One of the UAVs involved in the attempted attack
The bombs carried by the UAVs (Facebook page of the Russian Ministry of Defense, January 8, 2018)
Attack against the Russian bases in Hmeymim and Tartus
- Recently, the Russian airbase in Hmeymim and the Russian naval base in Tartus have been a target for various types of attacks (by UAVs, rockets and mortar shells). Following are details of the attacks (according to the Russian media):
- The Russian Ministry of Defense issued a statement that between January 5 and 6, 2018, a combined “terrorist attack” against the Russian Air Force base in Hmeymim and the Russian Navy’s logistics center in Tartus was foiled. The attack was carried out by 13 UAVs equipped with self-manufactured IEDs. Ten UAVs attempted to attack the base in Hmeymim, and three others attempted to attack the (naval) base in Tartus. According to the Russians, none of the UAVs hit the target. Seven UAVs were shot down by the Russian air defense system and six were landed by the Russian army’s electronic warfare systems (three of them exploded upon landing).
- According to the statement issued by the Russian Ministry of Defense, the UAVs were launched from a distance of about 50 km and were equipped with innovative navigation and assault equipment. Based on an examination by Russian experts, such an attack could have been mounted even from a distance of over 100 km. This was the first massive use of this type of aircraft. According to the Russians, the technology for operating the UAVs was apparently obtained from a third country with high-level technological capabilities. The statement issued by the Russian Ministry of Defense emphasized that this technology enables terrorist organizations to use similar methods to attack any country (Facebook page of the Russian Ministry of Defense, January 8, 2018).
- On December 31, 2017, a number of mortar shells were fired at the Russian airbase in Hmeymim. On January 4, 2018, the Russian Ministry of Defense confirmed that there had indeed been an attack against the Hmeymim base. According to the report by the Ministry of Defense, a “mobile group of armed saboteurs” carried out the attack, killing two soldiers. The Russian Ministry of Defense has denied reports that Russian aircraft were destroyed in the attack (TASS News Agency, January 4, 2018). The daily newspaper Kommersant reported the incident, noting that it was one of the most serious incidents since the beginning of Russia’s involvement in Syria. Until this attack, there was no significant damage to Russian equipment, and this was the first time that the Russian air defense systems had malfunctioned (Kommersant, January 3, updated on January 4, 2018).
- Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova reported that on December 27, 2017, “militants” had fired a number of rockets at the international airport in Latakia and at the Russian Air Force base in Hmeymim. Two of them were intercepted by the Russian air defense system. A third rocket that was fired deviated from its course and landed on the outskirts of the city of Jableh (Russian Foreign Ministry website, December 28, 2017).
- In light of these incidents, a source at the Russian Defense Ministry said that the area around Hmeymim had been mopped up and was now being secured by Russian Army forces and not by the Syrian army. In addition, the Russian forces were working to locate and eliminate those who took part in the attacks (Interfax, January 4, 2018). Russian military experts said that the latest attack against the area required Russia to give due consideration to the construction of shelters for the Russian aircraft in the area (Al-Durar al-Shamiya, January 8, 2018).
Characteristics of the armed UAVs that attempted to attack the bases in Hmeymim and Tartus
- According to the Russian media, the armed UAVs that were intercepted in the latest attempted attack (January 5-6, 2018) were not built using advanced technology. They consisted of a wooden base, plywood wings, a large amount of duct tape, and plastic. Their engines were also handmade. Nevertheless, the UAVs were equipped with innovative navigation and assault devices that enabled them to be launched from a great distance and potentially carry out precision attacks (Kommersant, January 9, 2018). At least one of the UAVs was guided by GPS (as reported by the Russian Ministry of Defense). According to the photos that were published, each armed UAV carried five small bombs on racks on each of its wings (a total of 10 bombs).
