Tag: syria

Putin’s Mercenaries on Tour: Mapping the Wagner Group’s Global Activities

Key Judgements Since its inception in 2014-2015, the Wagner group has expanded from a frontline contractor in Eastern Ukraine, to spearheading Russia’s foreign policy and private business objectives in Syria,…

Key Judgements

  1. Since its inception in 2014-2015, the Wagner group has expanded from a frontline contractor in Eastern Ukraine, to spearheading Russia’s foreign policy and private business objectives in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, and many other states. As Wagner’s reach is constantly expanding, our mapping project aims to filter through speculation and leverage open-source intelligence (OSINT) to track Wagner’s presence and activity worldwide.
  2. The Wagner group, such as it is, does not exist as a traditional PMC but as an interconnected network of mercenary groups, semi-state forces, and corporations with links to the Kremlin. As a result, Wagner’s activities are very difficult to track and categorize.
  3. If left unchecked, the Wagner group will very likely remain an effective and transient tool of the Russian security apparatus, combining aspects of state forces, private military companies, and paramilitaries. Wagner activities will likely continue to be equally focused on supporting Russian private business interests as foreign policy objectives.

DENIED AND DENIABLE: WAGNER GROUP

“Wagner Group” is an umbrella term that refers to the network of mercenary groups with ties to the Kremlin and controlled by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin. The Wagner Group is used to advance Russia’s foreign policy objectives with a modicum of plausible deniability, as no such group formally exists and is denied by Russian officials. 

Utilized in everything from disinformation to site protection and offensive combat operations, the Wagner Group escapes conventional definitions of Private Military Companies (PMC) and has become increasingly active globally. 

Wagner PMC is known to operate under different names and structures, often related to mining, or military training, further obscuring the group’s activities. Existing literature focuses on the debates over Wagner’s functionality, goals, history, and even its very existence. However, limited attention has been directed towards the breadth of the network’s global activities. Herein we identify the locations of Wagner activity worldwide based on open-source reporting and assess the likelihood that Wagner is indeed active in each country.

A few things to understand before discussing the so-called Wagner group’s activities worldwide:

  • Due to the vague nature of the Wagner network and often imprecise and conflicting online reporting, much of the group’s activity cannot be identified with 100% certainty. Here we have opted to categorize Wagner activity as: Confirmed, Likely, Possible, and Unlikely.
  • It is important to note that beyond PMC Wagner, several other Russian PMCs remain active. It is possible to misidentify these PMCs as Wagner, especially with vague and unverified reports.

ACTIVITY LOG: TRACKING WAGNER’S GLOBAL REACH

Russia/At Home:

Like any PMC or military entity, Wagner trains its contractors before departing on missions. Supported by Russian military and intelligence personnel, Wagner conducts training at two locations attached to the 10th Special Mission Brigade of GRU Spetsnaz in Mol’kino, Krasnodar region, Russia. These facilities feature airborne training and obstacle courses, weapons and munitions storage buildings, and barracks, among others. 

Area view of military facilities near Mol’kino as first identified by CSIS (base imagery: Maxar Technologies)

Presumed Wagner training facility as first identified by CSIS (base image: Maxar Technologies)


Ukraine:

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine provided the impetus for the creation of the Wagner group. Wagner mercenaries were instrumental in numerous battles throughout the conflict, notably in Crimea and later the Donbas region. Donbas war veterans formed the foundation of Wagner’s ranks, and the group continues to recruit from Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine.  

Estimates put the number of Wagner operators in Ukraine anywhere from 2,500 to 5,000 at their peak, operating in support, intelligence, and direct combat roles. Wagner mercenaries were pivotal in the battles for Luhansk airport and in the seizure of the strategic town of Debaltseve in Donetsk oblast.

Activity Status: Confirmed – Limited continued presence


Syria:

Wagner has been active in the Syrian civil war in support of President Al-Assad’s government since October 2015. Taking part in numerous battles in key roles, Wagner has been able to win a stake in the country’s energy industry for companies linked to Prigozhin and the Kremlin. 

Estimates place the number of Wagner operatives as high as 2000 at different points in the Syrian civil war. Wagner also involved in the training of various Syrian millitias groups loyal to Bashar al-Assad, and Palestinian militias. By 2017, Wagner had already played a key role in recapturing parts of Deir ez-Zor province. In February 2018, Wagner contractors alongside Iranian-backed militias and Syria army units, attempted to capture an oil field from the U.S-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Swift U.S. airstrikes obliterated the Wagner attack, resulting in massive casualties for the Russian mercenaries (some estimate over 100 Wagner KIA). 

Wagner maintains a presence at the strategically important Tiyas airfield (T-4) and in central and eastern Syria. In addition to supporting Russian foreign policy goals, Syria served as an important proving ground for the use of Wagner, leading to the PMC’s global deployment. 

Activity Status: Confirmed – Limited continued presence.


Libya:

Numbering in the thousands, Wagner mercenaries have been omnipresent in the Libyan conflict since 2015. Wagner operatives served in critical frontline roles supporting General Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) against the UN-recognized Government of National Accord. 

