Israel’s Christmas Raid in Syria: Target Assessment and Russian Reaction

In the night of December 25th, The Israeli Air Force (IAF) delivered its first clandestine strike on Syrian targets after President Trump announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops. As assessed…

In the night of December 25th, The Israeli Air Force (IAF) delivered its first clandestine strike on Syrian targets after President Trump announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops. As assessed in our latest policy impact analysis and recently reinforced by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, the U.S. withdrawal will force Israel to ramp up its counter-Iran operations in Syria. The “Christmas raid” is as much a political statement as it is a continuation of the over 100 Israeli covert airstrikes in Syria. The Syrian Air Defense Forces (SADF) showed a mixed performance, but managed to intercept the majority of Israel’s air-launched missiles.


1. The IAF operation took place between 2200 and 2300 local time and targeted a ammunition warehouse in southern Syria. Israeli F-16 Sufa fighter aircraft fired Delilah cruise missiles – and possibly GBU39 glide-bombs –  from Lebanese airspace, using the IAF’s traditional standoff strike path. 

2. The SADF responded with surface-to-air (SAM) missile fire from its Pantsir S-2 and Buk-M2 systems,  intercepting the majority of Israeli missiles. The SADF’s S-200 and S-125 were also activated, but failed to affect the IAF’s fighter aircraft. This prompted the IAF to initiate a second wave of strikes at approximately 2240 local time. Social media sources claim that an unknown number of F-35I Adir joined the second round as counter-air escorts. 

3. We asses that the second bombing run reached its target. According to official statements, the IAF destroyed an ammunition cache and a parking lot on the Syrian Arab Army’s 4th Armoured Division base, injuring three Syrian soldiers. Social Media Intelligence (SOCMINT) suggests that the targeted warehouse hosted Iranian-made Fajr-5 unguided surface-to-surface missiles that were scheduled for delivery to Hezbollah.

Target 1: Warehouse containing Fajr-5 SSMs (source: ImageSatInternational)

Target 2: Parking lot (source: ImageSatInternational)

4. According to Newsweek (quoting a U.S. defense source), the IAF targeted a Hezbollah delegation, which was boarding a flight to Tehran Mehrabad Airport to attend the funeral of Ayatollah Hashemi Alshaharoudi. While we cannot conclusively confirm this information, Iranian “Air Bridge” activity was indeed spotted during Christmas night. A Qeshm Fars 747 cargo plane [flight number QFZ9951]  from Damascus International Airport immediately after the IAF raid at 2334 local time. 

Screenshot of flight QFZ95591 egressing after the IAF raid

5. Yesterday’s raid revealed several problems of Syria’s aging SAM inventory. As video material shows, at least five failing SAMs crashed into the ground in Damascus instead of detonating in mid-air. One rogue missile even crossed the border into northern Israel and was intercepted by a Hadera-based air defense system. Contrary to initial claims, there is no evidence that the rogue SAM was a Syrian retaliatory strike.

The footage shows a Syrian SAM crashing on a residential area near Damascus: 

6. However, the SADF was generally successful in damage control. Familiar with the IAF’s flight paths, the Syrians focused on countering enemy ordinance  rather than enemy aircraft, relying heavily on point air defense systems.

7. Russia’s harsh reaction to the IAF’s “Christmas raid” testifies to the growing rift between Moscow and Jerusalem. In accordance to the deconfliction agreement, Moscow has thus far turned a blind eye to Israeli strikes in Syria, unless they were unannounced or engaged Syrian targets directly.  However, in response to the “Christmas raid” Russia has escalated its public rhetoric and reportedly considers tit-for-tat retaliations.

8. In the future, Russia will  potentially support Syria to engage IAF fighter jets when they enter Lebanese airspace. The imminent operationalization of the Russian-made S-300PM2 SAM system will provide the SADF with advanced long-range acquisition and engagement radars. It is virtually certain that the SADF will deploy at least one S-300 regiment in Damascus to provide area air defense over Syria’s most vital region.


By HARM and Gecko

The cover photo is a compilation of screenshots showing missile footage from the Christmas raid. Photo 1 shows an Israeli SAM launched from Hadera to intercept a rogue Syrian SAM. Photo 2 shows a Pantsir S-2 missile in flight, while 3 shows a Buk M-2 SAM launch in Damascus. 

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Consequences of the U.S. Troop Withdrawal from Syria

President Trump has announced a swift withdrawal of the 2,200 U.S. troops active in northeastern Syria, after claiming victory over Da’esh. The troops largely consist of special operations units, special…

President Trump has announced a swift withdrawal of the 2,200 U.S. troops active in northeastern Syria, after claiming victory over Da’esh. The troops largely consist of special operations units, special forces, engineers, state department personnel and forward air traffic controllers supporting the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Trump’s decision was made without allied or cabinet consultation and was likely part of a deal with Turkey. While the troop withdrawal will negatively impact the counter-Da’esh campaign, it will potentially reinvigorate the U.S.-Turkish partnership. The decision is faithful to Trump’s original foreign policy views and shows the limits of John Bolton’s  influence in the National Security Council (NSC). The resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis suggests that the decision is irreversible at this point.


KEY POINTS:

1. With the troop withdrawal, the Trump administration returns to its original foreign policy rhetoric, abandoning regime change objectives and long-term engagements in the Middle East.

2. While the Trump administration did accelerate the counter-Da’esh campaign, the premature troop withdrawal provides the terror group with breathing room to regroup and potentially resurge.

3. As the U.S failed to prevent the formation of Iran’s ‘Shia Crescent’ land bridge in December 2017, the troop withdrawal will not significantly affect Washington’s counter-Iran posture in northeastern Syria and al-Tanf. Israel and the Gulf states will be forced to pick up the ball to contest Iranian influence in Syria.

4. The troop withdrawal has the potential to reinvigorate the U.S.-Turkish strategic partnership and gradually pull Turkey out of Russia’s orbit. The SDF will likely disintegrate and forge new alliances to prevent a third party takeover of the territory it has liberated.

5. The Trump administration has also ordered troop reductions in Africa and Afghanistan, significantly weakening the U.S.’ capacity to combat al-Qa’ida and Da’esh internationally.


1. THE SYRIAN CIVIL WAR

  • Under the Trump administration, the United States canceled the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) train & assist program for Syrian opposition groups and focused exclusively on defeating Da’esh. This crippled the United States ability to influence the political resolution of the conflict. The U.S-sponsored Geneva Process remains insignificant and is overshadowed by the Russian-Turkish-Iranian trilateral formats.
  • According to  James Jeffrey, the U.S. Special Representative for the Syria Engagement, the Washington now seeks a “changed regime” (i.e. behaviour) rather than “regime change” in Damascus.
  • President Trump first expressed his intention to withdraw the 2,200 U.S. troops in northeastern Syria in 2017, in accordance with his campaign promise of military disengagement. The withdrawal was postponed at the NSC’s advice, which emphasized the need to stabilize the liberated territory in Syria and Iraq.

US Forces dismount from their Oshkosh M-ATV tactical vehicles while conducting a security patrol outside Manbij, Syria, June 24, 2018. Image: US Army/Staff Sgt. Timothy R. Koster

2. THE GLOBAL COALITION AGAINST DA’ESH

  • According to the U.S. government, the Coalition is currently transitioning to the next phase of the campaign against Da’esh. This will likely entail the end of major operations, including the air campaign, and the demobilization of the U.S. Combined Joint Task Force Inherent Resolve (CJTF-IF). Without CJTF-IF, French and British SOF and close air support missions will have a negligible impact on Da’esh.
  • Since 2014, the Global Coalition has made significant progress against Da’esh in Syria and Iraq. The Trump administration’s relaxation of the rules of engagement and the discrete troop surge in 2017 have notably accelerated the counter-Da’esh campaign. Da’esh has been stripped off its expansive proto-state and forced back into the form of a classical insurgency.
  • However, Da’esh is conserving its resources and regrouping in the mid-Euphrates river valley (MERV) in Syria as well as the southern Nineveh and Kirkuk provinces in Iraq. Between 8,000 and 25,000 Da’esh fighters remain scattered throughout Syria and Iraq, awaiting a re-surge opportunity. Da’esh thus remains capable of threatening regional stability and Transatlantic security.

Visual comparing the territory held by Da’esh in 2015 and December 2018.

  • Post-liberation stabilization efforts, which focus on local force capacity building, will remain crucial for preventing the resurgence of Da’esh. The SDF will require additional training missions to raise an adequate number of indigenous Arab Sunni troops that can stabilize and police the MERV. According to the Joint Chief of Staff Joseph Dunford, the SDF currently lacks 30,000 men in the MERV area, a likely hotspot for Da’esh’s comeback.
  • President Trump seems to rely on the pro-governmental camp to fill the vacuum, rebuild the area and contain Da’esh in MERV. It is however highly unlikely that the Assad government and Iranian forces will be able to effectively stabilize the region.
  • The only viable –  yet unlikely – option is for France, the United Kingdom and other Coalition members to increase their troop presence and fill the security void created by the U.S. pullout. There is hope that some of the U.S. forces will be re-deployed to the border city of al-Qa’im on the Iraqi side. This would allow them to conduct cross-border special operations into Syria, augmented by CIA drone strikes.

3. COUNTERING IRAN

  • Since the pro-governmental victory over Da’esh in Al Bukamal, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)  commands an uninterrupted land corridor, nicknamed “Shia Crescent”, which links Iran to Lebanon via Iraq and Syria. The U.S. presence in Syria has failed to obstruct this corridor.
  • The al-Tanf garrison and the 55 km exclusion zone do not effectively counter the “Shia Crescent.” The presence of U.S. and Maghawir al-Thawra forces was intended to provide border security for Jordan, guard the al-Rukban camp, and halt the free flow of Da’esh fighters across the Syrian-Iraqi border. While the U.S.-held positions block the shortest land route from Tehran to Damascus or Beirut, the IRGC can still move forces through the strategic Al Bukamal border crossing.  

Iran’s “Shia Crescent” land corridor

  • Further countermeasures against the Iranian presence in Syria would bring U.S.-backed elements in direct confrontation with the IRGC or its proxies. Instead, the U.S. will likely pursue its counter-Iran strategy on different battlefields. The withdrawal from Syria will free special operations forces, intelligence agents and forward air traffic controllers for other deployments.  
  • The U.S. withdrawal will force Israel and the Gulf states to pick up the ball and devise measures against Iran’s growing presence in Syria.

