Hussam al-Mahmoud | Hassan Ibrahim | Khaled al-Jeratli
The Military College in the central Homs governorate was rocked in what the Syrian regime claimed was a drone attack during a graduation ceremony on October 5. The attack left at least 89 people and 277 others wounded, according to the health ministry.
Although no official video recordings or footage appeared on the official Syrian television, which usually accompanies celebrations of this type, the state-run al-Ikhbaria news channel said that a “terrorist attack” was carried out using drones and targeted the graduation ceremony of military college students.
This account was followed less than two hours later by a statement from the Ministry of Defense, holding what it considered “armed terrorist organizations backed by known international parties” responsible for the bombing.
The attack is considered one of the most prominent military attacks in Syria during the last decade, after the bombing of the “Crisis Cell” on July 18, 2012, in which a group of the regime’s senior military officers and officials were killed.
It brings to mind the attack that targeted a security center in Jisr al-Shughour city in northern Idlib region in June 2011, during which dozens of security and police personnel were killed, and the regime accused what it said were “armed organizations” at the time.
In this file, Enab Baladi discusses with Syrian research fellows and experts the dimensions and circumstances of this attack, the parties that benefited, the parties likely to be behind it, and the state of retaliatory escalation that the Syrian regime has intensified against the areas of the north outside its control.
After the attack, the regime pointed the finger of condemnation -no accusation- at the opposition factions in Idlib and the Aleppo countryside and vowed in a statement by the defense ministry to respond with “full force and firmness” to what it considers “terrorist organizations” wherever they exist, under the name of “holding accountable the planners and implementers of this criminal act, for which they will pay dearly,” according to the statement.
The measures taken by the Syrian regime continued in this context. The media outlets, with their male and female anchors dressed in black in mourning, and the official institutions changed profile photos and banners on social media to black.
Various video recordings showed, minutes after the attack, injuries to people in the feet and lower parts of the body and scattered bodies in the ceremony arena, while pictures, explanations, and interviews on official television and auxiliary media were absent from showing what happened at the ceremony or presenting pictures of the remains of the drone that caused the explosion, and about the nature of the attack and impact.
On the political level, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned in a statement the bombing and called on the United Nations and the Security Council to condemn what it described as a “cowardly terrorist act,” calling for the “sponsors of terrorism” states to be held accountable for their “crimes” against the Syrian people, referring to a set of UN resolutions, not including Resolution 2254 (2015).
The Prime Ministry also announced, for the first time during the ongoing revolution against the Syrian regime since 2011, an official three-day mourning, and flags to be flown at half-mast in regime-held areas, embassies, and diplomatic bodies abroad, starting October 6, and the endowments ministry called for absentee prayers to be held, after Friday prayers, in all mosques within regime-controlled areas.
For its part, the Artists Syndicate suspended its activities and events, the Ministry of Culture postponed the concerts scheduled for the Opera House, and the Syrian Football Federation announced the suspension of all its activities to mourn the souls of those killed in the attack.
The Syrian regime and its allies refer to the Syrian opposition as “terrorist organizations,” and they have previously accused the same factions of similar attacks that targeted areas close to the geography where the opposition stronghold is based in northwestern Syria.
Until the preparation of this file, no party has claimed responsibility for the attack, which occurred 21 minutes after the Minister of Defense in the regime’s government, Ali Mahmoud Abbas, and the Governor of Homs, Namir Makhlouf (Assad’s cousin), left the college, which is located within a purely security and military area, fortified and full of radars, tens of kilometers away from areas controlled by other forces.
The attack on the Military College received a range of political reactions and condemnations, most of which came from the regime’s allies.
Stephane Dujarric, United Nations spokesman, expressed in a press conference on the day of the bombing “deep” concern about the attack on the college’s officers’ graduation ceremony and the subsequent “retaliatory bombing” by regime forces on multiple sites in northwestern Syria, which caused casualties.
The Iranian Foreign Minister also conveyed President Ibrahim Raisi’s condemnation of the attack to the Syrian Foreign Minister, Faisal Mekdad, and the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, offered his condolences to al-Assad for the victims of the “terrorist” attack in a statement released by the Kremlin.
India, the UAE, Venezuela, and Belarus offered condolences for the dead and condemned the attack, and the Lebanese Hezbollah considered that “the heinous and condemnable crime once again confirms the nature of the battle that has been going on for more than a decade with terrorist groups and their regional and international operators and the danger of the ongoing global conspiracy against Syria and its steadfast people.”
The research fellow at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, Maan Talaa, told Enab Baladi that the context in which the attack occurred made the regime see it as a strategic opportunity to regain control of the internal scene in its environment and shuffle the cards in the Syrian arena in general, as the regime emerged from the issue of Arab understandings with it empty-handed, with regime’s reference to the Arab initiative as “dead” approach and therefore any economic recovery has become impossible.
