As ISIL continues its advances in Syria and Iraq, it is not only getting stronger, but it is also growing its munitions cache. Recently captured military airports have yielded three fighter planes, believed to be MiG-21 and MiG-23. The supersonic planes could be the basis for building an air force.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the group that monitors Islamic State activity states that the planes were captured when ISIL captured Aleppo and Raqqa provinces in Syria. The fighter jets ware based in the province’s military airports.
It has been reported by the UK-based monitoring group that local residents have witnessed short sorties at low altitudes. The flights are apparently originating from the Al Jarrah airbase. While images of ISIL fighters in, what appears to be old fighters, have been distributed over the Internet, these are the first reports of planes actually being airborne.
Further reports have been received that former Iraqi fighter pilots, joining the Islamic State cause, are in the process of training ISIL pilots. The short flights would infer that training flights are taking place. Maintaining low altitudes would also make the flights difficult to detect on radar.
In any case, jet fighters with military capabilities could greatly elevate the conflict and make ISIL a much greater threat to local civilians as well as allied missions being conducted against the group. While flights have been observed, it is not known whether weaponry for the aircraft was also captured.
U.S. Central Command is not aware of any flights by ISIL in Syria. They will, however, continue to monitor the situation while pledging to destroy the group’s military equipment, including munitions, command and control centers and fighter planes.
The Islamic State controls almost a third of Syria’s territory in its efforts to form an Islamic State. Its ability to gain an airspace foothold could escalate the threat to both Syria and Iraq. Should these aircraft ever be used in support of ISIL ground troops, resistance fighters would be greatly overmatched.
Currently, ISIL is continuing its attack on the border city of Kobani. As more fighter reinforcements are being diverted to the area, it is becoming more apparent that the group has made the city a major objective. Allied fighter jets have been destroying a multitude of Islamic State targets and fighters. While it is still not clear whether Kobani will fall to the Islamic State, the group, however, has taken a high toll of casualties. ISIL’s massive push has provided the allies with a “target rich” environment.
What is becoming evident is that the Islamic State is determined to create their own state in a weakened Iraq and a civil war-torn Syria. U.S. intelligence has consistently stated that efforts to curb ISIL’s advances will take some time, with some officials believing that it may take up to a year to curb advances. There is also talk of sending additional advisors to further assist beleaguered defensive forces. While Baghdad is certainly on the Islamic State’s radar, it is, at this point, not in imminent danger. Enlisting Sunni tribes to help in resisting the ISIL advance will be critical to the overall survival of Iraq.
The Islamic State has proven to be an opportunistic force using the Syrian civil war and a weakened Iraqi state to its advantage. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that ISIS will use the Syrian captured fighter planes as a basis for their own small air force. Should that happen, it would mark a major escalation in this growing conflict.
Opinion By Hans Benes