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Russia claims airstrikes critically wounds al-Qaeda leader in Syria

October 4, 2017

A snip from the video of the alleged Russian strike against a meeting led by Abu Mohammed al-Julani, released by the Russian Ministry of Defense

 

Recent Development: During the morning hours of October 4, Russian media outlets quoted a military spokesperson claiming that Russian airstrikes had led to the killing of 12 commanders of the al-Qaeda-linked Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and critically wounded Abu Mohammed al-Julani, the leader of the group.

  • The Russian Ministry of Defense later released a statement and a video purportedly depicting the attack, without mentioning its location. The statement claimed that the attack was carried out by Su-34 and Su-35 jet fighters after the Russian military intelligence pinpointed a high-level HTS meeting. According to the statement, Julani's Chief of Security and aide, Ahmad al-Gizai was killed in the strike, along with 50 other militants.

  • The footage released by the Russian Ministry of Defense shows little evidence to support its claim. In fact the footage may have already been released to show a previous strike in Eastern Syria. Several armored vehicle along with an infantry unit are seen in the video, with only one recorded "hit" shown by the Russian Ministry.

  • Several airstrikes have been reported in Idlib the day prior, including against the Abu ad-Duhur Airport in the Idlib countryside, a former military base where HTS and another al-Qaeda-linked group are both known to operate.

 

Analysis: The Russian claim should be taken with a pinch of salt in light of previous unfounded claims including one regarding the death of ISIS's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in May and doubts about the released footage itself. Still, this recent statement differs from previous opportunistic claims and may indicate bolstered efforts to target HTS. This is due both to the relative amount of details given by the Russian Ministry of Defense, Russia's own intel capabilities in Idlib and the overall context of the alleged strike as Turkey is planning to intervene in northwestern Syria.

 

Russia is known to have deployed significant intel gathering assets in Idlib since its initial intervention in 2015. This includes a state-of-the-art spy plane capable of collecting both Signal and Electronic intelligence (SIGINT & ELINT). Such intel capabilities  are likely tied to several pro-regime victories on the ground against HTS, as well as a recent heavy-handed aerial campaign in reaction to an HTS-led offensive. The massive Russian response to a recent HTS offensive in Hama last month just as the Russian air force was focusing on Eastern rather than Western Syria, may indeed suggest that Moscow received prior intel on such an operation. Thus far, however, the Russian military had failed to use such capabilities to pinpoint al-Qaeda operatives, as opposed to a significant campaign against the jihadist group led by the US earlier this year. 

 

The context of the strike is also significant. The alleged Russian airstrike comes amidst growing signs of an upcoming Turkish intervention in the Idlib Province, as part of a de-escalation agreement signed between Moscow, Ankara and Tehran. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has himself confirmed such an upcoming intervention, while his Foreign Minister recently stated that Turkey was looking to weaken HTS and coopt some of its fighters. Whether Russia did indeed manage to wound Julani or not, the Russian claim suggests Moscow is also working to weaken the al-Qaeda-linked group, further confirming that the al-Qaeda-linked group is in fact the real target of the upcoming Turkish intervention.

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