Talaa believes that the regime is experiencing three crises at the same time, the first of which is evident in the As-Suwayda protests, and if it is combined with its neighbor Daraa in the south, then there is a wide geographical area that is outside the regime’s security control, and it cannot interact with it due to various factors.
There are also assassination networks operating in Daraa and various areas of Syria, and the regime is unable to restore the government system inside, and the third crisis is manifested in the reflection of the “oppression” of the people of the coast, reaching the point of direct objection to the regime’s policies, even if this objection is still within an individual orbit and within the framework of social media.
In the face of these complex crises, the lack of a political breakthrough towards the regime, its search for alternatives and options, and the inability to access all resources in Syria, the attack comes as an opportunity for it to shuffle the cards and form a new context.
This explains the rapid response and focus on northern Syria to eliminate the “Astana” understandings through military pressure before moving toward political understandings that may result in a restructuring of understandings related to crossings and commercial movement.
There are many factors pushing the regime to treat the event as a strategic opportunity, the most prominent of which is reconsolidating the position vis-à-vis the “army” and providing a clear narrative that the regime can rely on.
Researcher and political analyst Hassan al-Naifi told Enab Baladi that the Military College operation was not a “novelty” for the regime, as it had previously killed those close to it, such as former Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan and former Prime Minister Mahmoud al-Zoubi.
This operation is intended to get out of a stifling crisis, which is evident in the protests in the southern As-Suwayda governorate and the “brakes” that impede the regime’s movement in the south, which prompted it to try to take advantage of the tribal fighting in northeastern Syria, without results.
According to al-Naifi, the regime wants to extract a justification for waging war on the north and raise the pace of violence in the country in order to reshuffle the cards and try to penetrate the popular movement in As-Suwayda and return to square one, considering that the regime has no more than security solutions, with expectations of continued escalation towards Idlib and the Aleppo countryside, to satisfy the popular incubator, although the method is exposed, and if its purpose is to regain the incubator, it may be the last desperate step.
Military College; Officers Factory
According to the information provided about it through the official website of the Ministry of Defense, the Military College was established in 1919 and was transferred to Homs city in 1932. The military study was only for two years, with the student graduating with the rank of second lieutenant.
The study moved to Cairo during the period of unity between Syria and Egypt, between 1958 and 1961, and the study there was changed to three years by a decision issued in 1974, and it was implemented in the following year’s cycle.
The college opened enrollment for females between the years 1981 and 1987, until the establishment of the Military College for Girls. The study system therein was amended by Bashar al-Assad and entered into force from the year 2006-2007.
Al-Assad’s decision stipulated that the officer student should graduate with the rank of active lieutenant and platoon commander after undergoing a three-year training course at the college.
Military students study the first and second years at the college with the aim of unifying the military training of student officers and unifying disciplinary issues and military information during this course.
The study is for third-year students in the specialty college, with the exception of the infantry specialty, as their third year of study is carried out in the military college, and graduation occurs in a combined manner from the military college, not the specialty colleges.
The Military College is located west of Homs, adjacent to the al-Waer neighborhood, and is 94 kilometers away from the border separating the areas controlled by the opposition and the regime at the northern entrance to the town of al-Safa, south of the village of al-Ankawi in the al-Ghab Plain area, northwest of Hama city.
The college is separated from the locations of the US-backed Free Syrian Army in al-Tanf garrison by about 160 kilometers, and it is also more than 300 kilometers away from the areas controlled by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) east of the Euphrates River. The SDF areas in Raqqa are about 230 kilometers.
Does opposition have the ability to attack the college?
The ability of the Syrian opposition to produce types of drones has raised questions repeatedly for years when the frequency of Russian announcements increased about the exposure of its central Hmeimim base in the coastal Latakia region to attacks by drones.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which has military control in Idlib, refused to comment or answer questions previously raised by Enab Baladi about its possession of this type of weapon, and the possibility of using it or not remained mentioned only through the media of the regime and Russia, the most recent of which was the moment the military college was targeted.
Major Youssef Hammoud, a defected military pilot, told Enab Baladi that the Syrian opposition does not have the actual ability to produce offensive drones, and even if they did, they have no ability to produce a type of aircraft that can cover these distances.
Hammoud added that all that the armed opposition possesses is nothing more than a “primitively made” aircraft used exclusively for reconnaissance at close distances.
He explained that drones cannot cover vast distances, such as what the Syrian regime is talking about by targeting the Military College in Homs, without being monitored.
Maj. Hammoud also pointed out that residents in northern Syria hear the sound of Iranian drones flying in northern Syria and see them with the naked eye during their movements before they carry out any targeting.
The former military pilot believes that the opposition’s accusation of targeting the Military College in Homs with a drone expresses “the regime’s military establishment’s lack of respect for its capabilities.”
