Syrian rebels downed an army helicopter for the first time on Tuesday with a newly-acquired ground-to-air missile, in what a watchdog said could be a turning point in the 20-month-old conflict, AFP reported.
Another bad sign for Syrian President Bashar Assad is Russia’s sudden change of heart, indicating that Moscow realizes it is supporting a loser even though it voted against Tuesday’s United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning Assad’s brutal suppression.
Previously standing side-by-side with Syria, a large purchaser of Russian-made weapons, Russia now claims it only has a “working relationship” with the Syrian president and insists special ties were a thing of the past.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev of Russia, which has backed Damascus throughout the conflict, said in France that “there are no special or privileged relations with President Assad.”
Rebels have turned the tide against Assad, not for the first time, with this week’s successful battles for control of the commercial hub of Aleppo, while another car bomb hit a regime security post near Damascus. The death toll on Tuesday was 105, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The helicopter that the surface-to-air missile downed was strafing civilians near besieged northwestern base 15 miles west of Aleppo, last garrison in government hands between Syria’s second city and the Turkish border.
“It is the first time that the rebels have shot down a helicopter with a surface-to-air missile,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Amateur footage posted by activists on YouTube showed a helicopter plunging to the ground in a ball of flames as rebel fighters shouted: “We hit it; G-d is greatest.”
The Observatory said the missile was part of a consignment newly received by the rebels that had the potential to change the balance of military power in the conflict.
Little more than a week ago, the rebels seized tanks, armored vehicles, artillery, 120mm mortars and rocket launchers when they took the government forces’ sprawling Base 46, about 12 kilometers (eight miles) west of Aleppo.
The rebels, a mix of military defectors and armed civilians, are vastly outgunned but analysts say they are now stretching thin the capabilities of Assad’s war machine and its air supremacy by opening multiple fronts.
This was evident again on Tuesday, with a car bomb killing at least two soldiers at a military police checkpoint at near Damascus as the regime pursued insurgents south of the capital.
In a battle in the north, 70 soldiers were killed or captured, and the rebels seized six 23mm cannons, rocket batteries and other weapons and ammunition.
The source of the missiles that the rebels have obtained is not known, but Saudi Arabia and Qatar are prime candidates.
Saudi weapons have been seen at rebel bases, and The New York Times has reported that more fighters are arriving across the border from Saudi Arabia to join Syrian rebels.
Saudi and Qatar are Sunni-ruled monarchies and oppose Sunni Muslims in Syria being ruled by Assad’s minority Alawite sect.