Further Aircraft Lost before Idlib Ceasefire Agreement

 - March 12, 2020, 6:15 AM
Turkish air force F-16s, like this example seen during a NATO exercise, shot down at least three Syrian aircraft during the brief Spring Shield operations, firing missiles across the border from within Turkish airspace. (Photo: Crown Copyright 2014/OGL)

Both the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and Syrian Arab Army (SAA) disputing control over the rebel-held parts of Syria’s Idlib province suffered considerable losses in personnel and equipment before a truce came into effect on the morning of March 6. The ceasefire agreement had been reached a day earlier in the Kremlin, where Vladimir Putin hosted Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Shortly after six hours of negotiations between the two leaders, the Turkish defense ministry announced that TSK units taking part in Operation Spring Shield had “neutralized” over 3,000 troops fighting for the Assad regime and destroyed three jets, eight helicopters, three drones and eight anti-aircraft systems, along with 115 artillery pieces and 202 armored vehicles. The number of Syrian targets that came under attack exceeded 1,700.

Even though the TSK did not risk sending manned aircraft into Syrian airspace, Turkish air force F-16C fighters, guided by ground-based radars and Boeing E-7 Peace Eagle AEW&C aircraft, launched a number of AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles across the border at Syrian aircraft. They downed two Su-24M2 fighter-bombers on March 1, killing one of the crew members while the other three ejected safely. Two days later, Fighting Falcons downed an L-39Z armed jet trainer flying near Maarat An-Nauman, about 45km (28 miles) from the Turkish border, killing both crew members.

In the meantime, a Syrian crew was lucky to escape an AIM-120C7 launched at their Su-22M4. Upon receiving a timely warning of the attack from an external source, they activated an onboard jammer and executed sharp evading maneuvers. The death toll among Syrian aircrew rose on March 6, when a MiG-29 fighter crashed, possibly due to a technical failure, near the Shairat AFB southeast of Homs.

In turn, the Syrian forces destroyed a number of Turkish Aerospace Anka-S and Bayraktar TB.2 armed drones using Buk-M2E medium-range surface-to-air missiles. According to the SAA, 25 missiles were fired, of which 20 hit their targets. Three 9M317 missiles missed and two more failed to guide, perhaps because of Turkish countermeasures (Koral and other jammers) were active. There is no detailed information on the efficiency of other anti-aircraft systems, such as the Pantsyr-S1, Strela-10, and shoulder-launched missiles, which were also employed in the area.

Most Syrian claims are difficult to confirm, though, since 60 percent of the allegedly destroyed targets fell in rebel-held territory. Fragmentary evidence backs the claims for a dozen Turkish drones and three from the opposition. The Syrian side also lost two Mi-8 helicopters to shoulder-launched missiles on February 11 and 14.

On March 6, Ankara admitted 56 troops were killed in action in Idlib, out of some 12,000 deployed to the area from early February. During that period, the Syrian army took over 2,600 square kilometers of land from the rebels. Pushing the front line further to the west of Aleppo made it possible for Syrian airlines to resume passenger services between the city and Damascus using Tu-134 and Yak-40 jetliners. This happened just three days after a pair of L-39s had burned out following a Turkish aerial attack on Nayrab airbase, which shares the runway with the city’s airport.

Russian Air and Space Force supported the advancing SAA but avoided Turkish troops. Anti-aircraft systems were active in the province of Latakia, where key Russian bases are located, and claimed two more UAVs downed on March 6.