The Russian military says it has fought an attack by a swarm of drones launched by jihadists against its bases in Syria.
Thirteen attack drones were launched against the Khmeimim air base and a naval facility in the city of Tartus on Syria’s western coast, the Russian defence ministry said.
Russian forces shot down seven of the drones with anti-aircraft missiles while the other six were hacked by a cyberware unit and taken under Russian control, the ministry said. No damage or casualties at the two military bases were reported.
The attack appears to be the largest example to date of insurgents using a mass of primitive drones in combat and Russia said it had never before faced such an attack.
“It was the first time when terrorists applied a massed drone aircraft attack launched at a range of more than 50 km using modern GPS guidance systems,” a defence ministry spokesman said.
Defence experts have long predicted that drones will become an increasingly common feature of the modern battlefield, employed by both sophisticated nation state militaries and by low-tech rebel groups.
Three of the drones were recovered by Russian forces, the ministry said, and photographs showed a small aircraft made partly of wood and held together with masking tape. Another picture showed a row of small explosive.
The Russian defence ministry said that “countries with high-technological capabilities” might have supplied materials for the armed drones but did not accuse a specific country.
Russia has in the past accused Western and Arab states of deliberately arming jihadist groups in Syria to fight against the Assad regime.
Suspicion for the attack, which occurred the night of January 5, immediately fell on Syrian rebel and jihadist groups based in Idlib, an opposition controlled province next to Latakia where both Russian military facilities are located.
Ahrar al-Sham, an Islamist rebel coalition, and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a jihadist group with links to al-Qaeda, are both based in Idlib and fighting against the Assad regime and their Russian allies.
However, neither group claimed responsibility for the attack and in a social media post a previously unknown group called the “Free Alawites Movement” said it was behind the drone swarm.
The Alawites are a small sect of Shia Islam, and Bashar al-Assad and his family are Alawites – making it surprising that an Alawite group would attack Assad’s Russian allies.
In the post, the Free Alawites Movement said “the Russians will not be able to stay [in Syria] for more than six months” and warned Assad not to rely on the Russians for help.
“The days are coming when it will be more painful for the Russians especially before the election of Putin,” the statement said.
The Free Alawites said they had attacked with drones armed with grenades and with rockets and succeeded in destroying a Russian S-400 missile launcher – contradicting the Russian claims that they suffered no damage.
The Khmeimim airbase came mortar attack on New Year’s Eve and seven aircraft were destroyed and two Russian troops were killed, according to Russia’s Kommersant newspaper.
It was reportedly the single largest loss of Russian military equipment since Vladimir Putin ordered Russian forces into Syria in September 2015.
While the bases in northwest Syria are of significant strategic value to Russia, they are also tempting targets for jihadist and rebel groups trying to inflict damage on Assad’s biggest military backers.
The Kremlin said Tuesday that it had enough forces in Syria to withstand any attacks on the bases.
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