Several Western analysts were quick to suggest the Kheimmim incident heralded a new era of warfare, in which insurgents could humble modern militaries through ingenious use of radio controlled mini-planes as bomber swarms. The original reporting of the Kommersant newspaper claiming the destruction of multiple Russian planes on the ground December 31, however, could not be confirmed. As The Saker and his editor Scott suspect, the exaggerated toll on the Russian Air Force likely was Western intelligence boosted 'fake news'.
Russian television showed footage of the only confirmed damaged aircraft, a SU24 bomber with the (mortar round damaged) tail number 29, allegedly repaired and within days back in action. The Russians say that their powerful electronic jamming complexes around the Kheimmim and their naval installation at Tartus on the Mediterranean were able to take down half of the 13 drones launched at them, while SA-22 Pantsir radar/infrared guided anti-aircraft guns shot down the rest. It's unclear if the follow on drone 'swarming' attack which took place on Russian Orthodox Christmas eve inflicted any casualties or damage. The widely publicized drone attacks haven't slowed the Russian-backed Syrian Arab Army (SAA) from attacking the last remaining large jihadist enclave in northern Syria's Idlib province.
More interesting than the details the Russian Defense Ministry released regarding the drones advanced for 'DIY' characteristics, including their GPS programmed mortar round bombing run flight paths, was one particular claim. According to the RuMoD, a U.S. Navy Poseidon surveillance jet was loitering in international air space off the Syrian coast when the night time drone assault occurred. Like the Russian MoD's claim in a briefing delivered to journalists days after the MH17 shoot down, in which the Ministry said the Americans just happened to have an orbiting spy satellite overhead in the minutes following the crash (whose supposed smoking gun imagery of THE Russian BUK that shot down the airliner CIA/National Reconnaissance Office refuse to declassify to this day)...the insinuation is American fore-knowledge and therefore complicity (at least at higher levels, not necessarily of lower ranking US Navy personnel on board the aircraft).
While scoffing at a Pentagon spokesman's claim that the sophistication of the thirteen drones sent in waves at Kheimmim could have been acquired in some random back alley jihadi drone bazaar, the Russian MoD nonetheless declined to name the U.S. or Israel as the culprits. As the Sputnik News Agency reported, including this RuMoD tweet:
After the initial public exchange of views between the Russians and Americans regarding the off the shelf accessibility or lack thereof for such GPS guided drone bombing tech, Moscow directed its complaint toward Ankara. Specifically, declaring that the drones were launched from territory controlled by so-called moderate rebel groups that welcomed Turkey's intervention in northern Syria. Such a complaint of course, should not be misunderstood as stating the Turkish military was behind the attacks, but rather that someone desiring to ratchet up Turkish-Russian tensions might have acted from areas nominally monitored by the Turks:
The Art of Plausibly Deniable Escalation from Syria to Yemen: Houthis Shoot Down a Saudi Tornado Jet and Film Selves Almost Taking Down a RSAF F-15
Nineteen hundred miles southeast of Latakia, in the skies over war-torn Yemen, a hunter was becoming the hunted. The previously Saleh-loyalist Yemeni Army, who hid the impoverished country's arsenal of old Soviet designed and Russian shipped surface to air missiles after the 2015 Saudi invasion, and their Ansarullah (better known as Houthis) allies had been waiting for this moment.
A Royal Saudi Air Force F-15 pilot, trained by the Americans to view himself and his aircraft as basically invincible, unaccustomed to facing any serious SAM threat well above altitudes at which man portable systems operate, began furiously dropping chaff and flares to evade the missile he knew was coming. Whether the pilot's headsets actually warned of a radar lock or, if the Yemenis deployed an IR only seeker that could take over upon launch after an initial (and anti-radiation missile evading) brief lock is established remains unknown. What we do know is that one Royal Saudi Air Force Panavia Tornado, a British made fighter of 1980s design likely 1990s vintage, went down this past week. Riyadh claimed a technical glitch rather than enemy fire was the culprit. The Houthis' F-15 footage appears authentic, even if the particular IR scanner displayed in their video is a red herring or wasn't used at all and edited into the footage. The video was widely circulated on YouTube after being aired on Yemen's pro-Houthi Al Masirah TV:
Aided by Russian Airpower, SAA Slices Through Demoralized Jihadist Lines, 'Moderate Rebel' Advocates like (UAE Funded) Mideast Institute's Charles Lister Urge Turkish Action -- But So Far Ankara's Bark is Worse Than Its Defanged Bite
The Turkish Army has maintained an illegal under international law presence in northern Syria since it intervened in August 2016 to stop the establishment of an American sponsored, independent Kurdish state. Since then Turkey has pivoted away from its NATO Israeli-Saudi allies and drawn closer to Russia and Iran. But Ankara in the last week has accused the Syrian Army of targeting 'moderate' rebel groups, including those sponsored by Turkey as part of its 'Euphrates Shield' operation, under the guise of hitting the Al-Qaeda affiliate Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Turkey reportedly summoned their ambassadors to Ankara to accuse the Russians and Iranians of violating the de-confliction agreement the three governments reached regarding northern Syria. Demonstrating a desire to be viewed as an independent balancer between the two sides of Cold War 2, the Turks also summoned the American ambassador to complain about U.S. military and arms support for Syrian Kurds:
The Turks presence remains illegal under international law, and when pressed the Russians and Iranians are likely to remind their Turkish 'partners' of this fact. There is no evidence the Turkish Army as of January 10 is seriously digging in or moving armor and artillery up and across the border for direct clashes with the Syrian Arab Army or its Russian and Iranian advisers. At any rate, pro-Damascus sources say the immediate objective of the Syrian Army advance is not the densely populated and fiercely jihadi defended city of Idlib, but the countryside necessary to fully secure the Khanasser to Aleppo highway. This operation has included the expulsion of HTS terrorists from their remaining areas of control in northeast Hama. After securing the Abu Duhur military airport -- which has been controlled by jihadists since early 2015 -- the SAA could link up with forces south of Aleppo, creating a large pocket surrounding a few thousand jihadis. Inside Idlib, the jihadists are killing each other and scores of civilians unlucky enough to be nearby when the blast happens with VBIEDs. Not surprisingly, the Turkish Army has avoided entering the city, even as 'liberators'.
