February 17, 2013

Syria: Attempting to Neutralize the Air Force

Syrian Air Force MiG-23BN dropping two FAB-250 bombs

Throughout the two-year revolution in Syria, the Syrian Air Force has enjoyed dominance of the airspace - and used it relentlessly against the rebels. The regime has used general purpose bombs, white phosphorous incendiary cluster bombs, anti-tank cluster munitions, rockets and home-made "barrel bombs" against its own people. (See my article, The Syrian "barrel bomb" - a terror weapon).

For months, the Syrian rebels called out to the world, the West and NATO to impose a no fly zone over the country to prevent the massive destruction of the country, not to mention deaths and injuries. Although they have been able to down many of the regime's Mi-8/17 (NATO: HIP) assault helicopters and a few L-39 trainer/light attack fighters and MiG-23 (NATO: FLOGGER) fighter-bombers, the fixed wing aircraft operate virtually at will.

There have been a few instances in which the rebels have used captured shoulder-launched missiles to hit the higher-flying fighters - on February 17, 2013, they were able to down one of the air force's fighter-bombers.

Syrian Air Force fighter bomber downed over central Syria

One of the tactics I have encouraged is to attack the air bases from which the Syrian Air Force aircraft operate. See my earlier article, Note to the Syrian opposition - take the airbases! Either they are reading my articles (joking), or they have figured this out on their own (more likely).

Syrian air bases

Of the air bases shown on the map, some have already been seized by the rebels, others are under pressure and will likely fall soon, some are not in service, and a few are key to continued Syrian Air Force operations.

Thus far, the rebels have taken Marj al-Sultan, just outside Damascus, Abu al-Duhur, north of Hamah, Afis (Taftanaz), south of Aleppo, and Jirah, east of Aleppo. Marj al-Sultan was an Mi-8/17 assault helicopter base and a command and control center. Afis was used to launch Mi-8/17 and Mi-25 (NATO: HIND) gunship attacks, Abu al-Duhur was used to launch MiG-23 attacks, and Jirah was used to launch L-39 attacks.

The rebels are in the process of attacking the training bases at Minakh, Rasm al-'Abud, both near Aleppo, and the military ramp at Aleppo international airport. Minakh is a small training base, but the other two bases have been used to launch L-39 and MiG-23 sorties against the opposition. The rebels have also surrounded and are attacking Dayr al-Zawr in the east, and are conducting harassing attacks on the military ramp at Damascus International Airport. The attacks on the two international airports have severely restricted flights into Syria.

Of the remaining airbases, al-Nasiriyah, north of Damascus, is used to launch Scud missiles against opposition targets in the Aleppo area. Marj Ruhayil, just south of Damascus International Airport, is now used for Mi-25 gunship operations. Khalkhalah, a bit further south, houses MiG-21 (NATO: FISHBED) fighters, but they appear infrequently in the fight. Al-Suwayda' (al-Tha'alah) in the south, does not appear to be in use at this time.

Sayqal, east of Damascus, is home to the air force's premier air-to-air fighter, the MiG-29 (NATO: FULCRUM), which, given the nature of the fighting, has not been needed. Al-Qusayr, in the west on the Lebanese border, appears to be abandoned. The air base at al-Tabaqah, near the Euphrates Dam, does not appear to be used in the fighting. The international airport at Latakia, on the Mediterranean in northwest Syria, is home to the anti-submarine warfare helicopters and is not in the fight.

The most important bases remaining in service are located between Damascus and Hamah - al-Dumayr, Shayrat (Daghdaghan) and Tiyas. Al-Dumayr is home to a MiG-23 squadron and a Su-22 (NATO: FITTER C) squadron. Both squadrons have been used extensively in operations in the Damascus area. Shayrat is home to two squadrons of Su-22 fighter bombers, used heavily in operations against the rebels in the central Syrian governorates of Homs, Hamah and Idlib. Tiyas is home to the Syrian Air Force's two Su-24 (NATO: FENCER) squadrons. These fighter bombers have also been used in the central Syrian governorates. All three of these bases are easily defended and present a real challenge to the opposition. At this point, I do not assess the rebels as capable of shutting down these three major air bases.

The air base at Hamah has become a major logistics base for regime operations in the central governorates. IL-76 (NATO: CANDID) transport aircraft of both the Syrian Air Force (they have four) and the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force routinely deliver troops and materiel to the base, and transport high-value detainees to the intelligence and security services in Damascus.

Of the remaining bases in the Damascus area, 'Aqrabah is a small helipad in a congested and contested area - I have to assume the Syrians have moved the Mi-8/17 helicopters to the air base in the south Damascus suburb of al-Mizzih. Al-Mizzih will be important in the upcoming battle for Damascus. In addition to the helicopters, it is also used to fire artillery and rockets at rebels in the neighboring towns of Mu'adhamiyah and Daraya. (See my analysis - The Coming Battle for Damascus.)

The rebels will take the military ramp at Aleppo International (called Nayrab air base), Rasm al-'Abud, Dayr al-Zawr and Minakh in the near future. However, they will not be able to take the bases that are mounting the most devastating air strikes on their forces and the cities that support the revolution. They will have to win despite the Syrian Air Force.