Some pretty strange things going on at Khmeimim.
1. On Jan 3, 2018, Kommersant reported:
- The destruction of seven (!) planes at the Russian airbase in Syria, including four Su-24, two Su-35C, and one An-72 transport.
- More than ten servicemen were injured
- An ammo dump was destroyed
This was supposedly the result of an Islamist mortar shelling of the base on Dec 31, 2017.
Such a degree of damage does not seem plausible for a mortar shelling.
2. The following day the Russian Defense Ministry reported two military deaths in the event, but denied that seven planes had been destroyed.
3. On the same day, war correspondent Roman Saponkov published pictures of a damaged Su-24:
As well as the following report:
Provisionally, 6 Su-24, one Su-35C, one An-72, and one An-30 recon plane, and one Mi-8 [were damaged]. Two Su-324 and the Su-35C have been repaired.
Incidentally, it is curious to note that Dec 31 also saw the crash in Hama of a Mi-24 helicopter as a result of a bad landing due to technical problems, as a result of which its two pilots died. Shoddy repairs?
4. Various theories were floating around – the official explanation of mortars was none too convincing, while others speculated that the ammo base was blown up by accident.
However, things soon became clearer, when on Dec 5, war correspondent Ivan Sidorenko reported there was a large explosion in the skies over Jableh due to Russian AA batteries intercepting a missile or drone that was going to bomb Khmeimim. Soon after, the Syrians published a drone-like contraption that had just 2 grenades attached to it, which they had apparently shot down with just light firearms on Dec 2.
On the night of Dec 6, there were yet more drone attacks on the base. This time, Ahrar Al-Alawi (FSA Free Alawite Movement) claimed responsibility, now claiming they had also taken out an S-400 as well as another aircraft, and promising “painful” days up to the time of Putin’s elections and stating that Russia won’t stay in Syria for more than 6 more months.
There have been differing reports over the scale of the damage. Given its history of prevarication, the Russian Ministry of Defense has hardly built up a reservoir of trust, and observers have noted suspicious discrepancies in Russian TV reporting “from the ground” in Khmeimim several months ago, and today.
On the other hand, Cassad expresses severe skepticism that Alawite extremists could be behind it, and I would tend to agree with this. As I myself have reported, opinion polls have long indicated strong support for Assad in Tartus and coastal Latakia, and it seems unlikely to have changed, especially now when Assad seems to be winning.
It is also worth noting that there are powerful forces who actively want to discredit Putin in Syria. This of course applies first and foremost to the Russian non-systemic opposition: In his first video after the New Year, Alexey Navalny spends 12 minutes talking of “meaningless sacrifices” and “why are we in Syria anyway?”
Even so, there are a couple of things to be very concerned about:
1. How are “moderate rebels” are able to direct salvo after salvo of drone attacks against Khmeimim from the heart of regime territory?
This would be just one more sad but increasingly self-evident data point on the lack of any meaningful improvement in Syrian military capability since Russia entered the fray.
2. Warning, entering conspiracy mode.
There’s a distinct “plucky rebels” vs. “evil empire” vibe about this whole affair, up to and including the low-resolution images of the DIY contraptions that apparently constitute these all-powerful drones (see right) that we are to believe have disabled – at least temporarily – up to a third of Russian air power in Syria over the past week.
How are they getting through? The radius of action of home made drones is modest. Surely simple EW countermeasures should be sufficient for them? Besides, frag grenades – such as the ones mounted on the drone that the Syrians claim to have shot down on Dec 2 – will do nothing against a Su-24’s skin. You need serious high explosives to do the sort of damage displayed in Saponkov’s photograph. Frankly, I have a hard time buying that this is the sort of thing that can be manufactured, smuggled in, and organized by deep cover rebel operatives.
However, there are forces in the region who are credibly capable of such operations.