Putin in Syria: Russian Fighter Enters Turkish Airspace

October 5, 2015
Demonstration in Kafranbel, Syria, on October 3. Photo from Kafranbel Syrian Revolution Facebook page.

LIVE UPDATES: The Turkish Foreign Ministry says that a Russian jet fighter entered Turkish airspace on October 3 before being intercepted by F-16s. Russian bombers have struck positions within several hundred metres of the border in recent days. The Russian air force continues to pound rebel-held areas in the Idlib, Hama and Homs provinces.

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

Russian Speaker of Parliament Denies Ground Troops Will Take Part in Syria Operation

Despite claims from US officials (see previous update below), Russian speaker of parliament Valentina Matvienko said Russia would not take part in ground operations in Syria, Interfax reported (translation by The Interpreter):

“We are not planning to take part and we will not take part in any ground operations; therefore we will not be dragged into resolving the internal Syrian conflict for a long time.

She emphasized that the Russian air strikes in Syria were to support the
actions of the regular Syrian Army against terrorists, noting that ISIS is
a threat to the entire world and Russian national security in

As we’ve been reporting, ISIS has not been Russia’s primary target in Syria.

Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

US Says Russia Sending Ground Troops Readying For Offensive In Syria

CNN reports that, according to US officials, the Russian military in northwest Syria contains weapons that could be used in a direct ground assault on rebel positions:

The equipment includes several piece of artillery, as well as four BM-30 multiple-launch rocket systems — all considered to be highly accurate weapons. The latter is capable of rapid-fire rocket launches.

Several weeks ago, Russia moved about half a dozen artillery pieces into Latakia port.

The U.S. originally had thought that might be for defense of the port, but the latest move is an indication of potential ground attacks in the coming days, the official said.

The weapons have been spotted between Homs and Idlib and west of Idlib.

It’s important to note that there are no ISIS positions in this area:

The BM-30 “Smerch” mentioned above is a multiple-launch rocket launcher with 12 barrels and a maximum firing range of 90 kilometers, making it a highly effective weapon. Since the minimum distance of the Smerch’s warheads is 20-25 kilometers it does not make a good defensive weapon. Instead, this weapon could help Russia launch an offensive mission.

Furthermore, such weapons can fire if bad weather grounds Russian aircraft which have, presumably, also been actively scouting for bombing locations while they have been conducting their missions. That could come in handy:

James Miller
Russian Admiral, Head of State Duma’s Defense Committee Says Russian Volunteers Likely to Fight in Syria
Adm. Vladimir Komoyedov, head of the State Duma Committee, said it is possible Russian volunteers who fought in the Donbass may be fighting with Syrian government forces, RBC.ru reported, citing Interfax.

“As the well-known [Soviet-era] song has it, ‘you can’t stop those Komsomol [Young Communist League] volunteers.’ And most likely there will appear among the ranks of the Syrian Army a formation made up of Russian volunteers, participants in combat.”

Komoyedov was responding to queries about sightings of volunteer Russian fighters who had earlier fought in the Donbass. A well-known commander who fought at the Donetsk Airport whose call sign is “Motorola” (Arseny Pavlov) was said to be in Syria, although separatist press denies this and have cited reports that he was seen in Donetsk. Even so, Kommersant has reported that others seasoned in combat in the Donbass are now in Syria.

According to Komoyedov, Russian volunteers will be drawn to Syria because of the high pay, which is said to be $50 (US) per day.

He also said Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in occupied Crimea could be used to blockade parts of the Syrian coastline or shell Islamist groups, Moscow Times reported, although there was  “currently no need to use naval firepower because the extremists were too
far inland.”

The Kremlin has said that it does not plan to launch ground troops in Syria, and that assistance to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad will be limited to air strikes on the positions of ISIS and similar terrorist groups. The Russian General Staff has said formally that draftees will not be sent to Syria, and the Kremlin says, for now, they do not anticipate using either volunteers or contract soldiers.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov announced last week he is ready to send his troops to Syria, and says not only Russia’s air power but ground forces are needed. He said thousands of Chechen volunteers are ready to take place in a ground operation against ISIS.

Last year, Kadyrov at first denied that there were Chechens fighting in the Donbass, but then later conceded there were volunteers there, and then announced recently that all Chechens fighting in Ukraine were being withdrawn.

Late in September, the Russian business daily Kommersant   interviewed Bondo Dorovskikh, a Russian fighter who took part in battles in Donetsk and Lugansk (see our previous report on Dorovskikh’s experience in Donbass, “Life Among the Thugs.”)

Dorovskikh said he had already sent 12 Russian volunteers to Syria who had acquired combat experience in the Chechen wars and other “local conflicts.” Another small group of fighters was waiting to be sent as well.

Dorovskikh, born in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, ran a small oil company in Ivanovo until 2011, then moved to Moscow to run a construction business. He decided to join the “militia” in 2014 but found it frustrating (translation by The Interpreter):

“Rather quickly I found out quite frankly there was nothing to fight for. First we retreated, then we advanced again, then we began to observe the Minsk agreements, then everything went quiet.”

He said the local population accused the Russian-backed separatists of unleashing the conflict, so he wound up going home last March.

Although the admission of Dorovskikh could mean other mercenaries are involved, Kommersant said there was not “mass participation” of volunteers and that mainly so far “it’s at the level of rumors.”

Dorovskikh himself said he believed not as many Russians would want to volunteer in Syria:

“It’s too costly, the logistics are difficult, it’s not very clear who you should get in touch with in order to join the military formations. It would be ideal to fight on the side of Assad, but the Syrian military bureaucrats have ignored are inquiries.”

Georgy Mirsky, chief researcher at the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute for World Economy and International Relations confirms this perception: Russians are not going to go in large masses to Syria as they did to Ukraine, he said:

“People went to fight in Ukraine with an idea, that the fascists are killing Russian people there, that this is Russian land, but why would they die for the Middle East? To help some Arabs kill other Arabs?”

He believes there will be no more than a few dozen Russian volunteers.

Kommersant said according to its sources in the Russian General Staff, there are only military specialists training Syrian government forces in how to use armor, and also GRU [military intelligence] and SVR [foreign intelligence] officers attached to the Russian Embassy, including soldiers whose job it is to guard Russian personnel. There are also construction workers who are modernizing the Russian base in Tartus. 

The sources claim there are no Russian soldiers in combat, however the fact that the State Duma’s defense committee chair is acknowledging the presence of volunteers and that the pay is high by Russian standards means more are likely to appear.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Russia Acknowledges Violation Of Turkish Airspace

Russia’s Interfax news agency reports that the Russian embassy in Ankara has acknowledged that a Russian Air Force jet did indeed enter Turkish airspace on October 3. 

Igor Mityakov, press secretary at the embassy, told Interfax (translated by The Interpreter):

“Indeed, this incident took place. On Saturday there was a meeting (between the Russian ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov – Interfax) and the first deputy foreign minister of Turkey. We were informed of the incident and presented with the corresponding note.

As far as I know,  the Turkish embassy in Moscow’s military attache has been given an explanation on this matter.”

— Pierre Vaux

Videos Suggest Russian Air Force Using Cluster Munitions Against Rebel-Held Kafr Halab

Several videos uploaded yesterday appear to show cluster munitions being dropped by Su-24 bombers over the rebel-held town of Kafr Halab, south-west of Aleppo.

Several replies on social media suggest that the weapons used are SPBE-D anti-tank submunitions, released from RBK-500 cluster bombs.
This Rossiya24 video focuses on the weapons system, built by the Bazalt factory. 

The weapon has a very distinctive attack profile. Submunitions are ejected from the RBK-500 and slowed by parachutes. Infrared seekers detect heat sources (vehicle engines in theory) and high-energy kinetic penetrators are fired towards the targets. The blasts seen in the air are the result of the firing of these penetrators. 

Russia is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Cluster Munitions and has used such weapons during the Georgian and Ukrainian wars.

On October 2 the Cluster Munition Coalition called on Russia to refrain from using cluster munitions in Syria:

“We urge the Russian Federation to not use any cluster munitions,” Megan Burke, Director of Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC) said. “These weapons have been banned because they are indiscriminate and unreliable, causing major humanitarian problems and risks to civilians. The people of Syria have already suffered enough.” 

— Pierre Vaux

Russian Fighter Enters Turkish Airspace

Turkey has summoned the Russian ambassador to Ankara to the Foreign Ministry to protest the violation of Turkish airspace by a Russian fighter jet on October 3.

AFP reports that the Ministry released a statement demanding that “any such violation not be repeated” or Russia “will be responsible for any undesired incident that may occur.”