4. TURKEY AND THE SYRIAN KURDS

  • As major U.S-backed operations against Da’esh are ending, rebuilding Washington’s strategic partnership with its NATO ally Turkey takes precedence over the protection of the SDF. Sources suggest that President Trump made his decision after a phone call with the Turkish President Erdogan. In addition to the troop withdrawal, the U.S. approved the sale of the MIM-140 Patriot surface-to-air missile system to Ankara in order to stop Turkey from acquiring the Russian S-400 system (SA-21).
  • The U.S. troop withdrawal in early 2019 will leave the SDF without a credible force protection against Turkey (in the North) and the pro-governmental camp (in the West). The SDF will only be protected by the small French and British SOF presence in northern Syria, which will remain after the U.S. pullout.
  • Turkey aims to destroy the self-proclaimed “Democratic Federation of Northern Syria,” which it perceives to be a covert  Kurdish political project. In particular, Turkey aims to degrade the YPG, the SDF’s strongest member and Syrian affiliate of the PKK.  Ankara will likely try to topple the SDF’s military city councils in northern Syria and replace them with Islamist opposition groups, mainly consisting of Arab and Turkmen Sunni fighters. Similar to previous operations,  the prospective Turkish offensive in northern Syria (Eastern Shield) will be branded as an “intervention against terrorism,” referring to both YPG and Da’esh.
  • In the medium to long term, the Kurdish elements within the SDF can be expected to seek a deal with Damascus and cede their territory to the Syrian Arab Republic in exchange for protection. As the territory east of Euphrates holds 90 percent of Syria’s oil reserves, it is critical for Syria’s economic reconstruction.
  • The Arab Sunni militias within the SDF will likely diverge on this issue. Some groups might welcome  reconciliation with the regime, while others will join the Turkish-backed opposition fronts in Northern Aleppo. The Sunni Arab tribes in MERV represent a wild card, as certain tribes have shown strong anti-Shia and Salafist sentiments, which could drive them back into Da’esh’s hands.
  • These likely developments will pit Turkey against the pro-governmental camp. Russia will attempt to mediate the conflict in order to uphold the Astana and Socchi accords. The accords are more vital for Russia than for any other actor, since they formalize Moscow’s “triumph” without demanding additional military resources.

Territorial control in Syria as of December 23, 2018.

5. STRATEGIC OUTLOOK

  • Thus far, the plans for U.S. troop reductions are limited to deployments in Africa and the Middle East. The U.S. presence in South Korea and Europe remains unchanged for the moment.  
  • In the Middle East, the U.S. is not only leaving Syria. President Trump is also withdrawing half of the 14,000 U.S. servicemen in Afghanistan. This withdrawal endangers the survival of the Afghan government and severely incapacitates both Operation Freedom’s Sentinel (against Da’esh Khorasan) and NATO’s Operation Resolute Support (non-combatant/capacity building mission).
  • U.S. Congress is also pressuring the Trump administration to cease military activities in Yemen. The Department of Defense has already stopped aerial refueling for Arab Coalition fighter aircraft.
  • Information on the fate of the 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq is still pending. There is reason to believe that a troop reduction has to be expected.
  • U.S. AFRICOM will experience a 10 percent troop reduction, directly impacting U.S. counter-terrorism efforts in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Horn region.

by HARM and Gecko

The Syrian border town of al-Bukamal is also known as Abu Kamal 

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (abbreviated as PKK in Turkish) is a Kurdish separatist and Marxist revolutionary insurgent group. The PKK is designated as a terrorist organization by NATO, the European Union and the majority of the United Nations member states.

The U.S. troop withdrawal provides Russia with the opportunity to expand its anti-acess area denial (A2/AD) capabilities across the Euphrates river, further flanking NATO’s southeastern border. This adds credibility and prestige to Russia’s re-expanding military engagement overseas.

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The Big Picture Behind Israel’s Operation Northern Shield

1. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have initiated Operation Northern Shield to identify and destroy Hezbollah cross-border tunnels in Northern Israel. At the moment, the IDF is operating exclusively on…

1. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have initiated Operation Northern Shield to identify and destroy Hezbollah cross-border tunnels in Northern Israel. At the moment, the IDF is operating exclusively on Israeli soil and has shown little intent to expand its operations across the Lebanese border. However, Jerusalem’s growing distrust of the United Nations Interim Force Lebanon (UNFIL) and the Lebanese government increases the likelihood of unilateral action on Israel’s part.

2. Operation Northern Shield takes place during a critical time for Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu is facing criminal charges. The situation in Gaza and the West Bank remains volatile after last month’s 300-missile-salvo launched by Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the recent lockdown of Ramallah.

3. According to Israeli Intelligence, Hezbollah plans to capture Israel’s northern region of Galilee, by moving militiamen through the tunnels. The surprise attack will be covered by cross-border ballistic missile (BM) fire. It is virtually certain that Hezbollah has stockpiled a generous inventory of small-range BMs to use against Israel. Intelligence suggests that Hezbollah’s weapons stockpiles are concentrated in three locations around Beirut “Rafiki Hariri” International Airport.

Hezbollah Missile Sites in Beirut, Lebanon (T-Intelligence)

4. The BMs have been airlifted by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) al-Quds Force to Syrian airfields and, more recently, directly to Beirut International Airport. The Israeli Air Forces’ (IAF) covert raids on the Iranian shipments have reduced, but not completely stopped the weapon transfers. Intelligence dating from September suggests that the latest IRGC shipments included GPS components, which can upgrade Hezbollah’s unguided rockets with precision-guided capability.

5. In Syria, Shi’a militias – including Hezbollah units – have likely reoccupied their positions near the Golan Heights, despite Russia’s guarantees that they will withdraw from the Israeli border. Iran also maintains a direct presence on the border, as IRGC advisors are embedded with key Syrian Arab Army units. Considering the IRGC’s entrenchment in Southern Syria and Iran’s longstanding investment in Hezbollah’s capabilities, there is mounting evidence of a bigger play against Israel.

6. We assess that Israel acted in response to the following threat scenario:

  • Assault: Hezbollah will aim to infiltrate Northern Israel under BM fire cover and capture the extremities of Panhandle Galilee on the north-south axis, isolating the Golan Heights from the west through blitz light-infantry tactics. In parallel, the IRGC and affiliated Shi’a militias positioned in Quneitra and Suweida (Syria) will initiate cross-border attrition attacks on the Golan Heights from the east. Hezbollah’s special forces unit will spearhead the assault, accompanied by sniper teams and anti-tank units tasked with harassing IDF troop reinforcements. We judge that the assault phase depends heavily on a small initial IDF presence in the North due to urgent threats in Gaza and the West Bank – a situation developing at the moment.
  • Tactics & Objectives: The campaign is estimated to be IRGC-advised and conducted asymmetrically in Hezbollah-trademark fashion. The attacking forces will aim to deliver a sustained harassment and maximum pressure campaign, based on the lessons learned in Syria. The conflict will inevitably attract a large number of Shiite fighters from across the Middle East and the “Shi’a Crescent” corridor will be key for the attacking forces’ combat mobility and logistical operations. While it is unlikely that Hezbollah and other IRGC-backed elements will be able to capture Galilee and the Golan Heights, militiamen will seek to entrench themselves in the area and establish staging points for continuous attacks on Israeli troops. Hezbollah will capitalize the infiltration for propaganda and eventually press for political negotiations to legitimize its revisionist claims.     

Hypothetical Operational Layout of the Hezbollah Assault (T-Intelligence assessment and visual)

7. Our threat scenario is based on the following capabilities and trend indicators:

  • All three cross-border tunnels identified thus far are located in the Galilee Panhandle. The tunnels sit in key tactical positions on the borderline. A topographic study of the area shows that the tunnels run through the Lebanese mountain valleys that can be used to cut the Panhandle off along the Hula and the Upper Jordan river valleys near the Golan plateau.
  • The Sochi Accord enabled the IRGC-backed Shiite militias to re-deploy part of their forces from Idlib and reinforce their positions at the Syrian border.
  • Recent escalations in Gaza and the West Bank (Ramallah) have forced the IDF to divert its capabilities to the South.
  • IRGC cargo airlifts, presumed to carry BMs and other weapons, have recently been rerouted from Syrian airfields to Beirut International Airport.
  • The number of United States Special Operations flights to Lebanon has grown over the past months. We assess that U.S. intelligence, working in close cooperation with Israel, is aware of Hezbollah’s intensified operational readiness in Lebanon. (MAGMA13 and 14 flights fly-in from al-Udeid, Qatar and Jordan)

High interest flights outbound of Lebanon [SAMPLE] courtesy of @CivMilAir

  • The number of IAF flights over Lebanon has recently increased, likely for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance purposes.

8. While we are confident that Iran’s success in the Syrian Civil War will translate in ambitious (covert) operations against Israel, we cannot assess whether an Hezbollah operation was imminent. Israel likely decided to act preemptively and, in the process, to test international reactions.

9. Hezbollah denies the Israeli claims. Both the U.N. mission and the Lebanese government have refused to attribute the cross-border tunnels to the Lebanese group. UNFIL authorities are liaising with both the IDF and Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and have hosted a tripartite meeting in order to guarantee transparency.

10. IDF engineers and bomb disposal units have identified and destroyed three 200-meter long tunnels that stretched 35-37 m inside Israeli territory. The IDF placed a camera inside the first tunnel and caught two individuals on tape. One of them was identified as Dr. Imad “Azaladin” Fahs, a commander of the local Hezbollah unit. Hezbollah has denied the allegation and claimed that the men in the video were drug dealers. The IDF fired on another Hezbollah unit that attempted to recon the IDF’s presence in the Kadesh valelly.

11. Israeli officials seem to put little faith in the LAF’s commitment and capacity to counter Hezbollah. UNFIL has also been largely unsuccessful in identifying and preventing Hezbollah’s activities in southern Lebanon. The growing frustration and distrust between the parties will increase the likelihood of further unilateral action on Israel’s part. 


UPDATE December 16, 2018 – The IDF has uncovered a fourth cross-border tunnel. The location has not yet been revealed. 


by HARM and Gecko

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The Ayatollah’s Shield: SAM Deployments and Capabilities of the Iranian Air Defenses (IMINT)

1. Over the last years, Iran has visibly improved its air defense (AD) systems by phasing in modern indigenous surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems. The Iranian SAM deployments primarily safeguard the…

1. Over the last years, Iran has visibly improved its air defense (AD) systems by phasing in modern indigenous surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems. The Iranian SAM deployments primarily safeguard the regime as well as the nuclear and ballistic missiles (BM) programs. The protection of major population centers represents a secondary concern. Given the escalating tensions with Israel, the United States and the Gulf states, Iran will likely increase the readiness of its AD in the immediate future.  


OPERATIONAL DOCTRINE

2. The responsibility for the Iranian AD is shared between the Khatham al-Anbia Air Defense Base of the regular Iranian Armed Forces (Artesh) and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Aerospace Forces (IRGC-AF). The rivalry between Artesh and IRGC, alongside shortfalls in C4 infrastructure, prevents Iran from developing a truly integrated AD system.

3. Iran’s AD doctrine recognizes the asymmetric superiority of adversarial striking capabilities. The Artesh and IRGC-AF therefore deploy a minimal AD regime, which aims at SAM survivability on the first day of war, and seek alternative AD measures. The alternative tactics focus on detecting, jamming and intercepting hostile targets through passive aerial detection radars, electronic warfare means and air assets tasked with countering enemy ordinance.

4. In the medium to long term, the introduction of new, indigenously produced SAMs and radars will shift the Iranian AD doctrine back towards traditional assets. The growing availability of modern and domestically sustainable systems will allow Iran to gradually decommission outdated SAMs or provide combined saturated coverage over key areas.

5. The indigenous SAMs show both original features and marks of reverse engineering from Russian, Chinese and U.S. systems. Their effectiveness is difficult to assess due to operations security and lack of combat testing.


CAPABILITIES AND DEPLOYMENTS

6. The limited SAM inventory and the large Iranian territory mandate an austere deployment regime. Only Tehran and central Iran are comprehensively covered due to the presence of nuclear/BM sites and governmental institutions. Southern, western and northern Iran are partially sealed, while the eastern part of the country is almost entirely uncovered.

Overview map of the Iranian SAM deployment and systems

7. The Iranian geography significantly interferes with AD radar coverage. As 60 percent of Iran’s terrain has an elevation of over 1,800 meters, low-altitude radars are blocked in large segments. The Zagros-Alborz mountain ring (2000-5000 m elevation) in particular obstructs aerial detection radars based on the central Iranian plateau. Despite its geographical challenges, Iran has made little progress in procuring or modernizing aircraft (airborne early warning and control systems/AWACS) that could alleviate these blind spots.

8. We estimate that open-source IMINT findings account for approximately 40 to 50 percent of operational Iranian SAMs, including those garrisoned.


Tehran

9. The capital is Iran’s best defended area. Tehran’s AD network protects various nuclear and BM locations, including research and development facilities, storage sites and launch silos. Iran’s political bodies, military command centers and major bases are also located in the capital.

SAM deployments and key sites in Tehran

10. Tehran’s Area Air Defense (AAD) is formed by three layers of long-range SAMs: Two S-300PMU2 Favorites and one S-200VE Vega. The S-300PMU2s specialize in tracking small radar-cross section (RCS) objects such as cruise missiles, fighter jets and small-range ballistic missiles. The S-200 Vega is proficient at longer-ranges and higher-altitudes, but reliable only against large RCS objects such as AWACS, electronic intelligence (ELINT) and intelligence, surveillance & reconnaissance (ISR) platforms, and heavy lifters.

11. An abundance of legacy and newly produced short-/medium-range systems provide saturated Point Air Defense (PAD). Four legacy MIM-23 Hawks and one HQ-2 (Chinese version of the S-75) with minimal domestic upgrades form the weaker links in the PAD chain. Two indigenous Talash systems, armed with Sayyad-2 missiles (“Hunter-2” in Farsi), and one Ra’ad system (Buk imitation) strengthen Teheran’s PAD capabilities.

Sayyad-2/ Talash site in southern Tehran

12. Iran has invested massively to make the Sayyad the jack-of-all-trades missile for its indigenous SAM systems. The Sayyad-2 medium-range SAMs are versatile, cross-platform compatible, and domestically produced. The missiles are based on the U.S. RIM-66 naval SAM and can be fired from the Talash, the S-200, and other launchers. The long-range Sayyad 3 and the forthcoming Sayyad 4, which are based on the S-300’s 48N6E/2 SAM, will arm Iran’s Bavar 373 system.


The Heartland

13. SAM coverage in the Iranian Heartland (Isfahan province) is multi-layered and saturated. The AD bubbles protect some of Iran’s major population centers such as Qom, Isfahan and Natanz. The area also hosts key nuclear and BM sites, including an uranium production facility near Natanz as well as a uranium conversion center and BM-launch silos near Isfahan. An extensive network of bunkers traverses the hills and mountains around the two cities.

SAM deployments and key sites in the Heartland

14. Isfahan’s AAD double-layer consists of one S-300PMU2 and one S-200VE system, based close to Isfahan International Airport. Three MIM-23 Hawks and one Sayyad-2 capable Talash system provide PAD. The PAD assets are scattered to create overlapping coverage for the long-range SAMs and nuclear/BM sites.

S-200VE site in Isfahan, Iran. The site is located 380 meters north of the local S-300PMU2

15. The Natanz area is covered by the long-range SAMs based in Isfahan and Tehran. The area hosts only mid-, short- and very-short-range assets with limited engagement envelopes, which suggests a focus on countering saturation missile attacks.  Two HQ-2s, two 2K12 Kub and three Tor-M1E form the local AD bubble. The highly mobile Kub and Tor can be scattered easily and used for shoot-and-scoot tactics. We have identified at least 12 empty AD sites in the area that could host indigenous SAMs in the future.


Southern Seaboard  

16. The Southern Seaboard has a modest SAM coverage, which is currently transitioning to newer assets. The PAD-exclusive extremities and the SAM-free gap between Bushehr and Bandar Abbas are among the most vulnerable sections of the Iranian airspace.

SAM deployments and key sites on the Southern Seaboard

17. The Southern Seaboard is a strategically vital region due to the proximity of adversarial territories and international trade routes. Iranian SAMs are deployed to secure the southern airspace and to monitor the Persian/Arabian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.

18. The IRGC Navy (IRGC-N) is responsible for the Gulf, while the regular Iranian  Navy (IRIN) is tasked with protecting the Sea of Oman and the Indian Ocean. The operational headquarters and nearly 90 percent of IRGC-N/IRIN bases are located on the Southern Seaboard (Khuzestan, Bushehr, Hormozgan and Baluchestan provinces). Tactical air bases (TABs), vital oilfields, and a nuclear power plant are also situated near the coast.

SAM deployments and key sites on the the Persian/ Arabian Gulf coast

19. The Persian/Arabian Gulf is the only part of the Southern Seaboard that is adequately covered. Bushehr hosts a double long-range AAD layer. One rail-based S-200 Vega and one new S-300PMU2 (replacing a MIM-23 retired in May 2017), are positioned on the grounds of TAB 6 (Bushehr International Airport).

S-300PMU2 site near Bushehr International Airport, Iran. The SAM system replaced a decommissioned Hawk-23 MIM in May 2017. CORRECTION: The S300’s radars have been mislabeled. The engagement radar is actually the 96L6 “Cheeseboard,” while the acquisition radar is the 306N3 “Flap Lid” (as pointed out by Twitter user @border9999).

20. An outdated Hawk MIM-23 and a Talash system armed with Sayyad-2 missiles provide the PAD for the area. Besides naval bases, the saturated SAM deployments guard the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant, which would likely figure high on adversaries’ target lists.

21. The Bushehr-based S-200 Vega also provides partial, but unreliable coverage (range edge) for Bandar Mahshahr. This renders the Mahshahr area open to air attack, as it has only one local PAD site (MIM-23 Hawk). However, at least three empty AD sites stand ready to host further SAM systems.

SAM deployments and key sites in the Strait of Hormuz

22. The Strait of Hormuz is moderately exposed.  The S-200VE deployed in Bandar Abbas leaves the area vulnerable to advanced fighter jets, low-observable cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). The PAD layer consists of one Hawk MIM-23 and one Chinese HQ-2. While these systems focus on the low-altitude blindspot of the S-200, they are largely impotent in the face of maneuvering targets and powerful jamming.  

23. Abu Musa Island serves as a forward early warning post and staging point for special operations forces. Despite its strategic position near international shipping lines, the island lacks major military installations. The local MIM-23 Hawk site is a folder cannon, aimed at increasing the survivability of more important assets such as radars and missiles launchers on the mainland. An unknown number of naval SAMs carried by IRGC-N vessels provide additional AD in the Strait of Hormuz. The IRGC-N is scheduled to receive the latest naval version of the Sayyad in the near future.

24. A recently deployed MIM-23 Hawk in Chabahar is the only SAM system on the coast of the Gulf of Oman. As Chabahar is undergoing multi-billion-dollar investment and is on route to become Iran’s key deep-water port, the city will likely be one of the first recipients of the Sayyad 3 or 4 SAMs. The area hosts two major IRGC-N/IRIN bases and serves as a gateway to both the Strait of Hormuz and the eastern Iranian airspace.


The West

25. Iran’s western flank is poorly defended, even though the region, which hosts several TABs and nuclear/BM facilities, is in the immediate proximity of the U.S. military bases in Iraq and Kuwait. 

SAM deployments and key sites in the West

26. An S-200VE based in TAB 3 (Hamdan Airport) provides AAD over Hamadan, Kermanshah and Kurdistan provinces. Iran’s long-range Fa’ath 14 radar near TAB3 is within coverage, but lacks a PAD layer. The IR-40 nuclear reactor and the uranium enrichment facility near Arak are guarded by an AAD overlay of the Hamadan- and Tehran-based S-200 SAM systems. Two MIM-23 Hawks, stationed in the vicinity of the nuclear sites, provide an additional, yet limited layer of PAD.

MIM-23 site overlooking the IR-40 reactor in Hamadan, Iran

27. The Tabriz area in the Northwest completely lacks long-range SAM coverage. Critical military locations depend on one MIM-23 Hawk and one 2K12 Kub for PAD. The patchy AD coverage is puzzling, given the unique geo-strategic position of northwestern Iran. The underground BM launch complex near Tabriz potentially brings parts of Europe within striking range for Iranian Shahab missiles.

28. The southwestern airspace is even more vulnerable. The only SAM deployment in the area, a MIM-23 Hawk, is located on the ground of TAB 4 (Dezful Airport). Several empty AD revetments are scattered throughout the region.


The East

29. Iran’s eastern airspace almost entirely unprotected. Over 760,000 square kilometers  (40% of Iran’s territorial surface), including Iran’s second most populated city Mashhad, completely lack AAD. One MIM-23 Hawk provides weak PAD for TAB 14 (Mashhad International Airport) and an BM launch complex near Mashhad. 

SAM deployments and key sites in the East

30. The AD strategy for the East relies on alternative tactics. Early-warning and over-the-horizon radars (e.g. the Nazir radar with a 800 km coverage) detect and identify targets. Threat interception is carried out by outdated fixed-wing aircraft armed with air-to-air missiles, which are permanently held at high readiness. The AD strategy for the East also incorporates the use of electronic warfare (EW) assets. Iran’s EW has proven to be moderately efficient against U.S. UAVs in the past.

31. We asses the Iran will deploy one or two long-range SAMs in the East at the earliest possible date.  AAD is necessary to mitigate the risk of aircraft penetration and to protect Tehran and the Heartland from attacks with standoff-range low-observable ordinance. The deployment of U.S. F-35s in Kandahar Airbase (Afghanistan) and on amphibious carriers in the Persian/Arabian Gulf mandates Iran to expedite AD enhancements in the region.


by HARM and Gecko

Our IMINT analysis is based on openly available satellite data (Image Landsat/Copernicus).

The Sayyad-2 SAM engagement range varies between 60 and 76 km, depending on missile type.

IMINT can potentially confuse the MIM-23 Hawk with the Mersad, Iran’s domestic copy-cat.  Mersad’s Shlamche and Shahin SAMs have a 5-10 km shorter range than the MIM-23. An improved variant has a claimed range of 56 km. The engagement range of all pink color-coded AD rings can therefore vary from 40 to 56 km.

