Buildings bear heavy war damage in Syria's Homs province. (Lens Young Homsi )
BEIRUT — Rebel fighters and government forces on Thursday battled for control of two strategic airports in northern Syria, the loss of which would be a severe blow to President Bashar Assad's efforts to maintain a hold in the region.
Fighting erupted around the international airport in Aleppo, Syria's commercial capital, according to the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is based in London.
The airport has been shut since Tuesday because it has been under attack by rebels seeking to cut off Assad's aerial supply route. Rebels already have shut down the main road from Damascus, the capital, to Aleppo, an ancient city that has been mired in urban war since rebels attacked in July. The battle there appears to have settled into a stalemate, and many districts of the city have been heavily damaged.
A rebel spokesman who identified himself as Mohammed Saeed said that without the airport, the government would not be able to send food or troops to reinforce its units in Aleppo. Rebel fighters were also surrounding two military bases north and east of the city, he said.
In Idlib province, rebels led by Islamic militants shelled the Taftanaz air base, which the rebels say Assad's air force has used to carry out strikes against rebel fighters as they vie for control of the province on the Turkish border.
"The loss of all those airfields would be a huge strategic loss for the regime," said Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "The air fields are key to the regime holding on to these areas."
A rebel success would also add to the luster of Al Nusra Front, a militant group that has been branded a terrorist organization by the United States. It is gaining influence among the rebels because of its role in victories against Assad.
The government vigorously disputed rebel accounts of success at Taftanaz. The state news agency reported that the military had "directed painful strikes against the armed terrorist groups … who tried to attack Taftanaz airport in the Idlib countryside."
The agency said the military had killed dozens of rebels and wounded many more.
The opposition posted video on YouTube of rebel fighters firing at an incoming helicopter and shouting, "God is great!"
A spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army who called himself Shadi Ramoon said 70% of Taftanaz was under rebel control. He said that without the air base, government helicopters would conduct fewer airstrikes and rebels could hold more ground.
"This gives us more time during the day and night to control more checkpoints," Ramoon said. "In this way we will be able to liberate Idlib and its countryside from the regime, and the whole area would be free soon."
The spokesman acknowledged the contribution of Al Nusra Front and its hard-line counterpart Ahrar al Sham.
"Ahrar al Sham is more organized than any other brigade," he said. "They follow orders and they receive a military training and there is no disobedience." Al Nusra Front is known for its bombing expertise, he said.
The fighting Thursday came a day after the United Nations estimated that more than 60,000 people had died in the 21-month conflict.
A special correspondent in Beirut contributed to this report.