Syria’s Battle for the Airports

Tareq al-Abd. Translated from As-Safir (Lebanon) – 11.1.2013 – While the Syrian rebels in the streets and in most of the political committees have been calling for an aerial embargo and limited air strikes, the armed opposition declared “the battle for airports” across the country.Syria’s government and rebel fighters are battling over control of the country’s dozens of airports, from civilian transport hubs to air force bases, writes Tareq al-Abd.

This battle did not exclude civilian airports and the areas around them. However, the Syrian opposition failed to prevent regime fighter jets from hitting their targets.Although the armed rebels managed to control military airports and air-defense battalions with their anti-craft missiles, they failed to down MiG warplanes and helicopters. Yet, the imported Stinger missiles carried out this mission, particularly in the Idlib and the Aleppo countryside.

In these areas, battles have been raging between the Islamist rebels and the Syrian regime. While Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham have managed to hold sway over military bases through hit-and-run tactics, the Syrian regime regained control of civilian airports. Still, takeoffs and landings remain critical. There are four civilian airports and some 20 military airports and bases in Syria, in addition to hundreds of aerial-defense battalions. The main international airports are situated in Damascus, Aleppo and the Latakia countryside, while Qamishli and Deir al-Zour have domestic airports. Aside from Deir Al-Zour, there are three landing fields that have resumed operation since the reopening of the airports of Damascus and Aleppo after battles that raged in their surrounding areas.

The airport’s daily program showed departures and arrivals of Syrian, Iranian and Iraqi airlines, while European airlines have not flown to Syria for over a year. Meanwhile, military airports number around 20, taking into account civilian airports with adjacent military sections. The most important civilian airports are located in Mezzeh at the entrance to Damascus, and include the towns of Daray and Maadamiyeh, where battles are raging with the armed opposition. While the regime has reinforced its positions at the airports of Damascus and its countryside, in addition to the airport in Hama, the primary battle today is in the north. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) has attacked Abu Zouhour airport and is preparing to storm Taftanaz airport.

According to sources close to the regime, the Taftanaz airport was intact as regime soldiers and fighter jets repelled the FSA attacks. The armed opposition, on the other hand, confirmed that the regime’s warplanes have been targeted. However, military operations in Idlib have slightly declined due to inclement weather in recent days. Some opposition rebels have gone as far as to claim that the aircrafts coming from Latakia or Hama were flying at high attitude in Idlib out of fear of being targeted with anti-aircraft missiles.

According to Ahrar al-Sham Brigades, yesterday [Jan. 9], a plane loaded with ammunition was blown up upon landing at the airport. Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham claimed responsibility for this operation. Some sources close to the FSA said that the armed opposition is following a special strategy in targeting warplanes, in which the militants seek to damage the jets instead of downing them. Some say that the Russian-made surface-to-air missiles cannot down fighter jets, which drop hot bricks as a missile-defense countermeasure. It must be known that the US-made Stinger missiles have limited uses, as they are difficult to procure or reserved for certain fighting units that prefer to store them. Others say that Turkey has banned the supply of Stinger missiles, just as there has been a significant decline in military supplies from abroad. Thus, the opposition has sought to attack airports instead of downing planes.

Nevertheless, this strategy is not necessarily employed in other military bases, as confirmed by activists in Hama. Hama’s military airport is considered to have a powerful bulwark with a large area and capacity able to accommodate civilian airplanes, which makes it difficult for attackers to break in.

The situation is similar in Homs and Deir al-Zour, which includes two airports, one civilian and the other military. Clashes flared in the areas surrounding the airport; however, this has not prevented the MiG and Sukhoi fighter jets from striking opposition targets, according to the Syrian army.

On the other hand, the situation at the airports of Damascus is completely different, except for Marj al-Sultan airport. According to sources close to the regime, there are no aircrafts in the airport, which serves only as a repository for old aircraft parts. The sources also said that the FSA did not manage to seize control of any of the airports in the Damascus countryside.

Mezzeh military airport remains the main launch pad for attacks on the southern areas, where the FSA brigades are deployed. The militants are also stationed in Daraya, Maadamiyeh al-Sham and most of the eastern areas of Ghouta. Meanwhile, battles have been rampant along the highway to Damascus International Airport, which has fallen once again into the hands of the regime. The opposition claimed to control air-defense battalions in Ghouta and its surrounding areas. Amid clashes, hit-and-run operations and attempts to seize airports, the armed opposition seeks to impose an aerial embargo. Meanwhile, the regime stressed that it will not stand idly by and will fortify its positions to attack opposition locations, which have been suffering from lack of supplies from abroad. The domestic battles have become a crucial indicator of the power struggle. It must be noted, however, that some battalions are monopolizing military operations in an attempt to impose their authority on the streets.

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