Russian Su-35 Fighters Appear For The First Time At Northeastern Syria Airbase: Reports

Reports suggest four of the Flanker fighters have arrived at the airbase that sits on the Turkish border, close to U.S. forces.

Su-35_NORTHEAST_SYRIA
VIA TWITTER

At least one Su-35S Flanker fighter jet has apparently made the first visit by a Russian combat jet to Qamishli Airport, in northeastern Syria, a strategically important location close to U.S. forces still in the country that lies right on the border with Turkey. Unconfirmed reports suggest this could be part of a larger deployment of as many as four of these jets to the base, which may reflect Moscow’s ambition to strengthen its presence in this part of Syria. 

The undated photo, seen at the top of this story and in the Tweet below, purportedly shows a Russian Aerospace Forces Su-35S, coded ‘07 Red,’ at Qamishli Airport in Syria’s Al-Hasakah governorate. It emerged yesterday and geolocation based on open-source imagery has indicated that the location where it was reportedly taken is at least accurate. 

The Flanker in question, shown armed with medium-range R-77 and short-range R-73 series air-to-air missiles is said to be one of four that arrived recently at the base. The Su-35S has been a regular presence in Syria since Moscow launched its intervention there in September 2015, after an official request by the Syrian government.

Unnamed sources reportedly told the Lebanon-based Al Mayadeen TV channel that the Flankers have already conducted “several reconnaissance flights” in the area. The same sources apparently said the fighters would “remain at the airport indefinitely.” 

However, The War Zone has so far been unable to source satellite imagery of Qamishli Airport that would confirm a more permanent presence of one or more Su-35s, which would in turn support reports that these jets may now be flying from there regularly. While we can’t be entirely sure, low-resolution imagery from the past week of the main ramp at the airport that the Russians use shows activity that looks to be well in line with what we have seen routinely in the past two years. 

While a permanent Su-35S presence at Qamishli would mark a significant new development, Russia has made use of the same base in the past for regular operations by helicopters. Rotorcraft operating out of Qamishli have reportedly been especially active in supporting ground forces in the area, as Russia apparently seeks to bolster its military presence in the region. Il-76 transport aircraft are frequent visitors to Qamishli, as well.

Google Earth

A satellite view of Qamishli Airport, from September 2020, as an example of the kinds of activity typically seen at the base. 

Google Earth

A close-up reveals Russian activity in the form of one Il-76 transport and four helicopters.

The jet, with its air-to-air missile armament, could simply have been making a brief stopover at Qamishli, perhaps as part of an escort mission for transports or VIP aircraft, which is a routine job for these jets in Syria. Another possibility is that the jet had some kind of inflight emergency that required it to land here. 

If Russia is conducting more extensive operations in this part of the country, then the fighter could also have been using the base for refueling or possibly rearming. It should be noted that that there are reports stretching back to 2016, at least, that Russia might have an interest in establishing a more permanent airbase in Qamishli.

So far, however, Russian fighter jets have not been a presence in the northeast of the country, instead being concentrated at Khmeimim Air Base on Syria’s west coast. Earlier this year, Russian MiG-31K Foxhound jet fighters armed with Kinzhal missiles and Tu-22M3 Backfire-C bombers visited Khmeimim, taking part in exercises in the eastern Mediterranean Sea and shadowing the British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth and its carrier strike group.

At the same time, there have been recent reports of increased activity by the Russian Aerospace Forces, more generally, close to the Turkish border. This includes airstrikes directed against anti-Assad groups located north of the city of Idlib, in the west of the country. Last year, Russia and Turkey clashed on the ground over Idlib, with significant casualties on both sides.

Moscow has had a foothold in the region around Qamishli since October 2019, when its ground forces began active patrols of the area. It had previously ostensibly been under the control of U.S. forces and their local, predominantly Kurdish partners. After brokering a deal with Turkey, Russia then moved into the area, while the Turkish military began efforts to remove U.S.-backed Kurdish groups from a buffer zone along Syria's northern border.

