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Already there are reports that the government is massing weapons and supplies in Damascus, preparing for a heavy battle to defend it. The regime also took a significant step today when it shut down the Internet, dealing a blow to opposition forces and activists who rely on the Web to 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 activity 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 opposition forces with relative impunity throughout the war. However, the rebel groups have recently acquired antiaircraft missiles and created increasingly effective antiair defenses using heavy machine guns.
Until this week, the group had not yet downed a jet using a 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 least late this summer that were either captured from the Assad regime or brought from outside suppliers.
“It isn’t exactly new that they’ve got them. What’s new is that they appear to have ones that can actually shoot something down and they know how to use them,” says Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It isn’t a decisive moment in the war. It’s part of a process of accumulating increasing rebel military capabilities and declining capabilities for regime forces."
It is still too early to tell if opposition forces will be able to 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.