Damascus/jeddah: Rebels launched a major assault yesterday on two key military bases in northwestern Syria, killing 10 soldiers in the heaviest fighting the area has seen in months, activists said.
The offensive — dubbed “The Earthquake” — was aimed at seizing Wadi Deif and Hamidiyeh, which the insurgents have besieged for almost a year, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Wadi Deif, a garrison housing a large quantity of weapons in Idlib province, is located near Hamidiyeh, the last military stronghold in the region still in the hands of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s army.
Rocket and mortar fire from the rebels killed at least 10 soldiers and destroyed three tanks, said the Observatory, a Britain-based organisation that relies on activists across war-torn Syria for its information.
Forces loyal to Assad bombarded the rebel positions around the two bases with barrels filled with explosives, it added.
The insurgents have repeatedly tried to take control of the two bases over the past year, but to no avail. Those involved in yesterday’s attack are from the Free Syrian Army, the rebel force backed by Arab and Western governments, and Liwa al-Umma, an Islamist brigade that includes Libyan fighters, said the Observatory.
The Syrian civil war has drawn in fighters from across the Arab world and beyond since it flared in response to a bloody government crackdown on democracy protests in 2011.
Yesterday, the army completely reopened the only supply route linking central Syria with the northern city of Aleppo after a year of fierce fighting between the two sides.
On August 26, the rebels cut off the road following weeks of heavy clashes to prevent the Assad regime sending reinforcements to Aleppo, the country’s former commercial hub.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said yesterday that his country and Saudi Arabia agree on the need to strengthen the Syrian opposition and rebel forces.
“Our approach to the situation is identical,” Le Drian told reporters in Jeddah, following talks with Saudi officials, including the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz.
“We believe in strengthening the Syrian National Coalition and the general staff of general (Selim) Idriss,” the chief of staff in the rebel Free Syrian Army, said Le Drian.
“The National Coalition should be strong and respected... We support the Coalition on the military level, as well as the humanitarian and political levels,” he said, declining to give details about military assistance.
France “hopes that the Geneva conference would succeed because there will be no military solution in Syria,” Le Drian said in reference to a US-Russian proposal for talks to end the bloody conflict.
Le Drian also discussed bilateral relations with Saudi officials, including cooperation on defence.
France is negotiating large defence contracts with the oil-rich kingdom. Le Drian said the Saudi side confirmed to him that a ¤1.3bn ($1.77bn) contract to overhaul four frigates and two refuelling ships, in service since the 1980s, had “entered into effect on October 7”. The work would involve French weapons and systems makers, DCNS, Thales and MBDA, he said in a statement.
Discussions are meanwhile ongoing regarding another contract that could amount to two billion euros ($2.72bn)for modernising Saudi air defences.
It would involve supplying Saudi Arabia with new generation Crotale surface-to-air rockets, produced by Thales.
Le Drian is on his third visit to Saudi Arabia since May last year.