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.
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, he said the haul would be distributed among the brigades.
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.
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, said Elias Hanna, a retired Lebanese army general and Beirut-based strategic analyst. 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.
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.
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.
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.