Tag: syria

U.S.-led Coalition & SDF Terminate ISIS’ Physical Caliphate, COINOPS to Follow

On March 23, 2019 the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced the liberation of Baghuz al-Fawqani, the “Islamic State of Syria and Iraq’s” (ISIS/Da’esh) last stronghold in Syria’s Mid-Euphrates River Valley…

On March 23, 2019 the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced the liberation of Baghuz al-Fawqani, the “Islamic State of Syria and Iraq’s” (ISIS/Da’esh) last stronghold in Syria’s Mid-Euphrates River Valley (MERV). The victory marks the end of the terror group’s physical caliphate, which once stretched from central Iraq to northwestern Syria and encompassed almost 10 million people. The remaining Da’esh fighters (Iraqi, Syrian, and foreign terrorist fighters/FTFs) made their last stand in a in a pocket of four square kilometers, consisting of a makeshift tent camp, desolated houses, and underground tunnels.

As the conventional campaign ends, the post-physical-caliphate era begins with 10,000-20,000 Da’esh fighters on the loose across Syria and Iraq, ready to resurge at the right time, while their wives and children guarantee a transgenerational survival of the jihadist struggle.


OPERATIONAL LAYOUT

1. The battle for Baghuz al-Fawqani began in late December 2018. The offensive marked the last phase of Operation Roundup (OR), a joint effort of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) to clear the MERV and the Syrian-Iraqi border from Da’esh remnants.

2. OR was spearheaded by the SDF’s Deir ez-Zor and al-Hasakah local Arab Sunni affiliates, the Syrian Arab Coalition (SAC), and the Deir ez-Zor Military Council (DMC). When the offensive stagnated in late 2018, the SDF was forced to deploy the battle-hardened Manbij Military Council (MMC) and the Kurdish YPG militia – the PKK’s Syrian affiliate – from Raqqa and the Kabur valley to finish the job. YPG-led operations were however repeatedly halted due to Turkish cross-border attacks in northern Syria.

3. The U.S.-led Coalition/CJTF-OIR continued to assist the SDF with advisors, special operations forces (SOF), artillery and air support. The Coalition’s Combined Air Operation Center (COAC) based in al-Udeid air base (Qatar) employed a variety of aircraft for close air support (CAS), based on targeting data from SDF-embedded forward air traffic controllers/SOFs. While CJTF-OIR statements only mention the F-15C*, IMINT shared by twitter user @obretix and SOCMINT reports also indicate the presence of the following aircraft:

  • B1b Bomber, AC-130 Spectre gunship, Apache attack helicopters, U28A tactical ISR, MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle (United States Air Force);
  • Beechcraft 350 ISTAR and Tornado fighter jet (British Royal Air Force);
  • Rafale F4 (French Air Force).  

4. The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), U.S. and French infantrymen furthermore assisted the SDF with cross-border artillery fire from Fire Base Shaham (near al-Qa’im, Iraq) and other combat outposts in the MERV. ISF and select Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) deployed on the Iraqi-Syrian border to prevent Da’esh fighters from escaping to Iraq.

5. Pro-government forces stationed in Al Abukamal blocked the western escape route from Baghuz. While it is unknown whether the Syrian Arab Army coordinated with the Coalition or the SDF, the pro-government forces engaged Da’esh fighters who attempted to cross the Euphrates river and escape into the desert.


INTELLIGENCE FAILURE?

6. Despite the high-number of airborne ISR platforms and intense SIGINT and GEOINT collection efforts, the CJTF-OIR and SDF have consistently been mistaken about the enemy and civilian presence in the Baghuz pocket.

7. The initial estimate of the enemy’s order of the battle (January 2019) was between 600 and 1,400 fighters, shielded by over 2,500 civilians. After the evacuation of the Baghuz pocket, the SDF nevertheless estimated that 1,600 Da’esh fighter were killed and 25,000 civilians left the enclave. The intelligence failure repeatedly delayed the ground assault and allowed Da’esh to go on the offensive:

a. Da’esh exploited the considerable civilian presence to complicate and deter air strikes.

  • The CJTF-OIR reported only 97 strikes between February 24 and March 9 2019, resulting in 137 engagements that targeted 228 Daesh tactical units and destroyed 71 tactical vehicles, 35 vehicle borne improvised explosive devices, 17 supply routes, 11 fighting positions, 10 weapons caches, eight staging areas, four command and control nodes, two tunnels, two heavy machine guns, one anti-aircraft gun, one fuel tanker, and one boat.
  • In the previous months, the number of engagements was significantly higher (646 strikes between January 13 and 26, 179 strikes between January 27 and February 9, and 186 strikes between February 10 and 23).

b. Starting in mid-February, the SDF and Da’esh struck a number of deals that facilitated the exit of non-combatants (wounded fighters, spouses, children and captives) from Baghuz. This forced the SDF to pause the military offensive and organize the flow of refugees to the al-Hawl internal displaced people (IDP) camp (Hasakah province). The main screening points were established east of the riverside tent camp on the SDF-held Jabal Baghuz, a 240 m high cliff. Testimonies from aid workers suggest that no party was expecting or prepared to face such a challenge.

8. A second CJTF-OIR/SDF intelligence failure was to believe that the besieged Da’esh fighters would quickly surrender to avoid a “bloodbath.” To keep their own losses to a minimum, the CJTF and SDF pursued a strategy of “bombing Da’esh into surrendering.” However, this expectation was not only unrealistic (based on previous battles and lessons learned), but also counterproductive, as it provided Da’esh with immense propaganda potential to divinize their “last stand.”

9. When the SDF resumed ground operations on March 11, Da’esh met the advancing force with rocket-propelled grenades, mortar attacks, sniper fire and suicide vehicle-borne  improvised explosive device (VBIED). A number of female fighters/Da’esh wives engaged in firefights with the SDF. Even when the SDF was “in the wire,” the jihadists barricaded themselves in tunnels and continued with suicide attacks on the surface.


DA’ESH IS NOT DEFEATED

10. Although the physical caliphate has been 100% liberated, Da’esh still poses a lasting threat to regional and international security. U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) estimates that absent counterinsurgency pressure, Da’esh will likely resurge in Syria within six to twelve months and regain limited territory in the MERV.

a. Da’esh maintains a residual presence of over 20,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq. Da’esh still controls remote and sparsely populated areas both states. The jihadist ranks consist of senior leaders, fighters and facilitators. The group also operates sleeper cells in cities, which are capable of conducting targeted assassinations and mass casualty attacks. Ultimately, the dispersed Da’esh fighters are working towards overhauling their transnational networks and regaining an offensive military capacity.

  • In Syria, Da’esh maintains a heavy presence in the Markaz al-Mayadin subdistrict (Deir ez-Zor province) and the oil-rich al-Sukhnah subdistrict (central Homs province). The pro-government camp, which controls this territory, has not taken adequate measures to limit the group’s freedom of movement such as airborne patrols or 24/7 checkpoints. As a result, Da’esh cells have already conducted attacks and will likely increase efforts to disrupt traffic on the Palmyra/Tadmur-Deir ez-Zor highway and seize oil pumping stations in central Syria. Da’esh cells also conducted several IED and suicide attacks in Manbij, Raqqa and Tabqa, which resulted in civilian and Coalition casualties, in the last year. The MERV area is equally challenging to stabilize, as the territory is sparsely populated, porous and dominated by local tribal dynamics. The SDF will need approximately 30,000 local Arab Sunni recruits to conduct indigenous-led stabilization operations in Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa province.
  • In Iraq, Da’esh is mostly active in Kirkuk, Nineveh and Salah ad-Din province. Da’esh fighters are regularly conducting night raids, kidnappings and assassinations. The joint CJTF-OIR-ISF Operation Last Warning (OLW) targets the remaining Da’esh pockets where they are most likely to resurgence (Anbar desert, Wadi Hauran, and southern Nineveh). However, the Iraqi Security Forces are years, if not decades, away from operating without CJTF-OIR support. The NATO Training Mission-Iraq remains vital for local capacity building.

