Ahead of Netanyahu's Trip to Moscow: Russian Fighter Jets Spotted in Syria

Increased air capabilities could frustrate Western action against Assad regime.

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Sukhoi Su-27 jet fighters of the Russkiye Vityazi aerobatic team perform during the MAKS International Aviation and Space Salon in Zhukovsky outside Moscow, August 30, 2015.Credit: Reuters

U.S. officials have confirmed reports of Russian combat planes and helicopters at a Syrian air force base south of Latakia in northwestern Syria. The U.S. intelligence company Stratfor has released photographs showing four Russian Sukhoi Su-27 fighter planes and a number of Russian transport helicopters and helicopter gunships parked at the base.

Russia’s stationing in Syria of the Su-27, which as an air-superiority fighter is designed to seize control of enemy airspace in order to establish air supremacy, rather than ground-attack aircraft reinforces fears in the West and in Israel that Russia’s real goal is not to fight ISIS but rather to protect the Syrian regime, in concert with Iran and its proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah.

Some sources have said the planes were the Sukhoi Su-30 model, which are better suited to long-range missions and air-to-ground attacks than the Su-27. Even if that’s the case, they are not the best choice if the goal is to attack mobile targets such as those of the Islamic State organization in Syria.

The Su-27 will presumably not operate against Islamic State, which has no air force of its own, and would instead be used to create a defensive aerial umbrella over western Syria that would prevent, or at least significantly obstruct, the operation of other air forces in the area.

If the United States or another country should in the future want to strike Syrian regime forces from the air, that would lead to a direct conflict with Russia. It would also limit the freedom of action of U.S. and other air forces in attacking ISIS targets in Syria.

According to foreign media reports, Israel has attacked convoys inside Syria carrying weapons from Syria to Hezbollah bases in Lebanon on multiple occasions in the past few years. The presence of Russian interceptors could discourage future operations of this kind.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will travel this week to Moscow to discuss with Russian President Vladimir Putin the deployment of Russian forces in Syria.

Russia has greatly increased its military aid to Assad recently, and may be building new bases in northwestern Syria. Two weeks ago Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russian aircraft flying into Syria were delivering military supplies and humanitarian aid, but shed no light on what the U.S. and NATO worry is a Russian military buildup at a Syrian airfield. Lavrov once again confirmed that Russia has military personnel in Syria, but said nothing about reported deployments of additional troops.

Asked about Russian planes being flown to the Latakia airfield, Lavrov said they were carrying “military goods in accordance with existing contracts and humanitarian aid.” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Russian experts were assisting with Russian arms deliveries to Syria aimed at combating terrorism.

75 U.S.-trained rebels enter northern Syria

Seventy-five Syrian rebels trained by the United States and its allies under a troubled program to fight Islamic State have entered northern Syria from Turkey since Friday, a U.S.-backed rebel faction and activists said Sunday. The $500 million program run out of Turkey has been fraught with problems.

“Seventy-five new fighters trained in a camp near the Turkish capital entered Aleppo province between Friday night and Saturday morning,” said Rami Abdurrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Hassan Mustafa, spokesman for the U.S.-backed Division 30 unit to which some of the rebels were deployed, confirmed that the group had entered Syria.

“Their training in Turkey lasted two months and they went directly to the front lines with Daesh. They are now in the town of Tal Rifaat,” Mustafa said via the Internet, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.

He said he could not comment on what sort of weapons or supplies the rebels had brought with them.

According to Abdurrahman, the group entered in a convoy of a dozen cars equipped with machine guns and loaded with other weapons, under air cover from the U.S.-led coalition that has been carrying out strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. He said the rebels crossed through the Bab al-Salama border point, the main gateway for fighters and supplies heading into Aleppo province.

The supply route has been increasingly targeted by ISIS seeking to cut off support to rival rebels.

Abdurrahman said most of the newly-trained fighters deployed to Division 30, the main unit for U.S.-trained fighters, while others went to support a group called Suqur al-Jabal (mountain falcons).

Before the fresh batch of fighters, the U.S.-led train-and-equip program had only managed to vet and train some 60 rebels to fight ISIS jihadis on the ground.

Shortly after 54 fighters embedded with Division 30 in July, they suffered a devastating assault by Al-Qaida’s Syria affiliate, Nusra Front.

More than a dozen Division 30 fighters were either killed or kidnapped by Nusra, which accused them of being “agents of American interests.”

The United States has since used its air power to help Division 30 push back other Nusra attacks and has said Syrian troops could be targeted if they attacked the U.S.-backed forces.

Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of the U.S. Central Command, told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday that only four or five US-trained Syrian rebels trained under the program aimed at fighting Islamic State were still fighting in Syria. The U.S. military began training in May for up to 5,400 fighters a year, in what was seen as a test of President Barack Obama’s strategy of having local partners combat Islamic State militants and keep U.S. troops off the front lines.

The program has come under fire from U.S. lawmakers. Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte said the low number of fighters being trained was a “joke.”

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