Wagner contractors trained LNA forces, engaged in combat operations, including the assault on Tripoli, and secured the LNA’s critical infrastructure (oil refineries and the ports of Tobruk, Derna, Benghazi, and Sirte). Wagner is also notorious for executing prisoners and placing mines and booby-traps in civilian areas

Presumed Wagner contractors in Libya

Wagner affiliated personnel also pilot Russian fighter aircraft (e.g. Su-24 “Fencer”) and operate advanced air defense systems (Patnsir S-1/SA-22) on behalf of the LNA. Wagner infantry in Libya are equipped with utility trucks mine-resistant, ambush protected vehicles.The east Libyan al-Kahdim airfield is likely Wagner’s headquarters in the country.

US AFRICOM GEOINT shows Wagner aircraft and anti-air systems displayed at Al-Khadim airfield in eastern Libya

USAFRICOM GEOINT shows Wagner infantry near Sirte

The group continues to be engaged in the Libyan Civil War despite ceasefire agreements necessitating the removal of foreign fighters. 

Activity status: Confirmed – Limited continued presence.


Mozambique:

Two years into the bloody ISIS-linked insurgency in Mozambique’s northern region of Cabo Delgado, the government reached an agreement with Wagner to combat the insurgents in exchange for a stake in the country’s natural resource industries. Wagner commenced combat operations in Mozambique in October 2019. After initial success Wagner hit a wall and sustained notable casualties, leading to Wagner deciding to pull out of the agreement. Wagner was later replaced by Dyck Advisory Group (DAG).

Activity status: Confirmed – No longer present.


Central African Republic:

In early 2018 reports highlighted that Russia had sent Wagner trainers to the CAR to assist in the government’s fight against rebel elements. Despite the fact that the Wagner operatives were brought in for training, SOCMINT evidence suggests that the contractors have been involved in combat and human rights abuses. Wagner group affiliates/fronts “Lobaye Invest” and “Sewa Security” have secured a stake in the country’s diamond and gold mining industries in exchange for kinetic services. 

Satellite imagery shows increased use of the group’s reported base of operations, Berengo Palace. Located southwest of the capital of Bangui, satellite imagery highlights increased traffic and what appears to be the use of an airstrip. 

GEOINT: Vagner PMC barracks near Bangui (Analysis by T-Intelligence; imagery courtesy of Planet Inc.)

Operating under the “SEWA Security” banner or with no markings at all, Wagner has also provided VIP protection to CAR President Touadera.

A member of the close protection unit for Central African republic President Touadera, composed by Russian private security company operatives from Sewa Security, are seen in Berengo on August 4, 2018.(Photo by FLORENT VERGNES / AFP via Getty Images)

To learn more about Wagner activities in CAR, read our early report on Wagner’s growing presence, and our analysis of Russia’s troop surge ahead of 2021 CAR presidential elections. 

Activity status: Confirmed – Growing presence.


Sudan:

Reports from 2017 indicate that Wagner mercenaries had been redeployed from Ukraine and Syria to support President Omar al-Bashir’s military with training and aid in suppressing demonstrations. Wagner-affiliated companies “Meroe Gold” and “M Invest” search for gold in the country with permission from al-Bashir’s government. Wagner’s presence in Sudan also reinforces Russia’s geopolitical position with a significant presence along the coast of the Red Sea and provides a supply line to the group’s operations in CAR. The Kremlin confirmed in 2019 that “Russian companies” are training the Sudanese army. 

Activity status: Confirmed – Continued presence.


Madagascar:

Wagner provided security detail to the political strategists hired by Prigozhin to assist the Madagascarian presidential election in 2018. Prigozhin received a contract to run an existing chromite mine in Madagascar in exchange for electoral assistance and interference. In April of the same year, reports suggest that these same Wagner contractors are being used to protect Prigozhin’s exploitation projects. 

Activity status: Confirmed – Very limited continued presence.


Venezuela:

Wagner contractors were brought in to assist embattled President Maduro in the face of political and social opposition in 2019. Reports suggest that Wagner contractors assisted in providing security for Maduro and his administration, as well as local Russian business interests. In 2019 there were reportedly 400 Russian mercenaries in Venezuela. 

Wagner’s tasks beyond simple security roles included recruiting informants and helping to train Maduro-backed militias. Wagner’s presence is heavily tied to Russian geopolitical and economic interests in the country. In 2020, Rosneft, the largest Russian oil company in Venezuela, sold all its assets to an unnamed company owned by the Russian government, further solidifying Moscow’s interests.

Activity status: Confirmed – Limited continued presence.


Nigeria:

Pre-Wagner affiliate Moran Security Group was known to be active in security roles in the shipping industry. Moran contractors were arrested at the port of Lagos in October 2012 for trafficking weapons. However, after Moscow’s involvement, the men were released.  

Moran Security Group created the Slavonic Corps to branch away from its traditional security roles, which later morphed into the first iteration of the Wagner Group. 

Recently reports have emerged that Prigozhin has been spotted in Lagos meeting with the Nigerian government and military officials, including with Nigerian Army Chief of Staff Farouk Yaha, in 2021. Prigozhin’s alleged meeting in Lagos coincides with a Gulfstream G550 flight to Nigera, namely P4-BAR – an aircraft associated with Wagner. 

The meetings are likely connected with the fight against ISIS-affiliate Boko Haram in northern Nigeria. 

Activity status: Possible – Discussions about bringing in the Wagner group appear to be underway, although Nigeria has made noted use of more traditional PMCs.


