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Syria Conflict: Islamist Rebels Seize Key Idlib Airbase

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Syrian rebels linked to al-Qaeda have seized control of a key airbase in the north-western province of Idlib after a two-year siege, Syrian state TV says.

Abu al-Duhur airbase was the final regime position in the province, which is now held almost entirely by rebels.

The militants behind the attack are believed to be a coalition of Islamist groups, including the al-Nusra Front.

Their capture of the base was helped by duststorms in the region, which hampered Syria’s air force.

Since late March, the Islamists have seized several cities in the province including Idlib and Jisr al-Shughour.

They stepped up their offensive against Abu al-Duhur in late August, using suicide attacks to seize the entrance to the airbase and several positions on its outskirts.

The regime troops reportedly retreated from the base and allowed the militants to move in.

The coalition behind the attack on the base, which has dubbed itself the “Army of Conquest”, is an alliance of Islamist militant groups including al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, al-Nusra front.

The coalition seized Idlib’s provincial capital Idlib city in March and has since extended its gains throughout the province, seizing a string of strategic towns.

The report on Syrian state TV conceded that government troops had “evacuated their positions and moved to another point”.

With the fall of the airbase the Syrian military has been completely driven out of Idlib province, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Insurgents now control nearly all of the province, except for the predominantly Shia villages of Foua and Kfarya which are held by pro-government militias and Lebanese Hezbollah forces, not the Syrian army.

Analysis: Sebastian Usher, Arab Affairs Correspondent

This is another blow for President Assad and his overstretched forces, but Idlib was already all but lost to the rebels. The region is now under the control of a mainly Islamist coalition, dubbed the “Army of Conquest”, which includes al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the al-Nusra Front.

The coalition’s success has come both from uniting a variety of rebel militias into a single fighting force and a rapprochement of sorts between their main backers, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, which has allowed a new flow of cash and weapons.

There are strains, though, within the rebel coalition over the role of the al-Nusra Front. And even though President Assad faces increasing pressure on a variety of fronts, he can take some comfort in the fact that the regions he has lost are held by different groups that are for now at least as opposed to each other as they are to him.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has been at war with various rebel groups for the past four years, in a conflict that has so far killed at least 240,000 people.

President Assad has admitted that his forces have a manpower problem and would have to give up some areas in order to defend more important ones.

The fighting in Syria began with anti-government protests but has since descended into civil war after a regime crackdown on dissent.

The conflict has now evolved into a complex multi-front battle involving rebels, jihadists, the regime, Kurds and a US-led coalition that is carrying out air strikes against the Islamic State group.