“The weather is bad, so no MiGs today,” says Abdu, my driver, as two French journalists and I roll into Aleppo under heavy fog. The bad weather will likely protect us from jets, but not from Scud-like weapons — the tactical ballistic missiles, first developed by the Soviet Union, which have now rained down for weeks on this besieged city.
The newest tools in the Syrian army’s strategy, these missile strikes have wreaked further havoc in and around Aleppo in the last several weeks. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 140 civilians have died in the attacks.
The use of missiles described by a U.S. State Department spokeswoman in February as "Scud-like" is a new plague for a city accustomed to aerial bombing. Aleppo is now a place where overcast weather brings not the doldrums, but palpable relief for an almost-guaranteed break from MiG attacks.
The increased use of these Scud-like weapons represents a new phase in Syria’s two-year-old war. Some say it signals the Syrian air force’s weakening and gradual desperation. Others argue that it’s yet another tool in the regime’s dominant aerial arsenal — a dominance it has shown no sign of relinquishing as rebel forces struggle to obtain anti-aircraft weaponry.
The Syrian military has traditionally had one of the strongest air arsenals in the Arab world. During the presidency of Bashar's father, Hafez al-Assad, the air force command was often put in charge of political assassinations, and the senior Assad was himself an air force officer before rising to power.
Unlike other branches of Syria’s military, the air force has, at this point in the war, seen relatively few defections. To many it is the praetorian guard of the regime.
For some Aleppines, the Scud strikes signal “total war,” or the random targeting of a civilian population. They’re worried the death toll from these Russian-made weapons will continue to mount.
"Regime forces know where the Free Syrian Army and Jabhat al-Nusra headquarters are — everyone does — but instead they always target civilians,” my driver says, as we head to the site of a recent missile attack in the Ard al-Hamra neighborhood.
Occasionally, this “total war” plan backfires for the regime, as was the case when jets struck the regime-controlled Aleppo University on Jan. 15.
“Maybe they missed their intended target as [the school] is in a regime-controlled area,” says a local activist named Abed. The regime “has been using random bombing (of civilian districts) as their main strategy.”
The Free Syrian Army, though it has made sporadic successful attacks on regime planes, is not equipped to defend residents against Scuds from ground to air. They are instead focusing on attacking air force strongholds on the ground. Rebel fighters seized operational aircraft at the Jarrah military airstrip near Aleppo in February, after taking control of the Taftanaz helicopter base the previous month.
I was able to approach the entrance to the highway leading to the Aleppo international airport, and I saw two operational rebel tanks stationed there — a clear sign of the strategic importance of the facility, considering the rebels have precious few tanks.
But the battle still rages for control over Aleppo's airport, one of the strongest bastions of government strength remaining in the mostly rebel-held North. Opposition forces see a victory there as the key to controlling all of Aleppo province, with civilian life in the city in turmoil — from the ground and from the skies — until they do.