Editor’s Note – As news emerges that the Obama Administration is sending $45 million to Syria, it must be mentioned that it will not go to by arms or equipment for the rebels to fight the regime. It may likely never even get inside Syria, rather, it will be used at refugee camps and a lot will line the pockets of those who distribute the funds. Same story, different day, political expediency for political gain.
Defense analyst Anthony Tucker-Jones profiles the escalating air war in Syria and asks if NATO has finally sided with the rebels
Last week, in his keynote speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Prime Minister David Cameron said that the murder of children in Syria was “a stain on those who have failed to stand up to these atrocities and in some cases aided and abetted Assad’s reign of terror.”
This was a veiled reference to the actions of China and Russia, who have steadfastly wrecked the UN’s attempts to take decisive action in ending the bloodshed.
In the meantime the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) has been trying to counter its Achilles heel – namely President Bashar al-Assad’s air force.
Until fairly recently, Assad’s regime resorted to using just helicopters and light jet trainers to bomb and rocket rebel positions throughout the country. It is thought that the bulk of the Syrian Air Force has been kept back to deter pre-emptive Israeli strikes against Syria’s Weapons of Mass Destruction stockpiles.
The Syrian Air Force has considerable numbers of both MiG-21 and MiG-23 in its order of battle – just how airworthy they are is another matter. It also flies the MiG-25 and MiG-29.
Now MiG-23 fighter-bombers are increasingly being deployed in the brutal air war. MiGs have reportedly been regularly employed to attack rebels in the city of Aleppo.
Their paucity of adequate air defence weapons means that the FSA has resorted to attacking air bases, most notably Abu Thuhur, Hamadan, Shayrat and Tyas and Taftanaz. They have also bombed the Syrian Air Force’s HQ in Damascus.
At a military airport between the cities of Aleppo and Idlib, the FSA claimed to have destroyed five helicopters on the ground. In Aleppo itself they claimed another 11 helicopters destroyed.
The FSA has also had some limited success in shooting down the regime’s fixed-wing and rotary aircraft. This has been more by luck than skill, employing small arms and heavier anti-aircraft guns.
Film footage issued on 13 August by the FSA purportedly showing rebels shooting down a MiG-23BN Flogger jet seemed to indicate a dramatic escalation of the developing air war. Amidst cries of “God is great” rebel gunners claimed they had hit the aircraft, but there was no visible sign of a missile strike or tracer fire.
The key question was had the rebels successfully hit the aircraft and if they had how significant is this.
The Syrian government were swift to dismiss such claims, stating that the aircraft have suffered ‘technical problems’ while on a training mission. The fact that the engine caught fire seemed to give credence to government claims.
The FSA could have hit it with small arms or indeed anti-aircraft artillery but this would have been a very lucky shot. Anti-aircraft artillery is best served by tracking radar, whereas the rebels using guns in the back of unstable pickup trucks rely on point and shoot tactics.
Then on 27 August rebels in Damascus claimed they had shot down an army Mi-8 helicopter gunship over the eastern suburb of Jobar. Three days later they reported shooting down a MiG using automatic weapons after it took off from Abu Zohur military airport in Idlib province.
The rebels have been seen with Soviet designed SA-7 man portable surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). This old heat-seeking weapons system is difficult to use and easily countered and it is impossible to say how many have found their way into rebel hands.
A real force multiplier for the rebels would be the introduction of infrared SAMs. Reportedly last month the FSA took delivery of 14 American Stinger missiles in the Turkish city of Iskenderun, courtesy of the CIA. These may have been funded by Saudi Arabia.
It is unclear if the Turkish military, whose inventory includes the FIM-92A Stinger, were complicit in this deal. The Turkish company Roketsan produces components for Stinger as part of a European construction consortium.
Such a move could clearly escalate the air war. True or not, such reports will make Syrian pilots ever more hesitant in pressing home their attacks if they feel they are facing hard to evade infra-red homing missiles.
To date no Syrian aircraft have been shot down by a Stinger missile; if this happens it would clearly show NATO’s hand in support of the rebels.