Russian media reported on Wednesday that “radical
Islamists” destroyed seven aircraft late last month in a mortar
Russia has confirmed the attack and the deaths of two
service members but denied that aircraft were lost.
Russian media reported on Wednesday that “radical Islamists” had
destroyed six fighter aircraft
and one transport plane with a mortar attack on December 31.
More than 10 Russian service members were wounded in the attack,
said the report, which cited defense sources but not Russia’s
Ministry of Defense.
A day later, another Russian media outlet
published a denial from the ministry, which said two service
members had been killed but no planes destroyed.
Unverified images circulating on social media, however, seem to
fit the bill of destroyed Russian aircraft at Syria’s Hmeymim air
Joseph Dempsey, a research associate for defense analysis at the
International Institute of Strategic Studies, posted the images
and pointed out that the plane in them had been confirmed to be
in Syria. He added that the rainy conditions captured in the
photo matched the weather at the time the report said the attack
Dempsey’s pictures show the shredded rear horizontal stabilizer
of a Su-24. But for a mortar to do such serious damage to the
stabilizer, it would have to explode nearby, most likely
peppering the entire plane and anything around it with bits of
If the images are genuine, it’s safe to assume other nearby jets
or assets suffered damage too.
In short, though the damage looks limited, the plane is probably
wrecked. One picture shows a fuel leak and a bomb underneath the
Taken together, the images depict a disaster or near-disaster
where Russia bases most of its fleet in Syria.
This spells trouble for Russia
Whether the images are real or not — or whether seven or one or
zero planes were destroyed — Russia has confirmed the attack and
Google Earth satellite imagery of the air base shows that the
mortar attackers had ample space and cover to launch on Russia’s
sitting-duck Sukhoi jets.
It appears Russia most likely fell victim to a guerrilla attack
or insurgency — the same kind that has for decades kept the US’s
superior military and air power from completing missions in the
Charles Lister, the director of counterterrorism at the Middle
East Institute, tweeted two theories about who
could have attacked the base: a “localized, very small
independent rebel unit active behind enemy lines,” or “Ahrar
al-Sham’s ‘special’ unit operating covertly in Latakia (has a
long track record).”
Ahrar al-Sham is a coalition of Islamist fighters that came
together to fight against Syria’s government, which Russia
supports. But an independent rebel unit behind enemy lines could
prove just as troubling and hard to root out for Russia.