Syrian Rebels Claim First Jet Downing, in Possible Shift for War

August 14, 2012
By , The New York Times

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syrian rebels said Monday that they had shot down a Syrian fighter jet for the first time, raising new questions about the opposition’s military capabilities, and whether Syria’s control of the skies might be threatened.

The Syrian authorities insisted that the jet had crashed because of a technical failure, but rebel groups and activists sought to win over skeptics by turning to YouTube. They posted one 33-second video showing a jet bursting into flames, and a second clip showing a man who identified himself as the ejected pilot, Farid Mohammed Suleiman. He told his captors in the video that he had been ordered to fire on an area in the eastern province of Deir al-Zour, and when an armed fighter beside him asked what he would like to say to the Syrian Army, he said, “I tell them to defect from this gang.”

The videos, shared widely online, seemed intended to provide a morale boost for rebel fighters, who have been complaining about the Syrian military’s undisputed air power for months. The videos set off another round of speculation about whether President Bashar al-Assad could maintain his military advantage in the 17-month-old conflict for much longer.

“Regardless of how they did it, if they can put down a jet fighter, then they can put down other planes as well,” said Sami Nader, an analyst and professor of international relations at St. Joseph University in Beirut. “The downing of the plane puts in place new rules of engagement and rules of dissuasion. The Free Syrian Army is showing us it can impose a no-fly zone. Assad’s trump card was the military, but he is now losing this last card.”

What brought the jet down, however, was a matter of dispute.

Local activists said rebel fighters used a heavy antiaircraft machine gun that a local brigade had seized from a nearby military base. Qassem, an activist in the area, which is known as Mohassen and is about 15 miles from the city of Deir al-Zour, said the rebels had commandeered the weapon a month ago, and had used it once to bring down a helicopter.

Mr. Nader said the rebels could be lying. He said the rebels might not be admitting that they have antiaircraft missiles provided by international allies, because those allies did not want to be seen as fueling the conflict.

None of these accounts could be verified because of the limits on reporting in Syria, especially in Deir al-Zour, a city far from Damascus and Aleppo, where most of the recent fighting has been concentrated.

Even as one group of rebels in the eastern corner of the country described what they considered a major achievement, rebel commanders around Aleppo provided a different portrait of military struggle.

As shelling continued throughout the area, Abdel-Aziz Salameh, the head of the revolutionary council in Aleppo and rebel-held territory to the north, met briefly with fellow rebels in the basement of a nondescript building in Tal Rifaat, where commanders from the front came and went, providing updates and discussing plans. In an interview before leaving the building, he said that the rebels’ main problem was a shortage of ammunition, and that one of their primary tactics was trying to cut off supply routes to the large Syrian Army force in and near the city.

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