Tuesday night, Feb. 12, he Syrian Air Force began bombing the large al-Jarra air base which rebels led by Islamist battalions conquered near the northern city of Aleppo. Bashar Assad has ordered the destruction of the dozens of fighter-bombers on the ground in the captured base. Most are Czech-made L-29 trainer planes which his air force has been using to pound rebel positions in built-up areas of the cities. But still in hangars are also Sukhoi Su-22M bombers and Mig-23 interceptors which too have been pressed into service for striking rebel-held territory.
The loss of the al-Jarra air base is a major blow for Assad’s forces, depriving them of the ability to hunt down and wipe out rebel forces from the air. Now the remnants of his air force are entrusted with somehow destroying their own planes, which are housed in bomb-proof hangars of the captured air facility.
As for the rebels celebrating their feat in those hangars, they might have used the air fleet they seized to bomb the presidential palace in Damascus, except that none of them are trained fliers. What they have done is to launch a recruitment campaign in Muslim countries for air crews with experience in flying Russian-made warplanes and helicopters.
Their headhunters are scouring the former Soviet republics and East Europe with large Muslim communities for Muslim pilots who served in the air forces of their own countries. Even those trained fighters, however, never served on advanced Sukhois or Migs, only on light trainers.
In Damascus, debkafile’s military sources report that the 4th Division (which acts as the Republican Guard) managed Tuesday to shore up the defensive lines that the rebels had breached in the eastern sector in the last day or two and throw back their advance into the heart of the capital. The rebels can only shell the Jobar district of central Damascus from outside, but are prevented from breaking through to their ultimate target.
debkafile’s sources and most Western observers sources fear that as his setbacks in battle pile up, the Syrian ruler is likely to decide that the only way to save his regime is to turn his chemical weapons against the rebel forces.