Category: MENA

What We Know About the Secret Israeli-Saudi Meeting in Neom

On 22 November 2020, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), and Israeli Prime-Minister Netanyahu met in Neom (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia). The…

On 22 November 2020, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), and Israeli Prime-Minister Netanyahu met in Neom (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia). The meeting was the first known official or semi-official encounter between Israel and Saudi Arabia and came at a critical time for the Middle East. 

NETANYAHU’S SECRET VISIT

Although the Israeli presence was a secret, the Prime Minister’s Gulfstream IV private jet (T7CPX) was spotted on flight trackers. ADS-B data shows the flight path of T7CPX from Tel Aviv-Yafo to Neom, where the plane remained grounded for two hours. The aircraft returned to Israel around 22:05 UTC. 

Flight tracking data confirms that Israeli PM Netanyahu’s private jet travelled to Neom on the evening of November 22 (T-Intelligence)

Netanyahu’s presence in Neom has since become an open secret, as multiple sources from the cabinet confirmed the story for Israeli news outlets. Israeli media also reported that Mossad chief Yossi Cohen joined PM Netanyahu for the meeting in Neom. 

The main point on the agenda was likely the normalization of Israeli-Saudi relations. Secretary Mike Pompeo has pursued MBS to follow the example of his neighbors, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, to establish formal ties with Israel. However, Riyadh has publically stated that an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is a precondition for a Saudi-Israeli deal. 

GOING AFTER “PROJECT AMAD?”

There is increasing speculation that the parties also discussed the Iranian threat.

After years of backchanneling, Saudi Arabia and Israel may be negotiating the possibility of direct action against Iran’s nuclear program (Iranian codename Project “Amad”). The Israelis are interested in using Saudi airspace to refuel and return after striking the nuclear facilities in central and south Iran. 

Israel may have already discussed or will discuss similar arrangements with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

A potential Israeli campaign against Iran’s nuclear program would require more than 20 fighter aircraft, including F-35I stealth fighters, and many other logistical support assets like aerial tankers. These assets need to be forward deployed and their flight paths carefully coordinated to ensure the operation’s success and a safe return for the Israeli pilots. Additionally, the operation would likely require special operations forces (SOFs), who would insert from nearby states. 

From Israel’s perspective, the issue of military action against Iran has become more pressing after President Trump’s electoral loss. President-elect Biden will likely have a softer stance on Iran. Biden has already promised to re-join the nuclear deal with Iran if Tehran promises strict compliance. At the moment, these plans are nevertheless speculation. There are no troop movements or logistical preparations that suggest an imminent attack against Iran. Israel and Saudi Arabia are likely trying to establish common ground should the military option be on the table in the future.  

MISSILE STRIKE ON JEDDAH

Hours after the Neom meeting ended, the Yemeni Houthi militia launched a cruise missile strike on an Aramco petrochemical plant in Jeddah. Geolocation of social media material confirms the event and location. 

Geolocation confirms authenticity and location of an Instagram video that claims to show a fire at the Aramco facility in Jeddah (T-Intelligence)

The Yemeni Houthi militia claims to have debuted the Quds-2, one of the many missiles Iran is secretly developing for its proxies. Quds-2 is believed to be a spin-off of Iran’s Soumar or Ya-Ali missiles. 

Launched from an undisclosed location in northern Yemen, the Quds-2 missile traveled 640 km (400 miles) to Jeddah, the militants claim. 

While the Houthi already possess ballistic missiles (BM) that can strike targets 1,000 km away, the increased range of the militants’ low-observable (LO) munition is concerning. LO munition like cruise missiles and so-called “suicide drones” can bypass the Saudi PAC-2 air defenses designed to counter BMs. 

Battle damage assessment shows minimal damage at the Aramco plant in Jeddah. One crude oil storage tank was disabled, and the blast scarred a second tank. 

Battle Damage Assessment shows minimal damage on Aramco facility in Jeddah (imagery: Planet Labs, Inc.; assessment: T-Intelligence)

The attack was a clear message from Iran. It serves as a reminder of Iran’s massive missile stockpile and proxy network in the Middle East. 


by HARM

Editing by Gecko

Our findings were first published as a Facebook post on 23 November 2020.

This article was produced using Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT). Learn more about OSINT here

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U.S. Maintains Pressure on al-Qa’ida’s Most Overlooked Franchise

A covert US airstrike has killed the leader of Tanzeem Hurras al-Din (HAD), al-Qa’ida’s leading Syrian franchise, in Idlib province on 14 June 2020. Abu al-Qassam (also known as Khaled…

A covert US airstrike has killed the leader of Tanzeem Hurras al-Din (HAD), al-Qa’ida’s leading Syrian franchise, in Idlib province on 14 June 2020. Abu al-Qassam (also known as Khaled al-Aruri) was a seasoned al-Qa’ida (AQ) operative who was plotting attacks against the West. 

According to social media sources, an MQ-9 Predator drone armed with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, likely operated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), was present over Idlib that day.

Impact marks on the target vehicle, blade cuts, and ordnance debris suggest that the US employed the secretive, blade-wielding derivative of the AGM-114 Hellfire, known as the R9X

AGM-114R9X HELLFIRE AKA THE “FLYING GINSU” 

While the United States never officially acknowledged its existence, the R9X is an open secret. The R9X trades the “Hellfire” warhead for six sword-like blades that eject upon impact and slice the target into pieces. Because there is no explosion, the weapon minimizes collateral damage. 

The R9X debuted in February 2017, when it neutralized AQ deputy commander Abu Khayr al-Masri near al-Mastouma in Idlib province. Since then, JSOC and the CIA have repeatedly used the weapon against high-value targets in northwestern Syria, Afghanistan, and reportedly the Horn of Africa. 

R9X schematic via The Wall Street Journal

WHY IS THE US TARGETING TANZEEM HURRAS AL-DIN (HAD)?

Tanzeem Hurras al-Din (HAD, or “Guardians of the Religion Organization”) was founded in February 2018, when a group of AQ loyalists splintered from Hay’ at Tahrir al-Sham, the most influential terrorist group in Idlib. The hardliners left because HTS publicly cut ties with AQ central. 

Now AQ’s leading Syrian franchise, HAD aims to overthrow the Syrian regime and establish a regional Islamic State. In contrast to HTS, HAD is outspoken about its intent to attack the United States and the West. 

Despite its malign intentions, international observers and the press often overlook HAD. According to a UN intelligence report, HAD’s numbers are currently small (between 1,500 and 2000 fighters), the group exercises little territorial influence and depends on HTS funds to operate.

