Syrian rebels are battling to seize an army base close to the main north-south highway and say its capture would be a big step towards creating a “safe zone” allowing them to focus on Bashar al-Assad’s southern strongholds.
For two weeks they have surrounded and attacked Wadi al-Deif, east of the town of Maarat al-Numan. They say the ferocity of counter-attacks by government forces shows how important holding the base is to the president’s military strategy.
Assad is fighting an insurgency that grew out of protests 19 months ago and has escalated into a civil war in which 30,000 people have been killed. His overstretched army has lost swathes of territory and relies on air power to keep rebels at bay.
If Wadi al-Daif fell to rebels, who already control northern border crossings to Turkey, Assad would be dependent on a single land route – from the Mediterranean port of Latakia -to supply his forces fighting to win back Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city.