#Syria, Idlib city Dana helicopters flying over the city and rainfall with heavy machine gun fire
By Glen Carey
The use by Bashar al-Assad’s armed forces of ever-deadlier weapons to crush the 18-month Syrian uprising at the expense of greater civilian casualties is a sign of the regime’s weakness, military and Middle East analysts say.
Syria’s government has become more reliant on heavy weaponry including attack aircraft, helicopter gunships, artillery and tanks even as lightly armed rebels win and hold ground in the biggest cities — Aleppo, the business center, and suburbs of the capital, Damascus.
Assad’s forces have been employing heavier weapons because “they don’t have enough combat maneuver units to deal with the rebellion,” according to Jeffrey White, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a 34-year veteran of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. That shortage of troops indicates a loss of army personnel from defections and desertions, White said in a phone interview.
The Syrian army’s full-time notional strength is about 220,000 personnel, plus allied Shabiha militiamen, according to the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies’ Military Balance 2012. Yet the fighting has reduced its effectiveness as a military force and its manpower may now be only about 100,000 troops, White estimates, while the remaining units “aren’t necessarily fighting very well.”
If the Syrian military is unable to break the deadlock even with air power, it may resort to still-tougher tactics.
“There is another level beyond that when they actually start systematically destroying entire suburbs of major towns,” said Crispin Hawes, head of the Middle East program at Eurasia Group, a New York-based political risk research company.
In Aleppo, government forces shelled neighborhoods and battled overnight with rebels near the international airport, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on its Facebook page today. More than 140 people, including 95 unarmed civilians and 26 personnel from the Syrian army, died yesterday in the clashes, the U.K.-based group said.
Syrian forces routinely storm small towns and city districts seeking rebels and their supporters. In August, loyalists entered Dariya, a town outside Damascus, leaving bodies piled on the streets and in a mosque, according to opposition groups. A video posted on YouTube showed the corpses of men covered in blankets on the floor of the Abu Sulaiman Darani mosque in Dariya. The authenticity of the video couldn’t be verified.
Syria’s armed forces possess a large inventory of military hardware. Mainly Russian-supplied, this includes 4,950 main battle tanks and 3,440 artillery pieces, while the air force has 365 combat-capable aircraft including 240 MiG-21s, MiG-23s, Su-22s and Su-24s assigned to ground attack, according to the IISS. In addition, it has 33 Mi-25 attack helicopters.
“Statistically the regime has considerable power, but the part that can be used is very small,” said Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center, in an interview. “We are witnessing a shift in the balance of power on the battlefield inside Syria.” That’s why the government is using its weaponry “to regain the balance that was lost.”
Alani says the best-equipped unit, the 4th Armored Division led by Assad’s brother Maher, is being held back in the capital for “the last stand of the regime.”
Syria’s economy is showing signs of weakening under sanctions. In June, consumer prices rose 36 percent from a year earlier and climbed by 2.9 percent from May, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics in Damascus. Crude output has fallen by almost 50 percent during the uprising, Oil Minister Said Hunaidi said last month.
Even so, Assad’s downfall is not assured, Hawes says. “Syria potentially looks like an open-ended conflict,” he says. Unlike the removal of governments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, “Assad is going to be a lot harder to tip over.”
Both sides have switched tactics as the conflict has evolved since the start of the uprising in March 2011.
“For most of last year, the military response was reasonably measured in that they were attempting to minimize civilian casualties, with the eye on re-establishing order and being able to run the country in the way that they ran it before,” said Hawes. “That goal is no longer perceived to be realistic. They are happy to use helicopter gunships and air support to attack suburbs, losing a huge number of civilian casualties.”
Pressure from more than a year of combat operations has “taxed” the Syrian military, causing problems with resupply, maintenance and morale, U.S. Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last month.
That’s why Iran has started to train a new militia force, called “ the Army of the People,” drawn from the minority Shiite and Alawite communities “to take some of the pressure off of the Syrian military,” he said.
