A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Are the Su-30s in Latakia a Threat to Western Aircraft Over Syria?

Sukhoi Su-30
The US State Department has expressed concern that some elements of the current Russian military buildup in Syria are inconsistent with Russia's stated goals of defending the regime and attacking ISIS. The main concern appears to be the presence of Su-30 fighter aircraft, a modern multirole fighter that carries air-to-air missiles. This, plus the presence of surface-to-air missile systems, raises questions about what requirement there is for air defense capabilities, given that none of the Syrian opposition groups have operable aircraft. This suggests the air-to-air capability might be a threat to US, Turkish, and Allied aircraft operating over Syria. The Russians have reportedly sought to reassure the US, as well as Israel during  Binyamin  Netanyahu's Moscow visit, that they aren't seeking direct confrontation.

The last count I saw, however, indicated that only four Su-30s were present, along with 12 Su-24s and 12 Su-25s, all photographed at a Syrian Naval Aviation base adjacent to Basil al-Asad [officially spelled Bassel Al-Assad in English] International Airport in Latakia. It is not known if all will be deployed there or moved elsewhere, but the Su-24s and Su-25s clearly are ground attack and interdiction fighters, used by the Soviets in Afghanistan and the Russians in Chechnya, and thus appropriate for fighting ISIS, as are the Syrian helicopters normally based there. (Though helicopters have notoriously been used for barrel-bombing civilians).

I'm not an expert on Russian air defense doctrine, but I doubt if Russia, undertaking its biggest military buildup since Afghanistan outside former Soviet space, would build what is starting to look like a military base at Latakia and a major expansion of its Navy facility at Tartus without providing perimeter defense of its own forces (the SAMs, tanks, and ground forces it is moving in as well). A lot depends on what the mission of the four Su-30s are, since they have both ground attack and air superiority capabilities.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm not defending Russia's jumping in to the Syrian civil war or their attempts to rescue the Asad regime, which they no doubt saw as on the ropes. But until we see exactly where this is going, it could still be seen as a Russian rescue effort for Asad, creating a Russian-protected area in the Asad heartland, and not necessarily a direct challenge to the US and coalition air campaign. It mostly depends on what those Su-30s are intended for.

1 comment:

David Mack said...

Some people, including the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. and the Wash Post editorial board, need to stop hyper ventilating about the Russian military presence. Kerry, Netanyahu and yesterday's lead NYT editorial have it right, let's test Russian intentions. Frankly, if Russia wants to take on some big power responsibility in the M.E., propping up the Syrian military seems to be predictable and reasonable. Especially if they then work for a political transition. I doubt that the Kremlin is emotionally committed to Bashar al-Assad and his family to anything like the extent to which they hope for a friendly military regime controlling Damascus and Latakia. And let's not forget that there are lots more Chechens who have joined Daesh than there are U.S. citizens. If those Russian aircraft attack Daesh positions on the road from Palmyra to Damascus are we really going to condemn the act? It's not like the U.S. coalition strategy has been so successful thus far.