DOHA, Qatar – 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 Assad still has hundreds of planes at his disposal.
"He (Assad) can still continue bombing," the 61-year-old Fares said on the sidelines of a SNC conference in the Qatari capital, Doha.
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 have also 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 Assad, but the rebels' foreign backers are concerned such weapons could fall into the hands of Islamic militants fighting on the rebel side.
In recent months, the regime has increasingly used makeshift bombs consisting of hundreds of kilos of explosives stuffed into barrels. Fares said the inaccurate barrel bombs are meant to terrify the population, but are also being used because the regime is running out of ordinary bombs.
He reiterated the opposition mantra that the rebels could defeat 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 Fares, adding that he last served as a senior administrator in the air force.
It was not possible to verify 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.
Lamrani also said 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.
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.
Fares said 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 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 long-time 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 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.
On Wednesday, the group is choosing a new leadership. However, the internal reforms may not be enough to thwart attempts to form a new opposition leadership that would dilute the SNC's influence.
The U.S. has become increasingly frustrated with the SNC's failure to forge a cohesive and more representative leadership. Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton harshly criticized the group.
Syrian dissident Riad Seif has proposed a 50-member leadership team with wide representation of those inside Syria and only 15 seats for the SNC. Seif said Tuesday that the SNC has "failed" because it has not provided leadership and support for those fighting the regime.
The fate of Seif's plan is to be discussed Thursday, but the SNC has been pushing back because it fears it could be sidelined. In a counter proposal, the SNC said those present Thursday should set up a transition government, not argue about leadership posts.
The outgoing SNC chief, Abdelbaset Sieda, warned Tuesday that "any action targeting the council (SNC) will intentionally or unintentionally prolong the life of the regime."
He did not refer specifically to Seif's plan, but said that "we emphasize the need to preserve the SNC as a basic component" of the Syrian opposition.