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Syrian rebels gaining ground against Assad's air power

Their seizure of shoulder-fired missiles from a site known as Base 46 was a 'game-changer,' one analyst says. Terrorists' access to such arms remains worrisome.

December 11, 2012|By Rima Marrouch, Los Angeles Times
  • Rebel Abu Omeir, seen in a video posted on YouTube, brandishes an SA-16 missile launcher in Syria's Aleppo province.
Rebel Abu Omeir, seen in a video posted on YouTube, brandishes an SA-16 missile… ( )

BEIRUT β€”The rocket man vows that his hometown will never again face aerial bombardment.

"I will not allow any airplane or helicopter to attack Daret Izza anymore," declares Abu Omeir, the Syrian rebel's nom de guerre.

The former schoolteacher, 26, became an insurgent celebrity after being credited with shooting down a pair of government aircraft β€” a helicopter and MIG fighter β€” within a 24-hour period in northern Aleppo province in late November.

But the most significant development is his weapon, a shoulder-fired SA-16 antiaircraft surface-to-air missile, a Soviet-designed update of the SA-7.

Rebels say they seized dozens of such shoulder-fired missile systems in late November when fighters overran a sprawling government garrison outside the city of Aleppo known as Base 46, after a two-month siege. Analysts who have seen video evidence say the assertion appears credible.

The takeover of Base 46 yielded "the largest seizure of weapons that we have seen to date," including shoulder-fired missiles and traditional weapons, said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director for Human Rights Watch, who closely monitors arms proliferation.

"It's definitely a game-changer," he said Monday via telephone from Geneva. "Day by day, the ability of the Assad regime to use air power is diminished."

Syrian government air resources nonetheless remain formidable. Aircraft can fire flares and use other countermeasures to thwart heat-seeking, shoulder-fired missiles. In recent weeks, the air campaign has continued, pounding targets in the Aleppo and Damascus areas and elsewhere.

But the capture of more advanced weaponry suggests that the opposition may be developing a robust response to the Syrian fighter jets and helicopters that have attacked at will. In addition, experts say, the beleaguered government of President Bashar Assad has been losing air bases to rebels and, with spare parts in short supply, has been unable to properly maintain its aging, overworked fleet.

In addition to SA-16s and SA-7s, the haul from Base 46 included an unspecified number of the even more advanced SA-24, though that model was not seen fully assembled, making its utility hard to assess, Bouckaert said.

Video purported to be from the base shows rebels inspecting and unloading boxes of ammunition, rockets and other seized ordnance. With a dash of bravado, some northern rebel leaders have declared that the Base 46 bonanza makes moot their persistent, and largely unheeded, calls for Washington and other foreign capitals to help arm the opposition.

But as more such weaponry becomes available to the rebels, some officials worry that it could eventually fall into the hands of militants who could use the arms on Western targets, including commercial airliners.

"One of the main reasons the U.S. and others are reluctant to supply the Syrian rebels with weapons is that they can't be sure where they will ultimately end up," Bouckaert said. "It is a very dangerous game to supply anyone with weapons that can down a civilian airliner, and any miscalculation could lead to disaster."

Despite frequent reports that antiaircraft weapons have made their way into Syria, experts say there is no solid evidence of foreign suppliers providing shoulder-fired missiles to the opposition.

The rebels' antiaircraft arsenal is "mostly from Syrian military stock," said Jeffrey White, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Although White agreed that the threat to Syrian aircraft appears to be on the rise, he said rebels' boasts of having downed as many as 100 aircraft in recent months seemed greatly exaggerated. He put the number at closer to 30 or 40 β€” still significant. Most aircraft are believed to have been downed with traditional weapons.

"They are getting more experience, better weapons and more weapons," White said of the rebels.

Rebels seized another military base this week, according to the Britain-based pro-opposition group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The fighters reportedly said they found no antiaircraft weapons at the sprawling Sheik Suleiman base near Aleppo.

Abu Omeir, with a beard and aviator glasses, appears in a YouTube video brandishing his SA-16 on a rocky outcrop, and says that he recently shot down a helicopter carrying supplies to a military base. Within 24 hours, he was credited with shooting down a MIG fighter jet, which is seen in an unverified YouTube video crashing in a plume of black smoke outside Aleppo.

"For every plane that will attack us, there is a rocket to take it down and destroy it," Abu Omeir declared in an email interview from Syria conducted via an intermediary. "We have enough supplies without the need to reach out to anyone, especially America."

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