Russian bases in Syria have been subjected to a series of mysterious attacks – including one conducted by a swarm of armed miniature drones – with military chiefs unable to establish who is behind the raids.
The latest and most unusual of the incidents saw 13 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) packed with explosives descend on Khmeimim air base, Russia’s vast military headquarters in northwestern Latakia province. Another three attacked the nearby Russian naval base at Tartus.
The incident raises questions over Vladimir Putin’s claims Russian military support of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad had helped achieve victory in the six-year civil war.
The Russian Ministry of Defense said on Monday its military was able to capture three of the “small-sized air targets of unknown identity”. Seven were shot down and the remaining three exploded after crashing nearby on the night of 5 January.
There were no casualties or damage to the base, a statement issued by the ministry said. It said it was the first time “terrorists” had used a “massed drone aircraft attack launched at a range of more than 50km using a modern GPS guidance system”.
The defense ministry also shared images of a captured weapon. It showed a winged drone and nine of the alleged improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
The drone attack, however, came less than a week after two Russian servicemen were killed in a sustained mortar assault on the same base, which appears to have caused some damage to Russian military assets.
The Russian Defense Ministry denied a report in the Russian Kommersant publication that seven warplanes were put out of action in the mortar attack, including two of its premier Su-35 fighter jets and four Su-24 attack aircraft, losses that would represent the worst single day for the Russian air force in decades. A Russian journalist posted photographs of damage that suggested at least some planes had been hit.
Taken together, the drone and mortar attacks appear to represent the most concerted assault on the Russian headquarters in Syria since the military intervention in September 2015, which broadly succeeded in its goal of shoring up President Bashar al-Assad’s fight to suppress the seven-year-old rebellion against his rule. There was also a smaller drone attack on Russia’s long-standing naval base at the Mediterranean port of Tartus at the same time as the Khmeimim attack, the defence Ministry said, and a smaller mortar attack against Khmeimim was reported by Syrian media December 27.
“They thought the base was secure, but now it seems it is vulnerable,” he said. Among the questions being asked in Moscow, he said, are whether the Russian military had adequately secured the base and whether it had failed to detect the acquisition of new technology by its adversaries.
The attacks also raise questions about the sustainability of Russia’s gains in Syria, said Jennifer Cafarella of the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War. In December, Putin visited the Khmeimim base and said Russia would start to wind its presence down because the war in Syria is essentially over.
The events of recent days are a demonstration “that whoever conducted these attacks can still penetrate regime areas and impose costs on the Russians,” she said. “The gains the regime has made are not secure and are at high risk of being temporary.”
Perhaps the biggest question of all, however, is who was responsible. What makes the attacks especially unusual is that there has been no claim, triggering a frenzy of speculation in the Russian and Syrian news media over who may have carried them out.
Russia’s Defense Ministry on Tuesday appeared to accuse the United States for supplying the technology for the drone attack, saying that assault required a higher level of expertise than any armed group in Syria is known to possess. Compounding the suspicions, the ministry said in a statement on its Facebook page that a US Poseidon reconnaissance aircraft was in the skies above the area for four hours during the drone assault.