The past few months have not been kind to Syria's resistance fighters.
Less than two weeks ago, hundreds of rebels were forced to evacuate from the city of Homs, after a year under seige from forces loyal to President Bashir al-Asad. Homs was considered the "cradle" of Syria's civil war, so the exit of opposition fighters gave the government a strategic and political victory, just ahead of the nation's presidential election, which Mr. Asad is expected to win easily.
The retreat from Homs was accompanied by a dire warning from one of the senior leaders of the Syrian opposition. Ahmad al-Jarba, President of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, recently told an audience in Washington that rebel forces need "advanced weapons" that can neutralize aerial raids by Asad's forces, and change the balance-of-power on the ground.
"Advanced weapons" is shorthand for state-of-the-art, shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles (MANPAD SAMs), a prospect that opens a veritable Pandora's box for the world community. On one hand, modern MANPADs could lessen Asad's aerial dominance, but giving those weapons to rebel factions--some linked to Al Qaida--raises the spectre of missile transfer to other terror groups, who could employ them against civilian airliners.
Meanwhile, at least two Syrian groups with Al Qaida ties are busy fighting each other, and not the Asad government. According to the Jerusalem Post, elements of Jabhat al-Nusra (the official Al Qaida affiliate in Syria) are battling with a breakaway group (Levant), which is trying to control territory that stretches from Syria's oil region into Iraq.
But just when you think opposition forces are going down for the count, they manage to pull off a major operation that surprises observers, and suggests they're far from defeated.
Media outlets and human rights groups are reporting that the general in charge of the nation's air defenses has died from wounds suffered in a battle in Mleiha, on the outskirts of Damascus. Lieutenant General Hussein Ayoub Ishaq was one of the highest-ranking Syrian officers to die in the country's three-year-old civil war.
There was some confusion as to how Ishaq died; as The New York Times observed, air defense officers typically don't lead formations on the ground. There was some speculation that Ishaq was inside a bunker or command post when he was wounded by insurgents. If that is correct, it would suggest that rebels penetrated several layers of security and managed to detonate a bomb inside Ishaq's command center.
Air defense sites have been frequent targets for opposition forces during the Syrian conflict. Many of the raids have focused on capturing weapons that can be used against Asad's attack helicopters and fighter-bombers. In recent months, those aircraft have been used to deliver "barrel bombs" against rebel targets, including civilian population centers. The weapons are typically packed with enough explosives to level a small building, or spray shrapnel across a broad area, killing or wounding scores of people.
There is a large Syrian air defense base in Mleiha, so it seems likely that General Ishaq died in an existing facility, rather than during a visit to a field-deployed unit. That makes the rebel operation even more impressive, since ranking Syrian officers--particularly those serving in or near contested areas--have extensive security details. Getting to Ishaq was no easy feat, and it would indicate a level of planning and execution that insurgents have demonstrated only rarely in the past.
While Ishaq's death will have little impact on the tactical situation, it is a major embarassment for the Asad regime. Syria's internal security forces will spare no effort to discover how the rebels managed to take out the air defense commander. And it's a safe bet that President Asad and his lieutenants have a few more security officers around them today--just in case.
ADDENDUM: While General Ishaq was a relative unknown outside Syria, he became a national hero in the early 1980s, by scoring the Syrian Air Force's only air-to-air kill against Israel during the Bekka Valley campaign. For those keeping score at home, the IAF's final kill ratio against Syria was a stunning 82:1. Given those sobering figures, it's no wonder Ishaq became a celebrity and jumped on the fast-track to flag rank.