By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
Recently published images of two drones that fell near the village of Ruveysli near Kasab and Arafit near Jisr al-Shughour in the Lattakia Governorate on the 20th of July 2015 reveal that either Russia has supplied the regime with state-of-the-art unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or that Russia has embarked on a small-scale drone surveillance programme over Syria. If the latter turns out to be the case, it could be part of their greater intelligence programme to provide the Syrian regime with up-to-date information on the rebels' status and strength, which first became known to the world after the capture of the Центр С - المركز س - Center S SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) facility near al-Hara, Daraa Governorate.
The UAV that crashed near Ruveysli, believed to be a yet unnamed variant of the Orlan-10 reconnaissance drone, is nearly identical to a previously seen type in the Ukraine, were at least one crashed in Ukrainian-held territory in May 2014. The basic Orlan-10 was also seen over the Ukraine, and several other types were also recovered after having crashed. The new variant of the Orlan-10 drone found in the Ukraine was sighted for the first time, and its technical details therefore remain yet unknown.
While the introduction of this type of UAV and its subsequent crash is noteworthy by itself, stunning coincidence has it that another recently acquired type of UAV crashed nearly forty-kilometers away just moments later. The second UAV, a Russian-made Eleron-3SV reconnaissance drone, was damaged by an onboard fire and crashed near the JaN-held town of Arafit, and despite the fire-damage was still relatively intact.
The extent of involvement of the Russians in this new Syrian drone programme is open to debate. Although one could argue that the Syrian Armed Forces or one of the Syrian Intelligence Agencies are operating these drones, Russian involvement in operating these UAVs should not be ruled out. First and foremost, it seems implausible the regime would acquire two completely new and expensive platforms, requiring extensive training to operate them and to process the acquired data into useful information for the forces on the ground, when they can already deploy Iranian-delivered and operated Mohajer, Yasir and Shahed 129 drones currently present in Syria to the Lattakia Governorate with little effort. Secondly, Russia's involvement in the Syrian intelligence field continues to be greatly underestimated, the sudden discovery of Center S last year serving as a testament to that fact. Thirdly, the fact that both drones have been produced post-2010 for the Russian military and subsequently used over the Ukraine makes it seem unlikely they were exported to Syria this quickly, not in the least because it would mean exposing some of their newest technologies in the UAV field.
Center S, jointly operated by the Russian Osnaz GRU radio electronic intelligence agency, Iranian and Syrian Intelligence Agencies, was to provide Syria and Iran with situational awareness of the Middle East and Israel in particular, but focussed increasingly on Syrian domestic affairs shortly after the revolution and start of the Civil War. Center S became responsible for recording and decrypting radio communications from rebel groups inside Syria, providing the Syrian Arab Army (SyAA) with up-to-date information on the strength and upcoming offensives of rebels, and the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) with information on rebel meetings. Center S was thus at least partially responsible for the series of killings of rebel leaders by SyAAF airstrikes. Unsurprisingly, its loss to the fighters of the Free Syrian Army served the regime a heavy blow.
It is therefore highly likely that Russians are involved one way or the other in operating the recently delivered Orlan-10s and Eleron-3SVs in Syria. The establishment of an UAV unit with Russian equipment and specialists as opposed to the Iranian-led UAV units might have been offered to the regime after the recent loss of Idlib Governorate, which if progressed further, could seriously have threatened the regime's heartland: Lattakia.
The ever rising death toll and the indiscriminate use of banned weaponry including chemical ordnance evidently serves as no deterrent for Russia to continue delivering anything from small arms to tanks, multiple rocket launchers, spare parts for the SyAAF's fleet of fighter-bombers and now unmanned aerial vehicles.
Special thanks to Green lemon.
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