Russian President Vladimir Putin slammed those behind the massive drone attack on Russia's two Syrian bases which took place on January 6, saying in front of a large Russian media conference Thursday, "There were some provocateurs, but they were not Turks. We know who they are, who paid who for this provocation and what the actual sum was." Meanwhile the Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah reports that Putin has privately informed Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of which "provocateur" was behind a drone attack.
Earlier this week we reported that the Russian military in Syria thwarted the highly coordinated attack on Khmeimim air base and the Russian Naval facility in the city of Tartus, intercepting 13 heavily armed UAVs launched by terrorists. And underreported in international media was also a prior New Year's Eve attack 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, which constituted the single largest loss of Russian military hardware throughout the Syria campaign.
Though both attacks would appear to be merely the work of Islamist rebel factions occupying nearby Idlib, multiple extraordinary factors led the Russian Ministry of Defense to immediately state that the perpetrators must have had outside state sponsorship. First there was - as the Russian Ministry of Defense mentioned in an early media statement - "strange coincidences" surrounding the terrorist attack: these included a US spy plane spotted in the area, namely a US Navy’s Boeing P-8 Poseidon reconnaissance aircraft on patrol between the Khmeimim airbase and Tartus naval base in Syria during the time of the attack.
Secondly, the airbase lies deep within Syrian regime territory in what is among the most secure areas in all of Syria, which also underscores the need for advanced satellite and navigational coordination from a state actors. The Russian military claims 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.
Origination points of recent wave of drone attacks on Russian and Syrian forces locations. Map via Syria Live Update
Third, the Russian military in its examination of the recovered drones found high tech components well beyond what initially appeared to be rebel-made improvised devices manufactured locally. Putin went so far as to say the drones and explosives were purposefully made to appear primitive and homemade in order to conceal the advanced technology they were outfitted with. On Thursday he said, "As for these attacks, they were undoubtedly prepared well. We know when and where these unmanned vehicles were handed over [to the attackers], and how many of them there were. These aerial vehicles were disguised - I would like to stress that - as homemade. But it is obvious that some high-tech equipment was used."
Russia has yet to reveal the identity of those responsible, but has strongly hinted at the United States or a regional US ally, which elicited a Pentagon response this week with a spokesperson saying the suggestion is "without any basis in fact and is utterly irresponsible."
The UK Daily Mail featured detailed Russian defense photographs of the recovered drones, which were noted to be "immune to jamming technology" and summarized the advanced capabilities as follows:
- "Jam-resistant terrorist drones" could not have been made without foreign help, Russia says
- They carried sophisticated software and precision-guided weaponry
- The explosives they carried were 'stuffed with ball bearings'
Recovered drones used in the attack featured in a photograph published by RT.
Image source: TASS
Though as the Daily Beast notes anti-government insurgents in Syria have long had access to black market drones sold through social media, Russia has consistently pointed to the high tech navigational and weapons components added. An earlier Russian Defense Ministry statement said the attack needed a "high-level engineer" and that "not every country is able to get sharp coordinates using space intelligence data" while also citing the presence of "foreign detonating fuses". The statement further indicated that, "Russian specialists are determining supply channels, through which terrorists had received the technologies and devices, as well as examining type and origin of explosive compounds used in the IEDs."
And given Putin's words on Thursday, it sounds like Russia believes it has proof of the outside sponsor of the operation - though it's unclear why it is not forthcoming with the evidence as it has been in some past incidents. It could be that Russian defense doesn't actually have the level of proof needed to convince an international audience, or the more likely scenario perhaps involves the delicacy of Russia's current attempts to negotiate a settlement to the war and continued military withdrawal of its forces.
Regarding these negotiations, Putin said on Thursday of the recent attacks on its Syrian bases, "Those were provocations aimed at disrupting the earlier agreements, in the first place. Secondly, it was about our relations with our partners - Turkey and Iran. It was also an attempt to destroy those relations." Last November a trilateral Syria deal was reached between Russia, Turkey, and Iran in Sochi, Russia over the future of Syria which emphasized winding down the war while keeping the country intact and creating a humanitarian and diplomatic solution, and also included planned Moscow-sponsored talks between the Syrian government and recognized opposition.
The US and other Western powers were notably excluded from the talks, which many analysts now see as signifying that Putin is in the driver's seat when it comes to setting the final terms for winding down the war. Russia suspects that the latest attacks on Khmeimim are provocations designed to introduce suspicion among signatories to the deal, especially those elements of the Syrian opposition set to meet for continued Russian sponsored negotiations at the end of January.
Interestingly, the Russian Foreign Ministry actually previously warned of "staged provocations" aimed at doing just this in the days prior to the first January mortar attack on Khmeimim. As we reported at the time of a prior missile attack on the base, FM spokesperson Maria Zakharova warned at a December 28 press conference that ongoing attacks were "another link in the chain of ongoing and, perhaps, staged provocations involving terrorists and extremists from the Syrian opposition aimed at disrupting the positive trends in the development of the situation in Syria and, in particular, at creating obstacles to convening and holding the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi on January 29-30."
Also notable in terms of the potential for US involvement, which also affirms that Russian suspicions are not mere "paranoia," is that one of the high level planners behind CIA operations in Syria, former CIA Acting Director Michael Morell, declared publicly that "we need to make the Russians pay the price" in Syria by "covertly" killing them via proxies.
The CIA's Morell said the following in a televised Charlie Rose interview at that time:
Morell: We need to make the Iranians pay the price in Syria; we need to make the Russians pay the price.
Rose: We make them pay the price by killing Russians and killing Iranians?
Morell: Yes. Covertly. You don't tell the world about it. You don't stand at the Pentagon and say we did this. But you make sure they know it in Moscow and Tehran. I want to go after those things that Assad sees as his personal power base. I want to scare Assad. I want to go after his presidential car. I want to bomb his offices in the middle of the night. I want to destroy his presidential aircraft. I want to destroy his presidential helicopters. I want to make him think we are coming after him.
With such brazen and public past admissions by US intelligence officials it is clear that no scenario should be taken off the table regarding what happened with these recent technologically advanced attacks on Russian assets in Syria. This could indeed very likely be the United States or a regional state actor making Russians "pay the price" for being there.