April 19, 2017

Syrian Air Force moves its remaining fighter jets to Russian-controlled air base

Russian Air Force SU-25 attack jets - Humaymim Air Base, Syria

According to several news outlets, the Syrian Air Force has moved all its operational fighter jets to the Russian-controlled Humaymim Air Base, located along Syria's Mediterranean coast south of the major port city of Latakia. The moves began 10 days after the United States struck al-Sha'ayrat Air Base with 59 Tomahawk missiles in response to a Syrian air-delivered chemical warfare attack in the city of Khan Shaykhun in which almost 100 people were killed.

The American strike on al-Sha'ayrat Air Base destroyed over 20 Syrian fighter aircraft, including Sukhoi Su-22 (NATO:FITTER) and MiG-23 (NATO:FLOGGER) fighters. At the time of the strike, the general consensus among open-source publications which follow air forces credited the Syrian Air Force with seven operational fighter or fighter-bomber squadrons. That would equate to anywhere between 85 and 100 aircraft. If in fact 20 were destroyed in the April 7 American strike, that would seriously impact Syria's sortie generation rate. This number fits in with Secretary of Defense James Mattis's statements that 20 percent of Syria's [fighter] aircraft were destroyed.

Humaymim Air Base is about 10 miles south of Latakia, east of the main coastal highway adjacent to the town of Humaymim (hence the name) - it is colocated with the Basil al-Asad International Airport. Prior to the Russian deployment of several squadrons of fighter, fighter-bomber and attack aircraft to Humaymim, the base was used almost exclusively by the Syrian Navy's 618th Maritime Warfare Squadron. The squadron operated Mi-14 (NATO:HAZE), Ka-25 (NATO:HORMONE) and KA-28 (NATO:HELIX) anti-submarine helicopters.

As the Air Attache to the U.S. Embassy in Damascus in the 1990's, I had the opportunity to visit this base on several occasions. It was usually not a busy base - the Syrian Navy is by far the least resourced and used arm of the armed forces. That said, the maritime helicopters have been used during the civil war to drop naval mines on opposition targets. The fact that the Syrian military has resorted to using these helicopters to drop naval mines on ground targets is indicative of a shortage of aircraft or munitions, or both.

Since September 2015, the Russians have made extensive modifications to the base to accommodate dozens of Russian tactical aircraft, as well as deploying the state-of-the-art S-300VM (NATO:SA-23 GIANT/GLADIATOR) and S-400 (NATO:SA-21 GROWLER) air defense missile systems, effective against both aircraft and missiles. The base facilities have been expanded to house thousands of Russian military personnel - there are daily personnel rotation and resupply flights to and from Moscow.

The base is now almost completely Russian controlled. Although the Russians are in Syria ostensibly to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the overwhelming percentage of their sorties target anti-regime opposition groups. They are there to support and prop up the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad.

In return, the Russians have negotiated a 49-year lease for the use of Humaymim Air Base and a naval facility about 30 miles south at the Syrian port of Tartus. This is Russia's sole military operating facility abroad since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. They are also attempting to gain base rights in Egypt and Libya.

If true, it goes without saying that the move of Syrian Air Force assets to the Russian-controlled air base was at the very least coordinated with, and possibly directed by, the Russians. The presence of 60 to 80 additional fighters on the base will strain the base's resources, but it effectively brings them under Russian protection.

Although the United States could target the Syrian fighters on the base, attacking what is essentially a Russian air base would be politically difficult and provoke a confrontation that neither the United States nor Russia wants.

Again, as with some of your other moves in Syria, well played, Mr. Putin, well-played.