Tag: russia

Russia moves Troops to border with Belarus

Russian military intervention in Belarus is increasingly likely. Open-source intelligence shows significant military activity in Russia’s western military district. Eyewitnesses have documented at least three unmarked convoys of the Russian…

Russian military intervention in Belarus is increasingly likely. Open-source intelligence shows significant military activity in Russia’s western military district. Eyewitnesses have documented at least three unmarked convoys of the Russian Military Guard (RosGuard) consisting of transport vehicles and logistics trucks moving towards the border with Belarus on 16-17 August 2020. A CITEAM assessment indicates that the convoys could move approximately 600 people. 

Established on President Putin’s orders in 2016, the RosGuard is a militarized institution of the Russian Interior Ministry tasked with territorial defense, securing critical infrastructure, counter-terrorism, and “protecting public order.” 

So far, we have NOT noticed any Russian military assets operating in Belarus. However, the situation could change dramatically at any movement as pro-democracy protests continue to grow at an unprecedented scale. A crowd of over 200,000 demonstrated in Minsk over the weekend against Belorussian autocratic leader Lukashenko, and workers across the country have gone on strike.

Lukashenko branded the freedom movement as being a foreign-backed “colored revolution” and falsely claimed that NATO is preparing to invade Belarus. To back-up his conspiracy, Lukashenko ordered the army to hold a series of snap exercises near the Polish and Lithuanian borders between 17 and 21 August. Photos on social media show that the Belarusian forces are moving several Tochka-U short-range ballistic missile systems from Minsk towards the west, an alarming development for NATO. 

Unable to quell the protests, Lukashenko opened “Pandora’s box” by requesting security and military assistance from Russia on 15 August. After a second phone call on Sunday, Lukashenko claimed that Putin promised him “comprehensive security assistance.”

A Russian military intervention in Belarus will likely result in the de facto annexation of the country. Moscow has always feared that a “colored revolution” will transform its neighbor into an adversary. If Belarus slips from the Kremlin’s orbit, Russia will lose access to the Suwalki Gap, the strategic corridor linking the Baltic states to the rest of NATO, and the gargantuan Baranovichi airbase.
In the past months, Moscow has been insistently pressuring Lukashenko to bring Belarus into a new federal union with Russia. While “Europe’s last dictator” wants to keep the country under his thumb, given the new circumstances he will likely prefer to forfeit Belarus to Russia than be ousted by the population.


This report was originally published on our Facebook page on 17 August 2020.

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Russia Sends Fighter Jets to Libya

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

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

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



FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE: A FOURTH GENERATION PACKAGE

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

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

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

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

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

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

STATE-BACKED MERCENARIES 

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


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

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

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

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



OPERATION “VOLCANO OF RAGE” 

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

Map of “Rage of Volcano” offensive via Rr016

BAYRAKTAR VS. PANTSIR 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE HUNT: BATTLE DAMAGE ASSESSMENT

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

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

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


16-18 MAY: RAID ON WATIYA AIR BASE

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

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

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

BDA of the Al-Watiyah raids via ImageSat International

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

The second Pantsir S-1 targeted, covered in concrete

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


18 MAY: SOUTH OF SIRTE

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

20 MAY: RAIDS ON TARHUNAH AND ELSEWHERE

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

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

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

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


HAFTAR TO STRIKE BACK? 

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE MORE THINGS CHANGE, THE MORE THEY STAY THE SAME

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



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

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

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

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

ABU KAMAL IS THE NEW FLASHPOINT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE IRGC IS MOVING UNDERGROUND

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

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

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

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

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

ISRAEL CONTINUES TO DEFY THE SYRIAN S-300

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

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

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

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

HEZBOLLAH IS STILL RECEIVING PRECISION-GUIDED MISSILES 

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

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

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

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



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

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


by HARM

Editing by Gecko

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Russian Pipelaying Vessel Enters Baltic Sea to Complete North Stream 2 

Gazprom’s pipelaying vessel “Akademik Cherskiy” is entering the Baltic Sea. The Russian-flagged vessel was likely dispatched to complete the remaining 6% of the controversial North Stream 2 gas pipeline. The…

Gazprom’s pipelaying vessel “Akademik Cherskiy” is entering the Baltic Sea. The Russian-flagged vessel was likely dispatched to complete the remaining 6% of the controversial North Stream 2 gas pipeline. The Akademik Cherskiy’s arrival in the Baltic Sea marks the end of a trip around the world that started in February 2020, when the vessel left its homeport Nakhodka on Russia’s Pacific coast. It is possible that the pipelayer will first conduct a port-call for maintenance and repairs in Kaliningrad or Sankt-Petersburg, before commencing work on the last segment of North Stream 2 near the Danish island of Bornholm. 