In the long term, HAD could nevertheless establish itself as a more radical alternative to HTS. While HTS cooperates with Turkey on the Sochi peace process, HAD opposes negotiations with the “infidels.” HAD favors a full-out confrontation with the pro-government forces. Part of this strategy is to mobilize the Syrian opposition under its wing and AQ banner.

COUNTERING AL-QA’IDA IN SYRIA (AQ-S)

The United States intelligence and military collectively refer to HAD, HTS, and other ex-Jabhat al-Nusra groups as al-Qa’ida in Syria (AQ-S). Despite their different policies and marketing strategies, the jihadi groups are still cooperating to achieve AQ’s global agenda. 

In response to the growing terrorist threat in northwestern Syria, the US has deployed kinetic options to weaken AQ-S groups. The campaign began in 2014, when American drones targeted the Khorasan Group, then Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra. The operational tempo increased in 2019. American drones prosecuted four targets: A HAD training camp in June, a HAD safehouse in August, a foreign trainer of the “Red Bands” (HTS’ special forces) in December, and a car carrying Ahrar ash-Sham members later that month

With the latest strike on 14 June 2020, it becomes clear that HAD has absorbed the lion’s share of US airstrikes in Idlib. The focus on HAD indicates that Washington is increasingly concerned about the group’s intentions to attack the West. 



Intelligence suggests that HAD has recruited ISIS fighters who escaped from the siege on Baghuz al-Faqwani – diehards with extensive combat experience, and possibly networks of terrorist cells. HAD fighters also enjoy a fast gateway to Europe and other locations in the Middle East, due to their proximity to Turkish territory. Likely, the reduction of violence in Idlib has given HAD breathing space to build external terrorist networks and plan strikes against the West. 

Defeating HAD will require close coordination with Turkey, which de facto patrons Idlib province, and supports HTS, HAD’s “frenemy.” 


by HARM

Editing by Gecko 

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Russia Sends Fighter Jets to Libya

Russia has deployed military aircraft to Libya to support General Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), Imagery Intelligence (IMINT) from the United States Africa Command (US AFRICOM) shows. The new…

Russia has deployed military aircraft to Libya to support General Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), Imagery Intelligence (IMINT) from the United States Africa Command (US AFRICOM) shows. The new intelligence confirms claims, previously made by the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, that Haftar is receiving aerial reinforcements from Russia. 

Recently, the LNA has been caught on their heels by the GNA. Backed by Turkish airpower, the GNA has forced the LNA out of strategic positions in northwestern Libya. The GNA’s successful offensive and Turkey’s aerial onslaught have marked the most significant setback for Haftar yet. The Russian intervention aims to tip the balance back into the LNA’s favor. 



FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE: A FOURTH GENERATION PACKAGE

The flock of Russian fourth-generation aircraft deployed to Libya consists of at least four MiG-29 multi-role fighters (NATO Reporting name: Fulcrum) and an unknown number of Su-24 (Fencer) and Su-34 (Fullback) fighter-bombers. Two Su-35 air superiority fighters (Flanker-E) of the Russian Aerospace Forces (RuAF) provided counter-air escort for the formation. 

The aircraft first relocated from Astrakhan (Russia) to Hmeimim Air Base near Latakia, Syria with a stopover at Hamadan Air Base Iran) to refuel on 12 and 14 May.

At Hmeimin Air Base, they received a new paint job to camouflage their origin and refueled before continuing to Libya on 18 May.

When they entered Libyan airspace, the unmarked Russian aircraft made another refueling stop near Tobruk. They then resumed their journey to al-Jafra Air Base on the same day. At least 14 unmarked Russian aircraft were delivered to al-Jafra using this air bridge, according to US AFRICOM. 

On the next day, satellite imagery showed a MiG-29 Fulcrum on the taxiway of the LNA-held al-Jafra Air Base. The geospatial imagery prompted extensive speculations regarding the ownership of the aircraft on social media. Some claimed that the MiG-29 is a RuAF jet. Others argued that the United Arab Emirates bought it from Belarus for Haftar’s air wing. 

While we know that the aircraft belong to the RuAF now, it is still unknown who will operate them. Faced with a massive shortage of trained personnel, the LNA has previously hired mercenary pilots for its legacy Su-22s and MiG-23s. Fourth-generation fighter jets are nevertheless a completely different league. Even the most experienced pilots require months of training to master these machines. While Russia may have sent pilots, the Kremlin traditionally prefers to operate in the shadows. Russia makes extensive use of state-backed private military corporations (PMCs) and irregular forces to do dirty work overseas instead. 

STATE-BACKED MERCENARIES 

It is noteworthy that US AFRICOM specifically identified the “Wagner Group” PMC as the primary beneficiary of Russia’s new air power in Libya. While the Russian government has never officially acknowledged the existence of Wagner, the PMC has been the go-to choice of the Russian Military Intelligence (GRU), when it comes to outsourcing politically sensitive external operations. Wagner is known for fighting in Eastern Ukraine, Syria, the Central African Republic (CAR), Sudan, Libya, and other countries. 


The article was updated to include the latest information released by US AFRICOM on 27 May 2020.

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Lethal Stalkers: How Turkish Drones Are Neutralizing Haftar’s Pantsirs in Libya (BDA)

Turkish drones operating in Libya on behalf of the Government of National Accord (GNA) have neutralized ten of General Haftar’s Pantsir S-1E (NATO Reporting name: SA-22 “Greyhound) air defense systems…

Turkish drones operating in Libya on behalf of the Government of National Accord (GNA) have neutralized ten of General Haftar’s Pantsir S-1E (NATO Reporting name: SA-22 “Greyhound) air defense systems in less than a week. The Turkish aerial onslaught was the most significant suppression/ destruction of air defenses (S/DEAD) operation of the Libyan Civil War and a colossal humiliation for Russia’s prime counter-drone and short-range air defense. Forced into retreat, Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) has pledged to respond with the biggest aerial battle in Libyan history. 



OPERATION “VOLCANO OF RAGE” 

The GNA’s counter-offensive against LNA advances in western Libya and around Tripoli (“Vulcano of Rage”), which commenced in April 2019, has finally reached a breakthrough. Backed by Turkey’s S/DEAD campaign, GNA forces have secured the Tunisian border, recaptured the western shoreline, and pushed the LNA out of its strategic positions in Watiyah Air Base and south of Gharyan. GNA militias are now ready to retake northwestern Libya (Tripolitania), the country’s most populous region. 