Previous assessments on Iranian SAM deployments have been conducted by Sean O’Connor in 2010 and Iran-GEOINT blog in 2017.

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Why Romania’s Defense Procurement Matters for NATO (and Should Worry Russia)

1. In 2017, Romania announced a visionary defence procurement program that will reinforce NATO’s Eastern flank and make the Romanian military a leading force in the Black Sea by the…

1. In 2017, Romania announced a visionary defence procurement program that will reinforce NATO’s Eastern flank and make the Romanian military a leading force in the Black Sea by the early 2020s. The $11.6 billion shopping list includes top-of-the-line products such as Raytheon’s latest Patriot air defense system. The assets are specifically tailored to counter the Russian threat in the Black Sea – namely Russia’s naval supremacy, anti-access area denial (A2/AD) capabilities and theater ballistic missiles (TBM) deployed in Crimea.   

2. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 has shaken the Black Sea region from its century-long geopolitical slumber. Moscow’s military build-up in Crimea – only 400 km from the Romanian coast – has transformed the Black Sea into a substantial missile engagement and interdiction zone, placing the region at the very top of NATO’s agenda.

3. The Russian Aerospace Forces (RuAF) and Russian Navy (RuN) currently operate more than 15 naval and air bases in Crimea. The port of Sevastopol hosts the RuN’s 30,000 men strong Black Sea Fleet (BSF), which is responsible for operations in the Black Sea, Azov Sea and the Mediterranean.

4. Concerned about the mounting Russian presence at its doorstep, Romania has welcomed a number of strategic U.S. and NATO military installations on its soil. Over the past years, Bucharest has reliably allocated 2% of its GDP to defense in order to boost its naval warfare, missile strike and air defense capabilities. In all three areas, the Romanian Ministry of National Defense (MoND) has made significant progress.  

 VISUAL COMPARISON: Drag the bar left to see how Romania's defense procurement will change the regional air defense and artillery outlook

SEA COMMAND

5. Russia strives to establish naval supremacy in the Black Sea. The BSF currently consists of 47 warships and seven submarines, most of which are stationed in the strategic city-port of Sevastopol and the Novorossiysk auxiliary naval air base. While the fleet is largely outdated, around 18 new or modernized warships are expected to join the BSF by 2020.

6. Even in its current state, the Russian BSF holds strike superiority in both surface and subsurface naval warfare. All major vessels stationed in Crimea are equipped with standoff range anti-ship missiles (ASM) and anti-submarine weapons (ASW). The naval assets are supported by land-based (road-mobile, naval infantry and coastal batteries) and airborne (mostly Mi-14, Mi-24 and Su-30) ASM/ASW units. The large number and variety of surface and subsurface missiles pose an acute threat to NATO and the neighboring countries.

7. Consequently, Romania promised to prioritize naval defence procurement. The Romanian Navy’s (RoN) surface warfare capabilities will be enhanced by the acquisition of four multi-purpose corvettes, worth $2 billion, and an unspecified number of naval strike missile (NSM) coastal defense batteries. Two existing Type-22 corvettes,  the Regele Ferdinand and Regina Maria, will be modernized in the course of the same program. The corvettes are scheduled for commission between 2021 and 2023.

8. The missile type deployed on the new assets will be a decisive factor for the success of the surface warfare program. Given the BSF’s mass proliferation of supersonic anti-ship and land-attack cruise missiles (such as the Kalibr), the RoN has to arm its corvettes with adequate shipborne interceptors and high-frequency surface wave radars. As Raytheon’s RIM-62 Evolved SeaSparrow is designed to counter supersonic manuveuring anti-ship missiles, it would be an obvious choice for the Romanian corvettes.

9. While the corvettes will be an important addition on the surface, the RoN remains critically under-equipped for subsurface warfare in the short to medium term. The MoND’s ambitious submarine program aims to build three submarines and modernize the only existing one, the Kilo-class Delfinul, which is currently used for training. However, the lack of financial resources and technological know-how render it highly unlikely that Romania will commence with the submarine program before 2026.

10. The RoN’s seaborne (surface and subsurface) capabilities will be augmented by the Romanian Air Force (RoAF), which is responsible for policing the maritime airspace. In the past years, the Romanian maritime airspace has been repeatedly violated by the Russian Aerospace Force (RuAF) - especially when the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet and NATO’s Maritime Standing Group 1 and 2 conduct semi-permanent sea patrols in the region and dock in Romanian ports.

11. Currently, Romania’s airspace is protected by a NATO air policing mission. In order to strengthen its own air policing capabilities, Romania has purchased twelve F-16 Fighting Falcons from the Portuguese Air Force. The F-16s are expected to become operational in the beginning of next year. The acquisition of another batch of 36 F-16s A/B is scheduled for 2019.

12. While the F-16 A/B Fighting Falcon with the Mid-Life Update is a good choice for basic mission profiles such as air policing and ground attack, it does not sufficiently threaten Russia’s Anti-Access/ Area Denial (A2AD) zone in Crimea. The RoAF would have required fourth generation fighter jets or the latest block versions of the F-16, capable of carrying anti-radiation missiles (ARM) and standoff air-launched cruise missiles, in order to credibly challenge the Russian air defenses.

ANTI-ACCESS/ AREA DENIAL (A2AD)

13. The Russian forces in Crimea are safeguarded by a robust, multi-layered and augmented network of integrated area and point air defenses. Three Russian divisions in Crimea operate the S-400 Triumf (SA-21), the latest Russian SAM technology. The S-400 Triumf creates an impenetrable area air defense (AAD) cover, capable of parrying multiple airborne assets, ballistic missiles and cruise missiles in a 400 km radius. Furthermore, numerous S-300 (SA-20) SAM systems are scattered throughout the region, providing  an additional AAD layer. A very high, but unknown number of Pantsir S-1s (SA-22), BUKs (SA-11), 9k33 Osa (SA-8 Gecko) and anti aircraft artillery (AAA) provide point air defense (PAD) for military installations, artillery batteries and SAM sites.

14. The ground-based air defenses in Crimea are supported by a layer of electronic warfare (EW) and EW-countermeasure (EWCM) systems. The Russian tip-of-the-spear EW capability is the Krasukha 2/4, which is able to jam communications, low earth orbit spy satellites, missiles, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). As EWCM, the Russians have installed radars that provide frequency diversity across the Crimean peninsula and interlink with the AAD and PAD layers.

15. A Podsolnukh over-the-horizon radar stationed on Crimea’s Southwestern coast furthermore provides early warning data, reaching as far as the Bosphorus. Supported by airborne and seaborne radars, the BSF can thus detect and - in case of war - rapidly engage adversaries entering the Black Sea.

16. In response to Russia’s A2/AD zone, Romania saw it necessary to acquire a long-range rocket artillery system capable of contesting Russian air defenses in Crimea. In order to pose a credible threat, the artillery system has to be battle-proven, technologically superior to its competitors and able to fire smart and cluster munition with a range of 400 km. As the U.S. High-Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) ticks all these boxes, Romania has placed a $1.5 billion order for 54 HIMARS and ammunition.

17. The HIMARS is the Pentagon’s long-range artillery of choice in the hottest conflicts. The system is currently stationed near the 38th parallel (South Korea) and the al-Tanf garrison (Syria) and is used to engage ISIS and Taliban targets in Syria and Afghanistan. After receiving its HIMARS batteries in 2019, Romania will be the first European operator of the system. The coast-based Romanian Marines Regiment will likely receive most of the HIMARS batteries, bringing the Western coast of Crimea within range.

THEATER BALLISTIC MISSILE (TBM) THREAT

18. According to NATO, Russia has moved the Iskander-M nuclear-capable mobile ballistic missile system to Crimea. Two videos, which surfaced on social media in 2016, show that at least five MZKT-79306 Iskander launcher trucks and support vehicles are present in Crimea. The domestic version of the Iskander-M has a maximum range of 450 km. The system is able to bypass enemy air defense systems by releasing decoy clusters at 30G speed in the terminal phase. The agile and evasive artillery system is considered to be the most dangerous theater ballistic missile (TBM) in Russia’s arsenal.

19. With its range of 450km, the Iskander-M directly threatens Southeastern Romania, where a number of high-value U.S., NATO, and Romanian military and command structures are located:

  • The NATO Force Integration Unit (NFIU) for the NATO Response Force  - Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (NRF-VJTF) in Bucharest;
  • The U.S. operated Mihail Kogalniceanu air base and the Babadag, Capu Midia and Smardan training ranges;
  • The RoAF’s 86th air base in Borcea - a NATO-interoperable airfield that hosts Romania’s F-16 squadron;
  • The RoN’s command headquarters for river boat patrol (Tulcea, Braila), the corvette squadron (Mangalia) and the frigate flotilla (Constanta).

20. To counter the Russian missile-threat, Romania has ordered seven MIM-104 Patriot 3 (PAC-3) long-range SAM systems manufactured by Raytheon. The PAC-3 is the latest configuration of the Patriot system. The PAC-3 updates are based on more than 20 years of U.S. battlefield experience and feedback from 13 foreign customers. The $3.9 billion order will be delivered to the Romanian Land Forces and the RoN in 2019.

21. The PAC-3 is highly efficient against evasive and fast-moving TBMs such as the Iskander-M and the Kalibr (in all versions). The PAC-3 batteries fire rockets equipped with Missile Segment Enhancements (MSE) to intercept and destroy enemy TBMs in their terminal phase. The MSE increases velocity, extends the flight range by 50% and has a lethality enhancer warhead to guarantee hit-to-kill performance. For now, Romania has ordered 165 MSEs for the newly acquired PAC-3 batteries.

22. The PAC-3 uses a passive AN/MPQ-65 radar, which is difficult to target for enemy anti-radiation missiles (ARM). The AN/MPQ-65 radar can track over 100 targets at high-altitude, without emitting signals that radar-homing missiles can lock on. This capability potentially discourages adversarial Suppression/ Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses (S/DEAD) sorties.

23. The PAC-3 batteries will form an area air defense (AAD) barrier over Southeastern Romania, which will cover the highly populated and strategically important region. The PAC-3 AADs will receive short and medium-range point-area defense (PDA) from Romania’s existing SAMs and anti-aircraft artillery such as the MIM-23 Hawk and Soviet-made assets. Ultimately, the Romanian AAD and PAD bubbles will be linked with the U.S.-operated Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system. Together, the systems will provide a reliable, multi-layered, and integrated air defense network for NATO’s Eastern flank.

24. In summary: Romania’s recent defense acquisitions create an air interdiction bubble, augmented by deep strike artillery systems capable of reaching Crimea. Naval warfare enhancements and air force assets further strengthen Romania’s growing military role in the Black Sea and pose a credible deterrent against potential Russian aggressions.

