Weaponized drones threatening Russian military presence in Syria

By Abdulrahman al-Masri, The Arab Weekly  |  Jan. 23, 2018 at 9:47 AM
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Jan. 23 (UPI) -- An armed drone opera­tion targeted Russia's naval base on the Medi­terranean in Tartus and Hmeimim Airbase in northwestern 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 defense hardware in the war-torn country.

The attacks on Russian bases allegedly started New Year's Eve with mortar shells. A few days lat­er, weaponized drones were used. Russian media reporting suggests that several military aircraft were damaged but the Russian Minis­try of Defense contradicted the reports.

Moscow said that no damage had occurred and its air defenses 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 U.S. 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 Defense 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 U.S.-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 weaponized 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 defense 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 defenses 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.

This article originally appeared at The Arab Weekly.

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