- Gentlemen, start your drones: Judge’s ruling opens door for commercial use
- Soldier who hid, bragged about not saluting flag to be punished — in secret
- ‘Maverick’ of the seas: ‘Top Gun’ school for U.S. ship officers to launch
- Putin declares Sochi Paralympics open amid Ukrainian protest
- ‘In Jesus name, we pray’ sparks ire at Ohio council meeting
- Navy’s first laser weapon ready for prime time; drone killer to deploy this summer
- Billionaire backer: Rick Santorum ‘needs to be heard’ in 2016
- Obamacare fallout: 49 percent pessimistic; 45 percent ‘scared’
- DHS accused of holding U.S. citizen at airport, using emails to pry into her sex life
- Seattle socialist: Minimum-wage discussion skewed by ‘right-wing’ GAO analysis
Defector: Most Syrian bomber pilots grounded
DOHA, Qatar (AP) — A former Syrian air force general who was also the country’s first astronaut said Tuesday that only about one-third of Syria’s fighter pilots are carrying out the daily bombing raids of rebel strongholds because President Bashar Assad’s regime cannot count on the loyalty of the rest.
Maj. Gen. Mohammed Fares, who defected in August and joined the main umbrella group for regime opponents, the Syrian National Council, also said the regime’s combat aircraft are aging and running short of spare parts, but that Mr. Assad still has hundreds of planes at his disposal.
Syria’s civil war has been locked in a stalemate in recent months. Rebels have seized territory in heavy fighting, particularly in rural areas in northern Syria. The regime, with its ground forces stretched thin, has struck back with air raids to try to dislodge the opposition fighters. Government pilots also have bombed civilian areas in seemingly random attacks, devastating entire neighborhoods and terrorizing the population.
Syria’s opposition has pleaded with its international backers for anti-aircraft missiles to defeat Mr. Assad, but the rebels’ foreign backers are concerned that such weapons could fall into the hands of Islamic militants fighting on the rebel side.
In recent months, the regime increasingly has used makeshift bombs consisting of hundreds of pounds of explosives stuffed into barrels. Fares said the inaccurate barrel bombs are meant to terrify the population, but they also are being used because the regime is running out of ordinary bombs.
He reiterated the opposition mantra that the rebels could defeat Mr. Assad's air force if given the necessary weapons, particularly to bring down planes and helicopters.
He said only about 30 percent of Syria’s pilots, or between 100 and 120, are involved in the bombing raids. The regime does not want to put the loyalty of the others to the test and wants to prevent defections of pilots, he added.
Pilots and their families usually live in military compounds, and this gives the regime leverage over pilots toying with the idea of defecting with their planes, said Gen. Fares, adding that he last served as a senior administrator in the air force.
It was not possible to verify Gen. Fares‘ statements, but Omar Lamrani, a military analyst at the Texas-based think tank Stratfor, said it was plausible for the regime to ground pilots considered less than loyal to prevent defections.
Mr. Lamrani also said that the regime is believed to have about 400 fixed-wing aircraft and 200 helicopters but that many are old and not well-maintained. The use of barrel bombs could suggest stockpiles of regular bombs are running low or that the regime is keeping some weapons for a later stage in the conflict.
Gen. Fares said he sneaked across the Turkish border with his family after fleeing Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and a key battleground. Since Syria’s conflict erupted in March 2011, there have been a number of high-level defections, including of a former prime minister, but not to the extent that they have dramatically threatened the regime.
Gen. Fares trained as an astronaut in the Soviet Union from 1985 to 1987 and spent eight days on Russia’s Mir space station before returning to Syria. He said he was an early sympathizer of the uprising against Mr. Assad and fed information to the opposition, but that it was difficult to defect because he was being watched by Syrian intelligence.
The ex-astronaut attended the SNC conference as a new member of the group’s expanded general assembly.
The SNC, formed a year ago and consisting largely of longtime exiles and academics, has been trying to broaden its base to deflect criticism that it’s out of touch with those fighting on the ground to oust Mr. Assad. On Monday, the SNC voted to nearly double its general assembly to some 400 people, including activists from Syria or those who fled only recently.
TWT Video Picks
Taxpayers must pay the freight for over-budget train projects
- CPAC 2014: Rand Paul urges conservatives to fight for liberty
- Putin has transformed Russian army into a lean, mean fighting machine
- EDITORIAL: Connecticut revolts against gun controls that could criminalize 300,000
- Bill Clinton poses for photo with Bunny Ranch prostitutes
- U.S. pilot scares off Iranians with 'Top Gun'-worthy stunt: 'You really ought to go home'
- Kim Jong-un calls for execution of 33 Christians
- Two liberals say Sarah Palin is right: Obama lacks substance
- Malaysia Airlines says plane on route to Beijing missing
- High schooler suing parents for money shot down by judge
- Soldier who hid to avoid saluting the flag to be punished in secret; Army won't release details
Pope Francis meets his 'mini-me'
Celebrity deaths in 2014
Winter storm hits states — again