Syria and Iraq Situation map as of March, 2019 via T-Intelligence

  • In Afghanistan, joint U.S.-Afghan SOF and air operations redirected the expansion of IS-Khorasan (IS-K) from the Spin Ghar mountain range (southern Nangarhar province) to the Pakistani borderlands controlled by the Taliban, resulting in escalating violence between the two groups. IS-K is currently entrenching positions in the infamous Korengal valley (Kunar province), while losing the Darzab enclave in the Uzbek-majority Jowjan province [MORE ON IS-K IN AFGHANISTAN].

b. The situation in Al Hawl IDP camp poses a critical threat for post-caliphate stabilization efforts. Al-Hawl has been overwhelmed by the influx of non-combatants from Baghuz. The 25,000 new inhabitants mostly consist of Da’esh fighters and their families, who remain unrepentant and radicalized. As assessed by U.S. CENTCOM General Joseph Votel, the large-scale surrender in Baghuz “is not the surrender of ISIS as an organization but a calculated decision to preserve the safety of their families and the preservation of their capabilities by taking their chances in camps for internally displaced persons and going to ground in remote areas and waiting for the right time to resurge.” Like its predecessor organization Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Da’esh will likely attempt to destabilize or attack camps and prisons in order to replenish its ranks with battle hardened fighters. Da’esh-affiliated media are already calling for attacks on SDF positions all over Syria.

c. Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTFs) have proven to be the group’s die-hard element in the battle for Baghuz. If allowed to return to Europe/North America, they will pose an immediate threat to their home countries. However, due to the lack of evidence necessary for valid convictions, Western governments prefer to leave FTFs in SDF custody (short-term solution) or have them transferred to the Iraqi authorities (for conviction).

11. CJTF-OIR will gradually disengage from major military operations and reduce the troop count from 2,200 to 400 in Syria. In this last operational phase, CJTF-OIR will provide security, planning and support to the Iraqi government and appropriate authorities in Syria to prevent Da’esh from resurging. CJTF-OIR can be expected to keep air-land ISR and CAS assets in Iraq and prosecute high-value targets using SOFs and UAVs.


By HARM and Gecko

Due to operations security (OPSEC) CJTF-OIR does not report the number or type of aircraft employed in operations, the number of munitions dropped in each strike, or the number of individual munition impact points against a target.

YPG social media accounts refer to the battle for Baghuz as Operation Fight Terrorism and to the MERV offensive as Operation Jazzira Storm.

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Syrian S-300 Ready to Use?

Syria’s S-300PM2 surface-to-air missile (SAM) system (NATO reporting name: SA20-B Gargoyle) has likely achieved initial operational capability (IOC) or is about to achieve IOC by May/June 2019. In response to…

Syria’s S-300PM2 surface-to-air missile (SAM) system (NATO reporting name: SA20-B Gargoyle) has likely achieved initial operational capability (IOC) or is about to achieve IOC by May/June 2019. In response to the Ilyushin-20 incident of September 2018, Russia transferred three battalion sets (with eight 5P85SE launchers each) of the SA-20B/S-300PM2 version (domestic/non-export) from its own inventory to the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF). The SA-20B Gargoyle does however not pose an imminent threat to Israel and the U.S.-led Coalition, as the operation of the SAM system is likely subject to political restrictions imposed by Moscow. Our assessment is backed by four key indicators:


1. IMINT dating from February 5, 2019 shows that three of the four SA-20B tractor erector launchers (TELs), which were deployed in the Masyaf hills (Hama province) in October 2018, are now erected. When TELs assume vertical position, the SAM system is usually combat-ready. The company ImageSateliteInternational (iSi) has run a SAR filter analysis on the IMINT evidence, which concluded that the TELs are not dummies. However, the iSi analysis does not show any engagement or acquisition radars near the TELs. While the lack of radars could indicate that the SA-20B is not fully operational yet, it is also possible that the system is linked to Russia’s SA-21 96LE “Cheese Board” and 92N6E “Grave Stone” radars, which are deployed only 1.3 km away. The latter is a plausible explanation, since Russia vowed to integrate Syria’s air defense network with its own in late 2018. Alternatively, the Masyaf hills might be a temporary training/IOC deployment, before the SA-20B is relocated to Damascus, Syria’s most important area and bi-monthly target of Israeli raids.

2. Israeli Air Force (IAF) raids in Syria have completely stopped after the large-scale ground attack/suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) raids on January 20, 2019. This is likely due to ongoing negotiations between Israel and Russia regarding the use of the SA-20B in Syria (see 6).

3. IAF and U.S. Air Force (USAF) airborne ELINT and SIGINT collection sorties over the Syrian coast spiked in early 2019. USAF Boeing RC-135V, RC-135U, P-8 Poseidon and IAF Gulfstream G550 Nachshon Aitam 676 aircraft made bi-weekly appearances on open-source ADS-B receiver platforms. The IAF-USAF intelligence collection sorties likely aimed to determine the enemy’s electronic “order of battle”, including frequencies, radars and overall sensor characteristics as well as locations, while also monitoring other objectives such as Iranian weapons transports to Syria and the activities of the Russian Navy’s Mediterranean Task Force in Tartus.

4. The previous indicators are likely linked to a notice to airmen (NOTAM) issued by Syrian authorities, which informs of a potential anti-aircraft artillery risk for aircraft up to 200 nautical miles (396 km) outside Damascus. The NOTAM is in effect from January 18 to April 18, 2019 and mandates commercial operators to conduct their own risk assessment and exercise caution. It is virtually certain that the NOTAM points towards Syrian air defense drills involving long-range SAMs. The January-April time frame coincides with the expected IOC/completion of training for the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) air defense units. If Russia is indeed serious about integrating the Syrian and Russian air defense networks, the drills likely rehearse force integration and interoperability, featuring both SyAAF and Russian SAM systems. Notably, the NOTAM’s 200 nm risk range coincides with the maximum engagement range of the SA-21-compatible 40N6 SAM, which entered into service in late 2018. While the NOTAM is necessary for the safety of civil aviation (especially for Beirut, Tel Aviv, and Euro-Arabian transit flights), the unusually long time frame of the NOTAM likely serves to impede adversarial intelligence collection efforts (see 3.).  

SA-20B IOC DOES NOT RESULT IN IMMINENT SAM THREAT

5. While SyAAF servicemen might operate the system, Syria will likely require Russian approval before engaging targets with the SA-20B. Russia will not risk having its advanced SA-20B system devalued by yet another SyAAF mishandling or destroyed over a skirmish between Israel and Iran:

6. Russia has a bad track record of SAM-induced aviation accidents. With view to the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, which was downed by Russian separatists/servicemen, and the Ilyushin-20 aircraft, which was destroyed by the SyAAF near Latakia (regardless of IAF interference), Moscow will likely take adequate measures to mitigate the risk of friendly fire and significant collateral damage in the future.

7. The SyAAF already lost three SA-22 Greyhounds (Pantsir S-1/2), Russia’s premium point air defense systems, and countless other auxiliary equipment such as an SA-5 engagement radar and a ultra-high frequency early-warning sensor to the IAF. Even the most tactically important air defense locations (Mezzeh and Damascus International Airports) were either caught off guard or overwhelmed by Israel’s standoff and self-sacrificing ordnance.

8. Despite the loose Russian-Iranian cooperation in Syria, the two countries do not have a mutual-defense agreement and Moscow feels no obligation to safeguard Tehran’s assets. In fact, the Kremlin has tolerated the IAF’s operations in Syria over the past years. Iranian officials, including the Hashmatollah Falahatpisheh (the chairman of the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee) have publicly condemned Russia for preventing the SyAAF to use the SA-20B during the IAF’s January 20 raid. Russia’s only red-lines are safeguarding its own military assets and preserving the SyAAF’s air defense systems, which were necessary to deter U.S. regime change attempts in the past. The transfer of the SA-20B to Syria is best understood as an act of deterrence rather than an act of aggression towards Israel. Overall, Russia wants more transparency and consultation with Israel in the spirit of the (unofficial) bilateral deconfliction line. The Russian approach seems to be successful. In a meeting in late February Netanyahu has reportedly supplied Putin with intelligence on IRGC targets that Israel plans to prosecute, while Putin allegedly assured his counterpart that the SA-20B will not harm IAF jets.

ISRAEL WILL RETAIN A LIMITED STRIKING CAPABILITY

9. Since there is no known SA-20B deployment in the Damascus area, the IAF’s traditional standoff engagement flight paths are not yet threatened. While long-range 48N6E2 SAMs (designed to counter aircraft and ballistic missiles) fired from the Masyaf-based SA-20B can engage targets over Damascus city, kill probability on the range edge will be very low, especially against low observable (LO) munition. However, the IAF will encounter significant political-military hardships, should it wish to prosecute the Iranian missile production and storage facilities in Hama province, which the IRGC deliberately established in close proximity to the Russian SAM systems. In this situation, closer Israeli-Russian coordination (i.e. intelligence sharing, pre-strike notifications) rather than unilateral military action could enable the IAF to reach deep into Syrian airspace.

Masyaf-based SA-20B engagement range via T-Intelligence

10. If cooperation with Russia fails, the IAF has a number of (last resort) options to bypass or suppress the SA-20B. Israel has trained to defeat the advanced SAM system ever since Iran acquired the SA-20 (S-300PMU2/export) in the early 2010s. The IAF regularly conducts joint exercises and exchanges intelligence with allied/friendly air force operating the SA-10 (S-300PS) or the SA-20A (e.g. Hellenic Air Force, U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Ukrainian Air Force).

