Incomplete victories: Civilians call on rebels to focus efforts on airports

AMMAN: Across Syria, civilians living under the constant threat of airstrikes look to the sky anxiously.

Last month alone, aerial attacks killed 745 Syrian civilians, the Violations Documentation Center in Syria reported, making them the leading cause of civilian deaths.

The regime’s barrel bombs, the indiscriminate and brutally effective weapons filled with explosives and pieces of shrapnel dropped on civilian areas from regime helicopters, have killed more than 11,000 Syrians nationwide since 2012.

Meanwhile, the US-led international coalition began airstrikes in Syria last fall ostensibly targeting the Islamic State. These airstrikes too have claimed dozens of civilian lives.

Week after week, air raids consistently rank among the leading causes of death for Syrian civilians, with no end in sight. Civilians caught between fighting among rebels, the Islamic State and regime forces have nowhere to hide when bombs rain from the sky. In at least one town in Syria’s north, residents are calling for rebels to focus more on capturing airports to put an end to the hundreds of air raids carried out every month across rebel-held parts of the country.

Attacks from the air are becoming so common that civilians “can differentiate the planes by their sound, which they have become used to hearing daily,” Sham A-Deen Abu Shahba, an eyewitness to coalition airstrikes in Idlib, told Syria Direct in a recent interview. Syrians can now tell whether planes are regime or coalition aircraft, Abu Shahba said.

‘Strike the airports’

Last week, the Southern Front in Daraa province announced a battle to wrest control of the A-Thaala military airport in neighboring Suwayda province from regime forces. The announcement came shortly after rebels overran the nearby Liwa 52 military base, which paved the way for an assault on A-Thaala, the most important regime base for air assaults in the region that is located approximately eight kilometers from Liwa 52.

“Opposition forces want to freeze [operations at] the A-Thaala military airport,” Fursan al-Hourani, the alias of a correspondent for the Umayya Media Center in Daraa tells Syria Direct, citing its importance “as a center for bombing the people of Daraa and Quneitra.”

The battle for control of the airport continues, as FSA fighters renew attacks on the base to ensure that “their backs and their lines will be protected from enemy planes” in future campaigns, Suheib Abu Yahya, an FSA spokesman told Syria Direct on Sunday.

Regime planes have since targeted multiple rebel-held areas across the province. This past Tuesday, a regime airstrike on the town of East Gharya in the Daraa countryside killed 18 civilians, mostly children, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

Hundreds of kilometers to the north, the Victory Army rebel coalition has conquered nearly all of Idlib province. Just as in Daraa, the regime has increased air raids on the Idlib countryside and the provincial capital as regime aircraft unleash barrel bombs, "vacuum" or thermobaric munitions and even sea mines at what are often densely populated civilian areas.

Maarat A-Numan is one rebel-held Idlib village that is paying the price for Victory Army advances in the province. Just last week, "vacuum" missiles fired by regime aircraft killed 11 civilians and injured 20 others, pro-opposition Smart News reported.

No strangers to the steep human cost of military advances, and looking southwards to rebel gains in Daraa province, villagers in Maarat A-Numan took to the streets last Friday to call on rebels across the country to focus their efforts on regime airports.

“The victories are not complete unless you strike the airports,” reads one demonstrator’s sign, referring to an ongoing rebel offensive in southern Syria, where Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters in the area are battling regime forces in an ongoing effort to take control of the A-Thaala airbase.

‘There are battle priorities’

Civilian calls for action coincide with a number of new and ongoing battles launched by opposition forces against regime military airports, particularly the Abu A-Dhuhur, A-Thaala and Hama military airports in Idlib, Suwayda and Hama provinces, respectively.

In Idlib province, Jabhat A-Nusra and other Islamist rebel groups have encircled the Abu A-Dhuhur airbase for more than two years.

In late May, regime planes launched more than 20 airstrikes at rebel positions surrounding the airport, Radio Sawa reported.

An Ahrar A-Sham spokesman acknowledged the suffering of civilians, adding that rebels are targeting airports but a complete capture takes time.

 “The victories are not complete unless you strike the airports.” Photo courtesy of al-Maara Today.

 “It is the right of the locals to express their feelings, but there are battle priorities that nobody knows about except for military personnel,” Abu Al-Yazid Taftanaz told Syria Direct.

While a long siege may give the appearance of a lack of activity, Taftanaz said, the rebels’ presence around the Abu A-Dhuhur airport 40 kilometers east of Maarat A-Numan is no longer operational, thereby offering civilians some measure of protection in the province. Airstrikes on Idlib now originate from the Hama military airport, he added.

Push-and-pull

Last year, the Badr A-Sham campaign led by Jabhat A-Nusra aimed to take the Hama military airport last year until regime forces pushed rebels back before they reached it. At the time, sources on the ground emphasized that taking the airport was the key to both winning the province and limiting regime capacity to reverse rebel advances. 

This past weekend, nearly a year after the failed offensive, rebels in northern Hama province announced that a renewed effort to take the airport as part of a new battle, entitled “Victory from God.” Fighters launched a number of missiles at the airport following the announcement.

“The main goal is to liberate the checkpoints in the northern Hama countryside and to reach the Hama airport as an introduction to a later battle to conquer Hama city,” Salim Al-Abrash, a military commander with A-Sham Legion told pro-opposition Syria Mubasher on Sunday.

While rebel assaults on regime airbases go back as far as late 2012, the regime still holds the most important airports for its air missions, including those around Damascus such as the As-Sin airport and the Dumayr airport in East Ghouta and the Mezzeh military airport on the fringes of the capital.

The regime’s zeal to fortify these airports against attacks underscores their importance. Earlier this week, the regime used explosives to demolish dozens of houses in the area surrounding the Mezzeh airport southwest of Damascus after rumors of a potential offensive.

 “If you can strike the airport and you don’t, you’re a partner in our killing,” reads a demonstrator’s sign in Maarat a-Numan. Photo courtesy of al-Maara Today.

In a small demonstration in a small town in Syria’s north is any indication, citizens are openly beginning to demand action to stop air raids, or else be considered complicit in them. As one child’s sign at the Maarat A-Numan protest read: “If you can strike the airport and you don’t, you’re a partner in our killing.”

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani is from Latakia province. She studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor in Syria. She has worked at Syria Direct since 2015 and was named the 2018 Middle East and North Africa Laureate for the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers' (WAN-IFRA) Women in News Editorial Leadership Award.

Mateo Nelson

Mateo Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. Mateo holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.