MAREA, Syria -- Lt. Col. Maan al-Mansour's mission is to capture the Syrian air base where he once served.

The 22-year air force veteran, who defected in June to the rebellion, led an attack by hundreds of fighters on the Kuwiras military airport last week. In a fierce battle, they hammered the base with mortar fire and rocket-propelled grenades for four hours, nearly overrunning it until they were driven back by sustained strafing and bombing by jet fighters.

Al-Mansour says he's determined to try again. Syria's rebels have turned to a new tactic of attacking bases, trying to stop the jets and attack helicopters that have wreaked devastation on their fighters and civilians in the battleground city of Aleppo and the nearby countryside.

"We are going to destroy the place that causes all this destruction," al-Mansour said. "The pilots inside are my friends and I like them, but they are on the wrong side, they destroy buildings with the innocent and children inside, so when I attack the airport, I think of them."

Rebels drove the Syrian army out of the countryside north of Aleppo long ago and claim to control more than two-thirds of Aleppo, Syria's largest city, where they have battled to a standstill the regime forces trying for more than a month to uproot them.

But the military is turning increasingly to its largely unchallenged air power, using its aircraft to strike in Aleppo and throughout the small towns that dot the rebel-held areas to the north. The growing reliance suggests the regime is trying to spare its elite troops of the Republican Guard and the Fourth Armored Division, which have borne the brunt of past year and a half of fighting, according to Maplecroft, a British-based risk analysis company.

"The Syrian military is becoming increasingly concerned that its superiority in terms of numbers and firepower belies significant weaknesses such as troop fatigue, growing defections, and a lack of experience in irregular warfare," it said in a recent briefing.

Rebels claim to have shot down a few aircraft, but they admit there is little to do about the threat from above – so they are moving against the source.

The leader of the rebel brigade doing most of the fighting in Aleppo announced Tuesday that air bases would be the new target for their forces.

"We control the ground in Aleppo but the regime has the air force and controls the air," Abdul Qadir Saleh, the field commander of the Tawhid Brigade, told journalists in Istanbul. "We will solve this by destroying airports and air bases."

Driving through the green fields of corn and olive orchards of Aleppo province, life almost seems to have returned to normal with farmers riding tractors and children playing soldier in the dusty streets of the small towns under the scorching summer sun. But every town has piles of rubble where buildings were pulverized from the air.

The airstrikes have sent hundreds of thousands fleeing for the dubious safety of the Turkish border.

"We woke to the sound of planes last night at 4 a.m. and everyone was terrified and fled into the fields," said Ahmed al-Hajji, who lives with his five children and hundreds of others in a massive customs shed near the border in Azaz. "Who will stop the planes? They are almost in Turkey."

So far, every rebel assault on the air bases, which are guarded by tanks, rockets as well as the aircraft themselves, has ended in failure and often with a heavy loss of life. On Aug. 31, the same day al-Mansour's fighters attacked Kuwiras, rebels hit two air bases in neighboring Idlib province, but all ultimately foundered. He did not give any casualty figures.

Capt. Ahmed Ghazali, the head of rebel forces in Azaz, said his forces have repeatedly tried to take the Menagh helicopter field, which squats on the key road between the border and the rebel stronghold of Tel Rifaat. From there, its aircraft have hit rebels across the region.

"There is no cover around these areas and it is very exposed. We can't get close, and they use artillery and jets on us," complained Ghazali, wearing Gulf War-era U.S. surplus camouflage. "With our current means, we can't attack these places."

Instead, he said, his forces have been harrying the base with pinpoint strikes to keep it occupied, but that has done little to stem the daily attacks on Azaz and other towns. On Wednesday, two rockets fired from a jet slammed into the road near the city hall and the main communications tower. One left a huge crater, the other disappeared under the pavement after not exploding.

The lack of heavy weapons, especially anti-aircraft missiles, has been a common lament among the rebels. More than a month ago, they did succeed in shelling Menagh with one of their captured tanks, but the move has never been repeated due to a lack of ammunition.

Mustafa Saleh, a 20-year-old religion student-turned-rebel who spent the last month fighting in Aleppo, also said that regime aircraft picked off opposition tanks easily, curtailing their regular use in combat.

Tanks, once the common infantry man's nightmare, seem to be increasingly superseded in this conflict. Their burnt out husks litter the countryside in testimony to rebel successes in stopping them.

Abu Muslim, a portly, bearded rebel in the town of Marea, became a specialist in rocket-propelled grenades during his military service a decade ago. He said in the tight confines of urban warfare, taking out the regime's older tanks wasn't a problem.

"You can take out the old tanks, the (1960s era) T-55s with just one shot of the RPG between the turret and the main body," he said with a laugh, while admitting that the newer tanks took a few more rockets. They have yet to find a similar simple solution to helicopter gunships and fighter jets soaring high out of reach.

Another perennial problem for the rebels is the lack of unity among the hundreds of small battalions that make up its ranks, each anywhere from a few hundred to a few dozen men.

For his assault on the airport, al-Mansour had to weld together the 12 different battalions that agreed to participate into a single fighting force.

"We asked everyone who would like to take part in the operation and support it with ammunition. Some accepted and some didn't," he said. "The cooperation is all on a personal level. If they agree, it's a personal thing. I come to you, I have an operation, if you want, we do it. If you don't, that's it."

He said some insisted on financial compensation as well.

The problem is replicated with the outside leaders, al-Mansour added, listing three who refused to defer to one another. Recently, however, several top leaders are working on fusing the different groups into a more cohesive rebel army under the control of defected Gen. Mohammed al-Haj Ali, residing in Jordan.

Even with a more cohesive military structure, Western countries would likely be loath to hand out sophisticated hand-held anti-aircraft missiles for fear they could fall into the wrong hands, as happened with the Stinger missiles meant to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan and then in Libya when Moammar Gadhafi's lavish arsenals were opened to all comers.

Resolving these leadership issues and opening the door to more coordinated assaults, and perhaps even better weapons, is what fighters like Mustafa Saleh – the former religion student – want to see. He said it was a rare moment in Aleppo when there wasn't a dreaded jet or helicopter buzzing in the sky.

"Many times we were forced to withdraw by the aircraft. ... If there were no aircraft, Aleppo would fall in days," he said, back in his home village of Marea, where his unit is gearing up for an assault on a nearby infantry academy. "Aleppo needs antiaircraft rockets."

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  • Syrian Regime

    Despite major defections and a July 18. explosion in Damascus that killed four top generals, including President Bashar Assad's brother-in-law, the regime's inner circle is still powerful and united against the opposition. Assad's inner circle includes his younger brother, Maher, who commands the forces in charge of protecting the capital. It also includes the heads of the four intelligence agencies playing a major role in the crackdown. Although regime forces lost parts of the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest, government troops still control most cities, while the opposition dominates large parts of the countryside. <em>Caption: This June 13, 2000, file photo shows Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, his brother Maher, center, and brother-in-law Major General Assef Shawkat, left. (AP Photo, File)</em>

  • Free Syrian Army

    The main rebel fighting force for more than a year, the Free Syrian Army includes lightly-armed volunteer militiamen and defectors from Assad's military. Its overall strength and structure is unclear, but tens of thousands are believed be loyal to the group. The rebels have control over some northern areas, allowing movement of fighters and supplies from Turkey and Lebanon. Anti-Assad forces have failed to maintain any strategic footholds in big cities, being driven back from key neighborhoods in Homs earlier this year and now apparently losing ground in the largest urban center, Aleppo. The battles also suggest only weak direction from central commanders - including Turkey-based Free Syrian Army leader Riad al-Asaad. <em>Caption: In this citizen journalism image provided by Shaam News Network SNN, taken on Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012, Free Syrian Army soldiers pose for a photograph, in Sarmada, Idlib province, northern Syria. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)</em>

