A Russian Defence Ministry source, the deputy head of the ministry’s Center for Reconciliation in Syria Oleg Yegorov, reported on November 4 that jihadist militants in Syria are planning a strike on Khmeimim Air Base, Russia’s prime overseas military facility, using long range drones. “According to information received… militants from the Jabhat Al Nusra and the Turkistan Islamic Party are planning an attack on the Khmeimim Air Base using strike UAVs and kamikaze drones,” he reported. Yegorov elaborated that a large number of drones had already been assembled for the attack in Syria’s Idlib governate in the country’s northwest which straddles the Turkish border. The territory remains the primary stronghold of jihadist elements in Syria, and has been preserved only due to very extensive Turkish material support and direct military intervention on behalf of terrorist elements based there. U.S. envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State, Brett H. McGurk, previously highlighted that “Idlib Province is the largest Al Qaeda safe haven since 9/11,” with a prior Syrian and Russian effort to reclaim the territory thwarted in early 2020 by a massive Turkish intervention including shooting down Syrian aircraft deep within the country’s borders. As a result the territory has remained a staging ground for jihadist attacks into the rest of Syrian territory.
Al Nusra has been a key recipient of Turkish support since 2011 when it established itself as the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, and was formerly an affiliate of the Islamic State terror group. The Turkistan Islamic Party, meanwhile, has benefited from extensive support from Turkish intelligence agencies and is comprised primarily of radicalised members of the Uyghur minority in Western China. It has been responsible not only for much of the fighting on the ground against Syrian forces, but also for terror attacks across Asia from Beijing to Bangkok. An operation by the two groups to strike Khmeimim Air Base has the potential to benefit not only Turkey and its proxies in Idlib, but also the NATO alliance more broadly due to the facility’s importance to Russia’s ability to project power beyond Europe.
Although Khmeimim Airbase was established in August 2015 as a forward operating position primarily for tactical combat aviation to support counterinsurgency operations in Syria, the facility has since been expanded to host Tu-22M3 strategic bombers and MiG-31K strike fighters armed with hypersonic weapons. Deployed near Syria’s western coast, the aircraft leave NATO’s less well defended southern flank exposed while placing NATO surface ships across the Mediterranean in the line of fire. A successful attack by terror groups to take out Khmeimim Airbase, almost certainly with Ankara’s knowledge and support, would thus cripple a key Russian asset at a critical time of high tensions between Moscow and NATO.