By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
News spread by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), Reuters and other media indicate the commencement of Islamic State jet operations from Kshesh Air Force Base.
A video uploaded after the first news spread proved to show the planes being operated by the Islamic State. However, the first part shows fighters of Ahrar al-Sham inspecting the hardened aircraft shelters housing L-39s after just capturing Kshesh on 12th of February 2013, the second part shows Jaish al-Islam operating two of the L-39s and the last part shows a L-39 from the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) on a bombing sortie over Aleppo early in the Syrian Civil War.
Kshesh (also known as Jirah or Jarrah) was once home to the SyAAF's 2 Squadron operating L-39ZAs and one unknown squadron operating L-39ZOs. After being captured by Ahrar al-Sham on 12th of February 2013, it saw the birth of the first rebel air force in Syria.
Jaish al-Islam managed to get at least two of the around dozen remaining L-39s operational and briefly showed them in a video. Although aided by former SyAAF personnel, Jaish al-Islam was never reported to have conducted any sorties with the L-39s and the base was abandoned in light of the Islamic State's advance in the Aleppo Governorate in early 2014. After the capture of Kshesh by the Islamic State, the base was transformed into a training base for fresh IS recruits.
According to the original report , Iraqi personnel formerly serving in the Iraqi Air Force (IrAF) under Saddam Hussein aided in the training of IS fighters to operate the three planes at Kshesh. And while the IrAF indeed owned L-39s, most of the fleet was already inoperational after the first Gulf War in 1991. Nonetheless, the L-39 is one of the easiest jet aircraft to fly and maintain, making it ideally suited for groups like Jaish al-Islam and the Islamic State.
Given their past experience, the theory of Iraqi personnel solely working on the planes seems much more plausible than the Iraqis giving training to other fighters how to maintain and operate the three L-39s.
However, witnesses reportedly told the SOHR that the planes appeared to be MiG-21s or MiG-23s. But as none of these were ever stationed at Kshesh, this can be quickly dismissed. As every fighter aircraft in Syria automatically gets branded as a MiG, it is likely the witnesses were clueless about the exact type and MiG-21 or MiG-23 got added later on.
Seen below are from top to bottom; The L-39, a MiG-21 and a MiG-23.
The claim of three aircraft being operated by the Islamic State also comes as a suprise as Jaish al-Islam, with aid of personnel formerly stationed at the base, was only known to have managed getting two L-39s in operational condition. As there was no flow of spare parts, Jaish al-Islam likely cannibalized the other L-39s presence at Kshesh to make this happen.
But even if Jaish al-Islam departed the airbase without sabotaging their L-39s, it still doesn't explain the presence of a third aircraft. If the Islamic State really managed to get a third aircraft operational, which should have been non-operational since early 2013, it truly shows the ingenuity and willingness of the group to to turn every possible weapon against its former owners.
The photo below, showing three fighters of the Islamic State (now both KIA) inspecting a L-39 shortly after the capture of Kshesh from Jaish al-Islam indicates that at least one of the two L-39s formerly operated by Jaish al-Islam was, although looking worn-out due to weather elements or bad quality paint, still reasonably intact. The presence of a protective cover suggests the plane wasn't sabotaged by Jaish al-Islam.
According to other testemonies of witnesses , the planes clearly took off from Kshesh. If true, and linked to the base while in the hands of the Islamic State and not Jaish al-Islam, L-39s operating from the nearby Kweres airbase, which is already being under siege since December 2012, can be definetely ruled out.
Most flights of aircraft only lasted for about five to ten minutes according to witnesses. The short flightime was likely for tests and out of fear to be intercepted by the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF).
For combat missions, L-39s can carry up to 1.290 kg worth of UB-16 rocket pods for 57mm rockets, bombs or fuel tanks distributed over four pylons. The L39ZA's outer two pylons are wired for R-60 short tange air-to-air missiles. Although in widespread use by Syria, none were seen at Kshesh or Tabqa.
It's difficult to tell if and to what degree the Islamic State is envisaging fast jet operations from either Kshesh or Tabqa, especially with the U.S.-led bombing campaign now in force. Known is that if definite proof of IS operating jet fighters arrives, Kshesh might finds itself on the receiving end of the U.S.-led airstrikes.
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