From the earliest days of the Syrian conflict, the U.S. and its so-called “coalition partners” have debated creation of a no-fly zone over that war-torn country. Years of discussions and trial balloons have led to…nothing.
Now, barely a week after his warplanes began combat missions over Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be on the verge of creating–you guessed it–a no-fly zone. Russian jets have become increasingly aggressive as they patrol the country’s skies, conduct bombing missions against forces opposing their ally, Syrian dictator Bashir Assad, and even intrude into the airspace of neighboring Turkey.
Officially, the Russians have only a handful of air-to-air capable jets at their base near Latakia, on the Mediterranean coast, but those six SU-30 Fullbacks have been busy. By various accounts, they chased away a four-ship formation of Israeli F-15s over Latakia, and entered Turkey’s airspace as well, locking onto a Turkish F-16 for a reported five minutes (emphasis ours). Readers will note these claims have not been verified and read more like Russian propaganda than reliable reporting:
Six Russian fighter jets type Multirole Sukhoi SU – 30 SM have intercepted 4 Israeli McDonnell Douglas F-15’s fighter bombers attempting to infiltrate the Syrian coast. The Israeli F 15 warplanes have been flying over Syrian airspace for months and in particular the coast of Latakia, which is now the bridgehead of the Russian forces in Syria.
The Israeli jets would generally follow a fairly complex flight plan and approach Latakia from the sea.
On the night of 1 October 02, 2015, six Sukhoi SU-30 Russian SM fighters took off from the Syrian Hmimim airbase in the direction of Cyprus, before changing course and intercepting the four Israeli F-15 fighters off the coast of Syria, that were flying in attack formation.
Surprised by a situation as unexpected and probably not prepared for a dogfight with one of the best Russian multipurpose fighters, Israeli pilots have quickly turned back south at high speed over Lebanon.
The Lebanese army has officially announced at 2313 Z (local time) that four “enemy aircraft” (Israeli) had crossed the airspace of the Lebanon.
This ‘incident’ between the Russian and Israeli combat aircraft struck with amazement the command of the Israeli air force, which has estimated that a possible dogfight between F-15 Israelis and the Russian Su-30 would have led to the destruction of the four aircraft Israelis.
But another incident has been confirmed. U.S. authorities report that Russian fighters–perhaps the same SU-30s–intercepted Predator drones over Syria on several occasions last week. More from Fox News:
Russian fighter jets shadowed U.S. predator drones on at least three separate occasions high above Syria since the start of Russia’s air campaign last week, according to two U.S. officials briefed on this latest intelligence from the region.
U.S. officials tell Fox News the drone encounters took place over ISIS-controlled Syria, including its de facto headquarters in Raqqa, as well as along the Turkish-Syrian border near Korbani. Another occurred in the northwest, near the highly contested city of Aleppo.
“The first time it happened, we thought the Russians got lucky. Then it happened two more times,” said one official.
The U.S. military’s MQ-1 Predator drone is not a stealth aircraft.
“It is easy to see a predator on radar,” said one official.
Well, maybe not as easy as the unnamed official suggests. U.S. drones flew over Iraq during much of the 1990s–when Saddam was still in power–and his Air Force had virtually no success tracking or intercepting our UAVs. There is also evidence that American and Israeli drones have been active over Iran, and Tehran has tried to shoot them down, but their efforts have been equally futile.
Moscow’s ability to track and intercept American drones over Syria indicates that Russia has a very robust SIGINT capability in the region, utilizing ground, sea-based and (possibly) airborne platforms. The Russians obviously have the ability to “meld” such information with their air picture, allowing controllers to steer fighters towards adversary aircraft.
Meanwhile, NATO is still smarting from that recent intercept of Turkish F-16s inside that country’s airspace by Russian-made MiG-29 Fulcrums, probably operated by the Syrian Air Force. According to multiple reports, the Fulcrums “locked up” an F-16 for more than five minutes with its air intercept radar. That account suggests that the Turkish jets were turning away from the threat as the MiG-29s gave chase. Locking onto another aircraft with a fighter’s AI radar is considered an act of war. It is virtually unheard of for a warplane to maintain radar lock for that length of time. Ask a fighter pilot to describe someone who is locked on for that long, and he (or she) will probably use one word: dead. But the MiG-29s did not open fire, though the incident has further exacerbated tensions in the region.
These episodes are anything but a coincidence. Putin is clearly spoiling for a fighter, hoping to create an incident that would cause the U.S. and its allies to cease operations over Syria, while highlighting the capabilities of his own forces. At this juncture, the Russians seem to have free reign in the skies; earlier today, a Pentagon spokesman announced that U.S. aircraft were rerouted in Syrian airspace, to avoid a nearby formation of Russian jets.
And there’s one more element that Moscow may use to reinforce a potential no-fly zone. Eleven days ago, Russian TV released video of the cruiser Moskva leaving its Black Sea port, enroute to the Mediterranean, and most likely, a port call at the naval base in Tartus. The Moskva carries the SA-N-6, the naval version of the SA-10 surface-to-air missile system.
From positions in port or off the Syrian coast, the Moskva could engage targets at ranges up to 200 miles, covering a good portion of southwestern Turkey, western Syria, all of Lebanon and northern Israel. How will the U.S. or Israel respond when the Moskva locks up one of our aircraft, or shoots down a drone? We may soon find out.