By Marco Dijkshoorn
The Syrian Arab AF or Al Quwwat al-Jawwiya al Arabiya as-Souriya is without doubt one of the most secretive air forces in the world. Photographs of modern SyAAF aircraft are extremely hard to come by, despite the civil war that started after the initial March 2011 Arab Spring protests agains ruling president Bashar al-Assad. The International Committee of the Red Cross declared that the fighting had gradually become so widespread that the situation should be regarded as a civil war on 15 July 2012. The Syrian Arab Air Force and Naval Air Arm are desperately fighting the opposing forces so let’s look at the history and the current situation of these armed forces.
After its establishment on October 16, 1946, the SyAAF initially operated mainly British and Italian aircraft, but its major boost came when Syria turned to the Soviet Union in the mid-1950s. Syria attained independence from France and the UK in April 1946 and, in effect, the Syrian government followed in the footsteps of its major ally of the time, Egypt. After the first deliveries of MiG-15 fighters to the SyAAF in the mid-1950s, many more Soviet-designed types would follow. The initial batch of first-generation jets comprised twenty Czechoslovakian-built S-103 (MiG-15bis) fighters and four CS-102 (MiG-15UTI) trainers. However, these were diverted to Egypt and most of them were destroyed during the Suez War of 1956, only three MiG-15UTIs escaping to Syria. Replacement aircraft were all built in the USSR, and the Soviet connection was there to stay. Today, former Soviet states remain Syria’s major suppliers of arms. The raging civil war and the nattles with opposing forces like the FSA and ISIS, make it hard to determine the exact current operational status of the Syrian air arms. Although the SyAAF has long been regarded as a formidable force in the region when it comes to air power, reports suggest that the civil war has worn the equipment down to the verge of collapse.
Better a good neighbor than a distant friend
Syria has experienced turbulent relationships with bordering nations in the last decades. The country is strategically located between Turkey in the north, Iraq in the east, Jordan in the south, and Lebanon and Israel in the south-west. Relations with its neighbors have at times deteriorated into warfare, the most recent clashes occurring with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and ISIS. The civil war has since it started, spread across the borders with Iraq and Iraqi-Kurdistan. Many factions are at play in Syria and some have merged and split since the start of the war but the main battling parties are the pro-Assad forces against the FSA (founded during the Syrian Civil War in July 2011 by defected Syrian Army officers and soldiers) and Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham/ISIS (also known as ISIL, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war On 29 June 2014, ISIS proclaimed itself to be a worldwide caliphate, with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi being named its caliph and renamed itself "Islamic State". IS has been able to capture large swaths of land across Syria and Iraq and has wreaked havoc among minority groups and Shia Muslim communities and is designated as a terrorist organization by the United Nations.
Syria’s longest border of approximately 700km is shared with Turkey in the north. Turkey has represented one of Syria’s most significant military threats for several years. On 22 June 2012, Syrian Surface-to-Air-Missiles shot down a Turkish Air Force RF-4E/TM, killing both pilots. Since this incident, the Turkish Air Force shot down several Syrian Air Force planes. The situation remains full of tension and Turkey seems to distance itself from interference with the civil war in Syria although many Turkish Kurds have joined the Kurdish Peshmerga forces fighting ISIS.
The military relationship between Iraq and Syria has remained peaceful. The Iraqi AF’s imminent receipt of Block 50/52 F-16C/D fighters combined with the delivery of high-tech intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets such as the Ce208B-ISR does pose a threat to Syria, however.
Diplomatic relations with Lebanon are stable, and both countries maintain embassies in each other’s capital. Lebanon has been a pawn in US and Russian relations in recent years. Both parties have offered Lebanon arms. Syrian ties with the Lebanon-based Hezbollah political movement remain a sensitive subject in the international political arena, especially so because Iran is considered the most important sponsor of this alleged terrorist organization, with Syria as an intermediary between the two players.
Syria's most important military allies can be found in the former Soviet Union (most notably Russia, and Belarus), as well as North Korea and Iran. All are known to have delivered weapons to Syria. During the civil war an almost continues flow or arms entered Syria from Tehran. Hezbollah likely receives training and weaponry from both Syria and Iran.
Israel and Syria have maintained a very tense and violent relationship since the formation of the Jewish state in 1948, and the two countries have fought several major wars. Syria lost parts of the Golan Heights region during the Six-Day War in 1967, and failed in its attempt to retake them in 1973. The fighting in the Golan did not stop at the end of the Yom Kippur War, however, and in April 1974 a UN-supervised ceasefire was agreed. Since then, United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) troops have controlled the eastern side of the Golan Heights, which has been officially ‘Syrian’ ever since (and can be accessed only from the Syrian side). In 1981 Israel annexed the part of Golan, but this annexation was never internationally recognized.
Doctrines and training
SyAAF doctrines applied in training, exercises and on the battlefield were originally primarily based on Soviet standards. Since 1967, however, the Syrians have followed their own path, earning them a reputation as ‘renegades’ in Israel and in the former USSR. Since the start of the civol war, however, a number of primary and basic training bases fell into the hands of forces opposing the Assad regime, rendering the in-country training non-existing. The fate of the West German-supplied SIAT 223K-1 Flamingo primary trainers that used to be operated from Minakh AB, north of Aleppo . Helicopter training was also performed there on the Mi-8 and Mi-17. A training school at Rasin el Aboud provided primary and advanced training on the Flamingo and L-39 respectively. It is believed that the Flamingo, of which around 60 were delivered in the mid-1970s, is still the main platform for initial training. SyAAF cadets then progress to receive advanced training on the Mushshak, based at Jirah/Kshesh. Six Mushshaks were covertly delivered by Pakistan some years ago. After completion of the advanced training syllabus on the Mushshak, the cadets make the transition to the L-39, which serves as a lead-in fighter trainer. A total of 99 L-39ZO/ZAs were delivered between 1980 and 1986 and the fleet has been completely overhauled in the last six years. The lack and loss of a modern basic trainer remains the biggest shortfall in the SyAAF training program and it suffered hugely when critical bases like Jirah/Kshesh fell into ISIS hands in late 2014.