Map of “Rage of Volcano” offensive via Rr016

BAYRAKTAR VS. PANTSIR 

Pantsirs provide point air defense for LNA tactical positions, and especially airfields. The airfields are vital for Haftar’s air wing as they host fighter aircraft refurbished with Egyptian, Emirati, and Russian assistance, as well as Emirati drones for airstrikes against the GNA. 

Emirati variant of the Pantsir S-1Export, which uses the Rheinmetal Man SX45 8×8 truck, via Portal Defensa

The Pantsir’s 96K6 surface-to-air missiles have an engagement range of up to 24 km. In comparison, Ankara’s Bayraktar 2TB unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV), which was likely responsible for the strikes against Hafter, uses MAM-L Smart Micro Munition manufactured by Rokestan. The MAM-L can strike targets up to 14 km away. In theory, the Turkish UCAVs with their small warhead (max. 22 kg) and limited engagement range are not ideal for S/DEAD missions. Turkey likely leveraged the inexperience of the Pantsir crew members, who are a combination of Russian mercenaries (Wagner) and poorly trained Libyans (it is unknown whether the Emirati military advisors play an active role in operating the Pantsirs).  

Bayraktar TB-2 armed with MAM-L and MAC-C missiles via IslamicWorldNews

Part of Turkey’s tactics are long-endurance ISR sorties (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) that identify the perfect window of opportunity for a strike. The footage in the BDA section shows that most of the attacks caught the Pantsirs unprepared and inactive after the Turkish drones had stalked them for an extended time.

It is furthermore possible that Turkey used the Koral Electronic Warfare (EW) system to jam, deceive or paralyze the Pantsir’s radar. An electronic attack could explain how the drones managed to get within firing range even when the air defenses were up and running. Turkey deployed the Koral in Libya as part of a broader military assistance package, which includes frigates, air defenses, and even Syrian rebels, in early 2020. 

The KORAL Mobile Radar Electronic Warfare System is composed of Electronic Support and Electronic Attack System each mounted on an eight by eight tactical truck (photo credits: ASELSAN)

THE HUNT: BATTLE DAMAGE ASSESSMENT

The GNA claims that the drone campaign neutralized ten Pantsir S-1E air defense systems (9 destroyed, one captured) in four days, between 16 and 20 May. 

The GNA and affiliated press outlets released footage that confirms seven drone strikes, most of which have been validated through geolocation. Analysis of the footage, coupled with social media photos from the target sites, irrefutably prove that the raids hit five Pantsir batteries – four destroyed, one damaged. However, this does not mean that the rest of the strikes did not take place or that other missiles did not reach their targets. It is uncommon for militaries to publish targeting footage from all of their operations. 

We estimate that the loss of Pantsirs racks up a bill of at least $140 million for the United Arab Emirates, which supplied the systems to Haftar. 


16-18 MAY: RAID ON WATIYA AIR BASE

The GNA resumed its counter-offensive against the LNA in early May, pledging to recover Haftar’s gains from the past year. On 15 May, GNA forces encircled the LNA-held Watiya Air Base (WAB) in western Libya and called in Turkish air support to soften the enemy’s defenses. On the night of 16 May, Turkish drones took to the skies of Watiya and raided the strategic airbase. The drones struck two clamshell hardened aircraft shelters (HAS) in WAB’s southeast corner, damaging a Pantsir S-1E. The GNA captured the Pantsir (and a makeshift user manual) after the LNA withdrew from WAB on 20 May. 

The Pantsir S-1E system damaged after the drone raid on al-Watiya Air Base

The next day, Turkish drones bombed a third hangar, causing it to collapse on a Pantsir. Photos from the site show the Pantsir buried in concrete, seemingly totaled. This attack raised many questions, as the micro-munitions used by Turkish drones, do not pack a punch big enough to crumble a HAS. Possibly, a Turkish frigate off the Libyan coast launched a cruise missile that destroyed the “clamshell.” Alternatively, the drone attack triggered a series of secondary explosions, which caused the hangar to implode. 

BDA of the Al-Watiyah raids via ImageSat International

Left without anti-air cover and surrounded by the GNA, Haftar’s LNA withdrew from WAB on 18 May 2020. GNA militias secured the airbase immediately after. Social media postings of GNA fighters provide an on-site Battle Damage Assessment (BDA), which confirmes that one Patnsir was damaged and another destroyed (third hangar). 

The second Pantsir S-1 targeted, covered in concrete

The photos also showcased other military hardware left behind by the LNA, including several decommissioned Mirage-F1 and Su-22 (Fitter) aircraft and Mi-24 (Hind) and Mi-35 helicopters (Hind-E) dating back to the Gaddafi-era. 


18 MAY: SOUTH OF SIRTE

Hours before the LNA withdrew from WAB and some 300 km east, a Turkish drone executed another operation. The UCAV was monitoring an LNA military transport carrying an inactive Pantsir S-1 on its trailer. The truck was moving the Pantsir from Ghardabiya AB, near Sirte, to al-Jafra AB in central Libya. When the vehicle stopped around 70 km south of Sirte, the Turkish drone scored a direct hit on the Pantsir.

20 MAY: RAIDS ON TARHUNAH AND ELSEWHERE

Videos released to the press on 20 May, show a series of drone strikes that neutralized four Pantsirs in the town of Tarnurah. The airstrikes intended to soften Haftar’s defenses in the area.

The attack destroyed one inactive Pantsir, which was on the move in an intersection west of Tanurah. Two other Pantsirs were supposedly destroyed while sheltered in hangars. The videos show the missiles hitting the structures, but do not offer proof that confirms the “kills.” However, if the hangars were harboring Pantsirs, the air defense systems likely did not survive the attack. 

The fourth engagement shows an irrefutable kill of an active Pantsir – radar spinning and scanning. The official release claims that this strike also took place near Tarnurah.

The GNA also announced that it destroyed three other Pantsirs on the same day: two in “Wishka” and one in Suk el-Ahad. As they did not provide visual proof, we are unable to confirm the outcome or the location of the strikes. 


HAFTAR TO STRIKE BACK? 

The chief of the LNA’s air wing, Saqr Al-Jaroushi, vowed to unleash the “largest aerial campaign in Libyan history” with all Turkish positions now “legitimate targets for our airforce.” 

The GNA’s Minister of Interior Fathi Bashagha said at least six MiG-29s (Fulcrum) and two Su-24s (Fencer) have flown into eastern Libya from Russia’s 55th Hmeimim Airbase in Syria, to bolster the LNA’s offensive capabilities. He added that Russian Air Force Su-35 air superiority fighters (Flanker-E) escorted the flight group. 

