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On May 24, Stratfor analysts published satellite images of a Syrian airbase "T4", also known as "Tiyas airbase". They claim the satellite imagery shows 4 Russian Mil Mi-24 helicopters destroyed by an ISIS attack on May 24.

The Russian Minisry of Defence has denied this information, stating tha all Russian helicopters continue to perform their tasks, while the satellite imagery shows remnants of months-old fighting.

However, there is evidence that the T4 airbase indeed was damaged on May 14 and that Russian helicopters and probably other military vehicles were at this airbase.

Was there an explosion?

The first report of 4 Russian helicopters and 20 ammunition trucks destroyed at T4 airbase came from ISIS-linked Amaq agency. On the same day, this information was confirmed by pro-Assad sources, although they claimed the explosion was caused by “human error”, not an ISIS attack.

As noted by Twitter user @obretix, traces of the explosion appeared in May on publicly available Landsat satellite imagery:

Top left: Stratfor satellite image, May 14; top right: Landsat satellite image, May 2; bottom left: Stratfor satellite image, May 17; bottom right: Landsat satellite image, May 18.

Thus, apparently there indeed was an explosion at T4 airbase. However, the Stratfor article did not present evidence that the destroyed helicopters were indeed Russian, not Syrian (Mil Mi-24s are operated by both countries).

However, our team has ound evidence of Russian helicopters and probably other military vehicles presence at T4 airbase in spring 2016.

Russian helicopter

On March 21, 2016, Russian state news agency "RIA Novosti" photographer Mikhail Voskresenskiy visited T4 airbase and took several photos there. Among them there was a photo of a helicopter, signed "A Mi-24 helicopter of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) Air Force at an aerodrome 50 km off Palmyra". Our team has obtained this image in high resolution:

Photo: Mikhail Voskresenskiy, “Ria Novosti” (click to enlarge)

Upon examination of the helicopter’s image, it is obvious that it is indeed a RuAF (not SyAAF) helicopter.

Top left: Mi-24 helicopter at T4 airbase; top right: RuAF Mi-24 at Hmeimim airbase (source); bottom: SyAAF Mi-25s (export version of Mi-24, source). Click to enlarge collage

We have geolocated the helicopter in the image at the exact same position as the helicopters in Stratfor’s May 14 satellite imagery.

Camera direction marked with purple arrow (Google Maps link)

To the south of T4 (in the camera direction) there is a mountain ridge, also visible in the RIA Novosti photo:

Top: RIA Novosti photo; bottom: Google Earth landscape model (Google Maps link)

The RIA Novosti photo also shows ammunition crates to the north of the helicopter, also visible in Stratfor’s image:

Ammunition crates in the RIA Novosti photo and in the Stratfo image marked in green, camera direction marked with purple arrow

Thus, it is evident that at least on March 21 a Russian Mi-24 helicopter was at the same position as the helicopters (later destroyed by explosion) in Stratfor’s May 14 satellite imagery. Most likely it were indeed Russian helicopters that were damaged by the explosion.

Smerch MRLS at T4 airbase

Another photo, also taken by Mikhail Voskresenskiy on March 21 at T4 airbase, is signed "Uragan multiple rocket launcher systems of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) near Palmyra".

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However, a high resolution image shows a rocket with notable white markings, which, we believe, is not a Uragan rocket, but a Smerch rocket.

Top left: part of the RIA Novosti photo: source for bottom left photo; source for right photo

Earlier, a Smerch MRLS with a Russian crew (and the same white markings on the rockets) was spotted in Latakia:

smerch

The fact that the RIA Novosti image shows a Smerch volley, and not an Uragan volley, is also conirmed by the thick white smoke.

Uragan and Grad rokets use double-based solid rocket fuel (solid solution of nitrocellulose in low-volatility solvent), which produces almost no smoke while burning.

However, Smerch rockets use solid mixture rocket fuel (mechanical mixtture of special purpose rubber with aluminum and ammonium perchlorate) which produces a thick white smoke while burning. We can see this thick white smoke in the RIA Novosti image.

Examples: Uragan volley:

Grad volley:

Smerch volley:

Thus, apart from Russian helicopters, the Palmyra offensive was probably also supported by Russian rocket artillery from T4 airbase. It also could have been damaged in the explosion.

Was the explosion an ISIS attack?

There are certain doubts about it. For instance, Fox News’s US intelligence sources claim the Russian helicopters could have been destroyed in an accidental fuel tank explosion. Given the number of ammunition crates scattered near the helicopters, this seems a distinct possibility.

Moreover, comparing Stratfor’s satellite imagery shows no visible damage aside from the explosions and no artillery craters:

Stratfor before
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Were Russian soldiers killed?

As of now, there is no evidence of Russian soldiers being killed in the T4 airbase explosion. In particular, there is no social media “footprint”, i.e. mourning posts from friends and relatives, common for dead Russian soldiers and mercenaries. However, we continue monitoring social networks for information on killed Russian soldiers.

Conclusions

  • apparently there indeed was an explosion at Syrian T4 airbase on May 14 which destroyed several helicopters and, possibly, other military hardware;
  • at least since late March 2016, there were Russian helicopters and possibly Smerch multi-rocket launching systems;
  • most likely it were indeed Russian helicopters (not Syrian government helicopters) that were destroyed in the explosion;
  • the explosion’s cause is unknown, but there is reason to doubt that it was caused by an ISIS attack;
  • currently there is no evidence of Russian soldiers being killed in the incident.