Helicopter Downed In Syria On Friday was Russian Mi-35M, 2 Crew Killed – Kommersant

July 11, 2016
A screengrab from a video purportedly taken by ISIS of a Russian helicopter shot down over Palmyra. Via Kommersant

LIVE UPDATES: The previous post in our Putin in Syria column can be found here.

Reports That ISIS Has Reached Palmyra, Pushing Back Assad and Russian Forces

Earlier we reported (updates below) that Russian officials are claiming that ISIS appears has shot down a Russian helicopter near Palmyra, the central and ancient city in the center of Syria. There are several unconfirmed reports that ISIS may be entering the city, reversing months of advances made by the pro-Assad coalition of Russian soldiers, Hezbollah militias, Iranian ground troops, and the Syrian military.

John Artebury, a terrorism expert at Georgetown CSS, reports: 

LiveUAMap, which also tracks open-source reporting, is also carrying the story: 
The sources for the story are Syrian opposition news outlets: 
According to Palmyra News, an outlet which has proven reliable in the past, ISIS has withdrawn from those positions but fighting continues: 
If ISIS recaptures Palmyra, it will be a huge black eye for both the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and also for Russian President Vladimir Putin, both of whom used the victory over ISIS in the city as part of a huge (and largely disinformational) propaganda blitz back in May:

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Western Media Swallow Putin's Syria Narrative

It's been a banner week for the Kremlin's propaganda machine. At home, and across the border in the parts of Ukraine held by Russia-backed separatists, Russian military hardware was out on display for the May 9 Victory Day parade marking the defeat of the Nazis in World War II.

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Jul 11, 2016 18:54 (GMT)

James Miller
Russian Sources Claim Mi-35 Hit By US-Made TOW Missile, But Was It Actually Friendly Fire?

As we have reported, both Interfax and Kommersant have run claims from Russian military and official sources that the Russian Mi-35M helicopter that crashed near Palmyra on Friday was shot down by ISIS fighters with a US-made TOW anti-tank missile.

It is plausible that a TOW missile could be used to down a helicopter, although hitting such a fast-moving target is a very difficult shot.

Indeed TOWs have been used against helicopters in Syria before, with one Russian Mi-8 helicopter destroyed, killing a marine, during the operation to rescue the navigator of a Su-24 downed by Turkish fighters in November last year.

But this helicopter was destroyed on the ground, presenting a much easier target than a fast-moving Hind. It is uncertain if the Mi-8 was forced to land in the first place due to fire from the ground.

One can see in the video of the incident that the TOW, fired by the First Coastal Division of the Free Syrian Army (which is opposed to both the Assad regime and ISIS) takes some time to set up before firing: 

There have been reports that ISIS has seized some TOW systems, either from Iraqi forces or CIA-backed Syrian rebel groups.

ISIS have released photos of TOWs in use against FSA fighters in late 2014 and in the Hasakah area last June.

But ISIS fighters are likely to have had far better anti-aircraft weaponry available to them than the wire-guided TOW, which requires the operator to maintain a direct line of sight with the target to score a hit.

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Islamic State might have taken advanced MANPADS from Syrian airfield

Islamic State militants stormed a Syrian airbase over the weekend, routing the remaining elements of the country's army from northern Raqqah province and reportedly seizing a cache of shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles.

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Jul 11, 2016 11:10 (GMT)

In addition their enemy opposition forces in Syria themselves possess MANPADS (man-portable air defense systems) such as the Chinese-made FN-6, or even much more powerful, vehicle mounted missile systems like the Russian-made 9K33 Osa, which has recently downed several regime aircraft.

Syrian Rebel Missileers Are Wreaking Havoc on Bashar Al Assad's Air Force – War Is Boring

Syrian Rebel Missileers Are Wreaking Havoc on Bashar Al Assad's Air Force – War Is Boring

Details… →

Jul 11, 2016 11:14 (GMT)

ISIS released video footage of Friday’s incident, showing the Mi-35, one of a group of two, crashing after a strike on its tail rotor:

In the footage, we cannot see the bright flare, used to guide the missile, of a TOW approaching the helicopter. Nor can we see the usually bright smoke trail from a SAM.

At The Long War Journal, Thomas Joscelyn suggested that anti-aircraft gunfire was instead more likely to be the culprit.

But here it is worth noting that the video conflicts with the account of events given to Russian media by official sources.

Both Interfax and Kommersant were told that the helicopter had run out of ammunition after a strike mission and was flying back to base when it was struck.

However the video clearly shows that the gunship was firing rockets immediately before the tail rotor was struck.

The Conflict Intelligence Team, a group of Russian and Ukrainian investigative bloggers, analysed the footage and noted that a dull smoke trail can indeed be seen, illuminated by the flash of the impact on the tail of the helicopter:

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2016-07-11 12:27:57

The trajectory and timing seen here is interesting:

Firstly, the impact on the tail comes right after the helicopter fires off several rockets. Secondly, the struck helicopter is trailed by the other Mi-35, which comes into view as the stricken craft spins around.

