QABTAN AL-JABAL: Rebels who have besieged Sheikh Suleiman army base for nearly two months are confident it will fall in days, giving them full control of a swathe of northwest Syria from Aleppo to the Turkish border.
Their optimism has been buoyed by a steady stream of defectors from the ranks of the several hundred troops defending the strategic base, the last major garrison still in army hands between the border and Syria's northern metropolis.
"We have been besieging the base for nearly two months, the 300 or 400 soldiers entrenched inside are in a desperate situation," rebel commander Sheikh Tawfik told AFP.
"Many have deserted. Just this morning five more escaped -- they are with us now," beams the bearded commander, whose authority is now unquestioned in the nearby town of Qabtan al-Jabal.
The base sprawls over nearly 200 hectares (nearly 500 acres) of rocky hills about 25 kilometres (15 miles) west of Aleppo.
Sheikh Tawfiq says according to the deserters, morale among rank and file conscripts is at rock bottom and it is only the officers, mostly drawn from the same Alawite minority as President Bashar al-Assad, who prevent a full surrender.
"Every soldier in the base understands that the end of the regime is near. They are just waiting for an opportunity to lay down their arms, but their Alawite officers prevent them," he said.
"The fall of the Sheikh Suleiman base is only a matter of days," according to Sheikh Tawfik.
Earlier this week, insurgents took control of another military camp in the region, Base 46 nearer to Aleppo. Nearly 300 of the soldiers were killed, according to the rebels, and a large cache of arms and ammunition seized.
Now rebels are counting on the capture of Sheikh Suleiman to give them full control of the countryside west of Aleppo and boost to their forces inside the commercial capital where fighting has reached stalemate after five months of deadly urban combat.
"The day Sheikh Suleiman falls, all of western Aleppo will finally be liberated. Give it 45 days and Aleppo city will fall too," said Sheikh Tawfik.
For now, the rebels are thwarted by the imposing defense system of the garrison, whose soldiers have weapons of every kind at their disposal. The base continues to be supplied by helicopter, while warplanes regularly bomb rebel positions.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a key rights watchdog, reported 25 rebels killed earlier this week in an abortive attack on the base, most by anti-personnel mines and air strikes.
The attack was led by fighters from the jihadist Al-Nusra Front, a rebel source told AFP, confirming the death of a dozen fighters.
As with Base 46, the gunners of Sheikh Suleiman have been bombarding the surrounding towns and villages to ward off any renewed assault. Twenty rockets struck nearby Atareb on Friday.
The tenacity of the defence has raised all kinds of speculation. A deserting conscript told AFP that it contained a clandestine scientific research whose purpose was unknown even to the rank and file.
The prize of the bases' huge arsenal has stoked rivalries among the multiple rebel groups laying siege, some fighting under the banner of the mainstream Free Syrian Army (FSA) and others under the flag of Islam.
Sheikh Tawfik's Noureddin Zinki battalion, and Bayt al-Ansar battalion, both fight under the the banner of the FSA but other groups, including the Al-Nusra Front, do not.