The Kurds Are All But Defenseless Against Air Attack
For 40 years, Kurdish rebels have struggled to acquire air-defenses
In late August 2018 a rumor circulated that U.S. military forces in Syria were acquiring radars for an air-defense system that, according to the Turkish press, help to establish a no-fly zone over the country’s Kurdish-majority northeast.
The U.S. government has sought to downplay such speculation, dubbing it “a mix of sensationalized misreporting and propaganda” and declared such systems are there solely to aid in the ongoing campaign against Islamic State rather than potentially defend the Kurds against Turkish or Syrian air attacks.
As of September 2018 the United States had approximately 2,000 troops in northeast Syria and a network of regional airfields and bases.
Syrian Kurds would likely welcome a no-fly zone, as it might give them a fighting chance against the Syrian military or Turkey – the air forces of which give both an edge over the battle-hardened but lightly-armed Kurdish forces.
In December 2016 the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces asked the United States for anti-aircraft missiles. Talal Silo, then the group’s spokesman, urged Washington to provide the group with shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. The group’s main enemy Islamic State never had an air force, but the SDF believed it eventually might come under attack by Syrian or Turkish warplanes.
Turkey in early 2018 routed the Syrian Kurds from their isolated exclave of Afrin in northwest Syria. The Kurdish fighters in Afrin managed to shoot down — likely with gunfire — a Turkish T129 helicopter on Feb. 10, killing both of its pilots.
The Kurdistan Workers’ Party group acquired some Soviet-made SA-7 Strelas shoulder-fired missiles in the mid-1990s and are also known to possess newer SA-18 Grouses. In May 2016 the group released a video showing one of its fighters using an SA-18 to shoot down a Turkish air force Cobra attack helicopter.
The PKK was never able to deploy such weapons in sufficient numbers to seriously threaten the Turkish air force. And according to Aliza Marcus’s essential history of the group, the PKK’s primary backer in the 1990s, Syria, didn’t want the group to use the missiles inside Turkey itself — out of fear that Ankara might retaliate against Damascus.
Iraqi Kurdistan became an autonomous region thanks to an Anglo-American and French no-fly zone over most of the region in the aftermath of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The United States spearheaded the two Provide Comfort operations in the region after Saddam Hussein’s Soviet-made Mi-25 Hind helicopter gunships strafed columns of Kurdish refugees fleeing into the mountains.
In 1991 Iraqi Kurds and Shias simultaneously rose up. In the midst of the Kurdish uprising Sami Abdulrahman, a leading Kurdish diplomat at the time, called on Western countries to arm Kurdish forces with FIM-92 Stinger anti-aircraft and BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missiles to give them a fighting chance to resist Hussein’s gunships and tanks.
At top — a Kurdish fighter uses a missile to shoot down a Turkish helicopter in 2016. Above — a Turkish helicopter moments before Kurdish gunfire downs it in 2018
In January 1992 there were reports that the CIA and Saudi intelligence were contemplating supplying the Kurds and Shias with Stingers and TOWs to enable them to hold their own against Saddam’s military and possibly pave the way for a U.S.-backed regime-change in Baghdad. Ultimately no Stingers or TOWs were ever delivered.
In the mid-1970s Israel did supply Kurdish guerrillas with 82 SA-7s and 507 AT-3 Sagger anti-tank missiles – the very same Soviet-made missiles the Egyptians had used against Israeli tanks in the Sinai Peninsula two years earlier. Israel did so in return for a supply, from the United States, of FIM-43 Redeye shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles and TOW anti-tank missiles.
The Kurdish Peshmerga guerrillas destroyed some Iraqi tanks with their Saggers, but there’s no indication the SA-7s truly hindered the Iraqi air force. The Kurds were defeated when the Shah of Iran ended his covert support of the Kurds in favor of making a deal with then-Iraqi vice president Saddam Hussein to end a border dispute between the two countries.
To this day the Iraqi Kurds haven’t been able to establish a meaningful air-defense network since the autonomous region remains legally part of Iraq and consequently cannot independently buy military equipment.
In 2012, when tensions were high between Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al Maliki and Kurdish president Masoud Barzani, the latter sought to lobby the United States against supplying Baghdad with F-16 fighters, fearing they could eventually target Kurdistan.
Barzani had reasons to worry. Al Maliki reportedly told his army officers he might one day order them to capture the Kurdish capital city of Erbil, but only after Iraq had taken delivery of those F-16s.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Barzani explained that from his perspective there was little difference between the threat posed by F-16s and the vintage Soviet-made MiG-19s and MiG-21s Baghdad previously used against the Kurds. Barzani said the Kurds feared the “mentality that still believes in using planes, artillery and tanks to solve the problems.”
Later on, during the war against Islamic State, the Russian state media reported that Moscow supplied the Kurdish Peshmerga with ZU-23-2 anti-aircraft cannons. While those aged cannons might prove effective against low-flying helicopters, they would hardly deter enemy jets from attacking Kurdistan.