Did ISIS Really Take Out A Squadron Of Russian Attack Helicopters At A Remote Airfield In Central Syria?

The Syrian government’s air base between Homs and the ancient city of Palmyra appears to have been partially destroyed. The base has become a key forward operating location for both Russian and Syrian forces as they have pushed east to take the fight to the Islamic State.

Stratfor has obtained satellite imagery that clearly shows the spots where Russia’s attack helicopters once sat are now blackened smear marks on the base’s parking apron. The same can be said for a nearby supply depot. The area was once packed with supply trucks, supposedly packed with munitions, now it looks like an ash tray.

It would seem that the attack came via indirect fire, and there are enough of Grad rockets floating around Syria at the moment to believe that ISIS could have used the artillery to attack targets it couldn’t otherwise reach with infantry.

The base is known to be used by Syrian attack jets, which have been attacking ISIS targets to the east on a regular basis. These aircraft, and Russia’s attack helicopters, were key factors in booting the Islamic State from Palmyra late last March.

The base is also along a key supply route connecting the country’s west and east, where ISIS continues to rule. These factors make it a very big target on the Islamic State’s hit list. In fact, the base has been under constant attack over the last couple of years, with ISIS throwing some of its most elaborate vehicle-borne improvised explosives at it.

Stratfor states that ISIS claims to have attacked the base on May 14, taking out Russian attack helicopters and nearly two dozen ammunition trucks. Assad’s forces have since said that an accident occurred on the base, resulting in what appears to be a massive explosive chain reaction.

Stratfor maintains that the attack claim by ISIS is valid, but US officials say that is not the case and that it is more likely that something like a fuel truck explosion was the culprit. Meanwhile, Russia is pushing off the report as ISIS propaganda, saying the imagery is old and depicts damage to the base from prior attacks that occurred months ago and that all their helicopters are accounted for.

The damaged objects and areas shown in the Stratfor satellite imagery are within a about a quarter-mile radius of one another, which is not a large distance in airfield terms. With this in mind, both theories seem possible, and maybe parts of both of them are true. It could be that a single artillery shell or rocket landed on just the right object to set off a devastating series of explosions and fires. Even a suicide bomber could have done such a deed once they infiltrated the sprawling base.

Then again, forward arming and refueling operations can be a dangerous business, especially in very austere war zone conditions. Yet a rocket or artillery barrage seems like as good of an explanation as any for the destruction, although the accuracy of what are fairly inaccurate systems seems to have been a bit uncanny in this case. Still,  there is one piece of evidence that may lend itself to this theory.

The imagery provided by Stratfor shows that an abandoned MiG-25 Foxtbat that has been parked in the same place at the airfield for years was also damaged. It appears that its right wing trailing edge took a direct hit, and there are scorched marks below it that look like the remnants of small to medium caliber artillery or rocket detonation. It is hard to believe that this type of damage was caused by falling embers or shrapnel from a blast a quarter mile away.  In fact, if the imagery were shown to me without the backstory, it looks more like an attack using precision guided munitions than some artillery barrage.

So what do you think occurred here? Did ISIS get the best of Russia and Assad’s forces? Or was it an accident in what looks like an accident prone operating location? Tell us below.

Contact the author at Tyler@thedrive.com

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Tyler Rogoway


Tyler’s passion is the study of military technology, strategy, and foreign policy and he has fostered a dominant voice on those topics in the defense media space. He was the creator of the hugely popular defense site Foxtrot Alpha before developing The War Zone.