How vulnerable are Russia’s air assets in Syria?

Satellite photos released by Stratfor last month reveal what appears to have been quite a significant Islamic State (ISIS) attack against Russian aircraft at the Tiyas (T4) base east of the Syrian city of Homs (see video above or this comment). At least four Russian helicopters and twenty supply trucks were destroyed by what appears to have been rocket or artillery fire, possibly an ISIS attack.

While Russia has dismissed the attacks as propaganda it’s worth asking the salient question: How vulnerable are the Russian Federations air assets in Syria to militant attacks? This question is of particular importance in light of the fact the Russians appear to be constructing a forward operating base further east in Homs province in Palmyra to use as a launchpad to fight rebels and militants further east in Syria.

It’s no secret that since Russia announced it was drawing down its forces in Syria last March that it simply reshuffled its deployed hardware. It has deployed more helicopter gunships to give close air support to its Syrian military allies and to provide security for its bases and is relying significantly less on its jet fighters and attack planes – gunships played a large role in the recapture of Palmyra late last March.

Two abandoned Syrian Airforce MiG fighters in a shelter in al-Tabqa airbase after it fell into ISIS hands in 2014.

Two abandoned Syrian Airforce MiG fighters in a shelter in al-Tabqa airbase after it fell into ISIS hands in 2014.

Missiles seized by the Islamic State at al-Tabqa in 2014.

Missiles seized by the Islamic State at al-Tabqa in 2014.

Crates of munitions seized by the Islamic State at al-Tabqa in 2014.

Crates of munitions seized by the Islamic State at al-Tabqa in 2014.

As the Syrian military approaches ISIS-occupied Raqqa province it’s worth remembering that their initial loss of that province serves as a possible precedence to a possible future attack against one of Russia’s bases in Syria. In August 2014, likely buoyed by its successes in Northern Iraq earlier that summer – when the Iraqi Army withdrew in disarray and ISIS captured a large stockpile of their abandoned military hardware – ISIS managed to capture all of Raqqa province by laying siege to Syria’s remaining stronghold there, al-Tabqa airbase. The regime assumed it was secure from an attack by the militants, which they had a somewhat undeclared ceasefire with since both ISIS and the regime were both killing other mutual enemies. However ISIS were able to overrun the base after a deadly 18-day battle. At least 300 Syrian servicemen were killed and the base fell to ISIS who celebrated that significant victory. The reverberations of the fall of al-Tabqa were felt as far west in Syria as the coastal province of Latakia where even supporters of the regime condemned the authorities for such a humiliating defeat.

More recently ISIS have shown they can infiltrate one of Syria’s most secure and stable regions, the coastal province of Latakia. A series of coordinated bomb attacks, carried out in Tartus and Jableh in late May, cities near Russia’s naval depot and main airbase in Syria, Hmeimim. Those bomb attacks not only killed hundreds but showed that Latakia is still vulnerable to well-planned terrorist attacks. In the near future Hmeimim could well fall victim to a well-planned assault carried out by ISIS or some other militant group.

During the Russian build-up in Syria Hmeimim came under attack from Ahrar al-Sham Islamist militants who targeted it with Grad rockets but did not succeed in making any significant damage. Such projectiles could be devastatingly lethal if they successfully impacted on their targets.

Simple mobile Katyusha rocket launchers fielded by determined fanatics could well do serious damage if the militants got them close enough to unleash on Russian bases. While unguided a single impact of the rockets on their intended targets could have devastating effects if they managed to hit one of Russia’s Su-24, or even some of their newer Su-34’s at Hmeimim.

ISIS have shown before they are capable of mounting such rocket attacks. Using a drone they recorded successful rocket attacks they managed to carry out against the Camp Bashiqa base in Northern Iraq last December. Such surprise rocket attacks have the potential to do a lot of damage.

Or perhaps Russia’s militant and rebel enemies in Syria could simply replicate the Camp Bastion Raid when the Taliban attacked the Camp Bastion base in on the night of September 2012, managed to kill two US Marines and take eight parked US Marine Corps AV-8B Harriers out of action before they were killed.

Such precedents should serve as a warning to the Russians not to take the safety of their aircraft in Syria for granted.

This entry was posted in English, International, Syria.

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