LIVE UPDATES: Syrian regime forces are now reported to be on the advance supported by intense Russian air strikes on a pocket of rebel-held territory in the Hama province.
The previous post in our Putin in Syria column can be found here.
Russian air and rocket strikes have been intimidating and devastating to civilians caught in the destruction. Several civilian activists in Syria whom this author has spoken to relayed the same thing — despite seeing nearly constant explosions over the last 4 years, these were the biggest and scariest yet. The Syrian regime has long since switched to using “barrel bombs,” crude explosive “dumb fire” devices with nearly no accuracy or predictability that are recklessly dropped on civilians and militants alike. While the threat of death is a constant in areas which are bombed with these crude devices, Russia’s powerful explosives have turned a lot of heads.
Many civilians, such as Raed Fares, a key activist in Kafranbel, have expressed fear that the local rebels, who have protected them from government forces as well as radicals like ISIS, could be defeated — not to mention that civilians are being killed in large numbers in the process.
But we are now two days into a Syrian Arab Army (SAA) ground offensive in northern Hama province, backed by Russian jets, Smerch rocket strikes, and possibly helicopters. Signs suggest that at the very least SAA progress is slow and costly, and it may actually be possible that the rebels have dealt the Assad regime a heavy defeat.
Yesterday multiple videos and reports showed SAA tanks destroyed or captured by rebel forces. OW anti-tank missiles, missiles which were provided to certain vetted rebel groups them by the US, appeared to play a major role. Today there are more signs of SAA armor being destroyed by rebels in northwest Hama province. The Micro-blogger Markito is tracking some of these battles. Here are a few of the claims:
We cannot verify the numbers from Ahrar al Sham, but what we can say is that many videos show TOW anti-tank missiles destroying SAA vehicles, and the SAA has not made any significant advances.
What we also know is that it was a series of defeats in Idlib and Hama that preceded Russia’s intervention in Syria. The Assad regime may simply be outmatched, despite getting a significant boost from Russian firepower.
— James Miller
CNN reports that a number of Russian cruise missiles fired from the Caspian Sea at Syria have instead crashed in Iran, according to US officials:
Monitoring by U.S. military and intelligence assets has concluded that at least four missiles crashed as they flew over Iran. One official said there may be casualties, but another official said this is not yet known.
It’s unclear where in Iran the missiles landed. The Russian ships have been positioned in the south Caspian Sea, meaning the likely flight path for missiles into Syria would cross over both Iran and Iraq.
The Russians have been firing a relatively new cruise missile called “Kaliber,” using it for the first time in combat.
Iran’s semi-official FARS news agency, however, said that neither Russian nor Iranian authorities have confirmed the U.S. officials’ information at this point.
No official confirmation of this yet from either Russia or Iran, but there is a sign that the report may be credible:
We’ll continue to monitor this claim.
— James Miller
We’ve been tracking reports of the possible downing of a helicopter in Kafr Naboudah, on the border of Hama and Idlib provinces. As we’ve demonstrated below, we have no clear evidence that any helicopter was shot down there. ISIS is not present in this region.
However, far away, near Palmyra, there are additional reports that a helicopter has been shot down by ISIS. The Local Coordination Committees of Syria reports:
#Homs #Palmyra ISIS shoots down a helicopter near @Shaer region, and it was reported that the pilot was captured
We have not confirmed this news, either, and unfortunately news out of Palmyra is spottier due to its location in the middle of a dessert in the center of the war torn country. There are multiple similar reports on various social media networks, but no pictures or videos have yet emerged.
However, Palmyra’s distance from Latakia, site of Russia’s air bases, make it unlikely that this is a Russian helicopter. If any helicopter was shot down in Palmyra it was likely one that belongs to the Syrian regime.
— James Miller
The question is, has Russia already suffered those casualties.
Another video reportedly shows the moment a Russian helicopter is shot down in Kafr Naboudah, Hama province.
