Syrian rebels spearheaded by al Qaida in Iraq took control Tuesday of a crucial military airport in northern Syria, opening a vital supply line between the rebel-held north and Turkey.
The end of the siege that had clamped down the airport since last October began Monday, when two non-Syrian nationals drove an armored personnel carrier, loaded with explosives, into a position manned by defenders of the regime of President Bashar Assad. The explosion devastated the Assad troops and allowed rebels to overrun the Mannagh Air Base in Idlib province.
Those rebels included multiple units affiliated with the Syrian Military Council, an umbrella group with U.S. backing. That poses an uncomfortable pairing of a group supported by U.S. resources with Islamist organizations Washington has labeled as terrorist.
The Syrian Opposition Coalition, the political component of the SMC, announced that the airbase had been “liberated’ by a mixture of nine rebel groups. They included the al Qaida-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, or ISIS, and its Syrian sister organization, the Nusra Front.
Taking the airbase was critical because the facility had been used by Assad’s forces to target rebel supply lines and positions with artillery and air strikes.
In a series of unverifiable but credible videos released online by several rebel groups, the base appeared to hold significant amounts of military equipment. That will be welcomed by the supply-poor rebels.
Along with opening a new supply line from Turkey, the fall of the base helps the rebels in a potentially more significant way.
“This frees up some of the best rebel fighters from the Jihadist elements to help push offensives in Aleppo and Latakia,” said a European military attaché closely following the fight from neighboring Lebanon who spoke only under the condition of anonymity. “They now have the luxury to push men out to either help take the airport (in Aleppo) or help push down the coast (in Latakia.) Or both.”
Charles Lister, who has been closely monitoring the fight for the London-based military analysis group IHS Janes, agreed that the rebel seizure of the airbase could prove in the fighting to come.
“(The) capture will undoubtedly allow participating groups to re-distribute their forces further south in Aleppo to two main battlefronts: the ongoing siege of Aleppo International Airport and the governorate capital itself,” he said in a statement. “The ongoing militant Islamist-led offensive on the Alawite heartland of Latakia could also benefit.”
Within hours of the announcement, photos began appearing across social media sites often used by jihadist groups that showed the flag of ISIS flying over the airbase.
Those images highlighted the Islamist nature of the final assault.
Several sites praised the role of Jaish al Muhajireen, or the Army of the Immigrants, an offshoot of al Qaida. It’s composed of mostly foreign fighters recruited to fight alongside the primarily Iraqi Islamic State and the mostly Syrian Nusra Front.
The group is apparently led by Abu Omar al-Shishani, who appears to be either Chechen or Georgian.
Lister points to the expanded role for both Jais al Muhajireen and the Islamic State as a sign of the effectiveness of the more radical Islamist groups – both in the siege and in the overall fighting in Idlib Province.
“The victory again underlines the leading strategic impact being played by militant Islamists, particularly in northern Syria,” Lister said. “Every major offensive in northern Syria this year has been announced, led, and coordinated by Islamists.” – McClatchy