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Rebels struggle to tame Assad's air power
MAREA, Syria -- Lt. Col. Maan al-Mansour's mission is to capture the Syrian air base where he once served.
The 22-year air force veteran, who defected in June to the rebellion, led an attack by hundreds of fighters on the Kuwiras military airport last week. In a fierce battle, they hammered the base with mortar fire and rocket-propelled grenades for four hours, nearly overrunning it until they were driven back by sustained strafing and bombing by jet fighters.
Al-Mansour says he's determined to try again. Syria's rebels have turned to a new tactic of attacking bases, trying to stop the jets and attack helicopters that have wreaked devastation on their fighters and civilians in the battleground city of Aleppo and the nearby countryside.
"We are going to destroy the place that causes all this destruction," al-Mansour said. "The pilots inside are my friends and I like them, but they are on the wrong side, they destroy buildings with the innocent and children inside, so when I attack the airport, I think of them."
Rebels drove the Syrian army out of the countryside north of Aleppo long ago and claim to control more than two-thirds of Aleppo, Syria's largest city, where they have battled to a standstill the regime forces trying for more than a month to uproot them.
But the military is turning increasingly to its largely unchallenged air power, using its aircraft to strike in Aleppo and throughout the small towns that dot the rebel-held areas to the north. The growing reliance suggests the regime is trying to spare its elite troops of the Republican Guard and the Fourth Armored Division, which have borne the brunt of past year and a half of fighting, according to Maplecroft, a British-based risk analysis company.
"The Syrian military is becoming increasingly concerned that its superiority in terms of numbers and firepower belies significant weaknesses such as troop fatigue, growing defections, and a lack of experience in irregular warfare," it said in a recent briefing.
Rebels claim to have shot down a few aircraft, but they admit there is little to do about the threat from above -- so they are moving against the source.
The leader of the rebel brigade doing most of the fighting in Aleppo announced Tuesday that air bases would be the new target for their forces.
"We control the ground in Aleppo but the regime has the air force and controls the air," Abdul Qadir Saleh, the field commander of the Tawhid Brigade, told journalists in Istanbul. "We will solve this by destroying airports and air bases."
Driving through the green fields of corn and olive orchards of Aleppo province, life almost seems to have returned to normal with farmers riding tractors and children playing soldier in the dusty streets of the small towns under the scorching summer sun. But every town has piles of rubble where buildings were pulverized from the air.
The airstrikes have sent hundreds of thousands fleeing for the dubious safety of the Turkish border.
"We woke to the sound of planes last night at 4 a.m. and everyone was terrified and fled into the fields," said Ahmed al-Hajji, who lives with his five children and hundreds of others in a massive customs shed near the border in Azaz. "Who will stop the planes? They are almost in Turkey."
So far, every rebel assault on the air bases, which are guarded by tanks, rockets as well as the aircraft themselves, has ended in failure and often with a heavy loss of life. On Aug. 31, the same day al-Mansour's fighters attacked Kuwiras, rebels hit two air bases in neighboring Idlib province, but all ultimately foundered. He did not give any casualty figures.
Capt. Ahmed Ghazali, the head of rebel forces in Azaz, said his forces have repeatedly tried to take the Menagh helicopter field, which squats on the key road between the border and the rebel stronghold of Tel Rifaat. From there, its aircraft have hit rebels across the region.
"There is no cover around these areas and it is very exposed. We can't get close, and they use artillery and jets on us," complained Ghazali, wearing Gulf War-era U.S. surplus camouflage. "With our current means, we can't attack these places."
Instead, he said, his forces have been harrying the base with pinpoint strikes to keep it occupied, but that has done little to stem the daily attacks on Azaz and other towns. On Wednesday, two rockets fired from a jet slammed into the road near the city hall and the main communications tower. One left a huge crater, the other disappeared under the pavement after not exploding.
The lack of heavy weapons, especially anti-aircraft missiles, has been a common lament among the rebels. More than a month ago, they did succeed in shelling Menagh with one of their captured tanks, but the move has never been repeated due to a lack of ammunition.
Mustafa Saleh, a 20-year-old religion student-turned-rebel who spent the last month fighting in Aleppo, also said that regime aircraft picked off opposition tanks easily, curtailing their regular use in combat.
Tanks, once the common infantry man's nightmare, seem to be increasingly superseded in this conflict. Their burned out husks litter the countryside in testimony to rebel successes in stopping them.
Abu Muslim, a portly, bearded rebel in the town of Marea, became a specialist in rocket-propelled grenades during his military service a decade ago. He said in the tight confines of urban warfare, taking out the regime's older tanks wasn't a problem.
"You can take out the old tanks, the (1960s era) T-55s with just one shot of the RPG between the turret and the main body," he said with a laugh, while admitting that the newer tanks took a few more rockets. They have yet to find a similar simple solution to helicopter gunships and fighter jets soaring high out of reach.
Another perennial problem for the rebels is the lack of unity among the hundreds of small battalions that make up its ranks, each anywhere from a few hundred to a few dozen men.
For his assault on the airport, al-Mansour had to weld together the 12 different battalions that agreed to participate into a single fighting force.
"We asked everyone who would like to take part in the operation and support it with ammunition. Some accepted and some didn't," he said. "The cooperation is all on a personal level. If they agree, it's a personal thing. I come to you, I have an operation, if you want, we do it. If you don't, that's it."
He said some insisted on financial compensation as well.
The problem is replicated with the outside leaders, al-Mansour added, listing three who refused to defer to one another. Recently, however, several top leaders are working on fusing the different groups into a more cohesive rebel army under the control of defected Gen. Mohammed al-Haj Ali, residing in Jordan.
Even with a more cohesive military structure, Western countries would likely be loath to hand out sophisticated hand-held anti-aircraft missiles for fear they could fall into the wrong hands, as happened with the Stinger missiles meant to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan and then in Libya when Moammar Gadhafi's lavish arsenals were opened to all comers.
Resolving these leadership issues and opening the door to more coordinated assaults, and perhaps even better weapons, is what fighters like Mustafa Saleh -- the former religion student -- want to see. He said it was a rare moment in Aleppo when there wasn't a dreaded jet or helicopter buzzing in the sky.
"Many times we were forced to withdraw by the aircraft. ... If there were no aircraft, Aleppo would fall in days," he said, back in his home village of Marea, where his unit is gearing up for an assault on a nearby infantry academy. "Aleppo needs anti-aircraft rockets."