Syrian rebels cut off Damascus airport in critical step (+video)
The Syrian rebels cut off the main road to the Damascus airport today. The fighting forced the closure of the airport and makes a rebel assault on the capital more likely.
Syrian opposition forces have reportedly captured part of the road toÂ the Damascus airport in fighting today, bringing opposition forces closer to besieging the capital.
Rebels say the violence has forced the closure of the entire DamascusÂ International Airport, while Dubaiâ€™s Emirates airline announced that it isÂ indefinitely suspending all flights to and from the Syrian capital. In aÂ statement on the airlineâ€™s website it wrote that â€śthe safety of ourÂ passengers and crew is of the highest priority and will not be compromised.â€ť
The rebel assault near the airport may indicate that opposition forces are gettingÂ closer to besieging the capitalÂ cityÂ andÂ now pose a greater threat to the militaryâ€™s air force, both of which areÂ major steps toward the removal of President Bashar al-Assad.Â
â€śThe regime is already thinking in terms of siege mentality in Damascus,Â but the rebels are also not in a position to dislodge the regimeÂ yet,â€ťÂ says Joseph Holliday, a senior research analyst at the Institute for theÂ Study of War who specializes in Syria.
But their push on Damascus will likely bolster their efforts elsewhere in the country by keeping regime forces focused on the capital.Â
â€śThe regime still has a much higher preponderance of troops in DamascusÂ than anywhere else in the country. The rebels are strong enough there thatÂ it will prevent the regime from deciding to reinforce the north orÂ something like that because they need everything theyâ€™ve got in Damascus,â€ťÂ adds Mr. Holliday.
Already there are reports that the government is massing weapons and suppliesÂ in Damascus, preparing for a heavy battle to defend it. The regime alsoÂ took a significant step today when it shut down the Internet,Â dealing a blow to opposition forces and activists who rely on the Web toÂ coordinate their activities, though some rebel elements have been given gear from the US to run their own communications separate from the government's network.
Forces loyal to the embattled president may also be ratcheting up activityÂ after opposition fighters managed to down a helicopter and a jet this week, reportedly using surface-to-air missiles.
The regime military has used its air force as a tool to strike oppositionÂ forces with relative impunity throughout the war. However, the rebel groupsÂ have recently acquired antiaircraft missiles and created increasinglyÂ effective antiair defensesÂ usingÂ heavy machine guns.
Until this week, the group had not yet downed a jet using aÂ shoulder-launched, surface-to-air missile called a MANPAD, but two days ago rebels downed a helicopter and yesterday they downed a fighter jet. The Free Syrian Army has likely had such weapons since at leastÂ late this summer that were either captured from the Assad regime or broughtÂ from outside suppliers.
â€śIt isnâ€™t exactly new that theyâ€™ve got them. Whatâ€™s new is that they appearÂ to have ones that can actually shoot something down and they know how toÂ use them,â€ť says Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at the Washington InstituteÂ for Near East Policy. â€śIt isnâ€™t a decisive moment in the war. Itâ€™s part ofÂ a process of accumulating increasing rebel military capabilities andÂ declining capabilities for regime forces."
It is still too early to tell if opposition forces will be able toÂ duplicate their success against government aircraft using the missiles. But this week's incidents are a serious morale boost for the rebels; and if they become a trend, it will be a strategic leg up for rebels who have long cited government jets as a huge challenge to advancing against government troops. Â