More than 100 Syrian military cadets and their family members were killed in Homs in central Syria on 5 October by a drone carrying explosives during their graduation ceremony at the Syrian Military College.
The Syrian military attributed the attack to “armed terrorist organisations,” adding that there were civilians as well as cadets among the victims. Dozens of injuries were recorded among the family members attending the graduation ceremony, a statement said.
The graduation was attended by high-ranking officials from the Syrian military including Syrian Defence Minister Ali Abbas. However, none of the officials was harmed in the attack as they had left immediately following the ceremony before the drone dropped shells in the area.
Situated in a secure area away from active conflict zones in Syria and any direct contact with Syrian opposition forces, Homs has not seen military colleges targeted by the Syrian armed opposition throughout the 11-year-long uprising in the country.
Some military sites, however, have been subject to aerial bombardments that have been attributed to Israel.
The military college at the centre of this tragic event is surrounded by other facilities belonging to the Syrian military, including the College of Armoured Vehicles, the College of Technical Affairs and Military Works, and the military hospital.
These facilities are under strict surveillance, and the Syrian regime maintains strict control over the entire city of Homs, making it highly fortified both on the ground and in the air.
Researcher at the Omran Centre for Strategic Studies Nawar Shaaban said that “even during the most vulnerable periods of the Syrian regime, no entity contemplated approaching the complex of military colleges near Homs. The area is solely in the possession of the Syrian regime and those with knowledge of the complex’s details. Those who carried out this attack must have had comprehensive information about the college complex.”
Despite a week having passed since the tragedy, no party has claimed responsibility for the attack, leaving questions unanswered regarding the culprits. The Syrian military has refrained from accusing any specific group and has attributed the act to “terrorist groups supported by known international parties.”
UN Secretary-General António Guterres expressed his deep concern over the incident and warned of possible retaliatory actions by the Syrian government.
In the aftermath of the attack on the military college, the Syrian military conducted air strikes on areas in northwestern Syria controlled by the opposition. Rockets and artillery were used to target over 19 towns in the opposition-held areas, including Jisr Al-Shughur, Jericho, Sarmin, and Binnish in Idlib, where the Syrian armed opposition is active, often receiving support from Turkey and certain extremist Islamist organisations.
The Syrian opposition has accused parties aligned with the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad of themselves orchestrating the attack to dissuade the regime from pursuing closer ties with the Arab countries.
They want to prevent the regime from considering a political resolution to the crisis in the country or want to divert attention from the ongoing protests against the regime in select areas of Syria.
Said Moqbel, an opposition political analyst, said that “to identify the source of this attack, one must recognise that the Syrian opposition, regardless of its diverse factions, lacks the capability to operate a drone of this magnitude. It has also been prohibited from acquiring drones over the past decade.”
“Military drones are not readily available for purchase, and can only purchased by countries. It is also worth noting that the attack was deliberately orchestrated to spare senior officers, occurring after the minister of defence and other high-ranking officials had departed and targeting the students of the military college and their families.”
Amidst the mutual accusations between the regime and the opposition regarding responsibility for the incident, UN Special Envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen expressed his deep concern over the escalating violence in Syria and the attack on the military college students.
He emphasised that the distressing scenes served as a reminder of the urgent need to halt the escalation and adopt a collaborative approach to counter terrorist groups in Syria in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
Pedersen called on all parties to uphold their obligations under international law and to ensure the safeguarding of civilians and civilian infrastructure.
The targeting of the military college in Homs raises questions about the identity of those behind the attack. Allegations continue to circulate, and media outlets aligned with the regime have asserted that the hardline Turkistan Islamic Party is responsible, claiming that it possesses drone technology.
However, such claims lack concrete evidence, and the factions concerned are located 150 km away from the explosion site.
Dissenting military factions from the regime have accused the regime’s security branches in Homs of orchestrating the operation themselves. They say that the military college remained under the control of military security during the graduation ceremony and even officers are prohibited from approaching the platform.
The entire city is placed on heightened military readiness in October every year due to the significance of the ceremony and the need to secure it. The operation also lacked clear targets, as the students have minimal involvement in the military operations that have unfolded in Syria over the past 11 years.
The number of civilian casualties also exceeded that of military personnel, reinforcing the conviction among all parties of the pressing need for a political solution to terminate the violence and terrorism in Syria, regardless of its origin or rationale.
The Syrian opposition contends that Iran is the primary beneficiary of the incident, along with certain factions loyal to Iran within the Syrian regime. It says infiltrating the army’s defences may have been feasible for such factions as drones are extensively employed by Iran.
Iran may have used the attack as a means to exert pressure on Turkey, particularly regarding its actions in Idlib that have irked Iran due to Turkey’s involvement in Azerbaijan.
Dissident Syrian Colonel Abdul-Jabbar Al-Aqidi cast doubt on the entire scenario, however.
“Despite the uncertainty surrounding the circumstances of the massacre and the identity of the perpetrator, the initial evidence does not support the regime’s account of the use of drones. The explosion appears to have been caused by small devices attached to explosive and fragmentation shells, most likely small-caliber mortar shells,” he commented.
“If we are to entertain the regime’s version of events, assuming, for the sake of argument, that [armed opposition group] Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham was responsible for the attack using drones, how could this organisation possibly possess drones of this calibre that require advanced remote control capabilities? How could it wait for the minister of defence and senior high-ranking officers to depart before carrying out the attack?”
The Syrian situation continues to oscillate between dire and catastrophic, remaining susceptible to further acts of violence and destruction. It is evident to all that a political solution in accordance with UN resolutions and the international consensus is the sole path to ending the conflict in the country.
However, it is also evident that some forces are opposed to this political solution and are prepared to incite turmoil across Syria in order to prevent any progress towards it.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 12 October, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly