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Chief of Syria’s Air Defense Dies in Battle Near Capital

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The general in charge of Syria’s air defense has been killed in fighting near Damascus, an opposition monitoring group and Syrian security officials said Sunday.

The officer, Lt. Gen. Hussein Ayoub Ishaq, one of the highest-ranking officers to die during the country’s three-year conflict, commanded 60,000 troops in Syria’s air defense forces, said Hisham Jabber, a retired Lebanese Army brigadier general who closely follows the military in neighboring Syria. But it was unclear what impact General Ishaq’s death would have on the battlefield, given that Syrian opposition fighters possess no aircraft, General Jabber added.

“Will this have any effect on the military operation? No,” he said, noting that such officers usually groom a successor. “It could have an effect on morale, but in the field there are many officers who can take his place.”

General Ishaq died of injuries sustained on Saturday in Mleha, a district on the outskirts of Damascus where there have been intense battles in recent weeks, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group based in Britain that monitors the conflict with a network of contacts inside Syria. Syria’s state news agency did not immediately report the death.

General Jabber said it was unclear how General Ishaq had been wounded. He surmised that the officer had been helping direct the battle in the area from an operations room rather than leading a fighting formation on the ground, and that he could have been hit by a mortar shell, by a rocket or in an ambush.

Insurgents have attacked many of the antiaircraft batteries around Damascus, in part to seize weapons that they could use against government warplanes that have bombed rebel-held areas. The government has been seeking to clear insurgents from the suburbs ringing Damascus and has called many of its most respected officers and elite units to battles there.

Four of the country’s most senior security officials were killed in an explosion in Damascus in the summer of 2012, and a few other top-ranking officers have died, most recently Hilal al-Assad, a cousin of President Bashar al-Assad’s who commanded the pro-government militias known as the National Defense Forces. But the high-profile deaths have not typically shifted the tide of battle.

Government forces have made advances lately in central Syria while insurgents keep up pressure in the north, east and south, leaving the conflict far from a military resolution even as efforts to reach a political settlement falter.

Before commanding the air defense forces and running an air-defense academy in the northern city of Aleppo, General Ishaq was a fighter pilot who shot down an Israeli jet during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, a rare accomplishment for the outgunned Syrian Air Force, which lost many planes for every one it shot down, General Jabber and others said.

General Ishaq was given the honorary rank of lieutenant general after his death, General Jabber said. The only living Syrian to hold that rank is President Assad, who is also the general commander of the armed forces. Lieutenant general is the highest rank in the Syrian Army because it was the rank of Mr. Assad’s father and predecessor as president, Hafez, and no one can outrank him, General Jabber said.

General Ishaq had been an officer in the elite Republican Guard and had good relations with Mr. Assad and a good reputation in the military, according to Syrians with contacts in the security forces. He was a member of the Sunni majority, one of many high-ranking Sunnis in a military pitted against a Sunni-led uprising, they said.

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(via NY Times)