'Terminator down': Russian losses in Syria's quagmire mount

'Terminator down': Russian losses in Syria's quagmire mount
Pro and anti-Moscow social media users debated the mission of a Russian helicopter shot down by Syrian rebels, as the Kremlin makes a subtle shift in its rhetoric.
3 min read
02 August, 2016
The Russian helicopter went down over rebel-held northern Syria [AFP]

The aircrew of a Russian helicopter shot down in northern Syria on Monday met a grisly and macabre end likely sending shockwaves through the Kremlin.

A video showing locals dragging the body of the Russian pilot along the floor - with one man jumping on the deceased - could prove to be Moscow's "Mogadishu moment" and cause a major re-think of the country's motives in the war.

Russians were horrified by the scene, which likely brought back memories of the Soviet Union's occupation - and humiliating flight from - Afghanistan in the 1980s. For family members the images will be deeply distressing.

The deaths of the five young servicemen and women show that even against lightly armed rebel fighters intervention comes at a price for Russia.

The death toll of Russian armed forces in Syria since September 2015 now stands at 18. This is becoming a high figure given the relatively small presence of Russian ground troops, and the rebels' absence of formidable anti-aircraft missiles.

Since Monday, the Kremlin have repackaged the nature of the Russian aircrew's mission to give an added sense of purpose for the dead crew.

Government officials - who usually don't shy away from boasting of Russian firepower - said that the aircrew had returned back from a humanitarian mission dropping aid for civilians in Aleppo.

However, Syrian opposition activists hastily pointed out that the chopper was fitted with rocket pods, and "The Terminator" - as the Mi-8 is known - serves primarily in an offensive capacity.

The truth of what the helicopter was doing will be difficult to ascertain given the Kremlin's tight-control over information.

But thanks to activists and analysts such as Conflict Intelligence Team, we might get a better idea of the crew's background and purpose.

Pro-opposition figures believe that the helicopter's rocket pods are proof enough that the chopper was on an offensive mission.

This is not an unlikely presumption given the circumstances.

Russia has been guilty of using cluster bombs in Syria, and hit homes, hospitals, and schools alike.

The fact that the helicopter was returning back to base in Latakia at the same time that rebels in Aleppo have launched a massive offensive means that humanitarian missions were unlikely to be the main concern for Russian generals.

After the helicopter was downed, Idlib locals were subjected to massive, air raids giving further credence to opposition claims that the helicopter were unlikely to be dropping off food packs.

However, the helicopter can be used for transporting troops or supplies.

The Daily Beast mentioned its cramped quarters would not be the best aircraft for such a mission, but given that Russian air power in Syria is almost primarily offensive, there would be few options for delivering food beside the Mi-8 if planners wanted to launch such a mission.

The rocket pods would also likely remain affixed to the chopper, particularly as it was flying over hostile territories.

Pro-Russian activists posted a video it claimed was of the helicopter on another humanitarian mission, transporting an injured Syrian girl to a hospital for treatment, although this is yet to be verified.

Russia has also claimed to have opened "humanitarian corridors" in Aleppo for trapped civilians.

An image was also shared on social media claiming to show a leaflet dropped by the downed helicopter over Aleppo, giving directions in Arabic for civilians.

But given the regime and Russian targeting of bakeries and marketplaces, civilians would likely see this as a ploy to kill more Syrians.