The CIT raise the possibility that both helicopters, with one above and behind the other, had fired rockets at the same time, with a round from the rear helicopter striking the lead aircraft. 

Read their full analysis here: 

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Was the Russian Mi-35M destroyed by friendly fire?

Читать этот пост на русском In the evening of July 8, "Amaq agency" (a media close to IS) reported that a Russian helicopter was shot down during an IS attack on Palmyra. They also claimed three Syrian army checkpoints were captured.

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Jul 11, 2016 11:35 (GMT)

— Pierre Vaux
Helicopter Downed In Syria On Friday, Was Russian Mi-35M; 2 Crew Killed – Kommersant

On Saturday evening Russia’s Interfax news agency reported that they had been informed by the Ministry of Defense that a helicopter shot down near Palmyra on Friday was Russian.

According to the report, crew commander Ryafagat Khabibullin and Lt. Yevgeny Dolgin, were killed in the crash.

However the MOD has yet to release any official press release.

The crash of an unnamed Russian helicopter in Homs was first reported July 8 by Al Jazeera, but at that time, Russian representatives at the Hmeemeem Air Base denied the story.

But then the Russian Defense Ministry was soon forced to admit the crash had occurred, says Kommersant today, citing unnamed military officials who spoke privately.

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2016-07-11 08:23:16

A short while later on Saturday, Interfax reported that an unnamed Russian military source had told them that the helicopter had been shot down by ISIS fighters using a US-made TOW anti-tank missile.

Today Kommersant reported in more detail on the incident, this time citing officials in the government (translation by The Interpreter):

According to the official version, Russian pilot instructors Ryafagat Khabibullin and Yevgeny Dolin had completed a planned flight in a Syrian Mi-25 helicopter (the export version of the Mi-24 –Kommersant). Sources in the defense agencies claimed to Kommersant that this was not the old Syrian Mi-25, but a new Russian helicopter, the Mi-35M (several of these helicopters were redeployed from the permanent base in Hmeemeem in March 2016). According to Kommersant’s information, a group of a minimum of two Mi-35Ms completed an overflight of the location in the province of Homs, when the crew headed by Lt. Khabibullin noticed that to the east in Palmyra, a large detachments of militants were attacking the position of Syrian forces.

“Breaking through the defense, they rapidly moved deep into the region, having created a threat of capturing the dominating heights,” the source said, adding that there were no reserves in the Syrian army in that direction.

Khabibullin, who has major combat experience (he took part in the two Chechen campaigns and the 5-day war with Georgia in 2008), and who is commander of the 55th Separate Regiment of the Army Air Force of the 4th Army of the Air and Space Forces and Anti-Air Defense, did not hesitate and immediately opened fire on the militants.

After using up its entire store of ammunition, the Mi-35M tried to descend to its return flight path; however a missile from an anti-tank guided missile system landed on its tail boom (According to Interfax, the missile was made from an American TOW). The helicopter immediately lost direction and began to fall and go into an uncontrollable tailspin. Within a few seconds, the helicopter crashed to the earth and instantly exploded — the remains of the fuel in the tanks detonated, turning the craft into a pile of scrap metal. There was no chance of rescuing the crew.

Lt. Khabibullin and Lt. Dolgov became the 12th and 13th solders whose deaths were officially acknowledged. The remains of their bodies were found by Syrian troops and brought to Hmeemeem; the first pilot will be buried in the village of Vyazovy Gay (in Ulyanov Region) on July 12; the date and place of the funeral of the second pilot is not yet known.

Kommersant said that while there has not been a public announcement from the Kremlin or Defense Ministry, high-placed sources within the government said that the incident “would not remain without consequences,” as has occurred with past combat losses, i.e. when Turkey shot down a Russian fighter near the Syrian border.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu may identify the operational reaction this week at a planned ministry teleconference.

One option is a brief increase in the number of combat flights with a mixed aviation group (at Hmeemeem now the Su-24 front bombers, and the Su-30 and Su-35 destroyers are in a state of combat readiness, and there could also be a repeat use of high-precision weapons (Kalibr-NK sea or air cruise missiles). 
This could affect the ceasefire, however, says Kommersant; President Vladimir Putin, in his telephone conversation with US President Barack Obama, called for “facilitating a rapid disassociation of the moderate Syrian opposition from the terrorists.”

According to Kommersant, the promise to do this by the US more than three months ago has not been fulfilled.

The second option in Operation Revenge (as Russian media have dubbed the campaign in Syria) could be involve the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier (with about 15 Su-33 destroyers and MiG-29K/KUBs, and also about 10 Ka-52K, Ka-25 and Ka-31 helicopters). According to TASS, Russia’s sole aircraft carrier was supposed to be deployed to deliver strikes on the militants in Syria from the eastern part of the Mediterranean from September 2016 to January 2017, however now, according to Kommersant’s information, if a command comes from the General Staff, it could be deployed earlier, by the end of August. After performing this mission, the Admiral Kuznetsov would return to Sevmash for full-fledged repairs.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick