A MiG-21 combat aircraft flown by a Syrian pilot who defected to Jordan in June was found to have been upgraded back in Syria to carry chemical weapons and to fly without a pilot, according to U.S. experts who examined the plane. The experts believe Russian engineers helped convert the plane and that Syria has more of them in its air force.
On June 21, Syrian pilot Hassan Hamada, who holds a rank equivalent to colonel, took off in his MiG-21 from al-Dumair military airport northeast of Damascus and flew to King Hussein Airbase just across Syria's southern border with Jordan. Upon landing in Jordan, Hamada removed his rank and requested political asylum.
Syria immediately admitted the pilot had defected and called him a traitor. Suspicion arose when Syria put increasing pressure on Jordan to return the plane. After being examined by Western intelligence agencies, the aircraft was discovered to have the ability to employ chemical weapons and fly without a pilot.
Information about the plane's additional capability was reportedly passed on to U.S. intelligence agencies, which were said to have studied the information and interviewed Hamada. After concluding their examinations, U.S. experts said they believe Russian engineers helped convert the MiG-21 to an aircraft with unmanned aerial capability that could be armed with chemical weapons. Officials at the Pentagon believe additional Syrian aircraft underwent the same conversion, although the exact number is unknown.
Meanwhile, U.N. and Arab League envoy al-Akhdar al-Ibrahimi met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Monday to discuss the prolonged crisis in Syria. Reports by the official Syrian media described the meeting as "positive" and quoted Assad as saying, "The Syrian government is determined to succeed in its efforts for the good of the Syrian people and protect the country's sovereignty and independence."
Assad's remarks come despite the Syrian regime’s survival being in doubt and the scenario of Syria divided into three political entities — a northeastern Kurdish sector, an Alawite sector along the coast and a Sunni-ruled area in the remainder of the country — becoming more of a reality each day.
Recently, after 21 months of clashes between forces loyal to Assad's Baath Party government and those seeking to oust it, reports of the use of chemical weapons against the rebels have become more frequent. After a recent report by Iranian and Hezbollah news agencies that claimed anti-Assad forces used chemical weapons on Syrian soldiers, rebel leaders claimed on Monday that seven opposition fighters had been killed when Syrian troops launched an attack near Homs, which, they said, included the use of chemical weapons. Photos of the alleged victims of the attack were shown on TV but no independent source was able to authenticate them.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Monday that the use of chemical weapons by Syrian troops would be tantamount to suicide for Assad.