BEIRUT—Rebels battling to topple the Assad regime have launched their first concerted attacks against air bases around the capital Damascus, after a series of stunning military gains by opposition fighters in key areas of north and east Syria pitched the long stalemated conflict into a decisive new phase.
A dawn assault Thursday by rebels on a checkpoint leading to Damascus Airport forced authorities to close the country’s only international commercial airline hub for two days, a huge psychological blow to the regime’s narrative that it remains in control in the capital.
“We don’t want to destroy Damascus airport, but we wanted to make a scoop,” said Nabil al-Amir, a spokesman for the Revolutionary Military Council in Damascus, which counts the majority of rebel fighting units in the capital and its suburbs under its command.
“Maybe the Pound will topple Assad before the gun,” he said, referring to Syria’s currency, which has lost nearly half its value since the uprising began 21 months ago. Economists estimate more than half the government’s $17bn hard currency reserves — crucial for controlling inflation — have now been depleted supporting the local currency.
Authorities earlier pulled the plug on all 84 of Syria’s Internet Provider addresses, effectively taking the entire country offline, an act reminiscent of the Egyptian and Libyan dictators in the days before their fall.
Internet remained cut for a third day Friday, with most mobile and landlines also disrupted, leaving only activists and rebels with satellite phones able to communicate between themselves and with the outside world.
Regime media blamed the Internet shut down on “terrorists” cutting the cables, an explanation dismissed as impossible by Internet monitoring groups.
Abu Yasser Idriss, a fighter with the Damascus Military Council, said a force of 200 rebels had ambushed “a bus of militiamen” at a checkpoint on the airport road, which he claimed rebels briefly controlled before being driven back as the regime struck back with warplanes, tanks and troops from the elite Presidential Guard, sent to support Airforce Intelligence defending the airport.
Both Amir and Idriss said the rebel’s strategy in disrupting Damascus airport was to deny the regime a crucial lifeline to its key allies Iran and Russia.
Tehran now openly declares its military assistance to the Assad regime, while flight records published by ProPublica this week showed that Russia — as well as providing the bulk of the Assad regime’s arms — had flown 240 tons of bank notes, believed to be Syrian Pounds printed in Russia, into Damascus airport between July and mid-September.
Prior to the attack on the airport road, rebels defeated loyalist forces in a two-day battle for Marjas Sultan, a principal helicopter airbase just two kilometers north-east of the international airport.
Three Russian Mi-8 military helicopters, used for troop re-supply and in rocket and bomb attacks, were destroyed in the fighting, said Amir, while one fell into rebel hands, giving rebels their first confirmed assault aircraft, though Amir said the Military Council had no plans to deploy the helicopter.
A few hours later, apparently in response, a regime MiG fighter jet dropped cluster bombs on a playground in Deir al-Asafir, near the Sultan airbase, killing at least 11 children.
After being expelled from the capital in a regime offensive in July, rebels say they are now pursuing a concerted attempt to over-run and plunder military bases located in the countryside around Damascus, almost exclusively poor suburbs that are strongholds of the opposition.
Late last month, an airbase in Hajar al-Aswad in the southern suburbs was temporarily seized by an Islamist militant group, while the Rahbe air defense battalion in Deir al-Suleiman, east of Damascus, was also over-run by rebels.
Rebels have sought to surround Mezze Military airport, the regime’s most critical military supply line inside the capital itself, from positions in Daraya and Madameya, both of which are being systematically flattened by relentless airstrikes.
Activists in Daraya said several people had died after inhaling what they described as “poisonous smoke” that “burns through the tarmac on the road.” Video uploaded late last month showed bright white clouds of smoke over Daraya reminiscent of white phosphorous bombs.
A Western diplomat still serving in Damascus said the strength of Assad’s forces in the capital and their superior training and firepower meant rebels had no immediate prospects of toppling the regime.
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But with the loss of two strategic bases in northern Syria, another in a key oil-producing region of the east and a hydroelectric dam on the Euphrates that flows from Turkey through Syria into Iraq, the diplomat said the conflict had entered “a new phase.”
“The regime may soon have to abandon the North and the East to the rebels, several important military bases having already been taken and little resistance left, including supply lines,” he said. “It’s likely what we have seen in Aleppo will come to Damascus, but with more intense fighting, greater casualties and certainly a higher level of destruction.”
After at least six months in which Assad’s airforce bombed civilian areas unchallenged, rebels this week scored their first confirmed hit with a shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile, bringing down a military helicopter outside Aleppo.
That followed the fall of Base 46, one of the regime’s last major outposts near its border with Turkey, a NATO member which backs the rebels and which this week began steps to deploy US-made Patriot missiles along its border, decried by Damascus as a first step to imposing a no-fly zone over northern Syria.
Over-running Base 46 after weeks of siege, rebels made off with over a dozen tanks, artillery cannon, mortars and rocket launchers, some of the heaviest weapons to fall into their hands since the start of the 21-month uprising.
Wissam al-Halabi, a spokesman for Liwaa Tawheed, a leading Islamist rebel group in Aleppo, said the past ten days had seen a significant drop in shelling and the return of many families to their homes.
Only two infantry bases and one airbase now stand between rebels gaining full control of a sizeable and contiguous stretch of land between Aleppo and the Turkish border, said Halabi.
“Rebel gains in recent days give them access to weapons that could tip the military balance in their favor in the north,” said Alison Baily, Middle East analyst at Oxford Analytica, a global analysis and advisory firm. “The regime does not have the manpower to reverse these gains.”