Category: MENA

Security Travel Alert for American and British Citizens

The deepening crisis in the Middle East has prompted American and British authorities to review travel advice information for the region. Following the United States UAV-strike that killed Iranian Revolutionary…

The deepening crisis in the Middle East has prompted American and British authorities to review travel advice information for the region. Following the United States UAV-strike that killed Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps – Quds Force (IRGC-QF) Major-General Qassim Soleimani, tensions have been high between Iran, which seeks retaliation, and the US-led International Coalition against ISIS. 


SECURITY RISK FOR FOREIGN CITIZENS

Even before the strike, intelligence suggested that Iran and its network of Shiite paramilitary groups – many sanctioned terrorist groups – were plotting to kidnap, attack or kill foreign citizens in Iraq, in particular U.S. diplomatic personnel. With the recent developments, the security risk for foreign citizens has significantly increased. Currently, there is also a risk that foreign nationals – in particular American and British – could be arbitrarily detained by security personnel in Iran, or by militiamen in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon.

MORTAR, ROCKET AND MISSILE THREAT

In addition, there is a heightened risk of mortar, rocket and missile attacks in Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). 

STAY AWAY FROM CROWDS

Angry crowds have taken to the streets to condemn the killing of IRGC-HQ Maj. Gen. Soleimani in the Middle East. Many demonstrations are led or coordinated by hostile militias, which could result in violence. You should avoid any rallies, marches, processions, and keep away from military sites.

FURTHER ADVICE: Please monitor your country’s foreign travel service for updates and editorial reviews. Things can change fast as the situation in the Middle East is extremely fluid. 


NATIONAL ISSUED ALERTS

U.S CITIZENS, BE ADVISED:

Most of the U.S Department of State (DOS)-issued travel warnings in the Middle East are not new and have remained unchanged for years. However, the DOS has reviewed and amended its travel advice for Iraq and Iran in the past two weeks. 

for U.S. DOS travel map go to travelmaps.state.gov

IRAN. Last updated on December 26, 2019. The DOS maintains the Level 4 Travel Advisory Level (TAL) – DO NOT TRAVEL for Iran. The DOS advise all U.S. citizens against all travel to Iran due to risk of kidnapping, arbitrary arrest and detention for U.S. citizens. The U.S. government does not have diplomatic or consular relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. The U.S. government is unable to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens in Iran.

IRAQ. Last updated on January 1, 2020. The DOS maintains the Level 4 TAL – DO NOT TRAVEL for Iraq. The DOS advise all U.S. citizens against all travel to Iraq due to terrorism, kidnapping, and armed conflict. 

On December 31, 2019, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad suspended public consular services, until further notice, as a result of damage done by Iranian-backed terrorist attacks on the diplomatic compound. On October 18, 2018, the DOS ordered the suspension of operations at the U.S. Consulate General in Basrah.  That institution has not reopened. Only the U.S. Consulate General Erbil remains open and continues to provide consular services. 

BRITISH CITIZENS, BE ADVISED

 

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) has reviewed the Foreign Travel Advice (FTA) for Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Turkey. 

IRAN. As of January 6, 2020, the FCO advise all British nationals against all but essential travel to Iran and against all travel to:

  • within 100km of the entire Iran/Afghanistan border
  • within 10km of the entire Iran/Iraq border
  • the province of Sistan-Baluchistan
  • the area east of the line running from Bam to Jask, including Bam

However, for British-Iranian dual nationals the FCO advise against all travel to Iran. If you’re in Iran, you should consider carefully your need to remain. If your continued presence is not essential, you should consider leaving. There is a risk that British nationals, and a significantly higher risk that British-Iranian dual nationals, could be arbitrarily detained or arrested in Iran. 

The criminal justice process followed in such cases falls below international standards. Iran does not recognise dual nationality. If you are a dual British-Iranian national and are detained in Iran, the FCO’s ability to provide consular support is extremely limited



IRAQ. As of January 4, 2020, the FCO advise against all travel to Iraq, except for the Kurdistan Region of Iraq where the FCO continue to advise against all but essential travel. If you’re in areas of Iraq where the FCO advise against all travel, you should consider leaving by commercial means.

If you’re in Iraq or decide to travel, make sure you have robust contingency plans in place and keep these under review. You should keep up to date with the latest developments across the country, including via the media and this travel advice, avoid any rallies, marches or processions, and follow the instructions of local authorities.

SYRIA. As of January 6, 2020, the FCO advise against all travel to Syria. British nationals in Syria should leave by any practical means. Consular support is not available from the British government from within Syria, as all services of the British Embassy in Damascus are suspended and all diplomatic and consular staff have been withdrawn. If you need to speak to a consular officer in the UK, call the FCO in London on +44 (0)20 7008 1500.



YEMEN. As of January 6, 2020, the FCO advise against all travel to Yemen. This includes the mainland and all islands. If you’re in Yemen, you should leave immediately. If you choose to remain in Yemen, you should minimise movement around the country and within cities and towns, monitor developments in the local security situation and follow other precautions in this travel advice. Consular support is not available from the British government from within Yemen. If you need to speak to a consular officer in the UK, call the FCO in London on +44 (0)20 7008 1500.

TURKEY. As of January 6, 2020, the FCO advise against all travel to Turkish areas within 10 km of the border with Syria, except the city of Kilis. This amendment was brought in connection with the recent tensions in Iraq and augments the existing security alert concerning Turkey. The FCO advise against all but essential travel to:

  • all other areas of Sirnak, Kilis (including Kilis city) and Hatay provinces
  • the provinces of Diyarbakir, Tunceli and Hakkari

GULF STATES. The FCO reviewed the FTA for Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, KSA and Oman, but has not issued a warning against travel. However, all of these countries have pre-existing security alerts due to terrorism. The risk of terrorist attacks in the Gulf is likely or very likely (depending on the state). Exercise caution and regularly check the travel advice for each country.

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Baghdad Parliament Votes to Expel US & Coalition Forces from Iraq

The Iraqi Parliament has voted to expel US and Coalition forces from Iraq. The draft resolution will force the Iraqi Government to cancel the request of assistance submitted to the…

The Iraqi Parliament has voted to expel US and Coalition forces from Iraq. The draft resolution will force the Iraqi Government to cancel the request of assistance submitted to the Coalition in 2014 to fight ISIS. If enacted, the resolution will force all foreign forces participating in the Coalition against ISIS to leave Iraq permanently and cease operations in Iraqi airspace. Iraq’s “care-taker” Prime-Minister Abdul Mahdi advised the MEPs to vote in favor of the resolution. 

Despite boycotts from Kurdish and some Arab Sunni parties, the Iraqi Parliament met the necessary majority of 165 MEPs due to massive mobilization from the ruling Coalition led by Saairun and Fatah, and other smaller factions. 

BAGHDAD’S RULING COALITION 

Saairun (“Alliance towards reform”) is an electoral coalition between the Sadrist Integrity Party, led by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and the Iraqi Communist Party. The alliance is “shepherd” by Muqtada al-Sadr himself, who led Jaysh al-Mahdi (“Mahdi’s Army), the largest anti-American Shiite militia, prior to 2011. While Jaysh al-Mahdi was disbanded in 2008, al-Sadr still commands several major paramilitary units such as “Saraya al-Salam” (Peace Brigades), which are part of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs). Despite having close ties with Iran, al-Sadr was recently seen as a voice for Iraqi sovereignty and unity, rejecting both US and Iranian hegemony over Baghdad. Saairun won the 2018 legislative election with 14 percent and received 54 seats in Parliament. 

Sadr (R) attends an Ashura ceremony in Tehran with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei [Getty]

Fatah is a coalition of the political organisations linked to several key PMUs, including major pro-Iranian groups such as the Badr Organization (BO), Kata’ib Imam Ali (KIA) Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) and Asab al-Haq (AAH) – the last two being US-designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO). Although expect to win the 2018 elections, Fatah finished second with 13,8 percent of the votes. After five months of negotiations, Fatah managed to form a ruling coalition with Sadr’s Saairun, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and other smaller factions. The fragile coalition appointed Abdul al-Mahdi as a compromise PM. 

VOTE UNDER PRESSURE

Following the United States’ Joint Special Operations Command (JSCO) air strike that killed IRGC-QF Major-General Qassim Soleimani, PM Mahdi called for an emergency Parliamentary session. PM Mahdi slammed the United States for acting outside its military mandate – training Iraqi forces and fighting ISIS – and using Iraqi airspace without the Government’s approval.

In the meanwhile, Fatah was drafting a resolution to cancel the Coalition’s military mandate in Iraq and eject the US forces out of the country. In the days leading to the Parliamentary session, the PMUs, and in particular KH, warned MEPs that they will publicize the home address those who vote against the bill.  

Kataib Helbollah fighters. Image: @WithinSyriaBlog/Twitter

With the exception of Fatah’s representatives, Iraqi MEPs did not take this vote lightly. The implications for Iraq and regional security are significant. 

IMPLICATIONS

    • Expelling the Coalition from Iraq means surrendering Baghdad to Iranian influence. There will be no political counterweight to the PMUs, which will be free to grow into a military-political entity parallel to the Iraqi military and government – akin to Iran’s IRGC –  and transform Iraq into a Khomeinist republic. 
    • The removal of US/ Coalition troops from Iraq will cripple Iraq’s capacity to combat ISIS and stop the terrorist group from reverting back to a para-state actor. Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) will lose the capacity to receive ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance), CAS (Close Air Support) and other forms of air support. NATO’s train and equip programs, including “train-the-trainer” modules will also end. With the US gone and Baghdad under the PMUs’ rule, ISIS and Sunni-Shia sectarianism are expected to grow. 

  • The void in the ISF’s capabilities and defense capacity could be filled by a third party such as Russia, which will likely try to take advantage of the situation. In addition, the IRGC will be free to help the PMUs develop an air wing, equipped with Iranian-made loitering drones/ expendable-unmanned aerial vehicles (X-UAVs) and surface-to-air (SAM) missile systems. 
  • The IRGC will also be free to deploy advanced striking capabilities on Iraqi soil (e.g. cruise missiles, ballistic missiles) and enable the PMUs to autonomously operate them. This will only increase tensions with Israel and the Gulf States.  
  • The vote does not not mean that US troops will be forced to leave immediately. However, when they do withdraw, Washington and its Coalition partners will only rely on their few local allies, namely the KDP’s Peshmerga and the DOD-trained Iraqi Special Operations Force (IQSOF), for contingency operations (intelligence and strike support). Kurdish autonomy will be the last pressure tool against an Iranian-controlled Iraqi Government. 



