The Russian media have reported that during last Sunday, December 31, the Russian airbase in Khmeimim, Syria, came under mortar fire from what was described as a “mobile sabotage group.”
According to ABC News, these sources did not specify the affiliation of the attackers, which at this point can belong to any of the many factions involved in the chaotic Syrian Civil War.
The attack officially caused two fatalities among the Russian personnel. There are also reports that around ten other servicemen were injured.
Further rumors also stated that at least seven aircraft were destroyed. The Russian Ministry of Defense has already come forward to dismiss such rumors as “fake news,” Russia Today reports.
Were they true, they would imply the destruction of four Sukhoi Su-24 fighter-bombers and one Antonov An-72 transport from the Soviet era, and also two Sukhoi Su-35 fighters, which are among the most advanced jets operated by the Russian Air Force.
This incident was unveiled just a day after the Russian MoD admitted to having lost a Mil Mi-24 assault helicopter in Syria, also on December 31, with the loss of two crewmen. The cause of the loss was attributed to a technical problem and not enemy fire. A technician was also injured in the crash.
With these two incidents, the casualties sustained by the Russian military in Syria now ascend to 41 dead servicemen since the operations began back on September 30, 2015.
The Russian intervention in Syria originated from a request from Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, made in July 2015. At that point, the Civil War had already lasted for more than four years, and the government forces had suffered some significant setbacks in 2015 alone.
For Moscow, such an intervention was almost inevitable. Tensions with the West resurfaced after the war in Georgia, in 2008, and expanded with the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.
In part, the Russian intervention in these countries was a response to NATO and the E.U. expansion into Eastern Europe, threatening what Moscow sees as its safety perimeter. In order to maintain it and remain relevant in global geopolitics, Russia needed to be more assertive.
Syria has major ports that grant access to the Mediterranean, while also containing oil fields and important pipelines. It is, thus, a crucial strategic region, and aligned with Moscow, besides.
However, the Obama administration was quite adamant in its views of a Syria without Al-Assad and supported the rebel forces. This support included weapons sales to the so-called “moderate rebels,” limited use of troops in the ground and airstrikes – a strategy that was inherited by the Trump administration.
Although this effort would later be converted into a campaign against the Islamic State, its ultimate aim didn’t befit Moscow’s own goals.
The Russian contingent swiftly built the Khmeimim Airbase near the Bassel Al-Assad International Airport and established itself there. This base would become the cornerstone of Moscow’s involvement in Syria, housing some of the most advanced combat aircraft in the Russian arsenal, from helicopters to fighter jets.
Among such aircraft is the Sukhoi Su-35, a premier air defense vector meant as an interim fighter while the Su-57 stealth fighter is in development. These airplanes have recently been involved in tense encounters with American F-22A Raptors.
In total, the operations over Syria have thus far cost the Russians between nine and 11 aircraft, which include Mi-8, Mi-28N, and Mi-35 helicopters, and also Su-24 fighter-bombers, and one Su-33 naval fighter.
But the Russian involvement does not contain solely Air Force assets. The Khmeimim airbase in itself is protected by a perimeter of heavily-armed Russian troops. However, no defense is impregnable, and this latest attack shows the kind of damage small highly-mobile guerrilla groups can cause.
Some parallels can be drawn to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, when attacks on American Air Force bases by Vietcong guerrilla forces caused considerable human and material damage.
It is interesting to observe that the attack on Khmeimim happened shortly after President Vladimir Putin announced the withdrawal of a significant part of the Russian contingent. This does not mean a complete retreat, though.
Damascus has agreed to allow Moscow to use the airbases of Khmeimim and Tartus for another 49 years, lease-free. These very installations are also being modernized, and given the Russian stakes in the region, it is doubtful that Moscow would abandon them anytime soon.