Chad:

Wagner’s well-documented activity in CAR and Libya has led to speculation that Russian mercenaries have also penetrated neighboring Chad. Further reports suggest that Wagner has assisted in arming and training rebel groups in northern Chad in 2016. Rebel incursions lead to the death of Chadian President Idriss Deby Into.

Wagner-linked activities in Chad will likely intensify due to the group’s heavy presence in Libya and Russia’s growing interest in Africa. 

Activity status: Likely – Contemporary reports of Wagner indirect influence coupled with Russian interest in the region suggest likely further activity in Chad.


Cuba:

Amid the political upheaval in Cuba, OSINT enthusiasts have tracked flights and a freighter previously associated with the Wagner group to the country. Given Moscow’s traditional relationship with Cuba, the state of upheaval, and Wagner’s noted presence in Venezuela, we may see Wagner’s arrival in the coming weeks or months.

Activity status: Likely – Though not currently active, Wagner personnel will likely arrive in the country.


Mali:

While there are unverified reports of Wagner operatives arriving in Mali to fight the ISIS-linked insurgency, recent reports highlight ongoing negotiations for Wagner involvement in Mali. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov further corroborates these reports by stating that Mali’s government has asked for “Russian PMC” assistance – a clear nod to Wagner. 

Activity status: Likely – discussions are ongoing.


United Arab Emirates 

The US intelligence community received reports in the summer of 2020 that provided links between the UAE and Wagner mercenaries active in Libya. As the UAE makes noted use of foreign fighters it is unsurprising to see the UAE turning to foreign mercenaries for foreign policy objectives. This provides an interesting precedent for both the UAE and Wagner.

Activity Status: Likely – Indirectly, evidence suggests the UAE is involved financially with the Wagner network.


Equatorial Guinea:

Sightings of Prigozhin-associated flights and multiple news reports indicate a nascent Wagner presence in the country. Furthermore, a report suggests that some 200 Wagner operatives protect Russian intelligence officials at the Pico Basile Island spy base.

Latest information indicate that Equatorial Guinea had planned to involve Wagner in providing security in the country, but failed to reach a deal as it also wanted possible assistance in a coup against the incumbent President. 

Activity status: Possible – Numerous unverified reports naming Guinea as a state where Wagner has influence. However, the lack of evidence or corroborating reports makes it unclear. 


Nicaragua:

A Russian training center exists in Nicaragua since 2013, hundreds of Russian military personnel were sent to the country for “joint military exercises,” “humanitarian and military operations training,” and “anti-drug trafficking.” However, reports suggest that these “instructors” played a significant role in cracking down on anti-government protests. 

The Russian military personnel are not thought to be affiliated directly with the Wagner group at this time. However, as Russia continues to rely on relationships with Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua for a geopolitical foothold in the region, the Kremlin might insert Wagner in the country, if not already. 

Activity status: Unconfirmed but possible – No explicit link identified, but numerous linkages have been highlighted. Nicaragua’s operational environment is optimal for Wagner activity.


Iraq:

No direct involvement of Wagner or Wagner affiliates has been noted in Iraq at this time. The Wagner group has previously been highly active in eastern Syria near key Iraq border crossings but there is no indication that Wagner undertook operations across the frontier. 

Other Russian PMCs, including the Antiterror-Orel Group and the Moran group, linked to Wagner’s emergence, had previously operated in Iraq.  

Activity status: Unlikely – Wagner might emerge in Iraq if the operational environment becomes more permissive due to a US/NATO withdrawal. 


Nagorno-Karabakh Region (NKR):

Chatter emerged from forums and social media accounts associated with Wagner contractors insinuating that the group was operating in the conflict, these claims were eventually disproven by Bellingcat. 

Displeased with Armenian PM Pashynian, Russia has been unusually detached from the flare-up in NKR, and only stepped in after the formal conclusion of hostilities in December 2020. If secretly deployed, it is possible that Wagner mercenaries only entered NKR as part of Russia’s “peacekeeping force.” 

Activity status: Unknown


Belarus:

In July 2020, before the country’s presidential election, Belarussian authorities arrested 33 Wagner-linked contractors on suspicion of plotting terrorist attacks to destabilize the elections. Reports later came to light that the men were members of a PMC lured to Belarus through a joint operation by Ukrainian and US intelligence services intended to arrest members of the Wagner group active in the war in eastern Ukraine – former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko seemingly confirms the information. 

Activity status: Unlikely – Wagner is extremely unlikely to be active in Belarus, more likely to be in transit to Libya, Sudan, CAR or elsewhere.


Tanzania:

Russia and Tanzania signed an agreement in 2016 for joint military training at Russian facilities. While Wagner often fills these roles for the Kremlin, no evidence suggests they are active in Tanzania at this time. Previous activity along Tanzania’s southern border with Mozambique is not thought to have spilled over into the country.

Activity Status: Unlikely – Russian military activity does not always translate to Wagner presence, especially when overt agreements are made between the state. 


South Africa:

There is no evidence to suggest a Wagner presence in South Africa; however Prigozhin-linked political strategists have assisted parties involved in the 2019 presidential election. 

