Israeli satellite photos show Russian Air Force deployment in Syria

The Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies published unique photos on Monday that expose a small part of the Russian Air Force’s operations in the Syrian civil war, showing dozens of aircraft and surface-to-air missiles batteries deployed at the Assad regime stronghold in Latakia.

Despite the inconclusive results at the beginning of the Russian campaign in Syria last summer, Israeli defense officials noted that over the past few weeks, Moscow’s military aid to President Bashar Assad has been bearing fruit, and even able to stop the advance of ISIS, as well as other moderate rebels and al-Qaeda-affiliated militias.

The photos, taken by the Israeli surveillance satellite Aros, show an increase of Russian forces in the area, which could explain the recent success.

Tal Inbar, the head of the missile research division at the Fisher Institute, said the photos show over 30 Russian fighter jets waiting on the ground, including 11 supersonic Sukhoi Su-24 bombers.

A Sukhoi Su-24 bomber was shot down two years ago by an Israeli Patriot battery after it infiltrated Israeli airspace, while a Turkish F16 fighter jet shot downed another last year in an incident that inflamed tensions between Moscow and Ankara.

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The photos also show ten Sukhoi Su-25, a lighter jet, seven advanced Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets, and four advanced interception and attack Sukhoi Su-30 aircraft.

Additional aircraft were likely out on aerial strikes while the satellite photos were taken.

“You can still see evidence of the vast number of attack sorties at the maintenance structures set up in the field, where Sukhoi Su-24 aircraft are going through repairs and engine replacement due to wear caused by the planes’ high level of activities in the Syrian airspace,” Inbar added.

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Part of these Russian fighter jets also conducted sorties in the Syrian Golan over the past few months, only several kilometers away from the Israeli border.

The Russian Air Force operations in the area are done in real time coordination with its Israeli counterpart through a mechanism set by the heads of the two militaries six months ago.

About two months ago, the Russian Air Force also deployed advanced S-400 antiaircraft batteries.

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“We can see from the photos that the Russians stationed and began operating the S-400 batteries, and stationed alongside them Pantsir SA-22 missiles, also purchased by Iran, in order to protect the batteries from attack,” Inbar said. “The Russians upped the aerial defense on their air base after one of their aircraft was shot down by the Turkish Air Force because they were worried about escalation.”

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According to Inbar, the Russian deployment of advanced antiaircraft batteries in Syria is an important statement, as the rebels do not possess fighter jets and no foreign air force threatens the Russian pilots in the area.

“The Russians have an organized combat doctrine when it comes to deploying their air force, and if they operate out of a foreign air base, then they have appropriate defense methods. The way they see it, they’re here to stay, perhaps even for a long period of time, and that’s why they’re treating this base as Russian territory that needs to be defended in order to ensure freedom of operation,” he said.

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The deployment of the advanced batteries raised concerns in Israel, but Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon stressed the deployment of these batteries was included in the coordination with the Russians.

The Aros satellites, operated by the Israeli ImageSat International company, are built by the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and equipped with Elop space cameras. ISI purchased two such satellites in the past and ordered a third, far more advanced satellite last year.

These photos, taken a week ago, will be presented at the International Space Conference on Tuesday, organized by the Fisher Institute.