The Syrian military's ability to strike deep inside opposition-held areas and provide close air support for ground forces remains undiminished despite the loss of many aircraft during more than two years of civil war.
The radars of the Patriot air defence systems deployed to Turkey are detecting 'Scud' ballistic missiles being fired into opposition-controlled areas on an almost daily basis, an Ankara-based Western military source has told IHS Jane's . The source added that the Syrian military is also making increased use of long-range artillery rockets.
The Patriots are also detecting Syrian Arab Air Force (SAAF) helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft flying very frequently in support of ground forces.
Turkish military sources told IHS Jane's that the SAAF is able to generate an impressive 100 sorties a day with helicopters and aircraft, on average 50% of which are combat sorties. The other sorties are split roughly equally between transport aircraft and training flights.
The Western military source said few people outside Syria knew how many sorties the SAAF flew a day before the war, but he presumed it was low. "The air force initially had problems because many aircraft were shot down, so it was inexperienced when it came to combat missions," he stated.
A Turkish military source claimed this situation had now changed. "The SAAF has become very effective in avoiding [the insurgency's] air defence, which is mostly composed of light guns and shoulder-launched missiles seized from the Syrian army," he said.
"The increased strength of the SAAF has also been making it possible for Syrian ground forces to get more support from helicopters and aircraft. This is the biggest morale booster for ground forces."
The high sortie rate of Syria's ageing, Soviet-era aircraft is at least partly attributable to Russian support. It has been widely publicised that Russia has been overhauling some Syrian Mil Mi-24 attack helicopters, some of which were reportedly being returned on the Alaed cargo ship that was forced to return to Russia in June 2012 after its insurance was withdrawn.
The annual reports released by Russian defence companies also indicate that 21 of the SAAF's Sukhoi Su-24M ground attack aircraft have been upgraded to the Su-24M2 standard at the Rzhez Aircraft Repair Plant west of Moscow.
The Western military source said the SAAF also benefits from having large pre-war fuel supplies and support from Iranian technicians. Like the SAAF, Iran has Su-24 and MiG-29 jets, as well as Mi-8/17 helicopters, that it keeps flying despite a UN arms embargo.