IAF 201st air squadron flies over Greece in a joint exercise with the Hellenic Air Force in December 2018 via iaf.org

11. Besides LO anti-radiation “suicide” munition (e.g. IAI Harop), the combination of the Israeli-upgraded F-35A (F-35I Adir) in stealth mode and the recently acquired Ukrainian-made Kolchuga-M electronic support complex represent a joker card for the IAF.  However, knowing that both Russia and Iran are very interested in registering the F-35’s combat performing radar cross section (RCS), the IAF needs to be very smart about when and where it employs the aircraft in “stealth mode”. While the IAF has already used the F-35I Adir on two unnamed fronts (likely Syria and Gaza), it is highly likely that its very-low observable (VLO) characteristics were not exploited.

IAF’s F-35I Adir flies off the Beirut coastline with radar deflectors to deliberately exaggerate RCS – via Israel Television News Company / Screenshot


By HARM and Gecko

Initial Operational Capability (IOC) refers to the minimum operational threshold of a system during the post-production deployment process. Inherently, IOC refers to the first time a system is turned on for final refinements before proceeding to Full Operational Capability (FOC). Depending on the defense product, the transition from IOC to FOC could take from several months to a year.

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US, UK and France Will Maintain Multinational Peacekeeping Force in Syria

Despite the initial announcement to withdraw all U.S. servicemen from Syria, the Trump administration will keep 400 troops in northeastern Syria and al-Tanf as part of a “multinational peacekeeping force.” Since…

Despite the initial announcement to withdraw all U.S. servicemen from Syria, the Trump administration will keep 400 troops in northeastern Syria and al-Tanf as part of a “multinational peacekeeping force.” Since the U.S.-led Coalition against ISIS (Da’esh) is transiting to the next phase of contingency operations, the reduced troop count is adequate to maintain military pressure on the terror group, prevent a large-scale Turkish attack on the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and restrict Iran’s freedom of operations in Syria. Former U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis and several military commanders publicly disagreed with Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria, arguing that a continued U.S. presence is necessary to prevent the resurgence of Da’esh (Consult our assessment on the CONSEQUENCES OF A U.S. TROOP WITHDRAWAL FROM SYRIA here).

While officially branded as a “monitoring and observer force”, the remaining U.S. troops will likely consist of special operations force (SOF) elements tasked with terminal attack control (for air operations), indigenous capacity building, direct action, reconnaissance and counter-insurgency operations. Regular troops will provide force protection. Air assets based in CENTCOM’s area of responsibility will continue to provide close air support and prosecute the remaining Da’esh high-value targets (HVTs) scattered in the Middle Euphrates River Valley. Besides American forces, the multinational peacekeeping force will likely include French and British SOF elements, which have liaised with the Coalition since 2014.  Allied contribution to the multinational peacekeeping force could bring the troop count to over 1,000.

Reports suggest that the U.S. administration is also pursuing other NATO allies to contribute to the force. As the Da’esh threat is an inherently transnational issue that concerns the security of all NATO and European Union states, a concerted effort is required. Countries such as Belgium, Denmark and Germany, that still have citizens under Da’esh command, should have a particular interest to commit troops or expand their Iraq deployments to prevent battle-hardened jihadists from returning to their home countries in Europe.


Photo credit: Cpl. Carlos Lopez (Task Force 51/5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade)

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Israeli/ U.S. airborne SIGINT on station for High-Value TEHRAN flight

1. At least two U.S. Air Force Boeing signals intelligence aircraft (SIGNT) – Boeing RC-135V (callsign: TIMEX21) and RC-135U (EXTRO21) – conducted SIGINT collection sorties over the Eastern Mediterranean between…

1. At least two U.S. Air Force Boeing signals intelligence aircraft (SIGNT) – Boeing RC-135V (callsign: TIMEX21) and RC-135U (EXTRO21) – conducted SIGINT collection sorties over the Eastern Mediterranean between 9 and 11 AM UTC time today. An Israeli Air Force (IAF) Gulfstream G550 Nachshon Aitam 676 SIGINT platform was also spotted over central and northern Israel. These platforms were on station, after a Syrian Air Ilyushin-76 heavylift cargo aircraft (RB/SYR9824) took off from Tehran Mehrabad International Airport (THR).

IAF-USAF SIGINT runs in Eastern Mediterranean captured by T-Intelligence via ADS-B exchange

2. The SIGINT platforms likely attempted to intercept communications between Syrian military and air control units to determine whether the cargo plane is a high-value target (HVT) that carries heavy weapons such as ballistic missiles (BM) destined for Iranian-affiliated paramilitary units. Should the presence of a HVT be confirmed, the IAF will likely conduct a tactical air strike to destroy the package. Both SIGINT collection sorties and air strikes have become common practices, as the IAF is attempting to curb the Iranian entrancement in Syria. Most of the Iranian military cargo eventually ends up in the hands of militias that operate against Israel, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah or the Palestinian Islamic Jihad Organization.

3. Syrian Air flight RB/SYR9824 (registration YK-ATB) left THR at 8:43 AM (UTC) westbound with no destination listed. When approaching the Syrian-Iraqi border around 10:12 AM, the flight turned its AVB transponder off. Twenty minutes later, the flight re-apparead over Homs province, Syria. Around 10:35 AM, the aircraft went dark again, while dropping to an altitude of 6,800 meters. As the aircraft made a northern course correction, the flight path of RB/SYR9824 suggests a destination north of Damascus. Whether this is indeed true or just a counter-surveillance maneuver to deceive its U.S. and Israeli watchers, is unknown.

Flightpath of RB/SYR9824 via FlightRadar24

5. In conjunction with its land-corridor, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) also operates an air route to supply its external branch, the al-Quds forces (IRGC- Quds), and affiliated Shi’a militias operating in Syria. Common destinations for the flights from Tehran and Kermanshah are the main Damascus airports (International and Mezzeh), Basil Al-Assad Airport in Latakia province and other airfields in Hama and Aleppo. Besides the civilian companies Mahan Air, Syrian Air and Fars Air Qeshm, Iran  is also known to use military aircraft operated by the Iranian Air Force (IRIAF) and the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF).

IRGC land-coriddor known as “Shi’a Crescent” via T-Intelligence

6. The presence of IAF/USAF SIGINT platforms does not automatically indicated that a HVT is onboard and that an Israeli air strike will follow. The IAF is tracking all suspicious flights inbound for Syria and Lebanon, many of which do not carry HVT cargo or whose payload does not mandate immediate kinetic action. The IAF/USAF SIGINT collections efforts could also be related to rumors indicating an imminent operationalization of the SyAAF’s S-300PM2 (SA-20B Gargoyle) surface to air missile system.  


by HARM

Editing by Gecko 

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Forensic Video Analysis: Syrian Air Defense Unit Abandoned Pantsir S-1 under Israeli IAI Harop Fire

During a raid in the night of January 20th 2019, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) prosecuted Iranian and Syrian ground targets in southern Syria. The operation included both ground attack…

During a raid in the night of January 20th 2019, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) prosecuted Iranian and Syrian ground targets in southern Syria. The operation included both ground attack and suppression/destruction of enemy air defenses (S/DEAD).


1. A video released by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) shows two SAM systems destroyed by Israeli missiles. The first one, either a 9K33 Osa (NATO reporting name: SA-8) or a 96K6 Pantsir S-1 (SA-22), was overwhelmed by an IAF saturation strike. The SAM system, based 5 km south of Damascus International Airport, fired for effect, but missed the interception. The SAMs detonated in mid air. The site coordinates are 33°20’54.4″N 36°28’08.1″E

2. The second target was a Pantsir S-1 (SA-22) stationed on the grounds of Damascus International Airport. Forensic video analysis shows three interesting details:

  • Heat signature: either the driver’s door is left open, with heat emanating from the cabin, or the vehicle’s power generator is left running.  
  • The planar array search radar antenna is switched off.
  • A vehicle is parked 3-5 meters behind the Pantsir – possibly a missile transloader.

3. We assess that the Pantsir (SA-22) was active and engaged in air defense. After consuming the munnition and receiving homing alerts, the crew deactivated the system’s antenna and fled. The crew was not caught off guard due to lack of personnel or low readiness, contrary to what some observers suggests.

4. Due to its location, the Pantsir (SA-22) was one of the most tactically important point air defense (PAD) systems in southern Syria. The system provided PAD for local long-range systems such as the S-200 (SA-5) and covered Damascus International Airport, which has been a bi-monthly, if not weekly, target of the IAF. If any crew was kept on high readiness, it was this Pantsir (SA-22) crew. The site coordinates are 33°22’56.5″N 36°29’38.4″E

5. As the IAF targeted the system, the Pantsir’s counter-D/SEAD protocol kicked-in and alerted the crew that enemy anti-radiation missiles (ARMs) were homing on its sensor emission. In such situations, the crew needs to deactivate the radar (flip the antenna off) and go mobile, leaving the position acquired by the enemy ARM. The crew indeed turned the radar off, but then – most likely – panicked and abandoned the Pantsir, leaving the door wide open/ the generator running. 

