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Syrian rebels claim victory in fight for air base

Triumph further cements geographic divide in the country

Structures near Aleppo, Syria, have borne the brunt of the fighting between rebel and government forces.

Hamid Khatib/Reuters

Structures near Aleppo, Syria, have borne the brunt of the fighting between rebel and government forces.

BEIRUT — Syrian rebels claimed to have taken full control of a long-contested military air base near the northern city of Aleppo on Tuesday morning, boosting morale for pressured opposition fighters.

Rebels overran the compound after carrying out a suicide bombing on Monday near Menagh airport’s main building, which had become a last refuge for government troops penned inside the compound, opposition activists said. In videos posted online, rebels showed off their spoils of fresh ammunition and weapons.

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The advance highlighted the mixed picture on the ground, where both sides have made gains recently in their regions of relative strength, hardening the country’s north-south divide.

While President Bashar Assad’s forces have gained ground in central Syria, the reported capture of Menagh underscores the strength of rebel forces in the north, where they control swaths of territory that benefit from direct supply routes from Turkey.

The isolated air base, surrounded by open land that makes an assault logistically challenging, was one of a few remaining pockets of government control in the countryside north of Aleppo, which rebel and government forces have been battling to control since July 2012.

The airport, used for launching air attacks on the surrounding territory, has been the target of rebel attacks for a year, and under siege for months.

The loss of the base would be a deflating blow for the government, which has been trumpeting its progress in the central city of Homs, once an opposition stronghold, and in the suburbs of the capital, Damascus.

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Significantly, its fall would free up rebel fighters for other fronts, including Aleppo itself, analysts said.

‘‘The seizure of [Menagh] will likely prove a turning point within the wider Aleppo and northwest theaters,’’ said Charles Lister, an analyst for IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center.

Another of those fronts is in the northwestern province of Latakia, where rebels on Sunday claimed to have won control of a string of mountain villages. Advances in the province are particularly symbolic, as it is heartland for the Alawite sect, the offshoot of Shi’ite Islam to which Assad belongs. Rebels now claim to be within striking distance of the ruling family’s home town, Qurdaha.

While rebel gains might be reassuring to international opponents of Assad’s government after concerns that the opposition was losing on the battlefield, they also highlight worries over the jihadist groups leading the charge. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an Al Qaeda-linked group, played a major role in both the assault on Menagh and the gains in Latakia, opposition groups said.

Two suicide bombers from the Islamic State, both non-Syrian nationals, blew themselves up inside a Soviet-made military vehicle near Menagh’s main building on Monday, according to Aleppo activist Kareeb Adeeb and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is based in Britain. The assault was also assisted by a defecting officer who killed the base’s commander, Adeeb said.

The more moderate Northern Storm Brigade, which also played a major role in the offensive, according to activists, released a video statement declaring opposition control of the airport on Tuesday.

The Syrian Opposition Coalition was quick to promote the rebels’ gain, congratulating the ‘‘brave soldiers of the Free Syrian Army’’ for liberating the base, a move it said would have ‘‘great strategic impact’’ on the ground.

The opposition-run Aleppo Media Center said rebels seized 10 tanks in the operation.

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