Who Really Attacked Russia’s Air Base in Syria?
Everything about the strikes on Khmeimim is strange
Russia’s Khmeimim Air Base in Syria came under two attacks in the space of a week. The first took place on New Year’s Eve and saw mortars successfully impact, killing two servicemen and lightly damaging some aircraft.
The second attack transpired on Jan. 5 and saw a swarm of makeshift wooden-framed drones attempt to drop improved explosives onto the airfield. The attack reportedly failed when the Russians neutralized the drones with combined air and electronic warfare defenses.
Such incidents have proven extremely rare throughout Russia’s two-year intervention in the Syrian conflict. They also come at an important juncture in its campaign, with the Kremlin taking steps to wind down the conflict by sponsoring negotiations between the Assad regime and the remnants of the opposition — while drawing down its own military presence in the war-torn country.
Answers as to who carried out the strikes, and how they managed to get close enough to the base in the heart of regime territory, are murky. Whatever the explanation, the surprise and sheer strangeness of the attacks touched off theories suggesting the perpetrators could be rebel groups — most likely — to pro-regime loyalists, Iranian-backed paramilitaries or even the regime itself.
“The significance of the attacks should be assessed within a broader picture,” said Timur Akhmetov, a Middle East researcher at the Russian International Affairs Council, a think tank with close ties to the Russian Foreign Ministry. “We know the Russians consider Khmeimim Air Base as a strategic asset and security of the airport is essential for aircraft participating in the ongoing Idlib offensive.”
“On the other hand, we see that Russia is trying to limit its involvement in the conflict by focusing on diplomatic efforts and bringing together all the relevant and legitimate sides in the conflict to a negotiating table.”
In light of this, Akhmetov went on to suggest that Syria or Iran, as they now have the advantage on the battlefield, “would like to see Russia’s military presence reinforced” and given “fewer incentives to compromise with its weaker opponents.”
Thus, the strikes “demonstrated that Russian strategic assets are susceptible to attacks by armed groups and, thus, continuation of diplomatic efforts wouldn’t result in stabilization unless Damascus subdues all armed groups rather than engage in negotiations with them.”
Russia’s air base at Hmeymim, Syria. Photo via Wikimedia
The attacks transpired mere weeks after the Russian government — once again — began discussing withdrawing its forces from Syria, having achieved its goals of bolstering the Syrian regime, which was once fighting for its sheer survival. Upon helping Syrian Pres. Bashar Al Assad reconquer Aleppo and deal a decisive blow to his various opponents, Russia’s military objectives in Syria have, for the most part, successfully concluded.
“There is a view that Assad may want to prolong the conflict,” Akhmetov explained. “Russia, by announcing its intentions to withdraw, may have wanted to influence Assad to compromise. Assad and Iran want to keep the Russian presence in Syria.”
The fact the opposition could launch strikes against Russia’s primary asset in Syria is also noteworthy considering that Alawaite loyalists control the area and that armed attacks there are uncommon.
While the mortar barrage would have come from near the base, the drones could have come as far away as Idlib province northeast of Latakia, and possibly launched by the rebel groups Ahrar Al Sham or Hay’at Tahrir Al Sham. The Russian military claims the drones came from the village of Muwazarra in Idlib, around 50 miles away. Although if one of those groups did carry out either one of the attacks, they haven’t taken credit — which is also unusual.
Russian state media almost outright accused the United States of supplying the drones, a charge which the Pentagon flatly denied. The drones were readily available for sale on an online marketplace used by rebels to buy weapons and equipment, The Daily Beast’s Adam Rawnsley and Christiaan Triebert found.
A hitherto unknown Alawite group, which calls itself the “Free Alawites Movement,” claimed responsibility for the failed drone attack and is the only purported group to have done so. It is not clear whether the group actually exists. Opposition media, meanwhile, shared a document it alleges came from the regime alleging that the mortar strike originated from Bustan Al Basha, an area held by a pro-regime militia.
Russian attempts to pin the blame for the mortar barrage, as with the drone strike, have been similarly incredulous. Vestnik Mordovia, a Russian newspaper, claimed the mortar used in the attack was a Vasilek — an 82-millimeter gun-mortar of Soviet origin dating to the 1960s and still in use today. The Russian newspaper also claimed that the Syrian army does not have this weapon and alleged that the United States supplied the mortar used in the first attack through Turkey.
Implausible doesn’t begin to describe that claim, as the Syrian army has long possessed Vasilek mortars in its inventory, which have also fallen into the hands of Idlib rebel groups. To make matters more complicated, the Russian government accused the Turkish government of being responsible for the drone attack by not restraining Idlib rebels during the ceasefire.
Vasilek mortar. Photo via Wikimedia
Nevertheless, it is hugely significant that such an attack even occurred, however limited the casualties and damage.
And regardless of who is responsible, the incidents will likely serve Damascus and Tehran’s wish to see the Russians remain in Syria. “It’s hard to say [if Iran or Damascus] had any role, most probably they didn’t do it directly,” Akhmetov concluded.
Still, it’s crucial to note that however unlikely the prospect the regime would attack or acquiesce to an attack on the Russian military, it would not be without precedent. As strange as it seems, such an event has happened before.
In 1989, Syrian helicopter gunships fired on a Soviet cruiser near the port city of Latakia, killing two sailors. The motive remains unclear to this day. David W. Lesch, an American historian of Syria who struck up a friendship with Bashar Al Assad, speculated in Foreign Policy magazine that Bashar’s father Hafez Al Assad may have approved the attack as a bloody message to Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev, who was warming up to the West and urging Assad to make peace with Israel.
Remember, this occurred when the Soviet Union and Syria were close, Cold War friends — or, perhaps, more like frenemies.
With Bashar unwilling to make any serious compromise in today’s Syria, following his series of Russian-backed battlefield victories across the country, this precedent may yet prove relevant — if not now, then in the months or years ahead as the interests between Moscow and Damascus diverge.
“Whatever the reason, that  incident, now largely forgotten, revealed in dramatic fashion the complexity of the relationship between Syria and Russia over the decades,” Lesch wrote.