ALEPPO COUNTRYSIDE, Syria (Reuters) - Syrian rebels are surrounding bases and military airports loyal to President Bashar al-Assad across the northern province of Aleppo, a commander said, but are struggling to counter attacks from jet fighters which can fly even from besieged airfields.
Colonel Abdel-Jabbar Oqaidi, who heads the rebels’ military council in the province, also told Reuters that his forces are fighting without any help from the Western and Arab governments which want Assad removed from power.
Oqaidi, who leads between 25,000-30,000 troops across Aleppo province, said the rebel strategy had shifted from fighting Assad’s forces in the cities to surrounding his bases in the countryside - aiming to encourage defections and weaken the sites so they can be stormed.
This thrust has helped to loosen Assad’s grip in the north and east of the country during a 21-month civil war which activists say has already killed more than 44,000 Syrians.
“We decided on this (strategy) lately,” Oqaidi said in an interview at his command centre in the Aleppo countryside. “The situation for us on the ground is really good.”
Sitting behind a desk, next to the revolutionary tri-colour Syrian flag, Oqaidi said his forces were now fighting less in heavily-populated urban areas.
“At the beginning ... we were forced to attack the (Assad) forces in the districts to kick them out so that they do not harm civilians,” said Oqaidi, a soft-spoken m a n who wore two pins - one a flag, the other a crescent of the rebels’ revolutionary flag - on his fatigues.
“After achieving fighting experience, we went back to the countryside to liberate the big military bases. These bases are fortified with tanks, rockets, artillery, mortars, in addition airplanes. The siege ... cuts off the supply lines to these bases and most importantly it helps elements to defect,” he said, making it easier to eventually storm the bases.
The rebel Free Syrian Army is largely run by officers who had defected from Assad’s forces. However, the opposition has struggled to peel off large numbers of defectors and only a handful of high-ranking officials have abandoned the government.
Oqaidi said his forces were currently surrounding three military airports - Kuweires, Neyrab and Menagh - and an air force intelligence building.
Assad has increasingly depended on his air force, which can still take off from bases despite being surrounded to strike at the poorly-equipped rebels.
“That’s the whole problem. We have no problem except for the air force. We’re used to the tanks fighting and their shelling, we have no problem except for the air force,” said Oqaidi who estimated Assad had less than 100 functional planes left. The capture of one of the airports would be a strategic blow.
“We’re used to taking over military bases that have tanks and APCs (armoured personnel carriers) but we haven’t been used to take over control yet of airplanes and God willing we’ll have control of them soon,” he said.
Oqaidi said Assad’s forces were using helicopters plus Russian-designed MiGs and Sukhoi jets to strike at the rebels who still had no sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles.
In the central province of Hama, rebels shot down a government military jet on Monday, activists said.
However, Oqaidi said his forces were not getting any help from abroad, despite reports that Qatar and Saudi Arabia were arming rebel groups.
“We have not received aid from any Arab or foreign country, neither money or weapons. Just empty promises. It looks like no one wants Bashar al-Assad to fall in the near future until the country is completely destroyed and its infrastructure is completely destroyed. They don’t care about Syrian blood.”
Oqaidi, who defected at the beginning of 2012, said more than 90 percent of Aleppo’s countryside and about 80 percent of the once rich merchant city was under rebel control.
He played up the level of defections, particularly from the majority Sunni Muslim community, from Damascus forces which are largely commanded by members of Assad’s Alawite sect.
“There are a lot of pilot defections, in general most of the Sunni pilots have defected,” he said.
Referring to the Alawite pilots who remain, he said: “What are they defending? They know they’re defending Bashar al-Assad who they know will leave them and escape. So they no longer have the will to fight. There is no principle, no aim to fight for.”
Many soldiers had also defected after a recent siege of an army infantry college near Aleppo while the head of the college had escaped by plane, he said. “So their morale was devastated, because if the leader escapes, the rest of the elements had no will to fight.”
Other troops gave themselves up while those who resisted were killed and a big portion were also captured, Oqaidi said, adding they were treated as prisoners according to Islam and the Geneva Conventions. The rebels also seized about 70 tanks, RPG rounds and Kalashnikov rifles.
At the sprawling complex, slogans and pictures praising Assad and his father as well as the army were riddled with bullets. Rooms, garages, and classes showed evidence of squalor and abandonment. Tanks and armoured personnel carriers lay abandoned in fields as well as overturned army camouflage mattresses and spilled lentils.
“We thought we’d see heavy resistance. But they were defeated like rabbits,” said Abu al-Nasr, a soldier from the Tawheed brigade who participated in the operation.
Editing by David Stamp