BEIRUT — Syrian rebels captured a military base in the strategic Homs province on Thursday as opposition fighters fought to expand territory under their control near the Lebanese border, activists said.
The central region is important to President Bashar Assad because it links Damascus, his seat of power, with one of his main allies, the militant Hezbollah group in neighboring Lebanon.
The latest rebel gains came during a government counteroffensive that has scored successes in the central and northern regions in recent days. The alternate gains highlight the shifting nature of the conflict in Syria, where victories in one area are often followed by reverses in another.
In recent months, the rebels have chipped away at the government's hold in northern and eastern Syria. They have also made significant gains in the south between Damascus and the Jordanian border, helped in part by a recent influx of foreign-funded weapons.
The Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights said opposition fighters took control of the entire Dabaa military complex in Homs on Thursday afternoon, after weeks of fighting with government forces.
Dabaa is a former air force base and has an airfield, which hasn't been used since the fighting broke out more than two years ago. 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 – troops were at the base when it was captured.
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. The area also is 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. The fighting that has taken increasingly sectarian overtones.
Homs province was the site of some of the heaviest fighting during the first year of the Syrian conflict, which erupted in March 2011, and intermittent episodes of violence since.
More than 70,000 people have been killed and more than 5 million people have been displaced by the Syrian conflict, according to the United Nations.
Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos said at the opening of a public briefing by the U.N. agency chiefs for humanitarian affairs Thursday that said 6.8 million Syrians are in need – 4.25 million displaced within Syria and 1.3 million as refugees in neighboring countries.
Assad's government accuses those who have turned against it of being foreign-backed terrorists and Islamic extremists.
The latest rebel gains came a day after Assad accused the West of backing al-Qaida in the civil war. In a rare TV interview, Assad also lashed out at Jordan for allowing "thousands" of fighters to enter Syria.
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 was 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. 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.
Israel shares Washington's concerns. In an interview with the BBC that aired on Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Jewish state has "the right to act to prevent that from happening."
Netanyahu said in the interview that Israel fears that Syrian chemical weapons or sophisticated anti-aircraft systems the rebels seek to counter the regime's superior airpower will come under control of al-Qaida militants or Hezbollah.
"Obviously we're concerned that that the weapons that are groundbreaking and could change the balance of power in the Middle East would fall into the hands of these terrorists," Netanyahu said.
In January, Israel all but confirmed that it carried out an airstrike in Syria that destroyed a shipment of anti-aircraft missiles allegedly bound to Hezbollah. The movement fought Israeli army to a standstill in a monthlong 2006 war in Lebanon. In the interview, Netanyahu refused to confirm whether Israel targeted the convoy.
Efforts by the international community to end the bloodshed in Syria have failed.
On Friday, the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, is scheduled to brief the Security Council behind closed doors.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon dismissed speculation that Brahimi will resign from his post, saying on Wednesday that Brahimi will continue to work as the joint special representative, stressing the importance of the U.N.'s work with the Arab League.
Syria's "prospects may seem dim," Ban said, "but I remain convinced that a political solution is possible."
Also on Thursday, Damascus was sending reinforcements to the strategic village of Baboulein in the northwestern province of Idlib, the Observatory said. The move is part of the regime's effort to reinforce two military bases near the rebel-held city of Maaret al-Numan along the highway that links Damascus with Aleppo, Syria's largest urban center.
The fight for the two bases is part of a broader struggle for control of northern Syria. Most of the countryside is in the hands of the rebels, while the regime is holding out in isolated military bases and most cities, including parts of Aleppo.
AP writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.