Mr. Bashagha’s accusations are consistent with unconfirmed reports from earlier this week, which claimed that six MiG-29s flew from Russia to Syria with a stop in Iran’s Hamadan Air Base. This formation may have continued to Libya. 



However, Scramble Magazine claims that the fighters jets were sent from Belarus, and not Russia. The aviation magazine assesses that the UAE procured MiG-29BM (Bolyshaya Modernizaciya) and Su-24M variants from the Belarussian Air Force for the LNA. They also said that Belarussian and Syrian pilots familiar with the airframes are likely involved in the operation. 

Geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) released by Maxar Technologies partially confirmes the reports. Satellite imagery of the LNA-held al-Jufra Air Base (JAB) shows at least one MiG-29 taxied on the runway as of 19 May. 

MiG-29 at al-Jufrah Air Base, Libya, on 19 May, via Digital Globe/ Maxar

Likely, JAB was also the destination of the Pantsir S-1E intercepted on the move south of Sirte on 18 May. It is possible that the Pantsir had been re-deployed to reinforce JAB’s aerial defenses before the aircraft build-up. 

Haftar’s aerial reinforcements signal that the Libyan Civil War will likely re-escalate. It remains to be seen how the GNA’s main allies, Turkey, Qatar, and Italy, will react. 

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What We Learned From Israel’s Latest Airstrike Spree in Syria

Over the past eight years, The Israeli Air Force (IAF) has conducted over 300 “unclaimed” airstrikes against the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and its axis of transnational Shiite militias (the…

Over the past eight years, The Israeli Air Force (IAF) has conducted over 300 “unclaimed” airstrikes against the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and its axis of transnational Shiite militias (the Iranian Threat Network/ITN) in Syria. Israel’s covert air campaign aims to avert an Iranian entrenchment in Syria and prevent the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah and other militias that threaten Israel. 

In 2020, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) has conducted 14 operations in Syria (by the date of the publication of this analysis). The IAF operations have targeted at least 23 different locations all over Syria, except for the northeast corner. Five of the 23 airstrikes occurred in the two weeks between 20 April and 4 May, indicating an increase in Iranian threat network (ITN) activity. 

Thanks to ImageSatInternational’s battle-damage assessments and reports from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, as well as social media intelligence (SOCMINT), we were able to draw the following conclusions:

THE MORE THINGS CHANGE, THE MORE THEY STAY THE SAME

The recent Israeli airstrikes in the provinces of Quneitra, Suweida, Da’ara, and the Damascus area indicate that the IRGC’s external operations branch, the Quds Force (IRGC-QF), and the ITN still hold positions near the Israeli border despite Russian statements to the contrary. 



Southern Syria has been the IAF’s primary area of operations for the past eight years. The vast majority of IRGC weapon shipments end up in Syrian military bases around Damascus and warehouses across the Lebanese border. With the Israeli-held Golan Heights just a stone’s throw away, Jerusalem is concerned that the ITN will use southern Syria as a springboard to attack Israel.

The IAF has also raided Damascus International Airport (DAI), where IRGC-linked airliners deliver missiles, munitions, and other weapons. While DAI is probably one of the most recurrent targets of the IAF, the airstrike on 13 February 2020 marked a premier. After years of hesitation, the IAF bombed the IRGC’s headquarters in Syria, a three-floor glasshouse near the airport entrance. By the time of the strike, the Glasshouse had nevertheless become a symbolic target due to extensive media coverage. 

Like before, the IAF has also prosecuted high-value targets (HVT) targets on Syrian soil. In late February, the IAF successfully neutralized the local Hezbollah operative Imad Tawil who was driving in the town of Hader, near the Israeli border. Imad Tawil was facilitating Iran’s efforts to secure a foothold on the Golan Heights, according to local media reports.  

On 18 April, an Israeli drone unsuccessfully targeted Hezbollah commander Mustafa Mughniyeh, son of the group’s late second-in-command Imad Mughniyeh near the Lebanese border. As video surveillance seems to show, Mustafa Mughniyeh and his security detail managed to flee the vehicle before the bombs hit. 

ABU KAMAL IS THE NEW FLASHPOINT

The Syrian-Iraqi border became the IAF’s new focal point after IRGC-backed forces captured the town of Abu Kamal from ISIS in late 2017. Because of its geostrategic position, the border crossing near Abu Kamal is a critical node in Iran’s logistical land-bridge, which stretches from Iran to Lebanon (the “Shiite Crescent”). All Iranian weapons that enter Syria via Iraq have to pass through Abu Kamal. 

In 2019, Iran built an underground super-warehouse, called “Imam Ali” garrison, to shelter some of the cargo entering Syria. The Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), an umbrella of over 60 Iraqi (mostly) Shiite militias loyal to Iran, control the Imam Ali site as well as the entire Syrian-Iraqi border. Kata’ib Hezbollah, Badr Organisation, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, Asaib al-Haq, and the Imam Ali Brigades (IAB) are some of the most influential PMU groups invested in Syria.

Key Iraqi PMUs, also known as “Special Groups” by the CIA (T-Intelligence). NOTE: Kataib Hezbollah’s Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis died in a US airstrike in Baghdad in January 2020.

Other Shiite militias, including Brigade 313 (Syrian), the Liwa Fatemiyoun (Afghan Shiite Hazaras), and Liwa Zainbiyoun (Pakistani Shiite Zaidi) are also operating in the area and elsewhere in Syria. SOHR estimates that the Iranian threat network (ITN) has around 6,200 fighters in the Mid-Euphrates River Valley (MERV) area. 

Naturally, the target-rich Abu Kamal area has become a hotspot of IAF activity. In 2020, the IAF bombed IRGC-QF and PMU positions in eastern Syria on three different occasions (January, March, and May). 

In January, Israeli aircraft destroyed an IAB convoy near Abu Kamal, resulting in 8 Iraqi militiamen KIA. The Iraqis were reportedly delivering missiles to Hezbollah. During the same raid, the IAF also struck an arms depot in the same area. 

On 11 March, the IAF prosecuted PMU installations around Abu Kamal again, including the “Imam Ali” garrison. Later in May, Israel raided a series of militia positions throughout the MERV. Overall, the three operations killed at least 48 Iraqi militiamen and Iranian operatives. 

