Tuesday,16 January, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1304, (21 - 27 July 2016)
Tuesday,16 January, 2018
Issue 1304, (21 - 27 July 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Opposition air power

The Syrian opposition brought down three regime aircraft and a Russian craft in June. But will this change the balance of power in the conflict, asks Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

The armed Syrian opposition downed three regime aircraft in June, including a MiG-29 and a Russian military chopper whose crew were killed. The aircraft were on combat missions in various parts of the country, and their downing was unprecedented and led many Syrians to believe that the opposition had finally acquired anti-aircraft weapons after a very long wait.

However, sources in the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) said that the armed opposition had not received such weapons. The opposition has received six air-defence systems since 2013 and had only began operating them after being able to break their codes and receive technical operating instructions, they said.

Bassam Qataf, an officer who defected from the regime, said “the armed opposition acquired six air-defence systems in June 2013 but could not operate them after fighters mistakenly destroyed the operating codes when they seized them at airports near Damascus.”

“The opposition kept the equipment in secret locations until it had the operating codes and was able to understand how to operate them. It is now able to operate five of the six systems, with the sixth being used for spare parts when needed.”

 “In October 2015, Russian aircraft discovered one of the systems and launched a guided missile against the site where it was located. It was lightly damaged, but the strike didn’t affect its operation. The systems are now scattered around Damascus. They could have an important impact if they’re used regularly, but fears of their being shelled have curtailed their use except in emergencies,” Qataf said.

The Syrian opposition has long attempted to persuade allied states, especially the US, to supply it with anti-aircraft weapons to stop the indiscriminate shelling of Syrian cities by regime forces led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

It has tried to offer assurances that the weapons will not fall into the wrong hands, and defecting officers with expertise in such weaponry have suggested that it be encrypted so that the US can disable it if it has doubts about the operators. But none of these attempts has persuaded the Americans, and other states have not filled the gap.

However, the opposition’s downing of four aircraft in one month raises questions about the type of weapons now in use. Some have linked them to statements by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir, who told the TV channel France 24 that there was an agreement among states backing the Syrian opposition to continue their military support.

He hinted that Saudi Arabia was supplying the opposition with lethal weapons and pressing for the provision of the weapons the opposition needs to change the balance of power on the ground without explicitly naming anti-aircraft weapons.

Observers have noted developments in the types of weapons used by the opposition, especially anti-tank weapons and modern TOW missiles. These were used earlier this year and influenced the trajectory of the ground war, reducing the regime’s and Russia’s use of tanks and armoured vehicles in ground offensives and causing them to rely on troops supported by intensive air cover, neutralising a large part of the Syrian tank arsenal.

The Syrian opposition says that anti-aircraft weapons would change the balance of power and enable it to take control on the ground within three months by putting the regime on the defensive. It emphasises that in order to compel Russia to accept a solution without Al-Assad, it needs these weapons because they will limit the effectiveness of Syrian and Russian aircraft, allowing the opposition to take the offensive.

In addition to the anti-aircraft weapons, there have been reports of the deterioration of Syrian regime aircraft, as well as opposition fighters’ increasing skills at downing such aircraft using conventional ground systems.

Mohamed Al-Naasan, a defecting officer, said that the two most modern aircraft possessed by the regime were the Sukhoi SU-24 bomber and the MiG-29 fighter, both of which arrived in 1990. This means the aircraft have been in service longer than their 25-year lifespan, and stress on the aircraft over the last four years could make them easy to bring down, he said.

 According to Al-Naasan, had it not been for the Russian air cover of regime forces, the regime would not have been able to stop opposition advances on the ground.

Regardless of whether the opposition possesses anti-aircraft weapons, it is now planning military operations without them. Over the last five years of the conflict, it has become well-versed in drafting military plans and preparing defensive lines to stop the regime’s advances.

This has been clear in the countryside around Damascus, around Aleppo in northern Syria, around Latakia in the west, and around Deraa in the south. Here, the opposition has held most of the territory it has won, despite violent shelling by the regime and Russia and the major mobilisation of regime fighters and Iranian militias, especially from Hizbullah.

For months, operations have taken the form of a series of back-and-forth skirmishes. The regime takes opposition areas with Russian air cover, before it then loses the territory when the airstrikes stop.

The official Syrian media and Iranian and Hizbullah media outlets have reported that the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front has acquired anti-aircraft missiles. The Mayadin TV Channel, a Hizbullah mouthpiece, reported that Al-Nusra Front fighters had obtained 100 anti-aircraft missiles recently, without noting the source of the information or of the missiles.

The outlets hope to persuade the US to support the regime and Russia in eliminating the Al-Nusra Front, listed by the US as a terrorist organisation.

The Syrian regime has scaled down its use of combat choppers and indiscriminate barrel bombs in many areas, a weapon that has claimed the most civilian lives since the beginning of the conflict five years ago.

Some attribute the decrease to Russian pressure on the regime, based on an agreement with the US, to reduce the use of indiscriminate violence. This was confirmed by the recent agreement between the Russian and US foreign ministers following their meeting in Moscow last Friday.

According to US Secretary of State John Kerry, the agreement contains “concrete steps” agreed upon by the two parties to “define specific, sequential responsibilities all parties to the conflict must assume with the intent of stopping the indiscriminate bombing of the Al-Assad regime and stepping up our efforts against Al-Nusra.”

 In other words, the regime, Hizbullah, and Iran may have managed to convince the US to coordinate with Russia to strike at the Al-Nusra Front in exchange for reduced violations by the regime and its allies. The rest of the terms of the agreement also point to further cooperation with the Syrian regime, making the agreement clearly biased towards it.

The opposition does not believe the regime is the only source of violations in Syria. It says that Russia is also a danger, perhaps even a greater one than the regime. The Russian air force continues to shell areas around Damascus, Aleppo, Latakia, Deraa, and elsewhere, and the opposition says it does not distinguish civilians from military personnel.

Following the agreement between Sergei Lavrov and Kerry, the opposition’s High Negotiations Body said the Russian air force was “shelling Free Syrian Army positions and participating in hostile regime operations against the Syrian people under the cover of fighting terrorism. Its operations have targeted civilian positions, and most victims have been women and children.”

It is not easy for the opposition to obtain anti-aircraft weapons from the black market or other illegitimate channels. It seems that one of its regional backers does not dare supply them without US approval.

But the opposition has not despaired of White House approval of air-defence systems if the regime and Russia continue to thwart a political solution and pursue a military one. The fear is that the opposition may wait for this in vain.

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