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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

The weapon with the cone-shaped missile that Abu Omeir brandishes in the video is indeed an SA-16, or a non-Russian-made "variant," said Matt Schroeder, senior analyst with the Federation of American Scientists and consultant for the Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based research group.

Abu Omeir said he learned to use the SA-16 and other antiaircraft weapons during his compulsory military service, part of which was served at an air defense unit. Other fighters have received similar training in the weapon system, which Syrian authorities stocked as a prospective response to attack from Israel or another foreign enemy.

Abu Omeir says he receives great satisfaction from heading off bombardment of insurgent-held areas such as his hometown, Daret Izza, which has been heavily shelled, forcing much of the population to flee.

"You cannot describe the feeling of total happiness and victory because you stopped the plane from bombing your hometown full of children, women and elders," said Abu Omeir, who said he joined the rebel ranks a year ago.

The erstwhile schoolteacher has became a local legend among rebel supporters. "Abu Omeir has always been popular here, but now he is like a star," Mohammad Salem, a resident of Daret Izza, said via email.

From Abu Omeir's perspective, the rebels' threat to the government's aerial supremacy is undoubtedly shifting the balance of power between the Free Syrian Army rebel umbrella group and the government, locked in an almost 21-month-old conflict.

"Of course it has changed," he said. "The FSA is taking the lead and, God willing, the fall of the regime is around the corner."

Marrouch is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell contributed to this report.

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