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Syrian Arab Air Force (SAAF)

Syrian Arab Air ForceWhile the Air Force's size makes it one of the largest air forces in the Middle East, from a qualitative perspective Syria's tactics used during exercises indicate poor planning with regards to close air support and interdiction.

The Syrian Air Force was established in 1948 upon the graduation of the first class of Syrian pilots from British flight schools. It is tasked with military air operations and ground-based air defense. The Air Force, which was independent of Army Command, consisted in 1987 of about 100,000 regular and 37,500 reserve officers and men. The Air Force is organized into ten to eleven fighter/attack squadrons, sixteen fighter squadrons, two transport squadrons, and one training group. By 2012 at full strength the Air Force numbered some 60,000 personnel when all reserves are activated and 40,000 on a regular basis.

In 1985 its 9 fighter-ground attack squadrons and an estimated 15 interceptor squadrons totaled approximately 650 combat aircraft. Military airfields are located in Abu-a-Dhur, Aleppo, Blay, Damascus (international), Damascus (Al Mazzah), Dayr az Zawr, Dumayr, As Suwayda, As West, Hamah, Kamishly, Khalkhalah, Latakia, Marj Ruhayyil, Messe, An Nasiriyah, Neirab, Quasayr, Rasin el About, Shayrat, Tabqa, Tiyas, Tadmur, Sayqal, and T-4 (located on the oil pipeline).

By 2002 the Syrian Arab Air Force had an estimated 25 combat squadrons, 17 in the interceptor role and the remainder in the air defense/attack role. There were at least eight fighter-bomber squadrons equipped with MiG-21PF/MF/bis, operating from Hamah, Khalkalah, Tabqa, Deir ez Sor, Jirah and Quasayr. There are more than 220 of these aircraft - though how many were operational was questionable. There were four attack squadrons equipped with approximately 60 Su-20/22 `Fitter' aircraft (located at Dumayr, Shayrat, Tivas). A number of attack squadrons were equipped with MiG-23BN.

There were three interceptor squadrons equipped with more than 40 MiG-29A/UB `Fulcrum' fighters, deployed at Sayqal AB. Other interceptor assets included two squadrons equipped with 30 MiG25PD `Foxbat' aircraft deployed with two squadrons at Tivas AB. There were at least three interceptor squadrons equipped with MiG-23MF/MS/MLs. There was a squadron of Su-24MK bombers deployed at Tivas AB.

In 2002 it was understood that a squadron, Sq 826 was being formed at Quasayr AB to deploy the Su-27 `Flanker' multirole fighter. At least four were understood to have entered service in 2000, with a dozen more to complete deliveries.

Operational Experience and Capabilities

The SAAF suffered major defeats in aerial engagements with Israel in the 1967 and 1973 wars, and again during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. During the Israel's Operation Peace for Galilee in 1982 Israeli aircraft struck Syrian surface-to-air missiles, resulting in the destruction of nineteen sites and the damaging of four. Israeli aerial mastery was confirmed in the skies over the Biqa Valley. At the conclusion of the first week of the war, after the participation of approximately 100 combat planes on each side, a total of 86 Syrian MiG-21, MiG-23, and Sukhoi-22 aircraft had been shot down with no Israeli losses.

When Syrian fighter aircraft scrambled to prevent Israeli aircraft flying over eastern Lebanon in November 1985, two Syrian MiG-23s were shot down in Syrian airspace. Syria responded by deploying mobile SA-6 and SA-8 SAMs into eastern Lebanon and by setting up SA-2 sites along its border with Lebanon. Thereafter, the potential for rapid escalation in Syrian-Israeli hostilities became a source of concern on both sides. Following the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, Syrian influence and control expanded to eastern Lebanon and the Biqa Valley, where Syria maintained about two divisions; about six divisions were redeployed in the Damascus-Golan Heights region.

Throughout the rest of the 1980s and into the 1990s Syria's Air Force experienced difficulties keeping its aircraft operational and providing sufficient flight hours for pilots.

The SAAF suffered a further setback with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which disrupted the flow of equipment. Despite its shortcomings in terms of a scarcity of spare parts, unwieldy battle management structures and a lack of some of the more advanced technological systems, the air force is still a lethal threat. Syria has sufficient numbers of aircraft to stage a mass attack on Israel and there are concerns that such an onslaught could saturate Israel's air defenses, allowing Syrian Su-24 bombers to strike strategic targets. But Syria could only mount such an aerial offensive at enormous cost, and such a scenario is somewhat implausible, because the Syrians are well aware that Israeli retaliation would be instant and devastating.

