Why Syrian Pilots Are Operating in Yemen

5 MINS READNov 2, 2011 | 12:17 GMT
The An-26 military transport plane that crashed upon landing Oct. 24 in Lahj province, Yemen, killed eight Syrian military personnel and one Yemeni passenger and wounded seven others, including two more Syrians. In the days since the crash, opposition figures have been asking why the regime of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is commissioning Syrian pilots (assuming that those killed in the crash were indeed pilots) to combat opposition forces. The political pressures facing the Syrian regime, not those facing Yemen's, may be more to blame.
Questions are still lingering over the mysterious Oct. 24 crash of a military plane in Yemen that reportedly resulted in the deaths of eight Syrian military personnel and one Yemeni passenger. The An-26 transport plane crashed upon landing at the al Anad air force base in Lahj province, southeast of Sanaa. The cause of the crash remains unclear; Yemeni opposition forces claim it was a Yemeni martyrdom operation by the Yemeni pilot to prevent attacks on opposition forces, but a more reasonable explanation, maintained by the military, is that the crash was due to human and mechanical error. Seven people — two Syrians and five Yemenis — reportedly survived the crash. The obvious question that Yemeni opposition figures have been positing in the days since the crash is why the regime of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is commissioning Syrian airmen to allegedly combat opposition forces. The answer may have more to do with the political pressures currently being faced by the Syrian regime than with Yemen’s own political crisis. Since the crash, Yemeni opposition figures belonging to the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) seized the opportunity to criticize the government for allegedly not having enough trained pilots of its own, thereby having to commission Syrian and even Iraqi pilots to conduct attacks on opposition forces. Anonymous military sources in Yemen responded to those allegations in interviews with state-run media in which they claimed that the Syrian airmen had been working as flight trainers at the Faculty of Aviation and Air Defense since August 1999, when a defense cooperation agreement was signed between Syria and Yemen. It is not surprising to find foreign pilots, particularly Iraqis and Syrians, among Yemen’s air force. Following the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Yemen quietly invited a number of former Iraqi Baathist pilots into its air force to help operate the country’s Soviet-era MiG-29 and Sukhoi jet fighters. Several Iraqi fighter pilots were involved in Yemen’s air offensive on al-Houthi rebel positions in northern Yemen in the fall of 2009. Syrian pilots have been known to operate in Yemen for some time, but STRATFOR sources have indicated that their presence has expanded recently. It is important to remember that Syria’s air force is dominated by Sunni pilots, though Syrian air force intelligence and command and control systems for the air forces are handled almost exclusively by minority Alawites, who are aligned with the regime. When Syria began experiencing more significant demonstrations in the spring, there were unconfirmed rumors that the regime had grounded part of its air force out of concern that Sunni pilots might defect. A STRATFOR source more recently claimed that as part of Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s strategy to prevent Sunni dissent among air force pilots, Syria struck a deal with Saleh to send more Sunni pilots to assist Yemen’s air force. Al Assad’s calculation may have been that the farther away from Syria these pilots were, the less trouble they could cause at home. At the same time, Yemen’s air force was in need of extra assistance to target al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as well as opposition forces. A STRATFOR source claims that about 60 Syrian pilots are in Yemen and are concentrated in southern Abyan province, where AQAP is more active. While trying to shield itself from potential Sunni military defections at home, the Syrian regime also has tried to use its quiet assistance to the Yemeni regime against AQAP as a way to curry favor with the United States. Syria has attempted similar gestures in the past, sporadically offering intelligence cooperation on militant activity in Iraq as a way of seeking relief from Washington when the need arises. The crash that exposed the Syrian military presence in Yemen to the public thus offers a peek into Syria’s own handling of its domestic political crisis. There are no signs thus far of serious breaks within the Alawite-dominated military ranks in Syria that would indicate a coup or collapse of the regime is imminent, but the al Assad clan has had to keep a close eye on its air force for good reason. The last thing it wants is for Sunni pilots to defect and flee with major military hardware to a country like Turkey, which has been offering a great deal of vocal support to the opposition but has thus far refrained from following through with plans to establish a military buffer zone along the border with Syria. Hoping to avoid a situation similar to Libya's, where rebel fighters were able to use the eastern base of Benghazi as a refuge, the Syrian regime is relying on the heavy Alawite presence in the military overall to keep potential Sunni defectors in check. Sending off a few pilots to Yemen could well be part of this protection strategy as the al Assad regime attempts to ward off further dissent.

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