MAFRAQ — Fresh off the capture of a strategic military airport, Syrian rebels say they are set to form their first air squadron in a bid to add air power to the armed resistance’s arsenal.
According to rebel sources, Syrian air force defectors have agreed to return to the country to form the resistance’s first “air squadron” in a bid to operate a fleet of fighter jets reportedly seized by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) on Tuesday.
Some 35 former air force officers, pilots and technicians currently residing in Jordan and Turkey are set to form the squadron, defectors say, which is to operate under the umbrella of the FSA and the Higher Syrian Military Council.
“We have been waiting for months to return to Syria and serve the revolution,” said Abu Khaled Al Dimashqi, a 45-year-old former Syrian air force major general currently residing in Jordan.
“We believe this is our chance.”
Syrian air force defectors said the decision came hours after the FSA’s capture of Al Jarah military airport on the outskirts of Aleppo on Tuesday, seizing in the process some three-dozen aircraft and fighter jet.
However, Syrian air force defectors have raised doubts over the operational condition of the recently seized fleet — which reportedly consists of MiG-17 and L-39 fighter jets — and have reportedly dispatched a team of technicians to Aleppo to run “maintenance and tests” on the aircraft.
“We have seen photos and video of these jets, but only God knows if they can actually fly,” Abu Mohammed, a 34-year-old fighter jet pilot who defected to Jordan in early December, said from a rebel safehouse in the Jordanian border city of Mafraq.
“We need to get experts into the airport before we can get too excited.”
Should the fighter jets prove to be operational, it would mark the first time functioning aircraft have fallen into rebel hands.
Last November, Syrian rebels seized the Marj Al Sultan military airbase on the outskirts of Damascus only to find a handful of “decommissioned” aircraft, while Damascus destroyed a fleet of fighter jets at the Tafnaz military airport outside Idlib shortly before it fell into rebel hands in January.
Tuesday’s victory came as rebels stepped up efforts to capture key airports and military bases, with the FSA launching assaults on the Aleppo International Airport and the Neerab military airport, which also lies on the outskirts of the northern city.
Air power has long been a strategic advantage for Syrian regime forces, with Damascus carrying out daily aerial assaults on suspected rebel strongholds across the country.
Syrian rebels say the proposed squadron is to serve as the foundations of a post-Assad Syrian air force, holding out hope that the group will take the fight against Damascus to the skies as rebels continue to ramp up offenses against airbases.
Some 45 Syrian fighter pilots and former air force officers have defected to Jordan and Turkey since the onset of the conflict in March 2011, with rebels claiming the presence of “dozens” of former pilots ready to join the ranks of the FSA within Syria.