The Russian military announced late on Friday that it has tracked down and eliminated a group of rebels involved in attacks on Russia's main base in Syria after mobilizing "all manpower and materiel of Russia’s multilevel military intelligence system in Syria" and especially its elite special forces troops.
The previous New Year's Eve attack was carried out by a small squad of insurgents armed with mortars who were able to kill two Russian servicemen while damaging up to seven aircraft at Khmeimim Airbase outside of Latakia, Syria and constitutes the single largest loss of Russian military hardware throughout the Syria campaign.
Russian special forces soldiers in Syria. Image source: Russian military media via The Washington Post
This was followed by a January 6 coordinated attack on the base involving 13 heavily armed drones which captured headlines this week as Russian defense officials, including President Putin himself, said the militants must have had outside help or state sponsorship, given the sophistication of the operation and presence of advanced satellite and weapons technology the UAVs were outfitted with.
Damage to one of the seven Russian jets disabled through the December 31 mortar attack on Khmeimim Airbase. Photo via Roman Saponkov
In response to both attacks, Russian special forces units were immediately mobilized and conducted targeted operations based on intelligence which identified the location of the initial mortar attacks. The Russian Defense Ministry indicated the full scope of its intelligence and special ops resources were brought to bear for the operation. According to Russia's TASS news:
A group of Russian Special Operation Forces established the militants' location close to the western border of the Idlib province.
"When the terrorists arrived at the facility where they were to board a minibus, the whole subversive group was eliminated by the Krasnopol high-precision munition [see below]," the ministry said. The Russian Defense Ministry added that all manpower and materiel of Russia’s multilevel military intelligence system in Syria had been involved in the operation.
The 2K25 Krasnopol is a Russian 152 mm cannon-launched, fin-stabilized, base bleed-assisted, semi-automatic laser-guided, explosive projectile. It automatically 'homes' on a point illuminated by a laser designator, typically operated by a ground-based artillery observer. Source: Wiki Commons
Simultaneous to this operation defense officials said Russian artillery targeted and destroyed a drone assembly plant and storage depot in nearby al-Qaeda controlled Idlib, believed to have possibly been part of the January 6 attack - which though reportedly thwarted - has raised serious concerns over the vulnerability and security of Russia's most active foreign base.
TASS reports further of the drone depot:
Russia’s Krasnopol precision artillery munition has wiped out terrorists’ drone assembly and storage depot in the Syrian province of Idlib, according to the Defense Ministry. "The Russian military reconnaissance has uncovered a terrorist fixed-wing drone assembly and storage place in the province of Idlib. The depot has been destroyed by the Krasnopol precision artillery munition," the Defense Ministry said.
The Russian military said the drones came from the village of Muwazarra in Idlib, around 50 miles away, which makes Ahrar Al Sham or Hay’at Tahrir Al Sham the immediate culprit. Both groups, though blacklisted as terror organizations by the Pentagon, have received direct and indirect assistance by the CIA and allied intelligence services at various points over the course of the war, especially during the 2015 campaign to wrest Idlib city from the control of the Syrian government.
"We know who they were and how much they paid for that provocation," Putin had warned previously, while also claiming to be in possession of evidence demonstrating the rebels had outside help, presumably from external intelligence agencies.
Though Russia hasn't been forthcoming with any 'smoking gun' proof regarding outside state sponsorship of Idlib militant operations against Khmeimim base, Putin is reported to have reassured Turkey's President Erdogan through a phone call, saying that Russia knows it wasn't Turkey, while accusing outside "provocateurs" of attempting to derail the delicate Russia-Turkey-Iran agreement reached in Sochi last November. The next round of talks is scheduled to begin at the end of January, which has further raised Russian suspicions as to the timing of recent attacks.
On Friday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova accused Washington of engaging Syrian opposition groups involved in the Sochi process behind the scenes in order to sabotage Russian efforts at a peace deal and settlement to the Syrian war. The Pentagon has vehemently denied any involvement in the attacks against Russian bases or personnel in Syria.