The regime’s air dominance is a serious problem for the rebels. Not only do fighter jets drop indiscriminate bombs on rebel-held urban centers, but attack helicopters are used to destroy rebel tanks and strafe rebel positions. Although the rebels have had some success shooting down helicopters and one fighter jet with mounted anti-aircraft machine guns, the regime’s air dominance is formidable.
Unsatisfied with the results of anti-aircraft ground fire, and unable to seize or acquire functional shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, the rebels in Idlib province have found a new way to neutralize the regime’s air dominance. Destroy regime air assets on the ground.
On August 29, the Uma Brigade and Ahrar al-Sham led an attack on the airbase in Taftanaz, reportedly destroying several helicopters. The same day, the Shuhada Jebel al-Zawiyah Battalion, led by Jamal Maaruf, attacked the Abu Dhuhur air base, 38 kilometers to the south. This is not the first time the rebels have attacked Abu Dhuhur, in March, rebels destroyed a parked fighter jet during a daytime rocket attack. The recent attacks, however, are new for a number of reasons.
First, the attacks appear coordinated. The Shuhada Jebel al-Zawiyah Battalion and the Uma Brigade which led the Taftanaz attack, have an ongoing relationship. Their areas of operation overlap, as the Libyan led Uma Brigade is based in Maarat al-Numan, just to the south of the Jebel al-Zawiyah region. In early August the two groups captured a regime checkpoint during a joint operation in Kafr Nabel, and may have planned the simultaneous attacks on the only two airbases around Idlib province.
Second, Maaruf claimed that his group captured the Abu Dhuhur air base. Although other sources report that the rebels only control a part of the base, their ability to breach the perimeter and seize even a portion of a base of this size shows a significant capability. Although the regime’s air presence is diminished in the north, it retains four airfields in Aleppo province, one in Hama, and one in Idlib, allowing it to maintain a significant, if vulnerable air capability in the region.