Syria Deploys Most Elite Fighter Unit For Joint Patrol with Russian Forces

The Syrian Air Force has deployed its sole squadron of Su-24M strike fighters for joint patrols with Russian aircraft based in the country, as the two longstanding security partners have continued to operate jointly against Western and Turkish backed Islamist insurgent groups operating against the Syrian state. The latest exercises saw the Russian Air Force deploy its two most capable fighter classes, the Su-35 built for air superiority and the Su-34 built for strike missions, which patrolled airspace above eastern and southern Syria. Syrian and Russian fighters practiced air strikes on mock targets attacking both individually and in groups. The air operations were part of joint exercises that began on June 5, and come as both countries have perceived growing threats to their security from Western Bloc states. Russia opened its first air base in the country, Khmeimim Airbase, in the western governate of Latakia near the Mediterranean coast in August 2015. This facility was used to launch a major military intervention from September that year to support government counterinsurgency efforts and prevent interventions against Syria by Turkey and its Western allies. 

The Su-24 has had an elite status in Syrian Air Force for decade, with 22 Su-24MKs having been delivered by the Soviet Union in 1990, before the USSR’s disintegration prevented further purchases. The Air Force subsequently received two more Su-24s as aid from Libya. Based at T4 Airbase in central Syria, the squadron was prioritised for funding for continued training and operations at a time when austerity measures were applied across the fleet in the post-Soviet years, with the aircraft subsequently modernised to the Su-24M2 standard from 2010 improving availability, maintainability and combat effectiveness. The threat of a Western and Turkish assault on Syria from 2013 in particular led the aircraft to play a significant role in deterring possible attacks, with Su-24s flying over the Mediterranean Sea to simulate strikes on British military facilities in Cyprus – demonstrating an ability to respond to strikes without the need to escalate to using ballistic missiles. Su-24s were also used to extensively probe Turkish defences that year as the Turkish military increased violations of Syrian borders and airspace.  

The Russian and Syrian air forces conducted their first joint air patrol on January 24, 2022, with these exercises carried out along the Golan Heights and the Euphrates River. “During the patrol mission, Syrian pilots controlled airspace and provided fighter cover, while Russian crews practiced attacks on ground targets,” the Russian Defence Ministry reported, highlighting that “the two countries’ pilots developed skills for cooperation in various situations. This kind of joint missions will now take place on a regular basis.” Syria has gained growing strategic importance for Russia since the escalation of hostilities between Moscow and the Western Bloc states, with Khmeimim Airbase having been expanded to host strategic assets such as Tu-22M3 strategic bombers and MiG-31K strike fighters capable of targeting NATO’s southern flank. Unconfirmed reports from Ukrainian sources also indicate that Ukrainian special forces have been embedded within Syrian insurgent militias, much as Turkish special forces have been since 2011, in order to increase their effectiveness against Russian and Syrian forces.  

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