Late Sunday night, two RAF jets were scrambled from their base in Cyprus to investigate with great haste the fact that two Syrian planes had crossed into international airspace, and were headed for Cyprus.
The Sukhoi Su-24 is a supersonic, all-weather attack aircraft, one of the last truly bad boys developed in the good old Soviet Union. It’s true that it can’t hold its own against today’s $60 million a pop aircraft, but in a small place like the island of Cyprus – which it can reach in under 15 minutes from Damascus, it can do a lot of damage. Hence the rapid response.
The two RAF air-defense Eurofighter Typhoons went up, but before they had a chance to engage, even politely, the two Syrian jets turned around and returned to base.
According to the Daily Mail, Turkey also responded with haste, sending two F-16s to the area. Which means this could have erupted into something unexpected. The question remains, though, why did the Syrian airforce, which we understand to still be taking its orders from President Bashar al-Assad, risk losing two fine, albeit Soviet made, fighter jets in a dogfight in which they would be ridiculously over-matched?
A spokesman for the UK Ministry of Defense said: “The MoD can confirm that Typhoon Air Defense Aircraft operated from RAF Akrotiri on Monday to investigate unidentified aircraft to the east of Cyprus; the aircraft were flying legally in international airspace and no intercept was required.”
A military source told the Mail that “Recent intelligence reports have warned of an attack on Akrotiri.”
Akrotiri is one of the UK’s largest overseas bases, with more than 1,300 personnel. It was used in the air campaign against Gaddafi’s Libya in 2011.
According to the Mail, the Typhoons only arrived in Cyprus a week ago—after the parliament had voted down the call to war of Prime Minister David Cameron—as part of what the UK is calling a “prudent and precautionary measure.”
So, while the immediate answer as to why Assad sent two jets to Cyprus would probably be, “because he can,” another, somewhat less open-ended, would be that Assad is trying to asses what he’s up against. How tight is the Western net around him? He reads, right after the good news about the thumbs down on war, that the Brits are still beefing up their air presence next door to him. So he needs to find out what gives.
You’ll notice that Assad has not been harassing either the U.S. Navy’s Sixth fleet, also at his door, or the IDF, in his backyard. I suspect this is because he wanted both his Sukhois to come home in one piece after the experiment, and the Brits are more patient than his other two neighbors.
In that context, it was heart warming to see the Turkish military eager to get into the fight. There’s no telling how Turkey would be impacted by the transformation of the Syrian civil war into a regional conflict, but it is likely to experience interesting, and not entirely negative changes.