You would not know it from watching or listening to official Syrian state television but the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has suffered a trifecta blow over the past two days to a rebel movement that is increasing in maturity and a coalition of world powers that are pulling out all of the diplomatic stops to pressure Damascus into capitulation.
Thanks to the regime’s use of its air force and artillery, loyalist forces may still have the upper hand in the battle for Aleppo. But even as they are a disadvantage, the Free Syrian Army has managed to score a significant and symbolic victory against the military in another part of the country.
In what is widely being celebrated by the rebels as a direct assault on Assad’s fleet of fighter aircraft, an FSA brigade in the eastern city of Deir ez-Zor evidently shot down a Syrian combat jet with an anti-aircraft weapons system presumably captured by the insurgents from a military depot.
The Syrian government quickly responded to the incident by filing their own version of events, blaming a technical failure for the jet’s descent to the ground. That argument may have been plausible if rebels hadn’t uploaded a video to YouTube showing a plane erupting into a ball of fire with the sound of machine gun fire in the background.
If the rebel claims are validated, the successful destruction of a Syrian fighter plane could mark a turning point in the war.
Since July, the Assad regime has relied on its airpower more frequently in battles across the country. With Syrian army troops stretched to the brink and tens of thousands of soldiers reportedly deployed to Aleppo in a counteroffensive, Bashar al-Assad has been forced to call on his air force in ever greater numbers to keep his opponents off balance.
As was likely, the growing dependence on air assets has produced an even greater amount of civilian casualties. Just this Thursday, a Syrian jet bombed the rebel held town of Azaz, killing civilians and leveling entire neighborhoods.
Aside from the physical destruction, the move has been relatively successful for Assad from a tactical standpoint. Airstrikes in Aleppo, for instance, have compelled many rebel fighters to abandon their frontline positions in certain districts of the city. If the opposition, somehow, finds the capacity to shoot down some of those aircraft, Assad’s most recent strategy could lose its effectiveness very rapidly.
The military setback was complimented by two equally significant albeit less exciting developments on the political front: Syria’s expulsion from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the first public statements from Assad’s former prime minister Riyad Hijab.
Speaking at a news conference in Amman, Jordan, Hijab took a page from previous officials who have defected from the Assad regime, expressing humility to his fellow Syrians while blasting the government for its indiscriminate and criminal behavior against its own citizens. Calling Bashar al-Assad an enemy of God, Hijab expressed his strong desire to join the Syrian revolution after serving in a government that he referred to as immoral.
“I assure you,” he said, “from my experience and former position, that the regime is collapsing, spiritually and financially, as it escalates militarily.” Assad, in other words, is a man whose plan to save himself as well as the institutions that his father built is slowly collapsing.
Coupled with a propaganda victory for the rebels on the battlefield, Hijab’s vilification of the Syrian government and the Islamic world’s suspension of Syria as a member will add to the regime’s isolation as it continues to press ahead with its security strategy. None of these developments will put the opposition over the top but when combined, they tighten the noose on a regime that is slowly losing the last vestiges of support that it relied on.
Assad’s army still has the hardware to do significant damage to the opposition’s ranks but there should be no question that his circle of supporters in the government is shrinking with every bombing, killing and strafing from a warplane.