We’re not convinced that any helicopter is shot down, however. This
video may show the opposite angle of the last video in our previous
update. The confusion may be that these helicopters, which may be
Russian or may be Syrian, make low-flying evasive actions while smoke is
rising from their explosive payloads which they have just unleashed.
While it looks like a helicopter crashes, it may have just flown below
There is no confirmation that a helicopter of any kind, never mind a Russian one, has been shot down today.
This video was taken in nearby Morek, 18 kilometers southeast of
Kafr Naboudah and on the front lines of rebel control in Hama province.
One thing that is clear, helicopters, whether Russian or Syrian, are
playing a major role in today’s airstrikes, perhaps a sign that
higher-altitude jet strikes have not dislodged rebels in this area.
Rebel forces beat back Assad’s offensive yesterday, despite Russia’s air support. If Russia is losing helicopters, that may be more evidence that the anti-Assad rebels are stronger than many have given them credit for in this area.
— James Miller
As we’ve been reporting, there are many reports at the moment that Russian helicopters have been shot down in Syria. Let’s take a look at the latest.
It’s possible that a helicopter was shot down. It’s also possible that smoke from the air strikes on the town and the evasive action of the helicopters have just given the impression that a helicopter has been show down.
We’ll continue to monitor these claims.
— James Miller
Russian Air Force helicopters appeared to be providing close air support in addition to air strikes by jet fighters. However this is the first well-sourced claim that Russian troops, rather than fighters from the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), are conducting these artillery and MLRS strikes. This would mean that Russia has committed its ground forces beyond their official remit of defending the port of Tartus and the Hmeemeem/Bassel al-Assad air base.
According to U.S. officials, Russian ground troops used howitzer artillery and BM-30 “Smerch” multiple rocket launch systems to fire at rebel positions outside of the city of Hama, located 65 miles east of the Russian air hub established in Latakia. The officials said the Russians are acting in a support role to Syrian troops conducting combat operations in the Al-Ghab Valley north of Hama — the same area that seems to be the focus of Russian air strikes.
Addressing the movement of the equipment to Hama, Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis told reporters, “What we’re seeing appears to be them doing things that are additive to and enabling of regime operations that are not being conducted against ISIL. They’re being conducted against other regime opponents.”
Certainly BM-30 Smerch MLRS were used against Atsahn in Hama province earlier this week:
It is interesting to note that ABC reports that US officials do not believe Russian Hind gunships have been used in combat operations:
Russia had moved the artillery and rocket launchers into Hama this past weekend along with three Mi-24 “hind” helicopters that appear to have been used to ferry personnel to man that equipment. U.S. officials said there are no indications that the helicopters have been used in combat situations.
Video footage from Free Syrian Army units fending off the regime offensive yesterday show Hinds in use on the front line, though while the videos label these as Russian, not Syrian, we cannot make out insignia to verify this claim.
We continue to monitor these claims.
A correspondent for the Russian government-operated propaganda network RT even made this claim:
Qasioun News reported last night that the offensive on a rebel-held salient north of Hama yesterday was aimed at drawing opposition forces away from the Jurin front in the hills east of Latakia.
The Interpreter translates:
The intentions of Russia in meddling in Syria were very clear, after an attack by regime forces on Wednesday on areas controlled by the opposition in a triangle, its vertices are the cities of Kafr Nabudah, Morek and Khan Shaykhun between the provinces of Idlib and Hama, and from six axes under Russian air cover.
The aim of this attack is to control parts of the strategic highway between Aleppo and Damascus and excommunicating the opposition from using it to move around between southern countryside of Idlib and northern countryside of Hama, as well as attract the attention of Jaish al-Fatah from Jurin front, which is the last line for the regime forces, the line that separates the opposition forces from the strongholds of Assad’s regime in the countryside of Latakia.
This analysis may well be accurate given that the regime is today claiming to have captured al-Bahsa from Jaish al-Fatah.