  • Without a military presence in Iraq, the Coalition will lose most of its established logistics nodes and lines of communications to supply troops in Syria. This will lead to a swift reduction of Coalition’s forces in Syria and ultimately, to a complete withdrawal.
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Iran’s Retaliation: What to Expect

After the US airstrike that killed General Suleimani, Iranian retaliation is very likely, but not guaranteed. Given the magnitude of the US response to the Embassy attack in Baghdad, Tehran…

After the US airstrike that killed General Suleimani, Iranian retaliation is very likely, but not guaranteed. Given the magnitude of the US response to the Embassy attack in Baghdad, Tehran is likely exploring ways to retaliate without overplaying its hand. Iran can either use its own personnel (IRGC or Artesh) or proxy forces (in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen) to prosecute military, civilian or political targets.


There is NO GUARANTEE the response will be immediate. Iran does not have the logistical capability to mount prompt attacks against time sensitive targets and terrorist attacks against high-value targets require months of planning (e.g. ID target, assess security profile etc.). Our ROUNDUP is as follows:

  • The biggest threat is a direct Iranian kinetic strike on static US/Coalition installations in the region. The IRGC-Aerospace Force is capable of launching ground-based ballistic and cruise missile strikes against US regional installations. In case of a saturation attack, US air defenses could be overwhelmed. However, this course of action is UNLIKELY due to the risk of starting an all-out war. Despite advances in its conventional capabilities, direct confrontation still remains Iran’s biggest weakness. The threat of saturation missile attacks on regional installations will remain Iran’s main deterrent against an US/Israeli raid on its nuclear facilities. While highly unlikely, the Department of Defense has actively prepared for such attacks for months. The newly announced deployment of 4,000 troops will further reinforce US regional capabilities. 

VIEW FROM TEHRAN via T-Intelligence

  • There is however, a SIGNIFICANT CHANCE that Iran could mirror the US’ direct action against Brigadier-General Qasim Soleimani and conduct/order its own assassinations. While it is unlikely that the IRGC could find, fix and finish a high-value US officer, they could compensate through a wave of ESCALATORY VIOLENCE directed against US personnel. While such attacks have been marked as a “red-line” by the Trump administration, Tehran could see it as “fair game” for retaliation. This possibility is taken SERIOUSLY by the Department of Defense, which announced that it will scale down operations in Iraq due to security reasons. 



  • LIKELY, Tehran will seek to make use of its asymmetric tactics, paramilitary allies, and irregular warfare style that it has learned to master in the past four decades. Such types of action include suicide attacks, kidnappings, and stirring violent unrests. The possibility of attacks on US consular facilities, diplomats and officers outside the Middle East, including Africa and South America, should not be ruled out. 

Behind the scenes an ongoing diplomatic process aims to de-escalate the tensions. The Swiss embassy in Iran, which also represents American diplomatic interests, and the Government of Qatar are acting as back-channel mediators between the US and Iran. 


TEHRAN EXPECTED TO TREAD CAREFULLY 

President Trump’s decision to remove Qasim Soleimani from the battlefield should – in theory – reinstate a credible deterrence and a strong red-line against Iran. Failure to retaliate meaningfully after the hundreds of rocket attacks on US bases in Iraq and the assault on the Embassy, would have been perceived by Tehran as a sign of weakness. The risk of not responding was significantly higher than of idling. Punishing Iran for its “grey-zone” aggressions and dragging the IRGC’s covert actions out of the shadow will expose the Islamic regime in Tehran to the world.

Ayatollah Khamenei tasked his IRGC generals to launch a “harsh retaliation.” Failure to react to the loss of its “national treasure” will make Iran look weak Soleimani’s deputy and now-successor, Brigadier-General Ismail al-Qa’ani will have to thread carefully or risk dragging Iran further into a conventional confrontation.

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IRGC-Quds Force General & PMU Commander Killed in US airstrike in Baghdad

IRGC-Quds Force Commander, General Qasim Soleimani, and Kata’ib Hizbollah (KH) Commander/PMU Deputy Chairman, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, were killed in a US airstrike in Baghdad International Airport. The targets are confirmed…

IRGC-Quds Force Commander, General Qasim Soleimani, and Kata’ib Hizbollah (KH) Commander/PMU Deputy Chairman, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, were killed in a US airstrike in Baghdad International Airport. The targets are confirmed killed by all sources. Soleimani and his associates were planning to attack and kidnap American diplomats in Iraq. 

This is the biggest targeted killing operation since the death of Bin Laden. As the commander of the IRGC’s external operations branch, Qasim Soleimani was in charge of exporting the Khomenist revolution and IRGC model for two decades. He did this by founding, arming and training Shiite fundamentalist militias – including terrorist organisations – in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Qasim Soleimani and his Iraqi partners are responsible for thousands of American and Coalition deaths since the start of the Iraqi War. 