NORTH STREAM 2: A THREAT TO EUROPEAN ENERGY SECURITY 

North Stream 2 is a submarine pipeline that will carry natural gas from Russian fields to a terminal on Germany’s Baltic sea coast. The pipeline will more than double the existing capacity of the original North Stream, which was completed in 2011. Besides the Russian energy giant Gazprom, five European companies (OMV, Royal Dutch Shell, Uniper SE, Engie SA and Wintershall AG) participate in the North Stream 2 project.  

North Stream 2 route (source: ICIS.com)

North Stream 2 will significantly increase the EU’s dependency on Russian gas, which the Kremlin has never shied away from using as leverage. Considering the potential geopolitical impact of the pipeline, the Western European support of North Stream 2 has left the Eastern European countries feeling aghast and betrayed. While the EU has been advocating for the diversification of energy sources and suppliers for years, the Union’s core members now seem willing to continue embracing Russian gas.
Ukraine’s national security, in particular, will be impacted by North Stream 2. Before Russia’ annexation of Crimea and covert invasion of Eastern Ukraine, Gazprom was sending 60 percent of its gas exports to Europe through pipelines in Ukraine. While deliveries will continue until 2024, Ukraine’s status as a transit state for Russian gas will be weakened by the new pipeline. As a result, Kyiv will lose whatever geopolitical leverage it has against its hostile neighbor.  

US SANCTIONS FROZE PIPELINE AT 94%

Roughly 94 percent of the 1,230 kilometers (764 miles) long North Stream 2 pipeline was completed when the Trump administration put the companies of the consortium under sanctions.  The Swiss company Allseas Group SA stopped the process of laying underwater pipes in late December 2019, leaving a small gap in the pipeline located in Danish waters around the island of Bornholm (between Sweden and Germany’s Baltic coast).  Since then, the Kremlin has been scrambling for options to continue construction. The delay will push the opening to mid-2020 at the earliest. In 2019, the Russian Foreign Minister named the pipelaying vessel Akademik Cherskiy, which has now arrived in the Baltic Sea, as one of the available options to complete the pipeline. 



EURO-ATLANTIC SPLIT 

If work on North Stream 2 resumes, the split between the United States and the EU countries that participate in the energy project will likely deepen. The Central and Eastern member states of the EU will continue to side with the U.S. and promote the Three Seas Initiative (3SI). The 3SI’s main project is to facilitate the influx of American liquefied natural gas (LNG) to the Eastern European energy market as an affordable alternative to crude Russian gas. To this end, Poland has invested generously in its Swinoujscie LNG terminal on the Baltic Sea coast, where vessels from the United States can unload cargo.

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Russian Aerospace Forces Deploy New S-350 “Vityaz” SAM System near Sankt-Petersburg (Asset Recognition and Geolocation)

After long delays and setbacks, the S-350 “Vityaz ” SAM system finally entered service with the Russian Aerospace Forces (RuAF). The S-350’s first deployment is at the Gatchina training center…

After long delays and setbacks, the S-350 “Vityaz ” SAM system finally entered service with the Russian Aerospace Forces (RuAF). The S-350’s first deployment is at the Gatchina training center in Leningrad oblast. 


We geolocated the exact deployment site shown in the “Zvezda TV” video to these GPS coordinates 59°32’44.4″N 29°56’46.1″E

The RuAF is scheduled to receive 12 battalion sets of the S-350 (incl. 144 TELs) before 2028. The S-350s will replace the RuAF’s outdated stockpile of S-300P/PS designs (SA-10/B “Grumble/-B”) and modernize Russia’s integrated air defense system. 

As a short-to-mid range system, the S-350 will cover the air defense gap between the Buk-M3 (and augment it) and the long-range S-400 (SA-21). Moscow is marketing the S-350 as its newest solution against low-flying, radar-evading air-breathing threats (e.g. aircraft, cruise missiles), but that is also capable of countering ballistic missiles. 

Geolocation and asset recognition based on media forensics analysis via T-Intelligence

The S-350 Vityaz will employ two SAM-types:

-9M100; maximum engagement range: 15 km

-9M96/E (SA-20); maximum range of 120 km. 

One S-350 TEL can carry up to twelve missiles.

The Five Eyes’ Air Force Interoperability Council has yet to designate a code name (i.e. NATO reporting name) for the new Russian anti-access system.


This report was originally published on our Facebook page on 27 February 2020. 

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NATO to Hold Emergency Article 4 Meeting After Deadly Attack on Turkish Forces in Idlib

NATO’s decision-making body, the North Atlantic Council (NAC), will meet on Friday (28 February 2020), following a request by Turkey to hold consultations under Article 4 of the Washington Treaty…

NATO’s decision-making body, the North Atlantic Council (NAC), will meet on Friday (28 February 2020), following a request by Turkey to hold consultations under Article 4 of the Washington Treaty on the situation in Syria. Under article 4 of the Treaty, any Ally can request consultations whenever, in the opinion of any of them, their territorial integrity, political independence or security is threatened.

WHAT HAPPENED? 

A pro-government attack killed 33 Turkish soldiers in northwestern Syria last night. The attack took place in the village of Balyun (Idlib province), where the Turkish military had diverted to hold the frontline against the advancing pro-government forces (e.g. Syrian Arab Army, Iranian-backed Shiite militias and the Russian Aerospace Forces and advisors). Initially, only 9 casualties were reported, but the death toll spiked overnight to over 30 KIA. Turkey was only able to evacuate the wounded by land, as Russia reportedly refused to deconflict the airspace for Turkish helicopters. 

WHO CONDUCTED THE ATTACK?

Ankara identified “regime forces” as being behind the mass-casualty attack, although there is reason to believe that the Russian Aerospace Forces (RuAF) bombed the Turkish military position. Ever since Turkey demonstrated a willingness to use MANPADS (Man-portable air-defense systems) in Idlib earlier this month, when it shot down two Mi-17 Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) helicopters, Damascus grounded its helicopter fleet. This left Russia as the only force engaged in air operations over Idlib. While some of the few SyAAF fighter jets are still air-worthy (one MIG-23 “Flogger” was recently spotted airborne) they have limited capability to conduct precision airstrikes at night (e.g. small to no inventory of thermal/ infrared-targeting pods). 

The Kremlin, however, claims the Turkish forces were hit by Syrian artillery shelling and that Turkey had not informed Russia in advance about their recent movements. Moscow’s’ claims are difficult to believe as both the Russian and Turkish command centers are keeping tabs 24/7 on each other through drones, satellite imagery, and other ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) assets. Russia has also been aware of the recent Turkish troop surge in southern Idlib and even targeted a Turkish military convoy in the area several days ago. Russia is also using small unmanned aerial systems to direct Syrian artillery on Turkish and opposition forces.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said that the Turkish re-positioning has been pre-coordinated with Russia and that even ambulances came under fire during the medical evacuation. 

TURKISH RETALIATION

The Turkish military released a video showing that it executed a series of UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles) strikes against pro-government positions and vehicles in retaliation for the attack. 

CAN TURKEY INVOKE ARTICLE 5? 

Almost certainly not. As Article 6 stipulates: “the purpose of Article 5, an armed attack on one or more of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack:

  • on the territory of any of the Parties in Europe or North America, on the Algerian Departments of France 2, on the territory of Turkey or the Islands under the jurisdiction of any of the Parties in the North Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer;
  • on the forces, vessels, or aircraft of any of the Parties, when in or over these territories or any other area in Europe in which occupation forces of any of the Parties were stationed on the date when the Treaty entered into force or the Mediterranean Sea or the North Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer.”