UPDATE December 31, 2018: Despite its considerable potential, Romania’s defence procurement program remains threatened by corruption and political games. The ruling Social Democratic Party, known as Romania’s corruption “firebrand”, has already meddled with the corvette acquisition contracts, leading to the cancelation of the bids and the forced resignation of the Defense Minister.  


by HARM and Gecko

This assessment does not include the products ordered by the Romanian Land Forces (RLF).  The RLF is currently operationalizing the first 12 of the total 227 8x8 Piranha V infantry fighting vehicles (IFV) purchased from General Dynamics. Starting in 2020, the land forces will also receive 347 8x8 Agilis vehicles (armored transporter, amphibious and IFV variants) jointly produced by the Romanian Military Vehicle Systems and Rheinmetall Defense.

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Hunting AQAP in Yemen: Joint UAE-US Special Operations Base in Mukalla (IMINT)

(1) The number of U.S. operations against al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has drastically increased under the Trump administration. The U.S. has established its primary base of operations in…

(1) The number of U.S. operations against al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has drastically increased under the Trump administration. The U.S. has established its primary base of operations in the city-port of Mukalla (Southern Yemen), which was liberated from AQAP by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and its local allies. The cooperation with the UAE enables the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Forces Command (JSOC) to target AQAP’s strongest cells in Yemen.

(2) Southern and Central Yemen are important recruitment and training grounds for AQAP. The rough, remote and hostile terrain provides sanctuary for high-value targets (HVTs) that have planned and continue to plan major attacks on American citizens and the U.S. homeland.

(3) AQAP’s power in Southern and Central Yemen has increased considerably during the Yemeni Civil War. The central government’s collapse allowed AQAP to establish large urban strongholds. AQAP dominates the Hadramawt, Mahrah and Shabwa provinces, and exerts significant control in Abyan and Bayda. AQAP cells have conducted attacks in major cities such as Aden, Hudayah and Sana’a. AQAP is currently estimated to have between 6,000 and 7,000 active fighters in Yemen.

(4) In 2015, AQAP seized control of Mukalla (Hadramawt province), proclaiming it the capital of the Yemeni “wilayat.” As Mukalla is Yemen’s second largest city-port on the Southern seaboard after Aden, the city became an important revenue and recruitment source for AQAP.

(5) In mid 2016, AQAP was ousted from Mukalla by the UAE and an allied coalition of local tribesmen and secessionist militias that later formed the Southern Transnational Council (STC). The ground offensive was backed by limited U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) elements as well as by U.S. airborne and maritime intelligence support. The UAE claims that it has neutralized over 500 AQAP militants, however, media sources suggest that the Emiratis also bribed a number of jihadists to withdraw from the area.

(6) In 2017, the new U.S. Presidential administration authorized the Department of Defense (DoD) and the CIA’s Special Activities Division (SAD) to accelerate and expand operations against AQAP. Mukalla, now under UAE/STC control, has become America’s largest covert forward operating base (FOB) in Yemen.

(7) The SOFs deployed in Mukalla are drawn from all JSOC special mission units, but mostly the Naval Special Warfare Development Group (known as DEVGRU or Navy SEAL Team Six). The SOFs get airlifted from the U.S. Naval Expeditionary Base “Camp Lemonnier” in Djibouti to Riyan Airport in Mukalla. Camp Lemonnier is a hub for special operations in the Horn of Africa area and the most important launching pad for drone/unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) strikes outside of Afghanistan.

(8) Flight traffic monitors show undesignated Dornier 328-110 turboprop commuter aircrafts departing Camp Lemonnier and “disappearing” over Mukalla after descending for landing. The Dornier 328 is the civilian version of the C-146A Wolfhound – the primary SOF air asset used to airlift fireteams or small cargo loads into semi-prepared airfields. JSOC is known to use the civilian version of the Wolfhound for SOF deployment in order to maintain operations security (OPSEC) standards.

Sample of D328 flights observed by T-Intelligence

(9) Image Intelligence (IMINT) based on commercial satellite imagery furthermore reveals a significant military expansion of Riyan Airport since it was liberated from AQAP. UAE/STC forces have built or considerably expanded at least 10 sites in vicinity to the runway, including observation posts, warehouses, fortified sites, patrol routes, a small seashore construction, and a number of unidentified buildings. A militarized checkpoint replaces the civilian airport entrance, which was closed in mid 2016. The main apron hosts military attack and transport helicopters, which can be used to forward deploy SOFs into combat areas.

Military enhancements of Riyan Airport near Mukalla, Yemen: July 1, 2016 (post-AQAP liberation) vs. June 23, 2018 (last available satellite imagery)

Military aircraft activity on the main apron and minimal enhancements around the taxiway: July 18, 2017 vs. June 23, 2018

Seashore constructions: July 1, 2016 vs. June 23, 2018

Logistics site “Delta” (West of the runway): July 1, 2016 vs. June 23, 2018

(8) Reports also suggest that a covert detention and interrogation center – run by local authorities and exploited by the UAE and U.S. for intelligence collection – has been established on the grounds of Riyan Airport. We assess that all of the airport enhancements serve military purposes. In 2018, enlargement and enhancement efforts continue.

(9) The mission profile of JSOC SOFs deployed in Yemen is to conduct reconnaissance, intelligence gathering and HVT-execution, including support for kinetic UAV strikes. They frequently liaise and coordinate with Emirati commandos and enlist the help of local STC-aligned tribesmen and militias.

(10) The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) also assists the U.S. counter-terrorism effort. The KSA commands a network of human intelligence assets that has infiltrated AQAP’s ranks. These assets provide critical intelligence and plant signal beacons on HVTs for UAV targeting missions. AQAP is trying combat the KSA-infiltration through strict counterintelligence measures, as announced in a propaganda video issued in early September 2018.   

(11) The unprecedented surge in SOF missions has produced valuable intelligence and eliminated several AQAP HVTs in Yemen. According to CENTCOM datasets assessed by The Long War Journal, the U.S. conducted 125 UAV kinetic strikes in 2017 – more than in the previous four years combined. With 33 strikes by September 2018, the U.S. is again on track to surpass the pre-2017 years. The SOF/UAV strikes have targeted AQAP training camps, checkpoints, safe-houses, and tactical positions in Abuan, Bayda, Mahraw, Shabwa and Northern Hadramawt – Northern Hadramawt hereby received the largest share of attention.  

(12) A U.S. UAV strike in the second half of 2017 reportedly killed Ibrahim Hassan Tali al-Asiri, AQAPs most talented bombmaker. Al-Asiri was known for disguising bombs as printer cartridges, cell phones, and other devices or planting them in human bodies to bypass airport security. The UAE played a major role in the target-acquisition process, as Emirati commandos captured al-Asiri’s wife for interrogation. Al-Asiri’s death represents a crucial blow for AQAP’s capabilities.

(13) At the moment, the primary target of U.S. SOF/UAV operations in Yemen is AQAP emir Qasim al-Raymi, who is closely associated with Ayman al-Zawahiri, AQ’s top commander. In the past eight years, al-Raymi was unsuccessfully targeted by the U.S. at least three times. The last attempt took place in 2017, when a controversial DEVGRU-led raid on al-Raymi’s safe house in Yalka (Bayda province) failed to kill the target.

(14) It is highly likely that U.S. SOF/UAV operations in Yemen will intensify in the next years. The U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) is currently looking to contract private operators for airborne casualty evacuation (CASEVAC) and medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) in Yemen and the Horn of Africa area. According to the draft performance work statement published online, the Special Operations Command Center will be the beneficiary of these services. The call specifies that the private contractors have to be able to operate fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft on unprepared runways as small as 900 m, use night-vision goggles, carry no less than eight men or almost 2 tons of cargo, and refuel with running engines. Aircrafts need to be armored with lightweight, Level III (7.62 mm and 5.56 mm) Ballistic Protection Systems.

(15) The details of this commercial listing suggest a sustained expansion of the current SOF activities in and around Yemen. We asses that U.S. SOFs have moved further in AQAP-held territory and are building/planning to build FOBs with coaxial dirt runways to receive supplies and evacuate personnel. As these FOB postings are highly dangerous, the SOFs require MEDEVAC/CASEVAC assets that are available 24/7 and can work under heavy enemy fire.


DISCLAIMER: Some IMINT materials have been excluded from the analysis in order to safeguard U.S. OPSEC, as SOF missions in Yemen are ongoing.  

by HARM and Gecko

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U.S. on Alert as Idlib Offensive is Imminent: Threat of Chemical Attacks?

(1) The White House and the U.S. Department of Defense are closely monitoring the situation in the greater Idlib region. Over the past days, the Bashar al-Assad regime has continued…

(1) The White House and the U.S. Department of Defense are closely monitoring the situation in the greater Idlib region. Over the past days, the Bashar al-Assad regime has continued to amass army formations and Iranian-backed militias in the main assault positions around the opposition-held stronghold.

(2) The 4th Armored Division has been moved to Northern Hama. Their position is strengthened by a rare deployment of the Republican Guards, both near Lataminah and Jabal al-Turkmen. In Western Aleppo, Iranian-backed militias, spearheaded by Hezbollah and Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), are completing their transfer from the Deir ez-Zor frontline. The strategic Abu ad-Duhur airfield, located on Idlib’s Eastern flank, has been reinforced by the deployment of Assad’s most battle-hardened and elite unit, the Tiger Forces. Reconciled opposition groups from Da’ara province are also moving towards Idlib. The infantry build-up is supported by the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAF), which has dispatched Mi-8/17 helicopters to Hama airfield, and by an unprecedented Russian naval deployment in the Eastern Mediterranean. Two days ago, the Syrian army closed al-Duhr checkpoint, the last civilian crossing out of Idlib.

Military Situation in the “Greater Idlib” region (August 2018)

(3) As the start of the offensive seems imminent, the U.S., France and the United Kingdom have voiced concerns that the Assad regime will follow the “Eastern Ghouta model” and launch chemical weapons (CW) attacks on opposition-held towns.  Opposition groups claim that they have (unverified) information pointing towards the town of Kafr Zabl as the main target for the regime’s impending CW attack.

(4) The U.S. military and intelligence community are therefore on high alert for any signs that the Assad regime is readying chemical weapons for use in Idlib. The U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) has stated that its assets are prepared, should President Trump order a strike. The American-British-French coalition has issued several warnings for Assad: Fight fair or expect another retaliation.

(5) At the moment, Assad’s preferred solution still seems to be a Russian-brokered reconciliation deal with the opposition in Idlib, similar to the deals negotiated in Eastern Ghouta, Da’ara and Rastan. Since early-August, Russia has been conducting talks with leaders of the non-al Qa’ida (AQ) opposition (the Turkish-backed “National Front for Liberation”) at the Reconciliation Center on Hmeimim air base (Latakia). Turkey has been encouraging opposition groups to join the talks and is reportedly coordinating with Russia on a settlement. Currently, Russia and Turkey are trying to convince the opposition groups to hand over all weapons heavier than 23mm anti-aircraft twin-barrel autocannons to the Turkish Army.  

(6) However, the Russian and Turkish negotiation efforts have failed to produce meaningful results. The non-AQ opposition groups continue to strengthen their unified front and enhance frontline positions. The AQ camp in Idlib – Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), Turkistani Islamic Party (TIP) and Tanzim Hourras al-Din – has slammed the idea of negotiations and is attacking any opposition group that has engaged in reconciliation talks with the government. Furthermore, the AQ-affiliated groups have refused Turkey’s proposal to join the “National Liberation Front.”

