ABU AL DAHOUR, Syria -- Most of the civilians already have left this city of about 30,000, and many of those who remained could be seen Saturday piling trucks with their belongings.
Abu al Dahour is the closest city to a military airport that bears the same name. Now it’s become the setting for a strategic confrontation that rebels hope will undercut the military’s dominance of the air, an advantage that’s all but halted rebel advances in nearby Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, and allowed the military to move men and materiel where rebels’ roadside bombs have made land travel dangerous.
Ten days ago, the rebels fighting to topple the government of President Bashar Assad launched a two-day offensive against the base, overrunning a complex that housed air force officers. The government responded by bombing parts of the city to rubble. The rebels vowed, however, to continue to lay siege to the base.
They use garages in the city to hide truck-mounted anti-aircraft weapons, which they’ve used to down at least one air force jet. They also have at their command captured armored personnel carriers, at least one tank and ammunition they seized during the brief time they occupied parts of the base.
The rebels, of course, predict victory. On the outskirts of the city, near a barn full of cattle, rebels from one of the groups that operate here, Syrian Martyrs Battalion, proudly displayed the wreckage of what they, and experts in the United States who viewed video of the wreckage, said was a Russian-made MiG jet fighter. They said they’d downed two more aircraft last week and had destroyed other aircraft and a runway during their brief foray onto the base nearly two weeks ago. The assault was coordinated, they said, with a strike on another air base near Taftanaz, north of here, that also was being used to fly sorties over Aleppo.
Rebels say the anti-aircraft weapons they’ve captured have given them a new edge in their fight and have cut the number of sorties the government is flying.
“Before we got these, they were flying 24 hours a day,” said one young rebel who was guarding a pair of captured anti-aircraft guns in the city. “Now they are not flying as much. They are afraid.”
He said army defectors who’d been trained to use the anti-aircraft weapons were manning them and training others. The rebels, he said, have about a dozen such weapons, some bought on the black market, others captured from the military.
Another rebel, Omar Ahmed, who said he’d defected from the base two months ago, said that concerns about the loyalty of pilots – most of whom are Sunni Muslims, like the rebel force – had hampered the military’s use of aircraft. Assad and the country’s ruling elite, as well as many of the military’s officer corps, are Alawites, a sect that’s related to Shiite Islam. The Sunnis accuse the Alawites of discriminating against them.
Syrian air attacks generally involve only one or two aircraft at a time. There have been no pilot defections since a pilot flew his MiG-21 to Jordan in June.
“Some Sunni pilots refused to strike the cities, and they shot them,” Ahmed said. “They only send pilots they trust. The regime is paying pilots for every missile they fire.”
Ahmed said that while he was on the base he’d been tasked with helping to build more than 100 “barmeels,” oil drums stuffed with explosives and shrapnel that have been used with devastating effect in Abu al Dahour and other areas. According to one military analyst, they’re roughly equal to a 1,000-pound bomb.
The air war is clearly an aspect of the conflict that’s drawn much rebel bravado. With the West so far unwilling to provide anti-aircraft missiles to the rebels, they’ve been developing their own expertise. Rebels in the eastern city of Deir Zour claimed to have shot down a MiG aircraft last month, and rebels around Idlib claim to have shot down a handful of helicopters. Another rebel battalion said it shot down a helicopter in Damascus a week ago; footage posted to YouTube appeared to support the claim.
But the government is still deploying aircraft. On Saturday, residents of a town near Abu al Dahour looked pensively up into the sky as the sun set and a pair of helicopters high above delivered a dozen rockets at something in the distance. On Sunday in Aleppo, Czech-made L-39 trainer jets could be seen strafing and dropping bombs in a neighborhood in the northern part of the city.
“The attacks on the airport are just the beginning of our plan to get rid of the air force,” said Jameel Maarouf, the leader of the Syrian Martyrs Battalion. “We will continue.”