Article 5 is the cornerstone of NATO and states that an attack on one member of NATO is an attack on all of its members. Article 5 cannot be used to draw collective military support for extraterritorial operations or wars-by-proxy. 

WHAT WILL ARTICLE 4 BRING? 

Article 4 meetings usually result in political support from the other 28 members and possibly a largely defensive military support package. Ankara has previously used Article 4 at least three times to request NATO augment Turkey’s air defense capabilities. This time, however, the Turkish government will likely pressure its allies to provide more support. President Erdogan has recently threatened to allow the millions of refugees that were forced to the border by the pro-government offensive, to flee for Europe. 


FOR CONTEXT

The pro-government camp and the Turkish-backed opposition groups (National Front for Liberation/NFL) are both on the offensive in Idlib. With Turkish artillery and limited air support, the NFL has recaptured Nayrab and Saraqib on the M5 highway- positions that it lost less than a month ago (see Facebook post). 

After capturing the M5 highway, the pro-government camp reshuffled its forces to south-central Idlib province, where it aims to dislodge the Opposition forces from the M4 highway section linking Latakia province to Saraqib city.

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Evacuation “Shattered Glass”: The US/ Coalition Bases in Syria [Part 1]

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

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


THE MISSION

The Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) led by the United States (U.S.) has built around 20 major military sites in northern and eastern Syria since the fight against ISIS began in 2014. This includes semi-prepared landing zones (LZs), forward operating bases (FOBs), fire bases (FBs), and combat outposts (COPs).  The installations have housed military personnel, received and administered frontline logistics, provided medical facilities, and were used to mount and execute combat operations. The military infrastructure was key in supporting three main operational objectives: 

  • Combat operations against ISIS
  • Capacity building for local partner forces
  • Deterring attacks from adversarial forces

At the apogee of the campaign against ISIS in 2018, around 2,000 CJTF-OIR multinational forces were stationed in Syria, consisting of SOF (special operations forces), SF (special forces), JTAC (joint-terminal attack controllers), logisticians, engineers, airfield support personnel and clandestine servicemembers. Their numbers began to decrease after the defeat of ISIS’ physical caliphate in early 2019 (read more about the battle of Baghuz here). In October 2019, President Donald J. Trump ordered the U.S. troops, which account for the bulk of CJTF-OIR forces in Syria, to leave the country. 

What should have been an orderly and gradual withdrawal turned into an emergency evacuation, when Turkey announced a military offensive in northern Syria. Operation “Peace Spring” was a unilateral and poorly coordinated move that threatened CJTF-OIR personnel and bases. U.S. forces were forced to retreat from northern Syria, particularly from Aleppo and Raqqa provinces. The United Kingdom, France and other in-theater CJTF-OIR partners also withdrew their troops. The retreating Coalition forces had no time to dismantle or destroy their bases. As videos would later show, they left behind furniture, personal items, provisions, and occasionally “easter eggs” for the new occupants. Russian soldiers have since taken over the abandoned Coalition bases. 

Around 500 CJTF-OIR forces – mainly U.S. troops – continue to operate in eastern Syria, where they are tasked with securing the local energy infrastructure against ISIS resurgents. The forces are stationed in the Mid-Euphrates River Valley and near the Syrian-Iraqi border. 


ALEPPO PROVINCE (WEST OF EUPHRATES) 

The CJTF-OIR made its operational debut in Syria during the siege of Kobani (northeastern Aleppo province) in 2014. After partnering up with the Kurdish YPG militia and select Arab Sunni groups, the CJTF-OIR liberated the Upper Euphrates Valley and northern Raqqa province, where the Coalition established its first military bases.

MISTENUR HILL (KOBANI) FOB

Mistenur Hill FOB on November 25, 2018 via Maxar Technologies

Coordinates: 36°52’31.4″N 38°21’50.4″E

Type: FOB

Built: Between late 2014 and early 2016

Purpose: Secure Kobani from the south and forward deploy SOF elements on Syrian soil.

Infrastructure: The FOB was built from scratch next to a radio antenna site in Kobani’s southern hills. CJTF-OIR forces have erected a central two-story building surrounded by several small structures. A tall, thick concrete wall serves as the compound’s external fortification layer. Observation towers overlook the perimeter in all cardinal directions. Unconfirmed information suggests that the FOB started as a joint French-U.S. SOF garrison. 

Note: During Turkey’s Operation PEACE SPRING, FOB Mistenur hill came under ‘danger close’ artillery shelling from across the border (read more about the incident here). 

Status: Evacuated. 


KOBANI LANDING ZONE (KLZ) 

Kobani Landing Zone (KLZ) on January 6, 2018 via Maxar Technologies

Coordinates: 36°39’00.7″N 38°18’12.4″E

Type: LZ

Built: March to September 2016

Purpose: Enable heavy airlift operations and serve as close air support (CAS) staging area. 

Infrastructure: U.S. Air Force engineers have built the semi-prepared airfield from scratch near the village of Sarrin. The 2,000-meter long dirt runway received America’s largest heavy lifters (C-5 and C-17) that brought the bulk of logistics required for CJTF-OIR’s operations, including vehicles, munnition, construction materials, and other equipment. The U.S. has also built a large campground (more than 50 tents, warehouses, and depots), which provided housing facilities for personnel and logistics. Landing pads, reinforced revetments and a few hangars were added to station rotary-wing aircraft. 

Note: KLZ was the last CJTF-OIR facility to be vacated in Aleppo province. It stayed open until the last vehicles and personnel had evacuated from Aleppo province. 

Status: Evacuated. Under Russian control since November 15, 2019. 


LAFARGE CEMENT FACTORY (LFC)-HQ 

LaFarge Cement (LFC) Factory on September 1, 2016 via Maxar Technologies

Coordinates:36°32’43.7″N 38°35’15.7″E

Type: HQ

Built: 2010 (by LaFarge)/ occupied since 2015 

Purpose: Command and Control (C2) of in-theater counter-ISIS operations. 

Infrastructure: The cement factory, which was originally built by the French company LaFarge, was repurposed as the CJTF-OIR’s Syrian-headquarters and C2 center. The pre-existing buildings also served as barracks and logistics depot. The site’s large and wide parking facilities were used to store vehicles and helicopters. 

Note: The factory survived the war and continued to produce cement under ISIS occupation thanks to the protection taxes that the company paid to local armed groups including ISIS. LFC officials admitted to this practice in 2017, after French prosecutors charged the company’s former CEO with terrorism financing. French officials intervened on behalf of the company to stop the U.S. from bombing the factory in 2014.  The CJTF-OIR evacuated LFC on October 16, 2019, after the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) advanced to the M4 highway and came dangerously close to the facility. To sanitize the area and destroy the material left behind, two USAF F-15E jets bombed LFC.

Status: Evacuated. Likely under SDF control. 


ALEPPO PROVINCE (EAST OF THE EUPHRATES) 

Successive victories against ISIS east of the Euphrates allowed the Coalition and the SDF to expand operations in Manbij district, west of the river valley. Due to its large population and proximity to the Turkish border, Manbij was a key city for ISIS. The terrorist group used Manbij to plot attacks on European targets (e.g. Bataclan theater attack) and to receive foreign terrorist fighters transiting through Turkey. 



The SDF liberated Manbij in August 2016 with the intention to cleanse the entire area of ISIS. Alarmed by the SDF’s advance towards the Turkish border, Ankara mobilized its assets in the Syrian armed opposition and launched Operation “Euphrates Shield.” The Turkish offensive blocked the SDF’s advance westwards and threatened to capture Manbij. This forced the CJTF-OIR to change its posture in Aleppo province from post-ISIS stabilization operations to deterring a Turkish-backed attack.  To this end, the U.S. installed a multi-layer security perimeter around Manbij city: Two combat outposts (COPs) west and north of Manbij, armed checkpoints, and air-land patrols. 

WEST MANBIJ COP

Manbij COP West on March 23, 2018 via Maxar Technologies

Coordinates: 36°29’42.9″N 37°49’32.1″E

Type: COP

Built: May 2017 (expansion started) 

Purpose: Post-ISIS stabilization operations,  monitor and de-conflict the M4 highway that links Manbij to Arimah (under Syrian-Russian control) and al-Bab (under Turkish-SNA control). 

