Rebels seized an air defense facility and attacked a military airport in eastern Syria on Saturday, a monitoring group said, hitting back at an air force that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is increasingly relying on to crush his opponents.
The attacks in eastern oil-producing Deir al-Zor Province follow rebel strikes against military airports in the Aleppo and Idlib areas, close to the border with Turkey.
Al-Assad, battling a 17-month-old uprising in which 20,000 people have been killed, has lost control of rural areas in northern, eastern and southern regions and has resorted to helicopter gunships and fighter jets to subdue his foes.
The aerial bombardment has driven fresh waves of refugees into neighboring countries, reviving Turkish calls for “safe zones” to be set up on Syrian territory — appeals ignored by a divided UN Security Council and by Western powers reluctant to commit the military forces needed to secure such zones.
Rebels in Deir al-Zor overran an air defense building, taking at least 16 captives and seizing an unknown number of anti-aircraft rockets, Rami Abdulrahman of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Activist video posted on the Internet showed the officers and soldiers captured by rebel fighters as well as an arsenal of rocket-propelled grenades and ammunition seized in the raid.
Abdulrahman said rebels also attacked the Hamdan military airbase at Albu Kamal, close to Syria’s eastern border with Iraq, but did not succeed in breaking into it.
The attacks come three days after rebels said they had damaged several helicopters at the Taftanaz air base in Idlib Province. The insurgents also said they have shot down a fighter jet and a helicopter last week.
Al-Assad’s forces have carried out numerous air strikes on civilians in rebel-held areas. Helicopters have strafed towns with heavy machineguns and jets have unleashed rockets and bombs against opposition strongholds.
Bombardments of northern towns such as Azaz and Anadan, of which al-Assad lost control weeks ago, have led to thousands of residents fleeing to safety in Turkey.
Ankara made its call for safe havens inside Syria after the UN refugee agency said the flow of Syrians into Turkey and Jordan — which already host more than 150,000 registered refugees — was rising sharply.
However, a ministerial meeting of the UN Security Council produced nothing beyond a French plan to channel more aid to rebel areas, an initiative that will do nothing to stem the flow of civilians fleeing the fighting.
Turkish government sources said Ankara would again push for agreement on safe zones inside Syria at the UN General Assembly later this month and would try to put pressure on Russia and Iran, which strongly oppose any such action.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, a former ally of al-Assad, showed his frustration at the lack of international action.
“We cannot take such a measure unless the United Nations Security Council decides in favor of it ... First a decision for the no-fly zone must be taken, then we would be able to take a step towards a buffer zone,” Erdogan said in an interview.