Against the odds, Syrian rebels begin to chip away at regime's air advantage

Even without the anti-aircraft weapons, the Syrian rebels have managed to deal some blows to the regime's air force, using heavy machine guns and careful planning.

A Free Syrian Army truck with a machine gun near the town of Atareb on November 17. Such vehicles have begun to make a dent in the Assad regime's air superiority.

Syrian opposition fighters have long decried their lack of anti-aircraft weapons and called on the international community to arm them with something that can counter the the Syrian regime's military’s jets and helicopters. Such support has yet to come – and there are few indicators that it will arrive anytime soon.

Still, those in the Free Syrian Army fighting for control of Aleppo province say that they’re making some progress in the battle for the skies. Using truck-mounted, DShK heavy machine guns, more commonly referred to as dushkas, FSA fighters say that they’ve managed to establish anti-air defenses capable of challenging jets.

Dushkas are one of the more difficult weapons for FSA fighters to acquire and in almost all cases must be captured from the regime forces or brought over by defectors. The anti-air defense network has grown slowly over the last several months, but many now say it’s reached a point where it can effectively challenge airplanes and helicopters.

“We control 70 percent of the sky, because if you compare the situation now to two months ago there are a lot less airplanes,” says Khlief Abu Allah, a dushka gunner who worked in an anti-aircraft unit in the Syrian Army during his obligatory military service before the revolution started. 

While airstrikes remain a major threat in Aleppo, residents and FSA fighters say there's been a noticeable drop in the number of attacks in recent weeks. 

Working with what they have

The dushka trucks prowl the city, as their drivers listen for jets overhead. When they hear one, they follow, in an effort to predict where and when it will attack so they can find a position from which to fire at it in hopes of shooting it down, or at least stopping it from attacking. 

“We depend on our ears to find the planes,” says Basim Abu Ahmad, who drives one of the dushka trucks. He says he was selected to drive the truck because he knows how to drive aggressively after smuggling duty-free cigarettes before the revolution.

Opposition fighters’ claims of progress against the regime air force are slightly dubious and difficult to prove. Though there appear to be less airstrikes over the city of Aleppo now, it’s difficult to find any evidence that rebels have shot down planes. There is some speculation that those jets that have been downed recently could have also suffered mechanical failures. Other issues, such as defected mechanics and ground crews, could be part of the apparent drop in military activity over Aleppo.

Even with such defenses, the city is still susceptible to devastating airstrikes. On Nov. 21, a jet reportedly attacked one of Aleppo’s central hospitals, leveling the adjacent building and killing at least 40 people.

As with all rebel weapons, ammunition shortages remain a major challenge for dushka teams: They can only fire at the jets in short bursts, making the chances of hitting the plane much less likely. 

“We’re almost out of dushka ammunition. The only way to get dushka ammunition is from capturing it from the Assad Army,” says Omar Abu Ibrahim, who mans a dushka in Aleppo. 

Capt. Adel Asaf, a pilot who defected from the air force about five months ago and now commands an FSA unit in Aleppo says that creating an effective anti-air defense system remains incredibly difficult using only dushkas. An ideal setup would require a coordinated system of multiple dushkas, and even then it would only have about a 60 percent chance of successfully downing a jet.

Even without such methodical setups, Captain Asaf says placing dushkas throughout the city has taken away the planes ability to circle low over the city for hours at a time and conduct multiple attacks.

“If I was still a pilot I would be worried and I think I could only complete about 30 percent of my mission,” he says. “It depends on the psychological strength of the pilot.”

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