Open source evidence confirmed official Russian statements on S-300 SAMs deployment in Syria
Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) deployed S-300 surface-to-air missiles (SAM) (NATO reporting name SA-21 Growler) weeks after the Russian Air Force Il-20M (NATO reporting name: Coot-A) reconnaissance aircraft plane was mistakenly downed by a Syrian air defense missile.
According to open source information, all the flights that were most transporting the S-300 SAMs to the Russian-run Khmeimim Air Base were carried out in between September 27 and October 2. Russian MoD published a video on its media channels on October 3, after all 49 pieces of equipment were delivered.
Both the United States and Israel regarded this move as an escalation in the region, while Russian media presented it as having a stabilizing effect on the situation in the Middle East. Russia already has its own S-300 air defense system in Syria, along with the more advanced S-400 system, but the newly delivered systems will be manned by the Syrian army.
Starting on Wednesday, October 3, official Russian government sources shared images and video footage of the first Russian S-300 battery arriving at the Khmeimim Air Base in Syria. The successful delivery of the long-range missile systems was announced on Tuesday, October 2, but it was not until the following day that visual confirmation appeared.
— Russia in RSA 🇷🇺 (@EmbassyofRussia) October 3, 2018
In the short video, crew unloaded S-300 missiles and launch vehicles from inside an An-124 (NATO reporting name: Condor), allegedly at the Khmeimim Air Base in Syria.
The geolocation details in the video were scarce as the footage was taken at night time. The dark marks and a white line on the aircraft ramp were strong indicators used to narrow possible locations. The details were not sufficient to verify the location with absolute confidence, but did correlate with Khmeimim’s inner runway.
The daily satellite imagery from October 2, 2018 captured a similar aircraft on the runway in Khmeimim. The aircraft featured in the image appears to be an An-124 due to its large size in comparison to the other visible aircraft. This location also matched the likely area where the cargo was unloaded.
More reliable information was found on the website Flightradar24, which listed at least four An-124 transport aircraft landed in Latakia in the period of September 27 and October 2. The aircraft were registered as RF-82035, RF-82010 and RF-82032, and reportedly were a part of the Russian Air Force’s 566th Military Transport Aviation Regiment (military unit 41495) of the 12th Military Transport Aviation Division, 61st Air Army.
It was unclear exactly which flight appeared in the footage, as the video was posted on October 3, after all flights were already executed. The plane captured in the video had Владимир Галидилин (Vladimir Galidilin) written on the side. Photos available online suggested that the aircraft registered as RF-82032 had the same sign on the side and similar tail markings.
This finding suggested that the posted video could have been recorded on September 27, when the first cargo flight was made.
The S-300 components that were transported to Syria likely came from the 583rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Regiment (military unit 36226), which is stationed in Olenegorsk, Murmansk Oblast.
Delivered and Tested
On October 17, first alleged footage of an already deployed S-300 SAM surfaced. The video allegedly showed the system fully operational and launching missiles at targets. The video also recorded a MiG 29 (NATO reporting name: Fulcrum) flying over the launch site.
This video was actually recorded by the Russian Aerospace Forces during combat drills at the Ashuluk testing range, Astrakhan Region and posted on October 11, 2018. No confirmed videos of the S-300 SAM system in a fully operational condition were found as of now.
The S-300s were delivered in response to the Israeli air strike on September 17 that led to the accidental downing of a Russian Air Force Il-20M intelligence aircraft, which was mistakenly shot down by a Syrian S-200 missile. Even though the details and causes of the shooting down remained controversial, Kremlin made it clear it would boost the Syrian air defense, which mainly consisted of a variety of old Soviet-era systems and weapons. According to TASS, the deployment of the S-300 Russian air defense missile systems in Syria will have a favorable effect on the situation in the Middle East.
This Russian move received different responses from United States and Israel. General Joseph Votel, who heads the U.S. Central Command, called the deployment of Russian anti-aircraft missiles in Syria a “needless escalation”. Israel warned that providing the system to Damascus would expose the region to more danger, and called it irresponsible. No concrete actions were taken as a response to the deployment as of now.
Russian MoD claims of S-300 SAMs delivered to Syria were highly likely to be true. Open source evidence suggested that the delivery of the S-300 SAMs took place between September 27 and October 3. The Russian MoD released the video only after all 49 pieces of equipment, including radars, control vehicles, and four launchers were successfully delivered to Syria.
The new system was delivered by means of An-124 Condor flights to Khmeimim Air Base, but their current location is unknown. Due to this development, Israeli and other aircraft will be more vulnerable while operating in and around Syrian airspace.
Despite Israel’s protests, these systems joined the already deployed Russian S-300 SAM and the more advanced S-400 SAM and will be manned by the Syrian army. Both the United States and Israel considered this move as an unnecessary escalation in already troubled region, but no concrete actions were taken in response as of now.
Lukas Andriukaitis is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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