Turkish F-16s fly alongside a U.S. tanker aircraft. U.S. Air Force photo

Blockading Syria by Air

An interview with air power analyst Tom Cooper

Tom Cooper is an Austria-based author and analyst specializing in Middle East air power. With political will mounting for some kind of direct foreign involvement in the Syrian civil war, Medium asked Cooper about the prospect of aerial intervention.

Medium: Is a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone possible over Syria?

Tom Cooper: The more I study this idea with the no-fly zone over Syria, the more my conclusion is that it’s a no-go solution. What at least sounds like a better solution, though, would be a sort of “aerial blockade” of Syrian and Lebanese airspace.

In my humble opinion, there is something like a Top 30 charts for obstacles to a no-fly zone over Syria, with places one to 10 being occupied by Moscow. Without Russian consent, there will be no U.N. approval, and without U.N. approval [U.S. Pres. Barack] Obama will not order the U.S. military to move.

Places 11 to 20 are then taken by the lack of money. Not only in the USA where, as I’m sure you know, one third of the Air Force and Navy are grounded until September because of the emergency federal budget, but also in Europe where two-thirds of certain air forces are grounded for lack of money or at least do not fly regularly. Indeed, even the French are meanwhile making it official to have two classes of pilots: one flying, the other capable of flying but not ready for combat without three to six months of intensive training.

Places 21 to 30 on this chart would then be taken by disagreements between various NATO- and non-NATO U.S. partners. Surely, Britain and France would go, but most of the other NATO partners wouldn’t. The propaganda claims — that Syrians are all “terrorists” and the uprising in Syria is one of Islamist extremists supported by Al Qaeda working in collusion with the CIA — is so strong here in Europe that there is next to no public support for any kind of intervention. And there would be also a big fight between various Gulf Arabs about who would go, and who not, and for what reasons.

Should, for whatever reason, these 30 obstacles be removed, only then would one have to consider the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) and Syrian Arab Air Defense Force’s (SyAADF) capabilities. That is — in the case of the latter — what is left of it.

Syrian MiG-29s as seen recently on Syrian state TV.

M: What is left of Syrian air defenses?

TC: Like in the case of the Syrian army, much of the SyAADF fell apart and defected. Nearly 50 percent of facilities were meanwhile overrun by the insurgents. That means that much of the capability and the radar network are simply out.

But what’s left are SA-11/17s, SA-6/11s, and SA-22s — in other words, the most potent components of the ground-based air defense system. These are, of course, used to protect neuralgic centers, primarily Damascus and the Syrian coast of the Mediterranean Sea.

In regards to MiG-29s, the SyAAF should have only one unit left of these jet fighters. That’s No. 697 Squadron based at As Seen air base with some 10 to 12 operational aircraft. These all belong to the 9.12B “export and downgraded” variant. 9.12Bs were what also the Serbs and Iraqis were flying [when these air forces were destroyed by foreign intervention].

There are also two squadrons — Sh’eirat-based No. 675 and Dmeyr-based No. 54 Squadrons — equipped with around 20 examples of what used to be MiG-23MFs and MLs. These were all overhauled and upgraded to a MiG-23MLD-similar standard in recent years, partially in Russia but primarily in Syria, and actually act as primary interceptors. From the Syrian standpoint, they are more important than MiG-29s.

All three units are held in good condition and flying regularly. MiG-29s have already flown around 200 air-to-ground sorties since around early March this year. MiG-23MLDs are held back for interception purposes, as opposed to two units equipped with around 30 to 40 MiG-23BN fighter-bombers. The MLDs are known to be regularly scrambled whenever there is a need. According to Syrian sources, they used to shoot down up to 10 Israeli and other UAVs annually in the period 2001 to 2010.

Overall, no matter how much overhauled, upgraded and operational, these warplanes’ effectiveness in comparison to what the USA and NATO would probably bring against them would be very limited. If for no other reason than because the SyAADF’s radar network is already so badly damaged that MiG pilots would have next to no situational awareness.

But I do not see them having to face any kind of a no-fly zone. For the above-mentioned 30 reasons, the likelihood of any kind of no-fly zone being imposed is zero.

Syrian MiG-23s as seen recently on Syrian state TV.

M: So what do you think will happen?

TC: The most Obama is going to do is to pick out a few moderate insurgent groups — there are more than enough of these — and provide arms and supplies to them. Furthermore, he’s going to encourage U.S. friends — read: oil-suppliers and arms-customers — in the Persian Gulf to provide more aid to moderate groups.

In summary — and tragically for Syrian people — the carnage is going to go on, and for quite some time. The fate of the regime is sealed, no doubt, but as long as it can get support from Hezbollah, Iran and Iraqi Shi’a (an entire brigade of which is deployed in Syria and fighting for the regime) and from Russia, it’s going to continue pulverizing most of the country.

A blockade of Syrian airspace is more likely than a no-fly zone and would be far more useful. The Russians could do very little to stop, for example, the Turks, Jordanians and Saudis saying, “We’ll not let any Syrian or foreign aircraft in or out.” Furthermore, Washington still has enough influence left in Iraq to pressure the government in Baghdad to ban all overflights of Iranian transports that are bringing instructors, fighters and contraband to Syria. And the Israelis are in total control of the Lebanese airspace. That means one can, in theory, easily isolate the regime. Combined with effective support of moderate insurgent organizations, that would shorten the war by quite a bit.

Syrian Gazelle helicopters as seen recently on Syrian state TV.

M: How would an aerial blockade work?

TC: The starting point with a blockade would be as problematic as a no-fly-zone: namely, there would be no U.N. authorization, because Moscow would definitely veto any corresponding resolution of the Security Council.

Nevertheless, neighboring countries like Jordan and Turkey could impose a blockade of the Syrian airspace on their own, and Washington is supposedly left with enough authority in Baghdad to force Iraq to follow in fashion. At least it could try doing that.

A special problem would be the issue of Lebanon, parts of which are controlled by the Hezbollah, and parts of which are already in state of a civil war between the Sunni and the Shi’a. That means that one couldn’t impose such a blockade there: it would be impossible to control the Lebanese-Syrian border, and I have strong doubts that Israel would act in response to any U.S./E.U./NATO requests to impose a blockade of Lebanese airspace. But, if necessary, one could impose at least something like strict control over what is flying or sailing to Lebanon, and what is coming out.

Provided Washington could bring these governments to do so, in my opinion a blockade would be even more effective than a no-fly zone — and that at a minimal cost, especially in comparison. There would be no need to send any kind of Western troops or aircraft into Syria. Surely, Iraq, Jordan and Turkey would cry that their air defenses need to be bolstered because of threat from Syrian retaliation raids. But the point is that this would prevent Iran and Russia from continuing to ship reinforcements, arms and ammo to the regime. In other words, the regime would be left with what remains of its own troops, plus Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’a assets it has got — and that’s it. That would mean there would be a limit of how long these [military forces] can remain operational.

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