Russia’s Ministry of Defense social media channels have been busy as ever, but today they seem to have a peculiar focus on coalition drone traffic over Syria. The Russians say there’s more of it than ever, but one general is complaining they’re not getting their fair share of information from other countries battling the Islamic State.
The ministry not only released this video of their drone filming what appears to be a MQ-9 Reaper, likely belonging to the U.S. or the UK, but also stated that there can be up to 50 unmanned aircraft flying over the country at any given time—often clustered along the Turkish-Syrian border.
Along with the video and the tweet above, ministry officials also said coalition unmanned aircraft traffic has tripled.
It is not clear if they are complaining about this or otherwise, but what is clear is that it alludes to increasingly crowded airspace over Syria. It seems to signify a push for increased information, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities in regards to the Islamic States operations.
These new observations seem to coincide with Russia’s recent and highly-publicized expansion of its sensors and counter-air defensive systems at its base south of Latakia in Syria. Namely this includes the arrival of the long-range S-400 Triumph air defense system. It could be that Russia is just “seeing” a lot more of the battlespace than they previously were. As such, the findings above may be at least partially the result of this increased aerial surveillance fidelity and range.
During a press briefing in Moscow, Major General Igor Konashenkov said the following:
“I want to draw your attention to the fact that most of the UAVs of the so-called coalition are on reconnaissance missions over oil fields along the Syrian-Turkish border which the terrorists use to smuggle oil into Turkey. You realize that with the scale of video monitoring being done, our colleagues could share information about what is going on along the Syrian-Turkish border and how much oil the terrorists are selling and where.”
Russian and coalition forces have increasingly targeted the Islamic State’s bootleg oil operations as a way to cripple its income stream. The Obama Administration has received criticism for not going after these targets more aggressively. Accusations have been made that oil related targets have been kept off the targeting list, at least up until now, due to environmental concerns as well as to preserve expensive infrastructure.
This criticism only increased as it was found out that leaflets were dropped over the area where over 200 oil trucks were stuck, telling drivers to get away from their vehicles hours in advance of the assault’s opening barrage.
Now, following the Paris attacks and the seemingly blatant disconnect between the White House’s rhetoric and reality, the targeting list seems to be expanding. On the first night of the UK’s aerial raids just this week, RAF Tornados struck ISIS-held oil facilities in eastern Syria, a clear sign of things to come.
Meanwhile, Russia is also becoming more focused on the Islamic State’s oil trade, supposedly striking 1,000 oil tucks during a series of missions. Pentagon officials have since come out stating the obvious, that the massive number of trucks Russia claimed to have hit is most likely embellished.
Also, Putin himself has claimed that Turkey and its leadership are actively participating in the Islamic State’s oil smuggling operation . This accusation came after Turkey shot down Russia’s attack jet. President Erdogan of Turkey replied to the accusation saying he will terminate his presidency if Putin can prove it is true.
The reality is that the airspace and the complexity of operations over Syria is just going to become more chaotic in the near future. Russia is supposedly opening up at least one more base for aircraft in Syria, which will also mean more combat aircraft being deployed there and operating over Syria. Shaayrat Air Base, east of Homs, is said to be the location of this new Russian outpost.
Meanwhile, both France and Germany are asking for basing in Turkey, and the U.S. will likely be flying more targeted special operations missions via helicopter into Syria. Additionally, small teams of U.S. special forces are operating in north eastern Syria with local fighters. There are risks that Russia could inadvertently target them if they begin focusing operations along the border.
In the end, there may have to be at least an attempt to share planning and targeting information between coalition and Russian forces. The only problem is that Russia’s air power apparatus was never built to fit in with U.S. and allied operations, nor have either side really trained to integrate with one-another. Even the bombing methods that Russia is using in Syria may put such an cooperative alliance in question. But eventually, even if for safety alone, these discrepancies may have to be overlooked so that some kind of order can be maintained in the wild skies over Syria.
Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.