Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Satellite imagery appears to show the distraction of four Russian helicopters in Syria by ISIS.

A Russian MI-24 "Hind" in flight. Igor Dvurekov.

Satellite imagery seems to confirm reports that Russia has lost four MI-24 "Hind" helicopters in a raid at the T-4 airbase in Syria. Stratfor. The before and after images shows the burned out remains of the four helicopters, the destroyed remains of a supply depot and damage to a Syrian MIG-25. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack and likely used artillery to destroy the helicopters. Russia has publicly denied the attack and claim to have not lost any aircraft. The T-4 airbase is strategically critical and is located by the recently liberated city of Palmyra. ISIS was threatening to cut off the city but their offensive stalled out. They were still able to get close enough to T-4 to deploy artillery. 

My Comment:
This story is interesting me, not so much because Russia lost four helicopters but because Stratfor decided to embarrass them on a national stage. Stratfor is a private intelligence company and they specialize in things like this and it isn't that surprising that they would release this information. But I also think they got quite a bit of satisfaction in doing so.

The Russians were claiming that this attack never happened and that all of their helicopters were accounted for. That seems to be obviously not true. The pictures in the article clearly showed the wreckage of four MI-24's. I guess it is possible that those MI-24's were operated by the Syrians, since they have the same aircraft, but that seems rather unlikely to me. The Russian deployment to T-4 was open knowledge. 

So why did the Russians deny this? Because it is incredibly embarrassing to them. The loss of these four helicopters, and the supply dump that supported them, represents a major fraction of the Russian forces deployed to Syria. To lose four helicopters means that Russia's attack force in the country has been somewhat crippled. 

Those MI-24's were getting work done as well.  The close air support that the MI-24's can provide is crucial in battles against ISIS. They may have even stopped ISIS's attempts to cut off the recently liberated city of Palmyra. With them out of the picture, ISIS's fortunes in the area may improve, and the Syrian forces on the ground may take a morale hit when they realize that their isn't as much air support for them when battles spiral out of control. One thing that seems universal no matter who is fighting is that air support is a major boost to morale. Losing that air support can cause armies to collapse. That's what happened to the Iraqi's in Ramadi and I hope that it doesn't happen again here in Syria.

This is a huge victory for ISIS. Not only is this a propaganda coup, they have managed to embarrass one of their primary foes. It also goes to show the Russians, both in the military and civilians alike, that the forces deployed in Syria are vulnerable to attack. Though I haven't heard any reports of Russian casualties from this attack, the fact remains that if ISIS can hit a major airbase like T-4, they can probably hit anywhere. And if that is true then sooner or later Russia is going to start taking more casualties then they have through this point in the war. 

ISIS will probably gain a morale boost from this as well. ISIS's main disadvantage is that they are largely defenseless against airstrikes and helicopters. Sure, they have a few MANPADS and occasionally shoot down a Syrian plane or helicopter, but that doesn't happen enough to really help. Destroying four helicopters on the ground is more then they usually accomplish and goes to show their fighters that their enemies aren't invincible. Taking out these helicopters, which usually seem so invincible, will be a major boost for the morale of any ISIS fighter that has had to face them in battle. 

Destroying these helicopters will also help ISIS efforts in the area. I already talked about the morale effect on both sides, but there is more too it then that. The loss of these helicopters also means that the Syrians and Russians will be less effective in fighting in the area. There won't be as much air support available and what is left in the area will be hard pressed to keep up with the demand. That means that ISIS attacks in the area will be more effective and less hampered by attacks from above. 

I also wonder if air operations out of T-4 have been disrupted. The base wasn't just home to the MI-24's. There was also a couple of squadrons of Syrian SU-24 "Fencer" and SU-22 "Fitter" fighter bombers based out of the airbase in a critical role for the Syrian air force, along with a few utility and training planes. Though it appears that these aircraft were not lost, the attack on T-4 could have greatly disrupted their operations as well. Certainly during the attack itself, flights would not have been operating out of T-4, but what I wonder is if they are back on track or even if the airbase is still vulnerable. 

Finally, I wonder if Stratfor released these images on behalf of the United States government. The US has reason to embarrass the Russians, and this incident certainly accomplished that goal. Stratfor does have connections to the government and I can see them following up on a request from the government to release this information. 

Honestly, I question the wisdom of doing so. Even if you agree that Russia and the United States interests in Syria do not line up (and I would not), it makes little sense to publish a major victory for ISIS. Stratfor is essentially doing ISIS's propaganda work for them. Of course, part of the reason why the Russians wanted to keep this secret is to protect their reputation, but was it really worth besmirching if it gives ISIS more positive coverage throughout the world? Either way, the information is already out there, so I don't feel bad repeating it. The genie is out of the bottle, so to speak... 

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