The Syrian military is also being resupplied by Iran, says Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai.
Iran is “most likely sending weapons and ammunition plus small teams of personnel to direct and support Syrian military operations,” he said in an interview. “We are now seeing the full axis of cooperation between the two states.”
While Iran has supported Assad’s government in public statements, it hasn’t officially acknowledged any military role in Syria.
The rebels too have altered their approach, entering and holding areas of the biggest cities. Even so, the Free Syrian Army lacks a “grand strategy,” White says.
The partial seizure of Aleppo, “didn’t reflect any profound strategic thinking,” he said. “They saw an opportunity, saw that regime forces were weak and not fighting very well, and they seized on the opportunity.”
He says the Syrian military response has failed to dislodge them and that the rebels are fighting a long war.
“The FSA doesn’t have a field force, they can’t come out of the towns and villages meet the Syrian army in some kind of open battle,” he said. “They can weaken the army over time, and I think that is what they are doing. They are going to break the army piece by piece.”
Rebels have turned their attacks against airbases as they try to degrade the government’s air power. Battles have been fought around the Abu Zhuhoor military base, the Kwers military airport in Aleppo and in the city of Bukmal in Deir Ezzour province near the border with Iraq.
Heavy fighting erupted in areas of Damascus and Aleppo in July as rebels confronted the government in its biggest urban power bases.
The same month, a bomb was smuggled into one of the government’s most sensitive institutions, the national security headquarters in Damascus, killing key members of Assad’s military establishment, including his brother-in-law, Major General Assef Shawkat, and Defense Minister Dawoud Rajhah. In August, Prime Minister Riad Hijab defected to Jordan and denounced Assad’s regime as “the enemy of God.”
The death toll from Syria’s 18-month uprising is “staggering” and the “destruction is reaching catastrophic” proportions, Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations peace envoy, said on Sept. 4. The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that more than 26,000 people have died to date, an average of about 50 a day.
Throughout most of August and September, opposition groups have reported death tolls of more than 100 daily, with the Local Coordination Committees in Syria identifying Aug. 25 as the bloodiest, with 440 people said to have lost their lives. That came a day after UN monitors left the country following the failure of the April cease fire.
More than 100,000 Syrians fled their country in August, the UN has said, the highest monthly figure since the conflict began in March 2011. The total of registered Syrian refugees in neighboring countries this week topped 250,000, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said.
The problem for Syria’s rebels, according to White, is that they lack the firepower to bring the battle to Assad’s forces, while loyalist units lack the stomach for close-quarters combat. “When regime ground units attack, they don’t attack very hard,” he said.
With the conflict dragging on, “there will be no winners in this rolling slaughter,” said Paul Sullivan, an economics professor specializing in Middle East security at Georgetown University in Washington. “Syria is likely finished as a country that functions for some time to come.”
The Syrian regime has deployed a deadly new home-made weapon in addition to its large arsenal of Russian-supplied armaments - bombs packed inside large oil drums and dropped from helicopters.
The “barrel bombs” have emerged as an improvised weapon, The Daily Telegraph can disclose, as the regime seeks to break rebel resistance in Aleppo. Filled with TNT, oil and chunks of steel, the exploding barrels kill and maim across a wider area than high explosives.
“The sound was like nothing else I’ve ever heard. It was an almighty whoosh,” said Mohammed Ibrahim, a fighter recovering from an explosion that he said was of terrifying intensity. “I was lucky I was standing behind a corner, but I was still knocked off my feet. When I came round my ears were bleeding.”
Resembling a bandaged survivor of the Great War trenches, he staggered as he displayed his injuries.
The blast had killed his cousin, Abdo, and injured three fellow fighters from the Khatiba al-Baz (Hawk Battalion), a rebel unit from towns north of Aleppo. Like thousands of others, he had been fighting on the streets of Aleppo for six weeks, taking and losing ground in clashes that swirl without conclusion across the once-prosperous city.
