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Kurdish-Led Forces Cannot Count On Syrian Air Defenses To Protect Them Against The Turkish Air Force

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Kurdish-Led Forces Cannot Count On Syrian Air Defenses To Protect Them Against The Turkish Air Force

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The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has expressed its readiness to cooperate militarily with the Syrian government if Turkey goes through with its repeated threats to launch another cross-border operation into northern Syria. The group has also called on Damascus to use its air defenses against Turkish warplanes if that happens.

“The essential thing that the Syrian army could do to defend Syrian territory would be [to] use air defense systems against Turkish planes,” SDF commander-in-chief Mazloum Kobani told Reuters in a June 5 phone interview.

However, as several incidents over the past six years consistently demonstrate, Syrian air defenses and warplanes cannot deter the Turkish Air Force without Russian backing.

Turkish F-16 fighter aircrafts of the 161st Fleet Command
BALIKESIR, TURKIYE – MAY 22: An aerial view of Turkish Air Force F-16 fighter aircrafts in … [+] ANADOLU AGENCY VIA GETTY IMAGES

Turkey launched its first cross-border operation in northern Syria almost six years ago, on Aug. 24, 2016. Operation Euphrates Shield aimed to remove Islamic State (ISIS) militants from a sizable swath of northwestern Syria’s border and simultaneously prevent the SDF from creating a land bridge linking the Syrian Kurdish heartland in the northeast with the northwestern Syrian Kurdish Afrin enclave.

On Oct. 26, Syria warned Turkey against violating its airspace. The Turkish Air Force briefly ceased providing air support to its ground offensive against the ISIS-occupied Syrian city of al-Bab, which slowed down as a result. However, Turkey resumed airstrikes the next month following a high-level meeting between Turkish and Russian chiefs of staff – during which Turkey reassured the Russians that its operation against al-Bab would not threaten the city of Aleppo, the eastern side of which Russian and Syrian forces were subjecting to a ferocious bombardment siege at the time.

That early incident showed that Moscow, not Damascus, called the shots and that Syria could not hope to deter the Turkish Air Force by itself.

When Turkey invaded Afrin in early 2018, this was again demonstrable reality. Syria warned that its air defenses would shoot down any Turkish jet attacking Afrin. Seventy-two Turkish aircraft bombed Afrin on the first day of the Turkish operation, ludicrously codenamed Olive Branch, without facing any resistance from Syrian air defenses.

Syrian Kurdish forces in Afrin called on Damascus to uphold its duty to protect its international border. Pro-government paramilitary forces were dispatched to Afrin, but their convoy was bombed by Turkish warplanes.

Russia again demonstrated it was in charge on March 18-24, 2018, after Turkey conquered the majority of the enclave including Afrin city, by closing the airspace and enabling several Kurdish fighters to evacuate to the neighboring Tal Rifaat region.

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Moscow has expressed opposition to Turkey launching another operation that would most likely focus on Taj Rifaat and Manbij in northwest Syria. Russia reportedly deployed a Pantsir-S1 air defense system to Qamishli airport in Syria’s northeastern Kurdish region. Even though Russia is embroiled in Ukraine and likely doesn’t want a major escalation in Syria, Turkey would not likely launch a new operation without, at the very least, an amber light from Moscow.

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A picture shows a Russian Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft defence system at the Russian Hmeimim military … [+] AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Syrian air defenses would unlikely deter, and certainly cannot prevent, Turkey from launching an attack. Syria’s most sophisticated air defenses, its long-range S-300s delivered in 2018, are under Russian control. And while its Pantsir-S1s and Buk-M2s cannot be dismissed, Turkish drones and standoff missiles could overwhelm and destroy them if they made a serious attempt to disrupt any Turkish air campaign.

The only way Syrian air defenses and airpower could be seen to deter Turkey is if Russia signals its opposition to a Turkish incursion. There are some recent precedents here worth considering.

In May, as Israeli jets flew home from an airstrike in northwest Syria, a Syrian S-300 missile was reportedly fired off for the very first time. The missile did not threaten the Israeli aircraft, but it was also not likely fired off without Russian authorization, signaling Moscow’s disproval of, at least, that particular raid which, as outlined here, most likely violated a Russian red line in Syria.

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A Russian Sukhoi Su-35 bomber lands at the Russian Hmeimim military base in Latakia province, in the … [+] AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

In early June, the Russian and Syrian air forces conducted their second patrol this year, the first since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. The patrol consisted of two Russian Su-35 Flanker-E air superiority fighters flying with six Syrian MiG-23 Flogger and MiG-29 Fulcrum jets. It simulated air-to-air combat against “hostile” aircraft and drones with the Syrian jets engaging the hostile targets while the Russian jets provided cover.

To demonstrate its opposition to a potentially imminent Turkish invasion and simultaneously signal that it’s a force to be reckoned with in Syria post-Feb. 24, Russia may choose to make similar moves in the coming days and weeks. That could deter a Turkish attack and help Damascus save face. However, if Russia even tacitly acquiesces to another Turkish operation, then the SDF cannot count on Syria’s air defenses alone to defend them.

By: Pıal Iddon

Source: Forbes

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