Using a colossal sandstorm as cover, a coalition of Syrian fighters known as the Army of Conquest — which includes the al-Qaeda aligned Nusra Front —pushed government forces out of a major air base in northwest Syria, ending a three-year long siege.
As the fighters posted pictures of themselves standing among the planes and equipment in the Abu al-Duhur military airport in Idlib province, Syria state television reported on Wednesday that government troops had indeed "evacuated their positions and moved to another point," adding that the army had been "protecting the base" during a two year siege.
A propaganda video posted by the Army of Conquest late Wednesday showed fighters approaching the base under the cover of the sand storm, driving around in captured tanks, and standing inside abandoned planes. It's unclear if the captured equipment is in good working order, but the capture of the base appears to be significant victory for the Army of Conquest.
"Though the base has been isolated for a long while, to the east is the regime's supply line up to Aleppo," Aron Lund, a Syria researcher and editor of the Syria and Crisis page at the Carnegie Endowment, told VICE News. "This clears out the last obstacles harassing traffic along the road...the regime could be nervous about that."
In the video, a rebel narrator leads the camera though the capture of the base.
"Regime pigs are still there, we are going to get rid of them as soon as possible," one fighter says to the camera from inside the airport. "Our morale remains high... and there are lots of casualties on the regime's side."
The Army of Conquest had ramped up its offensive against the Abu al-Duhur base in late August, deploying suicide bombers to push regime forces away from the entrance.
Rebels moved forward over the last few days, as a sandstorm swept through the region, making it difficult for the Syrian air force to provide air support to the beleaguered outpost. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights observed a marked dip in airstrikes since the storm gathered force on Monday.
Over the past month, Syrian government forces had been pounding rebel-controlled areas of Idlib from the air. On Monday, Syrian army helicopters reportedly dropped barrel bombs in towns outside the city of Idlib. In early August, Doctors Without Borders reported that strikes had hit 9 different hospitals in the city of Idlib, killing 11 people and wounding 31.
Rami Abdulrahman, with the Syrian Observatory, said that the air force base was the last remaining stronghold of the Assad regime in the province, though two nearby villages are still reportedly occupied by pro-regime militias.
Many of the fighters in the propaganda video released by the Army of Conquest are identified as members of the al-Qaeda aligned Nusra Front. Since March, Nusra has been a leading force in a coalition of rebel groups that seized the city of Idlib and the town of Jisr al-Shughour as part of a strategy to encircle the regime stronghold of Latakia along the western coastline.
Despite their recent military victories inside Idlib province, the Army of Conquest coalition has struggled to hold together amid infighting and public discontent. Over the past month, a series of small clashes have erupted between Nusra and it's sometimes ally Ahrar al-Sham over which group can issue laws. And locals in several Idlib villages have staged public protests against the Nusra Front, whose units are often composed of non-Syrian foreign fighters. The Nusra Front and it's allies have responded to protests with live-fire.
"Local enthusiasm from town to town varies," explains Lund.
With the evacuation of the Abu al-Duhur base, Idlib is now one of two provinces in Syria without any Syrian army presence. The other, Raqqa, is the capital of the so-called Islamic State (IS), which is fighting both the Nusra Front and the Assad regime.
The multi-party civil war has left over 250,000 people dead over the past four years, and forced millions of refugees to flee the country.
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