Activity status: Unlikely –The presence of numerous South African-based PMCs means mercenary activity is unlikely. Though Prigozhin-linked political strategists are very likely to maintain a presence.


Inconclusive Reports of Wagner Activity:

The following highlights inconclusive reports of Wagner activity, due to lack of evidence or corroborating reports.

  • Eswatini: Unverified reports suggest Wagner maintains a presence in the country and has trained Ewatini’s troops on new weapons systems.
  • Rwanda: Rwandan troops fought against Rebels in  CAR as part of a bilateral agreement alongside Wagner elements.
  • Yemen: Rumors and social media reports indicate that a “Russian PMC” is active in the Yemeni Civil War. However, there is no credible report naming Wagner. Wagner-trained Sudanese militias have, however, deployed and fought in Yemen. 
  • Zimbabwe: Nondescript reports have claimed that Wagner maintains an office in the country. Additionally, there have been claims that President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s 2018 election campaign was assisted by Russian political advisors associated with Wagner.

END NOTE: This tracker will be periodically updated as new open-source information emerge relating to Wagner activity. 

by Matt Sutherland 

This assessment was made using Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) techniques and resources. Visit Knowmad OSINT to learn more about our online OSINT training. 

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Foxhounds Know How to Killjoy: Russian MiG-31s Armed with Kinzhal Missiles Arrive in Syria

Six years after the large-scale operational debut in Syria, Russia continues to pour advanced capabilities and expand its military infrastructure in the war-torn country. Last week, Russia deployed MiG-31K interceptors,…

Six years after the large-scale operational debut in Syria, Russia continues to pour advanced capabilities and expand its military infrastructure in the war-torn country. Last week, Russia deployed MiG-31K interceptors, Tu-22M3 bombers, and other aircraft for a combined exercise with the Russian Navy in the Eastern Mediterranean. While Russia’s naval-air exercise coincides with British carrier operations in the region, the main question is whether the MiG-31s and Tu-22M3 bombers will make Syria their second home.


FOXHOUNDS KNOW HOW TO KILLJOY

On 25 June 2021, the Russian Aerospace Forces (RuAF) deployed two MiG-31 supersonic interceptors (AFIC/NATO Reporting name: Foxhound) to Khmeimim air base, Syria. As announced by Russian media, the two MiG-31 are of the “K” variant. 

 

MiG-31Ks are modified to carry the gargantuan Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM). One video released by the Russian Defense Ministry shows a MiG-31K taking off from Khmeimim AB armed with a Kinzhal on its centerline pylon, confirming the missile’s presence in Syria. 

Screengrab from Zvezda TV video showing Russian MiG-31K taking off from khmeimim AB armed with Kinzhal missile (Killjoy)

The Kinzhal ALBM missile (Killjoy*) is one of the six “invincible” strategic weapons Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled in 2018. Russian officials allege that the Kinzhal can sustain speeds over Mach 10 and strike targets 1,200 km away. 

For both the MiG-31s and Kinzhal missiles, the trip to Syria marks their first foreign deployment. 

BACKFIRES ARE BACK

Three Tu-22M3 (Backfire-C) long-range bombers, a Tu-142MK (Bear-F), and an Il-38 (May) maritime patrol and submarine-hunting aircraft have joined the pair of MiG-31s in Syria. 

The Tu-22M3 bombers first appeared a month ago and are now on their second visit to Latakia. Videos released by Zvezda TV show the Backfire bombers taxiing on the runway armed with Kh-22 anti-ship cruise missiles (AS-4 Kitchen). The anti-ship ordnance is in line with the supposed purpose of this deployment, the upcoming Russian air-naval drills in the Eastern Mediterranean. 

AIR-NAVAL EXERCISES UNDERWAY

Two frigates (Admiral Essen and Admiral Makarov), two submarines (Stary Oskol and Rostov-on-Don), and the Moskva missile cruiser will also partake in the joint air-naval exercise off the Syrian coast. Russian officials describe the drills as “combat training tasks to ensure the security of the Khmeimim airbase and the logistics center of the Russian Navy Tartus.” 

 

Russian NOTAMs relative to HMS Queen Elizabeth in the East Med (T-Intelligence map using data from ICAO)

Russia’s exercise occurs amid the entrance of the Royal Navy’s HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group in the Eastern Mediterranean. HMS Queen Elizabeth is in the region to support the United Kingdom’s counter-ISIS mission, namely Operation Shader.

Even though Moscow has likely planned the exercise in advance, Russia suggests that the maneuvers respond to the HMS Queen Elizabeth. The Russian military may have expanded the scope of the training after learning about the British carrier group’s visit (e.g., redeployment of bombers back to Khmeimim AB, as the War Zone first suggested). 

At the time of the writing, HMS Queen Elizabeth is operating off the Cypriot coast. With the Russian exercises underway, some interaction has already taken place between the two adversaries. RuAF aircraft used the British carrier as mock target practice, while a RAF F-35B armed with anti-ship missiles buzzed the Russian frigate Admiral Makarov. 

SECOND HOME?

While Russia’s naval-air exercise coincides and is potentially linked with the British carrier operations in the region, the main question is whether the MiG-31s and Tu-2MM3 bombers will make Syria their second home. 

