Category: MENA

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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Turkish “Danger Close” Fire on US troops in Syria

US troops in the vicinity of Kobani (Ayn al Arab) came under artillery fire from Turkish positions around 9 AM (local time) on October 11, 2019.  Turkey used T-155 Firitna…

US troops in the vicinity of Kobani (Ayn al Arab) came under artillery fire from Turkish positions around 9 AM (local time) on October 11, 2019. 

Turkey used T-155 Firitna 155mm self-propelled howitzers and/or 120mm mortars to attack SDF/YPG positions on Mashtenour hill (SE Kobani), our assessment finds. The Turkish artillery fire fell several meters from a Forward Operating Base (FOB) that hosts US special forces. The incident was confirmed by the Department of Defense spokesperson, who said that Turkey has the exact grid coordinates (MLRS) of all US position in NE Syria. 

Ankara confirmed the shelling of the area, but firmly rejected any accusation of “danger close” fire on US positions. Turkish artillerymen have shelled Mashtenour hill in response to an YPG mortar attack on its military base in Mursitpinar (south of Suruc) on the Syrian border. 

As stated before, US forces have not withdrawn from NE Syria. Around 50 US troops retreated from four borderline observation posts between Tel Abyad and Seri Kane to larger bases further south. US forces remain in the immediate vicinity and (sometimes) in the line of fire of the Turkish-rebel operation #PeaceSpring. The sustained US presence ensures that the Turkish ground offensive will NOT EXTEND beyond the “security mechanism” area to encompass major locations such as Kobani, Manbij, Qamishli and Ain Issa. 

Tactical overview on the Kobani-Mursitpinar border area by T-Intelligence



It is highly unlikely that Turkey will be satisfied with the limited “security mechanism” area. Turkish forces will likely try to intimidate/harass US troops in NE to withdraw further south, clearing additional territory. President Erdogan envisions a buffer zone that stretches along the entire Turkish border.

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Turkey Begins Northern Syria Offensive

In preparation for a ground assault, Turkish F-16s and artillery units have attacked more than ten positions controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northern Syria on October 9,…

In preparation for a ground assault, Turkish F-16s and artillery units have attacked more than ten positions controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northern Syria on October 9, 2019. The SDF returned fire with rocket attacks on Turkish border towns. 

Despite international pressure, Turkish President Erdogan has announced that the Turkish military and the “Syrian National Army” (SNA)” will cross the Syrian border in the next hours. The SNA is a coalition of Turkish-backed Sunni-Arab and Turkmen rebel groups that already spearheaded Turkey’s previous military operations in Syria. 

The Turkish-SNA operation “Peace Spring” aims to establish a 30 km deep “safe zone” at the Turkish-Syrian border, where millions of Syrian refugees could be repatriated. The initial stage of the advance will, however, only encompass the stretch of Syrian land between Tel Abyad and Ras al Ayn, up until the M4 highway, as US forces still remain outside this area. The US military has only vacated four observation posts on the borderline and withdrawn to bases south of the M4 highway. 

Approximate tactical situation in northern Raqqa and Hasakah provinces, Syria via T-intelligence



In the past 72 hours, Turkey has amassed hundreds of SNA militiamen from Northern Aleppo and deployed artillery units to the Turkish border towns of Akçakale and Ceylanpınar but also reinforced their positions in Jarabulus, Azzaz and northern Manbij (Syria). The Tel-Abyad-Ras-al-Ayn line will likely prove to be an easy capture, since the Kurdish YPG has demilitarized the area under the US-Turkish “security mechanism” (SM) that was recently negotiated. The SM calls for the establishment of a limited 15 km deep buffer zone policed by combined American-Turkish military patrols. 

Commander-in-chief and President Donald Trump has ordered the 2,500 US troops in Syria not to intervene on behalf of any side.  While the US military will not defend the SDF, the Department of Defense has disconnected the Turkish military from their ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) feed and Air Tasking Order to make sure that the TSNA will not profit from US intelligence. 



Due to the rapidly deteriorating security environment in northeastern Syria, the Department of Defense will likely recommend to withdraw US troops further down the Middle Euphrates River Valley. In this case, the YPG/SDF will likely make a stance along the M4 highway, leading to a heads-on confrontation with TSNA forces. 

