BEIRUT – Syrian rebels captured large parts of a military base in the strategic central Homs province on Thursday as opposition fighters try to expand territory under their control near the Lebanese border, activists said.
The region is important to President Bashar Assad as it links Damascus, his seat of power, with one of his main allies, the militant Hezbollah group in neighboring Lebanon.
The latest rebel advances came a day after Assad accused the West of backing al-Qaida in Syria's 2-year-old conflict. In a rare TV interview, Assad also lashed out at Jordan for allowing "thousands" of fighters to enter Syria to fight in the civil war.
The rebels have in the past months chipped away at the regime's hold in northern and eastern Syria. They have also made significant gains in the south, in the area between Damascus and the Jordanian border, helped in part by a recent influx of foreign-funded weapons across the boundary.
The Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights said the opposition fighters took control of most of the Dabaa military complex on Thursday morning, after weeks of fighting with government forces for control of the facility. Sporadic fighting was still ongoing in some parts of the base, the Observatory said.
Dabaa, in Homs province, is a former air force base and has an airfield, which hasn't been used since the fighting broke out. Instead, the army has based ground troops in the facility to fight the rebels, the Observatory said. It did not say how many — if any — government troops were in the parts of the base overrun by rebels.
The base is located near Qusair, a contested central Syrian town near a key highway between Damascus and the coastal enclave that is the heartland of Syria's Alawite community and also home to the country's two main seaports, Latakia and Tartus.
Syria's regime is dominated by the president's minority Alawite sect — an offshoot of Shiite Islam — while the rebels fighting to overthrow Assad are mostly from the country's Sunni majority. Assad's major allies, Hezbollah and Iran, are both Shiite.
Homs province saw some of the heaviest fighting during the first year of the Syrian conflict, which erupted in March 2011, and intermittent episodes of violence since.
Syria's crisis began as peaceful protests against Assad's rule and turned into civil war after some opposition supporters took up arms to fight a harsh government crackdown. The fighting that has taken increasingly sectarian overtones.
Syrian officials deny there is an uprising, accusing those who have turned against the government of being foreign-backed terrorists and Islamic extremists.
In the interview with the government-run Al-Ikhbariya TV, Assad said the West has backed al-Qaida in his country's civil war and warned that it will pay a price "in the heart" of Europe and the United States as the terror network becomes emboldened. The interview aired on Wednesday to mark Syria's independence day.
The U.S. and its European and Gulf allies have backed the opposition in the Syrian conflict and have repeatedly called on Assad to step down.
Extremist groups such as the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra are gaining ground in Syria's conflict. Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front, has emerged as the most effective force among the mosaic of rebel units fighting against Assad's troops.
Washington has designated Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist organization. The Obama administration opposes directly arming Syrian opposition fighters, in part out of fear that the weapons could fall into the hands of Islamic extremists.
Earlier this year, the U.S. announced a $60 million non-lethal assistance package for Syria that includes meals and medical supplies for the armed opposition.
On Wednesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Congress that the Pentagon is sending about 200 soldiers from an Army headquarters unit to Jordan to assist efforts to contain violence along the Syrian border and plan for any operations needed to ensure the safety of chemical weapons in Syria.
The decision to dispatch the 1st Armored Division troops of planners and specialists in intelligence, logistics and operations, came after several lawmakers pressed the Obama administration for even more aggressive steps to end the two-year civil war.