gave his names as Amir said: "the main battle is taking place in Jobar. The opposition fighters are apparently advancing in the eastern sector but the center of Damascus is closed with cement roadblocks and the security forces are deployed everywhere. We cannot say that they [the opposition fighters] have a real presence in the center."
He added that the army has reinforced its troops with tanks from Darayya neighborhood, southwest of Damascus, near the highway leading to the Jordanian border where it has been clashing with the opposition fighters for two months.