• Government jet and helicopter downed within 24 hours
• Surface-to-air attacks seen as major tactical
Syrian rebels are believed to have used surface-to-air missiles to down two government aircraft in less than 24 hours – the first time such weapons have been used in the 20-month insurrection.
The downing of the aircraft is being hailed as a significant tactical advance in northern Syria, where fierce clashes between Assad regime forces and rebels over the summer have given way to several months of stalemate and rising despair on the opposition side.
A warplane crashed on Wednesday near Darat Azzah outside Aleppo after being shot at from the ground. The wounded pilot was captured. Late on Tuesday, a regime helicopter also crashed. Several videos uploaded to the internet clearly showed a missile hitting it broadside before it plummeted to earth.
Meanwhile, at least 50 people have killed and more than 80 wounded by two car bombs in a Christian and Druze district near Damascus early on Wednesday. The devices were detonated in the loyalist town of Jaramana.
The government blamed foreign-backed “terrorist groups” for the attack. Opposition groups in Damascus claimed they were not responsible and instead claimed the regime had planted the bombs to instil fear into minority communities.
Rebel groups claimed to have seized the missiles used to shoot down the regime aircraft during raids over the past week on regime bases in the north. At least two of the raids are known to have yielded large stocks of weaponry and ammunition.
Late on Wednesday, a Syrian rebel posing with a Russian-made heat-seeking missile launcher claimed credit for the attacks. He said the missile he claimed to have used had been part of a stash of weapons stolen during a raid on a nearby base.
Such rebel raids have increased dramatically over the past fortnight. At least four large bases are widely reported to have fallen: one in the east of the country, two in the north and one major air force facility near Damascus. Six other outposts are also believed to have changed hands in what is shaping up to be a pivotal phase of the civil war.
Opposition groups had been pleading for anti-aircraft missiles to protect them and anti-regime towns and villages in the north from government jets, which have become a growing threat. However, the US, France and Britain have refused to provide them, fearing they could fall into the hands of extremists and be used to attack airliners.
The raids on the bases and the use of heat-seekers have raised the stakes sharply in northern Syria, where momentum appears to be steadily shifting in the favour of rebel groups, who until recently had feared that they could not finish what they had started when they launched incursions into Aleppo and Damascus in mid-July. At the forefront of this emerging dynamic are jihadist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida-inspired militia whose motivations for fighting the Syrian regime are largely sectarian and at odds with the nationalistic aims of much of the opposition.
Jabhat al-Nusra members were solely responsible for the raid on the Mayedin base in eastern Syria over the weekend and are believed to have played roles in the sacking of several northern airfields. A video posted on Tuesday shows members of the group returning to their headquarters with weapons they had looted, including a tank.
The gathering strength of the jihadist group, as well as the more potent weaponry now available, is likely to pose a series of challenges to the Assad regime, as it attempts to hold on to Syria’s two leading cities.
Regime forces have launched extensive operations in opposition areas around Damascus in recent weeks, attempting to consolidate their control of the capital. The fighting in Aleppo has become a series of skirmishes along stagnant frontlines.