BEIRUT (AFP) – Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate on Monday seized the key army base of Wadi al-Deif in the country’s northwestern province of Idlib from government forces, a monitoring group said.
“The al-Nusra Front, backed by Jund al-Aqsa, seized control of the Wadi al-Deif military base… after a fierce offensive that began yesterday (Sunday) morning,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Nearby, rebels pressed an offensive aimed at taking Hamidiyeh, which after the fall of Wadi al-Deif became the regime’s last remaining base in Idlib, the Observatory said.
The militants’ lightning victory in Wadi al-Deif leaves most of Idlib province, which borders Turkey, under al-Nusra Front control.
It is a show of force by the al-Qaeda branch, which in November drove mainstream rebels seeking President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster from Idlib province.
Mainstream opposition fighters had besieged Wadi al-Deif for around two years, but despite repeated attempts failed to take it from government troops.
“The militants’ advance has major symbolic importance, and it also shows the rebels that al-Nusra Front really is in control of the area,” said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.
During its offensive on Wadi al-Deif, “the al-Nusra Front used tanks and other heavy weapons that it captured last month from the (Western-backed) Syrian Revolutionary Front”, he told AFP.
al-Nusra’s defeat of the SRF was seen as a blow to US efforts to create and train a moderate rebel force as a counterweight to militants.
Elsewhere in Idlib province, rebel group Ahrar al-Sham pressed its own offensive against Hamidiyeh, the only other base in the region still held by government forces, said the Observatory.
“Ahrar al-Sham worked in coordination with al-Nusra Front. Each group took the lead in each of the camps,” Abdel Rahman said.
“Only a couple of checkpoints there remain in army control. Hamidiyeh is on the verge of falling,” he added.
For many months until September this year, Ahrar al-Sham had tried to distance itself from more hardline militants fighting in Syria.
But a September 9 blast killed its entire top leadership, and according to Abdel Rahman, “this pushed the group to align itself more openly with al-Nusra. Now the two are fighting side by side.”
On Monday, Ahrar al-Sham broke its silence on the September explosion, and accused “a criminal group working in Syria that has suspicious international links”.
The Observatory’s Abdel Rahman told AFP he believed unnamed “Western intelligence agencies” were involved.