In late 2020, the War Zone broke the news that Russia is expanding the runway at Khmeimim air base, “which could help accommodate heavy airlifters carrying more cargo or other large aircraft, including possibly bombers.” The War Zone’s assessment proved to be true. Backfire bombers have visited Khmeimim AB twice in one month. The runway extensions also allow for Foxhounds to operate from the air base. 

Using Sentinel 2 imagery we can see that the first clear signs of runway works appeared in July 2020. The construction advanced slowly throughout the year with another major change being visible in late 2020. The runway extensions seem to have only been finalized in early summer 2021. 

As the screenshots bellow show, Russia extended the runway’s northern end by approximately 170 meters and southern end by 130 meters. 

Planet Explorer screengrabs show measurements of Russia’s runway extensions on 29 June 2021

ENHANCED AIR PATROL

The runway extensions indicate that Russia foresees a starring role for Foxhounds, Backfires, and other large aircraft for Moscow’s future regional designs. Capable of supersonic speed and designed to intercept hostile aircraft, the MiG-31 Foxhound will undoubtedly improve Russia’s air policing capabilities. One video already shows a MiG-31, alongside Su-35 (Flanker-E), on combat air patrol in western Syria.

Armed with the notorious Kinzhal missile, the MiG-31 can also be a potent ship-killer, including against carriers, and a prompt nuclear delivery platform covering NATO’s southeastern flank. 

REVIVING THE MIG-31 SALE TO SYRIA? 

One low-probability, high-impact scenario worth considering is that Russia could use the MiG-31 deployment to revive the Syrian regime’s interest in the aircraft.

In 2007, the Russian press announced that Moscow planned to sell five MiG-31Es to the Syrian Arab Air Force. Iran was reportedly financing the purchase as a back-door deal. However, in 2009 the deal fell throughreportedly due to a Russian-Israeli quid pro quo arrangement. Israel was to provide UAV technology in exchange for Moscow halting the MiG-31 sale to Syria. 

It is no secret that Moscow has instrumentalized its intervention in Syria to advertise its military equipment. While the Syrian regime’s economy is in disarray and the SyAAF can barely service the existing fleet, Moscow could provide financial assistance in the form of credit. If Moscow and Damascus are serious about rebuilding the Syrian military, a MiG-31 interceptor could be the way forward to deter Israeli air raids and allow the SyAAF to police its airspace. 

PACKING A BIGGER PUNCH

The reason for the Backfire deployment is more straightforward. Like MiG-31s, Backfires are nuclear-capable. In addition, Backfires can carry an assortment of ship-killing missiles. Their primary role will likely be air strikes against Syrian opposition groups. With a payload of 24,000 kg, Backfires can rain down dozens of bombs within one run, increasing Russia’s operational efficiency. In contrast, the RuAF has relied on Su-34 and Su-24 fighter-bombers (both have 8,000 kg payload), or even multirole aircraft, to deliver air-to-ground attacks. 

It is increasingly likely that Foxhounds and Backfires will make regular guest appearances in the Syrian theater and possibly make Khmeimim AB their second home. 


*Thanks to a 2020 Norwegian Intelligence report quoted by the Barents Observer, we know that the AFIC/NATO codename for Kinzhal is “Killjoy.”

by HARM

editing by Gecko

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Russia Brags About Bombing Syrian Hospital To Prove ‘Iskander’ Works

Armenia’s Prime-Minister Nikol Pashinyan shocked the Russian Defense Ministry when he complained about the Iskander-E missile system’s ineffectiveness in a public interview (23 February 2021). PM Pashinyan said that the Iskander missiles launched…

Armenia’s Prime-Minister Nikol Pashinyan shocked the Russian Defense Ministry when he complained about the Iskander-E missile system’s ineffectiveness in a public interview (23 February 2021). PM Pashinyan said that the Iskander missiles launched during the short war with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region “didn’t explode or maybe 10 percent of them exploded.” When asked why the Iskander disappointed, Pashniyan hinted at the missile’s old age: “I don’t know… maybe they were weapons from the ‘80s.”

“IT WORKS JUST FINE”

In response to Pashiynan’s claims, Russia has released a video montage showing two successful Iskander strikes – both ballistic and cruise missile variants – in Syria. But instead of clearing the Iskander’s name, Russia has inadvertently proved that it has targeted hospitals – an allegation that Moscow has perpetually disputed despite evidence to the contrary from open-source investigations (e.g. New York Times) and even the United Nations (UN). 

The second clip from the compilation shows an Iskander missile hitting an H-shaped building. Twitter user and geolocation wizard @obretix identified the target as a hospital in Azaz, near the Turkish border. While the footage is undated, the attack seems to match reports from early 2016 about an unclaimed strike on Azaz hospital. 

HOSPITAL ATTACK TOOK PLACE IN EARLY 2016

An Airwars assessment from 19 January 2016, quoting two Syrian sources, informs: “Russian forces targeted the town of Azaz with two ballistic missiles, causing the death of one civilian and injury of several others.”

A Reuters report from 15 Feb 2016 similarly mentions an unattributed missile strike on a “hospital and school sheltering refugees in Azaz, Syria,” quoting local residents and medics. A Physicians Across Continents (PAC) Facebook post corroborates the Reuters report and describes an airstrike on Azaz hospital. 

Sentinel-2 satellite imagery from that time is sparse and does not cover every day. However, when comparing imagery from 17 January vs. 16 February, there seems to be a “splash” mark on the impact area seen in the footage.

