Combustible Air Over Syria

The Syrian airspace has shrunk, the potential for undesirable encounters within that airspace has increased and the air has become combustible. Brig. Gen. (ret.) Ephraim Segoli, head of the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies, on the tension in air and the implications for Israel

Russian air force Tu-22M3 bombers drop bombs on a target in Syria as part of a Russian air campaign against targets in Syria (AP Photo/Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)

The establishment of the Islamic State in Iraq & Syria (ISIS) in June 2014, pursuant to the capturing of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, took the West by surprise. In August 2014, US President Barack Obama admitted that the USA still did not have a strategy vis-à-vis the new threat.

Two months later, an international aerial task force was established, under the leadership of the USA, with aerial elements from the USA, Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Jordan, Holland and England. This task force started attacking ISIS targets, and in addition to the US Air Force, the air forces of Australia, Bahrein, Canada, France, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates also participated in those attacks. The objective of the air campaign was to disintegrate and destroy ISIS and after several months of operations it was given the name “Operation Inherent Resolve”. From the very outset of the campaign it was made clear that there was no intention of including any ground forces in that operation, and that the required ground dimension would be provided by the Iraqi Army, the Kurdish forces and possibly the forces of the moderate anti-Assad opposition, all supported by the USA.

The objectives specified for the operation and the name given to it reflected serious determination and commitment, but in effect, reality turned out to be different. The air strikes were not really intensive. The Kurdish forces demonstrated an aggressive fighting spirit and even gained some accomplishments but that was not the case with regard to the other forces. ISIS continued to expand, attract numerous volunteers and constitute a tangible risk to the stability of the entire region.

A few months ago, rumors started circulating regarding a possible Russian intervention on behalf of Syrian President Assad. Following a brief stage of denials and concealment attempts, the Russian intervention became a fait accompli in the form of a military air campaign, the first in several decades being conducted outside the borders of the former USSR. The Russian Air Force deployed to the Syrian airbase in Lattakia and in late September 2015, Russian Sukhoi-24 and Sukhoi-25 fighters started striking.

The official objectives of the Russian campaign were saving the regime of Syrian President Assad, in response to his own appeal, and hitting the radical Islamist terrorism so it does not permeate and reach Russian territory. Assad’s appeal for help provided Russia with the opportunity to once again stake a claim in the region it had left in 1973. The decision regarding the timing of the intervention must have been made in order to precede an expected American declaration of a no-fly zone.

Tension has developed between the members of the US-led coalition and Russia, and this tension will increase owing to the opposing strategies translated into respective air campaigns that could lead to an encounter. While the tension between the Israeli interests in this theater and those of the coalition may be bridged and the respective operations may be coordinated, it would appear that in view of the new intervention, the situation has changed. The airspace has shrunk, the potential for undesirable encounters within that airspace has increased and the air has become combustible. 

The policy of Israel with regard to this theater includes two clearly-defined elements: Israel will not allow the transfer of advanced weapon systems to Hezbollah in Lebanon and will not tolerate “leaking fire” from the battles conducted close to its border. Israel has often demonstrated its policy, normally by employing IAF.

In view of the dramatic changes outlined above, two issues should be raised for discussion: the Syrian state, as we knew it, no longer exists and its borders have become blurred – including the border between Syria and Lebanon. Hezbollah forces are present in Syria. Consequently, the accessibility of the advanced weapon systems to these forces no longer depends on the transfer thereof to Lebanon.

The IAF will continue to serve as the chief player in the implementation of any policy set forth, and in order to be effective it will aspire to operate freely, under no threats. This will not be the case, however, when IAF is called upon to operate close to the areas where other air forces operate. It is clear, therefore, that the boundaries of the operating space of IAF, both the geographic ones and the conceptual ones, will not be clearly defined and will require repeated inquiring, sometimes through the operation itself.