BASE OF THE 46TH REGIMENT, Syria – After a nearly two-month siege, Syrian rebels overwhelmed a large military base in the north of the country and made off with tanks, armored vehicles and truckloads of munitions that rebel leaders say will give them a boost in the fight against President Bashar Assad's army.
The rebel capture of the base of the Syrian army's 46th Regiment is a sharp blow to the government's efforts to roll back rebels gains and shows a rising level of organization among opposition forces.
More important than the base's fall, however, are the weapons the rebels found inside.
At a rebel base where the much of the haul was taken after the weekend victory, rebel fighters unloaded half a dozen large trucks piled high with green boxes full of mortars, artillery shells, rockets and rifles taken from the base. Parked nearby were five tanks, two armored vehicles, two rocket launchers and two heavy-caliber artillery cannons.
Around 20 Syrian soldiers captured in the battle were put to work carrying munitions boxes, barefoot and stripped to the waist. Rebels refused to let reporters talk to them or see where they were being held.
"There has never been a battle before with this much booty," said Gen. Ahmad al-Faj of the rebels Joint Command, a grouping of rebel brigades that was involved in the siege. Speaking on Monday at the rebel base, set up in a former customs office at Syria's Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, he said the haul would be distributed among the brigades.
For months, Syria's rebels have gradually been destroying government checkpoints and taking over towns in the northern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo along the Turkish border.
Rebel fighters say that weapons seized in such battles have been essential to their transformation from ragtag brigades into forces capable of challenging Assad's professional army. Cross-border arms smuggling from Turkey and Iraq has also played a role, although the most common complaint among rebel fighters is that they lack ammunition and heavy weapons, munitions and anti-aircraft weapons to fight Assad's air force.
It is unclear how many government bases the rebels have overrun during the 20-month conflict, mostly because they rarely try to hold captured facilities. Staying in the captured bases would make them sitting ducks for regime airstrikes.
"Their strategy is to hit and run," said Elias Hanna, a retired Lebanese army general and Beirut-based strategic analyst. "They're trying to hurt the regime where it hurts by bisecting and compartmentalizing Syria in order to dilute the regime's power."
The 46th Regiment was a major pillar of the government's force near the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's economic hub, and its fall cuts a major supply line to the regime's army, Hanna said. Government forces have been battling rebels for months over control of Aleppo.
"It's a tactical turning point that may lead to a strategic shift," he said.
At the 46th Regiment's base, about 25 kilometers (15 miles) west of Aleppo, the main three-story command building showed signs of the battle — its walls punctured apparently from rebel rocket attacks. The smaller barracks buildings scattered around the compound, about 2.6 square kilometers (1 square mile) in size, had been looted, with mattresses overturned. A number of buildings had been torched.
Reporters from The Associated Press who visited the base late Monday saw no trace of the government troops who had been defending it — other than the dead bodies of seven soldiers.
Two of them, in camouflage uniforms, lay outside the command building. One of them was missing his head, apparently blown off in an explosion.
The rest were in a nearby clinic. Four dead soldiers were on stretchers set on the floor, one with a large gash in his arm, another with what appeared to be a large shrapnel hole in the back of his head. The last lay on a gurney in another room, his arms and legs bandaged, a bullet hole in his cheek and a splatter of blood on the wall and ceiling behind him as if he had been shot where he lay.
It could not be determined how or when the soldiers had been killed.
The final assault that took the base came after more than 50 days of siege that left the soldiers inside demoralized, according to fighters who took part.
Working together and communicating by radio, a number of different rebels groups divided up the area surrounding the base and each cut the regime's supply lines, said Abdullah Qadi, a rebel field commander. Over the course of the siege, dozens of soldiers defected, some telling the rebels that those inside were short of food, Qadi said.
The rebels decided to attack Saturday afternoon when they felt the soldiers inside were weak and the rebels had enough ammunition to finish the battle, Qadi said. The battle was over by nightfall on Sunday. Seven rebel fighters were killed in the battle, said al-Faj of the rebels' Joint Command. Other rebel leaders gave similar numbers.
It remains unclear how many soldiers remained in the base when the rebels launched their attack and what happened to them.
Al-Faj said all soldiers inside were either killed or captured. He said he didn't know how many were killed, but that the rebels had taken about 50 prisoners, all of whom would be tried in a rebel court. Aside from the 20 prisoners seen at the rebel's Bab al-Hawa base, the AP was unable to see any other captured soldiers.
The Syrian government does not respond to requests for comment on military affairs and said nothing about the base's capture. It says the rebels are terrorists backed by foreign powers that seek to destroy the country.
Disorganization has plagued the Syrian opposition since the start of the anti-Assad uprising in March 2011, with exile groups pleading for international help even when they have no control over those fighting inside of Syria.
A newly formed Syrian opposition coalition received a boost Tuesday, when Britain officially recognized it as the sole representative of the Syrian people.
The National Coalition of the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces was formed in the Gulf nation of Qatar on Oct. 11 under pressure from the United States for a stronger, more united opposition body to serve as a counterweight to more extremist forces.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Tuesday the body's members gave assurances to be a "moderate political force committed to democracy" and that the West must "support them and deny space to extremist groups."
The United States and the European Union have both spoken well of the body but stopped short of offering it full recognition.
Key to the body's success will be its ability to build ties with the disparate rebel groups fighting inside Syria. Many rebel leaders say they don't recognize the new body, and a group of extremist Islamist factions on Monday rejected it, announcing that they had formed an "Islamic state" in Aleppo.
Anti-regime activists say nearly 40,000 people have been killed since Syria's crisis started 20 months ago.
Associated Press write Elizabeth Kennedy contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon.