By William Tucker
Syrian rebels claimed to have captured a helicopter base on the outskirts of Damascus on Sunday as the opposition movements continue in their fight to fully unseat the Assad regime. The first reports of the rebels taking the Marj al-Sultan base was reported by the UK based Syrian observatory for Human Rights which levied the claim based upon video footage. Later, the Associated Press claimed to have verified the incident. Also near Damascus, Syrian rebels attacked a base belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC) which has remained loyal to Assad despite the breaking of relations that other Palestinian militant groups have had with the regime. In the recent past, different factions, most notably the Free Syrian Army, had attacked Damascus, but withdrew before the assault could become bogged down by superior regime firepower. The decision to attack regime loyalists and their assets on the outskirts of the capital shows that the rebels are becoming more tactically sophisticated.
This isn’t the first time the Syrian opposition has struck a regime airbase. The Sheikh Suleiman air base has been the site of fierce fighting between regime loyalists and the opposition near the northern city of Aleppo. The fighting in the city has drug on and neither force seems capable of dislodging the other. The most recent reporting suggests that the rebels have managed to encircle the city, thus cutting off logistical access to regime forces. Taking Sheikh Suleiman will certainly help in any future rebel assault on the city by denying its use by regime forces. Currently, the only logistical avenue on the north-south axis available to the regime either runs far to the east through rebel held territory, or along the vulnerable M5 highway. This vulnerability has been discussed here at IHS in the past few months.
For the rebels, taking the fight to the air bases makes tactical sense. The regime has held air superiority throughout the conflict, as well as a near monopoly on mechanized and artillery war fighting capabilities. Opposition forces have relied on small arms, but have managed to secure a seemingly steady supply of RPG’s and other military grade explosives through creative means or clandestinely from foreign governments. Understandably, these weapons can assist in fighting armored vehicles, but are limited in use against aircraft. There is plenty of evidence suggesting that SA-7 man portable antiaircraft weapons are in rebel stockpiles, but these are old, unreliable systems with a small mile and a half range. Instead, striking airbases undermines the ability to maintain, repair, or refit existing aircraft stockpiles without trying to engage the aircraft while in flight. Other airbases may be available to regime forces, but by striking airbases near the larger cities where fighting is occurring, the rebels can lengthen the time it takes for the regime’s remaining aircraft to refuel, rearm, and return to the fight.
Reports from Syria over the past few weeks suggest that the opposition is preparing some form of offensive activity against Damascus and Aleppo. This is unlikely to be an endgame scenario whereby regime forces would eventually capitulate. Instead, this may be a strategic move by the rebels to force Assad and his loyalists further to the west. Rebel movements beyond Damascus and Aleppo seem to support this. If the opposition can ultimately degrade Assad’s aerial advantage, attempting to take Damascus would be the next logical step. Not only is the city the capital, but holding that area would push regime forces north and help the rebels to cut off southern Syria using open, desert territory already held in the east and the Anti-Lebanon mountains to the west of Damascus as buffers. This may not be an ideal play for the rebels, but it is certainly a possibility that is open to them. Reinforcing this move would ultimately rely on taking Aleppo as well. Doing so would further push regime forces in the north southward to the area around Hama. With the south cut off coupled with opposition pressure from the north, the rebels could conceivably push Assad loyalists westward past the Jabal an Nusayriyah towards the Mediterranean coast.
Understand that this is all speculation, but from a military standpoint it may be the only feasible play available to the rebels. Attempting to hold large, populated swaths of territory would present a severe challenge to the rebels by concentrating and exposing them to counterattacks from loyalist forces. Regardless of the methodology chosen by the rebels, holding territory is a very real issue that the opposition will have to grapple with in the future. To be sure, holding and administering territory is something that must happen. While these tactical and strategic evolutions continue to show promise, they are merely one aspect of what the opposition needs to accomplish. Granted, Assad still has a formidable power base; however the opposition has advantages of their own. There is still a long way to go in the fight for Syria, but the opposition continues to mature as a viable alternative to the long time rule of the Assad clan.