[Marxism] Rebels Make Gains in Blunting Syrian Air Attacks

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Sep 27 07:16:29 MDT 2012

NY Times September 26, 2012
Rebels Make Gains in Blunting Syrian Air Attacks

ABU AD DUHUR, Syria — The rebels huddled before darkness near the edge 
of the Syrian Air Force base. They were about 40 men, hiding beside 
small buildings on the flatlands south of Aleppo.

Each man carried little more than a rifle and several dozen cartridges. 
They had gathered for an effort that illustrated the lopsided nature of 
the fight for Syria: Lightly armed men trying to remove Syria’s attack 
jets from the skies.

Roughly two months into this important yet scarcely documented battle, 
Syria’s antigovernment fighters have succeeded in laying siege to the 
heavily fortified Abu ad Duhur Air Base. They have downed at least two 
of the base’s MIG attack jets. And this month they have realized results 
few would have thought possible. Having seized ground near the base’s 
western edge, from where they can fire onto two runways, they have 
forced the Syrian Air Force to cease flights to and from this place.

“We are facing aircraft and shooting down aircraft with captured 
weapons,” said Jamal Marouf, a commander credited by the fighters with 
downing the first MIG-21 here. “With these weapons we are preventing 
aircraft from landing or taking off.”

This is a significant setback for the government in the northern region, 
where rebels had already strengthened their position with homemade 
bombs, making roads too perilous for military vehicles to pass and 
restricting the military’s movements.

But air power has remained a large advantage for President Bashar 
al-Assad, whose air force has pounded many cities and towns.

For the rebels, managing to deny the use of this airfield has undermined 
the government’s ability to exert its full authority in some parts of 
the country. It has also improved the morale of fighters who remain 
severely outgunned.

The rebels’ boldness, and their success, have not been painless. The 
army units inside the base have tanks, artillery and mortars. When 
attacked, the soldiers often respond by firing barrages of 
high-explosive rounds into the nearby town, in what amounts to a tactic 
of collective punishment against civilians. The effects are evident in 
the center of town, where block after block of buildings have been 
shattered. “This is the army, taking revenge,” said another fighter, Abu 

The events at Abu ad Duhur form another telling chapter of the 
uprising’s evolution, and for the tit-for-tat fight between the 
government and its adversaries.

The crackdown by the Assad government has descended in stages since it 
started last year. It began with arrests but quickly shifted into a 
bloody campaign by loyalist militias and a conventional army using 
mortars, artillery and tanks. This summer, as the campaign slowed in the 
face of swelling rebel ranks and roadside bombs, the government 
escalated again. It turned loose helicopters and then jets to attack 
rebels and their neighborhoods.

After the government moved its battle to the sky, at least hundreds of 
fighters from the mountains diverted some of their attention from the 
remaining army outposts near their homes and began infiltrating into the 
lowlands. Armed with a paltry assortment of weapons, they began hunting 
the aircraft that were hunting them.

Mr. Marouf, 37, is from Deir Sonbul, a village in Jebel al Zawiya, an 
area of rolling mountains where mosques and Muslim cemeteries stand 
beside Roman ruins and where olive groves cloak the slopes. Before the 
war he had been a construction contractor in Lebanon.

Now he is one of the rebels’ most prominent field commanders, his 
stature elevated in part by YouTube videos in which he is seen striding 
among the flaming wreckage of MIGs to stand over the bloodied remains of 
Syrian pilots still strapped to their parachutes. In one video he 
declared that if the world would not protect Syrians by enforcing a 
no-fly zone, then the rebels would create a no-fly zone themselves. That 
statement was fired in part by adrenaline, made moments after knocking a 
Russian-made jet from the sky.

In an interview after last Friday’s prayers, Mr. Marouf offered a more 
measured view and an assessment heard throughout the rebel-held zones. 
The Syrian opposition, he said, needs antitank weapons and 
shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles, which would help the rebels defeat 
the government’s armor and ground its planes. Then he again offered a 
confident declaration.

“If they send us these, we will destroy this regime in not less than 30 
days,” he said.

