Analysis — The Russian Ministry of Defence has now released more information on the drone attack on Russia’s two Syrian bases at Khmeimim and Tartus on Saturday 6th January 2018.
Yesterday reports from Russia spoke of the drone attack using US sourced technology and claimed the attack coincided with the presence of a US Poseidon surveillance aircraft operating near the Russian bases.
Today, Russia’s Ministry of Defence announced that the drone attack was launched from a Turkish controlled area in the heart of a so-called ‘de-escalation zone’ in north-west Syria’s Idlib province.
The report in the Ministry of Defence’s newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda (“Red Star”) reads in part:
It has been established that the drones were launched from the area of Muazzara in the southwestern part of the Idlib de-escalation area controlled by the so-called ‘moderate opposition’ units.
Therefore, the Russian Defense Ministry sent letters to Chief of the Turkish General Staff Chief Gen. Hulusi Akar and Chief of the National Intelligence Organization Hakan Fidan.
Those documents declared the need for Ankara’s implementation of its commitment to ensure the ceasefire by the controlled armed units and step up the deployment of observation posts in the Idlib de-escalation area for the purpose of preventing similar drone attacks on any facilities.”
Note that these comments fall well short of accusing Turkey of direct complicity in the attack.
The attack was, by Jihadi standards, highly sophisticated, involving the use of 13 drones and would have required not only a secure launch area but secure data links and an operations room from which to control the drones and plan the attack.
The drones themselves would also have had to be manufactured and assembled and transported to the launch site, assuming of course that they were not manufactured and assembled there.
Though the drones themselves were primitive by the standards of advanced militaries (see caption picture) they did incorporate elements of modern technology.
Here is what Krasnaya Zvezda has to say about them:
All the drones used by the terrorists were equipped with barometric sensors and servo-drives for controlling the elevator wheels. In addition the improvised explosive devices the terrorists attached to drones had fuses of foreign manufacture.:
Krasnaya Zvezda also reports that the drones used modern GPS based guidance systems of a sort never used by a terrorist organization or militia before.
While the operations room which planned, and presumably supervised the attack, would not need to be in the same area as the launch site, the fact that such a complex attack was launched from there suggests that the Jihadis present in the area were confident that the Turkish military would leave them undisturbed.
Of possibly even greater concern for the Russians than the drone strike on January 6th, 2018 was the mortar attack on the Khmeimim airbase on January 3rd, 2018.
Not only did that attack unlike the drone attack cause damage to the base, with two Russian soldiers killed and some Russian aircraft damaged, but it was apparently the work of a Jihadi infiltration group which successfully penetrated the security belt around the base.
That suggests a high degree of planning and intelligence about conditions in and around the base, which gives a good indication to the Russians of the quality of the opponent they face.
These two incidents should dampen optimism about the state of the Syrian conflict.
Firstly, they highlight against what remains the single greatest weakness of Russia’s Syrian strategy. This is the extent to which it depends for its ultimate success on the cooperation of Turkey and of Turkish President Erdogan.
President Erdogan is not, however, a reliable ally of Russia’s or indeed of anyone else, and in Syria, he is pursuing a complex strategy based on calculations of his own and Turkey’s self-interest which do not necessarily correspond with Russia’s. By way of example, President Erdogan continues from time to time to restate his hostility to the Syrian government and to Syrian President Assad personally, both of whom the Russians are at present supporting.
Sometimes President Erdogan’s strategies oblige him to work with Russia, which is what he has been doing for most of 2017, but the Russians cannot by now be under any illusions that if the opportunity arises he will not abruptly reverse course in his own perceived interest and once more become Russia’s enemy in Syria, as he was in the first months of the Russian intervention there.
Above and beyond this President Erdogan’s longstanding involvement in the Syrian war has led him to forge alliances with various Jihadi groups fighting in Syria including Al-Qaeda, which – since the drone attack was launched from a de-escalation zone deep inside Idlib province, which Al-Qaeda controls – was almost certainly the organization responsible for the attack.
The fact that Al-Qaeda was left undisturbed to launch the drone attack from the heart of a de-escalation zone supposedly controlled by the Turkish military shows that the links between President Erdogan’s government and Al-Qaeda have still not been fully severed and that the Turkish military is prepared to turn a blind eye to its activities.
That, of course, assumes that the Turkish military and/or Turkish intelligence had no direct role in the attack. That they did is however unfortunately perfectly possible, and would not be out of keeping with the complex double-game President Erdogan has frequently played over the course of the Syrian war.
President Erdogan has made it repeatedly clear that he considers Syria or at least northern Syria, to fall within what might be described as Turkey’s sphere of influence, and there have been longstanding concerns within Syria that he harbors long-term designs on Aleppo.
The permanent presence of large Russian bases in north-west Syria cuts directly across all of this, and it would not be at all surprising if President Erdogan were secretly unhappy about it and countenanced pinprick military strikes in order to warn the Russians against it.
Needless to say, if anything like that did happen it would not be at all surprising if the drone attack was coordinated by Turkey with US officials (who have similar concerns about the Russian bases) even if relations between the US and Turkey are at present strained.
Determining President Erdogan’s and Turkey’s exact role in the drone attack is impossible on the basis of the information currently available. However, the Russians would be well advised to assume the worst.
Almost certainly, in addition to the publicly disclosed letters of complaint and requiring the explanation that Krasnaya Zvezda refers to, the Russians are in private asking President Erdogan and his officials some hard questions.
Top Photo | In this photo taken from the Russian Defence Ministry Press Service Facebook page on Tuesday, Jan. 9 2018, one of the drones that was forced to land after an unsuccessful attack attempt sits at a table at Hemeimeem air base in Syria. Russia’s Defence Ministry said its forces repelled a series of drone attacks on the Hemeimeem air base and a naval facility in Tartus, adding that such attacks would have required assistance from a country possessing satellite navigation technology — a statement that appeared to be aimed at the United States. (Russian Defence Ministry Press Service photo via AP)
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