6. The supply vehicle spotted in the footage suggests that the Pantsir was about to be re-armed. The 2F77M is the designated transporter/transloader for the Pantsir (SA-22) and Tunguska (SA-19) SAM system family. The transloader is a 6×6 KamAZ-43101B truck.

Video Forensic Analysis via T-Intelligence (corrected)

7. The Syrian Pantsir (SA-22) air defense systems were likely targeted by the Israeli-made IAI Harop loitering ammunition, a low-observable (LO) anti-radiation “suicide” drone. The drone is designed to bypass enemy radars and loiter around the battlefield to find and engage evasive SAMs. For guidance, the drone can autonomously home on the enemy’s radar emission or be remote-controlled by a human operator (human-in-the-loop mode). The IAI Harop does not carry a warhead but self-destructs when reaching the target. This drone was credited for destroying another Syrian Pantsir (SA-22), during Israel’s Operation House of Cards on May 10, 2018.

T-Intelligence compilation of Harop drone demonstration by IAI

8. During the current raid, the IAF also destroyed a 3D long-range JY-27 early warning radar near Damascus International Airport. The JY-27 “Wide Mat” works at a very-high frequency (VHF) and can theoretically detect LO and very LO aircraft. The system is heavily inspired by Russia’s own VHF-band counter-LO aircraft radar, the “Box Spring” (1L13 Nebo SV and 1L119 Nebo SVU). The site was a key component of Syria’s evolving air defense network. With the JY-27 destroyed, the IAF mitigates the risk of having its F-35I Adir LO RCS detected.

Key takeaways from the January 20th raid:

9. The SADF has visibilly improved its effectiveness in countering ordinance. This is due to sustained Russian training, through which the Syrian Air Defense Forces (SADF) of the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) learned how to operate advanced point air defense SAM systems, namely the SA-22 and SA-17.

10. The SADF’s improved capability has a considerable tactical impact, as it forces the IAF to conduct saturation strikes in order to guarantee that the missiles reach their targets. In turn, more aircraft, heavier payloads (leading to an increased radar-cross section) and multiple bombing rounds will be necessary for future raids.

11. The repeated destruction of Syria’s Pantsir S-1 (SA-22) air defense systems will potentially discredit the newest generation of Russian-made systems in the eyes of Middle Eastern customers. The Pantsir S-1 is a highly-mobile low-altitude medium-range self-propelled SAM system. Armed with twelve 57E6 SAMs and a 30mm autocannon, the system was designed to counter precision-guided munition. It is marketed as an effective solution to defend against U.S.-made maneuvering cruise missiles such as the Tomahawk and ARMs (U.S-made AGM-88 HARM or British ALARM), which have historically overwhelmed Soviet-made SAM systems. The latest Israeli raids have however repeatedly overwhelmed and destroyed the system.


by HARM and Gecko 

CORRECTION: It is likely that the element marked as an open door is the vehicle’s running generator. While this does not dispute the analysis, the content has been edited accordingly

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Israel’s Christmas Raid in Syria: Target Assessment and Russian Reaction

In the night of December 25th, The Israeli Air Force (IAF) delivered its first clandestine strike on Syrian targets after President Trump announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops. As assessed…

In the night of December 25th, The Israeli Air Force (IAF) delivered its first clandestine strike on Syrian targets after President Trump announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops. As assessed in our latest policy impact analysis and recently reinforced by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, the U.S. withdrawal will force Israel to ramp up its counter-Iran operations in Syria. The “Christmas raid” is as much a political statement as it is a continuation of the over 100 Israeli covert airstrikes in Syria. The Syrian Air Defense Forces (SADF) showed a mixed performance, but managed to intercept the majority of Israel’s air-launched missiles.


1. The IAF operation took place between 2200 and 2300 local time and targeted a ammunition warehouse in southern Syria. Israeli F-16 Sufa fighter aircraft fired Delilah cruise missiles – and possibly GBU39 glide-bombs –  from Lebanese airspace, using the IAF’s traditional standoff strike path. 

2. The SADF responded with surface-to-air (SAM) missile fire from its Pantsir S-2 and Buk-M2 systems,  intercepting the majority of Israeli missiles. The SADF’s S-200 and S-125 were also activated, but failed to affect the IAF’s fighter aircraft. This prompted the IAF to initiate a second wave of strikes at approximately 2240 local time. Social media sources claim that an unknown number of F-35I Adir joined the second round as counter-air escorts. 

3. We asses that the second bombing run reached its target. According to official statements, the IAF destroyed an ammunition cache and a parking lot on the Syrian Arab Army’s 4th Armoured Division base, injuring three Syrian soldiers. Social Media Intelligence (SOCMINT) suggests that the targeted warehouse hosted Iranian-made Fajr-5 unguided surface-to-surface missiles that were scheduled for delivery to Hezbollah.

Target 1: Warehouse containing Fajr-5 SSMs (source: ImageSatInternational)

Target 2: Parking lot (source: ImageSatInternational)

4. According to Newsweek (quoting a U.S. defense source), the IAF targeted a Hezbollah delegation, which was boarding a flight to Tehran Mehrabad Airport to attend the funeral of Ayatollah Hashemi Alshaharoudi. While we cannot conclusively confirm this information, Iranian “Air Bridge” activity was indeed spotted during Christmas night. A Qeshm Fars 747 cargo plane [flight number QFZ9951]  from Damascus International Airport immediately after the IAF raid at 2334 local time. 

Screenshot of flight QFZ95591 egressing after the IAF raid

5. Yesterday’s raid revealed several problems of Syria’s aging SAM inventory. As video material shows, at least five failing SAMs crashed into the ground in Damascus instead of detonating in mid-air. One rogue missile even crossed the border into northern Israel and was intercepted by a Hadera-based air defense system. Contrary to initial claims, there is no evidence that the rogue SAM was a Syrian retaliatory strike.

The footage shows a Syrian SAM crashing on a residential area near Damascus: 

6. However, the SADF was generally successful in damage control. Familiar with the IAF’s flight paths, the Syrians focused on countering enemy ordinance  rather than enemy aircraft, relying heavily on point air defense systems.

7. Russia’s harsh reaction to the IAF’s “Christmas raid” testifies to the growing rift between Moscow and Jerusalem. In accordance to the deconfliction agreement, Moscow has thus far turned a blind eye to Israeli strikes in Syria, unless they were unannounced or engaged Syrian targets directly.  However, in response to the “Christmas raid” Russia has escalated its public rhetoric and reportedly considers tit-for-tat retaliations.

8. In the future, Russia will  potentially support Syria to engage IAF fighter jets when they enter Lebanese airspace. The imminent operationalization of the Russian-made S-300PM2 SAM system will provide the SADF with advanced long-range acquisition and engagement radars. It is virtually certain that the SADF will deploy at least one S-300 regiment in Damascus to provide area air defense over Syria’s most vital region.


By HARM and Gecko

The cover photo is a compilation of screenshots showing missile footage from the Christmas raid. Photo 1 shows an Israeli SAM launched from Hadera to intercept a rogue Syrian SAM. Photo 2 shows a Pantsir missile in flight, while 3 shows a Buk M-2 SAM launch in Damascus. 

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Consequences of the U.S. Troop Withdrawal from Syria

President Trump has announced a swift withdrawal of the 2,200 U.S. troops active in northeastern Syria, after claiming victory over Da’esh. The troops largely consist of special operations units, special…

President Trump has announced a swift withdrawal of the 2,200 U.S. troops active in northeastern Syria, after claiming victory over Da’esh. The troops largely consist of special operations units, special forces, engineers, state department personnel and forward air traffic controllers supporting the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Trump’s decision was made without allied or cabinet consultation and was likely part of a deal with Turkey. While the troop withdrawal will negatively impact the counter-Da’esh campaign, it will potentially reinvigorate the U.S.-Turkish partnership. The decision is faithful to Trump’s original foreign policy views and shows the limits of John Bolton’s  influence in the National Security Council (NSC). The resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis suggests that the decision is irreversible at this point.


KEY POINTS:

1. With the troop withdrawal, the Trump administration returns to its original foreign policy rhetoric, abandoning regime change objectives and long-term engagements in the Middle East.

2. While the Trump administration did accelerate the counter-Da’esh campaign, the premature troop withdrawal provides the terror group with breathing room to regroup and potentially resurge.

3. As the U.S failed to prevent the formation of Iran’s ‘Shia Crescent’ land bridge in December 2017, the troop withdrawal will not significantly affect Washington’s counter-Iran posture in northeastern Syria and al-Tanf. Israel and the Gulf states will be forced to pick up the ball to contest Iranian influence in Syria.

