Air Strikes by SyAAF and VKS, 25 March 2017

The day began with a take-off of a single L-39 from Shayrat AB, at 00.38. This is really unusual: so far, L-39s were operating exclusively from bases further north. Another one launched at 01.40, and one more at 01.41. Even more unusual was this successive launch of two L-39s for a nocturnal operation. Perhaps indicating urgency or that Hama was mortared by insurgents, late in the evening of 24th?

Whatever was the reason, all three turned in north-western direction, which means went towards northern Hama or RTP (Ra’astan-Talbiseh Pocket, in northern Homs). Around 01.44, one of these was sighted over Arzeh and another over Mhradeh, but there are no details about what did they do. 
The VKS flew only one air strike through the night. This launched at 00.42hrs. There followed a break of five hours: at 05.08 two Su-25s were reported while approaching Sarqib. No details on what they attacked, though.

At 05.47, a single Russian fighter-bomber rocketed Kfar Zita area, and this exercise was repeated by another one at 06.22. The VKS then turned its attention further north and west. Darat Azza was bombed at 06.41, Khan Sheykhoun at 06.43, Darat Azza again at 06.44 (double tap), Idlib (city) at 06.51, Latamina at 06.54, Latamina at 07.00 (another double-tap), and Sarqib area at 07.08hrs.

The SyAAF continued acting unusually: a single L-39 attacked the Khan Sheykhoun area at 06.53hrs. Usually, they don’t operate by daylight, because they are considered too slow and thus too vulnerable to ground fire. The 14th Fighter-Bomber Brigade (Hama AB) then went into action by launching a single MiG-21bis of №679 Squadron at 07.09 (this is the only MiG-21-unit based there), followed by a MiG-23 of №675 Squadron and a Mi-8/17 helicopter less than a minute later. Two additional MiG-23s — both launched from Shayrat — passed over Hama city around 07.17hrs. It seems that all of these have targeted Jaysh an-Nasr-held Arzeh, only 3km from the Hama AB. The Russians then bombed Kfar Zita at 07.26, after which there was a break of more than 20 minutes. This is also unusual, considering the good weather and theoretical abundance of targets.

Around 07.43, a helicopter was reported while approaching Sarqib; a Su-24 launched from Tiyas, a MiG-23 from Hama AB at 07.59, and then the Sarqib area was hit by a MiG-23 and two helicopters at 08.00–08.03. Another MiG-23 appears to have bombed the same area around 08.06. The Russians meanwhile directed two of their air strikes on Kfar Halab, which was hit at 08.06 and 08.13. Khan Sheykhoun was then hit by a Su-22 at 08.16, and a MiG-21 launched from Hama AB at 08.19. Darat Azza was bombed by two Russian fighter-bombers at 08.20 and 08.21, and Khan Sheykhoun by another Su-22, at 08.21. Atarib was hit by Russians at 08.26. Certainly enough, after that UAV was sighted above Lataminah, a Su-22 was launched from Shayrat in direction of northern Hama, a Russian helicopter from Hmemmem AB, around 08.28, and two Mi-8/17s from Hama AB at 08.37. The Sukhoi bombed Lataminah at 08.36, followed by another (probably from Dmeyr) at 08.37, and then another, at 08.38.

Sarmin was bombed by Russians around 08.40, and a single helicopter reported while approaching Sarqib at 08.40. Then a MiG-23 launched from Hama AB at 08.46, and another was reported while approaching Sarqib at 08.51. The same area was bombed by a single Su-22 from Tiyas AB, at 08.54, and then by an unknown helicopter at 08.56.

Must admit, all of this ‘needling’ is making little sense to me: given there were no reports about UAV activity yesterday morning (at least not before 08.25, when one was observed over Lataminah), it seems all such operations were launched on intelligence-based information provided well in advance (probably the night before), and against ‘fixed’ (non-mobile) targets. This is against any modern-day tactics of aerial warfare, because it’s greatly diminishing the effectiveness of air power. Namely, even if there is a house used as, say, a headquarter yesterday evening, this does not mean it is still used as a headquarter this morning. In Syria, insurgents have learned corresponding lessons already back in summer 2012, and thus they are moving every few hours.

Similarly, SyAAF’s air strikes on Arzeh might have served the purpose of ‘softening’ insurgent positions prior to a major counterattack. However, this was launched only hours later, by when their effects were non-existing (even more so because insurgents there are meanwhile well dug-in). Perhaps one can’t expect anything else considering most of orders for SyAAF air strikes are still issued by the Ba’ath Party’s HQ in Damascus.

Unsurprisingly, the day went on in similar fashion. A Russian helicopter attacked Jishr ash-Shughour area at 09.01, while a MiG-23 that launched from Shayrat at 09.02, bombed Tabliseh. Guess, somebody at the HQ of the Ba’ath Party considers the situation there for ‘more urgent’. An unknown target in the Ma’arat an-Nauman area was then rocketed by a single Russian fighter-bomber at 09.06, and a Russian recce aircraft (unclear if Tu-214R or Il-20) was reported airborne high above Sarqib area. The aircraft in question are primarily serving as ELINT/SIGINT-gatherers, i.e. they collect electronic and signals-intelligence: say, they are searching for radio and cell-phone emissions. Several times the last year, the Russians also had a single An-30 deployed at Hmemmem AB, which is a photo-reconnaissance aircraft. But, there are no indications about renewed deployment of the same right now.

