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Syrian rebels gaining ground against Assad's air power

BEIRUT —The rocket man vows that his hometown will never again face aerial bombardment.

"I will not allow any airplane or helicopter to attack Daret Izza anymore," declares Abu Omeir, the Syrian rebel's nom de guerre.

The former schoolteacher, 26, became an insurgent celebrity after being credited with shooting down a pair of government aircraft — a helicopter and MIG fighter — within a 24-hour period in northern Aleppo province in late November.

But the most significant development is his weapon, a shoulder-fired SA-16 antiaircraft surface-to-air missile, a Soviet-designed update of the SA-7.

Rebels say they seized dozens of such shoulder-fired missile systems in late November when fighters overran a sprawling government garrison outside the city of Aleppo known as Base 46, after a two-month siege. Analysts who have seen video evidence say the assertion appears credible.

The takeover of Base 46 yielded "the largest seizure of weapons that we have seen to date," including shoulder-fired missiles and traditional weapons, said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director for Human Rights Watch, who closely monitors arms proliferation.

"It's definitely a game-changer," he said Monday via telephone from Geneva. "Day by day, the ability of the Assad regime to use air power is diminished."

Syrian government air resources nonetheless remain formidable. Aircraft can fire flares and use other countermeasures to thwart heat-seeking, shoulder-fired missiles. In recent weeks, the air campaign has continued, pounding targets in the Aleppo and Damascus areas and elsewhere.

But the capture of more advanced weaponry suggests that the opposition may be developing a robust response to the Syrian fighter jets and helicopters that have attacked at will. In addition, experts say, the beleaguered government of President Bashar Assad has been losing air bases to rebels and, with spare parts in short supply, has been unable to properly maintain its aging, overworked fleet.

In addition to SA-16s and SA-7s, the haul from Base 46 included an unspecified number of the even more advanced SA-24, though that model was not seen fully assembled, making its utility hard to assess, Bouckaert said.

Video purported to be from the base shows rebels inspecting and unloading boxes of ammunition, rockets and other seized ordnance. With a dash of bravado, some northern rebel leaders have declared that the Base 46 bonanza makes moot their persistent, and largely unheeded, calls for Washington and other foreign capitals to help arm the opposition.

But as more such weaponry becomes available to the rebels, some officials worry that it could eventually fall into the hands of militants who could use the arms on Western targets, including commercial airliners.

"One of the main reasons the U.S. and others are reluctant to supply the Syrian rebels with weapons is that they can't be sure where they will ultimately end up," Bouckaert said. "It is a very dangerous game to supply anyone with weapons that can down a civilian airliner, and any miscalculation could lead to disaster."

Despite frequent reports that antiaircraft weapons have made their way into Syria, experts say there is no solid evidence of foreign suppliers providing shoulder-fired missiles to the opposition.

The rebels' antiaircraft arsenal is "mostly from Syrian military stock," said Jeffrey White, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Although White agreed that the threat to Syrian aircraft appears to be on the rise, he said rebels' boasts of having downed as many as 100 aircraft in recent months seemed greatly exaggerated. He put the number at closer to 30 or 40 — still significant. Most aircraft are believed to have been downed with traditional weapons.

"They are getting more experience, better weapons and more weapons," White said of the rebels.

Rebels seized another military base this week, according to the Britain-based pro-opposition group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The fighters reportedly said they found no antiaircraft weapons at the sprawling Sheik Suleiman base near Aleppo.

Abu Omeir, with a beard and aviator glasses, appears in a YouTube video brandishing his SA-16 on a rocky outcrop, and says that he recently shot down a helicopter carrying supplies to a military base. Within 24 hours, he was credited with shooting down a MIG fighter jet, which is seen in an unverified YouTube video crashing in a plume of black smoke outside Aleppo.

"For every plane that will attack us, there is a rocket to take it down and destroy it," Abu Omeir declared in an email interview from Syria conducted via an intermediary. "We have enough supplies without the need to reach out to anyone, especially America."

The weapon with the cone-shaped missile that Abu Omeir brandishes in the video is indeed an SA-16, or a non-Russian-made "variant," said Matt Schroeder, senior analyst with the Federation of American Scientists and consultant for the Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based research group.

Abu Omeir said he learned to use the SA-16 and other antiaircraft weapons during his compulsory military service, part of which was served at an air defense unit. Other fighters have received similar training in the weapon system, which Syrian authorities stocked as a prospective response to attack from Israel or another foreign enemy.

Abu Omeir says he receives great satisfaction from heading off bombardment of insurgent-held areas such as his hometown, Daret Izza, which has been heavily shelled, forcing much of the population to flee.

"You cannot describe the feeling of total happiness and victory because you stopped the plane from bombing your hometown full of children, women and elders," said Abu Omeir, who said he joined the rebel ranks a year ago.

The erstwhile schoolteacher has became a local legend among rebel supporters. "Abu Omeir has always been popular here, but now he is like a star," Mohammad Salem, a resident of Daret Izza, said via email.

From Abu Omeir's perspective, the rebels' threat to the government's aerial supremacy is undoubtedly shifting the balance of power between the Free Syrian Army rebel umbrella group and the government, locked in an almost 21-month-old conflict.

"Of course it has changed," he said. "The FSA is taking the lead and, God willing, the fall of the regime is around the corner."

Marrouch is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell contributed to this report.

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