4. The troop withdrawal has the potential to reinvigorate the U.S.-Turkish strategic partnership and gradually pull Turkey out of Russia’s orbit. The SDF will likely disintegrate and forge new alliances to prevent a third party takeover of the territory it has liberated.

5. The Trump administration has also ordered troop reductions in Africa and Afghanistan, significantly weakening the U.S.’ capacity to combat al-Qa’ida and Da’esh internationally.


1. THE SYRIAN CIVIL WAR

  • Under the Trump administration, the United States canceled the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) train & assist program for Syrian opposition groups and focused exclusively on defeating Da’esh. This crippled the United States ability to influence the political resolution of the conflict. The U.S-sponsored Geneva Process remains insignificant and is overshadowed by the Russian-Turkish-Iranian trilateral formats.
  • According to  James Jeffrey, the U.S. Special Representative for the Syria Engagement, the Washington now seeks a “changed regime” (i.e. behaviour) rather than “regime change” in Damascus.
  • President Trump first expressed his intention to withdraw the 2,200 U.S. troops in northeastern Syria in 2017, in accordance with his campaign promise of military disengagement. The withdrawal was postponed at the NSC’s advice, which emphasized the need to stabilize the liberated territory in Syria and Iraq.

US Forces dismount from their Oshkosh M-ATV tactical vehicles while conducting a security patrol outside Manbij, Syria, June 24, 2018. Image: US Army/Staff Sgt. Timothy R. Koster

2. THE GLOBAL COALITION AGAINST DA’ESH

  • According to the U.S. government, the Coalition is currently transitioning to the next phase of the campaign against Da’esh. This will likely entail the end of major operations, including the air campaign, and the demobilization of the U.S. Combined Joint Task Force Inherent Resolve (CJTF-IF). Without CJTF-IF, French and British SOF and close air support missions will have a negligible impact on Da’esh.
  • Since 2014, the Global Coalition has made significant progress against Da’esh in Syria and Iraq. The Trump administration’s relaxation of the rules of engagement and the discrete troop surge in 2017 have notably accelerated the counter-Da’esh campaign. Da’esh has been stripped off its expansive proto-state and forced back into the form of a classical insurgency.
  • However, Da’esh is conserving its resources and regrouping in the mid-Euphrates river valley (MERV) in Syria as well as the southern Nineveh and Kirkuk provinces in Iraq. Between 8,000 and 25,000 Da’esh fighters remain scattered throughout Syria and Iraq, awaiting a re-surge opportunity. Da’esh thus remains capable of threatening regional stability and Transatlantic security.

Visual comparing the territory held by Da’esh in 2015 and December 2018.

  • Post-liberation stabilization efforts, which focus on local force capacity building, will remain crucial for preventing the resurgence of Da’esh. The SDF will require additional training missions to raise an adequate number of indigenous Arab Sunni troops that can stabilize and police the MERV. According to the Joint Chief of Staff Joseph Dunford, the SDF currently lacks 30,000 men in the MERV area, a likely hotspot for Da’esh’s comeback.
  • President Trump seems to rely on the pro-governmental camp to fill the vacuum, rebuild the area and contain Da’esh in MERV. It is however highly unlikely that the Assad government and Iranian forces will be able to effectively stabilize the region.
  • The only viable –  yet unlikely – option is for France, the United Kingdom and other Coalition members to increase their troop presence and fill the security void created by the U.S. pullout. There is hope that some of the U.S. forces will be re-deployed to the border city of al-Qa’im on the Iraqi side. This would allow them to conduct cross-border special operations into Syria, augmented by CIA drone strikes.

3. COUNTERING IRAN

  • Since the pro-governmental victory over Da’esh in Al Bukamal, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)  commands an uninterrupted land corridor, nicknamed “Shia Crescent”, which links Iran to Lebanon via Iraq and Syria. The U.S. presence in Syria has failed to obstruct this corridor.
  • The al-Tanf garrison and the 55 km exclusion zone do not effectively counter the “Shia Crescent.” The presence of U.S. and Maghawir al-Thawra forces was intended to provide border security for Jordan, guard the al-Rukban camp, and halt the free flow of Da’esh fighters across the Syrian-Iraqi border. While the U.S.-held positions block the shortest land route from Tehran to Damascus or Beirut, the IRGC can still move forces through the strategic Al Bukamal border crossing.  

Iran’s “Shia Crescent” land corridor

  • Further countermeasures against the Iranian presence in Syria would bring U.S.-backed elements in direct confrontation with the IRGC or its proxies. Instead, the U.S. will likely pursue its counter-Iran strategy on different battlefields. The withdrawal from Syria will free special operations forces, intelligence agents and forward air traffic controllers for other deployments.  
  • The U.S. withdrawal will force Israel and the Gulf states to pick up the ball and devise measures against Iran’s growing presence in Syria.

4. TURKEY AND THE SYRIAN KURDS

  • As major U.S-backed operations against Da’esh are ending, rebuilding Washington’s strategic partnership with its NATO ally Turkey takes precedence over the protection of the SDF. Sources suggest that President Trump made his decision after a phone call with the Turkish President Erdogan. In addition to the troop withdrawal, the U.S. approved the sale of the MIM-140 Patriot surface-to-air missile system to Ankara in order to stop Turkey from acquiring the Russian S-400 system (SA-21).
  • The U.S. troop withdrawal in early 2019 will leave the SDF without a credible force protection against Turkey (in the North) and the pro-governmental camp (in the West). The SDF will only be protected by the small French and British SOF presence in northern Syria, which will remain after the U.S. pullout.
  • Turkey aims to destroy the self-proclaimed “Democratic Federation of Northern Syria,” which it perceives to be a covert  Kurdish political project. In particular, Turkey aims to degrade the YPG, the SDF’s strongest member and Syrian affiliate of the PKK.  Ankara will likely try to topple the SDF’s military city councils in northern Syria and replace them with Islamist opposition groups, mainly consisting of Arab and Turkmen Sunni fighters. Similar to previous operations,  the prospective Turkish offensive in northern Syria (Eastern Shield) will be branded as an “intervention against terrorism,” referring to both YPG and Da’esh.
  • In the medium to long term, the Kurdish elements within the SDF can be expected to seek a deal with Damascus and cede their territory to the Syrian Arab Republic in exchange for protection. As the territory east of Euphrates holds 90 percent of Syria’s oil reserves, it is critical for Syria’s economic reconstruction.
  • The Arab Sunni militias within the SDF will likely diverge on this issue. Some groups might welcome  reconciliation with the regime, while others will join the Turkish-backed opposition fronts in Northern Aleppo. The Sunni Arab tribes in MERV represent a wild card, as certain tribes have shown strong anti-Shia and Salafist sentiments, which could drive them back into Da’esh’s hands.
  • These likely developments will pit Turkey against the pro-governmental camp. Russia will attempt to mediate the conflict in order to uphold the Astana and Socchi accords. The accords are more vital for Russia than for any other actor, since they formalize Moscow’s “triumph” without demanding additional military resources.

Territorial control in Syria as of December 23, 2018.

5. STRATEGIC OUTLOOK

  • Thus far, the plans for U.S. troop reductions are limited to deployments in Africa and the Middle East. The U.S. presence in South Korea and Europe remains unchanged for the moment.  
  • In the Middle East, the U.S. is not only leaving Syria. President Trump is also withdrawing half of the 14,000 U.S. servicemen in Afghanistan. This withdrawal endangers the survival of the Afghan government and severely incapacitates both Operation Freedom’s Sentinel (against Da’esh Khorasan) and NATO’s Operation Resolute Support (non-combatant/capacity building mission).
  • U.S. Congress is also pressuring the Trump administration to cease military activities in Yemen. The Department of Defense has already stopped aerial refueling for Arab Coalition fighter aircraft.
  • Information on the fate of the 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq is still pending. There is reason to believe that a troop reduction has to be expected.
  • U.S. AFRICOM will experience a 10 percent troop reduction, directly impacting U.S. counter-terrorism efforts in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Horn region.

by HARM and Gecko

The Syrian border town of al-Bukamal is also known as Abu Kamal 

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (abbreviated as PKK in Turkish) is a Kurdish separatist and Marxist revolutionary insurgent group. The PKK is designated as a terrorist organization by NATO, the European Union and the majority of the United Nations member states.

The U.S. troop withdrawal provides Russia with the opportunity to expand its anti-acess area denial (A2/AD) capabilities across the Euphrates river, further flanking NATO’s southeastern border. This adds credibility and prestige to Russia’s re-expanding military engagement overseas.

