Category: MENA

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 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) 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 The growing availability of modern and domestically sustainable systems will allow Iran to gradually decommission outdated SAMs or provide combined saturated coverage over key areas.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/ICBM 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 ICBM 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 ICBM sites, including an uranium production facility near Natanz as well as a uranium conversion center and ICBM-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/ICBM 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

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/ICBM 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 ICBM 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 ICBM 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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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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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.

Download the full PDF file by clicking here.


‘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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The Syria Strikes: Forecast Reflection and Damage Report of the Joint Air and Naval Operations

AFTER-ACTION REPORT – At 4:20 Damascus time, April 14, 2018, a joint Air and Naval operation of the United States of America (USA), Republic of France and the United Kingdom…

AFTER-ACTION REPORT – At 4:20 Damascus time, April 14, 2018, a joint Air and Naval operation of the United States of America (USA), Republic of France and the United Kingdom of Great Britain (UK) launched air strikes and Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TALM) from assets present in the Mediterranean and Red Seas, as well as from the Arabic/ Persian Gulf towards Syria. The military action was a direct response to the Assad’s regime use of Chemical weapons against civilians and Opposition Forces in the Damascus city of Douma – the last pocket near Eastern Ghouta unconquered by the Loyalists at that time.  Days before the highly expected but unconfirmed strike, T-intelligence (Ti) has successfully forecasted the time-frame, targets and nature of the joint U.S., British and French response. In the two cables posted on the Facebook page on April 12 (Post 1, Post 2), Ti assessed the Trump administration’s intentions and unpeeled most of the operational timeline of the strike. The following assessment reflects on the analytical process and facts that weighted into the operation, as well as the outcome of the military engagement:

Intentions of the Trump administration: Reinstate Deterrence through Controlled Escalation

  1. Following the Douma gas attack and the immediate political messages sent from Washington, London and Paris, Ti judged that a military retaliation against the Bashar al-Assad regime is not only highly likely, but imminent. The judgement was also fueled by the 2017’s precedent set by Donald J. Trump, when he directed 59 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TALMs) to hit the Shayrat air base – the location used to deliver the chemical attack in Khan Sheykoun by the Assad regime. The Trump administrator drew a red line in the sand, Assad broke it, and retaliation swiftly followed. Ti was looking for the same formula but in a bigger, more punitive format.
  2. Ti assessed that the Trump administration did not take this decision lightly, as the President has earlier signaled plans to exit  the Syrian Civil War. He repeatedly stated that he intends to withdraw the almost 2,000 U.S. troops deployed in Syria (mostly consisting of costly and limited Special Operations Forces) as major operations against ISIS/ DAESH are coming to an end. Allies and regional partners are attempting to backtrack this decision, with President Macron claiming success. Key Arab countries are pressured to make contribution that would maintain U.S. presence as a counter to Iranian hegemony in the region. Inherently, a military strike was to be politically-cautions enough that it would not drag the United States further into the civil war and the geopolitical confrontation that it involves. However, a large scale than last year’s attack was needed and expected for doubling-down on President Trump’s redline. 
  3. Ti looked for a larger military and logistical build-up in comparison to last year’s strike, as a way to validate and measure the likelihood of an attack. Subsequently, a more ambitious and larger target-list was expected. 
  4. With the use of military force, Allies sought to reinstate a credible deterrent against further use of Chemical weapons, and (b) to degrade the capabilities of the Assad regime, and subsequent Syrian Arab Army (SAA) from conducting similar attacks in the future. The thin line that curbed operational “creativity” was a possible escalation with Russian and Iranian forces embedded with their Syrian allies. Secretary of Defense James Mattis especially feared possible repercussions against the 2,000 U.S. troops operating against the remnants of ISIS/ DA’ESH in northern and eastern Syria within Operation “Inherent Resolve”.
  5. The Department of Defense worked in close coordination with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and U.S. Central Command to carefully compile a shortlist of targets for President Donald J. Trump to pick from. They had several guidelines to respect in the process of target-acquisition and evaluation:
  • Connection to the Syrian regime’s Chemical and Biological Weapons program – facilities (storage, research) and delivery assets (fighter jets, helicopters);
  • Reduction and prevention of civilian casualties or collateral damage; and
  • Avoiding casualties among Russian and Iranian personnel present in Syria, operating in either solo or joint military compounds with their SAA counter-parts.
  1. The campaign’s philosophy was military-precise and politically-cautious. However, delays (due to political consultations in London, Paris) and premature twitter threats from President J. Trump have (possibility intentionally) complicated this process. The SAA began moving their air assets from major air fields to the Russian-owned Kheimeini Air Base in the coastline province of Latakia – a sanctuary from any possible U.S. strike. This rendered the Pentagon’s objective of striking WMDs means of delivery unreachable. The Department of Defense had to continuously re-evaluate the strike list in accordance to the developments on the ground and incoming intelligence.
  2. On Wednesday, U.S. officials suggested to commercial flight companies via Eurocontrol to avoid the Syrian airspace in the next 72 hours. While not very common, commercial no-fly zones have become a much more usual practice after the downing of flight Mh-17 by Russia in Eastern Ukraine. Ti judged with significant strength and confidence that this would be the window for the US, UK and FRA to get their house in order and commence with military operations.

CLAIM (Very Accurate): Inherently, the days suggested by Ti were Thursday, Friday and Saturday (12-14 April, 2018) – preferably at the crack of dawn (4-5 a.m. Damascus time).

OUTCOME: The operation commenced on Saturday pre-dawn 4:20 am Damascus time.


