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Syrian rebels give airlines ’72-hour warning’ before they plan to seize civilian airports

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) gave a 72-hour advance warning to airlines to suspend flights to Syria before the rebels try to seize civilian airports in Damascus and Aleppo. They claim the Syrian Air Force is using them ‘illegally.’

The 72-hour period begins on Saturday, September 1, the FSA told Asharq Al-Awsat, the major pan-Arab daily newspaper based in London.
The FSA believes that Syria’s civilian airports are being used to support pro-regime military operations.

“The criminal regime of Syria has begun to use civilian airports for take-off and landing of warplanes,” the FSA said.

International law prohibits attacks on civilian airports, whether during internal conflicts or wars between states. Prior to the FSA’s ultimatum, some international companies already cancelled flights to Syria over security and cost concerns.

The UAE’s Etihad Airways suspended flights to Damascus on Friday, citing the country’s “deteriorating security situation.” Royal Jordanian Airlines suspended all flights to Syria in July. Russia’s Aeroflot also ceased flights to Damascus in the beginning of August until further notice.

The rebels believe the Assad regime has been forced to use civilian airports for military purposes after an allegedly successful attack against the army’s Abu Zuhour airbase in Syria’s Idlib province, near the Turkish border. In the attack, rebels claimed they destroyed 10 grounded MIG-23 fighter jets and shot down two others.

Syrian state television acknowledged that rebels had targeting the base, but said “the terrorists” were forced to flee after suffering heavy losses.

Speaking exclusively to Asharq Al-Awsat, the FSA’s Colonel Riad al-Asaad claimed that all of the downed aircraft – including “eight to ten helicopters” – were damaged with heavy 14.5mm machine guns, and not with anti-aircraft missiles.

In August, NBC reported that two dozen portable surface-to-air (SAM) missiles, possibly Soviet-made, were smuggled through Turkey to the FSA. The weapons may have originated in Libya, where thousands of SAM launchers were stolen from military arsenals after the fall of the regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

The rebels have requested SAMs to challenge the air superiority of Assad’s troops. The Persian Gulf monarchiesSaudi Arabia and Qatar support the idea, and said they were ready to pay for the arms.

But many fear that the portable SAMs may end up in the hands of militants with links to Al Qaeda and other international terrorist organizations that have infiltrated the ranks of the FSA.