Russia’s Top Fighters and Attack Helicopters Led Mideast Counterterror Drills: Su-35s and Ka-52s Over Syria

The Russian Air Force in the first week of August deployed its top classes of fighter and combat helicopter the Su-35S and Ka-52 for joint tactical training exercises with the Syrian Arab Army, which was confirmed by the Russian Defence Ministry on August 3. The exercise was the first of its kind between the two states, and saw forces jointly respond to an incursion by militants who had seized a population centre full of civilians and fortified their positions. Russian and Syrian forces carried out such operations extensively from 2015-2017 against the Islamic State terror group and various Turkish and Western backed Islamist militias across the country, although the focus of military cooperation has since shifted towards preparations for conflict with state actors. During the recent exercises Russian Su-35s and Ka-52s were deployed to “destroy armoured vehicles and defensive positions of the simulated terrorists,” with older Su-24M strike fighters also deployed for air to ground missions. Syrian Arab Army personnel from the 25th Special Mission Forces Division then conducted ground operations using Russian equipment, with some repelling from Russian military helicopters while others used Russian parachute systems to skydive from 1,500-3,000 meter altitudes. 

Su-35s have been used more extensively in air to air combat than any other post-Cold War fighter class over Ukraine, engaging a range of fighter, drone and helicopter classes, and have also been used for air defence suppression. The class was ordered by the Iranian Defence Ministry in 2022, which has been another leading supporter of the Syrian government, with the Russian Air Force itself having received two new batches this year with two more currently in production. Russian Air Force Su-35 operations in Syria have gained growing publicity in recent weeks, with the fighters having made close intercepts of American MQ-9 Reaper drones over the country at least twice in July. An interception on July 23 saw the drone’s propellor seriously damaged after the U.S. alleged the Russian jet had released flares in its path.

Su-35s were first deployed to Syria in early 2016 to counter potential threats from NATO aircraft to Russian counterinsurgency operations, which had begun in September 2015 after the Syrian government requested Moscow provide support to its forces. Insurgents continue to operate in enclaves near the Turkish and Iraqi borders under the protection of the Turkish and U.S. militaries respectively, although the presences of both NATO members’ forces are considered illegal as they lack authorisation either from the United Nations Security Council or from Damascus to be on Syrian soil. Turkish backed jihadists in particular, which have been recruited from across Islamic countries particularly Turkic ethnic groups such as Chinese Uyghur Islamists, have continued to use the border regions as a staging ground for attacks on Syrian and population centres and Russian military bases, and continue to receive very significant support from the Turkish government for their operations.