The Russian jet infringed Turkish airspace at 12:08 pm (0908 GMT) on Saturday south of the Yayladagi region in Turkey’s southern Hatay province, according to the foreign ministry.

“The Russian aircraft exited Turkish airspace into Syria after it was intercepted by two F-16s from the Turkish Air Force, which were conducting patrols in the region,” it added.

Turkish Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioglu called his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov to convey Ankara’s unease, the statement said.

He also made telephone conversations with counterparts from NATO allies, as well as NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, the ministry said. 

Turkey’s Hürriyet newspaper reports that the Russian jet was identified by Turkish pilots as a Sukhoi Su-30 fighter

The report notes that the Turkish military had made sure to exclude the possibility that the aircraft was a MiG-29 or Su-24, both of which are also used by the Syrian Air Force.

In addition, Hürriyet reports that Russian aircraft had bombed a Syrian village within five miles of the Turkish border on October 2:

U.S. media first reported on Oct. 4 that a Russian warplane on a bombing run in Syria had flown within five miles of the Turkish border.

A Turkish security official reportedly said Turkish radar locked onto the Russian aircraft as it was bombing early Oct. 2 in al-Yamdiyyah, a Syrian village directly on the border. He said Turkish fighter jets would have attacked if it had crossed into Turkish airspace.

A U.S. military official suggested that the incident had come close to sparking an armed confrontation. Reading from a report, he said the Russian aircraft had violated Turkish air space by five miles and that Turkish jets had been scrambled, but the Russian aircraft had returned to Syrian airspace before Turkey could respond.

McClatchy’s Roy Gutman, whose report is cited above by Hürriyet, actually reports that the US military official said that a bomb had fallen even closer to the border:

Al Yamdiyyah hosts a tent camp for internally displaced Syrians and a hospital, run by the French-based Doctors Without Borders. The bomb struck in the village just a few hundred yards from the actual border, wounding several townspeople, local residents said. The Doctors Without Borders hospital apparently was not damaged.

The town, in a mountainous region of northern Latakia province, has been a prime route for smuggling people and goods between Turkey and Syria and reportedly has functioned as a key entry for weapons shipped to Syrian rebels by the U.S.-led Friends of Syria group of Western and Middle Eastern countries.

Dr. Jawad Abu Hatab, a heart surgeon at the Al Yamdiyyah hospital, claimed in a statement distributed by the Syrian Opposition Coalition, an opposition group recognized by the United States, that he believed the hospital had been the target of the airstrike. In the statement, he said the hospital at Al Yamdiyyah and another one in Latamneh, in northern Hama province, served only civilians in their respective areas, and not rebel fighters.

He said several medical staff had been wounded on Thursday in raids on Latamneh, which had been bombed on three successive days.

Latamneh, also known as al-Lataminah, has been a repeated target of Russian air strikes since the offensive began on September 30.

Gutman also notes that a medical facility in Ihsim, Idlib province, run by the Syrian Civil Defence, known as the ‘White Helmets,’ had been bombed on October 3. 

A team of Al Jazeera journalists were reporting at the scene and narrowly escaped injury as Russian jets conducted a follow-up strike:

Al Jazeera reports:

The journalists were not hurt in Saturday’s attack, but a member of a local rescue team was killed and another one was injured.

Al Jazeera’s Adham Abu Husam said the crew were in the town of Ihsim reporting on the casualties and destruction caused by two air strikes on the area.

A third strike hit as the team arrived and the rescuers were evacuating the dead.

Elsewhere, Russian jets have continued air strikes against opposition-held areas of north and western Syria.

Massive air strikes were reported yesterday in the rebel-held town of Haish, in the Idlib province:

The Russian Ministry of Defence claimed today that their bombers had struck “ISIS” positions near al-Rastan, Kafr Halab, Talbeseh and Jisr al-Shughour. None of these areas are controlled by ISIS.

Below are Russian MOD videos purportedly showing air strikes on targets near Jisr al-Shughour, Talbeseh, and finally “in forest near Idlib.” 

Furthermore, there are reports from inside Syria of strikes on rebel groups in the east of the Qalamoun district, north of Damascus.

The only reported attacks that seem likely to have been directed against ISIS forces were on positions near the Syrian regime’s Kweyres airbase, east of Aleppo, which is under threat from the terrorist group, which controls al-Bab to the north.


— Pierre Vaux