The regime responded to the rebel advance by trying to drive back its enemies from a distance. Tanks have used the ring roads to fire shells on rebel lines and helicopter gunships rake enemy positions. Jets have dropped bombs that have flattened whole blocks of houses.
But apparently dissatisfied by the level of destruction its munitions are meting out, the regime this week introduced the home-made bombs. A spokesman for the local co-ordination committee in northern Aleppo said that the bombs had been used in at least two areas of the city.
“The first incident was over a public park in the Bab al-Nairab area of the city where people had taken refugee from the shelling,” said Abu Amir. “They were ordinary people who were defenceless against this type of attack.”
The Khatiba al-Baz was fighting in Bustan al-Kasr, near Aleppo’s ancient citadel, on Tuesday when the barrel bomb fell. In the narrow streets lined with apartment blocks and shops, the shower of destruction unleashed would have killed everyone in the vicinity. Videos posted on the internet show barrel bombs that did not explode in Batbo, 20 miles west of Aleppo, as well as three locations in Idlib province and in Homs.
Turkey, meanwhile, said that a “historic opportunity” had been missed when it failed to persuade the United Nations security council to back a “safe zone” for refugees in northern Syria.
“How long are we going to sit and watch while an entire generation is being wiped out by random bombardment and deliberate mass targeting?” Ahmed Davutoglu, the foreign minister, asked.
8:00PM BST 31 Aug 2012
The “barrel bombs” have emerged as an improvised weapon with the aim of causing maximum death and destruction, The Daily Telegraph can disclose, as the regime seeks to break rebel resistance in Syria’s second city, Aleppo.
Filled with TNT, oil and chunks of steel, the exploding barrels kill and maim across a wider area than high explosives.
“The sound was like nothing else I’ve ever heard. It was an almighty whoosh,” said Mohammed Ibrahim, a fighter recovering from an explosion that he said was of terrifying intensity caused by such a bomb.
“I was lucky I was standing behind a corner but I was still knocked off my feet. When I came round my ears were bleeding.”
Resembling a bandaged survivor of the Great War trenches, he staggered on his feet as he displayed his injuries. He also had perforated eardrums.
The blast had killed his cousin, Abdo, and injured three fellow fighters from the Khatiba al-Baz, a rebel unit from towns north of Aleppo.
Like thousands of other fighters, he had been fighting on the streets of Aleppo for six weeks. The insurgents have both taken ground and lost positions in clashes that are swirling without conclusion across the once-prosperous city.
The regime responded to the rebel advance by trying to drive back its enemies from a distance.
Tanks have used the ring roads to fire shells on rebel lines and helicopter gunships swoop to rake enemy positions. Fighter jets have dropped massive bombs that have flattened whole blocks of houses.
But apparently dissatisfied by the level of destruction its munitions are meting out, the regime this week introduced its own homemade bombs.
The bombs are carried on helicopters that have been videoed hovering above targets before the crew pushes the device out to fall to the ground.
A spokesman for the Local Coordination Committee in northern Aleppo said that the barrel bombs have been used in at least two areas of the city.
“The first incident was over a public park in the Bab al-Nairab area of the city where people had taken refugee from the shelling,” said the spokesman, Abu Amir. “They were ordinary people who were defenceless against this type of attack.” Videos on the internet show barrels that did not explode in Batbo, 20 miles west of Aleppo, as well as three locations in Idlib province and in Homs.
The Khatiba al-Baz (Hawk Battalion) was fighting in Bustan al-Kasr near Aleppo’s ancient citadel when the barrel bomb was dropped on Tuesday evening. In the narrow streets lined with apartment blocks and shop fronts, the shower of destruction unleashed by the explosion would have killed everyone in the vicinity.
The regime has used air-power indiscriminately in recent weeks. The Daily Telegraph witnessed the deliberate targeting of civilians in areas far away from the front lines.
