October 18, 2012
Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 890

Syrian Air Defense Bases, Chemical Plant, Seized By Opposition Forces

By: L. Barkan and Y. Yehoshua*

Introduction

In the past few weeks, there have been increasing reports that the forces fighting the Syrian regime have seized control of air defense bases of the Syrian military, and have captured considerable quantities of weapons and ammunition, including missiles and missile launchers, mortars and radars. During some of the takeover operations, the regime bombarded the bases in order to destroy them before they fell into rebel hands. The operations came to a head last weekend (on October 12-13, 2012), when three air defense bases in the Damascus, Aleppo and Homs regions fell to the rebels.

In most of the cases, the seizure operations were carried out by the main fighting force of the opposition, the Free Syrian Army (FSA). However, in the case of one base near Aleppo, it was reported that jihadi forces had also participated in the takeover. 

In addition, the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar has reported that armed opposition forces have seized control of a plant that fills tanks with liquid chlorine gas, which can be used as a lethal chemical weapon.

FSA Takes Over Air Defense Bases In Damascus, Homs Regions

During October 2012, the FSA in the Damascus region has often reported on the takeover of air defense bases in the Eastern Ghouta (a rural region east of the capital), and the capturing of Syrian soldiers as well as weapons and gear, including missiles, launchers and radars. The FSA's military council in Damascus and its suburbs reported that FSA battalions had seized bases in this region on October 1[1] and again on October 4.[2] The council also released videos of the operations.


From a video documenting the October 1 FSA takeover of an air defense base near Al-Ash'ari
[3]

According to another report, FSA battalions took over another air defense base in the region on October 8. A video of this operation was also published, showing the captured base and the weapons seized.


FSA soldiers pose on top of a missile launcher in a captured air defense base
[4]

On October 13, 2012, four FSA battalions seized control of yet another air defense base near Al-Otaibah in the same region. According to a report by the FSA military council in Damascus, this takeover was achieved after a difficult eight-hour battle in which government forces attacked the FSA fighters from the ground and air, but the latter nevertheless prevailed and proceeded to capture soldiers and weapons, including anti-aircraft and other missiles, tanks and mortars.[5] In a video of the captured base released by the council, the cameraman is heard saying: "These are the missiles that the FSA seized on October 13, 2012, and which were aimed at the Syrian people instead of Israel... Now they belong to the FSA, and they will be aimed at Assad's heart."[6]


FSA video shows radar, missile and launcher captured at the Al-Otaibah base[7]

On the same day, the FSA's Al-Ghouta Armored Brigade reported attacking a convoy of Assad's air defense forces in the region that had set out from Shab'a in the Eastern Ghouta. According to the report, many soldiers were killed in the attack and missiles were seized.


Missile seized from military convoy
[8]

October 13 also saw the capture of an air defense base in Deir Foul near Al-Rastan in the Homs district.[9] The commander of the FSA military council in Homs, Qassem Sa'd Al-Din, told the French news agency AFP that the seizure of the Deir Foul base had "provided [the militants] with new ammunition" that would help them break the siege on Homs.[10]

It should be noted that the various reports give the impression that the FSA does not operate as a unified body with a definite hierarchy, and that its headquarters in Turkey, headed by Riyadh Al-As'ad, have no control over the battalions in the field. In fact, the FSA forces have often declared explicitly that they do not take orders from the commanders in Turkey and that they have the autonomy to decide their own moves.[11] Moreover, though they all call themselves "FSA," these forces do not seem to coordinate their actions, but rather to function as a loose collection of battalions and brigades, each operating in its own district.

Reports On Joint FSA, Jihadi Attacks In The Aleppo Area

While the seizure of air defense bases in the Damascus and Homs areas involved the FSA exclusively, similar actions that took place on October 12 in the Al-Ta'aneh area near Aleppo reportedly involved jihadi forces as well, such as the Al-Fajr movement, which is a union of several fighting groups; Jund Al-Islam, which is one of these groups, and the well-known jihadi organization Jabhat Al-Nusra.

The Facebook page for the Al-Umayyad Brigade,[12] which was formed in September 2012 out of FSA battalions operating in Aleppo, reported during the operation in Al-Ta'aneh that its fighters had infiltrated the air defense base near Aleppo along with members of these three jihad organizations. In a video published after the operation, the FSA fighters describe the takeover as a joint action with Jabhat Al-Nusra and the Al-Fajr movement, and displayed three captured soldiers.[13]


Al-Umayyad Brigade Facebook page reports the joint action with Jabhat Al-Nusra and the Al-Fajr movement.
[14]

Jihadi forces also reported on the operation, but did not mention any collaboration with the FSA. In a message it posted on jihadi websites, the Al-Fajr movement claimed that Jund Al-Islam (which belongs to it) had carried out the operation in collaboration with Jabhat Al-Nusra. The message read: "Today Allah has allowed us to conquer [the base of] the air defense battalion near Al-Ta'aneh... The preparations [for this operation] took over a month. Observations of the base were carried out several times during the night and day, which is very dangerous and a bold challenge [of the regime]. Then we formulated the final plan, choosing three routes of attack..." [15]


Message by the Al-Fajr movement and Jund Al-Islam claiming responsibility for the attack[16]


From the video attached to the Al-Fajr movement's message[17]

It should be mentioned that the Al-Fajr movement, one of the Salafi movements active in Syria, was most likely established this April, and began military actions in June. As mentioned above, it consists of several armed groups, including Jund Al-Islam, which was established in early October. The latter's founding announcement indicates that it is a hard-line Salafi group which pursues an Islamist agenda, including the establishment of an Islamic state. The announcement read: "Jund Al-Islam was founded as part of a union of several military battalions and civilian groups that believe... that the Islamic shari'a is the system that governs human [actions]... that governing is for Allah alone, and that the regime must be based on Islamic law... [The organization's] primary target is the establishment of the state of Islam and reinstating Islamic shari'a in all walks of life... In order to achieve its goals, the organization will utilize all means permitted by the shari'a, whether through jihad or through da'wa..."[18]


Image accompanying the Al-Fajr movement's claim of responsibility, with Jund Al-Islam logo.[19]


The same image from the Al-Fajr movement's Facebook page, with the Al-Fajr movement logo.
[20]

On the other hand, a report posted October 12 on the Syrian oppositionist website Sooryoon ascribed the operation to Jabhat Al-Nusra alone, without mentioning the involvement of either the FSA or of other jihad organizations.[21] Al-Jazeera reporter Ahmad Zaidan, who reported from the base, likewise described it as being under the control of Jabhat Al-Nusra, whose members, he said, had declined to reveal their faces or speak on camera.[22] However, as of this writing, Jabhat Al-Nusra itself has not published any official announcement on its involvement in the attack, unlike in the case of previous operations.[23] However, the Facebook page for "The Supporters of Jabhat Al-Nusra," which is not an official organization page, posted live updates during the operation and mentioned that it took place in collaboration with the Al-Fajr movement.[24]

Despite the ideological discrepancies between the FSA and the jihadis, collaboration between them is not exclusive to this operation. The Facebook page for the FSA's Al-Tawhid Brigade reported on October 11 that the brigade, along with Jabhat Al-Nusra and independent Islamist fighting forces, had been besieging the air defense battalion in the rural area of Kafr Takharim in the Idlib province for two days.[25] The Facebook page for "The Supporters of Jabhat Al-Nusra" reported three days later that the siege on the regiment was continuing with the participation of Jabhat Al-Nusra, the Al-Tawhid Brigade and other forces.[26]

Moreover, a review article on the opposition forces in Aleppo, published a few months ago in The Washington Post, stated that "no significant schism" existed between the fighters of Jabhat al-Nusra and the more-secular units. According to the article, the commander of Jabhat Al-Nusra in Aleppo said that his men worked together with the FSA and maintained "good coordination" with it. The spokesman of the Revolutionary Council in Aleppo said: "And although many in the Free Syrian Army say they reject the ideology of Islamist extremism, the fighters of Jabhat al-Nusra are regarded as heroes in Aleppo. They fight without fear or hesitation."[27] Several days ago, an opposition activist in Aleppo told the BBC: "The Islamist groups are helping us to get back our rights, whereas the West is watching from the sidelines."[28]

Despite evidence of collaboration between the jihadis and the FSA, they appear to be competing for media credit for these operations. There is no official acknowledgement of joint operations, and the announcements by individual groups after the operations often ignore the involvement of other forces. Such omissions are also occasionally apparent on the general media, and have triggered criticism. A Facebook page posting updates from Homs recently criticized Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya for ignoring the participation of the FSA in the Al-Ta'aneh operation. When the FSA's Al-Umayyad Brigade later published a video taking responsibility for the operation, this page posted a message stating: "This is the proof that the Al-Umayyad brigade participated in the operation to liberate [the base of] the air defense battalion, even though Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya [attributed] the operation to Jabhat Al-Nusra. Help us spread this [video] clip to all channels, so that no one participating in the campaign to liberate Syria loses their rights, since the media is marginalizing us."[29]

Syrian Regime Bombards Air Defense Bases To Prevent Rebel Takeover

It should be mentioned that during rebel attacks on bases, the regime army often bombards the bases to prevent them falling to the rebels. An FSA announcement of the seizure of the air defense base in the Damascus area on October 13 states that the operation succeeded "despite ongoing bombardment by Mig aircraft, helicopters, and canon..." The announcement was accompanied by videos showing the base being bombarded by the regime army.[30]

Evidence of this is also found in reports by jihadi fighters. The announcement of the takeover of the base in Aleppo stated that "the operation ended at 3:00 AM, and the jets increased their attacks to insane levels in order to destroy the battalion and its equipment, paying no heed to the [soldiers] stranded there. Then Allah the Almighty sent a heavy fog that the brothers used as cover to retreat to safety without being hit by the shells..."[31]

An editorial on the Syrian oppositionist website Sooryoon attacked the regime for this strategy and called on the rebels to defend the anti-aircraft weapons: "Within two days, the sectarian regime in Syria has lost three air defense battalions, which possess missiles and large quantities of combat equipment paid for with the Syrian people's money, sweat and effort in order to fight the Zionists. After all this, the Qarmatian[32] regime in Syria is losing its control over them and is destroying them with its jets. This is what we have seen in Homs, Damascus and Aleppo... Our advice to our Syrian brothers-in-jihad is to make great efforts to defend the anti-aircraft [missiles], in hopes that we will manage to transfer them to defensible areas. We will need them, oh heroes. Assuming this is possible for you..."[33]


A burnt missile in the aftermath of the FSA and jihadi takeover of the air defense base in Aleppo
[34]

Lebanese Daily: Armed Opposition Forces Have Taken Over Chemical Plant

In addition to the capture of air defense bases by rebel forces, the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, which is close to Hizbullah, has cited "a reliable source" as saying that armed opposition forces have taken over the only plant in Syria that specializes in filling liquid chlorine tanks. The plant is located 40 kilometers east of Aleppo, near the Euphrates River, on the Al-Raka road. It was claimed that the plant has large 100-kilogram chlorine tanks, each of them "capable of destroying a town of 25,000 people."

According to the source, the regime, after discovering that opposition forces had taken over the plant, asked international observers who were in Syria at the time to intervene, fearing that the rebels would use the chlorine for military purposes. The rebels reportedly refused to allow the observers to remove the chlorine tanks from the plant, but agreed to evacuate it and declare it a "sealed zone," while retaining control of the area where the plant is located.

The daily expressed the Syrian regime's fear that the chlorine could still be used militarily, since the rebels retain control of the area. The article said: "The opposition still possesses the option of chemical weapons if it chooses to break the promise it made... enter the factory, empty the chlorine gas from the large tanks into [explosive] charges or smaller tanks, and use it for military purposes."[35]

 

* L. Barkan is a research fellow at MEMRI; Y. Yehoshua is Director of Research at MEMRI.

 
Endnotes:

[1] Fsa-dam.com, October 2, 2012. The report specified that the bases were in the Al-Ash'ari area.

[2] Fsa-dam.com, October 4, 2012.

[4] See video at: http://all4syria.info/Archive/56221, October 8, 2012.

[5] Fsa-dam.com, October 13, 2012.

[6] Fsa-dam.com, October 14, 2012.

[7] Fsa-dam.com, October 14, 2012.

[10] Sooryoon.net, October 13, 2012.

[11] Recently, however, some of the FSA top commanders have returned to Syria, which might strengthen their ties with the fighters there.

[14] https://www.facebook.com/Umayyads.Brigade, October 12, 2012. It should be noted that a previous announcement, from October 11, mentioned collaboration with Jund Al-Islam.

[15] Shumoukh Al-Islam, As-ansar.com, October 13, 2012.

[16] Shumoukh Al-Islam, October 13, 2012.

[17] See MEMRI TV clip No. 3605, Rebels Seize Control of Syrian Air Defense Base and Missiles, October 12, 2012.

[19] As-ansar.com, October 13, 2012.

[21] Sooryoon.net, October 12, 2012.

[23] In the past, the organization has taken responsibility for major attacks against the Syrian regime, such as attacks on security service and military headquarters in the heart of Damascus and in Aleppo.

[27] The Washington Post (USA), August 20, 2012.

[28] Sooryoon.net, October 14, 2012.

[30] Fsa-dam.com, October 13, 2012.

[31] As-ansar.com, October 13, 2012.

[32] The Qarmatians were members of a ninth century Shi'ite-Isma'ili sect that rebelled against the 'Abbasid caliph and sacked Mecca, desecrating its holy places.   

[33] Sooryoon.net, October 14, 2012.

[35] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), October 13, 2012.


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