‘Islamist factions’ seize Syrian airbase

One day after the largest dam in Syria fell to jihadists spearheaded by al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Islamist fighters seized control of a nearby airbase. Jihadists have now taken control of four major military installations in Syria since October 2012.

“Rebel fighters from several islamist factions have fully taken over the al-Jarrah military airport,” according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which closely tracks the Syrian civil war. Five “rebels” were killed, and more than 40 “regime forces” were wounded or captured during the fighting.

A video of Islamist fighters battling at the al-Jarrah airbase was released on YouTube. Several aircraft are seen in hangars, and others, which appear to be unserviceable, are parked on the sides of the runway. Cases of ammunition are seen stacked next to what appears to be an operational MiG fighter that is inside a hangar.

A fighter from the Islamist faction known as the Ahrar al Sham Brigades, a jihadist group in Syria, is heard saying that the aircraft “are now in the hands” of the group.

The Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, also participated in the assault on the al-Jarrah airbase, a US intelligence official who is monitoring al Qaeda’s operations in Syria told The Long War Journal. Yesterday, the Al Nusrah Front led other Islamist groups in taking over the dam in nearby Thawra.

The Al Nusrah Front and Ahrar al Sham have conducted several joint operations against President Assad’s regime. In mid-January, the two groups teamed up with the Islamic Vanguard to seize control of Taftanaz, a key Syrian air force base in Idlib province. After the assault, videos of the jihadists touring the base and inspecting seized tanks, armored vehicles, and helicopters were posted on YouTube, LiveLeak, and other video sharing websites [see LWJ report, Al Nusrah, jihadist allies overrun Syrian airbase].

In addition to the al-Jarrah airbase and Taftanaz, two other major military installations have now been overrun by the Al Nusrah Front since the beginning of October 2012. On Dec. 10, the Al Nusrah Front and allied jihadists took control of the Sheikh Suleiman base, or Base 111. Arab and Chechen fighters participated in the assault on Sheikh Suleiman, which is said to be a key research facility linked to the regime’s chemical weapons program [see LWJ report, Al Nusrah Front, foreign jihadists seize key Syrian base in Aleppo].

And on Oct. 11, Al Nusrah, the supposedly secular Free Syrian Army, and Chechen fighters overran a Syrian air defense and Scud missile base in Aleppo [see LWJ report, Al Nusrah Front commanded Free Syrian Army unit, ‘Chechen emigrants,’ in assault on Syrian air defense base].

Over the past several months, the Al Nusrah Front and its allies have effectively seized control of the Euphrates River Valley and have secured lines of communication with Al Nusrah’s parent group, al Qaeda in Iraq [see LWJ report, Al Nusrah front spearheads capture of Syrian dam, claims suicide assault].

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • ayamo says:

    As I’ve said someplace elsewhere: I’m extremely ambivalent when it comes to the Syrian situation.
    An Assad victory would be a slap in the face for humanitarian rights, but an al Nusra led victory could prove to be a horrible outcome in the midterm future …
    But the Syrian military must be either completly exhausted, or they couldn’t care less for anything else then Damascus. Yesterday and today must have been good days for al Nusra and their allies.

  • mike merlo says:

    If events in Syria continue along their present trajectory it appears Iraq at some point this year will begin to receive much more unwanted attention

  • JR says:

    The aircraft shown in the hangars at the end of this video are Aero L-39Z Albatros. A high-performance jet trainer used to transition new pilots to high performance jets. The capture of this airfield may be a significant morale boost for the rebels but will provide little relief in a tactical sense. It’s doubtful the Syrian A.F. is using these jets in an attack configuration. The other aircraft strewn about look like retired Mig-15 & -17’s.

  • Alan Hawk says:

    The Jihadis seem to have captured a base with trainers; Czech L-29s and L-39s along with a bunch of abanoned MIG-17s. It doesn’t appear that they even have COIN capability.
    On the other hand, it is odd that they can’t seem to get more than one shot off of their AKMs and RPKs, suggesting shortage of ammo (and excellent fire discipline) or poor maintenance of their firearms.

  • Will Fenwick says:

    I can’t imagine the Salafists have any of the technical capabilities to operated fighter aircraft. It might be that the FSA has some defectors among it that can operate such high tech material, but whether or not they have the logistical capability to get the planes off the ground and commit them to combat is another story.
    I dont know of any instances of Salafist insurgents operating aircraft, though the Islamist Emirate of Afghanistan did operate small number of steadily degrading fighter aircraft until the invasion in 2001.