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The Big Picture Behind Israel’s Operation Northern Shield

1. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have initiated Operation Northern Shield to identify and destroy Hezbollah cross-border tunnels in Northern Israel. At the moment, the IDF is operating exclusively on…

1. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have initiated Operation Northern Shield to identify and destroy Hezbollah cross-border tunnels in Northern Israel. At the moment, the IDF is operating exclusively on Israeli soil and has shown little intent to expand its operations across the Lebanese border. However, Jerusalem’s growing distrust of the United Nations Interim Force Lebanon (UNFIL) and the Lebanese government increases the likelihood of unilateral action on Israel’s part.

2. Operation Northern Shield takes place during a critical time for Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu is facing criminal charges. The situation in Gaza and the West Bank remains volatile after last month’s 300-missile-salvo launched by Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the recent lockdown of Ramallah.

3. According to Israeli Intelligence, Hezbollah plans to capture Israel’s northern region of Galilee, by moving militiamen through the tunnels. The surprise attack will be covered by cross-border ballistic missile (BM) fire. It is virtually certain that Hezbollah has stockpiled a generous inventory of small-range BMs to use against Israel. Intelligence suggests that Hezbollah’s weapons stockpiles are concentrated in three locations around Beirut “Rafiki Hariri” International Airport.

Hezbollah Missile Sites in Beirut, Lebanon (T-Intelligence)

4. The BMs have been airlifted by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) al-Quds Force to Syrian airfields and, more recently, directly to Beirut International Airport. The Israeli Air Forces’ (IAF) covert raids on the Iranian shipments have reduced, but not completely stopped the weapon transfers. Intelligence dating from September suggests that the latest IRGC shipments included GPS components, which can upgrade Hezbollah’s unguided rockets with precision-guided capability.

5. In Syria, Shi’a militias – including Hezbollah units – have likely reoccupied their positions near the Golan Heights, despite Russia’s guarantees that they will withdraw from the Israeli border. Iran also maintains a direct presence on the border, as IRGC advisors are embedded with key Syrian Arab Army units. Considering the IRGC’s entrenchment in Southern Syria and Iran’s longstanding investment in Hezbollah’s capabilities, there is mounting evidence of a bigger play against Israel.

6. We assess that Israel acted in response to the following threat scenario:

  • Assault: Hezbollah will aim to infiltrate Northern Israel under BM fire cover and capture the extremities of Panhandle Galilee on the north-south axis, isolating the Golan Heights from the west through blitz light-infantry tactics. In parallel, the IRGC and affiliated Shi’a militias positioned in Quneitra and Suweida (Syria) will initiate cross-border attrition attacks on the Golan Heights from the east. Hezbollah’s special forces unit will spearhead the assault, accompanied by sniper teams and anti-tank units tasked with harassing IDF troop reinforcements. We judge that the assault phase depends heavily on a small initial IDF presence in the North due to urgent threats in Gaza and the West Bank – a situation developing at the moment.
  • Tactics & Objectives: The campaign is estimated to be IRGC-advised and conducted asymmetrically in Hezbollah-trademark fashion. The attacking forces will aim to deliver a sustained harassment and maximum pressure campaign, based on the lessons learned in Syria. The conflict will inevitably attract a large number of Shiite fighters from across the Middle East and the “Shi’a Crescent” corridor will be key for the attacking forces’ combat mobility and logistical operations. While it is unlikely that Hezbollah and other IRGC-backed elements will be able to capture Galilee and the Golan Heights, militiamen will seek to entrench themselves in the area and establish staging points for continuous attacks on Israeli troops. Hezbollah will capitalize the infiltration for propaganda and eventually press for political negotiations to legitimize its revisionist claims.     

Hypothetical Operational Layout of the Hezbollah Assault (T-Intelligence assessment and visual)

7. Our threat scenario is based on the following capabilities and trend indicators:

  • All three cross-border tunnels identified thus far are located in the Galilee Panhandle. The tunnels sit in key tactical positions on the borderline. A topographic study of the area shows that the tunnels run through the Lebanese mountain valleys that can be used to cut the Panhandle off along the Hula and the Upper Jordan river valleys near the Golan plateau.
  • The Sochi Accord enabled the IRGC-backed Shiite militias to re-deploy part of their forces from Idlib and reinforce their positions at the Syrian border.
  • Recent escalations in Gaza and the West Bank (Ramallah) have forced the IDF to divert its capabilities to the South.
  • IRGC cargo airlifts, presumed to carry BMs and other weapons, have recently been rerouted from Syrian airfields to Beirut International Airport.
  • The number of United States Special Operations flights to Lebanon has grown over the past months. We assess that U.S. intelligence, working in close cooperation with Israel, is aware of Hezbollah’s intensified operational readiness in Lebanon. (MAGMA13 and 14 flights fly-in from al-Udeid, Qatar and Jordan)

High interest flights outbound of Lebanon [SAMPLE] courtesy of @CivMilAir

  • The number of IAF flights over Lebanon has recently increased, likely for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance purposes.

8. While we are confident that Iran’s success in the Syrian Civil War will translate in ambitious (covert) operations against Israel, we cannot assess whether an Hezbollah operation was imminent. Israel likely decided to act preemptively and, in the process, to test international reactions.

9. Hezbollah denies the Israeli claims. Both the U.N. mission and the Lebanese government have refused to attribute the cross-border tunnels to the Lebanese group. UNFIL authorities are liaising with both the IDF and Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and have hosted a tripartite meeting in order to guarantee transparency.

10. IDF engineers and bomb disposal units have identified and destroyed three 200-meter long tunnels that stretched 35-37 m inside Israeli territory. The IDF placed a camera inside the first tunnel and caught two individuals on tape. One of them was identified as Dr. Imad “Azaladin” Fahs, a commander of the local Hezbollah unit. Hezbollah has denied the allegation and claimed that the men in the video were drug dealers. The IDF fired on another Hezbollah unit that attempted to recon the IDF’s presence in the Kadesh valelly.

11. Israeli officials seem to put little faith in the LAF’s commitment and capacity to counter Hezbollah. UNFIL has also been largely unsuccessful in identifying and preventing Hezbollah’s activities in southern Lebanon. The growing frustration and distrust between the parties will increase the likelihood of further unilateral action on Israel’s part. 


UPDATE – February 21, 2019

12. Israel announced the completion of Operation Northern Shield on January 13, 2019. Overall, the IDF has exposed and destroyed six cross-border tunnels. The last three tunnels (discovered on December 15, December 29, and January 12) were dug from the Ramyeh-Ayta al-Shab areas in southwestern Lebanon. In order to relieve the pressure on the vulnerable Galilee Pandhandle area, IDF engineers erected fences in the Adaisseh region.  The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center reports that the Hezbollah leadership, including its leader Hassan Nasrallah, have thus far preserved media silence and made almost no reference to the events.


by HARM and Gecko

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U.S. on Alert as Idlib Offensive is Imminent: Threat of Chemical Attacks?

(1) The White House and the U.S. Department of Defense are closely monitoring the situation in the greater Idlib region. Over the past days, the Bashar al-Assad regime has continued…

(1) The White House and the U.S. Department of Defense are closely monitoring the situation in the greater Idlib region. Over the past days, the Bashar al-Assad regime has continued to amass army formations and Iranian-backed militias in the main assault positions around the opposition-held stronghold.

(2) The 4th Armored Division has been moved to Northern Hama. Their position is strengthened by a rare deployment of the Republican Guards, both near Lataminah and Jabal al-Turkmen. In Western Aleppo, Iranian-backed militias, spearheaded by Hezbollah and Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), are completing their transfer from the Deir ez-Zor frontline. The strategic Abu ad-Duhur airfield, located on Idlib’s Eastern flank, has been reinforced by the deployment of Assad’s most battle-hardened and elite unit, the Tiger Forces. Reconciled opposition groups from Da’ara province are also moving towards Idlib. The infantry build-up is supported by the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAF), which has dispatched Mi-8/17 helicopters to Hama airfield, and by an unprecedented Russian naval deployment in the Eastern Mediterranean. Two days ago, the Syrian army closed al-Duhr checkpoint, the last civilian crossing out of Idlib.

Military Situation in the “Greater Idlib” region (August 2018)

(3) As the start of the offensive seems imminent, the U.S., France and the United Kingdom have voiced concerns that the Assad regime will follow the “Eastern Ghouta model” and launch chemical weapons (CW) attacks on opposition-held towns.  Opposition groups claim that they have (unverified) information pointing towards the town of Kafr Zabl as the main target for the regime’s impending CW attack.

(4) The U.S. military and intelligence community are therefore on high alert for any signs that the Assad regime is readying chemical weapons for use in Idlib. The U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) has stated that its assets are prepared, should President Trump order a strike. The American-British-French coalition has issued several warnings for Assad: Fight fair or expect another retaliation.