T-Intell retroactive battle-damage assessment of Iskander strike on Azaz hospital @ Sentinel 2 satellite images via Sentinel Hub and frame extracted from RIA footage

Google Earth Pro high-resolution imagery from 20 March 2016 shows the same area at Aziz hospital visibly scared.

Azaz Hospital on 20.3.2016 © Maxar Technologies via Google Earth Pro

In conclusion, Russia’s Iskander attack on the hospital took place before mid-March 2016, and very likely between 17 January and 16 February.

Turkey has since repaired and renovated the hospital, and it is now functional again. 

BACKFIRE

The Iskander is not the first Russian system that is publicly scrutinized. Observers, including T-Intelligence, have noted the ease with which Turkish drones managed to hunt down Russian-made Pantsir aerial defense systems in Syria and Libya. The Russian Defense Ministry is growing increasingly defensive about the effectiveness of its capabilities. However, with this latest “public relations” stunt, Russia has foremost proven that it bombs hospitals, not that the Iskander-E works. 

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U.S. Maintains Pressure on al-Qa’ida’s Most Overlooked Franchise

A covert US airstrike has killed the leader of Tanzeem Hurras al-Din (HAD), al-Qa’ida’s leading Syrian franchise, in Idlib province on 14 June 2020. Abu al-Qassam (also known as Khaled…

A covert US airstrike has killed the leader of Tanzeem Hurras al-Din (HAD), al-Qa’ida’s leading Syrian franchise, in Idlib province on 14 June 2020. Abu al-Qassam (also known as Khaled al-Aruri) was a seasoned al-Qa’ida (AQ) operative who was plotting attacks against the West. 

According to social media sources, an MQ-9 Predator drone armed with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, likely operated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), was present over Idlib that day.

Impact marks on the target vehicle, blade cuts, and ordnance debris suggest that the US employed the secretive, blade-wielding derivative of the AGM-114 Hellfire, known as the R9X

AGM-114R9X HELLFIRE AKA THE “FLYING GINSU” 

While the United States never officially acknowledged its existence, the R9X is an open secret. The R9X trades the “Hellfire” warhead for six sword-like blades that eject upon impact and slice the target into pieces. Because there is no explosion, the weapon minimizes collateral damage. 

The R9X debuted in February 2017, when it neutralized AQ deputy commander Abu Khayr al-Masri near al-Mastouma in Idlib province. Since then, JSOC and the CIA have repeatedly used the weapon against high-value targets in northwestern Syria, Afghanistan, and reportedly the Horn of Africa. 

R9X schematic via The Wall Street Journal

WHY IS THE US TARGETING TANZEEM HURRAS AL-DIN (HAD)?

Tanzeem Hurras al-Din (HAD, or “Guardians of the Religion Organization”) was founded in February 2018, when a group of AQ loyalists splintered from Hay’ at Tahrir al-Sham, the most influential terrorist group in Idlib. The hardliners left because HTS publicly cut ties with AQ central. 

Now AQ’s leading Syrian franchise, HAD aims to overthrow the Syrian regime and establish a regional Islamic State. In contrast to HTS, HAD is outspoken about its intent to attack the United States and the West. 

Despite its malign intentions, international observers and the press often overlook HAD. According to a UN intelligence report, HAD’s numbers are currently small (between 1,500 and 2000 fighters), the group exercises little territorial influence and depends on HTS funds to operate.

In the long term, HAD could nevertheless establish itself as a more radical alternative to HTS. While HTS cooperates with Turkey on the Sochi peace process, HAD opposes negotiations with the “infidels.” HAD favors a full-out confrontation with the pro-government forces. Part of this strategy is to mobilize the Syrian opposition under its wing and AQ banner.

COUNTERING AL-QA’IDA IN SYRIA (AQ-S)

The United States intelligence and military collectively refer to HAD, HTS, and other ex-Jabhat al-Nusra groups as al-Qa’ida in Syria (AQ-S). Despite their different policies and marketing strategies, the jihadi groups are still cooperating to achieve AQ’s global agenda. 

In response to the growing terrorist threat in northwestern Syria, the US has deployed kinetic options to weaken AQ-S groups. The campaign began in 2014, when American drones targeted the Khorasan Group, then Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra. The operational tempo increased in 2019. American drones prosecuted four targets: A HAD training camp in June, a HAD safehouse in August, a foreign trainer of the “Red Bands” (HTS’ special forces) in December, and a car carrying Ahrar ash-Sham members later that month

With the latest strike on 14 June 2020, it becomes clear that HAD has absorbed the lion’s share of US airstrikes in Idlib. The focus on HAD indicates that Washington is increasingly concerned about the group’s intentions to attack the West. 



Intelligence suggests that HAD has recruited ISIS fighters who escaped from the siege on Baghuz al-Faqwani – diehards with extensive combat experience, and possibly networks of terrorist cells. HAD fighters also enjoy a fast gateway to Europe and other locations in the Middle East, due to their proximity to Turkish territory. Likely, the reduction of violence in Idlib has given HAD breathing space to build external terrorist networks and plan strikes against the West. 