Maintaining maximum pressure on the Abu Kamal logistic node is imperative for denying Iran freedom of movement in Syria. The IAF needs to demonstrate that no matter the distance, Israel is willing and able to prosecute targets anywhere in the region. To make the point even clearer, Israel raided IRGC and PMU positions in Iraq five times last year. 

THE IRGC IS MOVING UNDERGROUND

The IAF’s recent airstrikes revealed that the IRGC is increasingly relying on underground storage solutions to protect its weapons from Israeli attacks. While the Imam Ali garrison is the largest storage facility, Iran has built many other underground depots throughout Syria. 

Battle damage assessment (BDA) of the 20 April 2020 strike shows that Israel bombed nine underground storage facilities north of Palmyra. The bunkers likely harbored weapons delivered either by land via Abu Kamal or by air to the nearby Tyias Air Base.

A week later, on 27 April, Israel bombed a similar facility in Mezzeh Air Base in Damascus. While the airstrike damaged the entrance to the depot, it is unknown whether it also destroyed the underground bunker. Partly operated by the SyAAF Intelligence Directorate, one of the IRGC’s closest Syrian partners, Mezzeh Air Base is a safe-haven for Iran’s militias.  

If Iran continues to build storage bunkers, it will force Israel jets to fly with ground-penetrating ordnance instead of cruise missiles. As bombs have a smaller operational range than cruise missiles, the Israeli jets will need to fly closer to their targets, which will expose them further to Syrian air defenses. For example, the Delilah cruise missile can be fired from a maximum distance of 250 km away. In comparison, the GBU-39 small diameter bomb, which has a warhead four times bigger than Delilah’s, is only capable of traveling 64 km in ideal circumstances. A hardened penetration bomb as the BLU-109, with an 874 kg warhead, will require a release from an ever closer range. An increased payload also translates into a larger aircraft radar-cross section, making it easier for Syrian radars to detect the IAF jets, and a decreased flight maneuverability and range. 

An Israeli F-16I armed with a BLU-109 forged steel point tip, and a BLU109 JDAM, 2000lb bunker-buster penetration bomb.

ISRAEL CONTINUES TO DEFY THE SYRIAN S-300

Israel’s daring strikes near Homs and Shayrat, deep inside the engagement range of Syria’s S-300’s (NATO reporting name: SA-20B “Gargoyle”), have proved again that the IAF enjoys air superiority over Syria. While there are also topological and tactical factors at play, it is virtually certain by now that Russia, who gifted the S-300 to the SyAAF, has forbidden the Syrians from using it against Israeli aircraft (read more about the S-300 issue here).

Masyaf-based SA-20B approximate engagement range via T-Intelligence. (Radar detection is not modeled on the area’s topography)

On 31 March, the IAF disrupted flight operations at Shayrat Air Base by bombing the runway and air traffic control equipment. The attack also destroyed a warehouse, likely harboring Iranian weapons. However, after the Syrians patched the runway craters up and replaced the navigation beacons, aerial activity at Shayrat resumed within two weeks. 

On 1 May, another Israeli raid, this time near Homs, shook the earth when it destroyed a weapons depot, setting off a chain of secondary explosions. As the BDA shows, the Israeli attack has completely wiped out the warehouse and the adjacent parking lot.

HEZBOLLAH IS STILL RECEIVING PRECISION-GUIDED MISSILES 

On 4 May, Israeli missiles struck a missile production facility in al-Safirah, an area south of Aleppo. The al-Safirah plant is one of three facilities that are associated with the Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC), the regime’s prime proliferator of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). While the SSRC has traditionally focused on producing Scud ballistic missiles and chemical agents for the Syrian regime, it now works under Iranian control to “home grow’ precision-guided munition (PGM) for Hezbollah and other groups. 

Back in 2016, Iran initiated a back-up plan to funnel PGM technology to Hezbollah, as a response to the relentless Israeli raids. Instead of struggling to deliver ready-made missiles, the IRGC shifted to smuggling GPS conversations kits and missile components to Hezbollah. Under Iranian supervision, Hezbollah engineers learned to produce the weapons themselves. Using specialized facilities, they aim to convert Hezbollah’s inventory of 150,000 “dumb” rockets into PGM (you can read more about the Iran-Hezbollah PGM program and Israel’s response to it, here).

In 2019, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) publicized the location of four such missile conversation and production sites in Lebanon, indicating that Iran PGM’s program is bearing fruit.

The PGM program, as all Iran extraterritorial activities, was directly supervised by the late Gen. Qasim Soleimani. Likely, his sudden assassination in Baghdad earlier this year interrupted the operation.  



However, the IAF’s airstrike on 4 May brought new evidence that Iran’s PGM “do-it-yourself” program is continuing and proliferating also inside Syria. If this is true, then Hezbollah and other militias hostile to Israel are still obtaining advanced striking capabilities from Iran despite Israel’s extensive air campaign for nearly a decade. 

Should Hezbollah manage to convert even a quarter of its inventory of 150,000 “dumb” rockets into missiles that can strike targets with pinpoint accuracy, Israel’s national security will be severely threatened.  


by HARM

Editing by Gecko

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Iranian Navy Bombs, Sinks Own Vessel

The Iranian Navy “Jamaran”, a Moudge-class frigate (IRIN-76) mistakenly hit an Iranian patrol vessel, “Konarak,” during a military exercise off the coast of Jask in the Sea of Oman. Officials say…

The Iranian Navy “Jamaran”, a Moudge-class frigate (IRIN-76) mistakenly hit an Iranian patrol vessel, “Konarak,” during a military exercise off the coast of Jask in the Sea of Oman. Officials say 19 sailors died, but rumors indicate that the death toll is as high as 30. The Iranian Navy initiated search and rescue to recover the wounded. Some of the survivors were evacuated to a hospital in Chabahar. 

FRIENDLY FIRE

Konarak was probably sailing in the designated “splash zone” or trajectory of Jamaran’s anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM), likely a “Noor” (copy-cat from the Chinese C-802), when the missile launched. Noor likely locked on Konarak, the closest and largest vessel it encountered when it turned on the radar for final target-acquisition. Alternatively, it could have been a targeting mistake from the Jamaran crew. 



A similar incident took place earlier this year when an IRGC missileer downed a civilian airliner (flight PS75) that departed from Imam Khomeini in Tehran, killing all 176 passengers. When it finally admitted to the wrong-doing, the IRGC claimed that it mistook the plane for an American bomber. Incidents like these raise questions over the Iranian military’s competency and preparedness.

