Syrian Pilot's Defection Highlights Regime's Challenges

2 MINS READJun 21, 2012 | 13:23 GMT
Possible Defection in Syria May Undermine Regime Offensive
Demonstrators rally against Syrian President Bashar al Assad

A Syrian MiG-21 fighter jet landed at the King Hussein Air Base in Mafraq, northwest Jordan, near the border with Syria at 11 a.m. June 21, according to reports. Opposition activists immediately said the pilot, identified by Al Arabiya news channel as Hassan Mari Hamada, had defected. Syrian state TV, however, reported only that communication was lost with a MiG-21 around the same time.

One pilot's defection is unlikely to destroy government confidence in the service as a whole. Defections have become common in the Syrian military, though not as common in the air force as in other branches of service. But there is symbolic value in the purported defection because of the regime's historical ties to the air force. As a result, distrust of the mostly Sunni pilot cadre will grow, and the government may turn to foreign pilots — with possible assistance from Russia — as an alternative, more reliable option.

The Syrian Arab Air Force has a highly symbolic relationship with the regime. Most notably, late Syrian President Hafez al Assad, current President Bashar al Assad's father, was commissioned as one of the first Alawites to serve in the air force, and his support within the service was instrumental in the 1963 coup he helped orchestrate. Most of the pilots are Sunnis, but Alawites — the minority sect that controls the government and armed forces and to which the al Assads belong — dominate the logistical support functions, including the ground crew, air traffic control and the air force's intelligence division.

So far there have been almost no defections — at least ones that have been made public — from the Syrian air force since the rebellion in Syria began 15 months ago. (There have been claims of defections among the elite Syrian Air Force Intelligence directorate.) The regime has kept the force largely involved in training or transport missions or occupied elsewhere, in part due to fear of possible defections, and has kept a close watch over pilots.

But in early 2012, the regime began utilizing helicopters to shell dissident villages and rebel strongholds. The al Assad regime has been careful in dispatching Sunni fighters of any kind to areas where intense shelling and violence takes place against Syrian citizens and rebel fighters in order to avoid defections. However, because Syria's air force is now being used more constantly to quell restive cities, it is logical that some of the Sunni pilots, who may feel less loyalty to the regime than Alawite pilots, might defect.

If a pilot has defected, it would create tension within the air force. It would trigger an internal cleansing as the intelligence directorate works to uncover who knew of the pilot's intentions and who else might be involved. The pilot's closest colleagues, friends, family and senior officers or others at his base will be questioned — some likely tortured and others placed under surveillance.

This comes at a very bad time for the Syrian regime, which has stepped up its offensive against the rebels in recent weeks and is increasingly relying on airpower. The military has been using attack helicopters, not fixed-wing aircraft, to fight the uprising. But attack helicopters — and their pilots — are also part of the Syrian air force, and the question of pilots' loyalty in general will now be pushed to the forefront. 

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