* Aleppo rebels getting no help from West, Arab states
* Forces surrounding three military airbases - Oqaidi
* Rebels control "90 percent of Aleppo province countryside"
ALEPPO COUNTRYSIDE, Syria, Dec 24 (Reuters) - Syrian rebels
are surrounding bases and military airports loyal to President
Bashar al-Assad across the northern province of Aleppo, a
commander said, but are struggling to counter attacks from jet
fighters which can fly even from besieged airfields.
Colonel Abdel-Jabbar Oqaidi, who heads the rebels' military
council in the province, also told Reuters that his forces are
fighting without any help from the Western and Arab governments
which want Assad removed from power.
Oqaidi, who leads between 25,000-30,000 troops across Aleppo
province, said the rebel strategy had shifted from fighting
Assad's forces in the cities to surrounding his bases in the
countryside - aiming to encourage defections and weaken the
sites so they can be stormed.
This thrust has helped to loosen Assad's grip in the north
and east of the country during a 21-month civil war which
activists say has already killed more than 44,000 Syrians.
"We decided on this (strategy) lately," Oqaidi said in an
interview at his command centre in the Aleppo countryside. "The
situation for us on the ground is really good."
Sitting behind a desk, next to the revolutionary tri-colour
Syrian flag, Oqaidi said his forces were now fighting less in
heavily-populated urban areas.
"At the beginning ... we were forced to attack the (Assad)
forces in the districts to kick them out so that they do not
harm civilians," said Oqaidi, a soft-spoken m a n who wore two
pins - one a flag, the other a crescent of the rebels'
revolutionary flag - on his fatigues.
"After achieving fighting experience, we went back to the
countryside to liberate the big military bases. These bases are
fortified with tanks, rockets, artillery, mortars, in addition
airplanes. The siege ... cuts off the supply lines to these
bases and most importantly it helps elements to defect," he
said, making it easier to eventually storm the bases.
The rebel Free Syrian Army is largely run by officers who
had defected from Assad's forces. However, the opposition has
struggled to peel off large numbers of defectors and only a
handful of high-ranking officials have abandoned the government.
AIR FORCE PROBLEM
Oqaidi said his forces were currently surrounding three
military airports - Kuweires, Neyrab and Menagh - and an air
force intelligence building.
Assad has increasingly depended on his air force, which can
still take off from bases despite being surrounded to strike at
the poorly-equipped rebels.
"That's the whole problem. We have no problem except for the
air force. We're used to the tanks fighting and their shelling,
we have no problem except for the air force," said Oqaidi who
estimated Assad had less than 100 functional planes left. The
capture of one of the airports would be a strategic blow.
"We're used to taking over military bases that have tanks
and APCs (armoured personnel carriers) but we haven't been used
to take over control yet of airplanes and God willing we'll have
control of them soon," he said.
Oqaidi said Assad's forces were using helicopters plus
Russian-designed MiGs and Sukhoi jets to strike at the rebels
who still had no sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles.
In the central province of Hama, rebels shot down a
government military jet on Monday, activists said.
However, Oqaidi said his forces were not getting any help
from abroad, despite reports that Qatar and Saudi Arabia were
arming rebel groups.
"We have not received aid from any Arab or foreign country,
neither money or weapons. Just empty promises. It looks like no
one wants Bashar al-Assad to fall in the near future until the
country is completely destroyed and its infrastructure is
completely destroyed. They don't care about Syrian blood."
Oqaidi, who defected at the beginning of 2012, said more
than 90 percent of Aleppo's countryside and about 80 percent of
the once rich merchant city was under rebel control.
He played up the level of defections, particularly from the
majority Sunni Muslim community, from Damascus forces which are
largely commanded by members of Assad's Alawite sect.
"There are a lot of pilot defections, in general most of the
Sunni pilots have defected," he said.
Referring to the Alawite pilots who remain, he said: "What
are they defending? They know they're defending Bashar al-Assad
who they know will leave them and escape. So they no longer have
the will to fight. There is no principle, no aim to fight for."
Many soldiers had also defected after a recent siege of an
army infantry college near Aleppo while the head of the college
had escaped by plane, he said. "So their morale was devastated,
because if the leader escapes, the rest of the elements had no
will to fight."
Other troops gave themselves up while those who resisted
were killed and a big portion were also captured, Oqaidi said,
adding they were treated as prisoners according to Islam and the
Geneva Conventions. The rebels also seized about 70 tanks, RPG
rounds and Kalashnikov rifles.
At the sprawling complex, slogans and pictures praising
Assad and his father as well as the army were riddled with
bullets. Rooms, garages, and classes showed evidence of squalor
and abandonment. Tanks and armoured personnel carriers lay
abandoned in fields as well as overturned army camouflage
mattresses and spilled lentils.
"We thought we'd see heavy resistance. But they were
defeated like rabbits," said Abu al-Nasr, a soldier from the
Tawheed brigade who participated in the operation.
(editing by David Stamp)