UPDATE: As suspected, Konarak was laying targets for the training exercise, but did not vacate the area in time. Iranian media also released footage of the catastrophic damage inflicted on the Konarak. The ASCM wiped out the vessel’s bridge, which explains the high death toll, and destroyed the midship region.

THE NOOR: IRAN’S FAVORITE “SHIP KILLER”

With an engagement range of 120 km and a 165 kg warhead, Noor is notorious for its deployment during the Israeli-Hezbollah war in 2006. The IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps) delivered hundreds of Noor ASCMs to its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, during the confrontation to enforce a coastal blockade against the Israeli Navy. One Noor managed to hit one Israeli corvette, the INS Hanit, killing four crewmembers.

Iran’s Noor (C-802) ASCM

The IRGC has also proliferated the Noor to its Yemeni allies, the Houthi. In 2016, an anti-ship missile hit an Emirati transport ship off the Yemeni coast. A week later, a salvo of similar weapons unsuccessfully targeted the USS Mason in the Red Sea. Missile forensics identified the Noor/C-802 as the striking platform. Noor/C-802’s NATO/ ASIC reporting name is “CSS-N-8 Saccade.” 



IRREGULAR WARFARE ON THE SEAS   

Iranian Navy and the IRGC-Navy exercises regularly feature the Noor/C-802. Small boat “swarms” and anti-ship missile saturation strikes are at the core of Iran’s maritime “guerilla warfare” strategy. The latest incident comes as Iran’s parallel navies are increasing readiness in the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz, and Sea of Oman. Tensions between U.S. and Iran spiked again after small Iranian vessels harrassed a convoy of American ships transiting the Sea of Hormuz last month.

The April incident led to a verbal exchange between Washington and Tehran, with both sides threatening to shoot each other. Despite the strong rhetoric, the Strait of Hormuz and adjacent waters are much calmer than last year. During the Summer of 2019,  Iran shot down an American drone over international waters and covertly attacked oil tankers linked to the Gulf states and seized British vessels. 

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Iran’s Space Launch Advances Ballistic Missile Tech, Violating U.N Sanctions

With the successful space launch of the “Nour-1” spy satellite on April 22, the Islamic Republic of Iran has likely violated international sanctions. The trouble with Iran’s recent space launch…

With the successful space launch of the “Nour-1” spy satellite on April 22, the Islamic Republic of Iran has likely violated international sanctions. The trouble with Iran’s recent space launch is the delivery platform – the Qased Space Launch Vehicle (SLV) – not the payload – the “Nour-1” military satellite (mil-sat). As SLV technology is interchangeable with ballistic missile (BM) technology, space launches can help to extend missile range, increase stability and payload capacity. 

Noor/ Nour-1 mil-sat launch on 22 April 2020. GEOINT analysis by T-Intelligence / Image courtesy of Planet Labs.



SPACE LAUNCH VEHICLE: FROM AND FOR BALLISTIC MISSILES

The “Qased” SLV (Courier in Persian) is a hybrid between the “Shahab-3” medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM), with which it shares the first liquid-fuel stage, and the “Salman” solid rocket engine that provided the technology for the second stage. The third stage is likely also solid-fuel based. The multi-stage rocket allowed Qased to reach an apogee of over 420 km, despite its heavy payload. 

Iran’s proven ability to develop three-stage solid-fuel rockets, capable of boosting the payload at longer ranges and to higher altitudes than before, is a breakthrough in the pursuit of long-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which could reach the United States and all of Europe.

Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of Aerospace Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, stands in front of the Qased before launch. Photo credit: Tasnim news.

This is why Iran violated UNSC Resolution 2231, which calls on Iran to avoid “any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.”

PAYLOAD ENABLES IRANIAN GEOINT CAPABILITY

Having the Nour-1 satellite in space is not a game-changer, although this will enable Iran to collect Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) without depending on third-parties. The mil-sat operates in the Low-Earth Orbit, namely in a 444 x 426 km orbit at 59.8 degrees inclination, and circles the Earth every 90 minutes (high temporal resolution), which makes it ideal for remote sensing. Nour-1 is believed to have a reasonably high resolution and will reportedly be joined by two other spy satellites in the future.

The upper photo shows Nour-1 completing a pass over the continental United States. The lower photo shows the satellite high above the northern Arabian peninsula. (Screenshot from a satellite tracker)

Nour-1’s success is, however, largely political and for domestic consumption. On the one hand, the launch has broken the decade-long spell of unsuccessful launches and stagnant research. On the other hand, it validated the IRGC-AF’s space program, which was responsible for the space launch, to the detriment of the Iranian Space Agency.

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Turkish Drone Destroys Syrian Pantsir-S1 Air Defense System

A Turkish “Bayraktar-2TB” UCAV (unmanned aerial combat vehicle) neutralized a Syrian Pantsir-S1 aerial defense system (NATO/AISC reporting name: “SA-22 Greyhound ”). This is more like a #Syrian Pantsir-S1 (AISC/NATO: SA-22)….

A Turkish “Bayraktar-2TB” UCAV (unmanned aerial combat vehicle) neutralized a Syrian Pantsir-S1 aerial defense system (NATO/AISC reporting name: “SA-22 Greyhound ”).

The footage clearly shows that the Pantsir was on (generator emits thermal signature) and its radar active (antenna is spinning). The scorched ground left of the vehicle, caused by successive missile launches, even suggests that the Pantsir has recently engaged aerial targets. There is no indication that Turkey employed stand-off munition instead of the Bayraktar’s trademark MAM-L. This means that the Turkish drone was within the Pantsir’s engagement range when it destroyed the air defense system. In theory, the Pantsir S 57E6/E SAM has a superior engagement envelope (max. 20 km) compared to the MAM-L (max. 14 km). 

The Pantsir’s failure to detect and engage the Turkish UCAV adds to previous reports that the system is underperforming in combat and tests. This is a major blow for the Russian defense industry, which has heavily marketed the Pantsir series of air defense systems as the “jack-of-all-trades” against low-observable munitions and drones. 


The Israeli Air Force has also previously destroyed at least two (visually confirmed) Pantsir-S1s in Syria in 2018 and 2019. 


Turkey released another video showing the targeting of a Pantsir-S1 system several days ago. In that case, however, there is reason to doubt that engagement took place in Syria. As many correctly argued, the Pantsir from that video seems to be mounted on a Rheinmetall/MAN-SX45 chassis truck, a configuration used by the UAE. Syrian Pantsirs use 8×8 KAMAZ-6560 TLARs. This suggests that the Turkish UCAV destroyed an Emirati Pantsir-S1 in eastern Libya.