On other fronts, in the eastern Damascus exurbs, the Gulf states funded Ahrar al Sham terrorist group failed to maintain a siege of an armored vehicles base at Harasta, though the SAA's 4th Armored Division suffered several killed and scores of wounded in its fierce defense. Washington and Moscow continue to exchange accusations of being soft on Islamic State remnants, with the Russians alleging the Americans are training 'former' ISIS members at the (illegal squatting under international law) al-Tanf military camp along the Jordanian border while the Coalition spokesman claimed Daesh members move freely through SAA lines.
As Elijah J Magnier points out above, the U.S. encampment at al-Tanf remains useless for the cause many neocons in Washington and at its GCC funded think tanks have advocated: American special forces interdicting through proxies the overland route from Iran through Shi'a friendly Iraq to Lebanon. As for Damascus allegedly taking it easy on ISIS leftovers, the eastern deserts of Syria are large and sparsely populated, making it difficult for the SAA or Russian airpower to prevent small groups of terrorists or mini-convoys from moving around.
Meanwhile, even the anti-Assad Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) which is basically one Syrian exile in Coventry is reporting former ISIS members are joining the Arab wing of the Kurdish-led and American advised Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The question of whether ISIS members blending into the civilian population or will go off script and engage in 'green on blue' suicide attacks against American special forces units they can infiltrate as SDF recruits is one that ought to concern U.S. commanders, and by extension the Pentagon and Trump White House. Much more so than the farcical demands of a few 'Free Syrian Army' unicorns who are threatening to fight the Kurdish SDF. Perhaps if Coalition leaders are so concerned about governments giving safe passage to ISIS fighters, they should check with U.S. allies first about their own returning ISIS member citizens, before claiming the Syrian government and Russians aren't doing enough to combat the terrorist army's remnants.
Israeli Air Strikes and the GRU Inspecting the Electronics of the 'Syria Rebel' Drones
Bringing this SITREP back to the question from the start, which state sponsor was behind the drone wave attacks on Kheimmim and Tartus, on January 9 Israeli air and ground-launched missiles struck a reported weapons depot in a town near Damascus. The Syrian military said it fired an anti-aircraft missile that brought down an IAF jet, but no wreckage was filmed on Syrian territory. The Syrians also said they intercepted an incoming Israeli missile.
As Elijah J. Magnier noted in a year end article, Russia had angered the Netanyahu government by aiding the SAA's advances along the Israeli occupied Golan Heights, while adhering to Moscow's end of the bargain with Israel that excludes Iranian advisers from a buffer zone near Israeli Defense Forces. Whether the drone attacks were a message to Russia in retaliation for that support, we know two things are certain.
One, the Mossad and Israeli deep state have often proven more indifferent to blowback than Israel's politicians, who still have to consider the possibility, however remote, that assassinated Hezbollah chiefs or Iranian generals relatives could try to target them personally for revenge. The second thing we know is that, notwithstanding its public warnings to Turkey to prevent drone launches from Idlib region, Moscow's technicians are closely examining the electronics of the drones and their GPS programming. GRU will be looking for traces that can be matched with American or Israeli designs, and certainly programs beyond the capabilities of Idlib jihadis.
Blowback Risks and Hezbollah Retaliation Via Its Own 'Drone Swarms' Against Israel
If the Israelis had anything to do with the Kheimmim drone swarm, messages can be conveyed through back channels, for example in the Caucuses, regarding more advanced mini-drone tech proliferating into Hezbollah hands. In particular, during clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenian backed troops in Ngorno Karabakh, the Azeris used a suicide drone of Israeli design to successfully attack several Karabakh defenders. Armenia of course shares a border and has very good relations with Iran. It would be quite easy for an SVR agent under diplomatic cover to convey to his Israeli Mossad counterpart, likewise under diplomatic cover, that Moscow knows Iran has successfully reverse engineered the switchblade suicide drone-bomb design and given the tech to Hezbollah. Furthermore, the Russians can tell the Israelis that if Idlib jihadis can send swarms of mortar bombing drones at Kheimmim, then it's genuinely concerned Hezbollah could do likewise against IDF bases in northern Israel. The implication being if Russian bases in Syria continue to be attacked in this way, than Moscow will not be responsible for what their more hot headed Hezbollah allies decide to do in revenge for Israeli air strikes.
With 'accidents' like an Iranian tanker colliding with a Chinese freighter then exploding, and overt sabotage resulting in blown up Persian oil pipelines for which MEK-linked terrorists take credit, as well as Houthis and Syrian 'rebels' suddenly showing remarkable technological prowess, it's clear the covert war is heating up. The risk of drone swarming attacks with barely credible deniability is that they can be turned on targets of opportunity in the other direction. But more broadly, the pattern of covert provocations appears designed to keep the opposing sides who might be willing to compromise paranoid. Per RogueMoney's Bankster Slayer and W the Intelligence Insider, this is consistent with a third party operating outside and above governments -- including their occasionally rogue intelligence agencies -- to exacerbate conflicts and set the stage for a very big war. Whether 'the cabal' will succeed in that objective remains to be seen, but a new era of tit for tat and covert war from the Middle East to Southeast Asia is clearly upon us.