June 24, 2014

Syrian Air Force strikes targets in Iraq - not waiting for the Americans

Posted June 24
Posted June 20

Part of the American plan to address the rapid success of fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and [Greater] Syria (ISIS) includes the option for what President Barack Obama labeled "targeted and precise military action." For those who do not understand diplo-speak, that means airstrikes. As most people who have served in the military, or have studied military history, airstrikes can be effective if conducted properly.

The United States government is not the only government that knows this. The Iraqis are well aware of it, having twice been on the receiving end of American airpower. The Syrians have used their air force - jet fighters, fighter-bombers and helicopters - to great effect in their efforts against the various groups of rebels in that country.

Meanwhile, the United States is slowly deploying its first advisors to the country to assess the capabilities (or lack thereof) of the Iraqi Army and what steps can be taken to stem the advance of ISIS as it moves to the gates of Baghdad, as well as the Jordanian border. ISIS has effectively taken control of the entire Syrian border with Iraq, and the single border crossing between Iraq and Jordan.

Faced with the loss of the major border crossing at al-Bukamal (Syria) and al-Qa'im (Iraq), the Syrian Air Force, reportedly in cooperation with the Iraqi Army, has conducted a series of airstrikes inside Iraqi territory (see map). We don't need a sophisticated intelligence capability to know this - the Syrians have announced it.

I refer you to the two Facebook posts above. These are from the Syrian Arab Army Facebook page - a semi-official organ of the Syrian Armed Forces public affairs office. I have followed this page for years - they have reported information that could only originate with the government. Having served as the first Air Attache at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, I am fully aware of how tightly the Syrian regime controls information about its military capabilities and operations. Virtually everything was kept secret - I remain surprised at how much information is now being released by the regime of President Bashar al-Asad.

The June 24 post (top) shows a Syrian Air Force Sukhoi SU-22M4 (NATO: FITTER K) fighter-bomber, the workhorse of Syrian air operations against the rebels in Syria. The post claims that the Syrians conducted airstrikes against ISIS targets in the al-Qa'im area of Iraq. The June 20 post (lower) indicates that Syrian Air Force struck a bridge in the city of al-Qa'im, Iraq. Al Qa'im is fully six miles inside the Iraqi border.

The Iraqis and Syrian governments are both in trouble - and they know it. ISIS control of this major border crossing, as well as virtually all of the other minor crossings, prohibits the Iraqis sending supplies and equipment to their allies in Damascus - some of that materiel originates in Iran. The Syrians are trying to keep this important main supply route (known in military circles as an MSR) open.

The Iraqis feel that they cannot wait for the Americans to make a decision to conduct airstrikes - they have asked their allies in Syria for assistance. The Syrians, affected by ongoing events almost as much as the Iraqis, have come to the aid of their Iraqi allies.

So what? So the Syrian Air Force conducts airstrikes in support of the Iraqis - is that a concern? Maybe not just now, but what happens when armed Syrian Air Force jet fighter/fighter-bomber aircraft conduct operations in the same airspace as U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy fighter, fighter-bomber, C-130 gunships, and/or helicopters? The potential for misunderstandings could lead to dangerous confrontations. I seriously doubt that American forces are going to cooperate with the Syrian Air Force.

Time is running out - this situation is not static. ISIS is not waiting for the United States to conduct its assessment as it rolls towards Baghdad now, and possibly Amman in the future.