This article has originally appeared on our Facebook page, on 4 March 2020. 

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Evacuation “Shattered Glass”: The US/ Coalition Bases in Syria [Part 2]

DISCLAIMER: This compilation is based on publicly available information collected through open-source intelligence (OSINT) techniques. The release only covers the Coalition/US bases that have been sanitized and evacuated. An exception…

DISCLAIMER: This compilation is based on publicly available information collected through open-source intelligence (OSINT) techniques. The release only covers the Coalition/US bases that have been sanitized and evacuated. An exception is the well-known al-Tanf garrison in the 55-km exclusion zone. Positions in eastern Syria, which are still manned by the Coalition, will only be published after the forces have withdrawn. T-Intelligence has been aware –  down to exact grid coordinates – of the location of CJTF-OIR/ US bases in Syria since their construction. However, out of respect for OPSEC and force protection, we have refrained from revealing their locations. 


This is the second part of our Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) release on the military installations of the Coalition Joint task Task Force-Operation “Inherent Resolve” (CJTF-OIR) in Syria. You can find the first part of the series, which covers the military bases in Aleppo province and provides a background of the Coalition’s mission in Syria, here. The second part features the former CJTF-OIR bases in Raqqa province. 


COALITION BASES IN RAQQA PROVINCE

Combat operations in Raqqa province began in mid-2015, when the CJTF-OIR and its local partner forces (YPG Kurdish militia and select Sunni Arab groups) liberated Tel Abyad and parts of the Turkish borderlands from ISIS. Afterwards, the CJTF-OIR focused on the main strategic objective of expelling the jihadist terror group from its self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa. 

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by the Coalition’s airpower and special operations forces (SOFs), initiated a five-phase offensive to besiege ISIS forces in Raqqa. Operation “Wrath of the Euphrates” commenced on 6 November 2016 from the city of Ain Issa, which had been liberated in the previous months. Ain Issa was a key location for the Raqqa campaign as it hosted a significant CJTF-OIR mission support site, a logistics center, and a major internally displaced people (IDP) camp. 

AIN ISSA COP

Ain Issa COP on 24 February 2018 via Maxar Technologies

Coordinates: 36.3854, 38.87328

Type: COP

Built: January 2017

Purpose: Multi-purpose Mission Support Site (MSM)

Infrastructure: The pre-existing site, a 400 square meter walled courtyard with a large two-story building, likely served an administrative role for nearby grain silos. After liberating the area from ISIS, the Coalition expanded the infrastructure in terms of size and structures. The CJTF-OIR has built around five large buildings/warehouses, several barracks tents, and a plethora of prefabricated one-story structures. A second walled site, primarily used for parking lorries and storing shipping containers, was built west of the dirt road. The outpost also includes five houses with courtyards southwest of the parking lot. A wider security perimeter was built to secure the entire area. The location is ideal to defend Ain Issa from attacks from the southeast. 

Status: Abandoned by the CJTF-OIR in November 2019. Under SDF control since then. 


AIN ISSA LB 

Ain Issa LB on 14 October 2018 via CNES/ Airbus

Coordinates: 36°25’49.5″N 38°47’07.9″E

Type: Logistics base (LB)

Built: February 2018

Purpose: Host and dispatch logistics along the line-of-communications to in-teather mission support sites and other facilities such as the nearby IDP camp near Ain Issa. 

Infrastructure: Previous to ISIS and the Coalition occupation, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) used the site for training. The Coalition took advantage of the semi-prepared land and established a large logistics base (LB). The LB consists of three clusters of buildings (at least 10 buildings each), traversed by a dirt road leading to a large asphalt pen. The latter was intended to host military and logistics vehicles, but also helicopters if necessary. 

Status: Abandoned by the CJTF-OIR in November 2019. Currently under SDF control. 


The first objective of phase one, neutralizing ISIS defenses south of the M4 highway, was achieved on 16 November 2016, when the SDF liberated a terrorist stronghold in the village of Tel Salman. With the preparations for the second phase of the operation underway, the CJTF-OIR went to work and built a major fire base near Tel Salman. 

TEL SALMAN FB

Tel Salman FB on 24 February 2018 via CNES/ Airbus and Maxar Technologies

Coordinates: 36°15’37.3″N 38°55’44.6″E

Type: Fire base (FB)

Built: March 2017

Purpose: Fire support 

Infrastructure: The FB was initially an empty plain with a 1 km-long runway. The base was constructed around the runway in record time to forward deploy fire support assets in support of the siege of Raqqa, namely the M142 HIMARS multiple rocket launcher system (MRLS), mortars and howitzers. Multiple layers of sandbags and dirt walls separate the small housing units from ammunition depots and the many artillery firing positions on the FB’s ground. The base also dispatched field artillery units to the frontline. 

Status: Abandoned by the CJTF in November 2019. Under Russian or pro-government control since December 2019. 


The second phase of the offensive targeted Raqqa’s western countryside, aiming to cut ISIS’ lines-of-communications to Aleppo province and further reduce the group’s territory. This phase was concluded when the SDF reached the outskirts of Tabqa in mid-January 2017. As the advance brought the SDF 30 km west of Raqqa, the CJTF-OIR established forward logistics bases and more artillery nests close to the frontline. 

BIRSAN LB

Birsan LB on 4 April 2018 via CNES/ Airbus

Coordinates: 35°59’03.0″N 38°35’31.0″E

Type: LB (forward in-theater)

Built: 3 June 2017 

Purpose: Support the CJTF-OIR and SDF ground offensive against ISIS in Raqqa city. 

Infrastructure: The position was established shortly after Bîrsan (also known as Bir Sana/Ber Viya), a Kurdish village, was liberated from ISIS on 3 January 2017. Dirt revetments were built to define the site’s layout and to serve as a fortification layer. The pre-existing eight houses were re-purposed. The existing infrastructure was augmented with several new structures, including a 100 square meters warehouse, to extend site storage capacity. Some areas were kept clear of structures to store large shipping containers and other logistics crates and to provide a parking space for M114 Humvees, MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles, NSTVs (Non-Standard Tactical Vehicles), and other military vehicles. The dirt road that connects the site to the main road is secured by a checkpoint and anti-VBIED (Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device) obstacles. 

Status: Under SDF control. 

During phase three in March 2017, which isolated Raqqa city from its western and eastern extremities, the Coalition launched an airborne operation that dropped SDF fighters and U.S. Army Special Forces deep behind enemy lines. After a few days of fighting, the CJTF-OIR captured the so-called “Tabqa triangle”: The city, the dam and the airfield. The latter was a Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) base that had housed the 12th Attack Squadron and the 24th Helicopter Brigade until it was seized by ISIS in August 2014. 