With Soleimani coordinating all of Iran’s extra-territorial operations and overseeing the Syrian battlefield, his death will have a major impact, at least in the short-term, for the IRGC. Plans, drafted by Soleimani himself, nevertheless remain that call for the destruction of Israel and for the removal of US forces from Iraq. Washington and Jerusalem could have killed Soleimani many times before, but refrained from “pulling the trigger” out of fear of retaliation. However, in light of the recent attacks on international shipping, Coalition bases and on the US embassy, the gloves were off. 



STRIKE PACKAGE

We can confirm with a high degree of confidence that the kinetic package that killed Qasim Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis consisted of four AGM-144 “Hellfire” air-to-ground missiles. Since the blast area was determined to be a target-rich environment, the strike platforms fired standard Hellfire missiles that had explosive warheads – ensuring maximum effect – and not the secretive (CIA-exclusive) AGM-144X9 “Flying Ginshu” with pop-blades – lately featured in air raids against al-Qa’ida militants in Idlib. The missiles were fired by a MQ-9 “Reaper” UCAV and/or AH-64 Apache attack helicopter participating in the operation. Besides Soleimani and Muhandis, the kinetic strike killed three Hizbollah and PMU militants. The operation was overseen by the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). 

Minutes before the strike, Qasim Soleimani and three Hizbollah militants flew from Damascus to Baghdad on board ChamWings flight 6Q501. They landed between 12.30 and 12.40 (local time) at Baghdad Airport. From touchdown, JSOC had a very short strike window to bomb the two-vehicle motorcade brought by al-Muhandis to greet Soleimani, without damaging the airport or losing them in Baghdad’s civilian-dense traffic.

RETALIATION STILL EXPECTED

  • The airstrike was launched to prevent further counter-retaliations directed by the IRGC and executed by its Iraqi proxies such as KH on American and Coalition targets. Based on the US assets deployed to the area, we determine that the US prepared to face hostage situations, kidnappings and an armed assault on the embassy. The US has also called for its citizens to immediately leave Iraq
  • The biggest fear is that Iran will make use of its ultimate deterrence plan and launch missile attacks on US facilities in the Middle East. To mitigate this risk, the US scrambled F-35As and F-22s to police the regional air space.
  • Intense military air traffic, involving multiple aerial assets, over Europe. US SOF elements have been forward deployed from Souda Bay (Greece) to Jordan, while KC-135 tankers were moved from the UK to Greece and Cyprus. Over 22 C-17 heavy lifters formed an “air-bridge” between the continental US and the Middle East, in the past 72 hours. ISR platforms are online 24/7 over the Persian Gulf, Eastern Mediterranean and Iraq. 



ALERTS

RISK OF WAR is increasingly high. 

An ARMED ASSAULT on the US Embassy in Baghdad remains possible, but very difficult, given the influx of US forces in the region.  

TERRORIST AND ASYMMETRIC ATTACKS in Iraq or abroad, including suicide attacks and kidnappings, are very likely.


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The US Finally Retaliated against Iranian Proxies. Now what?

The American air strikes against Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), one of the strongest Iraqi Shiite militias, on 29 December are a “game-changer.” The strikes prove that the United States is finally…

The American air strikes against Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), one of the strongest Iraqi Shiite militias, on 29 December are a “game-changer.” The strikes prove that the United States is finally willing to retaliate militarily against Iran’s covert aggression. While the kinetic retribution will instate some degree of deterrence, Washington will likely remain passive towards Iranian activities in Iraq. In response to the air strikes, Iran could provide its Iraqi partners, such as KH, with air defense assets. 


FAILURE TO RETALIATE ENCOURAGED IRANIAN ATTACKS

Ever since he took office, U.S. President Donald Trump refrained from using force to retaliate against Iranian attacks. The President long believed that crippling economic sanctions are enough to bring the Mullahs to the negotiating table, while military options will only pull the U.S. further into the Middle Eastern quagmire/spiral of unwinnable and open-ended conflicts. Absent red lines and a credible deterrence, Iran was free to attack U.S. interests or allies –  as long as Tehran could cover its tracks. The September air raid on the Saudi Aramco petrochemical facilities, for example, proved how much damage Tehran can cause, while remaining unpunished. 


THE PMUs, AN ARMY OF “SPECIAL GROUPS”

After the Aramco attack, Iran moved to the next and most important point on its target list: Coalition facilities in Iraq. Through its ideological vanguard, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and its coalition of Shiite militias, the Islamic Republic in Tehran sought to render Iraq an inhospitable location for the Coalition. Those militias – referred to by the CIA as “Special Groups” (SGs) – provide the bulk force and command structure of the 100,000-men strong Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) in Iraq. The PMUs are a coalition of militias established or reactivated by a 2014 fatwa of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani that calls on Shiites to fight ISIS. 

COMPILATION of Iraqi Tier One SGs and their leaders. ANNEX shows groups of interest that patrol the Syrian-Iraqi border on behalf of the IRGC.