(7) The unsuccessful negotiations put the Assad regime in an increasingly difficult spot. According to intelligence estimates, a conventional military campaign to recapture Idlib would be devastating for the Syrian military with regard to resources, manpower, and capabilities. As Turkish troops are embedded in the Idlib frontline and equipped with man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), air support for the advancing troops would be extremely limited.  

(8) Should the reconciliation talks fail, a CW attack – as feared by the American-British-French coalition – is therefore becoming more likely. As the Eastern Ghouta and Khan Shaykhun precedents have shown, the Assad regime is  willing to use CW attacks to coerce opposition groups into surrendering. Although the CW-option would likely trigger new Coalition strikes on Syrian military installations, the Assad regime might be willing to take these hits to avoid a costly, “Aleppo-style” military campaign – especially if the strikes are expected to remain largely symbolic. After all, a full-scale military offensive will also cause international outrage, given the impending humanitarian costs, suffered by the almost 3 million internally displaced people currently living in Idlib.

(9) In this context, the recent deployment of “barrel bombing” Mi-7 helicopters to Hama airfield is highly suspicious – considering that a large-scale air campaign is out of the question due to the Turkish presence on the frontline. In the precedent cases, helicopters have been the delivery system of choice for CW attacks.

(10) Furthermore, Moscow already seems to draw up contingency plans for the case of an attack. Over the past days, Russian outlets have manipulated American warnings and established a counter-narrative. Sputnik News, RT and friendly/bot social media accounts are accusing the U.S. of conspiring with the opposition in Idlib to stage a false flag CW attack  justifying further strikes in Syria.

(11) In the meanwhile, the Coalition and Turkey are trying their best to prevent a conventional or CW bloodbath in Idlib. Ankara has authorized a variety of military deployments to reinforce its posture and deter pro-government attacks. Around 224 special operations forces were dispatched to the observation posts (OB-P) on Idlib’s frontline, while Leopard-2 tanks are amassing in Western Aleppo. Turkey is building a helipad near the “hottest” OB-P in Northern Hama and strengthening all OB-Ps through further concrete fortifications. Many civilians have reportedly fled their homes to camp next to the Turkish OB-Ps, as they are currently considered to be the safest areas in Idlib.

(12) However, the fate of Idlib also hinges on the resolve of the Coalition. If the Trump administration wants to prevent a CW attack, the White House has to draw a robust and credible red line this time. To change the regime’s cost/benefit calculation, Assad and his generals need to know that retaliation is not bound to limited or symbolical strikes. Severe blows against the amassed troops around Idlib, the vital air defense infrastructure and even regime change need to be (convincingly) on the table.

by HARM and Gecko 

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Murder of Journalists Exposes Russian Presence in the Central African Republic

(1) On July 31, 2018, three Russian journalists were reported dead near Sibut, Central African Republic (CAR). Kirill Radchenko, Alexadner Rastorguyev and Orkhan Dzhemal were travelling between Sibut and Kaga…

(1) On July 31, 2018, three Russian journalists were reported dead near Sibut, Central African Republic (CAR). Kirill Radchenko, Alexadner Rastorguyev and Orkhan Dzhemal were travelling between Sibut and Kaga Bandoro – the capital of a breakaway proto-state led by Muslim militiamen.

(2) The official investigation, conducted by local authorities, the Russian embassy and the U.N. mission to CAR, indicates that the journalists passed the Sibut checkpoint around 2000 GMT. Ignoring advice not to travel at night, they were ambushed by unknown assailants 32 km north of Sibut. According to CAR authorities, ten armed individuals, “wearing turbans and speaking neither French nor Sango” (suggesting Muslim miliamen) attempted to steal their vehicle. When the three journalists resisted, they were shot dead. Their injured driver escaped and informed the police in Sibut.

CAR_Map

Key locations in CAR

(3) Since armed robberies and assaults on foreigners are common occurrences in war-torn CAR, the official narrative does seem plausible. Possibly, the three journalists were merely at the wrong place at the wrong time. The nature of their research in CAR is, however, raising suspicions of foul play.   

(4) Radchenko, Rastorguyev and Dzhemal were reportedly working on a documentary film about the Sankt Petersburg based private military corporation (PMC) Wagner and its activities in CAR. The Wagner Group is allegedly owned by Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a magnate closely associated with President Vladimir Putin.

(5) While the Russian government has never officially acknowledged the existence of Wagner, the PMC has been the go-to choice of the Russian Military Intelligence (GRU), when it comes to outsourcing politically sensitive external operations. In particular, Wagner is known for fighting alongside regular Russian troops and Iranian-backed militias in Syria and for aiding the separatists in Eastern Ukraine. The death of the three journalists now also exposes Wagner’s involvement in CAR’s security and mining business, throwing light on Russia’s newfound African ambitions.

(6) Taking inspiration from the Soviet past, Russia increasingly attempts to access rare resources and crowd-out Western influence in developing countries. In this regard, CAR is of high-priority, as it is the world’s poorest country, highly unstable and violent, but also rich in mineral resources such as gold, (gem-quality) diamonds, and uranium. In 2013, the country descended into chaos, as Muslim militias toppled the government. While a French military intervention pushed the rebels out of the capital in 2014, the central government remains powerless in the provinces. A 6,000 men United Nations (U.N.) peacekeeping mission guards the fragile status quo.

(7) In November 2017, Russia received a waiver from the U.N. to sell weapons to the CAR central government.  The procurement list includes 900 Makarov pistols, 5200 Kalashnikov assault rifles, 840 Kalashnikov light machine guns, 140 sniper rifles (mostly Dragunov), 270 rocket propelled grenade (RPG) man-portable anti-tank rocket launchers, 20 man-portable anti-air defense systems, and ammunition. In order to train the CAR military, the Russian government deployed 170 civilian advisors (Wagner Group operatives) and five officers of the Russian Armed Forces.

(8) According to an investigation by CITEAM, Wagner has established its central command at the Berengo estate 35 km southwest of the capital. Satellite images collected by CITEAM reveal that a double row of tents was erected in the estates’ courtyard on January 22, 2018. The compound was one of the sites that the three Russian journalists attempted to film – they were denied access, as they lacked proper press accreditation.

04_02_39.1_N_18_07_17.8_E

Wagner uses the Berengo Estate as a central command for operations in CAR

(9) Besides deploying “civilian advisors” for CAR’s central government, Wagner is also involved in the country’s mining business. Most notably, the PMC provides armed security services, including equipment transport and site security, for the company Lobaye Invest.

(10) Lobaye Invest is part of the Saint Petersburg based M-Invest Group, which is closely associated with Wagner’s founder Yevgeniy Prigozhin. In recent month, Lobaye has reportedly assumed operations at Ndassima gold mine 60 km north of Bambari. Officially, the Canadian company AXMIN holds the exploitation rights for Ndassima mine as part of the “Passandro Gold Project.” However, in December 2012, the mine was seized by Muslim rebel forces. After their takeover, the rebels have forced the local population to work in the mine, extracting gold through rudimental techniques.     

Satellite imagery shows the two largest queries of the Passandro project area. Ndassima gold can be seen on the left.

(11) As their lack of know-how does not allow the rebels to operate Ndassima mine at full capacity, is is highly likely that they have struck a deal with Wagner, allowing Lobaye to exploit the mine in exchange for a profit share. According to a report by the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Wagner representatives toured the area around Ndassima mine in April 2018, negotiating directly with rebel leaders. The mercenaries’ activities received public attention, as their Cessna plane was blocked by residents in Kaga-Bandoro. Sources suggest that the three killed journalist were planning to document Wagner’s current presence at Ndassima mine.

Wagner_Cesna_plane_held_up_by_villagers_in_Rebel_areas

Wagner’s Cessna private jet was held up by villagers in Kaga Bandoro in April, 2018

(12) The Wagner/Lobaye-rebel collusion is a direct infringement of Russia’s security commitments to the U.N-recognized central government. The Russian-CAR security accord mainly seems to serve as a front for advancing the commercial interests of Putin’s oligarchic circle on the mineral market in Africa. At the same time, Russia’s double-edged game will likely exacerbate the government-rebel tensions and further destabilize a region traditionally policed by the U.N. and the French Republic. With Wagner in the forefront, Russia is killing three birds with one stone: selling weapons to the CAR government, exploiting the rebel-held mines, and stirring trouble for the West.


by HARM and Gecko 

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Operation Nightfall: Israel’s Ultimate Strike Against Iran in Syria

Creative Threatcasting Scenario (CTS) – CTS is a strategic foresight method, inspired by the work of the West Point Military Academy’s Threatcasting Lab. Based on current events and trend analysis,…

Creative Threatcasting Scenario (CTS) – CTS is a strategic foresight method, inspired by the work of the West Point Military Academy’s Threatcasting Lab. Based on current events and trend analysis, CTS develops creative narratives about possible futures. By creating tangible scenarios, CTS helps to anticipate watershed moments and prepare for upcoming threats.

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‘NIGHT OWLS’: MOSSAD MONITORS THE LOYALIST OFFENSIVE IN SOUTHERN SYRIA

(1) In late June 2018, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), supported by Russian Aerospace Forces, private contractors, and – covertly – by militias affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), has launched an offensive to recapture the Southern Syrian provinces (Quneitra, Da’ara and Suweida) from the opposition/rebel forces. The offensive recently concluded with a decisive victory for the side of the Syrian regime, which will be referred to as THE LOYALISTS.

(2) Before commencing with the operation in Southern Syria, Russia secretly promised Israel that IRGC-backed militias will not partake in the offensive. In exchange, Jerusalem did not intervene. Israeli Intelligence (Mossad) and the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) have been tasked with monitoring the implementation of the secret deal with all available resources (code-name: OPERATION NIGHT OWLS).

(3) Counter to Russian statements, human intelligence reports from Southern Syria suggest that IRGC-backed militiamen swapped uniforms and blended into the ranks of the SAA to discreetly partake in the offensive. These elements were then tasked with assaulting key positions in Western Quneitra close to the slopes of the Golan plateau. The IRGC-backed militiamen are exclusively supplied through selected SAA infantry bases located in the wider Damascus region (code name: BREAD-BASKET), which have been known for hosting Iranian advisors and capabilities in the past.

(4) Reports furthermore suggest that the BREAD-BASKET receives supplies directly from Iran. In recent months, land-transports via Iraq and the Syrian border town of Abu Kamal (code-name: SHI’A CRESCENT) have hereby started to replace airlifts from Tehran to Al-Assad International Airport or Mezzeh Airport.

(5) Israeli intelligence is highly concerned by this trend, as land-transports allow for greater operational security (OPSEC) on the part of the Iranians. Since airlifts have precise origins and rely on predetermined landing zones, the IAF was able to identify and destroy high-value Iranian deliveries in the past. However, monitoring for intermediate missiles that are moved by truck through the SHI’A CRESCENT is like looking for a needle in the haystack.