Defeating HAD will require close coordination with Turkey, which de facto patrons Idlib province, and supports HTS, HAD’s “frenemy.” 


by HARM

Editing by Gecko 

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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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Turkish Drone Destroys Syrian Pantsir-S1 Air Defense System

A Turkish “Bayraktar-2TB” UCAV (unmanned aerial combat vehicle) neutralized a Syrian Pantsir-S1 aerial defense system (NATO/AISC reporting name: “SA-22 Greyhound ”). This is more like a #Syrian Pantsir-S1 (AISC/NATO: SA-22)….

A Turkish “Bayraktar-2TB” UCAV (unmanned aerial combat vehicle) neutralized a Syrian Pantsir-S1 aerial defense system (NATO/AISC reporting name: “SA-22 Greyhound ”).

The footage clearly shows that the Pantsir was on (generator emits thermal signature) and its radar active (antenna is spinning). The scorched ground left of the vehicle, caused by successive missile launches, even suggests that the Pantsir has recently engaged aerial targets. There is no indication that Turkey employed stand-off munition instead of the Bayraktar’s trademark MAM-L. This means that the Turkish drone was within the Pantsir’s engagement range when it destroyed the air defense system. In theory, the Pantsir S 57E6/E SAM has a superior engagement envelope (max. 20 km) compared to the MAM-L (max. 14 km). 

The Pantsir’s failure to detect and engage the Turkish UCAV adds to previous reports that the system is underperforming in combat and tests. This is a major blow for the Russian defense industry, which has heavily marketed the Pantsir series of air defense systems as the “jack-of-all-trades” against low-observable munitions and drones. 


The Israeli Air Force has also previously destroyed at least two (visually confirmed) Pantsir-S1s in Syria in 2018 and 2019. 


Turkey released another video showing the targeting of a Pantsir-S1 system several days ago. In that case, however, there is reason to doubt that engagement took place in Syria. As many correctly argued, the Pantsir from that video seems to be mounted on a Rheinmetall/MAN-SX45 chassis truck, a configuration used by the UAE. Syrian Pantsirs use 8×8 KAMAZ-6560 TLARs. This suggests that the Turkish UCAV destroyed an Emirati Pantsir-S1 in eastern Libya.


This article has originally appeared on our Facebook page, on 4 March 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 2]

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. 


This is the second part of our Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) release on the military installations of the Coalition Joint task Task Force-Operation “Inherent Resolve” (CJTF-OIR) in Syria. You can find the first part of the series, which covers the military bases in Aleppo province and provides a background of the Coalition’s mission in Syria, here. The second part features the former CJTF-OIR bases in Raqqa province. 


COALITION BASES IN RAQQA PROVINCE

Combat operations in Raqqa province began in mid-2015, when the CJTF-OIR and its local partner forces (YPG Kurdish militia and select Sunni Arab groups) liberated Tel Abyad and parts of the Turkish borderlands from ISIS. Afterwards, the CJTF-OIR focused on the main strategic objective of expelling the jihadist terror group from its self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa. 

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by the Coalition’s airpower and special operations forces (SOFs), initiated a five-phase offensive to besiege ISIS forces in Raqqa. Operation “Wrath of the Euphrates” commenced on 6 November 2016 from the city of Ain Issa, which had been liberated in the previous months. Ain Issa was a key location for the Raqqa campaign as it hosted a significant CJTF-OIR mission support site, a logistics center, and a major internally displaced people (IDP) camp. 

AIN ISSA COP

Ain Issa COP on 24 February 2018 via Maxar Technologies

Coordinates: 36.3854, 38.87328

Type: COP

Built: January 2017

Purpose: Multi-purpose Mission Support Site (MSM)

Infrastructure: The pre-existing site, a 400 square meter walled courtyard with a large two-story building, likely served an administrative role for nearby grain silos. After liberating the area from ISIS, the Coalition expanded the infrastructure in terms of size and structures. The CJTF-OIR has built around five large buildings/warehouses, several barracks tents, and a plethora of prefabricated one-story structures. A second walled site, primarily used for parking lorries and storing shipping containers, was built west of the dirt road. The outpost also includes five houses with courtyards southwest of the parking lot. A wider security perimeter was built to secure the entire area. The location is ideal to defend Ain Issa from attacks from the southeast. 

Status: Abandoned by the CJTF-OIR in November 2019. Under SDF control since then. 


AIN ISSA LB 

Ain Issa LB on 14 October 2018 via CNES/ Airbus

Coordinates: 36°25’49.5″N 38°47’07.9″E

Type: Logistics base (LB)

Built: February 2018

Purpose: Host and dispatch logistics along the line-of-communications to in-teather mission support sites and other facilities such as the nearby IDP camp near Ain Issa. 

Infrastructure: Previous to ISIS and the Coalition occupation, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) used the site for training. The Coalition took advantage of the semi-prepared land and established a large logistics base (LB). The LB consists of three clusters of buildings (at least 10 buildings each), traversed by a dirt road leading to a large asphalt pen. The latter was intended to host military and logistics vehicles, but also helicopters if necessary. 

Status: Abandoned by the CJTF-OIR in November 2019. Currently under SDF control. 


The first objective of phase one, neutralizing ISIS defenses south of the M4 highway, was achieved on 16 November 2016, when the SDF liberated a terrorist stronghold in the village of Tel Salman. With the preparations for the second phase of the operation underway, the CJTF-OIR went to work and built a major fire base near Tel Salman. 

