Syria’s Su-24 Bombers Have Become Its Most Proficient Hospital-Destroyers
It took 25 years for the Sukhois to evolve into terror weapons
by TOM COOPER
In 1988, Syria placed an order for 48 Sukhoi Su-24MK fighter-bombers and expressed interest in obtaining additional examples. While 24 of these were delivered in 1990 and 1991, Moscow suspended further arms deliveries because Damascus began refusing to pay some old debts.
The Su-24 thus entered service with № 819 Squadron of the Syrian Arab Air Force based at Tiyas Air Base, or T-4, while the planned second unit was never established.
For the next 20 years — a period that can only be described as a sort of a cold war between Damascus and Moscow — the Syrian Su-24 fleet languished in disrepair.
Then, in late 2015 and early 2016, the Su-24s not only came roaring back in Syrian service — they also became one of the Syrian regime’s cruelest weapons, repeatedly and deliberately striking hospitals and other medical facilities in rebel-held areas.
The Syrian government more or less stopped financing its air force, resulting not only in a lack of spares, but even in a lack of fuel. Most of the SyAAF’s Su-24 crews — once considered the best of all Arab Su-24 pilots by Soviet instructors — barely managed to fly 30 hours annually.
The situation slightly improved through cooperation with Libya, which operated a small fleet of Su-24s, too, but also suffered from strict international sanctions. The solution was simple — the Libyans would pay for spares that the Syrians obtained from Belarus and Ukraine, and the Syrians would help maintain and fly the Libyan Sukhois.
According to U.S. intelligence sources, in the mid-1990s Tripoli donated its sole Su-24MR — a specialized and rare reconnaissance and electronic-warfare variant of the swing-wing bomber— to Damascus as an expression of gratitude.
Times improved for officers and other ranks of № 819 Squadron in 2009, when the regime of Pres. Bashar Al Assad contracted with Moscow for the overhaul and upgrade of 21 surviving aircraft to the Su-24MK2 standard.
Related work occurred on at least 15 aircraft at the 514th Aircraft Repair Depot in Rzhev in Russia starting in 2010, and most of the upgraded aircraft were back in Syria by 2013.
Availability of these like-new Sukhois was what enabled № 819 to become one of most active SyAAF units in the Syrian civil war. Indeed, this squadron managed to maintain much higher sortie rates than other units with the roughly dozen aircraft it normally had on charge.
More importantly, the unit’s Su-24MK2s could carry much heavier bomb-loads than any other available types and over much longer ranges — and deliver the munitions with much higher precision.
Syrian Su-24s also suffered minimal losses early on. In first two years of their combat operations, only one Sukhoi was shot down — near Darat Ezzah, in the Aleppo governorate, on Nov. 28, 2012. The example with the serial number 3503 was hit by ground fire while underway over Idlib on March 7, 2013, and has been in storage ever since.
But the longer the war went on, the worse things got for the Syrian Su-24 crews. The Ba’ath Party headquarters ordered air strikes on civilian populations within insurgent-held areas. Any officer opposing such orders was arrested, tortured and sometimes even executed.
Those crews who continued serving became reckless. On June 1, 2014, one of № 819 Squadron’s Su-24MKs was shot down by ground fire over Idlib governorate after its crew flew much too low.
On Sept. 23, 2014, another crew not only made a navigational mistake but also failed to activate its electronic countermeasures. The aircraft thus flew into the air space over the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and was promptly blown out of the sky by a PAC-2 surface-to-air missile.
Two further Sukhois were destroyed in an accident caused by the mishandling of ammunition on May 28, 2015, and one was shot down by Jaysh Al Islam’s surface-to-air missiles over Nahta, a village in Dera’a governorate, on June 11, 2015.
Seeking to bolster the fleet, Damascus requested from Moscow a batch of replacements — and also asked for help training its Su-24 crews in night operations.
Flying at night was rare in the SyAAF. Only the highest-qualified officers were granted permission to do so. A MiG-23ML pilot who shot down an Israeli drone over Syria on a night in October 2007 was granted, as a reward, several weeks of leave and also significant a sum of cash and a brand-new Mercedes car.
With Russian military personnel present in the country, training by night — conducted with help of Aero L-39 Albatross jet trainers — proceeded quite quickly, with most of the crews qualifying in November and December 2015.
Additional Su-24s — all taken out of Russian reserve stocks — arrived in Syria in several batches in May and June 2016.
Thanks to new training, new aircraft and new armament — primarily in the form of several shipments of FAB-250M-62, FAB-500M-62, and FAB-250–270 dumb bombs — the SyAAF gained the ability to strike selected targets by night and in all weather.
Ever since, the Su-24s of № 819 Squadron have at least heavily damaged, if not destroyed, more than 70 different medical facilities in Aleppo and Idlib governorates.
Damascus and Moscow refuse to take responsibility for the attacks on medical facilities, but Syrian Su-24 crews are extremely proud of their … “achievements.” And on the evening of Sept. 19, 2016, Syrian Su-24s destroyed what the regime claimed was a convoy of militants in Urum Al Kubra, but was in fact a humanitarian convoy.