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 of the attack coinciding with the presence of a US Poseidon surveillance aircraft close to the bases.
Today Russia’s Ministry of Defence says is saying 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 as follows
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 however by Jihadi standards highly sophisticated, involving the use of 13 drones, and would have required not just 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 organisation or militia before.
Whilst 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 6th January 2018 was the mortar attack on Khmeimim air base on 3rd January 2018.
Not only did that attack unlike the drone attack cause actual 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 good intelligence about conditions in and around the base, which gives a good indication to the Russians of the quality of the opponent they are up against it.
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 continue 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 organisation 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 harbours longterm designs on Aleppo.
The permanent presence of large Russian bases in north west Syria cuts directly across all 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 the Turks with US officials (who have similar concerns about the Russian bases) even if relations between the US and Turkey are at present bad.
Determining President Erdogan’s and Turkey’s exact role in the drone attack is on the basis of the currently available information impossible. However the Russians would be well advised to think the worst.
Almost certainly, in addition to the publicly disclosed letters of complaint and requiring explanation that Krasnaya Zvezda refers to, the Russians are in private asking President Erdogan and his officials some hard questions.