  1. Thursday afternoon saw a two-hour long meeting in the White House attended by U.N. Ambassador Nikki Halley, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Vice-President Mike Pence, National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of Defense James Mattis. No decision was made at that time due to reported disagreements between John Bolton and James Mattis regarding the targeting list. John Bolton, an ex-Bush administration official and a firebrand warhawk advocated towards a punitive strike against SAA installations, reportedly including air defense sites. James Mattis called for a proportionate response and related to the Syrian regime’s WMD program, arguing that striking air defenses would escalate tensions with Russia and Iran, which could retaliate on the U.S. troops operating northern and eastern Syria. Also, Theresa May only received the full backing of her Cabinet on Thursday evening. President Trump then had a phone call with Prime-Minister May and President Macron to further discuss the situation – rumors suggested that the topic was the continuously changing target-list and the possibility of breaking the decision-making deadlock in the following days.
  2. With the window of Thursday night/ Friday morning being missed, we assessed that the list of targets got shorter and weaker, but that a final line-up of locations was supplied to POTUS. The loss of military initiative severely weakened the potential impact of a campaign.  The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) had taken all the necessary measures to mitigate or eliminate the projected damage on its air fields and military. We assessed that the operation would try to compensate the lack of substance with a higher number of targets. There is also indication that Israeli intelligence has played a role in checking and compiling the list of targets. As reflected by the disappointment expressed by Israeli officials regarding impact and effect of the strike, Mossad’s contribution did not make it in the final draft of the line-up. 

CLAIM (Relatively Accurate): Ti estimated that 4-8 targets would be hit, consisting of largely deserted air fields and facilities. They would have moderate military importance and would not cause casualties, especially not Russian or Iranian. Likewise, Ti noted with confidence that the US CENTCOM will maintain communications with their Russian counter-parts through the Qatar-based de-escalation, purposely to avoid unwanted incidents.

OUTCOME: The trilateral strike hit three targets (one military installation including an airfield, one WMD storage center, both in Homs; and a Chemical and Biological Weapons Research Center in Bazreh, Rural Damascus). The Joint Chief of Staff, General Joseph Dunford confirmed that the operation involved an exchange of communication with the Russian counter-parts regarding the de-escalation of certain parts in the Syrian airspace minutes before the missile were launched. Also, no human casualties (including Russian or Iranian) were reported due to the evacuation of personnel conducted by Damascus earlier that week.


 

Capabilities Employed: Tracking Assets and Flow of Logistics Surrounding Syria   

  1. Ti has been tracking logistics and civilian & military (available) air traffic that could indicate a build-up in the Eastern Mediterranean by the US, UK and France. Effort had two short-falls: an over-focus on that particular area, when there are hundreds of other assets already deployed in some framework or form through the region – which were ultimately activated for the operation. Which leads to the second issue: white noise of open-source data. The myriad of ongoing active deployment, engagements, schedules commissioning and circumstantial events (as military drills solo or joint) was nearly impossible to filter for a precise assessment. However, moderate judgments have been made. For example, we [continued]

CLAIM (Precise): [continued] rejected the idea that a military strike would be conducted by the Strike Group 8 (SG8) commissioned to the area from Norfok, Virginia on Wednesday. That deployment was planned months in advanced and while it could have been activated for the campaign, it would have represented a disproportionate use of military logistics and assets in relationship with the targets. The assets already scattered through the region would have sufficed for a limited military strike. The SG8 holds the potential, manpower and capabilities to annihilate the entire Armed Forces of the Assad regime. Ti was tracking assets for a limited campaign involving air strikes and cruise missiles, not regime change.

OUTCOME: SG8 played no role in the campaign against the Syrian regime, other than deterrence, power projection and cover (press-wise) for the actual assets.


  1. The transfer of air assets between U.S. regional basses, as Sigonella, Aviano (Italy) to Incirlik (Turkey) was eye-catching, but internal assessment dismissed the Incirlik Air Base as a possible launch site for the campaign given the political pivot between the Turkish Government, the Assad regime and Russia over the conflict in Syria.
  2. Deployment of fuel tankers towards the Mediterranean from the U.S. and the U.K. was a strong pre-strike logistical indicator. However, it was difficult to dismiss whether those assets were not actually commissioned to support fighter jets on active duty against ISIS/ DAESH within CJTF/OIR.
  3. Starting with Tuesday, the U.S. Air Force began flying 3-4 reconnaissance and electronic intelligence gathering sorties per day, using Boeing Poseidon P-8 planes in the Eastern Mediterranean and focusing on the Syrian coastline. Their path, runtime and some technical details were visible in a number of publicly available air traffic monitoring websites and apps. Deployment of those aircrafts came from the aforementioned U.S. air fields in Italy. UAVs (unmanned aerial-vehicles) as the RQ-4 (call sign “Forte 10”) were intensifying surveillance runs and ELINT/IMINT collection about Syrian coastal anti-air defenses. The ISR (Intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance) efforts  were reportedly subjected to Russian Electronic Warfare (EW) jamming measures.
  4. Early last week, the USS Donald Cook has been dispatched to sail in the Eastern Mediterranean after completing a port-call in a Cypriot harbor. Its exact location was unknown due to OPSEC reasons but Ti assessed that its mere presence does not hold the potential for an escalatory capability-build-up in the region or to stage an attack. However, the warship was not ruled out of a possible engagement. Compared to 2017, two warships launched 59 TALMs against the Shayrat Air Base. Ti was looking for more regionally-deployed assets or/ and allied contributions to combine forces.
  5. News of British submarines being deployed in the area, alongside the French multi-class destroyer, Aquitaine, was a strong indication that a percentage of the expected force would be provide by Allies. Intensified activity at the British air base in Cyprus was another strong indication. The Aquitaine was repeatedly buzzed by Russian fighter jets throughout 11-13 April, 2018. 
  6. Ti was monitoring with caution and restraint. There is always the risk that logistical activity and capability deployment can be routine, circumstantial or related to other events: engagement against ISIS/ DAESH within OIR, military exercises with local allies, or troop rotation in U.S. basses in the region For example, a reported and growing U.S. military activity in Jordan was actually due to the upcoming international annually military drill with the Jordanian Army, and had little-to-no connection to a Syrian Strike – as assessed at that time. The evacuation of the Russian Mediterranean Task Force (part of the Black Sea Fleet) based in the Naval Facility in Tartus, was more related to the series of military drills in the Syrian waters (starting with April 11), than an imminent U.S. strike. Regardless that Russian officials had later used the exercises to keep the assets away from impeding danger.
  7. Monitoring a number of publicly available air traffic websites and apps, Ti noticed a complete reduction in commercial flights transiting Syrian airspace – with the exception of the Syrian state-owned ChamWings and affiliated jets, outbound to Tehran (Iran), Baghdad, and Najaf (Iraq). Flights towards the busy Beirut Airport (Lebanon) were re-routed either through Turkey, Egypt or Jordan (and Israel). Kuwait Air Ways cancelled all of their flights to Lebanon.
  8. The main and only shortfall of this assessment, is that Ti largely concentrated on the Eastern Mediterranean region for asset-deployment and build-up due to resource management and operational practicality. It made for sense for TALMs to be launched from the waters just hundreds of km away from the targets, rather than thousands of km. This was only partially fruitful as the following section will detail.

Battle Damage Assessment (BDA) and Operational Layout

  1. On Saturday morning before dawn (April 14, 2018), the US, UK and France launched 105 missiles against the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons development and storage assets. The military campaign was limited and sought to reinstate a credible deterrence against the Assad’s regime usage of WMDs after crossing the red-line instated by the U.S. unilateral strike from April 2017.
  2. The trilateral force consisting of the US, UK and France was integrated throughout the planning and execution of the operation and employed solely air and naval assets deployed in the Mediterranean basin and the Middle East. The U.S. fired:
  •  37 (30+7) TLAMs from the Red Sea (USS Monterey and USS Laboon);
  • 23 TLAMs from the Arab Gulf (USS Higgins);
  • 6 TLAMs from the secretive Virginia-class submarines John Warner operating from the eastern Mediterranean;
  • and 19 JSAAM-ER missiles by a B-1b Strategic bomber coming from Al-Udeid Air base (Qatar) via Jordan. The B-1b’s Defensive Counter Air (DCA) escort was provided by F-16Cs, F-15Cs  and advanced F-22 Raptors armed with air-to-air missiles and the counter-EW capable EA-6B Prowler from the U.S. Marines Corps. This marked the first use of the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range (JASSM-ER) in combat. 

  • The British Typhoon and Tornado fighter jets fired 8 Storm Shadow air-launched cruise missiles into the Homs facility, alongside the French Rafale/ Mirage jets that activated 9 SCALP missiles. British and French jets flew from the Royal Air Force (RAF) in Akrotiri, Cyprus;  
  • The French Navy also fired a number of their indigenous equivalent of the TLAM, namely the Missile de Croisière Naval (MdCN);
  • From the total of 105 strikes, 76 missiles were concentrated fire on the Barzeh Scientific Research Center.

  1. The targets that were struck and destroyed were specifically associated with the Syrian regime’s chemical and biological weapons program. The targets were also selected to minimize and reduce risk of civilian and foreign (Russia, Iran) losses. The first target was the Barzeh Scientific Research Center (Rural Damascus province) that developed, produced and tested biological and chemical weapons technology. The second and third targets were both located in Him Shinshar, Homs province – consisting in a command & control center that contained a Chemical Weapons (CW) storage site and bunker. All of the targets have been successfully and accurately destroyed. The military operation was a success.
  2. The only retaliatory fire came from the Syrian regime’s anti-air defenses which fired around 40 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) at the incoming strikes. Russia had not activated its military infrastructure deployed in Syria due to technological secrecy and political reasons. US, British and French delivery assets didn’t require entering Syrian airspace as the missiles have a generous range that allowed them to be launched from hundreds of km away. Therefore, fighter jets, ships and bombers were not subjected to Syrian counter-measures. The Syrian regime and Russia claim to have shot down a number of TLAMs.

  1. Despite Russian and Syrian claims, it is highly unlikely that Syrian anti-air defense were able to shot down the incoming missiles. Neither Damascus nor Moscow, either officially or via disinformation campaign did not present prove of wreckage, debris or remnants of TLAMs. The significant gap in Syrian S-200 capabilities and Western technology is irreconcilable. The TALMs can change course and speed in mid-air being able to easily evade Soviet-era defense systems, and its size and nature make it difficult for even advanced anti-air weapons to track and intercept them. On the other hand, as the Syrian SAMs were fired but did not hit their targets, there is no information on where those SAMs have fallen. Their impact is worrying given the highly-populated areas of Damascus. There is also no confirmation of the reported use of Russian Electronic Warfare (EW) capabilities nor of their potential impact on the joint American-British-French operation. 
  2. Time will tell whether the limited retaliatory strike on Syria manages to completely deter the Assad regime from using chemical weapons in the future. The military operation was a success, but Ti assess that the losses and damage inflicted on the CW infrastructure were too superficial and came too late for them to degrade these kinds of Syrian capabilities. Damascus had almost a week to conduct pre-damage control and evacuate assets, personnel and data. Employment of SAMs still suggest that targets were relevant enough to (try to) defend, but far from having any strategic impact. The tactical scratches inflicted were solely purposed to echo a strong political message to the Assad regime, and not to severely inflict military losses as a way of containing conflict escalation.

by HARM

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Starve, Surrender or Die: Eastern Damascus to Collapse

Urgent Briefing (4 min read) – A small pocket of land in eastern Damascus (also known as “Eastern Ghouta” is now the scene of the newest humanitarian catastrophy and intense military assault…

Urgent Briefing (4 min read) – A small pocket of land in eastern Damascus (also known as “Eastern Ghouta” is now the scene of the newest humanitarian catastrophy and intense military assault in Syria. In mid-February, the Loyalists forces composed of the Iranian and Russian-backed Syrian governmental troops have moved armed divisions and infantrymen from Idlib province to the exclave of Eastern Ghouta, near the capital. The scope of the military deployments confirmed by visual data and social-media imagery suggested that a renewed offensive is imminent.

Just 24 hours after that build-up, a score of 94 deaths (40 civilians) and 150 injured has been inflicted by Russian Aerospace Forces and the Syrians, according to the United Nations. Assad has largely used its remaining helicopter fleet to drop cluster ammunition on the densely populated area.

Airstrike persisted throughout 20-21 February. Casualties spiked to 310 people killed and over 1,500 injured – many of them civilians. Thermobaric ordinance was also seen to be parachuted by Loyalists air raids in the adiacent neighborhoods. Most of the attacks took place at night, and included artillery shelling. Opposition forces responded with surface-to-surface rounds in governmental-held position in Damascus that also made civilian casualties.

The increased shelling and air campaign is just a preparatory phase of a yet-to-come ground incursion, taking after the Aleppo example (the largest humanitarian disaster throughout this war). This was also suggest by Russian Foreign Ministry Sergey Lavrov.

Location of Loyalist air strikes in Eastern Ghouta pocket – assessed by T-Intelligence utilizing online conflict crowdsourcing platforms and based on Microsoft’s Bing mapping suite. (data is approximate and refers to 18-21 February, 2018)

Background on Eastern Ghouta/ Damascus pocket

Controlled by Opposition Forces since 2013, Eastern Ghouta is a densely populated agricultural district on the outskirts of Damascus – together with quarters of Yarmouk camp, this is the last major area near the capital still under Rebel dominance. Home to 400,000 people, the region has been inherently under tight attrition and siege.

The forces that dominate the area are equally controversial to the ruthless air campaign of their enemies. Dominance in the pocket is split between Ahrar ash-Sham, the Saudi-backed Jaysh al-Islam and al-Rahman Legion. The later allied with al-Qa’ida affiliate, Hay’at Tahrri al-Sham (HTS) in early 2017 to combat the former two, that we’re plotting to oust the jihadists. Fights broke out in the Summer of 2017 but quickly came to an end following an intra-Rebel ceasefire seeking to mutually-respect the areas of influence and subsequent checkpoints. However, while some more extreme than others, the majority of these groups are largely Islamist with profound puritarian feelings, and even Salafist traits that also view Western interests with hostility.

Jaysh al-Islam is dominating the largest piece of the pocket : Stretching from Douma in the north to the south-eastern corner of Nashabiyeh. Ahrar ash-Sham controls a small corner in the north-west encompassing Harasta, while Failaq al-Raham holds the remaining south-west. Movement between the three areas is also highly difficult due to the polarized and volatile tensions between the factions involved – this being also consequential to the hardened lives of the local inhabitants, periodically resulting in deaths and injuries.

The renewed Loyalist offensive of February 2018, is a direct violation of the ceasefire struck between Russia and Opposition forces in August 18th, 2017 in Geneva. To be fair, the truce was fragile to begin with – governmental pressure was enhanced immediately after its signing. Shelling and air rads re-occurred in September and October 2017, and we’re continued by an intensified attrition that suffocated the almost 400,000 people that inhabit the area. The “starve-and-surrender” tactics, so commonly used by the Loyalists through the conflict, have brought the pocket into a horrific state.

 

Starve-or-Surrender: Attrition curtain over Eastern Ghouta

Besieged from 2013, the population of Eastern Ghouta always had limited access to supplies. Now, that window is fully closed. In the early years of the war, many people were able to obtain essential supplies via informal dealing networks passing through tunnels connecting Eastern Ghouta with governmental-controlled districts in the vicinity. Many of those traders bribed Syrian soldiers to grant them passageway.

Thermobaric bombs dropped over Eastern Ghouta pokcet – sourced by Qalaat al-Mudiq user.

Last year, the government closed the tunnels and limited trade. From September to November (when shelling and airstrike re-commenced regardless of the cease-fire), no commercial vehicles were permitted to enter the pocket at all. Limited deliveries resumed in December, but those we’re quickly ceased again.

That led to the exhaustion of food supplied, dramatic price inflation, and deaths resulting from starvation. And with dealers unable to move outside the pocket, the last avenue of basic goods as sugar, flour and rice was cut-off.

Today, a bundle of bread costs close to 22 times the national average, according to U.N. Inherently, malnutrition rates have reached unprecedented level, with 11.9% of children under five years old acutely malnourished. The last convoy to enter Eastern Ghouta was on February 14, and only delivered care packages enough for 7,200 of the 394,000 inhabitants besieged there. This was the sole supply-run in over two months.

Furthermore, medical and emergency services are close to seize operating at all. Only since Sunday, when the Loyalist offensive re-commenced, 14 medical facilities have been taken out of service, according to Dr. Ahmad Dbis of the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM), which operates hospital there. Over 10 medical staff and volunteers have also been killed, while 20 were injured by the recent campaign.

 

No end in sight

The situation will continue to degrade. The Russian military said that talks to peacefully resolve the situation in Eastern Ghouta had broken down and that Rebels there had ignored calls to cease resistance and lay down their arms. Opposition forces are accusing their opponents of forbidding humanitarian aid and food to enter the enclave, subsquentley using it as a negotiating leverage to re-shape a better deal that the already agreed de-escalation cease-fire signed in 2017. While local Opposition forces have not driven out AQ-affiliated elements from the pocket – which is a must. The dramatic humanitarian situation is the work of both parties involved in the war, but the malign presence of Salafists in the area and the Russian response to it are only making things worst.

The United Nations has denounced the bombardment, which has struck hospitals and other civilian infrastructure, saying such attacks could be war crimes. The international arena continues to pressure Moscow, Tehran and Damascus with little chance of success. Ground elements continue to take positions on the northern and eastern axis around the pocket, while artillery rounds pound Rebel positions.

Parallel talks between Russia, Syria and Egypt are also reportedly taking place. Akhbar newspaper reports that the Egyptians are pressuring Jaysh al-Islam to push out HTS-affiliated groups (Rahman) out of the pocket.

 

Acknowledged Hypothesis: 

Possible developments are the following (but not limited to):

  1. Ceasefire to snooze the pocket’s fate;
  2. A military-politically costly and humanitarian-catastrophic Loyalist attempt of liberating Eastern Ghouta/ Damascus – Aleppo style;
  3. Deal to evacuate Opposition fighters to Idlib;
  4. A successive combination of the options previously stated.
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Kurds Host Assad’s Forces to Defend Afrin: Turks Respond via “Idlibistan”

Urgent Briefing (4 min read) – The faith of Afrin remains in the balance. The Kurdish militia, YPG, has struck a deal with the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) of Bashar…

Urgent Briefing (4 min read) – The faith of Afrin remains in the balance. The Kurdish militia, YPG, has struck a deal with the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) of Bashar al-Assad’s regime to enter Afrin, in a bid of deterring further Turkish advancements. Reports claim that forces loyal to Assad have already entered Afrin canton and are establishing outposts.

Just a month ago, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and embedded Syrian Rebel groups have launched Operation Olive Branch with the objective of ousting the Kurds from Syria’s northwestern corner. This incursion was facilitated by the retreatment of the Russian military policemen stationed in Afrin’s airfield, in exchange of the Turkish cooperation of de-escalating Idlib province for the Loyalist offensive that was ongoing at that time. With both parties not keeping they’re side of the deal in the end, Idlb’s limits began to be fortified by Turkish Army observations posts and likewise, Russia closed the airspace for the Turkish jets over Afrin. With littile advances made on Syrian-Turkish borderlands, the Kurds engaged in a multilateral diplomacy with several parties involved in the war.

Afrin is not in the U.S.-led Coalition’s operational interest or reach, and Washington has been attempting to revigorated the strategic partnership with Turkey after so many years of degradation because of the Syrian Civil War. While U.S. troops are stationed in Manbij, east of the Euphrates Shield safe-zone, they will not allocate deterring force for Afrin. Russia has already pulled-out, with no plans of re-deployment. The Syrian Forces remained more concerned regarding the Turkish intervention invoking sovereignty infringement and fearing that the territory will be de facto annexed or controlled by Ankara through a micro-governance of Rebel parties – as occurring in the Euphrates Shield area.

A similar partnership was struck in late-March 2017. When following the end of the Turkish-Rebel operation “Euphrates Shield” culminated with a pyrrhic victory over ISIS in al-Bab, Ankara was eyeing the YPG-led SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) in Manbij. While U.S. troops were detached to parade with the national flag to send a message of deterrence; in addition, the Kurds also sought help from Damascus – which detached several forces near the Turkish positions in south-eastern al-Bab and cutting their frontline with ISIS at that time. It is also ironic, that just several days ago the Kurds backed by the U.S. repealed a massive assault of Russian-private contractor, Wagner Group and Syrian forces in the mid-Euphrates valley, resulting in hundreds of casualties for the Loyalists; while in north-western Syria, the same Kurdish forces are accommodating Syrian troops as a deterrence measure against the Turks. Overall, the Kurds and the Assad government have divergent views over the future of Syria, but have traditionally avoided direct confrontations, with the exceptions of several isolated episodes.

As of now, Loyalist troops are ready to enter Afrin – a deal certified as 100% sure by Syrian media. The Turkish government has a harsh response: “If the Syrian army is to enter Afrin to clear YPG/PKK, we don’t have a problem with that. But if they are to enter to protect YPG, no one can stop Turkish troops”

Operation Olive Branch forces have reportedly shelled the northern vicinity of the Nubl and Zahra villages in Aleppo, attempting to deter Syrian forces from crossing into Afrin. Kurdish volunteers from Aleppo city have also traveled to enforce YPG defensive positions within the canton.

Most probably, the deployment of Syrian Army forces into Afrin will have deterring effects on the Turkish-Rebel coalition forcing them to halt operations in the region’s core – border securing efforts might still continue without targeting Afrin city or other large settlements. However, Ankara will respond by re-escalating the situation in Idlib. Not only will Rebel forces return to that front better armed and supplied, the battlefield itself will be more difficult.

Another day in “Idlibistan”

It is widely known that Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) is the un-official affiliate of al-Qa’ida in Syria. However, a new faction emerged which claims direct affiliation with the Salafist terror group.  Jaysh al-Malaheem was formed in late-2017 following mass defections from the HTS after the former had a public break-up with AQ; but has grown as media footprint online. The Turkistan Islamic Party is another hardline jihadist group with direct links to AQ, and significant resources on the ground. Most of their recruits are battle-hardened Uygurs that fought against Chinese forces in the Xinjiang Islamic insurgency.

In mid-February, HTS’s main competitor and old-traditional ally, Ahrar ash-Sham has united with the Free Syrian Army-affiliate, Noor al-Din al-Zenki to form a new front – Jabhat Tahrir Souriya (the Front for the Liberation of Syria). This re-flamed the old tensions between Ahrar and HTS and brought the new Rebel Coalition into direct confrontation with the jihadists in western Aleppo and south-eastern Idlib.

More to follow

The developments in Afrin and Idlib are natural response, and sequel to the deadlock reached between Turkey and the Loyalists regarding the previous failed deal. The re-escalation of tensions in Idlib, and the Syrian-blockade over Afrin provides new incentives to negotiate an additional, improved deal between the Astana signatory-actors. If that does not occur, chances are that the Syrian regime forces will remain and annex Afrin canton from the Kurds themselves.

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Helping Out: NATO Expands Support for Iraq

Briefing (2 min read) – NATO has agreed to organize a military training mission in Iraq to project stability in the Middle East – Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced on…

Briefing (2 min read) – NATO has agreed to organize a military training mission in Iraq to project stability in the Middle East – Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced on Thursday following the North Atlantic Council (NAC) assembly of the Ministries of Defense gathered in Brussels. The project was considered the government from Baghdad and Prime-Minister Abadi sent an official request to NATO.

The mission will be non-combatant. It will seek to equip the Iraqis with the know-how needed to continue operating in the volatile national security environment, consolidate the Armed Forces, and help stabilize the country after a lengthy and costly war against ISIS. NATO’s involvement comes as Iraq faces a bill of more than $88 billion to rebuild the country, officials told a donor conference in Kuwait this week. Iraq declared victory over Islamic State in December, having taken back all the territory captured by the militants in 2014 and 2015.

The Alliance already has a small team of military and civilian personnel in Iraq and uses mobile teams to train national forces in de-mining, countering home-made bombs and dealing with explosives. Individual states have their own training missions ongoing together with the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), namely the United States, France, Germany, Belgium, Norway and others. This enhancement of NATO presence could go up to 200 troops. The training would take place in the capital Baghdad, other Iraqi cities and even in neighboring countries like Jordan.

Germany’s defense minister mentioned the possibility that some might take place in the northern city of Erbil. Beyond tactical, organizational and technical traineeships for Iraqi servicemen, this commitment will open new academies and schools for the local forces.

A similar framework took place before, in 2004, when the Iraqi Interim Government invited NATO to train its new Armed Forces – a request backed by the U.N. Security Council resolution 1546. Titled NATO Training Mission-Iraq (NTM-I), the operation was also non-combatant and helped establish a sustainable and operational armed force. Primary NATO contributors to NTM-I were the U.S, Italy, Denmark, Holland, UK, later joined by Turkey, Romania, the Baltic states and Bulgaria. External partners were Jordan, which graduated up to 50,000 Iraqi troops, Egypt and Ukraine.

In December 2017, Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) also completed a training with NATO hosted by the Serbian Armed Forces in the southern city of Nis.

Former NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen told Reuters that NATO’s reluctance to do more in the Middle East until now had been bad for the alliance’s image. He proposed a $1 billion fund to support the training efforts, although financing the new mission needs to be discussed by allied governments. This measure alongside past efforts reflect NATO’s steadfast commitment to combating Terrorism, and like-wise to reinforce one the three core tasks of the Alliance: Cooperative Security.

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Why and How Turkey is invading Afrin: Behind the Scenes of Operation “Olive Branch”

Strategic Analysis (10 min read) – The Turkish military intervention to clear Afrin has stagnated in the past weeks. Spearheaded by Syrian Rebels, operation Olive Branch failed to capture more than…

Strategic Analysis (10 min read) – The Turkish military intervention to clear Afrin has stagnated in the past weeks. Spearheaded by Syrian Rebels, operation Olive Branch failed to capture more than a few pockets of lands on the borderlands. While the Kurdish defenses played a role, the key input in this deceleration can only be found in Idlib province. Russia and the Loyalists were the ones that greenlighted operation Olive Branch after striking a deal with Turkey. But they are also the ones to sabotage it. In response, Ankara is enhancing pressure in the Rebel fronts of Idlib complicating the Regime’s advances. The following analysis will detail why Turkey intervened in Afrin, how the operation was planned behind-the-scenes, and how did it came to near failure.

Crowdsourced by Wikipedia’s thread.

The Federation of Northern Syria, or the Kurdish Rojava?

The Afrin canton is a patch of mostly rural hilly lands rich with olive trees, located in north-western Aleppo governorate. This has been the most tranquil sector in Syria throughout the eight-year old civil war. It came under the control of the Kurdish militia YPG and its political wing, the PYD – Democratic Union Party – that provided self-governance in the area following the erosion of Bashar al-Assad’s control over various peripheral provinces of the country in the opening stages of the war. Throughout the fight against ISIS, the U.S-led Coalition enlisted the help of the YPG and several Arab Sunni, Syriac and Turkmen militias to form a multi-ethnic alliance under the direct support and aid of the Department of Defense. The alliance, called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) was a sequel to the joint Kurdish-Arab Euphrates Volcano war room that inflicted a turning-point defeat to ISIS in Kobani (2014). Under close U.S. air support and tactical guidance, they came to liberate nearly the entirety of northern Syria: Raqqa (province and city) and the eastern banks of the mid-Euphrates river valley up until the Iraqi border. This vast territory came under the administration of the 2016-proclaimed Federation of Northern Syria to which the SDF serves as an official army. The federation could as easily be called “Rojava” suggesting the western lands of the Kurds.  Throughout this, the administration based in Qamishli (north-eastern Syria) split the territory into four regions subsequently composed by sub-provinces taking after the Kurdish canton system:

  • Afrin region: Afrin province (Afrin, Jandaris and Rajo), Shahba region (Tel Rifat and Manbij),
  • Euphrates region: Kobani province (Kobani and Sarrin) and Tel Abyad province.
  • Jazzira region: Hasakha province (Hasakha, Tell Tamer, Serekaniye and Derbasiyah) and Qamishli province (Qamislhi and Derik).
  • The mid-Euphrates river valley has not been yet distributed within an existent region nor has the SDF created one. The cities of Raqqa and Tabqa have been placed under a civil council, while the Deir ez-Zor Military Council (DMC) of the SDF is still conducting anti-ISIS raids in the far east corner – an entirely Arab Sunni territory.

 

Ankara perceives the Federation of Northern Syria as a Kurdish state that would embolden the decades-long insurgency in southeastern Turkey to manage a breakaway – starting a domino effect in its path to a greater unified Kurdistan. Despite the resemblance with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) from northern Iraq, this entity cannot be controlled or curbed through soft power tools. The Assembly from Qamishlo is dominated by the PYD, and the Kurds outnumber other militiamen, despite US efforts to enlist more Arab fighters. There is no political counter-weight to the YPG/PYD hegemony that Turkey can use to its advantage. As opposed to northern Iraq where Ankara would traditionally ally with the Barzani clan and the KDP to counter PKK or PUK.

The truth is somewhere in the middle. The main Syrian Kurdish groups remain wedded to their vision of a Syria where they gain autonomy, in a form of federalism, that is at odds with Assad’s determination to control all of Syria. And given their far-left ideology they try to mitigate an inclusive policy of uniformity in an attempt to include the diverse ethnic-groups and confessions in northern Syria – which is fairly unrealistic given the reality on the ground.  Many reports even indicate that the PYD is suppressing opposition parties or that it even displaced Arab villagers from their homes. While there are instances of harmonious Arab-Kurdish cohabitation within the tribes of Syria’s northeastern provice of Hasakha, exporting that model in others parts – including Arab majority regions – has poor chances of succeeding. And parading with the imprisoned PKK leader’s portrait, Abdullah Ocalan, in the center of Raqqa is not sending a good post-conflict message. 

Ethnopolitics and Military might

Several swats of land controlled by the Federation of Northern Syria are either dominated by Arabs or Turkmen – two ethnicities that Ankara is trying to weaponize against the Kurds. It follows the classical and almost cliché divide et imperia strategy of sectarianism.  That is namely the case of Raqqa governorate and the territory from northern Aleppo province already controlled by Turkey and embedded Rebel groups through operation Euphrates Shield. In early 2017, Raqqa province almost followed the same route. Ankara offered Washington the alternative of using Turkish-backed Islamist groups as Ahrar ash-Sham or the Syrian Turkmen Brigades instead of the Kurdish-dominated SDF to capture Raqqa. That offer was rejected by the Trump administration that then proceeded to arm directly the Kurdish elements of the SDF – a premier for the U.S. strategy in Syria. As a result, the self-proclaimed capital of ISIS, Raqqa, was successfully liberated between June and October 2017. Powerless and outmaneuvered, Turkey had to come to terms with the reality on the ground. However, the U.S. guaranteed that the weapons will be retrieved afterwards. That process never occurred as the anti-ISIS operations were later extended down the eastern banks of mid-Euphrates river valley – a process still ongoing.

SDF is here to stay

In January 2018, The United States announced plans to further enhance the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The Pentagon attempts to transforme the SDF from an alliance of armed tribesmen and rigid militias to a quasi-professional regular armed force. This plan is vital for security and stability in the liberated territories. It will also serve as a lethal and deterring counter-insurgency “silver bullet” against the displaced, fleeing or hidden jihadists plotting to revive the destroyed “Caliphate”. Presumably, it would also serve the geopolitical role of countering Iranian hegemony developing the region. On the other hand, it suggests that the Kurdish elements will not be de-armed or abandoned by the United States.

Another Turkish-Russian gamble: The Afrin-for-Idlib Deal

Turkey decided to act on the only Kurdish-controlled land that is out of the U.S-led Coalition’s operational interest, protection or reach: the Afrin canton. To achieve this, it had to turn to Russia who provided geopolitical protection for that area. The Kurds (YPG) knew that Afrin was uncovered in face of Turkish hostilities as it lacked U.S. troop presence that would deter them – as they did in Manbij. Inherently, the YPG had to look for another “guarding angel”.

Moscow had a major interest in gaining leverage over Ankara as it was preparing to initiate an offensive against the Turkish-backed Rebels from Idlib. Gaining control of Afrin would draw Ankara back to the negotiations table in that matter. Accordingly, YPG secured the protection of the Russian Federation.

In mid-2017, Moscow deployed military policemen in Afrin to setup an observation outpost flying the Russian flag. That checked Turkey’s move in the region for a while. However, the circumstances on the battlefield changed. The Loyalist camp could not penetrate Idlib province, the largest Rebel-stronghold. Furthermore, the (unofficial) al-Qa’ida franchise there, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) had unleashed a major crackdown on other Rebel fronts, further polarizing the Opposition between Islamists and hardline Salafist jihadists. Fighters defected from other militias to join HTS, which emboldened the group to prey on territories controlled by the weakened Rebel groups. As it seized key routes and cities, most of the Syrian Rebels were subdued under HTS’s command. Throughout this quagmire, in November 2017, the Turkish Armed Forces managed to establish a military outpost in Mount Sheikh Barakatwestern Aleppo countryside, near Idlib.  The province was becoming an impossible nut to crack without Turkish endorsement or cooperation. 

