BAGHDAD – Syrian activists say the Islamic State militant group has captured some MiG fighter jets and is test-flying the warplanes in Syria with the help of former Iraqi air force pilots.
Friday’s account by the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights could not be independently confirmed, and U.S. officials said they had no reports of the militants flying jets in support of their fighters in Iraq and Syria.
The observatory said the planes, seen flying over the Jarrah air base in the eastern countryside of Syria’s Aleppo province this week, are believed to be of the MiG-21 and MiG-23 varieties. Rami Abdurrahman, director of the observatory, said the planes have been flying at a low altitude, “apparently to avoid being detected by Syrian military radar in the area.”
He described the flights as a “moral victory” for the Islamic State, also called ISIS, saying “the jets could not fly much further without being knocked down” by the U.S. led-coalition that is conducting airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.
The group is known to have seized fighter jets from at least one air base it captured from the Syrian army in Raqqa province earlier this year. Militant websites had posted photos of ISIS fighters with the warplanes, but it was unclear whether they were operational.
Abdurrahman said ISIS members were being trained by Iraqi officers who had joined the group and who were once pilots under Saddam Hussein.
The Jarrah air base was captured by Islamic groups including al-Qaida’s Syrian branch, the Nusra Front, in early 2013. It was taken by Islamic State militants in January.
Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top U.S. commander for the Middle East, said he has no operational reports of the militants flying jets in support of their forces. Austin, the head of the U.S. Central Command who is directing the fight in Iraq and Syria, told Pentagon reporters he also has no information about Iraqi pilots defecting to ISIS.
An Iraqi intelligence official said the government is aware of several ex-Iraqi military officers going to Syria to train militants with the Islamic State group. He added that the militants acquired warplanes from al-Tabaqa air base in Syria but did not get any when they toppled the Iraqi military in Mosul.
If ISIS fighters learn how to use such aircraft, they would become vulnerable to both Syrian and Iraqi MANPADS – man-portable air-defense-systems – and coalition fighters, said Richard Brennan, an Iraq expert at Rand Corp. and former U.S. Defense Department policymaker.
“The possession of these aircrafts will have a minimal military impact – however, they will provide a significant psychological boost to IS, especially if IS can find a way to periodically employ them against military or civilian targets,” Brennan said.
The report on the warplanes came as the Islamic State battled for two strategic towns hundreds of miles apart in Iraq and Syria.
The group pressed an offensive on the Iraqi city of Ramadi, the capital of the vast Sunni-dominated Anbar province located 70 miles west of Baghdad. Ramadi has, for the most part, remained in the hands of Iraqi military forces since the group first pushed into Anbar province in December.
The government in Baghdad imposed a curfew Friday in Ramadi as Iraqi forces moved to eliminate pockets of resistance there, said Sabah Karhout, the chairman of the Anbar provincial council.
Capturing Ramadi would have a ripple effect throughout the region, since controlling the provincial capital would ultimately paralyze the surrounding areas and help the militant group secure yet another corridor with Syria for the passage of fighters, munitions and field artillery to move between countries.
Major operations also are underway in Iraq’s Salahuddin province to retake key areas between the city of Tikrit, which is mostly controlled by the Sunni militant group, and the town of Beiji, home to Iraq’s largest oil refinery. Two Iraqi military officials said the operation was receiving significant coalition air support.
In the past week, the U.S. Central Command has reported only three airstrikes in Anbar province: one near Ramadi, one near the captured town of Hit and one near the Haditha Dam.
By contrast, at least 60 coalition airstrikes were launched this week in Syria around the Kurdish town of Kobani to try to scale back the militants’ onslaught near the border with Turkey.
The fierce fighting for Kobani has allowed the coalition to take out large numbers of Islamic State militants, Austin said, restricting the fighters’ freedom of movement and communications.
Clashes between Kurdish fighters and Islamic State militants continued in Kobani.
A Kurdish official said Kurdish fighters have begun sharing information with the coalition to coordinate strikes against ISIS militants there.
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