Russia Says It Used Precision Guided Munitions In Strikes On Syrian Rebel Drone Makers

The Kremlin seems to be trying to deflect criticism about its indiscriminate bombing campaigns ahead of a major Syrian government offensive.

Russian MoD

Russia says that its latest air strikes in Syria’s Idlib governorate destroyed rebel stockpiles of improvised armed drones and shoulder-fired, man-portable surface-to-air missiles. In addition, the Kremlin claims that its aircraft used precision-guided munitions against the targets and released strike footage online, which appeared to be an attempt to mimic similar U.S. military videos and offer a response to criticism of its largely indiscriminate bombing campaigns in support of Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad.

Four aircraft in total, two Su-34 Fullback and two Su-35S Flanker-E combat jets, carried out the strikes into Idlib on Sept. 4, 2018, Russian Defense Ministry spokesperson Igor Konashenkov said the day after. The Kremlin also said that rebels had launched two more small unmanned aircraft carry small bomblets at its Khmeimim air base in neighboring Latakia governorate, where the planes flew out of to conduct their missions, but that Russian personnel at the facility shot them down on the night of Sept. 4-5, 2018.

“This [the situation in Idlib] poses a considerable threat – the Russian president [Vladimir Putin] has mentioned that – to our temporary bases,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov had said on Sept. 4, 2018, in offering tacit support of Assad’s up-coming offensive against rebels in the region. “It is from there (Idlib) that drones are launched to threaten our temporary bases.”

The Kremlin says that there has been a significant increase in rebel drone strikes against its forces in Syria recently, but it remains difficult to verify the extent of these claims. As of August 2018, the Russian Defense Ministry said its forces at Khmeimim have destroyed 45 unmanned aircraft, but it is unclear whether that is since the Kremlin’s intervention began in 2015, since the beginning of 2018, or across some other time frame.

Below are a series of videos the Russian Ministry of Defense released on Sept. 5, 2018, showing the strikes it conducted in Idlib the day before.

But there is no doubt that insurgents have been steadily launching more unmanned aircraft to try and attack the Kremlin’s outpost at Khmeimim, as well as its naval base in Tatrus on the Mediterranean Sea since at least the start of 2017. In January 2018, rebels launched a particularly notable mass drone attack on Khmeimim, which damaged a number of aircraft, as well as Tartus.

The Russian Defense Ministry did not say what munitions specifically the Su-34 and Su-35S aircraft had employed to destroy the drone workshop in Idlib, but both aircraft can carry various laser-, television-, infrared-, and satellite-navigation guided missiles and bombs. The strike footage, which appears to be seen through electro-optical targeting systems on the striking aircraft or via the full motion video camera on a drone observing the mission, shows reticules on the target before the weapons impact, suggesting they could be laser-guided bombs or missiles. 

If that is the case, it's also not clear whether the aircraft designated the targets themselves, or one or two of the jets "buddy lased" the targets for the others. Russian troops on the ground could have been the ones designating the target, as well.

Friedemann Kohler/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP

Russian Su-34 Fullback combat jets at Khmeimim Air Base in Syria.

To put it charitably, Russia has only employed these weapons sparingly in Syria. Since the beginning on 2018, however, the Kremlin has increasingly claimed to have used precision bombs and missiles in more focused, high profile strikes in retaliation for rebel attacks on Khmeimim and Tartus and other Russian assets in the country.

After the mass drone attack in January 2018, Russian forces reportedly killed the militants involved in that operation, who were based in Idlib, by using laser-guided 152mm artillery shells. When rebels shot down a Su-25 Frogfoot ground attack aircraft during a mission over Idlib in February 2018 with a man-portable anti-aircraft missile, the Kremlin again responded with a “massive precision strike.”

Vitaly Kuzmin

A Russian KAB-500L laser-guided 500-pound class bomb, one of the precision-guided munitions that the Su-34 and Su-35S can carry.

So, there is a definite trend as to when and why Russia launches precision-guided munitions strikes in Syria. At the same time, the Russians appear to be trying to leverage the latest mission into Idlib, at least in part, to counter critics of its previous and far less precise aerial bombing campaigns, which appear to have deliberately targeted civilian infrastructure, such as hospitals, in rebel-held areas.

Russian aircraft have conducted the vast majority of strikes in the past using unguided bombs and cluster munitions and have often droped them from high altitudes. This inherently put civilians on the ground at greater risk, especially during air strikes in dense urban areas. That the Kremlin proudly highlights the rare instances when it does employ precision weapons in Syria highlights just how unusual it is.

“If major military operations [in Idlib] take place we can expect humanitarian catastrophe and I think we would all want to see that be avoided,” U.S. Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters on Sept. 4, 2018 in response to questions about Assad’s planned push into the region. “I’m suggesting that counter-terrorism operations should take place in a manner that mitigates the risk of the loss of innocent life.”

Though they occurred before Dunford made his remarks, Russia’s air strikes that day seem to be a direct response to these types of criticisms. The Russian Defense Ministry’s statement afterward reinforces this apparent secondary objective.

“The strikes were dealt away from populated areas,” Russian Defense Ministry spokesperson Konashenkov said. The mission focused on “terrorists’ hangars where the drones were kept and also against confirmed areas where attack drones were launched for terrorist attacks against the Russian airbase Khmeimim and communities in Aleppo and Hama provinces.”

The video below shows improvised unmanned aerial vehicles that Russian forces presented to the press in August 2018 as evidence of Syrian rebels' attempted attacks on Khmeimim.

This can be seen as part of a larger, well-integrated information operation that the Kremlin has been conducting ahead of Assad’s expected offensive into Idlib. U.S. government officials, including President Donald Trump, have issued a number of warnings and threats of military action over the planned operation, especially with regards to any Syrian regime chemical weapons use.

Russia has countered by accusing the United States, and its ally the United Kingdom, of supporting terrorists in Syria, including ISIS and Al Qaeda-linked groups, and supplying them with chemical weapons to stage fake attacks in order to provide a pretext for striking Assad. The Kremlin has offered no evidence to substantial these conspiratorial claims, which mirror equally ungrounded accusations it has leveled against the United States and its partners in Afghanistan and elsewhere, as well.

The claim that it had destroyed shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles in its September 2018 strikes in Idlib is likely a reference to yet another series of baseless claims. After the February 2018 shootdown of the Su-25, Russian state-run media suggested, without any evidence, that the U.S. military might have supplied the anti-aircraft weapons to the rebels.

“The Russian ministry of defense statements are about as accurate as their air campaign [in Syria],” U.S. Army Colonel Ryan Dillon, then the top spokesperson for the American-led coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, had said back in November 2017 after the Kremlin had advanced yet another unsubstantiated conspiracy theory. “I think that is a reason for them to start, you know, coming out with their latest barrage of lies.”

With escalating rhetoric now flying back and forth over what increasingly appears to be an inevitable Syrian government offensive into Idlib, the Russians are only likely to employ more of their standard information operations tactics to deflect blame for instability and humanitarian suffering in the region onto the United States and its allies in order to distract from what Assad is planning himself. Russia also appears to be setting the stage to try to be able to brush off criticism of its own support for the Syrian government's operations.

But, if Russia's past aerial bombing campaigns in support of Assad are any indication, it's unlikely that the Kremlin will actually employ precision-guided munitions on any sort of regular basis when the actual fighting in Idlib starts.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com