Two dozen young men and children, some as young as five, were playing at a five-a-side football pitch hit by rockets in the town of Marea on Wednesday night. Three rockets, thought to have been fired from an army base 10 miles away, landed in proximity within a 15-minute stretch.
The administrative block of the football facility, which has been used in recent weeks to house visiting foreign journalists who may have been the intended target, was showered with shrapnel.
The rebels opened a new front in the battle for Aleppo on Friday, attacking a number of regime security buildings. But the war at large seemed no nearer a conclusion.
Following its failure to persuade the United Nations security council to back a “safe zone” for refugees inside northern Syria, Turkey said a “historic opportunity” had been missed.
“How long are we going to sit and watch while an entire generation is being wiped out by random bombardment and deliberate mass targeting?” the foreign minister, Ahmed Davutoglu, asked.
#Syria, Hama - easy jungle - Hawash village: a video showing one of the helicopters shells that fell on the village
Video footage showed the burning wreckage of a Syrian air force jet in Idlib province where there has been an upsurge in attacks by the opposition targeting the regime’s helicopters and aircraft.
Rebel cameramen chanted “God is Great” as the plane, reportedly shot down by heavy machine gunfire, fell near the Abu Zuhour military base on the Turkish border.
“The two pilots who parachuted from the plane were captured,” said Colonel Afif Mahmoud Suleiman, head of the rebel Military Council in Idlib.
The Liwa al-Ummah brigade based in the same province said they had taken advantage of the regime’s concentration of attacks on nearby Aleppo to mount a massed attack on the Taftanaz airbase further east.
The brigade, which has links to fundamentalist Libyan groups, distributed pictures of at least five helicopters burning on Wednesday night and the rebels were in control of at least one section of the airbase yesterday. The conquest of an airbase would amount to a significant breakthrough for the Syrian rebels.
However, government forces were able to continue their bombardment of towns in other parts of Idlib, killing eight children and nine women in an attack that left at least 20 people dead in total.
President Assad also suffered a major diplomatic blow when Egypt’s new leader used a visit to Iran, the first by an Egyptian president for over three decades, to reprimand his hosts for backing the wrong side in the Syrian civil war.
Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood official who became Egypt’s first democratically elected president in June, aroused concern in the west that his decision to attend a meeting of the non-aligned movement in Tehran marked a shift in the country’s pro-western foreign policy.
But he used his keynote speech to the meeting to call on the Assad regime in Syria, Iran’s closest ally, to step down.
“We should all express our full support to the struggle of those who are demanding freedom and justice in Syria and translate our sympathies into a clear political vision that supports peaceful transfer to a democratic system,” he said.
His backing for the opposition in Syria is not unexpected – the Muslim Brotherhood, the Assad regime’s fiercest enemy, is a major presence – but his speech was stronger than it needed to be.
He made clear that he was considering the wider implications of his stance. “Our solidarity with the struggle of Syrians against an oppressive regime that has lost its legitimacy is an ethical duty, and a political and strategic necessity,” he said.
As he spoke, the Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Muallem, who was also attending, walked out. He later accused Mr Morsi of interfering in Syria’s internal affairs, and “inciting bloodshed”.
In this image made from amateur video accessed Tuesday, Aug. 28, Syrian men huddle near a burning car after shelling in Kfarnebel, Idlib province, northern Syria. Photo Credit:AP Photo/Shaam News Network via AP video
Syrian rebels claimed on Wednesday they had destroyed five helicopters at a military airport between the northern cities of Aleppo and Idlib, after a watchdog reported fierce clashes there.
Abu Mossab, a rebel who participated in the attack, told AFP via Skype that the rebels had shelled the Taftanaz military airport with two captured military tanks and had destroyed five military helicopters. …
“We destroyed five helicopters as well as buildings in the airport,” he added, noting however that the airport was “still in the hands of the regime.” The rebels, who lost two men in the fighting, later retreated.
