Syria opposition advances despite losing 62 fighters in ambush by President Assad's forces

Jihadists seize military airport near Aleppo and claim to have killed 200 government troops

The Syrian army killed 62 rebels in an ambush near Damascus today, just as the opposition looked to be making advances on two fronts in northern Syria.

Bloody corpses, some in uniform, were shown on Syrian television, which said the rebels were on their way to attack a government post near Adra, a north-eastern suburb of Damascus. The rebels were reportedly shot dead as they moved on foot along what they believed to be a secret route not known to the Syrian army. 

In northern Syria jihadi rebels linked to al-Qa’ida are playing a leading role in attacks on key strategic points. In Latakia they claimed to have killed 200 pro-government soldiers and militiamen in fighting for half a dozen villages. The violence is likely to spark sectarian hostility because the Sunni insurgents are targeting mountain villages inhabited by members of the Alawite sect to which President Bashar al-Assad and many leaders of his government also belong. Hundreds of villagers have sought refuge on the coast.

In a further gain for the rebels, Islamist fighters have taken control of Menagh military airport near Aleppo after months of skirmishes. A statement issued by nine brigades carrying out the assault on the airport, including the al-Qa’ida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), said that “the airport has been fully liberated. The remnants of the Assad gangs are now being chased”.

The command headquarters of the airport were over-run on Monday by ISIL rebels after a suicide bomber drove an armoured personnel carrier packed with explosives into the building.

The leading role in these rebel advances of the al-Nusra Front and the ISIL, which is also carrying on an insurgency in Iraq heavily reliant on suicide bombers, is likely to complicate Western supporters of the opposition. The government’s claims that the al-Qa’ida linked fundamentalists are the backbone of the opposition may be exaggerated. But there is plenty of evidence that ISIL and al-Nusra Front, both of which have jihadi volunteers from abroad, are more effective than the Western-backed Free Syrian Army.

After the ambush of rebels near Damascus, state-run Al-Ikhbariya television showed a Tunisian passport picked at scene from the body of a bearded man who was born in 1978. It also showed Islamic headbands and automatic rifles that were apparently carried by the rebels.

Mohammed Saeed, an activist who is based near Damascus, told the Associated Press says that 65 rebels were on their way from the eastern suburbs of the capital to the nearby area of Qalamoun when all but three were killed. A local activist added that the rebels were walking the 19-mile route because it is dangerous to drive in the area as it is watched by regime forces. “The regime forces riddled them with heavy machine gun fire,” he said. “It seems that the regime discovered the secret road that the rebels were using.”

Around Aleppo and Latakia the rebels have the advantage of the nearby Turkish border which is open to them. They also control much of the Euphrates Valley west of the border with Iraq. Further south around Homs and Damascus their supply lines are often cut and the Syrian army has been sealing off enclaves and reducing them one by one. Their inhabitants generally flee to avoid the fighting. Both sides are in a position to make gains but not to deliver a knock-out blow which would lead to victory in the war.

Meanwhile Saudi Arabia has reportedly offered Russia a deal whereby it would scale back weapons supplies to Syria in return for weapons purchases worth $15bn and a promise that gas from the Gulf would not compete with Russia. It is unlikely Russia will reduce its backing for President Assad given that its support for Syria is aimed at restoring its pre-eminence as a great power.

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