Zeyad Haaj Abayed. Thomas Hammond photo

Defector Pilot Teaching Syrian Rebels to Shoot Down Assad’s Air Force

But missile shortage makes his job nearly impossible


They appear suddenly in clear blue skies, preceded only briefly by the roar of a jet engine or the chop of a rotor blade. Bombs, rockets and cannon fire shatter the earth, rebel installations and human flesh.

The warplanes and helicopters of Syrian Pres. Bashar Al Assad’s air force are the regime’s biggest advantage over the rebel Free Syrian Army. It’s the job of regime defector Col. Zeyad Haaj Abayed to erase that advantage—by training the 200,000-strong FSA to shoot down the aerial marauders.

But Abayed has very little to work with. No warplanes of his own. No radars. No large Surface-to-Air Missiles and only a handful of small, shoulder-fired SAMs. And unlike in many previous wars, it seems unlikely that the outside world is going to do anything to help the colonel in his difficult task.


Airborne terror

Assad waited nearly a year to fully unleash his air arm on rebels and civilians. As the fighting escalated in the northern city of Aleppo in the summer of 2012, Syrian air force jets and helicopters fired rockets and dropped bombs.

The aerial campaign quickly spread—and escalated. The regime’s force of some 460 fixed-wing planes plus hundreds of helicopters ranged across Syria, hitting rebels and civilians indiscriminately. Rebels say some of the helicopters have dropped canisters that emitted noxious fumes—a possible extension of Assad’s chemical weapons attacks on civilians in urban areas.

Air power was the decisive factor in many of the regime’s victories on the ground. In April pro-regime fighters from Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group, launched an all-out assault on a rebel stronghold in Al Qusayr—a stronghold that had resisted relentless ground attacks. But the attentions of regime warplanes turned the tide.

As many as 300 bombs struck the rebel battalion, commanded by 29-year-old Yahya Mhebeldin. The fighters had dug underground bunkers but they weren’t enough. And the rebels had no anti-air defenses to speak of. “How can you survive in these circumstances?” Mhebeldin asks from a hospital bed in Lebanon, where he was sent after being hit by shrapnel in the gut.


The counter-air expert

Zeyad Haaj Abayed,50, was a colonel in the Syrian air force with 29 years of flying experience totaling 3,300 hours in the air in training planes and Mi-8 helicopters. In late 2011 he witnessed regime troops open fire on peaceful demonstrators twice. “I decided to give up,” Abayed says.

He and his 16-year-old son defected to the FSA; he now heads the rebels’ eastern front. He helps train rebel fighters to shoot down his former air force comrades. “I know how to target a jet when it comes to attack a target.” The key, he says, is to wait until the plane is pulling away after an attack—and shoot it in the tail.

But the rebels possess only the heavy weapons they’ve been able to steal from the Syrian regime units they defeat in battle. Heavy machine guns. A handful of old-model shoulder-fired anti-air missiles. Rebels have captured large surface-to-air batteries including telephone-pole-size SA-2s, but lack the expertise to use them.

During the Libyan civil war two years ago, rebels cobbled together their own air force using jets delivered into opposition hands by defectors, but only one Syrian pilot is known to have fled with a warplane: Col. Hassan Hammadeh landed his MiG-21 in Jordan in 2012.

Unlike in Afghanistan in the 1980s, no foreign government is supplying meaningful numbers of modern anti-air missiles to opposition troops—perhaps fearing the weapons might wind up in terrorists’ hands. Abayed says that with a couple hundred missiles the FSA could control the air over the north.

And in contrast to the international no-fly zone that protected rebels in Libya, the world has not offered to patrol the airspace over northern Syria itself, although NATO has deployed anti-air missiles to Turkey and Jordan. Turkey shot down a Syrian helicopter in September, but only after it strayed into Turkish territory.

The opposition brigades have a fighting chance at hitting helicopters with their guns, but jets are mostly out of reach. In nearly three years of combat the FSA has downed at least 19 regime aircraft—and potentially scores more. A video recorded by rebels and seen by War is Boring depicts an opposition fighter clutching the severed head of a shot-down regime pilot. But Assad still commands hundreds of warplanes and loyal aircrew.

Abayed says the best counter-air tactic is to attack the regime’s air bases and destroy parked planes and runways. A friend of the colonel’s son—a 20-year-old fighter named Moustafa Abo Zyed—was apparently gassed by a regime helicopter while assaulting the airfield at Abu Al Duhur in March.

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