The Russian news agency Kommersant is reporting that at least seven Russian planes were damaged or destroyed by rebel shelling in Syria, in one of the worst attacks since Russia began its military operation there.
The Hmeymim air base in western Syria, near the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, was targeted for an attack that damaged — according to Kommersant — at least four Su-24 bombers, two Su-35S fighter jets, and an An-72 transport plane, as well as an ammunition depot, according to two “military-diplomatic” sources.
The Russian defense ministry has not commented yet on the attack, which reportedly injured at least 10 service members.
Russia began last month to establish a more permanent presence at Hmeymim, along with a naval base at Tartous, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) south on the coastline, despite President Vladimir Putin's announcement Dec. 11 that Russian troops were beginning a significant withdrawal from the Syria.
Kommersant reported that until Sunday, Russian air defense systems had been successful in warding off attacks to Hmeymim and Tartous.
Earlier Wednesday, the Russian defense ministry said two service members died Sunday when an Mi-24 helicopter crash-landed while en route to the Hama air base. The cause was deemed to be technical failure.
Meanwhile, Reuters news agency reported that the Syrian army, backed by Russian jets, escalated bombing of the last rebel bastion on the eastern outskirts of Damascus Wednesday. It said the army was amassing elite forces to prepare for a “major assault” on the rebel-controlled Military Vehicles Administration.
Reuters reported that since Sunday, rebels with the Ahrar Al Sham faction widened their control of parts of the Harasta army base in eastern Ghouta. Rebels stormed the base in November last year in an attempt to relieve pressure on nearby towns and villages, which are starved for supplies.
Russian state media reported that “terrorists” had fired mortars on residential areas in Harasta, and said the army responded in kind.
Civil defense sources told Reuters that in four days of heavy shelling, 38 civilians have been killed and at least 147 people injured.
Reuters reports more than 300,000 people in eastern Ghouta have been under siege by army troops since 2013.
Residents told Reuters at least 230 aerial strikes hit residential areas of Ghouta on Tuesday, killing five civilians.
Hamza Biriqdar, a spokesman for the rebel faction Jaish al Islam, told Reuters that “the front lines of Ghouta are witnessing battles and clashes and big losses inflicted on (Syrian President) Assad’s forces and his militias.”
The Syrian Red Crescent has reported that 29 critically ill people were evacuated from eastern Ghouta on Friday. It said the group included 17 children, six women and six men. The Red Crescent said the movement was the result of a deal to release 29 civilians captured by Jaish al Islam in 2013 in the industrial city of Adra, north of Damascus.
Also Friday, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters that the United States is preparing to shift its approach to Syria and pledging to help with the initial recovery following the collapse of the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate. Mattis described the measure as “an attempt to move toward normalcy.”
He said U.S. civilian personnel are expected to come to Syria to help with the restoration of services, removing debris and reopening schools.
Mattis also said about 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria will stay to provide security and aid in efforts to hunt down remaining IS fighters.
But questions remain about how the initial recovery efforts will work, given that much of Syria is now under the control of forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Mattis said the demarcation line set up in Syria by the U.S. and Russia has held, and he does not expect pro-regime forces to interfere with rebuilding efforts.
“That would be a mistake,” he said of any possible attempts by Syrian forces to cross over, adding, “They’ve not even tried.”