November 29, 2012 7:02 pm

Fresh clashes hit flights to Damascus

Fierce fighting near the airport forced international airlines to cancel flights to Damascus as internet services were cut off for the first time in Syria’s 20-month uprising – raising fears of an escalation after a fortnight of gains by rebel fighters.

Phone services were also shut down in parts of the capital. International airlines including the Dubai-based Emirates airline and Egypt Air said they had cancelled flights to the Syrian capital.

Syria rebels map Thumbnail

Syria rebels map Thumbnail

The fighting follows the storming of at least half a dozen military bases across the country by Syrian rebel forces in recent days, amid suggestions that their military capability and planning has improved.

Videos posted this week have shown the rebels apparently shooting down an aeroplane and helicopter with surface to air missiles. There have been reports that they have acquired a batch of shoulder fired missiles from Qatar.

The opposition’s seizure of bases appear to have boosted their supplies of military equipment. Two SA-16 surface to air missiles were seen in a rebel video showing a cache of weapons taken last week.

Eliot Higgins, author of the “Brown Moses” blog, which tracks the movement of arms in the Syrian conflict, believes that the weapons captured, which include Howitzers, rocket launchers and at least one artillery piece, put “more momentum behind the opposition”.

However, senior western officials have cautioned against overestimating the significance of the rebels’ gains.

“The rebels are nibbling at the edges and making gains, showing they can win where they chose to engage. But nobody here believes the Syrian civil war is yet at a turning point,” a senior British government figure told the Financial Times. “There is growing combat competence on the part of the opposition but not a sense that they are able to deal with major challenges such as the air threat.”

President Assad’s notionally 220,000-strong army has been reduced to half its size by deaths and desertions. But western analysts say he is still estimated to have about 60,000 core loyalists, comprising special forces drawn from the same Alawite minority as the regime and elite military divisions, who will be difficult to break. “They are still using only 20 per cent of their land based artillery,” said one western official.

There are also concerns that the rebels still lack a unified leadership and command structure. In this context, the acquisition of more weapons and power could sharpen internal rivalries, a worry at a time when Western powers are weighing up the idea of supplying arms to the opposition.

“Without authoritative political and military leadership, competition between rebel groups over territory and resources could increase, carrying with it the potential for inter-factional fighting,” said Ben Barry, senior fellow for Land Warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

The rebel decision to target airbases was made at a meeting of 13 local military councils a month ago, Abu Yasser, a spokesman for the opposition Syrian Media Centre in southern Turkey. But highlighting the lack of co-ordination, he said the Salafi group Jabhat al Nasra, at the forefront of some attacks, was not at the meeting.

Though the attacks on military bases reduce the regime’s ability to strike at nearby opposition-held territory and allows the rebels to take weapons, the risk of aerial bombardment means they rarely seek to hold them.

For Elias Hanna, a retired general and military expert at the American University of Beirut, the flurry of rebel successes is not a game changer as much as a demonstration that the rebels can still hit the regime. “There’s no decisive battle,” said General Hanna. “It’s about hit and run.”

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