Al Qaeda Linked Jihadists Now Have American Hawk Air Defence Systems — Thanks To Turkey

The Turkish Military has for close to a decade provided advanced armaments to Islamist insurgent groups operating on Syrian soil against the Syrian government, and from 2017 emerged as the protector of Al Qaeda-linked militias ruling over Syria’s Idlib governate near the Turkish border. Idlib has emerged as the largest Al Qaeda stronghold the world has seen in 20 years, ever since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in September 2001, and has been a staging ground for multiple terror attacks on settlements in northern Syria. 

Major clashes for control of Idlib took place from January to March 2020 as the Syrian Arab Army advanced on the governate, and although government forces managed to gain ground Turkey launched a massive military intervention to support jihadist groups including the provision of embedded officers in the militants’ ranks and of handheld short ranges surface to air missile systems. 

The militants’ air defences took considerable losses to Russian airstrikes launched in support of Syrian government forces, which killed several Turkish officers in the process.

Turkey has reportedly escalated its efforts to strengthen jihadist air defences with the transfer of at least three batteries of American-made MIM-23 Hawk systems. The Hawk is widely considered obsolete and dates back to 1960 in its service, with the modernised Improved Hawk variant thought to be in the Turkish arsenal having entered service from 1972. Considering strict restrictions on the use of its air defence equipment, Turkey may have requested U.S. permission to transfer the missile systems to the militants under its protection. 

The Improved Hawk has a 45km engagement range and could pose a threat particularly to older Syrian aircraft such as the MiG-21BiS or MiG-23B which have older electronic warfare countermeasures to disrupt the radar-guided missiles. Although these aircraft are capable of flying above the maximum engagement altitude of the Hawk system, this would significantly reduce the precision of their strikes. More modern aircraft, such as Russia’s Su-34 strike jets, could be deployed to suppress enemy air defences to pave the way for safer strikes by lower end Syrian fighters. 

The Hawk system nevertheless represents a major improvement to militant air defences and a considerable escalation. 

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