The Syrian air force is the main advantage the regime has over the rebels. It has afforded the regime substantial firepower and logistic capabilities, providing for the support of far-flung, isolated outposts. Without the air force, the battle would tip more swiftly in favor of the rebels.
At the start of the conflict, the Syrian air force consisted of some 400 fixed-wing combat aircraft and an estimated 200 helicopters of various types, at least on paper. Initially, the regime mainly relied on helicopters to provide fire support against the rebels. But as the conflict intensified, virtually the entire force became involved in the fight.
Combat and Logistics
In recent months, the Syrian air force has greatly accelerated its tempo of operations to match the rising intensity of rebel operations. It has deployed a large assortment of fixed-wing combat aircraft along with a wide variety of ordnance, including blast-fragmentation, cluster and incendiary munitions. The lack of precision-guided munitions in the Syrian air force inventory has often forced the loyalist aircraft to fly low and slow to improve their accuracy.
Significant improvements in rebel air defense capabilities, however, have forced the Syrian air force to fly at higher altitudes and to use flares extensively to counter the widely dispersed man-portable air-defense systems, which the rebels have used with 14.5 mm and 23 mm anti-aircraft weapons to steadily degrade the Syrian air force. For example, on Feb. 15 at least two aircraft (the rebels claimed more) were brought down by rebel fire over Syria. Attrition is not the Syrian air force's only concern: The rebels also are intensifying their effort to strike regime air bases.
Still, the regime has continued to mount heavy airstrikes on the rebels despite its air force's considerable losses, trying to punish villages or towns suspected of harboring rebel units. Multiple instances of civilian casualties have been recorded involving the use of indiscriminate and often improvised ordnance, such as the well-known "barrel bombs." The government apparently hopes civilians will turn against the rebels since the rebels' presence draws reprisal strikes on civilians by the air force, though the use of improvised ordnance could also mean the government is running out of standard ordnance. So far, the deterrence campaign does not appear to have had much of an effect, though numerous residents of Aleppo have complained that fighting between the government and rebels has destroyed their city and limited their access to foodstuffs.
The advantage the air force offers the regime extends beyond combat operations. Before the civil war, the regime maintained a significant inventory of transport helicopters and airplanes. The loyalists have relied extensively on the logistical capabilities offered by such aircraft to avoid rebel ambushes and roads mined with improvised explosive devices and also to supply besieged government forces in remote outposts. In one such case, Minakh Air Base has remained isolated deep behind rebel lines in Aleppo governorate for many months now. Surrounded and under continuous attack, the regime troops would certainly have collapsed by now had the air force not been able to maintain a steady (albeit dwindling) supply line through airdrops.
Given the importance of the air force to the loyalist war effort, the regime has made considerable efforts to maintain it as much as possible. This has forced al Assad to turn to foreign allies. Russia, for example, has played a key role in supplying parts and refurbishing aircraft, something demonstrated in the highly publicized attempt by Moscow to deliver refurbished Syrian air force Mi-24 gunships to Syria.
Iran has gone to even greater lengths in its support for the Syrian regime. Tehran has reportedly opened up its inventory of retired Su-22 attack aircraft to the Syrian regime. Syria allegedly has cannibalized this inventory for spare parts, engines and even airframes to maintain the operational tempo of Syria's Su-22 fleet. Similarly, Iran and Syria reportedly have explored the possibility of having Syria send a batch of its aircraft engines to Iran for maintenance. Given that there is clear evidence of continued high-level support for the Syrian regime by Iran (including the transfer of weapons and munitions), these reports could well be true. Indeed, a Stratfor source has indicated that Hossam Khosh Newes, an Iranian official killed Feb. 13 while traveling from Syria to Lebanon, was in fact an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps official directly implicated in the Iranian assistance program to Syria's air force. Since the Iranians recognize the importance of Syria's air force to the regime, Tehran will continue to invest considerable efforts in sustaining it.
Despite Iranian and Russian support, the Syrian air force's current rate of attrition combined with rebel seizures of airfields suggest the air force will continue to see its capabilities degraded as the conflict progresses.