Russian Aircraft Crash: Why IS Claims Aren’t Totally Misplaced

Could Russia’s military initiative in the Syrian crisis have put IS on the defensive?

Updated
Opinion
3 min read
Wreckage of the Russian plane that crashed in Sinai. 
Snapshot
  • Altitude at which Russian Metrojet was flying deemed too high for a shoulder-fired missile
  • IS currently not estimated to have air power that would allow an aircraft to be brought down
  • But IS claim not totally misplaced: Russia’s military initiative in the Syrian crisis has put IS on the defensive
  • If IS fingerprints are conclusively established – a very firm Russian (read Putin ) response can be expected

Ghoulish responsibility for the crash of the ill-fated Metrojet aircraft in the Sinai desert on Saturday (Oct 31) that resulted in the death of all 224 passengers and crew on board the Airbus A 321 has been claimed by the Islamic State (IS). However at the time of writing this comment this has been rejected by the Russian government.

Bound for St. Petersburg in Russia from the popular Egyptian tourist destination Sharm-el-Sheikh, the aircraft crashed 25 minutes after take-off and the first images of the crash revealed an aircraft that had been completely destroyed.

Preliminary reports indicate that the Metrojet aircraft came down as one piece and did not fragment in the manner that the Malaysian commercial aircraft MH 17 did over Ukraine in July 2014. It is also being reported that the Russian Metrojet was flying about 2,000 feet lower than MH 17 but the altitude is deemed to be too high for a shoulder-fired missile to have caused the crash. Hence the skepticism over the claim of the IS.

Relatives react after a Russian airliner with 217 passengers and seven crew members crashed. (Photo: AP)
Relatives react after a Russian airliner with 217 passengers and seven crew members crashed. (Photo: AP)

While more detailed investigations will establish the cause of the crash, the political-military context is instructive and the conjecture about the I S is not totally misplaced.

In recent weeks Russia under President Vladimir Putin has embarked upon a muscular military initiative in the Syrian crisis that has seen the Russian military providing valuable support to the beleaguered forces of president Assad. Consequently the IS has been under severe attack and is now on the defensive and the current multilateral talks in Vienna have been enabled in some measure by Moscow’s intervention.

A spectacular attack that would result in the destruction of a Russian asset would have served the purpose of the IS and local media have reported the following cyber claim by the IS.

Soldiers of the Caliphate were able to bring down a Russian plane above Sinai Province with at least 220 Russian crusaders aboard.

They were all killed, praise be to God. O Russians, you and your allies take note that you are not safe in Muslims lands or their skies.

The killing of dozens daily in Syria with bombs from your planes will bring woe to you. Just as you are killing others, you too will be killed, God willing.

However as noted earlier, this claim will have to be taken with a large pinch of salt for the IS currently is not estimated to have the kind of air power that would allow an aircraft to be brought down at the altitude that the Metrojet would have acquired. Could this air power have been provided by a shadowy state entity proxy ?

It may be recalled that there was similar conjecture and speculation when the ill-fated Malaysian aircraft was brought down in July 2014 and Moscow and Kiev were differently held responsible. The cause of that crash remains unresolved.

For India and other South Asian nations, the security of airports and related assets has been breached by terrorist groups over the last three decades. Hijacking of commercial aircraft has occurred often. More recently the Peshawar and Quetta airports were attacked by terrorist groups in 2012 and 2014 respectively and in this case the TTP (Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan ) had claimed responsibility.

Hence the air-power profile of the IS will remain a matter of grave concern and the capabilities and intent of the quasi-state entity will need to be monitored carefully. In this specific case, it is hoped that the Egyptian and Russian authorities will be able to arrive at a speedy determination about the cause of the Metrojet crash.

In the event that the finger-prints of the IS are conclusively established – then a very firm Russian (read Putin ) response can be expected and the turbulence in the region will increase in a visible manner.

(The writer is a leading expert on strategic affairs. He is currently Director, Society for Policy Studies)

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