Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat – Syrian rebels on Thursday claimed to have shot down a MiG fighter jet in the northwest province of Idlib, demonstrating their renewed focus on targeting al-Assad’s fighter jets and helicopter gunships. The Free Syrian Army [FSA] has also announced a new strategy to target Syrian regime aircraft on the ground in order to destroy the largest possible number of targets.
Speaking exclusively to Asharq Al-Awsat, FSA Commander Colonel Riad al-Asaad revealed that Syrian rebels had shot down between 8 and 10 regime helicopters, whilst activists had also been able to document and photograph the downing of two MiG warplanes. Al-Asaad revealed that the first MiG warplane was shot down on 13 August near the Iraqi border, with its pilot being captured by the FSA, whilst the second MiG was shot down earlier this week in Idlib province. The Ahrar al-Sham battalion, which claimed responsibility for shooting down the two MiGs, claimed to have downed the warplanes utilizing a 14.5 mm heavy machine gun.
As for the shooting down of the MiG on Thursday, the warplane was reportedly shot down shortly after taking off in an attack on the Abu Zohur airbase by “hundreds of rebels”. The FSA claimed that 11 grounded MiGs at the airbase were also destroyed, and that the Syrian soldiers manning the base either fled or were killed in the attack.
On Wednesday, a spokesman for the Ahrar al-Sham brigade claimed that the FSA had attacked the Taftanaz military base in Idlib, destroying 10 Syrian helicopter gunships. Activists claimed that the FSA launched an attack on the Taftanaz military airport, which is located between the northern cities of Aleppo and Idlib, utilizing medium and heavy arms. Reports also claimed that the FSA has successfully gained control of a military base in the Aftrees area of Damascus governorate, seizing a number of missiles.
According to the “Global Security” website that specializes in military affairs, the Syrian army possesses more than 441 MiG warplanes, 4,707 surface-to-air missiles, and around 200 military helicopters.
Observers have claimed that Syria’s aerial capabilities are “exhausted” as a result of the intensive aerial campaign launched by the al-Assad regime over the past months and due to the lack of required “maintenance” as a result of the international sanctions that have been imposed on the Syrian regime. This explains why al-Assad’s forces are increasingly utilizing older aircraft such as Sukhoi-24 bombers.
Brigadier General Mustafa al-Sheikh, chairman of the FSA Military Council, stressed that all the warplanes and helicopters downed by the FSA have been shot down by 23 mm and 14.5 mm heavy machine guns, not surface-to-air missiles. He informed Asharq Al-Awsat that the FSA seized these heavy machine guns from the al-Assad regime forces and have installed them on a number of trucks as mounted-weaponry.
He said “militarily, this is a basic way to confront the regime, however this is all that is available to us.” He added that he was well aware that such weaponry is only effective when aircraft and helicopters are flying at low altitudes, stressing that the most effective way to bring down low-flying al-Assad regime warplanes and helicopters is to target their fuel tank.
He stressed that the FSA is now focusing on targeting grounded Syrian regime fighter jets and helicopters at military bases, pointing to the successful FSA attack on the Taftanaz military airport on Wednesday. Brigadier General al-Sheikh stressed that this policy does not include occupying the military base, but rather attacking it, destroying targets, and then withdrawing.
Al-Sheikh also asserted that the FSA are seeking to secure shoulder-launched fire-and-forget missiles, such as the Nag missile, adding this would meet the FSA’s needs for surface-to-air missiles, whilst also granting the Syrian rebels anti-tank capabilities. He claimed the FSA possessing surface-to-air missiles would impose a new reality on the ground in Syria, whilst also threatening the al-Assad regime’s aerial superiority.
The FSA Brigadier General also did not rule out the al-Assad regime utilizing all arms in its possession, including chemical weaponry. He told Asharq Al-Awsat “the entire international community, in addition to all international intelligence services, is well aware that Al-Assad will not step down until he has burnt and destroyed the entire country.”
For his part, strategic expert Hisham Jabir, a retired Lebanese army general, informed Asharq Al-Awsat that the Syrian regime only resorted to utilizing its Air Force after the opposition’s strength on the ground increased, and after the Syrian rebels began to threaten vital areas like Damascus and Aleppo. He stressed that warplanes that are usually utilized in conjunction with land forces are today being used exclusively to target rebel strongholds and operating bases.
He said “the opposition forces succeeded in carrying out a qualitative move at the military level by shooting down helicopters and MiG fighter jets, and they now possess 24 surface-to-air Stinger missiles and sophisticated MILAN anti-tank light infantry missiles.”
The retired Lebanese army general said that whoever supplied the FSA with 24 surface-to-air missiles are capable of supplying them with more, which would severely limit the Syrian Air Force’s activity. He added that there are reports that 6,000 surface-to-air missiles are missing from the Libyan arsenal. However he also stressed that “for its part, the Syrian air defense must not be underestimated as it possesses 60,000 elements, including around 400 MiG warplanes and 800 surface-to-air missiles.”