(5) At the moment, Assad’s preferred solution still seems to be a Russian-brokered reconciliation deal with the opposition in Idlib, similar to the deals negotiated in Eastern Ghouta, Da’ara and Rastan. Since early-August, Russia has been conducting talks with leaders of the non-al Qa’ida (AQ) opposition (the Turkish-backed “National Front for Liberation”) at the Reconciliation Center on Hmeimim air base (Latakia). Turkey has been encouraging opposition groups to join the talks and is reportedly coordinating with Russia on a settlement. Currently, Russia and Turkey are trying to convince the opposition groups to hand over all weapons heavier than 23mm anti-aircraft twin-barrel autocannons to the Turkish Army.  

(6) However, the Russian and Turkish negotiation efforts have failed to produce meaningful results. The non-AQ opposition groups continue to strengthen their unified front and enhance frontline positions. The AQ camp in Idlib – Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), Turkistani Islamic Party (TIP) and Tanzim Hourras al-Din – has slammed the idea of negotiations and is attacking any opposition group that has engaged in reconciliation talks with the government. Furthermore, the AQ-affiliated groups have refused Turkey’s proposal to join the “National Liberation Front.”

(7) The unsuccessful negotiations put the Assad regime in an increasingly difficult spot. According to intelligence estimates, a conventional military campaign to recapture Idlib would be devastating for the Syrian military with regard to resources, manpower, and capabilities. As Turkish troops are embedded in the Idlib frontline and equipped with man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), air support for the advancing troops would be extremely limited.  

(8) Should the reconciliation talks fail, a CW attack – as feared by the American-British-French coalition – is therefore becoming more likely. As the Eastern Ghouta and Khan Shaykhun precedents have shown, the Assad regime is  willing to use CW attacks to coerce opposition groups into surrendering. Although the CW-option would likely trigger new Coalition strikes on Syrian military installations, the Assad regime might be willing to take these hits to avoid a costly, “Aleppo-style” military campaign – especially if the strikes are expected to remain largely symbolic. After all, a full-scale military offensive will also cause international outrage, given the impending humanitarian costs, suffered by the almost 3 million internally displaced people currently living in Idlib.

(9) In this context, the recent deployment of “barrel bombing” Mi-7 helicopters to Hama airfield is highly suspicious – considering that a large-scale air campaign is out of the question due to the Turkish presence on the frontline. In the precedent cases, helicopters have been the delivery system of choice for CW attacks.

(10) Furthermore, Moscow already seems to draw up contingency plans for the case of an attack. Over the past days, Russian outlets have manipulated American warnings and established a counter-narrative. Sputnik News, RT and friendly/bot social media accounts are accusing the U.S. of conspiring with the opposition in Idlib to stage a false flag CW attack  justifying further strikes in Syria.

(11) In the meanwhile, the Coalition and Turkey are trying their best to prevent a conventional or CW bloodbath in Idlib. Ankara has authorized a variety of military deployments to reinforce its posture and deter pro-government attacks. Around 224 special operations forces were dispatched to the observation posts (OB-P) on Idlib’s frontline, while Leopard-2 tanks are amassing in Western Aleppo. Turkey is building a helipad near the “hottest” OB-P in Northern Hama and strengthening all OB-Ps through further concrete fortifications. Many civilians have reportedly fled their homes to camp next to the Turkish OB-Ps, as they are currently considered to be the safest areas in Idlib.

(12) However, the fate of Idlib also hinges on the resolve of the Coalition. If the Trump administration wants to prevent a CW attack, the White House has to draw a robust and credible red line this time. To change the regime’s cost/benefit calculation, Assad and his generals need to know that retaliation is not bound to limited or symbolical strikes. Severe blows against the amassed troops around Idlib, the vital air defense infrastructure and even regime change need to be (convincingly) on the table.

by HARM and Gecko 

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Operation Nightfall: Israel’s Ultimate Strike Against Iran in Syria

Creative Threatcasting Scenario (CTS) – CTS is a strategic foresight method, inspired by the work of the West Point Military Academy’s Threatcasting Lab. Based on current events and trend analysis,…

Creative Threatcasting Scenario (CTS) – CTS is a strategic foresight method, inspired by the work of the West Point Military Academy’s Threatcasting Lab. Based on current events and trend analysis, CTS develops creative narratives about possible futures. By creating tangible scenarios, CTS helps to anticipate watershed moments and prepare for upcoming threats.

Download the full PDF file by clicking here.


‘NIGHT OWLS’: MOSSAD MONITORS THE LOYALIST OFFENSIVE IN SOUTHERN SYRIA

(1) In late June 2018, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), supported by Russian Aerospace Forces, private contractors, and – covertly – by militias affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), has launched an offensive to recapture the Southern Syrian provinces (Quneitra, Da’ara and Suweida) from the opposition/rebel forces. The offensive recently concluded with a decisive victory for the side of the Syrian regime, which will be referred to as THE LOYALISTS.

(2) Before commencing with the operation in Southern Syria, Russia secretly promised Israel that IRGC-backed militias will not partake in the offensive. In exchange, Jerusalem did not intervene. Israeli Intelligence (Mossad) and the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) have been tasked with monitoring the implementation of the secret deal with all available resources (code-name: OPERATION NIGHT OWLS).

(3) Counter to Russian statements, human intelligence reports from Southern Syria suggest that IRGC-backed militiamen swapped uniforms and blended into the ranks of the SAA to discreetly partake in the offensive. These elements were then tasked with assaulting key positions in Western Quneitra close to the slopes of the Golan plateau. The IRGC-backed militiamen are exclusively supplied through selected SAA infantry bases located in the wider Damascus region (code name: BREAD-BASKET), which have been known for hosting Iranian advisors and capabilities in the past.

(4) Reports furthermore suggest that the BREAD-BASKET receives supplies directly from Iran. In recent months, land-transports via Iraq and the Syrian border town of Abu Kamal (code-name: SHI’A CRESCENT) have hereby started to replace airlifts from Tehran to Al-Assad International Airport or Mezzeh Airport.

(5) Israeli intelligence is highly concerned by this trend, as land-transports allow for greater operational security (OPSEC) on the part of the Iranians. Since airlifts have precise origins and rely on predetermined landing zones, the IAF was able to identify and destroy high-value Iranian deliveries in the past. However, monitoring for intermediate missiles that are moved by truck through the SHI’A CRESCENT is like looking for a needle in the haystack.

(6) The findings of OPERATION NIGHT OWLS are dramatic. Mossad is in possession of indisputable evidence that the LOYALISTS currently positioned on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights are indeed IRGC-backed Shi’a militias. Moreover, the delivery of Iranian intermediate missile systems to these militias via the SHI’A CRESCENT land-route and the BREAD-BASKET distribution hubs appears to be imminent.

(7) The deployment of intermediate missiles near the Israeli border will weaken the Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) zone, which was established by the IDF on the Golan Heights from 9 May 2018 onward. It will also severely reduce the missile-interception window of the Patriot, Iron Dome and David’s Sling air defense systems. Israeli intelligence doubts that it can identify Iranian “care packages” for the IRGC-backed militias before they become operational on the frontline.

 

THE PRIME MINISTER AUTHORIZES OPERATION ‘NIGHTFALL’

(8) The findings of the NIGHT OWLS investigation have de-legitimized Russian guarantees. Prime Minister Netanyahu therefore authorizes the military to commence with OPERATION NIGHTFALL.

(9) The objectives of OPERATION NIGHTFALL are:

  • Create a 20km deep buffer zone (code name: SECTOR DAVID) below the Golan Heights, encompassing Quneitra province and parts of Da’ara. SECTOR DAVID will be placed under the control of Israeli-backed opposition groups such as the “Knights of Golan”, “Fursan al-Jawlan,” and other CIA-vetted Southern front groups.
  • Create a contestation area (code name: SECTOR GOLIATH) over the wider Damascus area, including the capital itself. Destroy the BREAD-BASKET, Syrian airfields, and the Syrian air defense infrastructure. The IRGC and affiliated militias will lose their safe haven for troop deployment, military posturing and logistics.

(10) SECTOR DAVID is key for Israel’s most vital security interests. Firstly, it will provide more missile-interception time for the Golan-based SEAD. This will increase anti-air efficiency and push enemy infantry away from the borderline. Secondly, it ensures that – if a war does break out –  it will not be fought on Israeli territory. SECTOR DAVID will also host the refugees and internally displaced persons (IDP) looking for shelter after the LOYALISTS’ Southern Syria offensive.

(11) The Druze-majority villages and towns in SECTOR DAVID will be exempted from opposition control and will be placed under direct Israeli protection. This measure is important to avoid unrest among the Israeli Druze population, and to prevent the rekindling of LOYALIST sentiments among the Syrian Druze.

(12) The establishment of SECTOR GOLIATH serves to irreversibly degrade Iran’s military influence in Southern Syria and to consolidate SECTOR DAVID. Destroying the Syrian anti-air defense infrastructure will grant the IAF complete air superiority over Syria – if the Russian systems continue to be inactivated due to political considerations and technological secrecy. This would leave the IRGC, their clientele militias, and the SAA vulnerable to strategic strikes. The elimination of the BREAD-BASKET will furthermore ensure that IRGC-backed groups will lose their regional distribution hubs, further degrading their supply chains. This will force them to partially or fully withdraw from the Damascus area.

