Who is Russia Deploying its Newest MANPADS Against in Syria?

Russia announced earlier this month the deployment of its cutting-edge 9K333 Verba Man-Portable Air Defense System (MANPADS) to it forces in the eastern Ghouta region near Damascus. According to pro-Russian outlets, the aim is for MANPADS to destroy drones used by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an alliance dominated by the rebranded al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. This development followed a Russian brokered new ceasefire deal in the rebel held territories of Ghouta, which exclude HTS members. But a closer look at HTS capacity shows that the group is not known to have the capacity to weaponize the commercial store-bought drones that many groups in Syria use to spy on their enemies. Russia could have also used cheaper drone-buster devices capable of locking onto a drone and jamming its communications.

Nonetheless, Moscow’s decision to go for a more expensive and highly sophisticated weapon raises questions about both the country’s real intentions and targets.

No capacity

Unlike other insurgency factions, the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) is so far the only anti-Assad group that has proven itself technology savvy. A number of rebel factions in Syria have released videos indicating that they have surveillance and reconnaissance drones. The drones allow those groups to collect data on enemy bases, battlefield positioning and weaponry and improve targeting. Some groups also use these devices for propaganda purposes, such as filming aerial footage of enemy losses or the massive destruction caused by their opponents.  

ISIS, however, is the only anti-Assad group that has been able to weaponize makeshift drones and use them to remotely attack its enemies. “Our intelligence reports strongly indicate that none of the rebel groups in Syria, including HTS, have been able to reconfigure off-the-shelf drones in order to use them as weapons. But this does not mean that they are not trying,” said a military source in the US-led anti-ISIS coalition who spoke on condition of anonymity. Local sources also echoed the same assessment and denied HTS’s ability to weaponize drones. “Apart from ISIS, no one has the ability to use drones to conduct attacks. We are fighting HTS in Ghouta so we have no reason to cover for them,” said a rebel commander in Jaish al-Islam, the main signatory to the truce, who spoke on condition of anonymity. 

Even if HTS is trying to weaponize drones, which is most likely the case, the group still does not pose a serious threat. “The threat level from makeshift weaponized drones, in general, remains low as successful attacks are the exception rather than the rule and they largely aimed to garner publicity rather than military gains,” said the military source. Nonetheless, if Russia is seriously concerned about potential drone attacks in the future, there are cheaper and easy ways to eliminate such threats. “I don’t believe that classic MANPADS, such as the Russian Verba, would be a good choice to eliminate the off-the-shelf drones. These cheap commercial devices are easy to replace and are sometimes used in swarms, which makes such options super expensive. Moscow can instead use other more specialized anti-drone equipment which is cheaper and more efficient,” the source added.

Allies or spoilers

Russia deployed its military police in Eastern Ghouta on July 24 to observe and enforce the de-escalation deal it brokered in the area. The de-escalation agreement was signed with Egyptian mediation after representatives of Syrian opposition groups and the Russian military held talks in Cairo. The agreement provides for a ceasefire in the zone, allowing food and humanitarian aid to be brought in and the sick and wounded to be evacuated for treatment elsewhere. On top of excluding HTS, multiple sources highlighted that the deal pressures rebel groups to force HTS out of the area. Following the agreement, fighting erupted between rebel groups and HTS in Ghouta which lends credence to such reports.

But HTS or other rebel groups are not the only spoilers Russia might be concerned about. Iran has previously instructed its allied militias to sabotage deals brokered by Russia in different occasions when the latter was not directly involved in the negotiating. During the regime’s latest offensive in December to  capture  the rebel-held part of eastern Aleppo, Russia, in cooperation with Turkey, brokered a  deal  to allow civilians and rebel groups to be displaced to other rebel-held areas in northern Syria. Iran, which was allegedly  not consulted, pushed its proxies to sabotage it. Likewise, the Syrian regime has also acted as a spoiler in many occasions against Russia’s instructions. Unlike Moscow, who is trying to cement Assad’s victory through de-escalating deals, the regime’s driving motive is its determination to recapture all of Syria militarily without any significant political compromises, a position also be supported by Iran. Additionally, Tehran and some of its backed militias, such as Hezbollah, have also been using drones to monitor, locate and attack rebel locations.

Other explanations?

Experts previously highlighted that Russia seems to be using Syria as a testing ground and a way to advertise some of its most-advanced weaponry. But Moscow cannot use its MANPADS in Syria for similar purposes, as such weapons are made for more advanced and sophisticated targets, which means that it will not be able to add any promotion value. Likewise, the Russian MANPADS are unlikely to be deployed against the US which does not fly in that area and Russia has already deployed more advanced systems such as the S-300 air defense system.  Moreover, the US is supporting Russia’s led de-escalation deals.

Deploying the MANPADS to send a message, explicitly or implicitly, to Russia’s allies in Syria might also be another possibility, although many might consider it a far-fetched prospect. Pro-regime forces are still violating the Ghouta’s ceasefire truce in an attempt to capture more rebel-held areas, despite Russia’s instructions. Moscow’s dilemma, therefore, is to discreetly pressure the Assad regime, which has become more stubborn as the war shifts in its favor, without showing the competing agendas among pro-Assad allies. But Russia’s attempts to walk this fine line seems to be more challenging than the latter is willing to admit. As such, Moscow seems to be forced to make tough choices in order to keep its allies in check. “There is a lot of discussion going on in Russia about how to prevent all parties from violating the local de-escalation deals. No concrete options are reached yet that I can share. But in Syria, things change every day,” a well informed Russian source, who spoke under the Chatham house rule, replied to my answer about Russia’s plan to enforce such deals on the Syrian regime. Such weaponry, thus, could be used to send a message, directly or indirectly, that future attacks might not be tolerated. Additionally, these portable devices could be used to eliminate pro-Assad drones discreetly which will be easy to hide as none of the involved parties will be willing to disclose such incidents. Many rebel groups will also be more than happy to claim responsibility for such attacks.

Whether the MANPADS are part of Russia’s attempt to keep its Syria allies in line with its agenda or not, the kremlin will likely not be able to avoid the elephant in the room forever. A decision will have to eventually be taken to either increase Moscow’s pressure on its allies to in order to push its agenda forward or to give in to theirs.

Haid Haid is a Syrian columnist, researcher, and Atlantic Council nonresident fellow and Chatham House Associate Fellow focused on security policy, conflict studies, and Kurdish and Islamist movements. Follow him on Twitter at @HaidHaid22.

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Image: Photo: Russian soldiers gather as rebel fighters and their families evacuate the besieged Waer district in Homs, March 2017. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki