Tag: PMU

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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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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Something to Fear: Iraqi Feds keep Kurds in line

Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) have ousted the Kurdish Pashmerga forces from key areas that they have expanded to throughout the anti-ISIS campaign: Mosul Dam, Kirkuk, Sinjar and…

Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) have ousted the Kurdish Pashmerga forces from key areas that they have expanded to throughout the anti-ISIS campaign: Mosul Dam, Kirkuk, Sinjar and the Nineveh plains. These events are relevant to comprehend the ongoing tensions within the anti-ISIS camp in Iraq, and subsequently Iran’s asserting geopolitical order. Erbil’s push for Kurdish independence was overly optimistic and led to the reversal of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) extent to 2003 limits.


KIRKUK: A RED LINE 

1. Just three weeks after the Independence referendum held by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which announced a secession of the region for Iraq, the situation has dramatically shifted. Throughout the past 3 years, the Kurdish Pashmerga and other militias have liberated significant ground from ISIS north in the country, which they later seized to expand the KRG. The most important location taken under Kurdish authority is the city of Kirkuk and its oil rich surroundings.  Since June 2014, when the Iraqi army deserted positions around northern Iraq in face of ISIS attacks, the opposition Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Pashmerga assumed the administration of Kirkuk, triggering wild protests from both Ankara and Baghdad.

2. Kirkuk is an energy hub, the oil fields around it amount to 12% of Iraq’s potential, and it’s also well connected to export markets via the Ceyhan pipeline towards the city-port in Turkey with the same name. Taking into consideration that KRG accounts for 17% of Iraq’s oil deposits, seizing Kirkuk would almost double Erbil’s capacity on the energy market, and provide more revenue, badly needed for an emerging war-torn state.

3. This dispute is far from being new, Kirkuk is also considered as the “Kurdish Jerusalem”, and a symbol of resistance against the Ba’ath regime, that sought to social engineer the area. Between  1970 and 2003, hundreds of thousands of Kurds were expelled further north, making space for Arab Sunnis to take their place and change the local demographics.  The An-Anfal campaign of Hussein’s regime that killed around 182,000 Kurds is another brutal display of a perpetual persecution by the Baghdad establishment.

5. Due to the Arabization process, and the lack of credible public records during the Ba’ath regime, the census of 1957 is considered the least politicized which said that Kirkuk was 48.3 percent Kurdish, 28.2 percent Arab, and 21.4 percent Turkmen.

6. The Turkmen remained a persistent community that also pose an opportunity for Turkish ventures in the ex-Ottoman province of Nineveh, now part of Iraq. This serves as a useful premise for the government in Ankara to promote cultural diplomacy and apply its military leverage in Syria and Iraq, as seen in the past years.. The Kurdish community while more reduced in numbers that in 1957, is still assessed to be consistent, while some of the Arabs are believed to have successively left the city and region in the post-2003 era fearing persecution. However, this does not mean that the demography tilted into the Kurdish favor.

 

THE KURDS OVERPLAYED THEIR CARD

7. Beyond the historical disputed character of the Kirkuk area, it was the Independence referendum vote organized by the authorities in Erbil that prompted a steadfast counter-reaction. Recent diplomatic threats, and military drills (some of them with Turkey) set the stage for a full-on intervention on October 16th, by Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Shia’s militias (Popular Mobilization Units/ PMUs) sponsored and trained by Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to storm the city.

8. In a desperate attempt to withhold, the President of the KRG, Masoud Barzani, and the Pashmerga allowed the outlawed terror separatist terror group, PKK, to assert a public, frontline position in a bid to defend it. While reports and photos confirm the premise, Pashmerga’s official position is contrary, mentioning that the embedded and mentioned fighters are merely ‘PKK sympathizers”. Regardless of that, it was a dangerous gamble, since Turkmen officials and militias called upon Turkey to intervene and protect the community for PKK. Inherently, it was only the Iraqi intervention that stopped a potential Turkish one.

9. With few shots fired, and even less casualties inflicted on both sides, the Pashmerga and PKK retreated to the outskirts of the city, while ISF and allied militias were sweeping Kirkuk and taking down billboards of Masoud Barzani and burning KRG flags. Many Kurds took the road of exile towards Erbil or Suleymaniah blocking the main highways, as the Pashmerga watched powerlessly and shocked how they lost their crown jewel in under 24 hours. CENTCOM managed to ground Iraqi air assets, by scrambling jets that patrolled the skies of Kirkuk, and almost instating an unofficial no-fly zone. Moreover, the U.S.-led Coalition ‘Inherent Resolve’ called on all parties to avoid escalation.

10. The political establishment in Erbil held the PUK leaders on the ground responsible for this disaster after ordering the Pashmerga to stand down and evacuate the city. To make things even worst, the ISF, PMU cohort took and are currently still taking, the rest of the expanded KRG territory during the past years in the anti-ISIS campaign, namely: the self-proclaimed autonomous Yazidi Shengal (mount Sinjar), Mosul Dam, Bashiqa (where Turkey hosted a training camp) and other locations around the Nineveh plains. But this is not only a disaster for the Kurds, but for the U.S. as well.

 

BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE

11. The near non-combat setting in Kirkuk was also a result of negotiations in the city between IRGC’s al-Quods branch and the Pashmerga. Eqbalpour, an Iranian officer who works closely with Qasem Soleimani (al-Quds commander) offered Pashmerga a chance to surrender. He took out a map of the area and spread it out in front of his Kurdish counterparts. “This is our military plan. We will hit you tonight from three points — here, here and here,” he said, and then left the meeting with his entourage.

12. U.S. forces were based outside Kirkuk at the K-1 air base, and played no role in these event. Washington failed to contain the tensions between Baghdad and Erbil and limiting Iran’s involvement in Iraqi affairs. Whether this is the result of an intelligence failure, of bad decision making, or simply due to the situational constraints, it is unknown.

13. Accordingly, Baghdad forced the Kurds into an agreement to withdraw back to the 2003 agreed borders, basically nullifying their efforts in the past 3-4 years. The effort was a success for both Baghdad, which projected sovereignty and force over the entire Iraqi territory, and Iran, which prevented the disintegration of its neighboring state.

Iraqi Security Forces in Kirkuk’s governor office.

14. The lack of a major Turkish intervention is at least surprising, especially given the symphony of common military drills held with the Iraqi Security Forces at the border. Even though limited elements did cross the border in anti-PKK operations in northern Iraq.

15. Any time stall is a direct benefit for ISIS. The terror group still controls several villages, and small to medium cities along the Euphrates River Valley in Syria’s Deir ez-Zor province, Iraq’s Anbar region, several disperse pockets in Hama (central Syria), and holds informal control over directly linked Salafist groups operating in Rural Damascus (Yarmouk camp), or Quneitra, near Israel.

 

A CREDIBLE DETERRENT

16. The Kurdish independence dream in Iraq crumbled before it even began. Surrounded by hostile and anxious opponents, and supported by pragmatic overseas allies, the Kurds didn’t stand a chance. More so given the naïve and hasty referendum, that had no chance to stand without military backing. The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) gave the Pashmerga something to fear, a credible deterrent aimed at prevent similar outbursts in the future .

17. Turkey and Syria hope, that their own Kurds also learned a lesson. The United States, unable to contain its two divergent allies was completely isolated in the process, and witnessed again the extent of Iranian dominance in Iraq. Many critics argue that Washington intentionally stood idle and left the Shi’a militias steal the show.

Iraqis tear down Barzani’s independence billboard in Kirkuk city.

18. We assess that U.S. constraint was aimed at maintaining Iraq’s territorial integrity and at appeasing Baghdad’s demands. Furthermore, the ISF/PMU operation in Kirkuk did not pose an existential threat to the KRG and only affected the disputed peripheral territories. As long as the Iraqis and PMUs don’t decide to attack Erbil, or Suleymaniah, or attempt to subjugate the entirety of the KRG as a whole, then a U.S. intervention is highly unlikely and unnecessary. Should the showdown continue, Iran and Da’esh (ISIS) will be the main beneficiaries.

19. If the Kurdish commanders want to avoid repeating the mistakes from Kirkuk, they should work towards unifying their command & control structures, improve capabilities and modernize their quasi-militia-like structure.


Further reading on topics mentioned in the text and directly relevant to the situation at hand: ‘For Dust and Rubble: Iranian ambitions on the Syrian-Iraqi border’; and ‘Fury in Ankara, Anxiety in Erbil, Distress in Baghdad: Sinjar declares autonomy amid Kurdish Independence vote’.

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For Dust and Rubble: Iranian Ambitions at the Syrian-Iraqi Border

General Considerations (a) In the remote, deserted and extremely sparsely populated area of the Syrian Desert, notably around the tri-border area with Republic of Iraq and the Kingdom of Jordan,…

General Considerations

(a) In the remote, deserted and extremely sparsely populated area of the Syrian Desert, notably around the tri-border area with Republic of Iraq and the Kingdom of Jordan, the impact of the civil war has been relatively moderate with rare high-intensity waves generated by intertwined moments or actions from other battlefronts. The area was sharply captured by ISIS since late 2014 in order to secure the supply lines from the loyal Iraqi region of Anbar in order to fuel military operations in Homs and Rural Damascus.

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