One Su-22 was launched from Shayrat AB at 09.14, a single VKS fighter-bomber from Hmemmem at 09.16, a MiG-23 from Hama at 09.22, followed by a single helicopter at 09.31. The MiG-23 in question bombed something in Sarqib area again.

The Su-24 that launched from Tiyas at 09.32 turned in the western direction, and appears to have bombed Eastern Ghouta, while it remains unknown what was the target of the MiG-21 that launched from Hama at 09.58. The same can be said for the MiG-23 that launched from Hama only a minute later. Through all of this time, the VKS continued launching sporadic air strikes from Hmemmem (say: 4–5 per hour, for a total of 23 by 10.00hrs local time), but these were nowhere near as intensive as during the last 3–4 days. Guess, a good part of the Russians there had something like a ‘morning off’.

A single Su-22 launched from Shayrat AB at 10.12, but this bombed Talbiseh, while the Russians bombed Idlib (city, at 10.12) and Sarmin again (10.13). Targets of two additional VKS fighter-bombers that overflew Idlib at 10.15 remain unknown. It’s possible that they were Su-30s that are flying escort for two Jordan-based Il-76 transports (wearing UN- and WFP-insignia) that are dropping supplies for the regime’s and Hezbollah’s garrison in Dayr az-Zawr. Two days ago, their para-drop of fuel and ammo landed in the hands of Daesh. Up to six additional VKS fighter-bombers overflew Idlib city over the following 10 minutes.

The SyAAF continued its operations by launching a single Su-22 from Tiyas AB, at 10.32, and a MiG-23 from Hama, at 10.35, while at 10.36, a single VKS fighter-bomber bombed some target in the outskirts of Idlib City, causing a number of civilian casualties. At 10.40, another Russian bombed Taftanaz, and just a minute later, Idlib was bombed again. The Sarqib area was attacked by a pair of MiG-23s from Shayrat, at 10.42 and 10.47, while Lataminah was bombed by another MiG-23 at 10.55. Kfar Nabl was bombed by three VKS aircraft between 10.57 and 11.04. One of these air strikes narrowly missed the local underground hospital.

There followed a number of single take-offs by Russian aircraft, and some more helicopter activity — all of which is not making sense to me (or at least I’ve got no info what did they target), and then a MiG-21 launched from Hama, at 11.27, followed by a single helicopter, at 11.40. The Kfar Nabl area was hit by three Russian air strikes between 11.42 and 11.47, and another MiG-21 launched from Hama at 11.47 (№679 Squadron based there is known to have only some 3–4 operational aircraft left, so by this time of the day each of these flew at least one combat sortie; precisely the poor condition of that unit — as well as earlier disbandment of №680 ‘Tigers’ Squadron, due to defection of most of its pilots — was the reason why MiG-23s of №675 Squadron were re-deployed to this air base, in late 2015). Idlib, Sarqib, and Kfar Nabl received about a dozen of additional Russian air strikes over the following 15 minutes: attacks on Kfar Nabl included two Su-25s, that rocketed several unknown objects/targets around 12.02.

Quarter of an hour later, three MiG-23s and a pair of Su-22s targeted the FSyA positions between Arzeh and Kfar Zita, de-facto announcing an attack of the Liwa al-Ba’ath (aka ‘V Corps’) on that village. This was beaten back by 13.00hrs with significant loss — which is no surprise as the same unit was previously hit by a devastating TOW-strike launched by Jaysh al-Izza (according to Assadists, this killed 5 and injured 9), and thus shaken already before going into action. Three additional Su-22s and another MiG-23 then targeted the Latamina area, between 12.20 and 12.25.

The appearance of two UAVs over Kfar Nabl around 12.45, announced additional air strikes. These included a Su-24 that launched from Tiyas around the same time, followed by another at 12.50. Sarqib was hit by another VKS fighter-bomber around 12.55, followed by Darat Azza, around 13.04. The MiG-21 that launched from Hama at the same time, appears to have provided CAS (close air support) for a regime attack on Sakhr, which was repelled by Jaysh an-Nakhbah, by 14.00hrs. The Russians meanwhile continued bombing Darat Azza: perhaps they found something worth attacking there, and thus I hope they know better, but to me this appears like one hand (i.e. the VKS) does not know what the other is doing (i.e. the SyAAF and Assadist ground forces).

Around 13.23hrs, a helicopter was announced while approaching Sarqib, but it seems this turned west early and dropped several containers of chlorine on Latamina, killing at least two (one was a doctor), and injuring about 30. A Su-22 from Shayrat (13.25), and a MiG-23 from Hama (13.27) then bombed Mhradeh — which is making absolutely no sense at the first look, because that town is held by Christians loyal to the Assad-Regime. At the second… well, sufficient to say that the situation there is ‘far more complex’. Hope to find some time to explain why at another opportunity.

