Russian And Syrian Fighters Fly Unprecedented Joint Patrol Along Syria’s Border With Israel

The start of a planned new series of joint air operations between Russia and Syria offers a significant boost to the Syrian Air Force.

byThomas Newdick|
Russian And Syrian Fighters Fly Unprecedented Joint Patrol Along Syria’s Border With Israel

Russian and Syrian warplanes conducted joint patrols along Syria’s borders today, launching what the Russian Ministry of Defense says will be a regular series of flights. Syrian fighter jets joined Russian fighters, strike aircraft, and radar planes, on a mission that took them partly on a provocative course that included skirting the Golan Heights, in what seems to have been a very deliberate signal to Israel, which occupies this strategically important region.

The first joint air patrol mission of this kind to have been announced by the Russian Ministry of Defense involved Syrian Air Force MiG-23 Flogger and MiG-29 Fulcrum fighter jets, together with Russian Aerospace Forces Su-34 Fullback strike aircraft and Su-35 Flanker multirole fighters and A-50 Mainstay airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft. The much-depleted Syrian MiG-23 fleet, in particular, is only rarely seen in action, after years of action in the country’s ongoing civil war, while the Syrian MiG-29s, despite their appearance, have been modestly upgraded and have seen more use of late. The Russian types have all been deployed to Syria regularly since September 2015.

According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, quoted by the TASS state-run news agency, the Russian aircraft departed their main hub at the recently expanded Khmeimim Air Base in Syria’s western Latakia province, while the Syrian jets were operating from Seikal and Dumayr airfields outside Damascus.

Together, the aircraft flew along the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, and over northern Syria, including the Euphrates River. The highly tense Golan Heights serves as the armistice line with Israel, which is also currently waging a campaign of airstrikes against targets in Syria, primarily related to suspected Iranian and Hezbollah positions.

“During the patrol mission, Syrian pilots controlled airspace and provided fighter cover, while Russian crews practiced attacks on ground targets,” a statement from the Russian Ministry of Defense, quoted by the Interfax news agency, specified. The statement added that Syrian pilots practiced hitting targets with air-to-air missiles, while their Russian counterparts struck ground targets at a training range in central Syria.

“The two countries’ pilots developed skills for cooperation in various situations,” the statement added. “These kinds of joint missions will now take place on a regular basis.”

“Flights were carried out along the Golan Heights along the southern border of the Syrian Republic,” Alexander, the commander of the Su-34 unit, told TV Zvezda, the Russian Ministry of Defense’s official television station. “Today, for the first time, we flew in unified combat formations and established interaction with Syrian Arab Republic pilots. We understand each other perfectly.”

Russian forces have been present in Syria since 2015 when Moscow launched its intervention in the country’s civil war on behalf of President Bashar Al Assad. They have remained in action since then, primarily operating from Khmeimim, but also other bases in the country, including Qamishli Airport, in the northeast of Syria. Most recently, Tiyas Air Base (also known as T-4), in the central Homs governorate, has begun to receive additional Russian fighter jets, in the shape of MiG-29SMT Fulcrums, although it’s unclear if they will remain here on a more permanent basis.

While Russian airpower continues to support Assad’s forces, today’s mission along the Golan Heights seems to have been intended to signal intent to Israel.

Although Israeli forces seized control of the Golan Heights during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, they withdrew from a buffer area as part of a U.N.-backed deal in 1974. The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) had maintained forces in the area to monitor the ceasefire agreement, but those elements came under attack from ISIS terrorists in 2014 and a number of posts were abandoned.

Israeli soldiers drive Humvees during an exercise in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights near the border with Syria, Tuesday, August 2020. , AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

Assad has since attempted to take back control of portions of the U.N.-maintained demilitarized zone, with Israel in the past protesting to the United Nations that Syrian forces had moved tanks, artillery, and other heavy weapons into the buffer area in violation of the ceasefire.

In September 2017, Israel reported downing an unmanned aircraft belonging to the Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah flying over the disputed Golan Heights. Two months later, an Israeli Patriot blew apart one of the Syrian regime’s unmanned aerial vehicles in the same general area.

Israel shot down a Syrian Su-22 Fitter combat jet with a pair of Patriot surface-to-air missiles, along the border with Syria, in July 2018, reportedly after it flew more than a mile into Israeli territory near the Golan.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, shakes hands with Syrian leader Bashar Al Assad., MIKHAEL KLIMENTYEV/SPUTNIK VIA AP

In 2019, then-President Donald Trump declared the United States the first country to recognize the Golan Heights as part of Israel. However, the 28 member states of the European Union, in turn, declared in turn that they do not recognize Israeli sovereignty, and the status of the area remains contested, with most of the international community considering the Golan to be Syrian territory under Israeli occupation. Now, under President Joe Biden, the U.S. stance on the Golan is less clear, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, for example, having noted last year that the territory is important for Israel’s security, but stopping short of full recognition.

More recently, Israeli tanks reportedly fired warning shots along the Syrian border in the Golan Heights in response to what Israel said were several suspicious figures in the vicinity of an Israel Defense Forces unit there. The suspicious figures were manning “military posts,” according to the Israeli military, and later fled into Syrian territory.

While we don’t know where the future joint Russian-Syrian missions will take place, today’s activity might indicate that Assad hopes that combining his forces with Russian airpower demonstrates resolve over the contested Golan Heights. On the other hand, Russia has so far proven resistant to actually taking action on behalf of Assad in the face of Israeli aggression.

Moscow did not come to Assad’s aid with its air defenses in Syria after Israel allegedly attacked the port of Latakia recently, continuing the Russian policy of not fighting back against Israeli airstrikes. With that in mind, it’s also possible that today’s mission and any more to follow are intended primarily to reduce the tensions that very likely exist between Assad and Russia over this continued policy of inaction.

However, with Israeli Air Force fighter jets operating over Syria, the presence of joint Russian-Syrian patrols might at least give pause for thought for Israel, or at the very least hamper its ability to strike targets of opportunity, especially if joint missions by air defense fighters become a more regular feature of the conflict.

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