Russian Air Force Enters Middle East Fray With Strikes in Syria

 - October 5, 2015, 11:58 AM
The Soviet-era Su-24 Fencer is among the combat aircraft that Russia has deployed to Syria. (Photo: Russian Ministry of Defense)

Russia's air force is pressing ahead with its attacks against forces fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. As of October 5, the Russian air force reported conducting nearly 100 bombing raids in Syria using Sukhoi Su-24M, Su-25 and Su-34 jets. The military action continued despite an October 3 incident in which Turkish F-16 fighters were scrambled to intercept Russian warplanes that had violated its airspace close to the border with Syria.

On September 30, Russia gave the U.S. and its Nato allies barely an hour's notice of the start of bombing raids against Islamic State (ISIS) forces. "First, we will support the Syrian army as far as they are, namely, fighting terrorist groupings,” Russian president Vladimir Putin declared. “Second, this support will be rendered from the air, without our involvement in operations on the ground. Thirdly, this support will be time-limited, while the Syrian army conducts advance operations.”

Since mid-September, the Russian air force has increased its presence at the Hmeymim Airbase outside the Syrian port city of Latakia on the Mediterranean Sea, where support is strongest for Assad. Russian contingent there includes “about 2,000 servicemen” and “over 50 aircraft,” according to Russia’s ministry of defense (MoD). There are some 30 strike aircraft of the aforementioned dedicated strike types, a handful of Su-30M/SM multi-role fighters for air cover, and about 20 Mi-24/35 and Mi-8 helicopters. The reported use of several Su-34 Fullback strike fighters is their first known combat deployment.

Reconnaissance, electronic intelligence and targeting information is being supplied by an Ilyushin Il-20 turboprop, several types of unmanned aircraft and possibly combat jets outfitted with recce pods. Supply is provided by An-124 and Il-76 strategic airlifters. Russian navy ships in the eastern Mediterranean off Latakia and Tartus provide air cover and radar coverage to the air group.

According to an MoD statement, the Russian aircraft have performed “pinpoint bomb attacks,” with all air strikes coordinated with the Syrian army. An operational group of the Syrian defense ministry is deployed at Hmeymim airbase for this purpose. To prevent engagement with the civilian population, the targets for Russian aviation are assigned outside of inhabited areas and only on the basis of confirmed reconnaissance data received from multiple sources. To provide necessary information concerning the positions of terrorists and the results of their engagement, unmanned aerial vehicles and means of space reconnaissance are used.”

The Russian MoD has conducted daily briefings in Moscow led by its official representative, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov. He has insisted that “all strikes are committed after the aerial reconnaissance and detailing (of) the information we received from the Syrian army HQ.” The most detailed briefing thus far was given by Col. Gen. Andrei Kartapolov, chief of the main operational directorate of the general staff of the Russian Armed Forces. According to Kartapolov, the air force conducted more than 60 combat sorties through October 3, striking more than 50 objects “of the terrorist infrastructure belonging to ISIS.” . The U.S. government has contested Russia’s claims that it is targeting ISIS.

“Our reconnaissance reports that gunmen leave the areas which they controlled,” Kartapolov said. “There are panic and defection among them… Because of this, we will not only continue with our strikes, but increase their intensity.”

Since 2014, a U.S.-led collation has conducted thousands of air strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, enabling the Iraqi army and Kurdish militia to withstand pressure from the Islamic extremists.

Kartapolov said the coalition was informed of the Russian air strikes before they began. “Moreover, foreign colleagues were informed through channels of both Russian Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Foreign Affairs and were advised to withdraw all instructors and advisers as well as those people who had been trained with American taxpayers’ money,” he said.

In most of the photos available from the MoD and Russian journalists at Hmeymim Airbase, the Su-25SM/UB, Su-24M and Su-34 strike aircraft are shown with free-fall munitions on their under-fuselage and wing pylons, most notably OFAB-250-270 blast-fragmentation bombs, as well FAB-250 and FAB-500 “general purpose” bombs. These can be dropped from altitudes of up to 5,000 meters. There are also BETAB-500 concrete-piercing bombs, effective against concrete bunkers, which must be dropped from lower altitudes. Use of these munitions has been confirmed in news releases and daily briefings by the MoD.

Among guided weapons confirmed as being used in Syria, there are three types. Su-24M aircraft were photographed with the Kh-25ML laser guided missile under one wing pylon. The larger Kh-29L was mentioned during MoD briefings. The newest “smart” munition, widely shown at air shows, but until recently not confirmed as being operational is the satellite-guided KAB-500S “corrected aviation bomb.” Finally, the Su-30M2/3 and Su-30SM multirole fighters are depicted flying missions with R-27 radar-guided and R-73 heat-seeking air-to-air missiles, which have ranges of 60 and 30 km, respectively, according to the Russian air force.

An analysis of the Russian air strikes conducted to date points to four distinct geographic points. Most often mentioned in MoD briefings is Jisr al-Shughur in northwestern Syria. Apparently, the Russian air force is trying to disrupt supply lines from Turkey to Syrian rebels fighting in Aleppo and Idlib provinces, where the Syrian army has recently been losing ground. The second area is a triangle to the north of Latakia, formed by Ghab Plain, Latamieh and Khirbet-Has. The goal is obvious: to secure the Russian air force base from possible raids by rebels operating in this area. The third area is between the cities of Homs, Hama and Salamiya, where Assad’s troops have encircled a large rebel force of up to 5,000 gunmen.

Finally is the area of Al-Raqqa, closer to the Iraqi border. Strikes there do not reflect the pressure on Assad’s troops, but carry political significance because Raqqa is widely acknowledged as being the Islamic State’s capital city.