Center for Strategic Communication

Jihadists tour Taftanaz aair base in Idlib, Syria after overrunning it earlier today.

The Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, an al Qaeda-linked jihadist group that is fighting Bashir al Assad’s regime in Syria, and allied jihadist groups overran a key Syrian air force base in Idlib province after fighting a pitched battle with government forces.

A jihadist alliance made up of the Al Nusrah Front, Ahrar al Sham, and the Islamic Vanguard stormed the key air base in Taftanaz earlier today. At least seven jihadist fighters and one of their commanders were killed during the assault of Taftanaz, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on its Facebook page. An unknown number of Syrian soldiers were also killed during the fighting.

“The fighting at Taftanaz military airport ended at 11:00 am and the base is entirely in rebel hands,” Rami Abdel Rahman, the director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told The Voice of Russia.

Although the Syrian government claimed to have repelled the assault, videos of the jihadists touring the base and inspecting seized tanks, armored vehicles, and helicopters have been posted on YouTube, LiveLeak, and other video sharing websites. Crates of weapons are seen in the background. Additionally, jihadists posted videos of Syrian soldiers who had been either killed during the fighting or executed; their bodies were thrown into a ditch.

Taftanaz, which is located between the cities of Idlib and Aleppo, was used by government forces to launch airstrikes on anti-regime forces. More than 60 helicopters operated from Taftanaz, and were used to attack nearby towns and cities as well as rebel forces.

Al Nusrah leads assaults on major Syrian bases

Taftanaz is the third major military base to have been overrun by the Al Nusrah Front. On Dec. 10, the Al Nusrah Front and allied jihadists took control the Sheikh Suleiman base, or Base 111. Arab and Chechen fighters participated in the assault on Sheikh Suleiman, which is said to be a key research facility linked to the regime’s chemical weapons program [see LWJ report, Al Nusrah Front, foreign jihadists seize key Syrian base in Aleppo].

And on Oct. 11, Al Nusrah, the supposedly secular Free Syrian Army, and Chechen fighters overran a Syrian air defense and Scud missile base in Aleppo [see LWJ report, Al Nusrah Front commanded Free Syrian Army unit, ‘Chechen emigrants,’ in assault on Syrian air defense base].

Al Nusrah is also leading a siege against a strategic base in Wadi Deif, which is also in the province of Idlib, and attempting to seize control of the main airport in Aleppo [see Threat Matrix report, Al Nusrah Front on the offensive in Aleppo].

The terror group has become one of the most powerful and effective units in the Syrian insurgency, and it has begun to absorb elements of the Free Syrian Army. The Al Nusrah Front also conducts joint operations with the Free Syrian Army and other supposedly secular groups, and has numerous foreign fighters in its ranks.

An al Qaeda affiliate

The Al Nusrah Front was designated by the US as a Foreign Terrorist Organization on Dec. 11. The US government said that al Qaeda in Iraq’s emir, Abu Du’a, or Abu Bakr al Baghdadi al Husseini al Qurshi, “is in control of both AQI and Al Nusrah.”

Additionally, two senior Al Nusrah leaders, Maysar Ali Musa Abdallah al Juburi and Anas Hasan Khattab, both members of al Qaeda in Iraq, were added to the US’s the list of global terrorists. The emir of Al Nusrah, Sheikh Abu Muhammad al Julani, was not added to the list of global terrorists, however. [See LWJ report, US adds Al Nusrah Front, 2 leaders to terrorism list, for information on the designation of the AL Nusrah Front and the two leaders.]

Despite Al Nusrah’s known affiliation with al Qaeda and its radical ideology, Syrian opposition groups, including the supposedly secular Syrian National Coalition, have rallied to support Al Nusrah. Immediately after the US designated Al Nusrah as a terrorist group, 29 Syrian opposition groups signed a petition that not only condemned the US’s designation, but said “we are all Al Nusrah,” and urged their supporters to raise Al Nusrah’s flag (which of course is al Qaeda’s flag) [see LWJ report, Syrian National Coalition urges US to drop Al Nusrah terrorism designation].