(13) A partial or full de-militarization of Damascus will likely force the Assad regime to seek refuge and establish a temporary government in the Russian-protected Latakia province. The Syrian President has sought sanctuary in the Russian-operated Khmeimim Air Base during past Israeli and U.S. attacks on Damascus.

(14) President Donald J. Trump, encouraged by anti-Iran hawk National Security Adviser John Bolton, can be expected to extend either political or (limited) military support to the Israeli operation, as the U.S. also seeks to roll back Iranian influence in the region. As it has occured in the past, Secretary of Defense James Mattis will likely attempt to minimize direct U.S. involvement in order to avoid backlash against the U.S. troops operating in Northern Syria. The White House could mandate the Department of Defense (DoD) to – covertly – aid OPERATION NIGHTFALL in the following ways:

  • Provide IAF fighter jets with Friend-or-Foe (FoF) codes to disguise them as Coalition aircrafts, as practiced in previous Israeli shadow-raids.
  • Engage Syrian targets with Electronic Warfare (EW) capabilities that can jam or disrupt anti-aircraft radars and communications.
  • Supply the IDF with Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) data on LOYALIST movements, using RQ-4 “Global Hawk” drones operating in the Eastern Mediterranean.

(15) Arab Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and the Kingdom of Jordan will potentially allow air passage for IAF jets conducting target re-attacks and aerial refueling.

(16) OPERATION NIGHTFALL requires the instatement of a commercial flight ban for at least 72 hours. While this may alert the LOYALISTS to the time-window of the attack, a commercial flight ban is necessary for the safety of civil aviation.

(17) The Russian response in those 72 hours will be key for enabling or disrupting Israel’s operational objectives. Russian intelligence will attempt to intercept Israel’s plan, while the IDF will engage in intense counter-surveillance methods to camouflage its operational preparations. Moscow will act in accordance with its intelligence on and estimates of Israel’s intentions.

 

THREE SCENARIOS: POSSIBLE OUTCOMES OF OPERATION NIGHTALL

(a) ‘LIGHTS OUT’ – THE OPTIMISTIC OUTCOME

(18) The IAF completes OPERATION NIGHTFALL in less than one week, leaving the LOYALISTS without any air defense systems in Quneitra, Suweida, Da’ara, Rural Damascus and Damascus. Key military locations are targeted and destroyed, including major infantry bases (battalion, regiment, brigade level), Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) strategic airfields (cargo warehouses and air strips) and anti-aircraft sites.

(19) The LOYALIST forces deployed in Southern Syria retreat to Damascus and – later – to Hama province. Israeli-backed opposition forces reassemble to take key villages and towns along the Israeli-Syrian border. SECTOR DAVID is secured.

(20) With air defenses disabled, and military supply routes blocked, the Assad regime evacuates for Russian-protected Latakia. A symbolic air strike hits the Presidential Palace in Damascus. Israel establishes full air dominance over the Damascus area. SECTOR GOLIATH is secured.

(21) The U.S. voices strong support for the operation and mandates the Central Command (CENTCOM) to covertly aid the military effort.  Sunni Arab states allow IAF jets to refuel in their airspace, leading to an unprecedented level of Israeli-Arab cooperation in face of the Iranian threat. The U.S-operated al-Tanf garrison in Syria is enforced with additional HIMARS batteries to deter LOYALIST retaliations against the Jordanian Kingdom.

(22) Russian intelligence was either unable to anticipate Israel’s intentions or the Russian government was unwilling to act. Israel negotiates a ceasefire with Russia, placing the now demilitarized Damascus area under Russian protection. Russian military police units are deployed in the capital and key surrounding locations. SECTOR GOLIATH becomes a Russian-protected area, free from IRGC-backed forces. The deal with Israel can be expected to amplify the already existing tensions between the Russian Armed Forces and Hezbollah.

(23) Iran has been successfully and indefinitely ousted from Southern Syria. The IRGC has lost all strategic hubs in Damascus, including the Al-Assad International and Mezzeh airports. Only selected bases in Hama and Aleppo remain as safe havens. Since air transport has become near impossible, Iran now fully relies on the SHI’A CRESCENT transport route. Neutralizing the SHI’A CRESCENT become Israel’s next strategic objective in order to consolidate SECTOR DAVID and SECTOR GOLIATH and to remove Iran from Syria once and for all.

CTS concept art: IAF air campaign over Damascus as seen through the thermographic camera of an F-16D.

(b) ‘GUARDIANS OF THE GOLAN’ – THE MODERATE OUTCOME

(24) Israel expels the LOYALIST forces from Southern Syria through repetitive surgical shadow raids and artillery strikes (surface-to-surface missiles) in Quneitra, Da’ara and Suweida. The remaining Israeli-backed opposition forces retake key positions. Further logistical and operational support from Israel allows the opposition groups to expand their territory and secure SECTOR DAVID. Israel recruits around 500 militiamen from the “Knights of the Golan,” establishing a border force that will patrol the demilitarized “Alpha” zone of the 1974 agreement.

(25) The IAF neutralizes selected anti-air artillery (AAA) and surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites in Damascus in order to enable further air strikes on a limited number of BREAD-BASKET bases. The IAF will also seek to disproportionately retaliate against LOYALIST (accidental or intentional) provocations on the Southern Syrian front. The Israelis will use those incidents to cherry-pick Iranian-affiliated high-value targets (HVT) over the course of several weeks.

(26) Russian intelligence has uncovered IAF plans to wage a “Show and Awe” styled campaign over Damascus in advance. This has led to heightened tensions between Moscow and Jerusalem. Russia threatens to replace the SAA’s destroyed S-200s, Pantsirs (SA-75) and SA-8 Geckos’, with newer versions, including the S-300 systems. This forces Israel to abandon objective SECTOR GOLIATH.

(27) The Trump administration voices support for the operation, but does not mandate the DoD to provide military aid. Arab Sunni states fail to facilitate flight routes for the IAF’s bombing raids.

(28) The situation is bound to remain highly volatile, given the fragile and uncertain status quo. Israel indefinitely abandons plans for SECTOR GOLIATH. Instead, Jerusalem focuses on consolidating SECTOR DAVID by strengthening local opposition forces and obtaining security guarantees from local stakeholders. Iranian supply hubs have been severely damaged, but not completely removed. While IRGC-backed forces are significantly weakened, they remain a long-term threat to Israel. The IAF will continue to intercept key Iranian transports on the SHI’A CRESCENT route. Iran might seek to retaliate against OPERATION NIGHTFALL, by activating Hezbollah to mount missile attacks on Israeli soil from Southern Lebanon.

CTS concept art: IDF units in the Golan Heights fire SSMs on IRC-affiliated militias in the Sa’sa village (Southern Syria).

(c) ‘CHECKMATE’ – THE PESSIMISTIC OUTCOME

(29) OPERATION NIGHTFALL ends before it begins. An immediate and steadfast Russian response forces Israel to abort the mission.

(30) After acquiring critical early-warning intelligence on Israel’s objectives, Russia moves S-300s to Damascus during the 72-hour civilian airline ban. The Latakia-based S-400 Triumph system is activated to intercept incoming attacks on LOYALIST positions. Moreover, a significant number of Russian Aerospace Forces are mobilized to conduct air policing missions in the skies of Southern Syria, using a variety of advanced assets, including four Su-35s (air-defense fighter jet) and six Su-34s (air superiority fighter jet).

(31) Israeli intelligence furthermore reports the violation of Lebanese airspace by Russian fighter jets. This is interpreted as an attempt of the Russian Aerospace Forces to block the traditional flight path used by the IAF to strike Damascus.

(32) The Trump administration is hesitant whether to support Israel. President Trump pays lip service to OPERATION NIGHTFALL in order to increase pressure on Iran in the context of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) re-negotiations. Yet, the overall objective of the Trump administration is the withdrawal from the Syrian Civil War. The U.S. is focused on securing its gains in Northern and Eastern Syria and remains unwilling to re-enter the Southern Syrian war theater. Israeli Intelligence believes that it cannot rely on support from the U.S.

(33) In consequence, IRGC-backed militias reinforce their positions on the Israeli border. With the SHI’A CRESCENT corridor and the BREAD-BASKET installations untouched, the delivery of intermediate-range missiles to the frontline is weeks, if not days away.

(34) The Assad regime intensifies revisionist claims for the Golan plateau. The IDF increases its troop readiness and capabilities in the Northern Military District. Israeli security and emergency services conduct multiple mass-casualty exercises in order to prepare the population for upcoming missile attacks.


by HARM and Gecko

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