U.S. DoD

An official US military map dated December 2019 showing various areas of interest in northeastern Syria, including Qamishli, as well as approximate zones of control. 

For its part, the U.S. military still maintains a presence in northeast Syria, with a network of forward bases that are used by American and other coalition forces, in cooperation with local Kurdish groups. Earlier this year, the Pentagon confirmed there were approximately 900 American troops spread across these various Syrian outposts.

The U.S. military in the area also likely has its own organic air defenses, with Avenger short-range air defense systems having been seen heading toward the Syrian border from Iraq earlier this year. The Avenger is intended to defeat low-flying fixed-wing manned aircraft and helicopters, but can also be employed against drones, which are considered an ever-growing threat in Syria and the wider region.

The area around Qamishli in particular has already been the scene of tense encounters between Russian and U.S. forces, including a dramatic altercation between a U.S. military M-ATV mine-resistant vehicle and a Russian Tiger armored utility vehicle in February last year, that we reported on in-depth at the time. This followed various other incidents between U.S. and Russian forces in the northeast of the country, typically involving American troops blocking the movement of Russian forces, but there have also been reports of more physical altercations, too.

TWITTER VIDEO CAPTURE VIA @IBRASHINO

The moment of a collision between U.S. and Russian military vehicles off the road near Qamishli in northeastern Syria, in February 2020.

Meanwhile, in previous years, Russian and American warplanes have been involved in a series of aggressive encounters over the country. However, in the past four to five years, Russian combat aircraft have typically stayed in the western part of Syria as part of a deconfliction arrangement with the United States. Though that agreement has since been violated on many occasions, the deployment of Russian warplanes in the eastern part of the country would seem to amount to a significant breach of this protocol

American combat jets continue to be available for responding to aerial and other threats to U.S. interests in Syria, with U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles based in Jordan having been heavily utilized in recent years.

Meanwhile, on occasions in the past, there have also been incidents between U.S. and Syrian government forces near Qamishli. In February 2020 a standoff between U.S. troops and a mob aligned with Syria’s dictator Bashar Al Assad at a checkpoint near Qamishli escalated into a brief gun battle, while U.S. Air Force F-15 combat jets conducted a show of force overhead.

These tensions in the skies over Syria also more broadly reflect the sometimes hostile encounters between U.S. and Russian aircraft, as well as naval vessels, in other parts of the world since then, as well.

As well as the potential implications of having Russian warplanes stationed close to U.S. troops, there’s also the fact that Qamishli is on the border with Turkey, too. In recent weeks, Russian warplanes have been increasingly active against Turkish-backed Syrian National Army forces in northern Syria, as well as against the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group. There have also been reports of Russian airstrikes on the border itself, which would risk drawing a response from Turkey.

The relationship between Moscow and Ankara in regards to Syria has been a complex one through recent years, with a low point being the Turkish Air Force shooting down a Russian Su-24 Fencer bomber that strayed across its border in November 2015. Last year, a deal of sorts was struck when plans were laid out for a formal buffer zone between the two sides in northern Syria, together with joint patrols by Turkish and Russian troops. 

Nevertheless, the widely differing objectives in Moscow and Ankara mean that the situation in northern Syria remains highly charged. Turkey remains intent on neutering Assad’s military capabilities while continuing to prosecute its campaign against Kurdish militia groups. Russia seeks to continue its access to geopolitically strategic naval and airbase facilities along the eastern Mediterranean, for which Assad retaining control of the whole of Syria is not a prerequisite. 

As for whether the appearance of Russian fighter jets at a new location in northeast Syria could lead to further encounters between Russian and U.S. or Turkish forces, with the risk of leading to a sudden escalation in tensions, that’s too early to say. So far, we don’t have conclusive evidence that one or more Su-35S is now at Qamishli. If one of the aircraft was at that airbase, there’s still the possibility that it was a fleeting visit rather than part of a long-term deployment there.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com