BEIRUT (AP) — After a two-year siege, al-Qaida's affiliate in Syria and other insurgents on Wednesday captured the one remaining Syrian army air base in Idlib province, a development that activists said effectively expelled the last of President Bashar Assad's military from the northwestern province.
It was the latest in a series of setbacks for Assad in Syria's bitter civil war, now in its fifth year. Syria's embattled president has acknowledged the losses, saying the army has had to relinquish some areas in the north to be able to better defend core areas seen as more critical to the government.
A state television report said the army pulled out from the Abu Zuhour air base and that the troops "evacuated their positions and moved to another" location.
This makes Idlib the second of Syria's 14 provinces to completely fall out of Syrian army control. Earlier this year, militant groups captured the provincial capital, also called Idlib, as well as other towns and villages.
The province of Raqqa fell to Islamic State extremists last year, after IS militants captured its provincial capital, also called Raqqa, in January 2014. The Islamic State group has since declared the city as the seat of its caliphate that spans a third of both Syria and Iraq.
Al-Qaida's Syria branch — known as the Nusra Front and a top rival of the Islamic State — and other Islamic insurgents now control nearly all of Idlib province, except for the predominantly Shiite villages of Foua and Kfarya, which pro-government militiamen hold.
Syrian state TV quoted an unnamed military official as saying that troops pulled out of the Idlib base with weapons, and that none of the equipment and warplanes left behind "were usable."
The military official said the attack on the base was carried out by "terrorist groups receiving support from Erdogan's government," referring to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who is a strong supporter of Syrian opposition groups. The Syrian government refers to all groups fighting against Assad's forces as "terrorists."
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said insurgents, including members of the Nusra Front, captured the base under the cover of a sandstorm and forced government forces out of their last post in Idlib province, which borders Turkey. The Nusra Front is part of a coalition of insurgent groups called Jaish al-Fateh, or Army of Conquest, which has captured most of Idlib.
Another activist group, the local Coordination Committees posted a photo on its Facebook page, saying it showed Nusra Front fighters standing in front of warplanes inside the base. Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Observatory, said militants were aided by the sandstorm, which engulfed much of the Mideast and reduced visibility
The capture of the air base also increases pressure on nearby government-held coastal areas.
Syria's conflict has killed more than 250,000 people since March 2011, when Arab Spring-inspired protests against the Assad family rule erupted in the country's south. The protests turned into an insurgency and civil war following a brutal military crackdown on the protests.
This summer, the conflict triggered a massive exodus of Syrian refugees beyond the neighboring Mideast countries, which had so far taken the bulk of Syrians fleeing their country's war. Refugees are now streaming into Europe in an unprecedented migrant crisis on the continent.
This story has been corrected to show that the city of Raqqa fell to the Islamic State group in January 2014, and that the entire province of Raqqa fell to IS militants later last year.