Syria rebels seize key bases as they gradually gain ground

27 Nov

Al Jazeera, 23 November 2012. Hashem Ahelbarra reports.


by Anna Barnard in Beirut, Lebanon & C.J. Chivers in the US

The New York Times

25 November 2012

Syrian rebels said they seized an important military airport and an air defense base just outside Damascus on Sunday, adding to a month-long string of tactical successes – capturing bases, disrupting supply routes and seizing weaponry – that demonstrate their ability to erode the government’s dominance despite facing withering aerial attacks.

Over the past month, rebels have seized or damaged major military bases around the country, making off with armoured vehicles, anti-aircraft weapons and other equipment they desperately need to break the stalemate in the grinding conflict, which has taken more than 30,000 lives. But they have not tried to hold all of the bases, as they become easy targets for government airstrikes.

The capture of the air base near Damascus, Marj al-Sultan, could be significant because it was one of the principal bases used by the Syrian Air Force’s fleet of Mi-8 helicopters, said Joseph Holliday, a senior analyst covering Syria for the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. The government relies on the aircraft to resupply army units and to carry out bomb and rocket attacks, especially in the north where government forces are increasingly isolated and air power is the main way to harass the rebels.

Still, despite videos of rebels seizing weapons caches, analysts said the recent successes appeared unlikely to produce a sudden shift in the balance of power, since the government seems to be consolidating its forces to defend core areas.

Mr. Holliday said the events of recent weeks underscored the arc of the conflict since late spring: The rebels have been gaining strength and becoming more organised, he said, and the government forces have been slowly contracting under pressure.

The government’s continued loss of bases, however, raises questions about how long it will be able to operate in the northern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo. Ground supply routes linking those provinces to Damascus, the capital, have slowly been cut off throughout the spring and summer, as rebels have mastered the use of roadside bombs and gradually overrun government bases and checkpoints along the way.

“The real question,” Mr. Holliday said, “is when the regime will start to pull out of the north.”

Rebels have assaulted Taftanaz air base in Idlib, and captured two major bases and an oil field in the eastern province of Deir al-Zour and a large base outside Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.

Striking at government air power is militarily and psychologically important for the rebels, for whom aircraft pose a significant threat because of their firepower and unlimited reach. Yet the rebels have so far been unable, because of international reluctance and opposition disunity, to obtain significant amounts of anti-aircraft weaponry that could help them turn the tide in the conflict, which began as a protest movement and gradually turned into a civil war after soldiers fired on demonstrators.

The battle for the air base on Sunday was part of a day of intense military activity that showed the level of chaos that has come to be expected even near the heart of president Bashar al-Assad’s government.

By day’s end, rebels claimed to have seized three military installations, including the Marj al-Sultan airfield, and 11 mobile anti-aircraft guns, and blamed the government for the bombing of a playground that killed eight children, whose bloodied bodies were shown in an online video.

Video of the rebel attack on the airport, in a suburb called Eastern Ghouta, showed a fighter firing a rocket-propelled grenade by night and helicopters on the tarmac silhouetted by flames. In later clips, rebels marched toward an apparently undamaged helicopter and moved freely among radar dishes positioned atop sand berms. One video shows a jubilant parade of honking vans and motorcycles trailed behind a dozen men riding atop an armoured vehicle down a city street.

It remained unclear, however, whether the government had moved its working helicopters elsewhere before the rebels arrived, and whether the government might be able to reclaim the territory.

On Sunday evening, according to anti-government activists and videos, rebels took over the base of the Rahbeh air defense battalion in Deir al-Suleimen, which housed anti-aircraft weapons. In a video said to have been shot there, the voice of a man off camera trembled with excitement as he showed a row of armoured vehicles, which he said were Russian-made “Shilka” anti-aircraft weapons. In the dark it was unclear if the weapons were what the rebels claimed or whether they could use them.

Rebels also seized a training facility in nearby Douma that belonged to a pro-Assad Palestinian group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine: General Command, whose members have clashed recently with rebels, according to an activist reached in Douma and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the conflict. The activist said that government security troops and Palestinians inside the facility were released after turning over their weapons.

The rebel claims were impossible to verify because of the Syrian government’s restrictions on journalists.

Video from the playground, which activists said was taken in the village of Dayr al-Asafir close to the Marj al-Sultan air base, showed at least half a dozen children who were dead or wounded from what activists said was a cluster bomb. The asphalt was pockmarked and littered with bomb casings.

On the ground lay two children: a young girl, identified as Anoud Mohammed, in a purple sweatsuit, and a child who appeared to be a toddler in a red sweater, their eyes open and staring. Around them people were carrying the limp bodies of other children whose bare feet were smeared with blood, as a woman knelt beside Anoud and screamed at the sky. In a later video, Anoud lay dead in a hospital.

“What’s her fault, this child?” a man’s voice shouted. “What’s her fault, Bashar, this little girl?”

An activist with the opposition Damascus Media Office who gave her name as Lena said “residents believe this massacre was in retaliation” for the airport attack. Referring to the Free Syrian Army, the loose-knit rebel umbrella group, she said, “Whenever the FSA does something big, we expect a massacre.”

She also said an activist journalist was wounded in shelling on Sunday in the area. “We are like 50 now; in the end we will be 10,” she said. “It’s like a movie where people die, but only a few make it until the end.”

The rebels made efforts on Sunday to offset a recent video that surfaced of fighters executing prisoners. The footage released Sunday showed a wounded government soldier said to have been captured at Marj al-Sultan air base being treated by a medical team traveling with the rebel attackers.

But voices can also be heard interrogating the man, asking him about tactical information as well as his name, background and the situation in his hometown. Off camera, someone says: “Watch, people. Watch Assad’s dogs! How we’re treating them with tenderness.”

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