TABQA AIR BASE

Tabqa AB on 5 April 2017 via Maxar Technologies

Coordinates: 35°45’21.7″N 38°34’25.9″E

Type: Air Base (AB)

Built: seized by CJTF-OIR on 26 March 2017 

Purposed: Rotary-wing aircraft FARP (minimal use)

Infrastructure: The AB has been rendered inoperable by successive bombing campaigns against ISIS, first by the SyAAF and then by the CJTF-OIR. The vast majority of buildings and structures have either collapsed or are in an advanced state of degradation. No significant reparations (if any) have been observed on the AB since the Coalition seized it. The high repair costs and immediate proximity to enemy territory (ISIS and SAA) were likely the main reasons why the Coalition did not invest in the AB. However, it was likely used as a Forward Arming and Refueling Point (FARP) for attack helicopters, while on close air support (CAS) duty over Raqqa. 

Status: Re-occupied by the SAA in November 2019. 

The fourth phase, which targeted the rural belt around Raqqa city, took nearly three months to complete. The fifth phase and subsequent battle for Raqqa took place between 6 June and 17 October 2017, ending with a costly victory for the SDF. The vast majority of the city was leveled by airstrikes, artillery fire, and IEDs, while thousands of ISIS fighters evacuated to the Middle Euphrates River Valley (MERV) under a secret deal with the SDF. We documented the fight in a daily journal, which you can find here (volume 1) and here (volume 2). 


OBSERVATION POSTS 

In November 2018, in response to Ankara’s threats of invasion, the CJTF-OIR established at least three observation posts (OPs) on the Turkish border. Manned by less than 50 U.S. Special Forces (SFs), the aim of the OPs was to alleviate Turkey’s security concerns over cross-border weapons smuggling between the YPG (the SDF’s main fighting force) and Turkish PKK cells. The U.S. and Turkey also conducted joint patrols on both sides of the border and exchanged intelligence as part of a “security mechanism” deal to de-conflict northern Raqqa province. 

Observation posts: Tel Musa (upper left), Tel Abyad (lower left) and Tel Arqam (right)

However, as in the case of the Manbij de-confliction agreements, the border “security mechanism” failed to satisfy Turkey’s security needs. In anticipation of Turkey’s air-ground assault on the Tel Abyad- Ras al Ayn (Serekaniye) axis, the U.S. SFs withdrew from their border outposts on 8 October 2019. The forces were repositioned south of the M4 highway, which would become the boundary of Ankara’s Operation “Peace Spring.”


by HARM and Gecko 

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U.S. Navy Intercepts Iranian Weapons Shipment to Yemen

The U.S. Navy interdicted an illicit shipment of advanced Iranian-made weapons and weapon components headed for Yemen in the Arabian Sea, on February 9, 2020. The discovery was made by…

The U.S. Navy interdicted an illicit shipment of advanced Iranian-made weapons and weapon components headed for Yemen in the Arabian Sea, on February 9, 2020. The discovery was made by the crew of USS Normandy (CG 60), a Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser. The CG 60 launched a search party that boarded the stateless dhow and found a cache of weapons. The maritime security operation was conducted under international law.

The weapons seized from the dhow consist of:

  • 150 “Dehlavieh” missiles, which are the Iranian version of the Russian-made “Kornet” anti-tank missiles;
  • Three unidentified Iranian-made surface-to-air missiles;
  • Thermal imaging scopes;
  • Components of manned and unmanned aerial systems and surface vessels;
  • Munition;
  • Other weapon parts. 

Many of these weapons systems are identical to the advanced weapons and weapon components seized by the guided-missile destroyer USS Forrest Sherman (DDG 98) in the Arabian Sea on Nov. 25, 2019. Those weapons were determined to be of Iranian origin and assessed to be destined for the “Ansar Allah” militia (the Houthis) in Yemen, which would be in violation of a UN Security Council Resolution 2216 that prohibits the direct or indirect supply, sale, or transfer of weapons to the Houthis. The same resolution encourages all states to inspect the sea and air cargo to Yemen.

The seized weapons are in U.S. custody awaiting final disposition. The assessment of the material will be an interagency and international effort. International partner nations and organizations have also been invited to inspect the cache.

IRANIAN WEAPONS SMUGGLING OPERATION IN YEMEN

Since the Yemeni civil war began in 2015, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ external operations branch, the Quds Force (IRGC-QF), has illegally transferred large quantities of weapons to Houthi rebels. Tehran’s giveaways include Borkan ballistic missiles (derivative of Iran’s “Qi’am”), “Quds” cruise missiles (derivative of Iran’s “Ya-Ali”), the Iranian-made Sayyad 2-C surface-to-air missile, expandable-unmanned aerial vehicles and thousands of assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and rockets. Iran uses small, low-visibility and elusive vessels, such as fishing boats and dhows, to freight weapons into Yemen. Sometimes the small vessels use ship-to-ship transfers to move or distribute cargo along the way. The U.S. Navy has periodically intercepted illicit weapons shipments in the Arabian Sea. However, the number of weapons interdicted represents a tiny fraction of the overall illicit seaborne cargo outbound from Iran. 

The Houthi has used these capabilities to attack petrochemical facilities, military installations and urban centers deep inside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the United Arab Emirates in the past years. The Houthis also attacked oil tankers transiting the Bab el-Mandeb strait and the Red Sea. Similar to the “Hezbollah model”, the Iranian support for Houthi has transformed the irregular militia into a hybrid force armed with advanced weaponry. A strong Houthi enables Iran to attack targets deep in the KSA and the Red Sea and to open a second front in case of a direct conflict with Riyadh. 

Waging war on the KSA is only one of Iran’s two strategic interests in Yemen. As part of its maritime strategy, Iran aims to control the two main checkpoints vital for international maritime shipping. Iran already controls the main one, the Hormuz strait, due to its territorial boundaries. But control over the second one, the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, requires ashore dominance in Yemen. However, the Houthi only control Yemen’s western seaboard. An intervention by the UAE in 2015 managed to deny the Houthi and al-Qa’ida control over Yemen’s main ports in the south, Aden and Mukalla. 

Iran proved that it is willing to go beyond rhetoric in 2019 when the IRGC covertly attacked the Emirati port of Fujairah, oil refineries in KSA, and oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, causing chaos on the oil market and temporarily disrupting international sea trade. 

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