Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat – Syrian rebels have shot down two al-Assad regime military aircraft in two days utilizing surface-to-air missiles in what may represent a major shift in the balance of power in Syria between the al-Assad regime and the Free Syrian Army [FSA].
The FSA managed to shoot down an al-Assad regime fighter jet on Wednesday, downing the aircraft in an olive grove approximately 2 km from Tourmanin, near Aleppo. This area is adjacent to the Sheikh Suleiman army base, which is the last foothold for al-Assad regime forces in this region. The military base has been under siege by rebel fighters over the past weeks.
Eye-witnesses claimed that the fighter jet was shot down by surface-to-air missiles, with another witness informing Agence France-Press [AFP] that “two pilots used parachutes to jump out of the plane after it was hit” adding “one of them was taken prisoner.”
Amateur video shot by activists and later posted on YouTube showed clouds of fire and smoke rising from the downed fighter jet. An unidentified man, speaking from behind the camera, can be heard gloating “this is your airplane, O Bashar” adding “the FSA has shot it down.”
A second amateur video, distributed by the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, showed a group of men carrying a uniformed man identified as the pilot. One man can be heard saying “this is the man who was piloting the plane that bombarded the houses of civilians” whilst another man warned “we want him alive.”
The Ahrar Daret Ezza (Free People of Daret Ezza), a rebel group with ties to the FSA, claimed responsibility for the downing of the al-Assad fighter jet, according to a rebel in Tourmanin.
This was the second al-Assad regime aircraft to have been shot down by rebels utilizing surface-to-air missiles in the past two days. On Tuesday, Syrian rebels shot down a Syrian army helicopter with newly acquired heavy weaponry.
Well-informed sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that the al-Assad regime air force has been forced to cut the number of air raids it carries out by 50 percent as a result of the improvement in the FSA’s air defense capabilities.
The source denied reports that the Syrian rebels had received anti-aircraft weaponry from Turkey, stressing that all the surface-to-air missiles they have in this regard were looted from al-Assad regime bases that fell into rebel hands.
The well-informed Syrian source also revealed that the FSA is now in possession of SA-7 man-portable, shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, adding that these had either been looted from al-Assad military bases or purchased on the black market. SA-7’s are also known as Strela 2’s by the Russians. In addition to this, the source added that the rebels are in possession of 23 mm anti-aircraft artillery, 12.7 mm heavy machine guns, most prominently Russian DShK heavy machine guns.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity, the Syrian source revealed that the changing balance of military power in Syria is also the result of FSA operations targeting al-Assad regime air bases, stressing that this has strongly harmed the regime’s aerial capabilities. The source claimed that the FSA has been able to destroy or significantly damage many al-Assad regime fighter jets and helicopters on the ground during such attacks, whilst adding that the FSA is currently directly in control of a number of air bases abandoned by the regime. He also cited widespread defections from the al-Assad air force, adding that defectors often leave whilst in the possession of equipment and arms – which are then handed over to the FSA – whilst other defectors make sure to destroy and sabotage as much equipment as they can before leaving.
The FSA reportedly seized Marj al-Sultan airbase in Rif Dimashq, in addition to a nearby radar center. FSA Deputy Chief of Staff Colonel Arif al-Hamud informed Asharq al-Awsat that the FSA had twice attacked this airbase, which is a home for al-Assad regime helicopters. He claimed that this airbase “oversees large areas east of Damascus, namely the area between Taftanaz and Saraqib.” He highlighted the strategic importance of this area, and therefore the FSA’s seizure of this base, particularly as this area includes the international highway that links Aleppo with Latakia and Damascus.