The SyAAF currently operates three aircraft types for offensive duties: the MiG-23BN, Su-22M, and the all-weather-capable Su-24MK. These are mainly employed in ground attack and close air support roles. Syria hosts a number of vast weapons ranges, where full-scale operational training can be performed using live ammunition. A total of 20 Su-24MKs is thought to have been delivered from which a number received upgrades to Su-24MK2. Two further squadrons operate the swing-wing Su-22M.
The MiG-25 has formed the backbone of the SyAAF for many years, serving in the all-weather interceptor and reconnaissance roles. In its heyday, four squadrons operated the powerful Soviet-made fighter, but the disbandment of two squadrons in 2008 marked the beginning of the end of the MiG-25 in Syrian service. The MiG-25s have been concentrated at Tiyas since the 1990s. As part of the withdrawal process, 7 Squadron at Shayrat, 5 Squadron at Tiyas and 9 Squadron at Dumayr lost their aircraft to the still-active 1 Squadron at Tiyas. MiG-25 types operated comprised the MiG-25PD single-seat all-weather interceptor, the MiG-25RB single-seat reconnaissance-bomber, and the MiG-25PU two-seat trainer. Only a few remain operational as of 2015.
In 2008, Syria received 33 MiG-23 fighters from Belarus. The aircraft initially appeared at Aleppo, where they are thought to have undergone maintenance. Half of these jets found their way to an operational life in the SyAAF while the remainder will be used as spare-parts sources. The 2008 delivery augments the 140 MiG-23s delivered since the late 1970s for use in the interceptor and attack roles.
The current fleet of MiG-29 fighters is apparently home-based at Sayqal, but the fighters make frequent forward deployments to various other bases, including Tiyas and Deir-Zzor/Dayr as-Zawr. In December 2006, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited Moscow to meet with Russian diplomats to discuss the modernization of the ageing SyAAF fighter fleet. In particular, upgrade of the MiG-29 — the most capable fighter in the SyAAF inventory — was high on the agenda. Although it took several years to materialize, Russia reported in 2009 that an order for 12 new MiG-29SM fighters had been finalized, with the first deliveries taking place in 2012.
The MiG-29M/M2 order will probably mark the end of older MiG-29 in SyAAF service, at least for the oldest variants. Only 699th Fighter sq operates these 12 MiG-29M/M2s, but with the current fleet of around 48 MiG-29s due to be upgraded to M2 standard, the SyAAF will received an enormous boost in capabilities. The upgrades of the older versions will likely take place in Russia.
Reflecting Syria’s Russian ties, the Mi-8 and Mi-17 form the backbone of the transport helicopter fleet. In total, around 100 ‘Hips’ were delivered to Syria, with an approximate 50:50 division between Mi-8 and Mi-17 versions. The helicopter fleet is dispersed across the country and provides the main means of transporting troops to austere locations.
From the late 1970s, France supplied more than 60 SA342 Gazelle helicopters for use in the anti-tank role. Armed with HOT missiles, these saw considerable action in recent battles. Due to the lack of spare parts and missiles it is thought that some Gazelles have now shifted to the more peaceful VIP transport role, although pairs of Gazelles type have regularly been observed patrolling the DMZ. Al-Mazza was once the main base for the Gazelle, but since 2004-05 it has only been used as a forward refueling point.
More recently, the Mi-24 and Mi-25 helicopters fulfilled the role of tank-buster, with the fleet now based at Marj Ruhayyil, south of Damascus. The Mi-24s of 765 Squadron and 766 Squadron were formerly based at As Suwayda, the southernmost air base in Syria, but the critical situation in the country forced the helicopters closer to the capital. Reportedly, around 40 Mi-24s were delivered to the SyAAF and survivors were overhauled and upgraded in Eastern Europe in the last four years. These were augmented by at least 13 Mi-25s that were delivered in 2008.
Logistics are key to the effectiveness of any military force, and the SyAAF transport fleet is considered highly important. The SyAAF inventory includes six An-26s, four Il-76Ms and six Tu-134B-3s. Most of these sport a quasi-civilian Syrianair color scheme, but can be utilized by the Syrian armed forces when required. Regular military flights are operated between Syria and Iran, Russia, Belarus and Algeria. The military VIP fleet consists of eight Yak-40s, two Dassault Falcon 20Fs, one Falcon 900 and two Piper PA-31 Navajos, the Falcons being notable for the fact that they are always very closely guarded. Despite the fact that these also bear Syrianair markings, they are operated and maintained by military uniformed pilots and personnel.
Naval Air Arm
The airport of the Mediterranean city of Latakia is home to the Syrian naval aviation fleet, which consists of 20 Mi-14PS/PL and five Ka-28 helicopters. These are all land-based and are operated by Air Force personnel. There are reports that an upgrade program has been under way for both helicopter types since 2008.The Mi-14PL and Ka-28 operate in the anti-submarine warfare role, while the Mi-14PS serves as a search and rescue helicopter equipped with searchlights, sliding doors and a hoist.