Rebel fighters linked to al Qaeda have taken control of two key military bases in north Syria, striking an important victory over government forces. Islamists now control most of Idlib province.
Al-Nusra Front, an affiliate of of al Qaeda in Syria, captured the Wadi Deif base some 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of Aleppo on Monday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Another hardline Islamist group, Ahrar al-Sham, had is reported to have taken the nearby Hamadiyah base.
"The jihadists' advance has major symbolic importance, and it also shows the rebels that Al-Nusra Front really is in control of the area," said Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman.
At least 31 government soldiers were killed in the attack on Wadi al-Deif, as well as 12 jihadists, the British based Observatory said. Al-Nusra reportedly also used tanks and heavy weapons captured last month from the Western-backed Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF).
Al-Nusra is now one of the most powerful armed groups in the region, after defeating the more moderate SRF in November, and pushing them out of a large area in the northwest.
Fighting in Aleppo
Mainstream rebel groups have been trying to take control of the bases for more than two years, and Wadi Deif had one of the biggest concentrations of loyalist troops in north-central Syria, Abdel Rahman said.
The defeat comes a day after the Syrian army claimed progress in its plan to encircle the rebels in the eastern half of Aleppo. Analysts believe that the fall of rebel held parts of Aleppo would be a significant victory for the government forces, despite the losses in Idlib and southern Syria.
‘A symbol of what Syria can be'
After an informal meeting with the United Nations' special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, on Sunday, European Union foreign ministers met in Brussels on Monday to discuss the implementation of a UN plan for local "freezes of hostility."
The success of the UN plan "is crucial for political reasons, for security reasons, for the refugees," EU foreign policy coordinator Federica Mogherini said. "And also as a symbol of what Syria can be and what Syria should not be."
The UN is pushing for a strategic de-escalaton of violence in Syria in order to set the stage for peace talks.
dj/pfd (AP, AFP, dpa)