Weaponised drones threatening Russian military presence in Syria
Ottowa - An armed drone operation targeted Russia’s naval base on the Mediterranean in Tartus and Hmeimim Airbase in north-western Latakia governorate in Syria this month. At a time when Russian President Vladimir Putin has announced victory and ordered the partial withdrawal of forces in December from the very location targeted, this attack presents a new challenge to the Russian presence in Syria. It could lead to additional Russian defence hardware in the war-torn country.
The attacks on Russian bases allegedly started New Year’s Eve with mortar shells. A few days later, weaponised drones were used. Russian media reporting suggests that several military aircraft were damaged but the Russian Ministry of Defence contradicted the reports.
Moscow said that no damage had occurred and its air defences at Hmeimim had shot down seven of the 13 attacking drones. The six others are said to have been brought down by electronic jamming countermeasures.
The Russians blamed Syrian rebels for what appears to be the first mass-drone attack on its bases. However, they doubted that rebels had the capability of launching such an attack, proposing that a foreign power — hinting the United States — supplied such “high-technological capabilities” to rebel forces in close proximity to the Russian presence.
A spokesman for the Pentagon rejected the Russian suggestion of US involvement in the attack.
While no rebel group claimed responsibility, questions surrounding the attack remain unanswered. The involvement of a “technologically sophisticated” foreign country is dubious, stated an open source investigation of the attack by analyst Nick Waters, published in Bellingcat.
Only one component of the drones shown in photographs released by the Russian Defence Ministry appears to be relatively advanced, wrote Waters, the remainder being constructed from mostly cheap materials, such as plywood, plastic sheeting and tape.
“The materials and construction of these drones, including their munitions, could all be sourced using relatively local means,” he added.
These drones and their equipment had most likely been purchased on the black market. Heavily encrypted messaging apps facilitate a large online market of arms in northern Syria. Today militants have access to a variety of arms on online exchanges and sell-and-buy channels, including many US-manufactured missiles and weaponry parts.
“Although the plastic sheeting, tape and simple design may belie the illusion of sophistication, it seems that the use of drones, whether military, [commercial off-the-shelf] or improvised, is taking another step to becoming the future of conflict,” Waters wrote.
The Kremlin, nevertheless, predicted that such “occasional” attacks were likely to continue. However, it added that the military infrastructure in place within the bases in Syria is more than sufficient to counter such assaults.
While weaponised drones are not new to the Syrian conflict, the usage of this cheap, yet effective, weaponry against Russian forces is unprecedented and even Russian bases no longer seem immune.
On the surface, breaching what is thought to be a highly sophisticated defence capability of Russia’s most strategic assets in the area implies vulnerability in the fortifications of its base and forces operating in Syria. Russian (and regime) positions are likely to be targeted by such unconventional warfare attacks in the future.
Despite recent claims of victory and intentions to withdraw forces, Moscow is faced with the reality that the war in Syria is far from over. Russian assets in Syria are under threat and this makes its desired goals in the war harder to achieve.
The Kremlin is likely looking at methods to increase the defences of its bases, which would require further Russian military deployment — something Putin may be unwilling to do as he moves on the path to win the presidential elections coming this March.