The strongest and largest SGs are KH, Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), the Badr Organization (BO), Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba (HHN) and Kata’ib Imam Ali (KIA). Their leaders are open about their close relationship with Iran and many have even served under IRGC-Quds Force commander Qasim Soleimani in the Iran-Iraq War. These groups and their predecessors are responsible for thousands of American casualties during the Iraqi war and are the culprit behind the hundreds of rocket attacks on Coalition bases in the past year. 

The SGs share ideological and strategic objectives with their Iranian allies: 

(1) to evict Coalition forces from Iraq (if necessary by force);

(2) to establish a Komeinist regime in Baghdad;

(3) to export the Islamic revolution throughout the Middle East;

(4) to destroy Israel. 


STEP ONE: EJECT THE COALITION FROM IRAQ

The Coalition (“Operation Inherent Resolve”; OIR), was formed by the U.S. to combat ISIS at the invitation of the Iraqi government in 2014. The Coalition gathered more than 40 international members to conduct airstrikes against ISIS and provide training and advice to the Iraqi Security Force (ISF). The Coalition and the IRGC-backed SGs both fought against ISIS and, despite their differences, even coordinated at times. However, with the threat of ISIS physical caliphate removed, Iraqi SGs resumed their campaign to force U.S. and Coalition forces out of Iraq. 

In 2019, the SGs began targeting Coalition installations in Iraq with rocket salvos. While the fire was mostly indirect and ineffective, it occasionally injured Coalition forces and killed Iraqis serving in the ISF. The rocket attacks targeted everything from airfields, government facilities, civilian sites to training camps. Left unpunished, the attacks escalated and multiplied in the second half of the year. Only when a 30+ rocket salvo fell on the K-1 air base near Kirkuk on 27 December 2019, leaving one American dead and others severely wounded, the IRGC and its partner forces crossed a “red-line.”


K-1 ATTACKS PROMPTS COALITION TO RETALIATE

The attack on K-1 air base prompted the United States to seek retribution, which came in the form of a F-15E “strike package” from Jordan. The American jets prosecuted five sites used by Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), two in Syria and three in Iraq. The target list was carefully picked to strike the IRGC where it hurts the most, namely the land line-of-communication (LOC) linking Iran with its allies in Syria and Lebanon.

All KH targets that were prosecuted by the F-15s are located in the immediate vicinity of the Al Abukamal and al-Qa’im crossings on the Syrian-Iraqi border. Control over these locations is vital for the IRGC to maintain its LOC open. Iran’s expansive transnational logistical operation requires regional warehouses and assets in place to facilitate the free flow of cargo. With the destruction of KH’s headquarters (HQ) and ammunition caches, Iran’s LOC took tactical – albeit only temporary – damage. 

South of Al Abukamal, the IRGC, KH and other groups jointly operate one of the largest Iranian-financed military installations abroad. The compound is known as “Imam Ali” and serves as a major logistics node for the military capabilities flowing on the land-bridge. The compound hosts several ammunition depots, barracks and – according to ImageSatIntel – is undergoing construction to shelter an underground tunnel network. Despite multiple Israeli Air Force covert raids, Imam Ali garrison continues to expand and distribute military capabilities to Iraqi SGs operating in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. 

Sunday’s air strikes demonstrate that the US is willing to prosecute Iraqi SGs if they kill U.S. personnel in Iraq. However, this experience will likely prompt the SGs to expedite their effort to establish an air wing under Iranian supervision. 


AIR FORCE FOR THE PMUs

Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the KH leader and PMU deputy commander, issued an order to establish an air force for the PMU on 4 September 4 2019. The air wing will be headed by Salah Mahdi Hantoush. Iraqi Prime-Minister Abel Abdul Mahdi rejected the idea, fearing that the PMU will further develop as a parallel armed force, similar to the duality of  IRGC and regular Iranian Armed Forces. Muhandis nevertheless defended his proposal, pointing to Israeli Air Force (IAF) attacks against several KH camps on Iraqi territory. Pressured by the PMUs, the Iraqi government imposed stricter airspace regulations that require “all Iraqi and non-Iraqi partners” (including the OIR-Coalition) to seek approval from the Iraqi command before flying in Iraqi airspace.

Despite the strong rhetoric from Baghdad, the PMUs perceive the Iraqi government as unable or unwilling to protect them from external attacks. The core SGs in the PMU also see the Iraqi government as an existential threat, as Baghdad seeks to integrate them into the Armed Forces. This would mean that SGs such as KH, BO and other groups need to disband their political wings and assimilate into the ISF. Despite paying lip service to the process, the big SGs are unlikely to give up their political power or their military autonomy. 



The IRGC is expected to meet al-Muhandis’ wish and aid the PMUs in forming an air force. First, the IRGC will likely supply them with surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) that will provide a degree of defense against air attacks. The IRGC-Aerospace Forces (IRGC-AF) are likely to provide the PMUs with the “Khordad the 3rd” (Buk M-2 rip-off), “Mersad” (MIM-23 Hawk copy) and “Sayyad-2” SAM systems. The IRGC-AF could also arm their Iraqi counterparts with expandable unmanned aerial vehicles (X-UAVs) and cruise missiles, similar to those used in the Aramco attacks. [MORE ABOUT IRANIAN-PRODUCED SAM SYSTEMS]

The deployment of such systems in Iraq would significantly interfere with Coalition air operations in Iraq. Coalition aircraft would be subjected to a SAM threat, especially in the border areas, making even the most routine operations such as ISR more difficult. Attacks against Iraqi SGs will be rendered more complicated, as the Coalition will need to use more sophisticated weaponry and assets and always be ready to shift from ground attack to Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD). 

