Yes, the Syrian Arab Air Force can operate under the cover of darkness
by TOM COOPER
The general consensus is that the Syrian Arab Air Force, or SyAAF, lacks the ability to operate by night. This view is based on statements by top Western and Russian officials, who have repeatedly stressed that the SyAAF is not flying at night in the current conflict.
Which is weird, because sources within the Syrian military — whom we interviewed on condition of anonymity — boasted about their night ops. Social media backs up the Syrians’ claims.
One of most helpful outlets is Sentry Syria, which employs a well-developed network of ground observers near major air bases in Syria. Sentry Syria’s spotters report take-offs and initial flight directions of the SyAAF and also aircraft operated by the Russian Aerospace Force, primarily over northwestern and central Syria.
Their goal — to issue timely warnings to civilians in insurgent-controlled areas.
Nocturnal operations by the SyAAF should surprise nobody. The Syrian air arm has a long history of nighttime intercept operations, and is known to have operated by night since at least 2012 in the current civil war.
Sentry Syria has reported around a dozen of nocturnal take-offs per week, since the spring of 2016, by Syrian Su-24M bombers based at Tiyas and Shayrat air bases. Also beginning that spring, Sentry Syria began noting nighttime launches by “machine-gun-armed jets” from Kweres, Hama and Nayrab air bases — and sometimes from Tiyas air base, too.
But the general public has ignored these reports. And the international media tends to attribute the take-offs to Russian jets, as in this case.
The machine-gun-armed-jets in question are Soviet-era Aero L-39 Albatross trainers. The SyAAF purchased 55 L-39ZO and 44 L-39ZA armed trainers from the former Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and ’80s.
Both variants boast four underwing hardpoints for light bombs up to 250 kilograms or UB-16–57 pods for unguided 57-millimeter rockets. The L-39ZA has a twin-barrel, 23-millimeter cannon installed under the fuselage.
Around 50 L-39s were operational with the SyAAF as of 2011, serving with two units of the Air Force Academy — or 77th Training Brigade — plus the Jet Flight School based at Kweres air base and the Advanced Flight School at Ksheesh air base.
Although not the first SyAAF jets to deploy in combat during this war, L-39s became prominent for their operations in the Aleppo area starting in the summer of 2012.
The media claimed the L-39s primarily attacked civilian targets such as hospitals and schools. To a certain degree, this is true. L-39s have flown a number of punitive air strikes, especially targeting bakeries in insurgent-controlled areas.
However, at least as often, they were assigned to bomb or rocket insurgent positions and supply vehicles. Indeed, quite early after the start of their combat deployment in the Syrian civil war, the L-39s had such an impact that, when the 88th Battalion of the Syrian Arab Army fell apart in Anadan on July 31, 2012, insurgents and defectors were forced to rapidly camouflage most of captured T-55 tanks in order to conceal them from the SyAAF’s L-39 pilots.
When insurgents drove deep inside eastern and southern Aleppo, the SyAAF’s L-39s concentrated on striking their headquarters, one of which Syrian jets struck no fewer than four times between Aug. 18 and 21, 2012.
Such precision is remarkable, considering that most of the SyAAF’s pilots went into this war without having participated in any kind of tactical or live-fire exercises for years.
While there’s no doubt that many of their bombs and rockets missed their targets or failed to detonate, Syrian L-39 pilots still proved capable of finding and targeting rebel forces even in densely built-up quarters of southern Aleppo.
The reason for this — the Syrian air force’s well-developed network of informers.
Owing to this precision, rumors circulated that the L-39s were being flown by Ukrainian mercenaries. The same network of informers enabled the SyAAF’s L-39s to concentrate on striking insurgent supply lines between the Turkish border and Aleppo.
The results were indisputable. For most of late 2012 and early 2013, very few truck drivers dared driving those roads by day.
Intensive combat operations and the proliferation of man-portable air-defense systems among insurgent forces resulted in a series of losses. Two L-39s were destroyed on the ground during an insurgent raid on Kweres air base on Sept. 30, 2012, while five were confirmed shot down over Aleppo governorate by the end of October of the same year.
One L-39 was shot down by ground fire over Darat Izza in November 2012 and another by a shoulder-fired missile over Aleppo in mid-January 2013. This caused the SyAAF to stop operating the type over the city. The skies over the battlefield became too dangerous for a plane that lacked any kind of countermeasure against guided surface-to-air missiles.
