The entrance to the Sheikh Suleiman base, some 25km northwest of the city of Aleppo yesterday.
Damascus: Radical Islamist rebels yesterday seized large swathes of a Syrian military base west of Aleppo, as they consolidated their control over territory in the north near the Turkish border, a journalist said.
Sheikh Suleiman base sprawls over nearly 200 hectares (500 acres) of rocky hills about 25km from Aleppo city, an area now almost completely under rebel control. Fighters hoisted a trademark black jihadist flag over one of the buildings they captured in the morning as firefights persisted with light weapons as they tried to take the rest of the base.
Many of the fighters are non-Syrian and one of their leaders, who identified himself as Abu Talha, said he is from Uzbekistan.
“Here we are all Muslims,” Abu Talha said of the militants.
One fighter added: “We are all mujahedeens and muhajereens (companions of the Prophet Mohammed).”The militants refused to say which group they belong to, and Abu Talha barred combatants from other factions from entering the combat zone.
Fighters from the main rebel Free Syrian Army did not take part in the battle for Sheikh Suleiman, and that only a small FSA group in nearby villages monitored the battle through binoculars. “The Islamists caught us unawares by launching an attack on their own against the base on Saturday night,” said an FSA fighter. “They were quicker than us.” Earlier, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rebels took control of Regiment 111 and three other company posts inside the base after fierce overnight clashes.
“Two rebels and one soldier were killed, while five soldiers were captured. The prisoners said that 140 of their men had fled to the scientific research centre on the base,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said.
Meanwhile, a United Nations envoy said yesterday US and Russian officials have given their commitment to a political solution for the deepening Syrian conflict, but Moscow dismissed speculation it was preparing for President Bashar Al Assad’s exit.
With rebels now fighting on the doorsteps of Damascus, Assad’s forces kept up their now daily artillery strikes and air raids on eastern suburbs as well as some rebel-held districts on the capital’s outskirts.
UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met the US and Russian deputy foreign ministers in Geneva for the second session of tripartite talks in less than a week, apparently in response to rising violence that now threatens to engulf Damascus. “All three parties reaffirmed their common assessment that the situation in Syria was bad and getting worse,” a statement from Brahimi said. “They stressed that a political process to end the crisis in Syria was necessary and still possible.”
Notwithstanding his comments, commitment to a political process could be at risk. Western officials were among those who helped rebels to create a unified chain of command at the weekend, and Washington is expected to recognise the opposition as the sole representative of the Syrian people next week.
Russia, Syria’s main arms supplier, insisted its position on Assad had not softened and it was not negotiating on the future of the president, whose family has ruled Syria for 42 years. “We are not holding any talks on the fate of Assad,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quoted as saying by Itar-Tass news agency in Moscow. “All attempts to present the situation rather differently are shady.”
Several countries are believed to be supplying both sides in the conflict, with Iran bankrolling Assad’s war efforts while its regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Qatar arm the rebels.
Brahimi said the talks aimed to find a solution based on last June’s Geneva Declaration, which called for a transitional government. This proposal originally foundered over different interpretations of that transition; Washington said Assad could not play a role but Russia insisted that his fate should not be decided outside Syria. Syria’s 20-month-old uprising, which began as peaceful protests but has descended into civil war, has become increasingly bloody with over 40,000 people killed.
The rebels have gained momentum in recent weeks, capturing a series of military sites across the country often with the help of radical Islamists. However, some activists believe the opposition is still far from toppling Assadreuters