October 21, 2014

The Islamic State Air Force - some perspective, please.... - ADDENDUM

This is an addendum to my October 18 article, The Islamic State Air Force - some perspective, please....

The last section of that article states, "That said, why wait for an engagement? We know where the Syrian air bases are, and we know which are in the hands of ISIS. These are large, fixed targets - put them out of commission. Problem solved. Surely I am not the only one who has thought of that."

Almost immediately after I published the article, I received numerous emails, Facebook comments and Twitter tweets assuring me in no uncertain terms that I was not the only one to advocate bombing the ISIS jets and bases.

Today on Facebook, this was posted on the quasi-official Syrian Arab Army page:

IF TRUE - and I capitalize that for a reason since the Syrian Arab Army Facebook page has in the past promulgated a lot of Syrian regime propaganda, this is a positive development. The Syrian government has much to fear from an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) air capability.

I doubt the Syrian leadership in Damascus was concerned about an air-to-air or air-to ground capability on the part of ISIS - no one is sure what kind of weapons were available at the al-Jirah air base, a base solely used for Syrian Air Force basic jet flight training before the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011.

I believe that the Syrian government, as well as the Iraqi government and the U.S.-led coalition, was more concerned that ISIS might use the captured jets as suicide bomb delivery vehicles, possibly targeting the palace in Damascus. Having lived there, I can attest to the fact that it is an obvious target, dominating the Damascus skyline.

Suicide ISIS jets? Farfetched? We all remember September 11, 2001 when jet airliners were used by al-Qa'idah in the same role, albeit on a grander scale. Another reason I believe this is a possibility is the information that former Iraqi pilots were training ISIS fighters to operate the captured jets. If the jets were to be used as combat aircraft, the Iraqis would just fly them. Training ISIS fighters as pilots indicates something different than mere air operations.

In response to the threat, IF (capitalized) the Syrian government announcement can be believed, Syrian Air Force Sukhoi fighter-bombers flew the 100 miles from Tiyas air base and bombed the captured jet aircraft at the base at al-Jirah, about 45 miles east of Aleppo (see map).

The Syrian Ministry of Information announcement calls the air base "T-4" - this is the old name of the fourth pumping station on the now defunct Kirkuk-Tripoli crude oil pipeline, used to carry oil from the oilfields in Kirkuk, Iraq to the Mediterranean port of Tripoli in what is now Lebanon.

Syrian Air Force Su-24 fighter-bomber

The airstrip at the old pumping station is now known as Tiyas air base, home of the Syrian Air Force 819th Squadron, flying the capable fourth-generation Sukhoi SU-24MK (NATO: Fencer D) fighter-bomber (image).

Over the more than four decades that I have been observing and analyzing the Syrian Air Force, I have never assessed them as a very capable force. However, over the last few years of civil war, it has surprisingly adapted its operations, tactics and even equipment to make itself a relevant part of the Syrian military effort against the Free Syrian Army and other groups supporting the overthrow of the regime of President Bashar al-Asad.

For example, it has developed the very effective although controversial helicopter-delivered "barrel bomb" used against rebel targets in populated areas. (See The Syrian "barrel bomb" - a terror weapon.)

More importantly, the leadership of the Syrian Air Force detected a threat, although that was not an intelligence triumph - ISIS put it all over social media. That said, the Syrians reacted immediately, striking the target at al-Jirah before ISIS could move to the next step of their operation. In this case, it appears that the Syrian Air Force is operating inside the decision cycle of ISIS, a notable achievement.

Why didn't the U.S.-led coalition hit al-Jirah?

In any case, IF the Syrian government claim is true, there may not be an aerial threat from ISIS at the present time. I would have preferred that we had handled this rather than the Syrians.