Right: One of the UAVs involved in the attempted attack. Left: The bombs carried by the UAVs (Facebook page of the Russian Ministry of Defense, January 8, 2018)
- The Russian Ministry of Defense claims that the advanced technology used in the attempted attack was apparently obtained from a “third country” with high-level technological capabilities (implicitly the US). In response to the report by the Russian Ministry of Defense, Pentagon spokesman Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway said that the US has documented the use of similar technology by ISIS. He added that the means and technology used in the attack are readily available on the free market, which he claims is a matter for concern (RIA, January 9, 2018).
Who is behind the attempted UAV attack and where were they launched from?
- So far no organization has claimed responsibility for the UAV attacks. However, military sources told the daily Kommersant that it was highly likely that the Islamic rebel organization Ahrar al-Sham was behind the attacks. The organization had previously attempted to mount a UAV attack on Syrian army military engineering units in the city of Homs (an attempt that failed). According to the military sources, the decoding of the UAV’s data provided “partial proof” of Ahrar al-Sham’s involvement in the latest attack (January 5-6, 2018). Based on an examination carried out after the fact, similar UAVs were allegedly used in the attack on Hmeymim base on December 31, 2017 (Kommersant, January 9, 2018).
- The Russian Ministry of Defense issued an official statement that the UAVs involved in the attempted attack on the Russian bases in Hmeymim and Tartus in Syria were launched from the village of Al-Mawzarah (around 32 km southwest of Idlib). According to the statement issued by the Russian Ministry of Defense, the launch area is controlled by the “moderate opposition” (implicitly Ahrar al-Sham). In the wake of these findings, the Russian Ministry of Defense sent letters to the chief of staff of the Turkish army and to the head of the Turkish National Intelligence Agency, emphasizing the need for Turkey to fulfill its obligation to maintain the ceasefire among the armed forces under its control. In addition, Turkey was asked to step up the construction of observation posts in the de-escalation zone in Idlib in order to foil similar UAV attacks in the future (Zvezda TV website, a government television channel owned by the Russian Ministry of Defense, January 10, 2018).
Ahrar al-Sham, which has been accused by the Russians, is an Islamic rebel organization established at the beginning of the civil war in Syria following the unification of several Islamic rebel organizations. It is supported by Turkey (to which, as stated, the Russians turned after the attempted UAV attack). The organization’s center of power is in the Idlib area, where the dominant organization is the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham (formerly the Al-Nusra Front). In July 2017, the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham carried out military activity against Ahrar al-Sham in Idlib, following which it positioned itself as the dominant organization in the Idlib area. It appears that in light of the campaign for the takeover of Idlib, the Ahrar al-Sham movement is working in cooperation with the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, albeit in separate combat zones.
Summary and Conclusions
- The attacks against the Russian base in Hmeymim and the naval base in Tartus were carried out by the rebel organizations operating in the Idlib area. In the ITIC’s assessment, their objective was to ease the pressure of the Syrian forces which, with Russian air support, are attempting to take over the Idlib enclave (the Syrian forces are now on the verge of taking over the Abu Ad-Duhur military airbase southeast of Idlib, which is an important interim target in the campaign). It is possible that Ahrar al-Sham, which is now working with the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham to repel the attack, launched the UAVs at Hmeymim, but this still requires verification.
These attacks made it clear to Russia that despite its leaders’ declarations of their victory in Syria and the withdrawal of a small part of the Russian forces, the civil war is still far from over. It also made it clear that Russia’s strategic outposts in the coastal strip, mainly Hmeymim and Tartus, are highly vulnerable to attacks by the rebel organizations that control the Idlib area.
 The city of Idlib, stronghold of the rebel organizations, is located about 85 km (as the crow flies) northwest of the Russian base in Hmeymim. Hence it is reasonable to assume that the launches were carried out in the area south of Idlib, which is controlled by the rebel organizations. ↑
 According to a number of sources, at least seven Russian aircraft were destroyed in the attack (four Su-24 bombers, two Su-35s and an An-72 transport plane). It was also reported that 10 military personnel may have been wounded. As stated, the Russian Ministry of Defense has denied these reports. ↑