TEL SALMAN FB

Tel Salman FB on 24 February 2018 via CNES/ Airbus and Maxar Technologies

Coordinates: 36°15’37.3″N 38°55’44.6″E

Type: Fire base (FB)

Built: March 2017

Purpose: Fire support 

Infrastructure: The FB was initially an empty plain with a 1 km-long runway. The base was constructed around the runway in record time to forward deploy fire support assets in support of the siege of Raqqa, namely the M142 HIMARS multiple rocket launcher system (MRLS), mortars and howitzers. Multiple layers of sandbags and dirt walls separate the small housing units from ammunition depots and the many artillery firing positions on the FB’s ground. The base also dispatched field artillery units to the frontline. 

Status: Abandoned by the CJTF in November 2019. Under Russian or pro-government control since December 2019. 


The second phase of the offensive targeted Raqqa’s western countryside, aiming to cut ISIS’ lines-of-communications to Aleppo province and further reduce the group’s territory. This phase was concluded when the SDF reached the outskirts of Tabqa in mid-January 2017. As the advance brought the SDF 30 km west of Raqqa, the CJTF-OIR established forward logistics bases and more artillery nests close to the frontline. 

BIRSAN LB

Birsan LB on 4 April 2018 via CNES/ Airbus

Coordinates: 35°59’03.0″N 38°35’31.0″E

Type: LB (forward in-theater)

Built: 3 June 2017 

Purpose: Support the CJTF-OIR and SDF ground offensive against ISIS in Raqqa city. 

Infrastructure: The position was established shortly after Bîrsan (also known as Bir Sana/Ber Viya), a Kurdish village, was liberated from ISIS on 3 January 2017. Dirt revetments were built to define the site’s layout and to serve as a fortification layer. The pre-existing eight houses were re-purposed. The existing infrastructure was augmented with several new structures, including a 100 square meters warehouse, to extend site storage capacity. Some areas were kept clear of structures to store large shipping containers and other logistics crates and to provide a parking space for M114 Humvees, MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles, NSTVs (Non-Standard Tactical Vehicles), and other military vehicles. The dirt road that connects the site to the main road is secured by a checkpoint and anti-VBIED (Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device) obstacles. 

Status: Under SDF control. 

During phase three in March 2017, which isolated Raqqa city from its western and eastern extremities, the Coalition launched an airborne operation that dropped SDF fighters and U.S. Army Special Forces deep behind enemy lines. After a few days of fighting, the CJTF-OIR captured the so-called “Tabqa triangle”: The city, the dam and the airfield. The latter was a Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) base that had housed the 12th Attack Squadron and the 24th Helicopter Brigade until it was seized by ISIS in August 2014. 


TABQA AIR BASE

Tabqa AB on 5 April 2017 via Maxar Technologies

Coordinates: 35°45’21.7″N 38°34’25.9″E

Type: Air Base (AB)

Built: seized by CJTF-OIR on 26 March 2017 

Purposed: Rotary-wing aircraft FARP (minimal use)

Infrastructure: The AB has been rendered inoperable by successive bombing campaigns against ISIS, first by the SyAAF and then by the CJTF-OIR. The vast majority of buildings and structures have either collapsed or are in an advanced state of degradation. No significant reparations (if any) have been observed on the AB since the Coalition seized it. The high repair costs and immediate proximity to enemy territory (ISIS and SAA) were likely the main reasons why the Coalition did not invest in the AB. However, it was likely used as a Forward Arming and Refueling Point (FARP) for attack helicopters, while on close air support (CAS) duty over Raqqa. 

Status: Re-occupied by the SAA in November 2019. 

The fourth phase, which targeted the rural belt around Raqqa city, took nearly three months to complete. The fifth phase and subsequent battle for Raqqa took place between 6 June and 17 October 2017, ending with a costly victory for the SDF. The vast majority of the city was leveled by airstrikes, artillery fire, and IEDs, while thousands of ISIS fighters evacuated to the Middle Euphrates River Valley (MERV) under a secret deal with the SDF. We documented the fight in a daily journal, which you can find here (volume 1) and here (volume 2). 


OBSERVATION POSTS 

In November 2018, in response to Ankara’s threats of invasion, the CJTF-OIR established at least three observation posts (OPs) on the Turkish border. Manned by less than 50 U.S. Special Forces (SFs), the aim of the OPs was to alleviate Turkey’s security concerns over cross-border weapons smuggling between the YPG (the SDF’s main fighting force) and Turkish PKK cells. The U.S. and Turkey also conducted joint patrols on both sides of the border and exchanged intelligence as part of a “security mechanism” deal to de-conflict northern Raqqa province. 

Observation posts: Tel Musa (upper left), Tel Abyad (lower left) and Tel Arqam (right)

However, as in the case of the Manbij de-confliction agreements, the border “security mechanism” failed to satisfy Turkey’s security needs. In anticipation of Turkey’s air-ground assault on the Tel Abyad- Ras al Ayn (Serekaniye) axis, the U.S. SFs withdrew from their border outposts on 8 October 2019. The forces were repositioned south of the M4 highway, which would become the boundary of Ankara’s Operation “Peace Spring.”


by HARM and Gecko 

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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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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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