Flying high?

Syria's Jabhat al-Nusra militia looks pretty serious

Some eye-catching video shows a disciplined jihadi militia on the move in eastern Syria after ransacking a regime artillery base.

Video was placed on YouTube today of Syrian rebels celebrating a crushing victory in Mayadin, a town in Syria's oil-rich northeast last week.

The cameraman is traveling in a convoy of fighters from the Jabhat al-Nusra, the main jihadi fighting group in eastern Libya and one that has attracted veterans of both the war against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya last year and of the wars against the US military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Though the men are clearly delighted with their victory and seizure of a temporary government artillery base in Deir al-Zour Province, with shouts and smiles as a captured tank charges along the desert sand next to the road, there is very little of the random shooting in the air and other goofing off common among rebel militias. Though the scene looks chaotic, these fighters are disciplined as such groups go. 

That's hardly surprising. Islamist militias have been the most committed and capable fighters of the wars in Iraq, Libya, and Syria. Syrian Euphrates river towns like Mayadin have strong tribal and general cultural ties to Iraqi  Euphrates river towns to their southeast, like Haditha, Ramadi, and Fallujah. It was in those tough Sunni Arab towns, clinging to a narrow river valley in the middle of the desert, where Al Qaeda-inspired fighters found their most success during the US war in Iraq, and they were helped from their cousins to the north. Now the Iraqis, and other jihadis, are returning the favor. 

Dave Enders was in Mayadin for McClatchy Newspapers when the Islamist fighters won the month-long battle for the base, which had been a feed plant until the start of the war. He describes a committed battle in which the supply chain for the Syrian Army defenders eventually broke down, forcing a retreat.  He called it a "key victory that will allow (the rebels) to move next to the airport near the provincial capital (Deir al-Zour), one of the last positions the Syrian military controls in the province," and describes how reinforcements eventually arrived by road to evacuate the surviving government troops:

"The rebels withstood multiple air strikes, and on Wednesday (Nov. 21) they decided to make a final assault on the base. A helicopter that had been dropping weapons and food to the surrounded soldiers had failed to appear for three days, and rebels laid in wait for it with a pair of rockets they had captured from the Syrian military in an earlier battle. But instead of the helicopter, the reinforcements arrived via a nearby highway. The flags that were hoisted by the rebels at the base were not the one used by rebels groups that have pledged allegiance to the secular Free Syrian Army. Rather it was a black flag flown in particular by Islamist groups that are heavily involved in the fight against the government in this province. One building at the captured base flew the flag of Jabhat al Nusra, a group of fighters that have called openly for the establishment of a Syrian state based on Islamic law and that some fear has ties to al Qaida."

Three days without resupply for besieged troops? That's not a good sign for Assad.

Another potentially bad sign is the apparent use of a surface-to-air missile against a Syrian government helicopter recently. Tom Peter reported for us last week that by and large, rebels rely on generally ineffective "dushka" heavy machine guns to protect against the government's air assets. But now it appears that rebels aligned with the Free Syrian Army have scored their first hit of a government helicopter with a surface-to-air missile (hat tip to Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch), with video released online of the shot:

The uploader claimed the shot was made near Aleppo, and near Aleppo is where rebels reported securing a cache of surface-to-air missiles earlier this month. The missiles look like Russian-made Strela-2s, a type of heat-seeking missile that's been in service sine the 1970s.

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