According to information obtained by Enab Baladi through a defected officer from the Armaments Department responsible for arming the entire army throughout Syria (he declined to mention his name for security reasons), the military colleges throughout the Syrian geography include radars and anti-aircraft weapons.
He added that the Military College in Homs is a central military college and includes a department dedicated to training Air Force officers, and therefore includes radars and technology that detect aerial objects.
An air defense battalion containing Russian-made radars and anti-aircraft missiles in various forms is stationed in the northern countryside of Homs.
Rashid Hourani, a researcher fellow at the Jusoor Center for Studies, told Enab Baladi that the Syrian armed opposition does not have the security and military capabilities and capacities to carry out an action on the level of the attack that struck the college.
The military expert attributed this to reasons related to the nature of the security preparations preceding the celebration day and others related to the factions themselves, specifically their lack of the basic technological aspects to make such an attack successful.
Hourani added that the opposition has the ability to target sites close to the contact lines, as happened recently when it targeted a regime site in the village of al-Malajah, south of Idlib.
The researcher believes that Tahrir al-Sham in particular does not have the ability to obtain the parts it necessarily needs from abroad to manufacture this type of technology that enables it to strike targets that are approximately 100 kilometers away from its areas.
Why HTS may not have the tools
Researcher Rachid Hourani believes that groups outside the state do not declare a weapon in their possession so as not to lose the advantages of using it sometimes, as the other party can take the necessary precautions to avoid the effects of the advantages of use.
On the other hand, it concerns the factions themselves, as declaring their possession of this type of weapon constitutes a condemnation of them before the international community, especially in the case of Tahrir al-Sham, which was unable to get rid of its inclusion on “terrorist lists.”
In terms of technical personnel, Hourani said that Tahrir al-Sham may possess them, but those personnel need some technology from abroad, meaning they cannot have reached the level of manufacturing drones that reach targets that far away from where they are stationed.
Some armed organizations may make deliberate decisions to use drone technology if they have sufficient funding and a network to obtain the technology, but the organization itself must be prepared to accept the “higher risk of failure” that comes with the new technology, according to research issued by the Cyberspace website affiliated with the US government in September 2020.
The risks include preparing to face the “most severe” consequences that come as a result of an attack with an aircraft of this type, and the research gave an example of the development of the Islamic State group the necessary communications to have actors in various Western countries able to purchase the necessary parts to build drones and the ability to export it to the Middle East.
However, the consequences of this development were “severe,” as the organization lost its communications and its ability to secure financing and obtain drone technology after the violent reaction it faced from the International Coalition in response to the use of these weapons.
In the book “The Future of Drones in the Future of Terrorist Attacks” by the American officer working within the Secretary of Defense Program for Strategic Thinkers at Johns Hopkins University, Thomas Pledger, he talked about similar attacks that Tahrir al-Sham was accused of carrying out on the Russian Hmeimim military base. He said that a squadron of 13 drones attacked two Russian bases in Syria, covering a distance of more than 50 kilometers.
These aircraft were “locally made and low-tech” compared to ready-made commercial aircraft, but they were unable to hit their targets at the time, and the ability of these aircraft to cover distances remains the biggest obstacle to the accusations that the regime has repeatedly directed against Tahrir al-Sham of carrying out attacks of this type, according to the American expert.
Questioning the regime’s narrative
The area’s coordinates, its sensitive security nature, and the level of guarding and oversight that must be provided are all data relied upon by analysts and researchers to cast doubt on the regime’s narrative, and its loyalists also wondered how the drone reached the heart of the college and the major security breach occurred.
The HTS military wing said in a statement to Enab Baladi that the regime is living in a state of chaos at various levels, and its areas are controlled by militias, countries, and entities with conflicting interests, including Iran and Russia, in addition to multinational sectarian militias, living in a state of permanent conflict over influence and financial revenues.
It added that the regime is accustomed to taking revenge on unarmed civilians in northern Syria and directing malicious accusations against them whenever any event or failure occurs within areas under its control, which was repeated even in Israel’s bombing of its positions.
Hourani, the military expert, told Enab Baladi that the statements of the regime’s Defense Ministry cannot be accepted for reasons, the most important of which are attempts to mislead public opinion. “If the drones were actually coming from opposition-controlled areas, why did the air defenses deployed over the area covered by the regime’s drones not respond to them?” he added.
The area relatively close to the Syrian coast is crowded with Syrian and Russian air defenses.
Hourani believes that the regime has the ability to detect this type of attack early, especially in Homs, which is full of military units specialized in air defense and electronic warfare and can capture enemy targets.
The researcher said that the regime’s accusation of the attack on the opposition was intended to shuffle the cards in front of its incubator, whose restlessness had become clear because it did not produce results from Arab normalization and Turkish normalization, and did not have the ability to actually improve the situation that the population had reached in the areas under its control.
