To hit either people or a moving target, a helicopter at high altitude must either enter a diving profile, or descend to a lower altitude of 300 to 800 feet, according to the American pilot who responded to questions by email but asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to discuss Syrian or American military practices. The American pilot said that from altitudes above 1,000 feet, flying level, striking a moving target with rockets or guns would be a challenge, even for a pilot trained against moving targets. He doubted that Syrian pilots receive such training.
Remaining at such high altitudes does have one advantage: It puts the helicopters out of range of rebels trying to down them with rifle and machine-gun fire.
On the first day of fighting, everyone shot at them, with Dushkas and rifles, said Mohammed Fido, a rebel fighter who said he had participated in significant fighting two weeks ago in the city of Qusayr, near the border with Lebanon. A Dushka is a Russian-made heavy machine gun. On the second day, some of us shot at them, others did not. By the third day, nobody bothered to shoot at the helicopters. We learned.
The Syrian military also deployed helicopters during four of five days of heavy fighting earlier this month in the northern town of Kafer Zaita. But sustained attacks against a concentrated force of 600 or more fighters resulted in only two rebel casualties, one killed and the other wounded.
During the battle, a rebel commander named Shahm attempted to draw a helicopter away from the main rebel force by baiting it with a truck-mounted Dushka. One helicopter gave chase, pursuing the black truck into the open countryside and expending significant machine-gun fire and at least three rockets. The truck traveled about six miles to the nearby town of Khan Sheikhoun, arriving unscathed before hiding in a garage.
Syrian military use of tanks and armored personnel carriers also lacks tactical skill. Contrary to standard military doctrine, Syrian armor frequently advances into contested urban zones without the accompanying support of ground troops. This leaves the armor vulnerable to rebel gunners, equipped with rocket-propelled grenades, who fire at the tanks and then quickly retreat out of the tanks line of sight.
Mohammed Idris, a rebel captain who said he battled government forces for nearly a month during the February assault on the Homs neighborhood of Baba Amr, said that the tanks sometimes advanced with infantry but more often advanced alone, or shelled contested areas from a distance of several kilometers. He said that when tanks advanced alone the rebels were often able to destroy them using rocket-propelled grenades. T-72 tanks, the type predominantly used by the government, are vulnerable to RPG strikes against the turret, treads and rear engine area.
During the Kafer Zaita fighting, unaccompanied armor was repeatedly driven back by barrages of RPG fire. Two armored personnel carriers were observed parked alone in a vulnerable intersection, but they retreated before rebel fighters were able to react.
Fighters in Houla, the site of an alleged massacre on May 25, showed video they said was taken in the past week of two tanks firing shells at houses from a hill approximately half a mile outside the town. Homes in the city near the remaining government checkpoints showed significant signs of damage that appeared to be from tank cannon and machine-gun fire. But though the fighters said the shelling had killed nearly 40 people in Houla since the massacre, during that same time government forces have been driven from the town center and are now relegated to positions on the towns periphery.
Tice, a McClatchy special correspondent, served seven years in the U.S. Marine Corps as an infantry officer. During his deployment in Afghanistan, he served for seven months as an air attack controller, guiding combat aircraft from forward positions.