(6) The findings of OPERATION NIGHT OWLS are dramatic. Mossad is in possession of indisputable evidence that the LOYALISTS currently positioned on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights are indeed IRGC-backed Shi’a militias. Moreover, the delivery of Iranian intermediate missile systems to these militias via the SHI’A CRESCENT land-route and the BREAD-BASKET distribution hubs appears to be imminent.

(7) The deployment of intermediate missiles near the Israeli border will weaken the Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) zone, which was established by the IDF on the Golan Heights from 9 May 2018 onward. It will also severely reduce the missile-interception window of the Patriot, Iron Dome and David’s Sling air defense systems. Israeli intelligence doubts that it can identify Iranian “care packages” for the IRGC-backed militias before they become operational on the frontline.

 

THE PRIME MINISTER AUTHORIZES OPERATION ‘NIGHTFALL’

(8) The findings of the NIGHT OWLS investigation have de-legitimized Russian guarantees. Prime Minister Netanyahu therefore authorizes the military to commence with OPERATION NIGHTFALL.

(9) The objectives of OPERATION NIGHTFALL are:

  • Create a 20km deep buffer zone (code name: SECTOR DAVID) below the Golan Heights, encompassing Quneitra province and parts of Da’ara. SECTOR DAVID will be placed under the control of Israeli-backed opposition groups such as the “Knights of Golan”, “Fursan al-Jawlan,” and other CIA-vetted Southern front groups.
  • Create a contestation area (code name: SECTOR GOLIATH) over the wider Damascus area, including the capital itself. Destroy the BREAD-BASKET, Syrian airfields, and the Syrian air defense infrastructure. The IRGC and affiliated militias will lose their safe haven for troop deployment, military posturing and logistics.

(10) SECTOR DAVID is key for Israel’s most vital security interests. Firstly, it will provide more missile-interception time for the Golan-based SEAD. This will increase anti-air efficiency and push enemy infantry away from the borderline. Secondly, it ensures that – if a war does break out –  it will not be fought on Israeli territory. SECTOR DAVID will also host the refugees and internally displaced persons (IDP) looking for shelter after the LOYALISTS’ Southern Syria offensive.

(11) The Druze-majority villages and towns in SECTOR DAVID will be exempted from opposition control and will be placed under direct Israeli protection. This measure is important to avoid unrest among the Israeli Druze population, and to prevent the rekindling of LOYALIST sentiments among the Syrian Druze.

(12) The establishment of SECTOR GOLIATH serves to irreversibly degrade Iran’s military influence in Southern Syria and to consolidate SECTOR DAVID. Destroying the Syrian anti-air defense infrastructure will grant the IAF complete air superiority over Syria – if the Russian systems continue to be inactivated due to political considerations and technological secrecy. This would leave the IRGC, their clientele militias, and the SAA vulnerable to strategic strikes. The elimination of the BREAD-BASKET will furthermore ensure that IRGC-backed groups will lose their regional distribution hubs, further degrading their supply chains. This will force them to partially or fully withdraw from the Damascus area.

(13) A partial or full de-militarization of Damascus will likely force the Assad regime to seek refuge and establish a temporary government in the Russian-protected Latakia province. The Syrian President has sought sanctuary in the Russian-operated Khmeimim Air Base during past Israeli and U.S. attacks on Damascus.

(14) President Donald J. Trump, encouraged by anti-Iran hawk National Security Adviser John Bolton, can be expected to extend either political or (limited) military support to the Israeli operation, as the U.S. also seeks to roll back Iranian influence in the region. As it has occured in the past, Secretary of Defense James Mattis will likely attempt to minimize direct U.S. involvement in order to avoid backlash against the U.S. troops operating in Northern Syria. The White House could mandate the Department of Defense (DoD) to – covertly – aid OPERATION NIGHTFALL in the following ways:

  • Provide IAF fighter jets with Friend-or-Foe (FoF) codes to disguise them as Coalition aircrafts, as practiced in previous Israeli shadow-raids.
  • Engage Syrian targets with Electronic Warfare (EW) capabilities that can jam or disrupt anti-aircraft radars and communications.
  • Supply the IDF with Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) data on LOYALIST movements, using RQ-4 “Global Hawk” drones operating in the Eastern Mediterranean.

(15) Arab Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and the Kingdom of Jordan will potentially allow air passage for IAF jets conducting target re-attacks and aerial refueling.

(16) OPERATION NIGHTFALL requires the instatement of a commercial flight ban for at least 72 hours. While this may alert the LOYALISTS to the time-window of the attack, a commercial flight ban is necessary for the safety of civil aviation.

(17) The Russian response in those 72 hours will be key for enabling or disrupting Israel’s operational objectives. Russian intelligence will attempt to intercept Israel’s plan, while the IDF will engage in intense counter-surveillance methods to camouflage its operational preparations. Moscow will act in accordance with its intelligence on and estimates of Israel’s intentions.

 

THREE SCENARIOS: POSSIBLE OUTCOMES OF OPERATION NIGHTALL

(a) ‘LIGHTS OUT’ – THE OPTIMISTIC OUTCOME

(18) The IAF completes OPERATION NIGHTFALL in less than one week, leaving the LOYALISTS without any air defense systems in Quneitra, Suweida, Da’ara, Rural Damascus and Damascus. Key military locations are targeted and destroyed, including major infantry bases (battalion, regiment, brigade level), Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) strategic airfields (cargo warehouses and air strips) and anti-aircraft sites.

(19) The LOYALIST forces deployed in Southern Syria retreat to Damascus and – later – to Hama province. Israeli-backed opposition forces reassemble to take key villages and towns along the Israeli-Syrian border. SECTOR DAVID is secured.

(20) With air defenses disabled, and military supply routes blocked, the Assad regime evacuates for Russian-protected Latakia. A symbolic air strike hits the Presidential Palace in Damascus. Israel establishes full air dominance over the Damascus area. SECTOR GOLIATH is secured.

(21) The U.S. voices strong support for the operation and mandates the Central Command (CENTCOM) to covertly aid the military effort.  Sunni Arab states allow IAF jets to refuel in their airspace, leading to an unprecedented level of Israeli-Arab cooperation in face of the Iranian threat. The U.S-operated al-Tanf garrison in Syria is enforced with additional HIMARS batteries to deter LOYALIST retaliations against the Jordanian Kingdom.

(22) Russian intelligence was either unable to anticipate Israel’s intentions or the Russian government was unwilling to act. Israel negotiates a ceasefire with Russia, placing the now demilitarized Damascus area under Russian protection. Russian military police units are deployed in the capital and key surrounding locations. SECTOR GOLIATH becomes a Russian-protected area, free from IRGC-backed forces. The deal with Israel can be expected to amplify the already existing tensions between the Russian Armed Forces and Hezbollah.

(23) Iran has been successfully and indefinitely ousted from Southern Syria. The IRGC has lost all strategic hubs in Damascus, including the Al-Assad International and Mezzeh airports. Only selected bases in Hama and Aleppo remain as safe havens. Since air transport has become near impossible, Iran now fully relies on the SHI’A CRESCENT transport route. Neutralizing the SHI’A CRESCENT become Israel’s next strategic objective in order to consolidate SECTOR DAVID and SECTOR GOLIATH and to remove Iran from Syria once and for all.

CTS concept art: IAF air campaign over Damascus as seen through the thermographic camera of an F-16D.

(b) ‘GUARDIANS OF THE GOLAN’ – THE MODERATE OUTCOME

(24) Israel expels the LOYALIST forces from Southern Syria through repetitive surgical shadow raids and artillery strikes (surface-to-surface missiles) in Quneitra, Da’ara and Suweida. The remaining Israeli-backed opposition forces retake key positions. Further logistical and operational support from Israel allows the opposition groups to expand their territory and secure SECTOR DAVID. Israel recruits around 500 militiamen from the “Knights of the Golan,” establishing a border force that will patrol the demilitarized “Alpha” zone of the 1974 agreement.

(25) The IAF neutralizes selected anti-air artillery (AAA) and surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites in Damascus in order to enable further air strikes on a limited number of BREAD-BASKET bases. The IAF will also seek to disproportionately retaliate against LOYALIST (accidental or intentional) provocations on the Southern Syrian front. The Israelis will use those incidents to cherry-pick Iranian-affiliated high-value targets (HVT) over the course of several weeks.

(26) Russian intelligence has uncovered IAF plans to wage a “Show and Awe” styled campaign over Damascus in advance. This has led to heightened tensions between Moscow and Jerusalem. Russia threatens to replace the SAA’s destroyed S-200s, Pantsirs (SA-75) and SA-8 Geckos’, with newer versions, including the S-300 systems. This forces Israel to abandon objective SECTOR GOLIATH.

(27) The Trump administration voices support for the operation, but does not mandate the DoD to provide military aid. Arab Sunni states fail to facilitate flight routes for the IAF’s bombing raids.

(28) The situation is bound to remain highly volatile, given the fragile and uncertain status quo. Israel indefinitely abandons plans for SECTOR GOLIATH. Instead, Jerusalem focuses on consolidating SECTOR DAVID by strengthening local opposition forces and obtaining security guarantees from local stakeholders. Iranian supply hubs have been severely damaged, but not completely removed. While IRGC-backed forces are significantly weakened, they remain a long-term threat to Israel. The IAF will continue to intercept key Iranian transports on the SHI’A CRESCENT route. Iran might seek to retaliate against OPERATION NIGHTFALL, by activating Hezbollah to mount missile attacks on Israeli soil from Southern Lebanon.

CTS concept art: IDF units in the Golan Heights fire SSMs on IRC-affiliated militias in the Sa’sa village (Southern Syria).

(c) ‘CHECKMATE’ – THE PESSIMISTIC OUTCOME

(29) OPERATION NIGHTFALL ends before it begins. An immediate and steadfast Russian response forces Israel to abort the mission.

(30) After acquiring critical early-warning intelligence on Israel’s objectives, Russia moves S-300s to Damascus during the 72-hour civilian airline ban. The Latakia-based S-400 Triumph system is activated to intercept incoming attacks on LOYALIST positions. Moreover, a significant number of Russian Aerospace Forces are mobilized to conduct air policing missions in the skies of Southern Syria, using a variety of advanced assets, including four Su-35s (air-defense fighter jet) and six Su-34s (air superiority fighter jet).

(31) Israeli intelligence furthermore reports the violation of Lebanese airspace by Russian fighter jets. This is interpreted as an attempt of the Russian Aerospace Forces to block the traditional flight path used by the IAF to strike Damascus.

(32) The Trump administration is hesitant whether to support Israel. President Trump pays lip service to OPERATION NIGHTFALL in order to increase pressure on Iran in the context of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) re-negotiations. Yet, the overall objective of the Trump administration is the withdrawal from the Syrian Civil War. The U.S. is focused on securing its gains in Northern and Eastern Syria and remains unwilling to re-enter the Southern Syrian war theater. Israeli Intelligence believes that it cannot rely on support from the U.S.