Infrastructure: The CJTF-OIR has enhanced a pre-existing “T-shaped” compound that encompassed three buildings and two large transmission antenna towers. The Coalition erected around 20 tents and halls in the compound and sectioned the site with multiple sandbag layers. A 300-meter-long driveway with anti-VBIED barriers at both ends links the compound to the motorway. The COP was continuously expanded throughout 2019, until U.S. forces received the order to withdraw. 

Status: Evacuated. Under Russian and/or Manbij Military Council (MMC) control since October 15, 2019.


NORTH MANBIJ COP

Manbij COP North on September 1, 2018 via Maxar Technologies

Coordinates: 36°36’40.0″N 37°55’39.8″E

Type: COP

Built: March to November 2018

Purpose: Monitor and de-conflict the Sajur River Valley (SRV) and the North-South access points to Manbij city. 

Infrastructure: The COP was built from scratch near the village of Dadat. Within just several months, the camp was visibly consolidated and sectioned in multiple areas with sandbag layers. The living quarters (sleeping tents, chow hall) and operations center in the middle, armory in the second layer, and multiple fortified combat positions were established in all cardinal directions. Annex sites were established south and west of the road. The COP continued to expand throughout 2019, until the evacuation. 

Status: Evacuated. Under Russian and/or Manbij Military Council (MMC) control since October 15, 2019. 

All diplomatic and military efforts (e.g. “Manbij Roadmap”, combined-joint patrols) failed to de-escalate the dispute between Turkey and the U.S. over Manbij. The risk of “blue-on-blue” incidents remained high until the last Coalition forces left the area. 

In the aftermath of the withdrawal, the SDF’s Manbij Military Council (MMC) struck a deal with pro-government forces to secure the Manbij pocket. While the city remains under the MMC’s exclusive control, the Russian military police and the Syrian Arab Army are now patrolling the Sajur River Valley and the M4 highway. Negotiations about the fate of Manbij are still underway between Qamishli and Damascus.


by HARM and Gecko

The second part will feature the CJTF-OIR installations in Raqqa Province.  

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Poland Signs Contract for Dozens of F-35A Stealth Fighters

The Polish government has signed a contract with Lockheed Martin to buy 32 F-35A stealth multirole fighter jets for the Polish Air Force, on January 31, 2020. The contract is…

The Polish government has signed a contract with Lockheed Martin to buy 32 F-35A stealth multirole fighter jets for the Polish Air Force, on January 31, 2020. The contract is estimated to be worth  $4.6 billion, making it the biggest military purchase in the country’s history. The first F-35As are expected to arrive in Poland in 2026. 

The groundbreaking purchase makes Poland the first Central and Eastern European country country to acquire the fifth generation aircraft. Warsaw joins the exclusive club of current or future F-35 operators, that includes six NATO members (United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark), Japan, Australia, Singapore and the Republic of Korea. 


REPLACING OLD SOVIET AIRCRAFT

The American defense contractor will deliver the latest configuration (Block 4) of the F-35’s Conventional Take-Off and Landing (CTOL) version. The Block 4 features an expanded missile capacity, from four to six internally carried missiles, improved sensors and data-link, and advanced computing power. The Polish Air Force (PoAF) will use the F-35s to replace the Soviet-era legacy Su-22 fighter-bombers  (NATO Reporting name: “Fitter”) and MiG-29 air superiority jets (“Fulcrum), and will serve alongside its existing fleet of 48 F-16s. 

ENHANCING POLISH AIR FORCE CAPABILITIES

With the F-35 in service, the PoAF will posses a top-of-the-line air defense capability and striking platform. Poland will enjoy unmatched interoperability in joint force and Coalition operations. In addition to national air policing, the F-35A will enable Poland to conduct Destruction/ Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (D/SEAD), Offensive Counter Air (OCA) and to prosecute targets defended by enemy anti-access/ area-denial (A2/AD) “bubbles.” 

STEALTH

The F-35 is known for its low-observability (or stealth), sensor fusion, increased situational awareness and integrated electronic warfare system, but also for its production delays and constant software patches. Born from the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program, the F-35 was designed as a jack-of-all-trade platform to satisfy the operational requirements of the three major U.S. military branches. As the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps have different needs and operational doctrines, the JSF’s initial requirements mutated in the compromise and more economical formula we have today. However, the one element that remained universally embraced was stealth. 

