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By Sgt. David S. Nolan

Britain’s Known Unknowns: Possibility That the UK Will Still Be Drawn Into Syrian Intervention

by Phillip Cane – Former Junior Fellow

12th September 2013. Security and Defence, Issue 3, No. 5. 

The RAF interception of Syrian Jets over Cyprus is a sign that Britain can still be sucked into Syrian intervention through regional spill over and unforeseen events.

On the 29th August the House of Commons voted by a majority of thirteen against the principle of intervention in Syria. Whilst the politicians voted against British involvement in the crisis, factors well beyond the control of MPs could force the United Kingdom into intervention in Syria. On the same day of the vote, six Royal Air Force Eurofighter Typhoons from XI Squadron (RAF Coningsby) were deployed to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus. The Ministry of Defence commented on the Typhoon deployment at the time that ‘this is a precautionary measure, specifically aimed at protecting UK interests and the defence of our Sovereign Base Areas at a time of heightened tension in the wider region’. On September 2nd that deployment was tested.

At roughly 11.30am, two Syrian Air Force Sukhoi Su-24, Russian made supersonic all-weather attack aircraft, were spotted by airborne early warning radar onboard an RAF E-3D AWAC Sentry. The Syrian pair operating “low and fast” began to approach the 14 mile exclusion zone around Cyprus and refused to respond to UK air controllers. This prompted the launch of two QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) Typhoons to intercept the Syrian pair, as well as two F-16 fighters from the Turkish Air Force launched to protect Northern Cypriot airspace.

This type of incident, known as “goad and probe”, is an intelligence gathering method by which adversaries buzz (or intrudes) into national airspace to test and time the capabilities and speed of a national defence force in responding to unknown threats. Once a daily occurrence during the Cold War, now they are a feature of resurgent Russian and Chinese provocations against NATO members, Sweden and the Japanese Senakuku Islands.

Although these missions appear seemingly harmless, they have proven to have deadly consequences that have quickly escalated to international crises. In April 2001, a US Navy EP-3E ARIES II signals intelligence aircraft operating off of Hainan Island lead to Chinese Navy interception. Subsequently one of the two Chinese J-8 fighters collided with the ARIES killing the Chinese pilot, the damaged US aircraft conducted an emergency landing on Chinese territory. As such twenty four crew members were detained and continually interrogated, the ensuing international crisis lasted ten days and only ended when both sides shared partial blame. Most recently in June 2012, a Turkish Air Force RF-4E Phantom on a reconnaissance mission at just 200 feet above sea level and 12 miles off the Syrian coast was shot down by Syrian Air Defences as it attempted to probe their readiness. This incident led to NATO deploying Dutch, German and US Patriot missile defence systems to Turkey, after a Turkish request under NATO Article 4.

Consequently the severity of this incident cannot be understated; RAF Akrotiri is currently hosting not only deployed RAF aircraft but also French and US Air Force intelligence assets, whilst the airspace around the island is at present also experiencing high volumes of American, British, French, Saudi, UAE and Qatari air force traffic. As such the appearance of two unidentified low flying fast contacts, originating from Syrian Air Force bases, approaching Cypriot airspace which is frequented with allied unarmed and unescorted transport aircraft and unresponsive to ground controllers could have led to an incident similar to 2001 or 2012.

The normal rules of engagement in a standard NATO interception are to gain visual identification of the incoming unknown “boogie” and to shadow them. However it has been revealed by leaks that post 9/11 RAF policy is to give just two audible warnings after interception before engagement.  Interception would occur outside of restricted or British airspace, in this instance British officials claim that the Syrians were in international airspace, but Cypriot and British media suggest state that the RAF Typhoons had to violate North Cyprus’s airspace to intercept and visually identify the Sukhoi’s near the city of Famagusta, indicating that the Syrians were flying well within the exclusion zone and territorial airspace of Cyprus.

Cyprus at less than 110 miles from Syria, gives a rough flight time of as little as fifteen minutes for the Syrian Air Force and even less for any intercepting RAF aircraft, making the space for visual interception before engagement even less.

Syrian Su-24’s have been regularly filmed in the civil war, dropping unguided ordnance and conducting reconnaissance on Free Syrian Army positions. They also have the capability of carrying advanced weaponry such as RBK series cluster bombs and advanced stand-off missiles like the Soviet Kh-28, Kh-29 and Kh-31. An unknown quantity of Kh-28 missiles were exported by the USSR to Syria, the missile has an estimated operational range of 59 miles giving the RAF roughly 7-8 minutes before RAF facilities enter targeting range. Military sources have briefed the Sunday People and The Telegraph that there have been ‘intelligence reports that have warned of an attack of Akrotiri’ by ‘rogue aircraft’. The MOD have taken this threat seriously and have moved enhanced radar equipment and placed the base on ‘high readiness’, as such the risks of miscalculations and misunderstanding were grave.

Thankfully on this occasion, the Sukhoi’s turned back before interception was needed. But in the aftermath of the event, Foreign Secretary William Hague stated that MPs could be given another chance to vote on military intervention in light of further incidents. Events like this, unforeseen and often minor, have led to a catalogue of conflicts and disputes in the past. The risk for Britain is that it could be drawn into Syrian intervention, whether that is by the actions of Assad or by our own hands is yet to be seen.

Please cite this article as:

Cane, P. (2013). ‘Britain’s Known Unknowns: Possibility That the UK Will Still Be Drawn Into Syrian Intervention’

Human Security Centre, Defence and Security, Issue 3, No. 5.

About Philip Cane

Philip Cane is a former junior Fellow.