Islamist rebel air force takes off in Syria

The Army of Islam releases video showing off its two L-39ZA light fighter jets; unclear whether planes capable of attack role

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel.

A Syrian rebel L-39 Albatros jet as seen in a video uploaded by Jaish al-Islam. (screen capture: YouTube)
A Syrian rebel L-39 Albatros jet as seen in a video uploaded by Jaish al-Islam. (screen capture: YouTube)

Not satisfied with jury-rigged, homemade tanks, an Islamist rebel group fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad has formed its own air force — with real planes.

Jaish al-Islam — the Army of Islam — last week published a YouTube video documenting its activities against the Assad regime, in which it showcases its two L-39ZA Albatros fighter aircraft captured earlier this year from a Syrian Air Force base east of Aleppo.

While the video shows the two small jet aircraft taxiing down a runway, it remains to be seen whether the Islamist militia has the experienced personnel and equipment necessary to operate the planes.

The author of the Oryx Blog posited that the Islamist group could get its miniature air force airborne with help from defected Syrian Air Force pilots and technicians, or with help from one of the several states providing material support to the rebels.

According to aeronautics blog Aircache, the ZA variant of the Czech-made Albatros is “specifically upgraded for light ground attack” and carries “a GsH-23L 23mm twin canon with 150 rounds and outer pylons that can carry air-to-air missiles and ground attack munitions.” The site notes, however, that the light trainer aircraft doesn’t stand a chance against the more sophisticated fighter jets that the Syrian Air Force possesses.

The fact that the Assad forces had been using L-39s in a combat role months into the now over-30-month-old civil war indicates, however, that the Syrian Air Force was “clearly having difficulty maintaining, arming, and using its more advanced Russian jets,” the site noted in 2012.

“The major factor is going to be whether or not they can avoid having aircraft being shot down by Syrian air defenses when they do use them,” Eliot Higgins, Syrian civil war arms expert and author of the Brown Moses blog, told The Times of Israel. Sophisticated anti-aircraft systems like the S-300, which Russia mulled selling Damascus earlier this year, wouldn’t even be necessary, Higgins said. Aircraft as small as the Albatros would only require MANPADS — shoulder-mounted anti-aircraft missiles.

A Syrian rebel group known as Ahrar ash-Sham captured the Jarrah air base from Assad forces in February 2013.

“Rebel fighters from several Islamist factions have fully taken over the al-Jarrah military airport,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported at the time, recording five rebel deaths and over 40 regime casualties in the fighting.

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