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.
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March 2011: 120
Thousands of Syrians rally to show their support for President Bashar al-Assad, who is facing unprecedented domestic pressure amid a wave of dissent, in Damascus on March 29 2011. (ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images)
April 2011: 820
A protestor burns a portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a demonstration after Friday prayers on April 29 2011 in Istanbul against the regime of al-Assad and the deadly crackdown on opposition protests. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
May 2011: 850
A veiled woman takes part in a protest calling on Syria's President Bashar Assad to step down, in front of the United Nations headquarters in Amman, on May 21 2011. (KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images)
June 2011: 1,000
Syrian refugees arrive to a makeshift camp in the northern city of Idlib, in Syria, on June 13 2011. (MUSTAFA OZER/AFP/Getty Images) <em><strong>CORRECTION:</strong> An earlier version of this caption placed the city of Idlib in Turkey. Idlib is in Syria. </em>
July 2011: 1,600
Thousands of pro-regime Syrians wave their national flag and portraits of President Bashar al-Assad during a rally in Damascus on July 17 2011. (LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images)
August 2011: More than 2,000
People hold pictures of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and fallen Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi as they take part in a demonstration gathering activists opposed to Syria's regime of President Bashar al-Assad on August 28 2011 at Taksim Square in Istanbul. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
September 2011: 2,700
A national flag hangs on a statue of Syria's late president Hafez al-Assad at the entrance of the flashpoint city of Homs on August 30 2011, as rights activists reported widespread anti-regime protests across Syria on the first day of the feast marking the end of Ramadan. (JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
October 2011: 3,000
Supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad wave Syrian flags during a pro-regime rally in Damascus on October 12, 2011. Assad's regime is facing international pressure amid a violent crackdown on anti-government protests that broke out in March across Syria. (LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images)
November 2011: More than 4,000
Syrian soldiers carry on November 26, 2011 the coffin of a comrade reportedly killed in an ambush by an armed group in the flashpoint Syrian city of Homs. (AFP/Getty Images)
December 2011: More than 5,000
Free Syrian Army captain identified as Ahmed al-Arabi sits in a safe house near Wadi Khaled on the Lebanese-Syrian border on December 30 2011. (Si Mitchell/AFP/Getty Images)
January 2012: 7,100
Free Syrian Army fighters take position in a house on the Lebanese-Syrian border prior to a nighttime operation on January 2 2012. (Si Mitchell/AFP/Getty Images)
February 2012: 7,500
A Turkish journalist in Ankara, holds pictures of two journalists, French photojournalist Remi Ochlik and Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin, killed in an alleged rocket attack by Syrian regime forces against a makeshift opposition media center in the besieged city of Homs in Syria on February 22 2012. (ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)
March 2012: More than 8,000
A defected Syrian soldier, now a member of the Free Syrian Army, stands outside a mountain outpost near the village of Janudieh in the northern province of Idlib on March 20 2012. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
April 2012: Close to 9,000
Syrians pray over the bodies of Syrian violence victims at a funeral in the northwestern town of Kafr Zeta on April 10, 2012. (AFP/Getty Images)
May 2012: More than 9,000
A general view shows the Syrian flag flying next to destruction in the Bab Amro neighbourhood of Homs on May 2 2012. (JOSEPH EID/AFP/GettyImages)
June 2012: 14,000
A Syrian man carries a wounded girl next to Red Crescent ambulances following an explosion that targeted a military bus near Qudssaya, a neighbourhood of the Syrian capital, on June 8, 2012. (AFP/GettyImages)
July 2012: 19,000
Members of Jihadist group Hamza Abdualmuttalib train near Aleppo on July 19, 2012. Rebels seized control of all of Syria's border crossings with Iraq on July 19. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/GettyImages)
August 2012: 23,000
A Syrian boy whose family has been displaced due to fighting between rebel fighterws and Syrian government forces is seen near the Syrian border with Turkey on August 25, 2012. (ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/GettyImages)
September 2012: 30,000
A Syrian man carrying grocery bags tries to dodge sniper fire as he runs through an alley near a checkpoint manned by the Free Syria Army in the northern city of Aleppo on September 14, 2012. (MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images)
October 2012: 36,000
A Syrian boy plays on a destroyed tank near the rubble of a mosque that was destroyed during fighting between Syrian rebels and regime forces in the northern city of Azaz on September 23, 2012. (MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/GettyImages)
November 2012: 40,000
A walnut tree stripped of its branches stands in the rubble of the Kalat al-Numan citadel, originally built during the Roman era some 2000-years-ago, after allegedly being bombed several times by the Syrian air force on November 18, 2012, in Maaret Al-Numan in southern Idlib province. (John Cantlie/AFP/Getty Images)
December 2012: 60,000
Smoke rises in the Hanano and Bustan al-Basha districts in the northern city of Aleppo on December 1, 2012 as fighting continues through the night. (Javier Manzano/AFP/Getty Images)
January 2013: 65,000
A boy plays with a balloon in a Syrian refugees camp in Azaz, near the Turkish border, on January 10, 2013 after snow falls. (EDOUARD ELIAS/AFP/Getty Images)
February 2013: More than 70,000
Syrian Zakia Abdullah sits on the rubble of her house in the Tariq al-Bab district of the northern city of Aleppo on February 23, 2013. (Pablo Tosco/AFP/Getty Images)