Some 6–7 Russian aircraft were reported while passing high above western Idlib over the next 15 minutes. No idea what was their target, but additional VKS air strikes then hit the Khan Sheikhoun and Latamina area, at 14.15–14.20. The Sarqib area received more air strikes around 15.00hrs; most of these by Russians, but including at least one Su-22 from Shayrat AB. I.e. there was at least some coordination in that case. Latamina was targeted by a single L-39 (apparently from Kweres AB), at 15.12, and one Su-24 at 15.22.
Up to three L-39s were then active in support of the pro-regime counterattack on Tel ash-Shiha, around 15.30hrs. This resulted in fierce fighting, but was eventually repelled by Jaysh Idlib al-Hurr.

The Russians meanwhile continued bombing Darat Azza and then hit Khan Touman, at 15.35. The same area was also hit by six Russian air strikes between 16.20 and 16.36. By now it transpires that this activity might be linked to a much-ignored offensive by the IRGC into western Aleppo, launched 3–4 days ago. So far, this resulted in one defeat after the other. Still, this offensive appears to be keeping Ahrar ash-Sham at least ‘busy’ and thus ‘away from northern Hama’.

Around 17.00hrs, the Russians re-directed some of their air strikes — including two pairs of two Su-25s — to the Kfar Zita area, where they bombed HTS’ positions, causing some losses. Probable reason for this was the Jaysh an-Nasr’s rocketing of Hama AB around the same time. However, the VKS then stopped operating for nearly an hour, during which SyAAF was busy repairing Hama, and thus flew only a few sorties: for example a Su-24 launched from Tiyas at 17.31, and another at 17.39. 
Hama was back in action by 18.46 (more than two hours after the BM-21 strike, when a single L-39 launched from there, followed by a helicopter, and then another L-39, at 19.15. Two additional helicopters took-off at 19.29 and 19.39. Even then, subsequent operations from this base remained rather slow: another helicopter took off at 20.21, one L-39 at 20.22 (this bombed Latamina), one at 20.23 (Kfar Zita), and one L-39 launched from Kweres at 20.54 (this targeted Hreitan).

The Russians meanwhile flew sporadic air strikes — some of these against Dera’a, in southern Syria (and, possibly, in relation to activity of IRGC’s Shaheed-129 UAVs) . Overall, their day was really not a good one: they appeared to be reacting all the time, and — with only two exceptions — never managed to fly one of their typical waves that could saturate a specific target zone. This changed only after 21.00hrs, when they launched a wave of seven air strikes, targets of which remain unknown.

Hama and Kweres remained active through the evening, launching sporadic L-39s air strikes — but foremost on western Aleppo. The Kfar Zita area was targeted by several helicopters and then a single L-39 only around 22.00hrs, Khan Sheykhoun at 22.07, and Latamina at 22.09. Later during the evening, the Russians returned to their usual area of operation — which is Jishr ash-Shughour. This was hit by up to a dozen of air strikes by 23.00hrs.

As expected (see my post from yesterday), the VKS and the SyAAF managed to increase the total number of their air strikes by quite some. Many of their operations yesterday were attempts to concentrate on targeting specific areas, primarily in western Aleppo, western Idlib, southern Idlib and the zone between Kfar Zita and Latamina. Some of this was almost certainly related to striking convoys with supplies, or even entire FSyA units moving from Turkey towards the combat zone.

However, overall, this was no particularly good day for the ‘Axis of Resistance’; rather one of chaotic efforts, all too many of which arrived in the target zone much too late, and plenty of which were entirely uncoordinated. The Jaysh an-Nasr’s BM-21 strike on Hama, late in the afternoon, hit the SyAAF at a rather inconvenient time: although the Russians, and then the SyAAF clearly attempted to react by launching ‘replacement’ air strikes, it created a gap with rather limited activity for about two hours. It’s too early to draw useful conclusions, but it is perfectly possible that this contributed to the Free Army of Idlib’s successful defence of Tel Sheiha.

Also notable was the greatly diminished activity of Russian helicopters in comparison to the 24th: these flew nearly 50% less sorties over Idlib. Could it be so many were hit by ground fire and require repairs? Similar question must be asked in direction of the №819 Squadron SyAAF, i.e. Assadist Su-24-crews: back in November they were flying up to 30 sorties a day. Now, when there is such an ‘urgency’ like in northern Hama, they barely managed 12. And this despite having two months of time for maintenance, and in spite of reports about deliveries of up to 10 additional, second hand Su-24M2s from the VKS’ stocks?

The way they fly the last few days is rather pointing in direction of all such reports (about supposed deliveries of ex-VKS Su-24s to Syria, from May of the last, and January-February of this year) being little more than wishful thinking.

fighter-bombers: 119 sorties (even at my rather poor counting skills, i.e. at the danger of the actual number being some 4–5 +/- off this figure, I think this is still the absolute record for the Russian tactical aviation in Syria so far)
recce aircraft (type presently unknown): 2
helicopters: 9
UAVs: 19

helicopters: 25
L-39s: 22
MiG-21: 4
MiG-23: 19
Su-22: 21
Su-24: 12