(33) In consequence, IRGC-backed militias reinforce their positions on the Israeli border. With the SHI’A CRESCENT corridor and the BREAD-BASKET installations untouched, the delivery of intermediate-range missiles to the frontline is weeks, if not days away.

(34) The Assad regime intensifies revisionist claims for the Golan plateau. The IDF increases its troop readiness and capabilities in the Northern Military District. Israeli security and emergency services conduct multiple mass-casualty exercises in order to prepare the population for upcoming missile attacks.


by HARM and Gecko

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Israel Shadow-Raids Syria: Preempting Iranian Retaliation (an OSINT P-BDA)

Preliminary – Battle Damage Assessment (P-BDA) –  On April 29, 2018, 2230 local time, a round of unclaimed military strikes pounded locations jointly operated by the Bashar al-Assad regime and…

Preliminary – Battle Damage Assessment (P-BDA) –  On April 29, 2018, 2230 local time, a round of unclaimed military strikes pounded locations jointly operated by the Bashar al-Assad regime and Iran in Syria. The targeted sites are: the 47th Brigade Military Base in Hama province (Objective-Alpha/ O-A) and the Zeido Auto Test Center near Aleppo Airport (Objective-Bravo/ O-B). The Syrian government and its allies are accusing the United States and Israel for being behind the strike. The following P-BDA assessed by T-intelligence (Ti) outlines the nature of the targets acquired for striking, and determines why the Israeli Air Force (IAF) was most likely behind the attack – with limited U.S. support or knowledge. 


Target-Acquisition Process

(1) The first target (Objective Alpha/ O-A) is located near the village of al-Safira (10 km south of Hama city) and is a key military barracks and logistics hub for operations ongoing in the Hama war room. The facility hosts a personnel housing center, various command & control compounds and many weapons storage bunkers. It also sits next to a major (officially) porcelain factory, rumored to be used for weapons manufacturing. The base is jointly operated by the Syrians and Iranian elements: both Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and affiliated indigenous paramilitary units. 

Satellite imagery analysis highlights various compounds and buildings that compose the 47th Brigade Military Base, but also the exact sites that were pounded. (T-intelligence)

(2) The second target (Objective Bravo/ O-B) is a warehouse in the Malikiyah industrial area next to the Aleppo Airport (Aleppo province). There is little information available about this location, except that it was not a military facility, but civilian. Given its proximity to the Aleppo International Airport, Ti assesses that the buildings might have been used as a clandestine weapons storage center for fresh deliveries landing in Aleppo from Iran, before being distributed to other regional war-room hubs. This is would be a rational increase in tradecraft and counter-surveillance methods to avoid Israeli Intelligence efforts of monitoring hangars and warehouses in the Airport itself for target-acquisition – since the IAF managed to succefully identify and strike all of Iran’s favorite hangars in the Al-Assad International Airport in Damascus (for example). 

Satellite imagery shows the location raided near Aleppo Airport. (T-intelligence)

3) O-A saw a round of successive explosions that amplified under a chain of secondaries (detonation of weapons, ammunition and ordinance deposited there).  The European-Mediterranean Seismological Center recorded a disturbance registering 2.6 Richter magnitude scale caused by the blast in the area. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) notes that at least 26 people have been killed, and around 60 have been injured – most of them Iranian, and a few (confirmed) Syrian soldiers.

4) O-B was hit around the same time but the target and ordinance employed was far limited and reduced. No casualties reported from this site. Reports indicate that it was emptied. 

Maintaining Military Initiative: Preempting Retaliation


Since the Syrian Civil War boosted Iranian activity inside Syria, Lebanon and around Israel’s borders, Jerusalem sought to balance its security needs and military interventions. Besides clandestine and limited supported for a few selected Opposition groups operating near the Golan Heights, Israeli opted for intelligence-based targeted air strikes on key Iranian facilities that proliferate advanced weapons transfers to Hezbollah – most concerning, long-range missiles. The Israeli Air Force (IAF) has conducted dozens of clandestine air raids against such objectives throughout Syria – the usual targets being in the wider Damascus area, Hama and Homs. The IAF’s policy is to not comment on external engagements in synchrony with Jerusalem’s policy of deniability. Based on the following findings Ti believes that this was another such shadow raid. However, this raised the stakes the highest at a time when Israeli-Iranian tensions are critical.  


(5) Hours before the 22:30 strikes, a phone call was made between U.S. President Donald J. Trump and Israeli Prime-Minister B. Netanyahu. They spoke about the deteriorating situation in the region and about Iranian activity in Syria. The conversation most certainly revolved around the upcoming strikes, with President Trump being either informed or coordinated with. We cannot rule out the possibility that the U.S. has supported the shadow-raid at least politically. 

(6) The Israeli Government was anxiously anticipating a military retaliation after its shadow air operation against Iran at the strategic T-4 airbase near Palmyra/ Tadmur, Homs province, Syria. The attack was conducted in March 2018 and destroyed several hangars, warehouses, while killing four Iranian soldiers. This base was a strategic hub linking Iranian-affiliated personnel and assets flowing from Iraq and Syria for combat operations. The Iranian Government delegated its in-field “mastermind” Qasim Soleimani of the IRGC to draft and plan a military response against Israel. This also led to the IAF canceling its participation in a joint exercise with the U.S. in Alaska – all assets were needed home. Ti judges that Israel was monitoring consistent military logistics arriving into Syria to conduct or support that strike.

Satellite imagery shows aftermath of the April 29th clandestine raid (iSi) over the 47th Brigade Military Base – locations can be seen in the wider visual context on previous map sourced by Ti.

(7) The data of a civilian airline monitoring app shows that on April 29, a Syrian Arab Air Force 585th Transport Squadron (of the 29th Air Brigade’s four-engine turbofan strategic airlifter Ilyushin Il-76T YK-ATD) flew from Tehran Mehrabad (Iran) to -most likely – Hama Airport (Syria). After a short stop there, probably to unload and distribute some of the cargo to O-A (located just 10 km from Hama City), the plane flew to Damascus International Airport. It is highly likely that the cargo contained important capabilities, such as medium-to-long range missiles, purposely deployed to take-part in the Iranian-planned retaliation against Israel for the T-4 raid. [Added: Intelligence from on May 2nd, 2018 suggests that the cargo contained anti-aircraft surface-to-air missiles (SAM)]. Ti determined that even without this circumstantial evidence, O-A was an important enough target to tempt Jerusalem to strike. Yet, no photographs of ordinance remnants have surfaced online yet to assess whether it was an airstrike or a surface-to-surface attack from a missile battery. OSINT reports claim that around 200 Iranian missiles were destroyed by the raid. 

Path of flight number RB9236 from Tehran to unknown (most certainly Hama) and then to Damascus. (Social Media source)

(8) O-B’s importance comes from the cargo it was believed to be sheltering – however, there is no indication that weapons or missiles were there during the strike. But in this case, photos from the blast site were issued on Social Media. They show remnants of the missile dropped on the target. Crowdsourcing efforts identified the ordinance as being the GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb. This is a GPS-aided and high-accuracy ordinance produced by Boeing to strike fixed targets (depots, bunkers, storage buildings). It is currently in use by the U.S., Israel, Italy and Saudi Arabia, and it can be launched by a number of widely used fighter jets and bombers, such as the F-15E (in use by both IAF and USAF), Tornado, Gripen, F-16 (in use by both IAF and USAF), and AC-130. 

Analysis of a Social Media source compares ordinance wreckage with the GBU-39.

(9) Syrian-affiliated media claims that the U.S hit its base in Hama using assets in northern Jordan. While it is highly unlikely that the Kingdom of Jordan would have approved such an act to be committed from its soil, the U.S. does have an active military deployment in the country. It also controls a large swat of land around the al-Tanf area (Syria) through friendly Opposition groups operating there. The military deployment also contains an ingredient that might fit the description – the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS). That is a light-truck mounted long-range rocket system. Not only it is deployed in Jordan, but since early-2017, sources in the Pentagon confirmed for CNN that it was moved over the border in south-eastern Syria. The purpose was to support the Opposition groups operating around the al-Tanf garrison in deterring regime attacks and in launching strikes against ISIS. The HIMARS can strike targets up to 400 km distance, which also includes O-A in Hama, but not O-B in Aleppo.  

(10) It is highly likely that the explosions at O-A and O-B were caused by a round of Israeli Air Force (IAF) “shadow” preemptive strikes purposed to degrade capabilities deployed by Iran to support a military retaliation against Israel. The United States was certainly informed beforehand, but it is unlikely that it played any role in the military operation despite key assets being in place. Back in April 21st, John Bolton pitched  President Trump to include a list of Iranian-operated targets in the line-up of possible strike locations for his retaliation on the Assad’s regime use of Chemical Weapons in Douma. President Trump refused and bowed to Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ more-proportionate options. Both of the targets were a concern for Israeli national security, which would not mandate the President to change his mind over such a sensitive issue so fast and in such an offensive manner. This does not mean that the administration did not seek to embolden and encourage Jerusalem to conduct the strikes it saw adequate. 

One sample from the Social Media source that shows the RQ-4 Global Hawk west of the Syrian coastline around 00:12 local time.

(11) The U.S. was certainly informed about the operation and had unmanned aerial surveillance assets (UAV) active to provide Intelligence, Surveillance and Recoinassance (ISR) of the IAF strikes. A reputable Social Media source with access to civil and military air traffic data had noticed a U.S. Air Force (USAF)-operated RQ-4 Global Hawk drone conducting IMINT sorties over western Syria. Call sign UAVGH 0000, probably outbound from Sigonela or Aviano, regularly conducts such runs in the Eastern Mediterranean. However, on April 29, 1900 hours (local time) it was spotted turning back towards the Syrian coastline after completing the Levant-Sinai flight route. At 1943 hours the drone was already near Haifa (northern Israel). In that evening, UAVGH0000 assumed 54,000 feet altitude. The drone re-appeared several hours later that night after the IAF strikes. On April 30, 0012 hours the drone continued circling the same position. For almost three hours, the drone was most probably conducting a post-operation BDA before heading back to base. Whatever happened that night in Hama and Aleppo, the USAF Global Hawk drone was watching.

(12) Syrian anti-air defense systems – as the S-200 – were successfully by-passed again. There are no reports of retaliatory fire neither on the delivery systems (batteries or fighter jets) nor on the missiles themselves. Russian assets were still not activate. 

(13) Israeli-Iranian tensions continue to boil as no external power manages to contain the situation from escalating into an open war. Following an almost two-hour ministerial meeting in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Netanyahu informed the U.S. and Russia that if Tehran strikes back, then Israel will “got to town” on all Iranian bases in Syria. The Government in Tehran issued more threats indicating an imminent retaliation of some sort.

(14) The shadow-raid came in a sensitive context, as the Trump administration is expected to decided on whether to keep the U.S. in the Joint Comprehensive Action Plan (JCAP) or the “Iranian nuclear deal” by May 12, 2018. The Israelis and President Trump have stepped up criticism of the deal and of Iran’s activities in Syria.


by HARM

 

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