A deal was struck: Afrin for Idlib. Russia pulls its soldiers from Afirn, essentially opening the airspace for Turkish jets and operations, if Turkey intervenes to soften the situation in Idlib. Ankara began pulling Rebel fighters from Idlib and positioning them on Turkish borderland with Afrin. Military convoys of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) were spotted entering Idlib province. Moscow expected them to put the jihadists from HTS back in line, but instead the Turkish Army took positions on the mountains overlooking Afrin from northern Idlib. It became clear that Turkey was laying a siege on the Kurds.

In sync, the Loyalist camp, namely Russian, Assad’s forces and Iranian-backed Shi’a militias accelerated their offensive in south-western Idlib taking advantage on the lower Rebel numbers there – transferred by Turkey on the Afrin front. A deal is a deal, so Russia also evacuated its soldiers from Afrin essentially OKing Ankara to commence with the offensive.

Operation Olive Branch

On January 20th, The Turkish Air Force (TAF) began pounding villages in the canton and Afrin city. Rebel light infantry units were formed on the Syrian borderlands embedded with entire mechanized units of the Turkish Armed Forces. A bridge was built from Turkey’s Hatay province for military vehicles to cross the Karasu river into Qara Baba, a village in Afrin, Syria. At the end of the day, over 108 sorties were launched by Turkish F-16s. It kicked-off a slow-moving offensive that made headlines more because of the indiscriminately air strikes than ground achievements. On the same date, the Loyalist managed to capture the strategic al-Duhur air base in western Idlib province – a precious victory against the Rebels that was facilitated or at least accelerated by the Turkish operation. Immediately afterwards, the situation started to suspiciously erode for Ankara.

The Saboteurs

The next day, the Syrian government publicly condemned the Turkish intervention invoking a sovereignty infringement. Pro-government forces even opened Aleppo for YPG to move militiamen and logistics to Afrin. In exchange, the Kurds will trade grain and oil from areas controlled in northeast Syria (Hasakha and Deir ez-Zor), a source said to Al Jazeera. Secretary of Defense James Mattis said that close to 50% of Kurdish militiamen are now shifting from active front with ISIS to fight-off the Turkish intervention. The international community, including the United States, the European Union, France and Germany condemned the operation in harsh terms.

In Idlib, the situation was also worsening for the Turkish-backed Rebels. The loss of al-Duhur air base was a defeat too great to ignore. Many of the Rebels transferred to Afrin returned to keep the line against Syrian, Russian and Iranian-backed troops.

On February 3rd, the Opposition Forces downed a Russian Su-25 fighter jet in skies of Idlib. The weapon used was a Russian-made Man-portable air-defense (MANPAD), Sa-18 Igla, that the Rebels captured only days ago from the Kurdish YPG in Afrin. This complicated the relationship between Ankara and Moscow. It is reported that Russia consequently re-closed the airspace over Afrin. Turkish government spokesman Bekir Bozdağ denied the claims. But security sources told Cumhuriyet that Turkish warplanes and helicopters had only been patrolling the Turkish side of the Syrian border and not crossing since then. Banned from flying over Afrin, the Turks were also not welcomed in Idlib.

On February 5th, The Syrian Arab Army or allied Iranian-backed paramilitary groups have reportedly started shelling the freshly established positions of Turkish forces in the southern countryside of Aleppo province – according to both opposition and pro-government sources. The Turkish Army arrived there from Idlib to establish observation posts as agreed in the Astana de-escalation accords. It is known that non-Syrian Army pro-government units based opposite the Al-Eis area are mostly Iranian-linked or Iranian (proper) forces. The Turkish Army has apparently responded to the attacks with a rocket artillery salvo against pro-governmental positions near Shugheydilah. Casualties were reported on both sides but the incident was buried under the rug. It appears that Russia is willing to push forward the Syrian regime, or even encourage Iran to take more central stage in dealing with Turkey. 

On February 10th, a Turkish T-129 attack chopper was downed by Kurdish anti-aircraft fire originating from Afrin. The helicopter crashed in Turkey’s Hatay province resulting in the death of both pilots. Further, a photo surfaced online showing Kurdish YPG militiamen operating an Iranian-made infantry vehicle armed with an 106mm mounted anti-tank cannon. In response, new Turkish military convoys entered Idlib to establish more observation posts near Loyalist-held positions in Aleppo and Hama. This move enforces the Astana de-escalation accord, essentially blocking the Loyalist offensive in the area.

As of February 12, more than 20 Turkish soldiers and 150 YPG fighters have been killed since the military offensive began. 

 

Back to Renegotiating: To Be Continue

Seemingly, Moscow only struck the deal with Turkey to facilitate further gains against the Rebels in Idlib. As soon as victory was achieved in al-Duhur, it began to backpaddle on endorsing Operation Olive Branch. This is not to say that Afrin is safe from further airstrikes or land incursions. The combined forces of Turkish and Syrian Rebels will move forward with the ground operation regardless of the great costs awaiting them. It is already reported that TAF air strikes have restarted.

The Afrin and Idlib provinces are uniquely interconnected in this late stage of the Syrian Civil War. Likewise, the Ankara-Moscow dynamic has proven to be one of the most creative and unlikely relations. It would be no surprise if the parties managed to compromise and outmaneuver each other again; and again, and again

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