The West has been reluctant to provide such arms, and rebels said Arab 
states had followed the West’s lead and not provided them either. 
(Although a few old SA-7 antiaircraft missiles have been spotted in 
rebel videos, these sightings have been rare, and the missiles have yet 
to be a significant factor in the conflict.)

Judging from what Mr. Marouf’s fighters carried as they moved around the 
air base’s western flank, the missiles have not appeared here, either. 
These men are woefully equipped. Most have only rifles. Ammunition 
supplies are lean.

The few heavier weapons visible — including a BMP armored vehicle, a 
Russian-made 14.5-millimeter machine gun and two mortar tubes — were all 
captured from government forces or purchased from corrupt army units, 
Mr. Marouf and two of his subcommanders said.

With the weapons they do have, the fighters have managed to overrun 
scores of mountain checkpoints, to sever the road linking Damascus and 
Aleppo, and to turn a once-secure military airfield into a forlorn and 
besieged outpost.

Exactly how many MIGs have been shot down around this air base is 
unclear. Fighters gave different tallies, ranging from three to six. But 
the rebels’ video, checked against interviews with fighters, make clear 
that at least two MIG-21’s had been downed, and a government transport 
plane taxiing on the runway about 10 days ago was turned back under fire.

The first jet was crippled in late August by Mr. Marouf using a 
14.5-millimeter machine gun mounted on a truck bed, several fighters 
said. Until then, the rebel actions at the airport had been bold, but 
not necessarily effective.

As the aircraft burst into flame, the pilot ejected and the rebels 
opened fire on him as he slowly descended. Everything had changed. The 
fighters had punished the aircraft that were dropping bombs on their 
villages. An enemy once beyond reach had been hit. Emotions soared.

“It was indescribable,” said Abu Azab, who leads the Voices of the Right 
Brigade, one of the fighting groups that swear allegiance to Mr. Marouf. 
“We were hiding from the snipers, but after the MIG was hit we were 
jumping up and shouting ‘Allahu akbar!’ and we forgot about the snipers.”

Several days later, a second MIG-21 was hit, this time by a sniper 
rifle, the rebels said. It crashed and burned. A third aircraft, a 
MIG-23, crashed a few days later after being struck by heavy machine-gun 
fire, the rebels said.

In what seems the enduring competition among rebels seeking credit and 
outside financial support, various groups have said they were involved 
in these downings, boasting of them to journalists.

But only Mr. Marouf and his groups are seen in the videos firing on the 
aircraft and then wandering the flaming wreckage of the government’s 
jets. And they have a battlefield trophy rare to this brand of war — the 
shattered tail section of a MIG-21, which they carted off to Deir Sonbul.

Still, the battle for Abu ad Duhur has not come without its puzzles, its 
limits, or its costs.

On some days aircraft arrive from other bases to bomb or strafe the 
rebels and try to relieve the siege. Sometimes the base’s soldiers are 
resupplied, rebels said, by helicopters that hover high overhead and 
then risk a swift, spiraling descent and quick escape.

These sorties point to a larger picture: While the Syrian Air Force is 
under strain, and Abu ad Duhur is at risk of being overrun, other air 
bases are firmly in government control. The government’s air-to-ground 
campaign goes on. And the fight for Abu ad Duhur remains fierce.

Protective cover is hard to find near the base, which sits on a bare 
agricultural plain. The government’s soldiers know many places where 
rebels hide.

Moments after the fighters prayed at dusk among buildings at the base’s 
southwestern edge, the army struck. It shelled the rebels with mortar 
fire, forcing many of them to scatter and seek cover beside walls. 
Explosions followed them, as if the pattern of this fight had been set 
weeks ago.

The rebels said that eventually they would claim the base, capturing 
more weapons, including aircraft now idled in hangars or near the 
runways. That possibility has presented them with a conundrum: should 
they seek the destruction of the grounded aircraft, or try to protect them?

Riad Darwish, 24, a college student who joined the fighters, offered one 
view: “We are trying not to destroy the aircraft,” he said. “They are 
our aircraft, and we have pilots who are ready.”

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