  • M3fd2002 says:

    Looks like the rebels are gaining a little momentum. If they can deploy those aircraft, it might break the stalemate

  • JD says:

    Assad’s air force began using the Czech trainers for COIN missions in the summer. Rick Francona described this phenomenon for the first time on his blog here: http://francona.blogspot.com/2012/07/syrian-air-attacks-on-aleppo.html. He later mentioned them in several other posts as well.

  • LPD-RI says:

    The Syrians have indeed been using the L-39 for aerial bombing and strafing. These are not merely trainers. Note the boxes of cannon ammunition towards the end of the video.

  • blert says:

    In all history, no nation places pilot training airbases outside of the ‘heartland.’
    So, the capture of a training base is quite a ‘tell’ as to which way the wind is blowing.
    Likewise, the two big hydro-projects were prestige projects.
    The impoundment lake for Tabqa dam is named Al Assad. (!)
    (i.e. Hafez Al-Assad — Bashar’s father.)
    One must conclude that the regime has decided to abandon the east and north.
    The (political) connection to Jordan has never been warm. It’s not unreasonable to imagine Damascus pulling back from both Dara’a and the Golan Heights. (What’s left in Syrian hands, that is.)
    Everything points to an emotional, runaway, dynamic, when all of Assad’s players spend more time figuring out their own exit plans than anything else.
    For example, his dam technicians bugged-out when prompted.
    Enough ammo is laying around the countryside for the anti-regime elements to carry on until Assad is unwound.
    Whatever shortages they’ve had will be eliminated via Iraq — and the all Sunni Euphrates corridor.
    It’s hard to imagine Assad hanging on through to 2014.

  • Scott J says:

    If nothing else, this highlights the incompetence of the Syrian military. In nearly 12 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, never once has a force of jihadist guerillas succeeded at overrunning and holding an American base. COP Keating came closest, but they failed.
    Read news like this, and you can’t help but believe that it is just a matter of time now for Assad and Syria as we’ve known it.
    After the Assad government falls, inevitably there’s going to be a bloody civil war between FSA supporters and AQ. I see no end in sight for the violence in that country, even after the government falls.

  • jayc says:

    I do not know the true purpose of the Al-Jurrah airport, but if I were a guessing man, I would conclude that it is a boneyard, much in the same vein as Davis-Monthan in the states. Abandoned buildings, grass growing on runways, airplanes under tarps, derelict airplanes, and unkept grounds suggest this. Also, despite having 40 troops captured or wounded, it would only have taken a T-72 tank to send these one shot clowns running.

  • gb says:

    Perhaps they could up armor the jets and drive them on the roads…

  • Neo says:

    A lot is going to depend on how much pressure the rebels can exert in the Damascus suburbs. If they can really put the government forces in the bad place in Damascus, the Assad regime may unravel very quickly. If government forces around Damascus can gain the upper hand than this could go on for quite some time. Right now it is a matter of how much momentum the rebels can generate vs. the morale state of government forces. If the rebels can keep up the momentum they have generated the government may fall by summer if not earlier. On the other hand things could bog down for a while if the rebels aren’t in a position to really capitalize on this round of gains.

  • Jeff Edelman says:

    Except for those on the ground there, noboby really knows what happened. But, what if the some chemical weapons were left lying around and the chechens got some of them? Russia’s support of this chemical weapons producing regime could come back to haunt them in a terrible way. Wonder if at the Kremlin they’re discussing this matter now?

  • blert says:

    Apparently you’re unaware that Damascus is a l r e a d y in a vise.
    Assad is, at this very time, trying to keep the rebels out of the inner city.
    Most of the suburbs were lost weeks ago.
    Aleppo just lost its land connection. It’s Syria’s ‘Chicago.’
    Damascus is down to one main corridor to the sea. Other than that, the city is already isolated. Assad’s conventional forces there are having a fuel crisis.
    His air force is so demoralized that it flies only a few jets at a time. ManPADS have crippled his helicopter force.
    There is absolutely no ‘stalemate.’ That’s a MSM construct — from no-nothings.
    Assad’s crew is now making travel arrangements. That’s the state of play.

  • Gerald says:

    Good point Jeff. If not for their intransigent stance at the UN we could have armed the FSA and this war would have ended months ago.

  • Leroy marnolejo says:

    Good, let them kill themselves!!!

  • Matt says:

    After Putin gave Chapman the Star or Lenin people got upset about it the Chechen Parliament was attacked, bombings in Moscow. So there are connections between the security services and terrorists. Remember that in relation to Chechens in Syria with al-Nursa. There was also mass protests on the streets which Putin blamed on the US but it was linked to the Chapman incident.


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