Restricting the airspace is another step in making Iraq an increasingly inhospitable place for the Coalition, which could eventually led to a withdrawal of forces from the country.


TARGET: US EMBASSY BAGHDAD

Thousands of Hizbollah supporters have breached the GREEN ZONE and are trying to storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. BO leader, Hadi al-Amiri and AAH leader, Qais al-Khazali are present in the crowd. The situation is ONGOING.


By HARM

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U.S. Aircraft Carrier Transits Strait of Hormuz After Months of Loitering in Open Waters

After nearly six months of staying in open waters, the “Abraham Lincoln” Carrier Strike Group (CSG) completed a scheduled transit through the Strait of Hormuz (SH) into the Persian Gulf…

After nearly six months of staying in open waters, the “Abraham Lincoln” Carrier Strike Group (CSG) completed a scheduled transit through the Strait of Hormuz (SH) into the Persian Gulf on November 19. Carrier Air Wing Seven (encompassing over 30 F/A-18E/F SuperHornets), the guided-missile cruiser Leyte Gulf, and guided-missile destroyers Bainbridge, Mason, and Nitze are assigned to the strike group. 

This was the first SH transit for the Nimitz-class USS “Abraham Lincoln” (CVN-72) ever since it was hurried to the Middle East in May 5, 2019, in response to undisclosed intelligence warning of an imminent Iranian attack. However, after decades of American aircraft carriers sailing through the SH, the U.S. Navy made the decision to keep the CVN-72 in open waters for security reasons. Satellite imagery showed the CVN-72 loitering in a “tight operational box” in the North Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman and occasionally conducting port calls at Duqm, Oman for the past five months. 


The Iranian militaries regularly rehearse asymmetric tactics to trap and sink U.S. aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf in case of conflict. Aircraft carriers are particularly vulnerable when passing through the SH, which is 30 km at its narrowest. The recent decision to forward deploy CVN-72 into the enclosed Gulf could indicate that the threat posed by Iran decreased to an acceptable level for transiting the strait.

THE IRANIAN THREAT

The intelligence alerting to an imminent Iranian threat proved valid as the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) staged numerous – convert and overt – attacks and provocations against commercial vessels and Western navies transiting the local waterways and even raided petrochemical facilities onshore: 

  • On June 13, 2019, The Panama-flagged “KOKUKA COURAGEOUS” (KG) and the Marshall Islands-flagged “FRONT ALTAIR” (FA) were attacked with seaborne ordnance (limpet mines or anti-ship missiles) by an unconfirmed aggressor in the Strait of Hormuz (SH). The US Navy has since released a video, filmed by a P-8 maritime security aircraft, which allegedly shows an Iranian naval unit removing an unexploded limpet charge from the KG’s hull, likely in an attempt to destroy evidence. 

  • The covert attack on KG and FA took place nearly a month after four commercial vessels (two Saudi Arabian tankers, one Norwegian tanker, and an Emirati bunkering ship) were damaged using limpet mines in the Emirati port of Fujairah (Gulf of Oman). Both operations are believed to have been conducted by the IRGC-Navy’s special operations forces known as the “Sepah” specialized in underwater demolition, sabotage, search & destroy and unconventional operations – a loose equivalent of the U.S. Navy’s DEVGRU (or “SEALs”). 
  • On June 20, 2019, the IRGC-Aerospace Forces (IRGC-AF) downed a U.S. Global Hawk BAMS-D unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) near the SH using a “3rd Khordad” surface-to-air missile (SAM) system. Tehran accused the U.S. of violating its airspace while Washington claimed that it remained in international airspace. The Department of Defense drafted plans for retaliation against Iran’s coastal aerial defense systems and radars but the operation was later aborted by President Trump. The attack was a major milestone for Tehran. The IRGC proved that it can attack the U.S. and get away with it while also validating its indigenous defense technologies. 

  • On July 18, 2019, the USS Boxer downed an IRGC-AF UAV that closed within a threatening range, as the amphibious ship was transiting through the SH. The Marines on board the Boxer neutralized the threat through a “soft kill” approach (i.e. electronic attack) using the Light Marine Air Defense Integrated System (LMADIS). The day before, a U.S. Seahawk helicopter chased away an Iranian Navy Bell 212 helicopter that approached the Boxer shortly after it entered the SH. 
  • On July 20, 2019 the IRGC-Navy seized the British-flagged STENA IMPERO (SI) through an air-naval assault on the commercial ship near the SH. Tehran justified the operation as “tit-for-tat” after the British Royal Marines seized an Iranian-owned Panemese-flagged very large crude carrier (VLCC) vessel (“GRACE-1”) in Gibraltar found to be in breach of European Union (E.U.) oil embargo against the Syrian regime. Gibraltar authorities released the vessel (renamed as “ADRIAN DARYA-1”) in good faith on August 15, after receiving assurances from Tehran that it will not sell oil to Syria. However, DARYA-1 sailed to the Syrian coastline, where satellite imagery showed it unload oil via ship-to-ship (STS) transfer. Iran was late to reciprocate and only released the SI on September 27, 2019. 

