Satellite images show two Su-57 at airbase in Latakia; Russian official says presence of planes a ‘message’ to neighboring states who fly aircraft into Syria ‘uninvited’
Moscow appears to have deployed an advanced new stealth fighter to its airbase in Syria, reports in Russian news media and online videos of the aircraft indicated on Thursday, in what analysts say could be a risky attempt to gain publicity and operational experience for the jet in one of the world’s most tangled conflicts.
Their appearance comes at a fraught moment in the seven-year war, as the US and Russia occasionally scramble jets to intercept each other over Syria and pro-regime warplanes pound the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta despite protests from the UN.
More than 330 people have been killed there since the bombing began on Sunday, according to reports.
The deployment of two Su-57 fighter aircraft, which were filmed landing at Russia’s Khmeimim airbase along the Mediterranean coast, would represent the latest high-tech military system Russia has exhibited in Syria, a conflict that has already been used to demonstrate the prowess of Russian cruise missiles and combat helicopters.
Both the Kremlin and the Russian ministry of defence declined to comment on whether the fifth-generation Russian fighter jets, which are still in combat testing phases, had been deployed.
Russian news agencies, including the respected RBC business daily, published reports on Thursday saying sources in the ministry of defence had confirmed the presence of the advanced fighter jets in Syria.
Satellite images by Israeli company ImageSat International this week showed the fifth generation jets — two Su-57 fighter aircraft — at Russia’s airbase in the coastal Syrian city of Latakia.
The jets are said to be a potential rival to the US’s Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, which American forces use in patrols over Syria.
The deployment came with a covert warning to Israel by a Russian official, who said that the presence of the Su-57s will doubtlessly send a political message, serving as a deterrent “for aircraft from neighboring states, which periodically fly into Syrian airspace uninvited.”
Speaking to the Russian news network Sputnik, Vladimir Gutenov, chairman of the Military Industry Committee in the Russian parliament, said on Friday that the jets “need to be tested in combat conditions, in conditions of [enemy] resistance.”
And a photo for the RuAF A-50U #41 Red landing at the AB after a combat mission. pic.twitter.com/FIV8xcpeuJ
— Wael Al Hussaini (@WaelAlHussaini) February 23, 2018
Since 2015, when Moscow began lending air support to the regime of President Bashar Assad and carrying out airstrikes across the country, Russia and Israel have maintained an understanding aimed at avoiding accidental confrontations between the two countries in Syrian airspace.
The countries use a “hotline” to communicate on security coordination.
Earlier this month, that mechanism was tested when Israel shot down an Iranian drone that has entered Israeli airspace, leading to large-scale Israeli strikes in Syria and heavy Syrian counter-fire. An Israeli F-16 fighter jet subsequently crashed under fire from Syrian air defenses in a severe increase in tensions.
In the wake of the attacks, Israel had appealed to Russia to intervene and prevent further escalation, and conveyed to Moscow that the events were proof that its warnings of Iranian entrenchment and growing boldness in Syria were merited. Russia has subsequently called on Israel and Iran to “show restraint.”
Israel has, over the years, carried out a number of airstrikes in Syria, reportedly targeting the Iranian-backed Hezbollah cells and weapons shipments.
Meanwhile, Russia has routinely used Syria as a testing ground for weapons and latest military technology.
A Russian official said earlier this week that Moscow has tested over 200 weapons during the conflict, now in its eighth year.
“As we helped the brotherly Syrian people, we tested over 200 new types of weapons,” said Vladimir Shamanov on Thursday.
Shamanov is a former commander of Russia’s airborne troops, who now serves as head of the Russian Duma’s defense committee.
Earlier this month, the Pentagon voiced growing concern that the risky flying of Russian pilots in Syria could lead to a mishap — or even the nightmare scenario of a US jet shooting down a Russian warplane.
Defense officials highlighted several recent close calls with Russian planes, including one on February 14, when a pair of US F-22s intercepted two Russian jets over a part of Syria in which the Pentagon says they are not meant to be operating.