John Bundock

Asking Syrian Airmen anything

National Hospital of al-Tabqa, the entrance hit by what activists say was a regime airstrike. (REUTERS)
Syrian Air Force flag (Wikipedia)

When Ismael Ayoub and Abdulsattar al-Asaff were drafted in the mid-1980s, they joined the Syrian Arab Air Force. The two former airmen, of Rastan and Hama respectively, did not expect in nearly 3 decades time they would find themselves recording the abuse of the very planes they used to operate. Ayoub and Al-Assaff’s testimony in a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” interview provides a window into the chaos and genocidal sectarianism within the Syrian Arab Air Force.

During their 18 years of service, Ayoub and al-Assaf flew a variety of aircraft, training with the MB 2223 Flamingo and Aero L-39 Albatross before going on active duty with the MiG 21-MF and SU-24. Ayoub developed a particular affinity for the Sukhoi 17/22 M2. Al-Assaf liked the MiG-21, in spite of its rapid touch-down speeds. Al-Assaf rose to the office of Colonel, serving as an instructor at K’Sheish military airport and the academy at Kweiress military airport. He even managed to secure a 2010-11 position teaching pilots in Yemen. Ayoub made the rank of Staff Colonel. Ayoub was paid a salary of 35,000 Syrian pounds or nearly $700 then. However, this was not enough and had few benefits to sustain his wife and seven children. Twenty months in, he had to take a second job “to make ends meet.”

The end of the Cold War was a hard time for the Syrian Arab Air Force. According to Ayoub, there was less of an emphasis on countering Israeli planes and there was a consensus against having qualified pilots. By Ayoub’s account, the last piece of equipment the air force bought were old Soviet SU-24s labeled as inoperable, which would explain the increased reliance on helicopters, chlorine gas, and improvised barrel bombs. The training curriculum was cut down so dramatically after 1989 (the year he graduated) that “five years prior to the revolution, we flew no more than 50 hours per year… before that we flew an average of 25 to 30 hours per year.” Syrian ingenuity in the Civil War was foreshadowed in the jury-rigs of the air force’s repairmen: five years prior to the protests and conflict, maintenance teams were “very good” and “produced miracles” having to work with outdated and discontinued equipment. Workplace hazards were numerous: “There was an accident for every 200 hours of flight. These incidents were classified and we were not allowed to talk about it.” By “2006 or 2007, I can't remember exactly” a visiting Russian delegation was shocked the planes were still “airworthy.”

As al-Assaf described, the inadequacy of this equipment was further confirmed over the course of the war; “They have 2 squadrons of Mig-29 but they are not in very good condition and have not been updated. …The [Air Force] has one squadron of SU-24 that are also not very widely used and are in bad condition. Two SU-24s were shot down by the rebels: one in Daraa and one in Idlib near Dana.”

Al-Assaf’s remarks on the army did not leave a pretty picture either: “There's a lot of corruption in the Army just like any other government institution in Syria. The Army, unfortunately, used to offer a great place for those who were looking for a career opportunity and soldiers were viewed positively. Sadly, all that dissipated when [Hafez] Assad … came to power and he transformed the Army [into] a mob family.”

This seems to confirm the image given by the short-lived blog, Syria Exposed, whose plucky protagonist Karfan related the Kafka-esque situation of being a radar operator for the Syrian Arab Army in Lebanon.

Life in the Air Force was oppressive for both men. According to Ayoub, the moukhabarat “knew every little detail about us;” he could not travel freely and had to often check in with command. He described attitudes towards religious freedom as comparatively “relaxed” for his time (it was years after the Hama Massacre), but he had to report to Intelligence officials many times for praying. “They told me I could pray as long as I did it solo, not in congregation (jama'a).” Al-Assaf recalls his squadron being composed of 33 pilots: 29 Alawites, the remainder Sunni with the occasional Druze or Christian. Unlike Ayoub, al-Assaf remembers facing severe harassment from his colleagues over religion: from taunting his fasting during Ramadan to even having to lock one’s door and hide during times of prayer. Having political opinions was considered suicidal. “Many pilots disappeared and died in Palmyra prison or moukhabarat dungeons for praying or fasting openly. I would not dare to pray on base and I was labeled as religious, because I go to the mosque sometimes for congregation prayer and my wife wears the head scarf,” he said. These reported insults added to the moral injury al-Assaf sustained having lived through the Hama Massacre. “Lots of death and lots of misery. It was unbelievably painful… I saw the bodies, the heads and limbs of people at the Keilanié quarter and the Bashoura quarter. I saw the bulldozers simply filling bucket after bucket of bodies mixed with rubble and putting it all in landfills. When [Defense Brigades] attacked with Rifaat Assad at their head, I was in grade nine. The population of Hama gathered as much weapons as they could and brought it all to the school and everyone grabbed what he could to defend ourselves.”