Last July, joint military exercises were launched between Russian forces and regime forces east of Aleppo governorate, focusing on joint movements of the air force, air defense means, and electronic warfare to repel air strikes, according to the Russian Ria Novosti agency, quoting Oleg Gorynov, the deputy head of the Russian Reconciliation Center.
Gorynov explained that the training comes after “repeated attacks on the de-escalation zone in Idlib,” as the Russian Reconciliation Center recorded three cases of bombing of regime forces’ positions by the opposition. He added that the bombing of what he said were “terrorist groups” targeted the Aleppo and Latakia governorates.
In Iran’s stage; Three scenarios
Iran has 570 military sites in Syria as of July 2023, and it has a wide influence and presence on Syrian territory, according to a research analysis conducted by the Jusoor Studies Center in cooperation with the InformaGENE Data Analysis Foundation.
The Iranian presence dominates the city of Homs, as there are 72 military sites belonging to external forces there, 67 of which belong to Iran and its arms and militias from the Revolutionary Guard and the Lebanese Hezbollah, four sites for Russia, and a site for the International Coalition, which indicates the presence of the college within the playground of the Iranian forces.
Mustafa al-Naimi, an expert in Iranian affairs, believes that the attack was mainly caused by a dispute between the regime and its allies in Iran’s militia and its multinational state arms, based on a preliminary reading of the scene of the attack.
Al-Naimi pointed out the presence of drones that accompanied the college students’ graduation process, and in light of the presence of those drones, the nature of the projectiles that were thrown, and the distances from which those drones were launched from Iranian bases toward the Military College, the information indicates that those who carried out those strikes were Iranians.
Al-Naimi told Enab Baladi that, on the technical level and by making a preliminary approach about the nature of throwing those rocket shells at the college and the extent of the destruction that occurred, the matter is similar to what happened in similar targeting of Iranian drones that Russia uses in its attack on the vicinity of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.
The expert excludes the proposal that says that the regime is responsible for the targeting based on the Minister of Defense’s departure from the college, considering that the link between them is illogical, pointing out that the presence of the minister falls within a protocol framework only, to take some pictures and display them through the social media and official digital accounts of the military institution.
Attempts to remove the “allies”
Since the beginning of this year, Enab Baladi has obtained circulars issued by the regime’s Defense Ministry and the General Staff, indicating the regime’s intention to keep its Russian and Iranian allies away from obtaining information for its military headquarters and its attempt to control military formations away from them.
The Defense Ministry refers to Iranian and Russian military personnel present on Syrian territory in its internal circulars as “friends.”
In March 2021, a report published by the US-based Newlines Institute stated that “Recent moves by Bashar al-Assad in the security sphere show the embattled Syrian president still has cards to play to preserve his power, despite having sacrificed much influence to Iran and Russia to secure his regime’s survival.”
Iran leads the way
Tareq Haj Bakri, military expert, and army defector, considered targeting the Military College in Homs to be strange and arousing suspicion, and he presented three possibilities and scenarios for targeting it, the first being through Iran and its militias, which have the ability to target any point controlled by the regime.
Maj. Haj Bakri told Enab Baladi that there is a conflict between Russia and Iran over hegemony and control of the Syrian regime, strongly suggesting that this targeting was carried out by Iranian militias that possess drones and are capable of carrying out suicide operations at any point.
Haj Bakri believes that Bashar al-Assad’s visit to China at the end of last September carried a kind of veiled threat to Iran, and the latter felt the seriousness of this threat and, therefore, wanted to send a bloody message that it was ready to burn people and stones and not give up its influence in Syria.
The expert added that the second possibility is that the regime is behind this operation for the sake of sectarian mobilization, specifically for the Alawite sect, which it exploits, and to convey to it a message that it is targeted and at risk in the future, if its people decide to abandon it, especially after the As-Suwayda protests two months ago.
The third possibility, according to the military analyst, is that the targeting took place through the opposition factions in the north, which Haj Bakri rules out, as they do not possess such aircraft and technical capabilities and cannot manufacture them, especially since Homs is at least 100 kilometers away from the nearest point under the control of the opposition forces.
Mustafa al-Naimi, the expert in Iranian affairs, considered that the targeting carries Iranian messages that it wants to be the sole controller of the Syrian arena in the areas controlled by the Syrian regime and that it is not concerned with any agreements that the regime may conclude, and that it must fully submit to Iranian decisions and not sail far from the Iranian path drawn for it.
According to al-Naimi, Iran seeks to increase tension in Syria and mix the cards between all components of the people to achieve the main goal of sustaining the conflict, which helps Iran invest in the Syrian scene by building more advanced security and military barriers inside Syria.
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