BEIRUT — Rebel fighters took over two military bases in Syria after heavy fighting Tuesday, an additional sign that the ragtag force may finally be breaking a weeks-long stalemate and making progress in its battle against the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
Both of the bases taken Tuesday were used by the Syrian air force, one of the deadliest threats to rebel fighters, according to opposition groups. The Syrian military has regularly blasted rebel positions, as well as residential neighborhoods, with jets and helicopters in recent months, killing thousands.
The deadliness of the Syrian military’s air power was on bloody display Tuesday after an air raid on an olive press in Idlib province killed at least 20 people and wounded dozens of others, according to the Local Coordination Committees, an activist network.
In a video posted online Tuesday, which reportedly showed one of the captured bases, fighters affiliated with the Free Syrian Army stomped on a bust of Assad’s father, Hafez, at the 666th air force battalion base south of Damascus.
The second base, southeast of Aleppo, was overrun by fighters from Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Both are religious extremist groups suspected of having ties to al-Qaeda.
That the two air bases were taken over by such radically different groups among the opposition indicates that the recent rebel gains may not have been coordinated by any sort of unified leadership. It also hints at potential problems ahead if Islamist and secular groups begin to fight one another for control of territory.
Some observers note that while rebel fighters have been successful in taking over military bases, it is much less certain how long they will be able to hold them. Rebel groups have been losing territory to the Syrian military at the same time that they have been making gains.
“They’ve lost many areas in eastern Syria and near Aleppo recently,” said Rami Abdul Rahman, the director of the Syrian Observatory. “It’s difficult to see a serious change.”
Still, rebels also have had a number of recent successes in shooting down Syrian military aircraft, a possible sign that they have been able to confiscate heavier weaponry, potentially including surface-to-air missiles, after taking over government military bases.
Two helicopters were shot down in Aleppo province Tuesday, according to activists. A video of one of the attacks posted online shows what appears to be a surface-to-air missile slamming into a helicopter in a ball of orange flame.
The men filming the attack can be heard shouting “God is great” as the smoking helicopter spirals down.
Ahmed Ramadan contributed to this report.