The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Anatomy of a Russian airstrike in Syria

Placeholder while article actions load

Ground level: On the scene of controversial Russian strikes in Syria

A boy makes his way through rubble at a site hit by what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the town of al-Ghariyah al-Gharbiyah in Deraa province, Syria October 12, 2015. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Faqir (Stringer/Reuters)

After a rapid buildup of equipment and aircraft in Syria, Russian forces began bombing targets across the country Wednesday.

What the Russians targeted exactly is unclear. Though Russian President Vladimir Putin has billed Russia’s presence in Syria as strictly anti-terrorist, he has also made no qualms voicing his support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

U.S. officials seemed taken aback by the strikes, as Russia and the United States had agreed to meet prior to Russia’s first sortie.

[Why Russia is in Syria]

Footage from those on the ground suggested that the strikes had hit civilian areas around the Syrian city of Homs. According to Nidal Ezzdin, a representative of the Homs Civil Defense volunteers, the Russian strikes around Homs were interspersed with attacks from Syrian air force helicopters that dropped seven barrel bombs in between the Russian attacks.

“Today Russian Aerospace Forces aircraft carried out local strikes against eight facilities of the terrorist group ISIS in the Syrian Arab Republic. About 20 plane sorties have been performed,” Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov told Interfax on Wednesday, using an acronym for the Islamic State.

The Russian Ministry of Defense also posted footage of one of the raids.

The 46-second video shows at least three strikes in the hills outside the Syrian city of Ltamenah. According to maps provided by the Institute of the Study of War, the airstrikes were roughly 40 miles from any reported Islamic State positions. Ltamenah, however, is currently contested by Syrian opposition fighters and Syrian government troops, according to map data provided by IHS Janes, a defense analyst organization.

Also of note is that the first two frames appear to only partially capture the actual strikes. The white puffs on the ground are fragmentation impacts from the bombs exploding off-screen.

While the third strike appears to have hit its target, the other two seem to be missing their intended targets, suggesting that the Russians are using “dumb” ordnance, not precision guided munitions.

Russia currently has roughly 30 fixed-wing aircraft stationed in Syria, including at least 24 ground-attack aircraft. On Wednesday, reports on social media indicated that some of the airstrikes were carried out by multiple Su-24 Fencers. The Fencer is an aircraft designed primarily to attack ground targets, much like the U.S. A-10 Thunderbolt.

h/t for help with geolocating

Read more:

Why Russia’s Syria war is bad news for the U.S. (and why it isn’t)

This is Russia’s air power in Syria

Moscow vs. Washington amid the Syrian misery