Contrary to widespread misperception, stealth is not invisibility. Rather, stealth gives the F-35 the ability to elude or greatly complicate an enemy’s ability to find and destroy an aircraft using a combination of tactics and technology. In general, stealth is the ability to evade detection by radar, infrared sensors or emission interception. Stealth provides greater survivability and access, allowing aircraft to operate in contested A2/AD environments, that legacy fighters simply cannot penetrate or evade. 



An integrated airframe design, advanced radar-absorbing materials, low-probability of intercept sensors and other features maximize the F-35’s stealth features. This allows the F-35 to defeat upper band radars (X- and Ku-bands) that are used by air defense systems for SAM engagement control. The aircraft performs less effective against early-warning and acquisition radars operating in the lower bands (UHV/ VHF), however these sensors are unable to provide engagement guidance , and can only “paint” a vague picture of threat. 

REAL TEST AFTER 2026

With the F-35 purchase, Poland sets an example for the other NATO militaries that are still struggling to transition from the defunct Warsaw Pact model. However, the real test begins after 2026 when the PoAF will have to undertake the exhausting task of absorbing the F-35 fleet into operational use and keep its combat readiness rate high. Another Herculean challenge will be to provide constant maintenance to the “needy” platform, in the form of software patches, logistical support infrastructure, weapons integration, LO coating maintenance and other aspects.

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Syrian Army Enters Strategic City in Idlib

The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and other pro-government forces have entered Ma’arat al-Numan, an opposition-held town of critical importance, on January 28, 2020. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR)…

The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and other pro-government forces have entered Ma’arat al-Numan, an opposition-held town of critical importance, on January 28, 2020. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) report that the fighting moved inside the city, with social media evidence confirming the event. It is however, unclear whether the SAA has also managed to capture the city. The situation is likely very fluid with sporadic fights and pockets of resistance appearing in the city’s neighbourhoods. 

Located in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, the town was the target of the SAA’s newest offensive launched on Friday. Since then, the pro-government camp captured 23 towns and surrounded Ma’arat al-Numan. With the city besieged, fighter-bombers operated by the Russian Aerospace Forces (RuAF) and helicopters used by the Syrain Arab Air Force (SyAAF) dropped scores of unguided ammunition such as thermobaric and barrel bombs on the area. Shiite militias backed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) such as Liwa Fatemiyoun also participate in the offensive.


The escalatory wave of aerial attacks as well as the SAA’s steady advance forced over 1,000 inhabitants from Ma’arrat al-Numan, Saraqib and Jabal al-Zawiya into displacement. This adds to the 1,500,000 Syrians already displaced in Opposition-held territory. Idlib’s total population is around 3,000,000. 


The seizure of Ma’arrat al-Numan is the most important step in the SAA’s objective to capture the M5 highway that transits Idlib province on a north-south axis. The M5 highway links the capital Damascus to Syria’s second city Aleppo, and is vital for the Assad regime to rekindle its moribund economy. 

Ma’arat al-Numan is also one of few Idlib towns that are not controlled by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a salafist-jihadi organisation that is unofficially linked with Al-Qa’ida (AQ). Since 2018, the city is under the control of the Turkish-backed Syrian Liberation Front (SLF), a coalition of Syrian opposition groups based in Idlib, and that oppose HTS and other AQ-linked groups. 



Meanwhile, the Turkish Defense Ministry said Tuesday that Turkey will not hesitate to retaliate if its observation points are threatened. The Turkish Land Forces operates at least 10 observation posts in Opposition-held territory near the frontline with the pro-government camp. Turkey hoped that the presence of its personnel will deter the SAA and Russia from attacking Idlib. However, the SAA’s ground offensive and Russia’s airstrikes simply avoided the Turkish outposts and captured everything around them. This brought two Turkish observation posts (near Morek and Surman) stranded in SAA-held territory. A third observation post, 20 km south of Ma’arat al-Numan, is in the process of being surrounded. 

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