Operational art and tactical doctrine follow the Soviet model. Syria saw two main combat roles for its attack helicopters - close support and as roving tank killers. During the conflict with Israel in 1982, Syria used its SA 342L Gazelles armed with HOT anti-tank missiles in the latter role with some success. While the helicopters destroyed a number of Israeli armored vehicles when sent out in pairs on `hunting' missions, co-ordination with ground forces was poor and some helicopter crews did not receive adequate pre-flight briefings. Overall, the Syrians lost 14 Gazelles during the conflict, some of which were shot down by Israeli tanks. Since then, Syria has been steadily building up the number of Gazelles in its fleet.

By 2013, the Syrian air force was one of the largest in the Middle East, with 30,000 members [plus about 35,000 in the Air Defense Command] and composed of aircraft provided first by the Soviet Union and, later, by Russia. They include MiG-21 interceptors, MiG-23 ground assault aircraft and the more modern MiG-29 combat aircraft. They also have a fleet of Sukhoi fighter jets.

Training was useful during the wars with Israel in the 1970s and 1980s. But it had very little real-world combat experience in the following two to three decades, in large part because, despite all the rhetoric of combating Israel, the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad has been a fairly consistent player in terms of honoring some kind of a Cold War or Cold Peace with Israel.

In the second half of 2012 the Syrian Air Force began dropping “barrel bombs” on rebel positions. The bombs were essentially a mix of explosives, fuel and metal scraps packed into a large metal container, such as an empty oil barrel. They were dropped from helicopters above rebel-held territory and were highly inaccurate. Most were produced in a factory on the outskirts of Hama and deployed from the nearby airbase.

By Septemer 2012 Rebels fighting Syrian government forces were urging the West to establish a no-fly zone over the country, but got little international support. Western defense experts saw difficulties in a no-fly mission, including troubles securing the skies over Syria, as Syrian air defenses must first be destroyed.

By early 2013 the Syrian Air Force was carrying out air strikes on its own cities and towns that violate international humanitarian law or amount to war crimes, according to a leading human rights organization. The organization Human Rights Watch, said its conclusion is based on about 60 Syrian Air Force attacks inside the country that were either too indiscriminate, killing or endangering nearby civilians, or were deliberately targeted at non-combatants. Between July and December 2012, Human Rights Watch report documented 119 incidents of the Syrian armed forces dropping cluster munitions in populated areas in the governorates of Aleppo, Idlib, Deir al-Zor, Homs, Latakia and Damascus.

Syrian government forces increased the tempo of air raids on rebel-held territory in late 2014, striking combatants and civilians in what analysts and U.S. officials say is an apparent attempt to gain ground while the U.S.-led coalition strikes Islamic State group targets in Syria. Of 762 airstrikes since 20 October 2014, the Syrian Observatory claims nearly half (354) involved helicopters dropping so-called barrel bombs — unsophisticated but deadly improvised weapons consisting of explosives packed into canisters or oil drums and topped off with fuel and metal shards. Without any guidance system, the bombs are simply rolled out of helicopters as the aircraft pass over presumed rebel positions.

The Treasury Department's Office of Assets Control (OFAC) on 12 January 2017 designated the Syrian Arab Army, Navy, Air Force, Air Defense Forces and the Syrian Arab Republican Guard for use of chemical weapons.

Following the liberation of Aleppo in December 2016, Syrian government forces focused their efforts in expelling terrorists from the city of Deir ez-Zor, that has been under IS control since July 2014. Deir ez-Zor’s military airport, controlled by elite units from the Syrian Republican Guard, withstood repeated assaults by IS over the years.

Manish Rai wrote 29 January 2017 that "Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has emerged as the survivor ... Syrian regime committed air force became the most significant instrument in all of the regime’s major military campaigns against the rebels. Aside from logistics and reconnaissance, the Syrian Air Force has been used primarily to strafe and bomb rebel held areas. Declared “inoperational” by most foreign observers at the start of the Syrian uprising in 2011, the Syrian Arab Air Force not only remains operational but has severely damaged the rebels."

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Page last modified: 11-02-2017 16:28:02 ZULU