  • On September 15, 2019, the Saudi Aramco petrochemical facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais were the subject of a low-observable and clandestine air attack involving nearly 20 expandable-UAVs and cruise missiles. In comparison to the countless other missile attacks mounted by the IRGC’s Yemenite partner force, “Ansar Allah” (Houthi) on Saudi/ Emirati oil facilities in the past, the September 15 raid was conducted directly by IRGC elements, and likely from Iranian territory. 

TF-IMSC

The growing asymmetric maritime threat posed by Iran prompted Washington to establish a multinational operational task force that would police the Middle Eastern seas and ensure the freedom of navigation in the region. The Task Force (TF) is known as the “International Maritime Security Construct” (IMSC) and encompasses the United Kingdom, Australia, the Kingdom of Bahrain, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, besides the U.S. TF-IMSC is headquartered with the U.S. Fifth Fleet command center in Manila, Bahrain. 

While the TF-IMSC is likely in the lengthy process of joint force integration, the CVN-72 is expected to project power and deter attacks on commercial shipping until its substitute, the USS Harry S. Truman” (CVN-75)  enters the Fifth Fleet area of operations.

UPDATE: CVN-72 LEAVES THE PERSIAN GULF

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Kobani Residents Protest Russian-Turkish Patrols, Coalition Secures Syrian Energy Infrastructure

Locals from Kobani (Aleppo province, Syria) threw stones and eggs at the joint Turkish-Russian patrols, videos show. The motorcade involved Russian military police “Tigr” armored infantry vehicles and armored personnel…

Locals from Kobani (Aleppo province, Syria) threw stones and eggs at the joint Turkish-Russian patrols, videos show. The motorcade involved Russian military police “Tigr” armored infantry vehicles and armored personnel carriers as well as Turkish army “Kipri” mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles, which patrolled along the frontier at the outskirts of Kobani. The crowd gathered in Alishar village to express their displeasure towards the Russian and Turkish presence in northern Syria and the agreement between the two countries. 

TURKISH-RUSSIAN JOINT PATROLS

The agreement brokered between Ankara and Moscow on October 23, 2019, recognizes Turkey’s 32-km deep “safe zone” between Tel Abyad and Serekanyie/Ras al Ayn and calls for joint military patrols along the Turkish-Syrian border 10 km outside the safe zone, with the exception of Qamishli city.

The Russian-Turkish agreement fills the security vacuum created by the departure of U.S. forces from northern Syria. Following the withdrawal of the nearly 1,000 U.S. forces from their bases in the area, Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and Russian armored and mechanized columns moved towards the frontline positions in northern Syria to block the advance of Turkish-backed rebels.

ENHANCED FORCE PROTECTION FOR COALITION FORCES
Despite President Trump’s hasty pullout order, the U.S. will enhance the remaining forces to secure Syria’s petrochemical energy infrastructure along the Mid-Euphrates River Valley (MERV) and the Iraqi border. Amid concerns that the U.S. military forces in the area are inadequate to fend off major enemy assaults, the White House approved the deployment of a U.S. Army armoured brigade combat team (ABCT) battalion to eastern Syria.

The ABCT was supplied by assets from the U.S. Army’s Operation “Spartan Shield,” which are deployed in Camp Arifjan (Kuwait) for contingency operations. On November 1, 2019, the 30th ABCT, nicknamed “Old Hickory,” re-deployed with M2A2 “Bradley” fighting vehicles into eastern Syria to provide much needed force protection for the small U.S. contingent based in the remote “Green Village” housing complex and the Conoco oil field, Deir ez-Zor province.

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Pentagon Plans Tank Deployment to Eastern Syrian Oil Fields

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has prepared plans to enhance the U.S. military presence in eastern #Syria. The White House aims to secure Syria’s largest oil and gas fields…

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has prepared plans to enhance the U.S. military presence in eastern #Syria. The White House aims to secure Syria’s largest oil and gas fields (al-Omar and Conoco) against resurgent ISIS cells and the pro-governmental forces, by sending half of an U.S. Army armoured brigade combat team (ABCT) battalion.

OPERATION “SPARTAN SHIELD”

The ABCT will be supplied by assets from the Army’s Operation “Spartan Shield,” which are deployed in Camp Arifjan, Kuwait for contingency operations. The armoured “package’ will likely consist of 20-30 tanks (e.g. M1 Abrams) or infantry fighting vehicles (e.g. Bradley, Stryker) that will provide much needed force protection for the small U.S. contingent in eastern Syria. Being engineered as among the most survivable and heavily armored vehicles in existence, the Abrams tank is built to withstand a high degree of enemy fire (tank rounds, RPGs, rockets and anti-tank missiles). Abrams tanks can also carry reactive armor, material used to explode incoming enemy fire in a matter that protects the chassis and crew of the vehicle itself.

Despite the hasty withdrawal from northern Syria, President Donald J. Trump plans to maintain the few existing U.S. combat outposts in Deir ez-Zor and in the 55-km exclusion zone (al-Tanf garrison). However, the DoD is concerned that the small military presence in the area is inadequate to repeal major enemy assaults.



EXTERNAL SECURITY

Besides force protection, external security is also precarious, as it is largely outsourced to the poorly trained Bakhara tribesmen of the Deir ez-Zor Military Council (the SDF’s local affiliate). The battle-hardened YPG militia has a residual presence in the province.

Close air support readiness and availability has also decreased as Army “Apache” attack helicopters were recently removed from northern Syria. Air assets, now based in Iraq or the U.S. Central Command area, will take significantly longer to respond in the future.

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NE Syria: YPG and SNA Comply with Turkish-American Ceasefire

Vice President Mike Pence announced that the US and Turkey reached a deal to suspend the Turkish military offensive in Northeastern (NE) Syria. After tense negotiations in Ankara, Turkish President…

Vice President Mike Pence announced that the US and Turkey reached a deal to suspend the Turkish military offensive in Northeastern (NE) Syria. After tense negotiations in Ankara, Turkish President Erdogan agreed to a 120 hour long ceasefire on Thursday. The ceasefire grants the Kurdish “Peoples’ Protection Units” (or YPG) 120 hours to withdraw 32 km from the Turkish border. 

The YPG and the “Syrian National Army” (SNA), which is spearheading Turkey’s ground offensive in NE Syria, both stated that they will respect the agreement. James Jeffrey, the US Special Envoy for Syria, said that the agreement will be focused on “those areas where the Turks had penetrated into northeast Syria.” This suggests that the buffer zone will encompass the territory between Tel Abyad and the outskirts of (or the city of) Serekaniye on an east-west axis and reach 32 km south up to the M4 highway. President Erdogan has committed to stop the Turkish-Rebel incursion in NE Syria, after SNA forces will occupy this area.  



While the agreement brings a welcome pause to the violent clashes along the Turkish-Syrian border, it essentially validates most of Erdogan’s military objectives in the area. The aim of Turkey’s Operation “Peace Spring” is to remove the YPG from the border area and to secure a buffer zone, where 3 million Syrian refugees will be relocated. Since the operation commenced a week ago, the SNA has struggled to break through YPG defenses. The agreed withdrawal of the Kurdish militia from the area will allow the SNA to make major advances without encountering heavy resistance. On the upside, YPG has a chance to safely evacuate Serekaniye, a border town besieged by Turkish artillery and SNA infantry. In the meanwhile, the Turkish Armed Forces will likely seek to further entrench themselves in the area by building combat outposts and defensive fortifications. 

The international community fears that the Turkish-backed SNA will commit war crimes and displace the Kurdish population in the area, as seen during Operation “Olive Branch” in northwestern Aleppo province. The SNA is coalition of Arab and Turkmen Sunni armed opposition groups that were in the past loosely known as the “Free Syrian Army.” Despite the re-branding, the SNA essentially remains a hotchpotch of hardline Islamist groups. 

The YPG is the military wing of the Syria-based Democratic Union Party (or PYD) and provided for the vast majority of fighters and the entire senior command of the U.S-trained and equipped Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The PYD has undeniable links to the PKK, a Kuridish separatist and social-revolutionary militia engaged in a violent insurgency against the Turkish state. During the Coalition’s fight against ISIS, the YPG received sophisticated weapons and training from the US military. Ankara fears that these new capabilities could be used to attack Turkey. Due to this concern, it is unlikely that Turkey will put a stop to military action against the YPG after the agreement is implemented. 

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US Out, Assad In: Syrian Army to Enter Northern Syria

As part of an agreement between the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Assad regime, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) will secure the cities along the Manbij-Malikyah line. According…

As part of an agreement between the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Assad regime, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) will secure the cities along the Manbij-Malikyah line. According to multiple local reports, SAA soldiers have already moved from their positions in Al-Arimah into Manbij, after US troops vacated Aleppo province. If confirmed, the initial SAA presence in Manbij is likely residual and symbolic and therefore exposed to attacks from the Turkish-backed Syrian Armed Opposition (TSAO), which has gathered in Jarabulus north of the city. Online footage confirms that Syrian troops have taken defensive positions in Hasakah and Qamishli. 

Syrian Civil War map by T-Intelligence

The SDF finalised the deal with the Assad regime after US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper announced that the remaining US troops in Northern Syria will leave the area, following intelligence reports that Turkey will extend its incursion south and west of the agreed “security mechanism” safe area. 

All US forces in northern Syria are expected to retreat down the Mid-Euphrates River Valley (MERV) to eastern Syria (Deir ez-Zor and southern Hasakah province). Yesterday the TSAO seized central parts of the M4 highway, disrupting the critical road infrastructure between Manbij and the Iraqi border. The US forces were therefore increasingly isolated and exposed to attacks from the rebel groups. The US troops that were caught in “danger close” fire from Turksih artillery on Saturday have reportedly already withdrawn. 


Four days into the offensive, TSAO groups have posted photos proving the seizure of the border town of Tel Abyad from the Kurdish-led SDF. Sporadic air strikes and cross-border artillery attacks continue to indiscriminately pound the entire border region, targeting both rural and urban areas. 

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