In one of the bloodiest drone attacks against the military in more than 12 years of civil war, Syria held funerals for a large number of those murdered the day before at a graduation ceremony at a military academy in the Homs province.
Minutes after Ali Mahmoud Abbas, the defense minister, left the Homs Military Academy, a number of weaponized drones struck the courtyard where family and new officers were assembled. Syria imposed a three-day blackout.
There have been no claims of responsibility for the attack. Syria’s defence and foreign ministries blamed what they described as terrorist groups, without specifying further, and vowed to respond “with full force”.
On Friday morning, coffins carrying victims and draped in the Syrian flag were sent out from the Homs Military Hospital. A military band played somberly and lined up troops gave the salute. At the scene, Abbas said the blood spilt was “precious.”
“My mother was coming to celebrate me, like she was coming to my wedding,” said Yasser Mohamed, a new officer who survived the attack – but whose mother did not.
“We were happy, taking pictures, then suddenly… this is such a hard day, and such a huge tragedy,” he told Reuters, choking up with tears as he spoke.
Syria’s health ministry said 89 people had been killed, including 31 women and five children. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which reports on the Syrian conflict, put the toll at above 120.
Throughout the night and into the early morning on Friday, Syrian government troops blasted artillery shells into rebel-held territory in the northern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, according to the Observatory and the civil defence group known as the White Helmets, which operate in opposition-held areas.
At least 12 civilians have been killed in that bombardment, according to the Observatory. Authorities have cancelled group Friday prayers, fearing that mosques could be attacked.
Thursday’s strike was an unprecedented use of drones against government forces in the war, which began with protests against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011 and spiralled into a conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions.
In June, a drone attacked Assad’s hometown of Qardaha in the province of Latakia. But Thursday’s attack involving a swarm of drones represented the deadliest and most coordinated use of the weapon yet against the government side.
Hardline rebels have employed home-built drones as early as 2018, including against the coastal Hmeimim airbase where Russia has headquartered its Syria operations, researcher Wim Zwijnenburg told Reuters.
But with no remnants appearing in footage of the attack, there is little that can be gleaned about the type of drone or its payload, Zwijnenburg said.
Assad has drawn heavily on military backing from Russia, Iran, and Tehran-backed militias during the war, after the Syrian army was rocked by defections early in the conflict. Russia has helped in efforts to strengthen the Syrian military.
Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his condolences to Assad on Friday, describing the attack as “savage,” according to Syrian state news agency SANA.
The Homs Military Academy is one of Syria’s oldest and all officers in the ground forces graduate from it. Fresh graduates are seen as an important supply of junior officers, which are severely lacking after more than a decade of brutal war.