The potential implications of Iranian aircraft in Syrian skies

by Paul Iddon. This will be the last article by Paul so far for Offiziere.ch. He now writes exclusively for Rudaw Media Network in Erbil. You can follow his work here. Offiziere.ch wishes him every success in his future assignment and we hope to see you again writing for us, later.

Competing and common goals in the Syrian conflict

Competing and common goals in the Syrian conflict

Back in 2013 when Washington threatened to bomb military targets in Syria for its crossing of the Obama administration’s red-line over the usage of chemical weapons, there was talk of aircraft belonging to the Syrian Air Force being moved to Iran for safe-keeping. Iran has been, after all, a long-time staunch ally of Damascus and would have been more than happy to oblige if it saved Syrian aircraft from being destroyed by Western air forces.

About a year after those threats, however, U.S. jets did begin flying into Syrian air space on a regular basis — although striking the terror organization “Islamic State” (ISIS). Backed by Arab and European air forces, that intervention marked the beginning of a remarkable number of countries sending their air forces on bombing runs across Syria. Although not for the same reasons.

Russia’s build-up of air assets and accompanying ground forces and artillery has seen it raining heavy firepower down on various anti-Assad groups, many of them Islamists, in the northwest. Russia is not allied with the U.S.-led coalition, and unlike the U.S. is there primarily to safeguard the Assad regime.

Iran has been Syria’s primary patron and has been staunchly supportive of Assad, giving him billions of dollars to enable him to keep his regimes remaining western Syria rump state propped-up. But since the Russian intervention, Iran’s involvement in Syria has become much more overt.

The numbers of Iranian combatants killed in Syria since October 7 for instance is very telling — approximately 80 and counting, the most significant in the war in Syria to date. The high casualty rate in a short space of time is primarily because the Iranians have clearly become much more emboldened and open in their support of their Syrian ally thanks to the Kremlin’s warplanes giving the beleaguered Syrian regime military cover and forces under its command some much-needed morale.

Infographic: Iran's involvement in Syria, units and losses October 2015 by the Levantine Group.

Infographic: Iran’s involvement in Syria, units and losses October 2015 by the Levantine Group.

And now Iranian air power is rumored to be preparing to enter the fray. This is a highly noteworthy development. According to the Kuwaiti Al-Rai newspaper, at least two squadrons of Iranian Sukhois, likely Su-24s and/or possibly Su-25s (but less likely since reports indicate that the entire fleet was transferred to Iraq last year), will be deployed to the Tiyas (T4) airbase, east of Homs, where they will be closely working with the Russians, who are probably developing an additional air base in Shayrat. If deployed, such aircraft will likely carry out bombing runs on the same targets Russia has been hitting in the northwest and elsewhere to secure the territory Assad retains control over.

The report also indicates the Iranians will be reliant on the Russians for maintenance while they are operating in the Syrian theater of war, and that one of the primary motivations for deploying air power to Syria is to give Iranian pilots a chance to undergo real combat missions on that war-torn land. The Syrian Civil War has already become a testing ground for the Russia military which recently seized the opportunity to test its Tu-95 and Tu-160’s and their various weapons systems in an actual war zone, including air-launched cruise missiles, against targets they alleged were related to ISIS in Syria.

While Iranian-backed Shia militias have been fighting ISIS in Iraq, Iran hasn’t been giving them close air support in the way the U.S. has been aiding Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria. Aside from one incident in December 2014, when Iranian F-4 Phantoms briefly flew into Iraqi territory over the eastern Diyala Province to bomb ISIS in support of its allies on the ground, and the aforementioned dispatch of Iranian IRGC Su-25s to Baghdad last year, Iran’s air force has largely remained at home.

If this recent report is true, that is set to change.

Iranian Su-24 'Fencers' demonstrating their air-to-air refueling capabilities (Photo: Hosein Velayati).

Iranian Su-24 ‘Fencers’ demonstrating their air-to-air refueling capabilities (Photo: Hosein Velayati).

Interestingly this isn’t the first time there was, albeit brief, talk about Iranian air assets being delivered to Syria to support Damascus in a war. The last instance was in 1982. Then Syrian President Hafez al-Assad wanted Iran to send some of its F-14s to support his air force against the Israelis over the skies of Lebanon. Iran declined. One has often wondered just how differently the Beqaa Valley air war (when Israel’s new F-15s and F-16s lay waste to Soviet-made Syrian SAMs and MiGs) would have transpired had Iranian F-14s, equipped as they were with advanced long-range AIM-54 Phoenix missiles, dueled with the Israeli Air Force there.

