by Valerie Szybala with Chris Harmer
According to data collected between 30 March and 20 May, the Syrian regime flew at least 1,864 air sorties in the northern Hama region. Although attention has focused recently on helicopter-borne barrel bombs, it is significant that 42% of these sorties have been fixed-wing jets with the remaining 58% being helicopters. The fact that the regime is able to maintain a sustained air campaign in this region certainly indicates a high-level of resupply and logistical resources. And as the ongoing airstrikes and increasing use of chlorine-filled barrel bombs demonstrate, rebels have yet to overcome the asymmetric advantage created by Assad’s air force. There are several options available to address the regime’s air superiority, all of which have been debated and none of which have been implemented. These options include implementation of a No Fly Zone, grounding the Syrian air force, and providing certain opposition groups with a ground-to-air capability in the form of MANPADs (Man-Portable Air Defense Systems).
Jets are significantly more labor-intensive and resources-draining to maintain and fly. Helicopters have been used more heavily by the regime in recent months than fixed-wing aircraft because they are easier to maintain, are ideal for dropping barrel bombs, and can land at a steeper angle and therefore at besieged airbases where it has become too dangerous for jets. Several of these sorties likely carried barrel bombs containing chlorine, since most of the recently reported chlorine chemical attacks have been in northern Hama (especially the town of Kfar Zeita) and nearby southern Idlib.
The data above indicates that Hama Military airport is the most critical airbase in the central eastern corridor for Syria. Abu Duhur and Shayrat are both used heavily as well. Abu Duhur has been heavily besieged by rebels for well over a year, and was at one point at least partially under their control in April 2013. It has since reverted to full regime control and although it is no longer used for fixed-wing aircraft (likely too difficult to land safely with the rebels’ continued presence near the airbase), it is used heavily for helicopter sorties. The clear area around Shayrat airbase in Homs makes it easier for the regime to hold a large enough perimeter to safely run fixed-wing sorties, and accordingly the regime has come to rely on Shayrat heavily for launching fixed-wing sorties.
The data on regime air sorties shows that even while the regime has focused its main efforts on urban centers such as Aleppo, it is able to keep up pressure on rebels elsewhere with a steady stream of air attacks. Rebels have been pushing hard recently to take regime military positions in the area, with notable successes. We can expect that these rebel advances on the ground will be accompanied by an increase in airstrikes in the coming weeks. And with Russia continuing to resupply the Syrian air force, there are few indications that this will change anytime soon.