The Russian military has confirmed that 6 heavy TU 22M3 bombers based in airfields in southern Russia have carried out strikes on Daesh/Islamic State positions near Palmyra in Syria.
The TU 22M3 bomber has the range and payload to be able to carry out a strike anywhere in Syria from bases in Russia with its full bomb load. Each of these bombers is capable of carrying 25 tonnes of bombs. A combined strike involving 6 of these bombers could therefore deliver 150 tonnes of bombs.
Whilst we do not know the full details of the strike, all the indications are that it was a massive strike with the Russian Defence Ministry claiming that 3 ammunition depots, 3 tanks, 4 infantry fighting vehicles (probably captured BMP1s), 8 automobile vehicles and large numbers of personnel were eliminated at a large Daesh field camp.
The return of the TU 22M3 bombers to Syria reverses a decision taken at the time of the partial Russian withdrawal in March. It was the commitment of these heavy bombers in the period November to March which probably more than anything else accounted for the breakthrough the Syrian military achieved during those months. The sheer weight of bombs these bombers can carry puts them in a completely different league from all the other aircraft deployed either by the US or the Russians to the Syrian theatre. Their return therefore marks a major and potentially decisive escalation.
The timing of the bombers return suggests that the strike may have been in part intended as retaliation for Daesh’s successful shoot down of a Syrian military MI 25 gunship helicopter with 2 Russian pilots on board. However it unlikely the Russians would deal such a forceful blow merely for that reason.
By contrast it is surely not a coincidence that the air strike with the TU 22M3s was carried out as US Secretary of State John Kerry was going to Moscow for talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
By carrying out the strike the Russians would have signalled both the reopening of their bombing offensive in Syria and given the strongest possible message to Kerry and the US of their determination to see the Syrian operation through.