There is also the possibility that an Iranian build-up of jets in Syria could, in the long-term, see Tehran give more active support to the Hezbollah in Syria. While Russia is backing Assad, it is not backing him as rigorously as Iran has been. The Kremlin even made a point of establishing a hot-line with the Israelis to ensure their air forces didn’t clash. And not just Russian jets accidentally flying over Israeli-controlled air space but Israeli jets flying into Syria to bomb Syrian military targets aiding Hezbollah. Israel has continued these strikes since the Russian build-up with no complaints from Moscow.

The establishment of an Iranian-Israeli hot-line in Syria seems unlikely given their antagonism. If Iranian planes do end up backing Hezbollah advances south of the barren Lebanon-Syria Qalamoun border region, then there will be an increased risk of a clash or an accidental Iranian overflight of the border.

Israel has already said it has no problem with Iranian aircraft operating next door in Syria and does not perceive them to be a threat. Given the fact that both the Sukhois Iran may be deploying are built for ground attack missions, they do not have much reason to worry. Israeli air defenses could make easy work of such aircraft if they did ever try to threaten them. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s former national security adviser Yaakov Amidror told The Jerusalem Post that he doesn’t doubt Iran might deploy air power in Syria and says Israel wouldn’t “have to respond so long as the Iranian jets don’t interfere with us.” Unless of course they do try to threaten Israel. In that case Israel, Amidror said, “will have to shoot them down. There would be no hesitation here.”

However, there is the worrying prospect that Israeli and Iranian aircraft could engage in a form of shadow-boxing in Syria’s south. Something which could transpire if Iranian Sukhois start giving close air support to the Hezbollah after their missions in the north are concluded. This would ratchet up tensions and the possibility of a clash. Especially if the Iranians sought to protect their ground attack planes, and by extension Hezbollah and the Syrian military from these ongoing intermittent Israeli air strikes, by deploying their F-14s and/or MiG-29s. Something which could potentially undermine further Israeli attempts to strike military targets it deems a threat in Syria.

Who knows? If the last couple of months are anything to go by in Syria, nearly anything is possible.

Former Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp Air Force (IRGC-AF) Su-25 Frogfoot attack plane (Photo: Hosein Velayati).

Former Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp Air Force (IRGC-AF) Su-25 Frogfoot attack plane (Photo: Hosein Velayati).

This entry was posted in English, International, Iran, Israel, Paul Iddon, Russia, Syria.

3 Responses to The potential implications of Iranian aircraft in Syrian skies

  1. I believe the Russians don’t supply the Iranians with weapons. So is this aircraft one of the ex Iraq ones flown to Iran at the start of the 91 Gulf war?

    • According to the SIPRI Arms Transfers Database, Iran received probably 12 Su-24 Fencer from the Soviet Union in 1991 and 6 Su-25 (3 Su-25UBK and 3 Su-25T) from Russia in 2006. Here, you will find a compiled list of all aircraft, delivered to Iran between 1980 and 2014. Additionally, during Operation “Desert Storm”, 24 Su-24 and 7 Su-25K/UBK from the Iraqi Air Force landed in Iran.

      According to “Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa”, The Military Balance 115, (2015): 329, in 2014, Iran had 30 Su-24MK Fencer D — probably the 24 former Iraqi Su-24 and 6 from the former Soviet Union — 7 Su-25K Frogfoot (probably the ones from the Iraqi Air Force) and 3 Su-25UBK Frogfoot (probably the ones from Russia).

  2. The whereabouts of Iranian’s Su-25s are not entirely clear. Iran probably attacked ISIS from air already on June 21st, 2014, when unidentified war planes launched heavy air strikes on the city of Baiji, north of Baghdad (Jassem Al Salami, “The Syrian and Iranian Air Forces Are Now Bombing Iraq“, War is Boring, 25.06.2015).

    Then in July 2014, David Cenciotti from The Aviationist reported that three Su-25UBK and four Su-25K were transferred to the Iraqi Air Force (see one on the image below). They will be operated by four Iraqi pilots and 10 Iranian pilots. A senior Iraqi official, however, insisted that the aircraft were being piloted only by Iraqis. He said that the planes originally belonged to the Iraqi Air Force and were flown to Iran during the 1991 Persian Gulf War for safekeeping.

    IRGC-Su-25-Iraq

    The insistence that all of the planes are Iraqi-owned is significant because Iraq would be violating international sanctions if it bought arms, ammunition or military equipment from Iran (Michael R. Gordon and Eric Schmitt, “Iran Sends 3 Attack Planes to Iraqi Government“, The New York Times, 08.07.2014).

    Later, in February 2015, the Su-25 were used to hit targets near Tikrit. Some of these aircraft were probably flown by Iranian pilots (“Iraqi Su-25s debut in combat ISIS in the North“, AIRheadsFLY.com, 15.02.2015).

    If the remaining 3 Su-25 are still operational for the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force, is currently unclear.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This blog is kept spam free by WP-SpamFree.