- Russian media reported on Wednesday that “radical Islamists” destroyed seven aircraft late last month in a mortar attack.
- Russia has confirmed the attack and the deaths of two service members but denied that aircraft were lost.
Russian media reported on Wednesday that “radical Islamists” had destroyed six fighter aircraft and one transport plane with a mortar attack on December 31.
More than 10 Russian service members were wounded in the attack, said the report, which cited defence sources but not Russia’s Ministry of Defence.
A day later, another Russian media outlet published a denial from the ministry, which said two service members had been killed but no planes destroyed.
Unverified images circulating on social media, however, seem to fit the bill of destroyed Russian aircraft at Syria’s Hmeymim air base.
Joseph Dempsey, a research associate for defence analysis at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, posted the images and pointed out that the plane in them had been confirmed to be in Syria. He added that the rainy conditions captured in the photo matched the weather at the time the report said the attack happened.
— Joseph Dempsey (@JosephHDempsey) January 4, 2018
Dempsey’s pictures show the shredded rear horizontal stabilizer of a Su-24. But for a mortar to do such serious damage to the stabilizer, it would have to explode nearby, most likely peppering the entire plane and anything around it with bits of shrapnel.
If the images are genuine, it’s safe to assume other nearby jets or assets suffered damage too.
In short, though the damage looks limited, the plane is probably wrecked. One picture shows a fuel leak and a bomb underneath the jet.
Taken together, the images depict a disaster or near-disaster where Russia bases most of its fleet in Syria.
This spells trouble for Russia
Whether the images are real or not – or whether seven or one or zero planes were destroyed – Russia has confirmed the attack and casualties.
Google Earth satellite imagery of the air base shows that the mortar attackers had ample space and cover to launch on Russia’s sitting-duck Sukhoi jets.
It appears Russia most likely fell victim to a guerrilla attack or insurgency – the same kind that has for decades kept the US’s superior military and air power from completing missions in the Middle East.
Charles Lister, the director of counterterrorism at the Middle East Institute, tweeted two theories about who could have attacked the base: a “localised, very small independent rebel unit active behind enemy lines,” or “Ahrar al-Sham’s ‘special’ unit operating covertly in Latakia (has a long track record).”
Ahrar al-Sham is a coalition of Islamist fighters that came together to fight against Syria’s government, which Russia supports. But an independent rebel unit behind enemy lines could prove just as troubling and hard to root out for Russia.
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