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Iran Used Cruise Missiles, Suicide Drones in Saudi Attack

During a press briefing in Riyadh, the Saudi Defense Ministry revealed wreckage recovered after the air attack on the petrochemical facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais. The physical evidence suggests that…

During a press briefing in Riyadh, the Saudi Defense Ministry revealed wreckage recovered after the air attack on the petrochemical facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais. The physical evidence suggests that the weapons used in the attack were a mix of Iranian land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs) and expendable unmanned aerial vehicles (XUAVs). According to the Defense Ministry, eighteen XUAVs struck the Abqaiq oil facility. Three LACMs malfunctioned and crashed in the Saudi desert en route to Abqaiq. The raid on Khurais oil field was conducted by four LACMs.


KINETIC PLATFORMS

LACM. The Saudis identified the LACMs as the Iranian-made “Ya-Ali.” With an estimated engagement range of 700 km, the Ya-Ali carries a 200 kg warhead. However, the majority of experts agree that the wreckage bears more similarity with the Iranian “Soumar” LACM or the “Quds-1”, a re-branded version of the Soumar operated by the Houthis. 


While all LACMs seem to have been inspired by the Russian-made Kh-55 Granat (NATO Reporting name: Kent), which was smuggled by the IRGC from Ukraine in 2001, the three missile-types differ in design and mechanical features. Compared to the Ya-Ali, the Quds-1’s rocket booster is smaller and its engine is not internally carried, but situated on the airframe. While similar at first sight, the Quds-1 and Soumar differ in size and airframe design (aft fuselage, stabilizers, exhaust, wings). The two missiles also use different engines. The Quds-1 is believed to be powered by the Czech-made TJ100 turbojet propeller or a replica of it. Both the Quds-1 and the Ya-Ali are believed to share the same 700 km operational range, roughly half of their larger Soumar “cousin.” 

Although operated by the Houthis, the Quds-1 is undeniably linked to Iran’s evolving family of LACMs. Analysts believe that Iran is secretly producing simplified knockoffs of its missile systems for exclusive use by its proxies. This allows the IRGC to equip its allies with high-end conventional capabilities, while maintaining political deniability. 

UAV. The Saudi Defense Ministry identified the loitering munition used in the Abqaiq attacks as “Iranian Delta Wave UAVs.” The IRGC-AF have been secretly working on a myriad of UAV programs for the past decade. While numerous operational and experimental airframes have been unveiled in private or semi-private events for government officials, there is sparse information regarding the Delta Wave XUAV. 

As per ARS Technica: “drone wreckage including one described as an Iranian Delta Wave UAV. The design resembles earlier delta-winged “kamikaze” drones built by Iran.” Vivian Nereim/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Analysts have found that the Delta Wave UAV is based on the IRGC’s “Toofan”, an expandable/ “suicide” UAV capable of 250 km/h top speed for one hour. However, the variants used in the Khurais and Abqaiq attack were smaller with potentially “stealthier” characteristics. 


DELIVERY AND EXECUTION

The relatively medium range of both the LACMs and XUAVs add extra credibility to American, Saudi, and  independent OSINT findings that the attack did not originate from Yemen, but from the north, with Iran’s southwestern province as the likeliest launching point. 

The kinetic solution as well as the flight path proved ideal to bypass Saudi air defenses. The Iranian weapons flew low (not higher than 200 meters) and slow, blending with ground clutter, which likely caused radar dopplers to filter them out. To support the attack, the IRGC-AF have certainly obtained actionable intelligence regarding the radio-electronic order of battle of the Royal Saudi Air Force in Abqaiq and Khurais and of US installations in Kuwait, using both human reportings and geospatial means. With Kuwait as the likely intermediate airspace, the IRGC gambled that local US air defenses were either inactive/idle or subject to disadvantageous rules of engagement (force protection only). 

Open-source commercial satellite imagery dating from June, 2019 shows that the AN/MPQ-53 sensor near Abqaiq was pointed towards the southwest. In addition, the IRGC-AF likely collected critical information on whether the point air defense installations such as the “Shahin” and “Oerlikon” (aided by Skyguard radars) near Abqaiq were active. 

Using a custom script in Sentinel-1 SAR multi-temporal imagery, OSINT analysts have found that none of the Saudi AN/MPQ-53/65 radars were active on Saturday (September 16, 2019). VH-VV polarization and ascending-descending orbit convergence show that only Bahraini, Qatari and Emirati PATRIOT systems and some (non-AN/MPQ-53/65 ) radars in Kuwait also were “online.” 


For more on the September 14 Air Attack on Saudi Arabia consult our preliminary attack path assessment and the initial after-action briefing.

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