Friday,17 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1125, 6 - 12 December 2012
Friday,17 August, 2018
Issue 1125, 6 - 12 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

Airport battles in Syria

Syria’s armed opposition has started targeting the country’s airports and seizing anti-aircraft weapons on the ground, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

Opposition fighters in Syria have long complained that they are short of weapons and ammunition, especially anti-aircraft systems, and they have pleaded with the international community to supply them with weapons to fight regime aircraft that are bombing cities and residential areas.

However, while the country’s political opposition has thus far failed to convince the world to send it such weapons or to enforce no-fly zones in Syria, the armed opposition in the shape of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has decided to try to neutralise the regime’s air force that has obstructed the advance of the opposition on the ground.

Opposition sources say that fighters opposed to the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad have started to organise themselves under one command, and military commanders who have defected from the regular army have begun to discuss a strategy with Western experts that would lead to neutralising the regime air force.

The number of warplanes and helicopters shot down by the armed opposition in Syria has been climbing.

The FSA began implementing the plan recently, and it seized control of many air defence units and military airports in northern, eastern and central Syria after it took control of the roads leading to them.

Regular forces were no longer able to deliver to these units, and provisions have been dropped by helicopter from high altitudes out of fear that these could be shot down by heavy weapons.

Over the last week, the opposition strategy has begun to bear fruit, with opposition forces occupying several airports, air defence and radar units in various cities, including the capital Damascus.

Opposition fighters destroyed the runways at a military airport in Deir Al-Zur in eastern Syria and put another military airport under siege in Aleppo in the north of the country. 

They also occupied the Marj Sultan military airport outside Damascus and destroyed jets on the runway there, as well as planes at the Teftinaz Airport in Idlib in the north.

The Al-Dameer military airport in central Syria has been placed under siege, and the Al-Mezeh military airport close to Damascus and a main line of defence for the capital has been struck by fighters using mortars.

Observers believe that the Al-Mezeh airport will be the next target for the armed opposition and the battle could destroy the surrounding areas. The airport is heavily guarded and is close to densely populated residential areas.

Opposition forces attacked air defence units close to Damascus International Airport, shutting it down and interrupting aviation for three days.

The opposition also seized an air defence unit near Aleppo International Airport, as well as a radar unit near Marj Sultan airport only a few kilometres outside the capital. It attacked five air defence units near Damascus, including Al-Sayeda Zeinab, Al-Shayfuniya, Madira and Hajar Aswad.

They also bombed a missile and radar unit using mortars in Deraa in the south of the country, seizing light and heavy weaponry, especially anti-aircraft SAM-7 and SAM-16 missiles.

Since it seems unlikely that the international community will supply the opposition with mounted anti-aircraft missiles or that a no-fly zone will be created over Syria, opposition commanders have decided to take control of the regime’s anti-aircraft bases and military airports.

This would neutralise the air force and paralyse its operations, ending the bombing of Syria’s cities. It would also enable the armed opposition to move more freely on the ground without fearing air strikes.

Some media reports say the decision was taken after meetings between ex-regime military commanders and military experts in Jordan and Turkey. The opposition commanders are expected to receive assistance about their targets from abroad.

“There has been close coordination between the armed units to accomplish this mission with the best results,” the reports said.

European diplomatic sources confirmed that the US was drafting a plan to overthrow the Al-Assad regime and that the countdown to this had started.

Washington has abandoned efforts for a diplomatic settlement with Russia on the Syrian crisis, and it may now take action outside the UN Security Council, which has been paralysed by Moscow’s opposition.

The sources added that Washington was likely to increase its military and logistical assistance to the Syrian fighters and to throw its weight behind creating safe zones and no-fly zones through the efforts of the Syrian revolutionaries themselves.

Several months ago, opposition fighters in Syria shot down several planes, including helicopters, using light and heavy automatic weapons. Over the past week, opposition forces have started making tangible gains on the ground in their battle against regime aircraft, and they have forced regime units to reduce air strikes against regions under opposition control.

FSA troops are increasingly using heavy automatic weapons mounted on four-wheel-drive vehicles, moving under the cover of darkness and changing their positions every hour while closely listening to the roar of aircraft to avoid being seen.

Video footage distributed by Syrian revolutionaries has shown fighters hauling mounted anti-aircraft missiles and threatening regime forces. One video from Aleppo shows the shooting down of a military helicopter using a surface-to-air anti-aircraft missile. Other footage from Damascus shows a missile hitting a helicopter in the air over the region.

Experts believe that the rockets are Russian or Chinese-made, which means they are from an arsenal commandeered recently from regime air defence units.

Opposition forces said in late November that they had shot down nine aircraft, including helicopters and warplanes, bringing the tally to 111 aircraft downed, according to statistics issued by the revolutionaries.

A report issued by Syrian activists has stated that leaks from “informed sources” at the “armament division” of the regular army’s command, which is responsible for supplying the army with weapons, say that the number of aircraft destroyed since the start of the uprising until October 2012 had reached 72 helicopters and planes.

Fifty of these were downed while on bombing assignments, while 21 were standing on the tarmac when they were destroyed.

The downed aircraft include 28 MiG and Sukhoi jet fighters and 44 helicopters, 34 in Idlib, 11 in Aleppo, 11 in Deir Al-Zur, nine in Damascus, three in Hama, and two each in Homs and Deraa.

The report said there was video footage showing the shooting down and destruction of at least 54 aircraft. It is difficult to verify these numbers from official sources because the Syrian government does not announce losses of tanks, aircraft or personnel.

The opposition says it is now in control of 70 per cent of the sky over residential areas of the country, and this has been confirmed by Damascus and Aleppo residents who have noticed a decrease in the number of planes above them.

Opposition fighters say that they have imposed quasi no-fly zones in several regions in eastern and northern Syria after they took control of most these areas, improved their combat ability and increased their numbers.

They have crowned this by seizing anti-aircraft missiles from the regular army, forcing the Syrian air force to strike from higher altitudes beyond the reach of anti-aircraft weapons on the ground.

This renders the strikes less effective because the air force does not possess smart missiles.

Some observers caution that the rising number of regime aircraft destroyed may not be because of the opposition fighters, but could be due to mechanical problems since the regime does not have spare parts or enough technicians to service the aircraft.

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