Syrian Flier’s Defection to Israel Could Yield an Intelligence Bonanza

When a Symons air force major flew his MiG-23 to an air base in northern Israel on Wednesday and then asked for political asylum, he placed one of the Soviet Union’s most sophisticated combat aircraft into Israeli hands for study.

He also became the first Arab flier to defect to Israel in more than 20 years.

The bizarre incident was announced by Israeli security sources, but the details were sparse. The Israel Defense Force spokesperson refused to comment.

Israeli sources claimed a second Syrian pilot defected to Egypt on Wednesday, landing a MiG-23 at Alexandria. Cairo denied this, but the reports persisted.

In Damascus, a senior Syrian official said the plane that arrived in Israel made an emergency landing because of mechanical trouble. Syria asked the International Committee of the Red Cross to have its delegates in Israel visit the pilot.

In Geneva, ICRC spokesman Carlos Bauverd confirmed Wednesday that Red Cross representatives in Israel have already approached the authorities for permission.

Military sources here identified the defector as Maj. Abel Bassem, 34. They said he was cooperating with Israeli debriefing officers.

Gaining possession of a fully equipped MiG-23 is a major coup for Israel. The plane may be the only one of its kind intact and fully armed in Western hands.

RABIN FLIES TO AIR BASE

The MiG-23, known to NATO as “Flogger,” is a variable-wing, single-seat jet interceptor capable of speeds of 1,520 mph, which is 2.3 times the speed of sound. Its normal armament consists of one 23mm twin-barrel cannon and four air-to-air missiles.

The first MiG-23 went into service with the Soviet air force in 1971 and set a world speed record. It was exported to Iraq, Syria and Egypt after the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Some intelligence sources believe the Soviets supply Arab client states with stripped-down versions of their aircraft, lacking the most advanced equipment.

Nevertheless, the Israelis are believed delighted to have an intact MiG-23 in their hands to study and test. Immediately after Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin flew to the air base where the jet landed.

Retired Col. Ze’ev Eytan, a senior research associate at Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, said although the MiG-23 is not one of the most modern fighters in the Syrian air force, Israel could gain valuable information from its radar, avionics and communications systems.

Arab pilots defected to Israel in 1964 and 1966. They were Egyptians and Iraqis flying older model MiG-17s and MiG-21s.

Abbas Hilmi of Egypt flew a YAK-11 to Israel in 1964, after months of careful preparation. He eventually found asylum in Argentina, only to die there at the hands of an assassin.

An Iraqi, Capt. Munir Radfa, flew a MiG-21 to Israel in 1966.

Two Syrian pilots mistakenly flew MiG-17s to Israel in 1971. They were taken into custody and returned to Syria in a prisoner exchange.

(JTA correspondent Tamar Levy in Geneva contributed to this report.)

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