by Alex Mercouris
Russian Defence Minister Shoigu reports on start of massive air campaign against Al-Qaeda in Syria.
The long awaited Syrian and Russian offensive against Aleppo has now finally begun with massive Russian strikes on Al-Qaeda bases in Homs and Idlib provinces.
Information about the precise nature of the strikes is for the most patchy. However Russia’s Defence Minister Shoigu has reported to Putin and has confirmed that aircraft from the Admiral Kuznetsov carrier are taking part, and that cruise missile strikes launched by the frigate Admiral Grigorovich are are also taking place.
Shoigu reported on the targets of the strikes as follows
“Today at 10:30 and 11:00 we launched a large-scale operation against the positions of Islamic State and Al-Nusra [terrorist groups] in the provinces of Idlib and Homs. The main targets of the strikes are warehouses with ammunition, [terrorist] gatherings and terrorist training centres, as well as plants for the production of various kinds of weapons of mass destruction of the population. They are factories, not workshops, more specifically the plants for the production of all sorts of rather serious means of mass destruction. Clearly, this is a well-established industrial production, these are the targets for today’s strikes. And they will continue.”
This confirms that the major initial target of the strikes is Al-Qaeda’s infrastructure in north west Syria – used by Al-Qaeda to support its operations – rather than its ground troops. This is why the strikes are targeting industrial and logistical facilities in Al-Qaeda’s rear rather than Jihadi concentrations close to Aleppo itself.
One of the more troubling aspects of the strikes is that they are apparently targeting Al-Qaeda’s chemical warfare facilities, a fact which appears to confirm that Al-Qaeda has been using poison gas to support its offensives. Here is what Defence Minister Shoigu said about it to Putin
“You are aware that we have sent a large group of our radiation, chemical and biological protection troops to determine the toxic substances which are used by terrorists. Within the past week they used them twice – in one case, 27 people were hospitalised and three died, in the other case 30 people were hospitalised – I mean the Syrian Army soldiers.”
The West and the UN has repeatedly blamed chemical warfare attacks in Syria on the Syrian government. The Russians appear sure that it is the Al-Qaeda led Jihadis who are actually responsible, and they say they are now targeting their facilities.
This attack has been long expected. Indeed it has taken longer to happen than was widely anticipated.
Part of the explanation for the delay is that the Russians obviously felt that they needed to carry out extensive surveillance before carrying out their strike. Indeed Shoigu said as much to Putin today.
Another reason is almost certainly technical problems involving the strike group on the Admiral Kuznetsov. As I have discussed previously, the Russians have no experience of carrying out air strikes from aircraft carriers, and this is the first time they have done that. It is understandable if they have been having teething problems, and the much publicised loss of a MiG-29K on 13th November 2016 due to a technical fault as it was trying to land on the carrier was almost certainly caused by this.
However it is also likely that one factor that delayed the start of the operation is that Putin probably wanted to discuss it with Trump in their first telephone conversation, which finally took place yesterday.
It is clear from Shoigu’s words that the operation is open ended. Presumably it will continue until eastern Aleppo has finally been recaptured by the Syrian army.