(Reuters) - Syrian army shelling and helicopter attacks on suburbs of the capital Damascus killed at least 62 people on Monday, opposition activists said.
Eleven of the dead were killed in the district of Jobar, where activists said a Syrian helicopter was downed earlier in the day, they said.
Five of the Jobar victims were captured in Dayer Jdayeh Street and summarily executed by security forces, and the others died when their homes were hit, opposition activists said.
Syrian authorities have banned entry to most foreign media, making it impossible to verify accounts by activists and residents.
Fighting in Damascus between the army and rebels fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad has grown increasingly violent in recent months. Assad’s seat of power, once seen as immune to the violence, has now become a focus of the 17-month conflict.
“Shells hit a row of flats. We pulled out four bodies from inside, including a child,” said one resident of Jobar, who did not want to be named for fear of reprisals.
Rebels have intensified guerrilla attacks on Assad’s forces in the capital. The army has responded with artillery, mortar and aerial bombardment, as well as arrest raids.
“It appears that eastern Damascus is being subjected to collective punishment,” Yasmine, one of the activists, said from the capital. “The shelling and helicopter fire are directly targeting civilians in their homes.”
Footage released by opposition campaigners showed 20 bodies on the floor of a mosque in the adjacent neighborhood of Zamalka, including three children.
“I pray that you (Assad) will see your own children like this,” said one man, gently moving the head of a dead boy whose jaw appeared to have been sliced through by shrapnel.
In a statement, the Zamalka Coordination Committee activist group said: “The humanitarian situation in horrific. Dead and wounded people are in the streets and cannot be reached because of the ferocity of the bombardment.”
Activists said the rest of the casualties were reported killed in helicopter and mortar shell bombardment on the suburbs of Irbin, Harasta, Kfar Batna and Muleiha, on the eastern outskirts of the capital.
Video footage from the Damascus suburb of Harasta showed what appeared to be a mortar round falling on a street lined with shops, with the cameraman yelling: “God is greatest”, as parked cars around him burst into flames.
(Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Amman newsroom; Editing by Louise Ireland)
Amateur video footage showed rebels shooting at the helicopter as its tail caught fire. It then spun out of control before plummeting to the ground in a ball of fire as rebels celebrated, shouting “God is great”.
Rebel fighters said the helicopter had been part of a heavy government assault on the Jobar district of eastern Damascus, which has been under attack since Sunday as part of a regime operation to regain full control of the area.
“It was flying overhead the eastern part of the city and firing all morning,” an activist identifying himself as Abu Bakr told the Reuters news agency. “The rebels had been trying to hit [it] for about an hour; finally they did.”
Residents in the area said they saw a projectile hit the helicopter before it crashed into a narrow residential street in the neighbouring suburb of Qaboun.
The felling of the helicopter will significantly boost the morale of rebel forces, who have been forced onto the defensive by President Bashar al-Assad’s increasing willingness to use air assets, including fighter-jets, against their positions.
Opposition fighters in eastern Syria last month claimed to have shot down a Russian made MiG fighter, but military experts said it was more likely that the jet had crashed due to a technical malfunction.
State television confirmed that a helicopter had crashed in Damascus, but provided no further details.
The loss of the helicopter did not appear to deter regime forces from pressing ahead with their attack on Jobar and the nearby districts of Zamalka and Irbin, two working class Sunni suburbs in eastern Damascus.
After claiming to have pacified the southern outskirts of the capital last week, including the town of Daraya where opposition activists say they have recovered more than 320 corpses, the regime has shifted its attention to the east of the capital.
Residents in Jobar said that helicopters had dropped fliers on Sunday warning them that they would “face annihilation” if they did not hand over “terrorists” they were accused of sheltering.
Hours later the district came under heavy attack by helicopter gunships and machine-gun fire, residents said.