  • Syrian National Council

    Based in Istanbul, the SNC has emerged as the main political opposition to Assad and has pushed for international recognition as the legitimate representative of the uprising, despite rifts with other Syrian factions. The group also has been hit by internal feuds that have led some senior members to quit. The current leader, Abdelbaset Sieda, is a Swedish-based activist for Syria's minority Kurdish community. The SNC has gained support from many countries in the West and Arab world, but it has not galvanized international backing, and critics complain its senior leadership is made up mostly of exiles out of touch with their homeland. <em>Caption: The members of the Syrian National Council and its head Abdulbaset Sieda, center, arrive for a meeting with Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Ankara, Turkey, Monday, July 23, 2012.(AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)</em>

  • The National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change

    A rival to the SNC, the National Coordination Committee is led by opposition figures inside Syria, many of them former political prisoners. SNC members accuse the group of being far too lenient and willing to engage in dialogue with the regime. In turn, the National Coordination Committee accuses the SNC of being a front for Western powers and willing to open the door to the Muslim Brotherhood and other conservative Islamist factions. <em>Caption: Member of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, Morhaf Mickael speaks during a meeting of Syrian opposition parties in Brussels on Sunday, June 24, 2012. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)</em>

  • International Alliances

    On Assad's side are traditional Shiite allies Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah. <em>Caption: In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Saeed Jalili, meets with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus, Syria, Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2012. (AP Photo/SANA)</em>

  • International Alliances

    The regime also has important political cover from Russia and China, which have used their Security Council vetoes to prevent U.N. sanctions on Syria. <em>Caption: In this Jan. 25, 2005 file photo, Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a signing ceremony in the Kremlin, Moscow. (AP Photo/Sergei Chirikov)</em>

  • International Alliances

    The rebels have built an array of regional support that includes the wealthy Gulf states - led by Iran rival Saudi Arabia - and neighboring Turkey, which offers key supply routes. The West also backs the rebel forces, but has so far opposed mobilizing international military support similar to the NATO-led airstrikes that helped topple Moammar Gadhafi's regime in Libya. <em>Caption: From left, Bahrain's Foreign Minister, Sheik Khalid bin AhmedI bin Mohammed al-Khalifa, Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu and United Arab Emirates' Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan seenduring a group photo during the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Foreign ministers meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, Saturday, Jan. 28, 2012 (AP Photo)</em>

  • Foreign Fighters

    Syria has drawn foreign fighters just as other recent conflicts such as Iraq and Afghanistan. No credible count on them exists, but anecdotal evidence suggests foreigners are coming to fight Assad. Rebel commanders downplay the presence of foreign fighters, saying their cause is a purely Syrian uprising. Mohammed Idilbi, a Syrian activist based in Turkey, says foreign ranks include Libyans, Yemenis, Tunisians and Lebanese. On Saturday, Syria's official SANA news agency claimed four Libyans were among rebels killed in Aleppo. <em>Caption: In this Sept. 18, 2011 file photo, former rebel fighters celebrate as smoke rises from Bani Walid, Libya, at the northern gate of the town. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini, File)</em>

  • Extremists

    U.S. officials and others worry that Syria could become a new foothold for insurgents inspired by al-Qaida. Assessing the degree of radical Islamic ideology in the civil war is impossible, but at least one group, the al-Nusra Front, has emerged and declared allegiance to the Free Syrian Army. Al-Nusra, or Victory, has claimed responsibility for several high profile attacks, including a double suicide bombing in March that killed 27 people in Damascus and the execution-style killing of a Syrian television presenter who was abducted in July. On Friday, U.S. intelligence officials said al-Qaida has advanced beyond isolated pockets in Syria and now is building a network of well-organized cells that could include several hundred militants. <em>Caption: This photo shows Al-Qaida's new leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a still image from a web posting by al-Qaida's media arm, as-Sahab, Wednesday July 27, 2011. Al-Qaida's new leader has lauded protesters in Syria for seeking to topple the regime of President Bashar Assad. (AP Photo/IntelCenter) </em>