Ayoub defected out of nationalist duty to his fellow citizens: “I was drafted in the army to protect my country and the people of Syria. The regime wanted me to kill the same people I took an oath of honor to protect. The regime wanted me to use excessive and unimaginable force against unarmed civilians and innocent people. … I felt I could not protect my family anymore… That is the reason why I defected and I'm proud of it. I refuse to kill my own people and destroy my own country.” The process was complicated by regime security forces, which were keen to hinder him. Most Sunni pilots were immediately stopped from flying by the Jihaz al-Moukhabarat al-Jawiia' (Air Force Intelligence). When the protests grew, he and other Sunni pilots were placed under house arrest. The intelligence services were not entirely successful; Colonel Hassan Hamada would be the first to defect by jet to Jordan a month after Ayoub’s own defection in May of 2012.

Al-Assaf’s defection was for similar reasons, but took more than 6 months. The officers around him were far more brutal and coercive. As the war escalated, K’sheish became a base for targeting Deir Hafer, Lake Assad and Maskane, and some parts of Tabqa. Sectarian hatred was evident from the beginning of his superiors’ involvement: “The Alawite pilots often bragged [openly] during my time at Ksheish and Kweiress airport about how they dropped bombs and killed 'Dirty Sunnis'. Sometimes we'd ask them: ‘Did you hit the target (rebels)?’ He'd say ‘No, I dropped it on a village or on fishing boats....who cares they're all Sunnis let them burn.’ I swear on everything valuable that was their response.” In another instance, when a Colonel from Homs did not react to a newscast with screams of ‘terrorist,’ “he was handcuffed and a bag was placed on his head in front of me by the moukhabarat. He was then taken and tortured for a week before he was returned.”

After initial reluctance to field Sunnis, efforts were made to involve Sunni airmen in the killing. “My squadron leader, an Alawite, would only choose Alawite pilots for the mission. So the Sunni pilots were grounded... Then the squadron leader started to ask me to carry out missions. They wanted to implicate us, the Sunnis … make us feel guilty and test us. I refused to carry out any mission. Such refusal carries the death penalty but I was very lucky”. In Yemen, al-Assaf had gotten kidney disease and was able to use it as pretext for being unfit to fly in mid-2012. For those who did not have such an excuse: “Some were forced to fly missions, especially in the two-seater Albatross, where they would ask the Sunni pilot to fly as a navigator and the front pilot … would fire and deploy bombs.” Confrontations even broke out in-flight when aircraft targeted civilian areas: “One Major helicopter pilot refused to drop a bomb on a school… the pilot cried when he saw nothing but children playing in the school yard. The co-pilot was an Alawite and he wanted to drop the load so the major prevented him by maneuvering the helicopter. They tried to assassinate him as he was trying to leave. Instead they killed his escort.” The pilot would later defect to the FSA and die from a TNT barrel bombs in the battle for Minnigh Airport.

Fear was omnipresent as Ksheish was under siege by rebel troops: “I had to have my AK-47 in proximity at all-time [with] Full armor vest with ammo and my pistol cocked and ready to fire in my holster.” He was unaware many of the besiegers were hoping for defectors like him, “I didn't know who was going to kill me first.” In December of 2012, as K’sheish’s high-ranking officers were moved to Kweiress, al-Assaf complained of pain to get a helicopter-transport. Shortly after the tumultuous transit, he got in contact with a doctor who provided him an excuse to meet up with a defected captain. From there, he traveled city to city in Idlib province until reaching Turkey, getting his family to safety before returning to Syria.

When questioned about the fate of his colleagues in Kweiress (presently besieged by ISIS), al-Assaf says he knows that no one is left: “I'm sure they're either dead or they got out.” He recently provided analysis for Orient News on the taking of Palmyra by ISIS. When asked of his present endeavors, he was ambiguous: “Working with certain NGOs to bring to justice war criminals…Let's just say that I'm wherever I'm needed.” Meanwhile, Ayoub is helping document war-crimes committed by the Syrian Arab Air Force he once served with. “We are working closely with the ICC documenting names of pilots who are dropping bombs and so on,” Ayoub said. When asked what Ayoub missed most about his country, the response was concise and sad: “Everything.”

National Hospital of al-Tabqa, the entrance hit by what activists say was a regime airstrike. (REUTERS)

Al-Assaff’s testimony in a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” interview provides a window into the chaos and genocidal sectarianism within the Syrian Arab Air Force."