In April 2013, insurgents overran Khseesh air base and captured no fewer than 14 intact L-39s. While at least four of these were subsequently destroyed in repeated SyAAF air strikes, the availability of two operational examples prompted insurgents to consider deploying them in combat.
Although rebels adorned both with Islamist insignia and even showed them off rolling up and down the runway at Ksheesh air base in October 2013, a lack of pilots and ground personnel prevented the opposition fighters from ever actually sending the jets into combat.
Soon after, Islamic State radicals captured the base. There were rumors they would attempt to make some of the L-39s operational — but that, too, proved impossible. Indeed, for most of the next year next to nothing was heard of the SyAAF’s L-39s — except that insurgent destroyed two of them with TOW anti-tank guided missiles while the planes were parked on the apron at the SyAAF’s major maintenance facility at Nayrab air base in October 2014.
The situation began to change in November 2015, after Syrian and Iranian forces lifted the siege of Kweres air base. Immediately afterward, photographs and videos began to appear depicting L-39 operations from the base — sometimes by night, too.
Around the same time, reports began to circulate of a concentration of up to 22 Albatrosses at Nayrab air base — including several recovered from Kweres air base — where they were rushed through overhauls.
Gradually, all returned to service — and with upgrades. Technicians had adapted many of the L-39s to carry two B-8M rocket pods, each packing a hefty punch with 18 80-millimeter unguided rockets.
In April 2016, six of the L-39s reportedly transferred from Kweres to Tiyas air base, where their crews joined a newly-established unit commanded by Col. Yousef Al Hassan.
After completing their training in nocturnal operations, they went into action the following month and initially targeted the traffic along the Castello Road — at that time the last supply line for insurgents inside East Aleppo.
In another nighttime operation, L-39s — or possibly Su-24s from Tiyas air base — bombed an insurgent headquarters in eastern Ghouta in June 2016.
By September 2016, Sentry Syria’s reports about night take-offs by “machine-gun-armed-jets” became routine. By that time, nearly 90 percent of L-39 operations took place at night.
L-39 sorties usually launched between 4:00 and 6:00 P.M. — two thirds from Kweres air base, bound for Aleppo. The remaining third came from Hama, Nayrab and Tiyas air bases and targeted the area around Kfar Zita in northern Hama.
On some strikes, L-39s combined with other plane types, often resulting in reports of major nighttime air raids on Aleppo. But for the most part, the world’s media ignored the overwhelming evidence that the Syrian air force was flying by night.
The L-39 raids continued under the cover of darkness … and in a virtual media blackout. When regime planes bombed a U.N. and Syrian Arab Red Crescent aid convoy in Urum Al Kubra on Sept. 19, 2016, jet engine sounds and cannon tracers were evident in video from the scene.
On Nov. 24, 2016, the Turkish armed forces reported two air strikes on Turkish army positions west of Al Bab. Perhaps not coincidentally, Sentry Syria had reported L-39s taking off from Hama around 12:27 at night, local time — and again at 2:10 A.M.
Some of these L-39s apparently attacked a building where Turkish soldiers were sleeping, raked it with rockets and cannon fire. Reports from inside besieged Aleppo in early December 2016 described nighttime attacks by low-flying planes firing 23-millimeter cannons.
The last known loss of a SyAAF L-39 might have occurred at night. Lt. Col. Ja’afar Abboud Hassan and Capt. Tarek Mwaffaq M’alla were shot down over besieged Aleppo on the evening of Dec. 3, 2016. According to Sentry Syria, the aircraft in question was one of two L-39s that launched from Kweres air base around 7:40 P.M., local time.
The conclusion is obvious — despite what most observers believe, the SyAAF does operate by night. In addition to its well-known, night-flying Su-24s — the regime has developed an at-least rudimentary night-attack capability in form of L-39s equipped with 23-millimeter cannons and pods for unguided rockets.
Opposition sources report that the L-39s sport some kind of “night camera,” apparently provided by North Korea. Whether these are indeed cameras, or — more likely — night vision goggles worn by their crews, remains unclear.
Judging by reports from rebel media and Sentry Syria, the unit in question — probably still commanded by Col. Yousef Al Hassan — currently deploys as many as six L-39s at Kweres air base, and might have detachments of between two and four aircraft at Hama and Nayrab air base, too.
The only reason there are very few photographs or videos documenting their nocturnal operations is that they’re flying when it’s too dark to see and capture them on the camera.