Tag: syria

US Out, Assad In: Syrian Army to Enter Northern Syria

As part of an agreement between the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Assad regime, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) will secure the cities along the Manbij-Malikyah line. According…

As part of an agreement between the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Assad regime, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) will secure the cities along the Manbij-Malikyah line. According to multiple local reports, SAA soldiers have already moved from their positions in Al-Arimah into Manbij, after US troops vacated Aleppo province. If confirmed, the initial SAA presence in Manbij is likely residual and symbolic and therefore exposed to attacks from the Turkish-backed Syrian Armed Opposition (TSAO), which has gathered in Jarabulus north of the city. Online footage confirms that Syrian troops have taken defensive positions in Hasakah and Qamishli. 

Syrian Civil War map by T-Intelligence

The SDF finalised the deal with the Assad regime after US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper announced that the remaining US troops in Northern Syria will leave the area, following intelligence reports that Turkey will extend its incursion south and west of the agreed “security mechanism” safe area. 

All US forces in northern Syria are expected to retreat down the Mid-Euphrates River Valley (MERV) to eastern Syria (Deir ez-Zor and southern Hasakah province). Yesterday the TSAO seized central parts of the M4 highway, disrupting the critical road infrastructure between Manbij and the Iraqi border. The US forces were therefore increasingly isolated and exposed to attacks from the rebel groups. The US troops that were caught in “danger close” fire from Turksih artillery on Saturday have reportedly already withdrawn. 


Four days into the offensive, TSAO groups have posted photos proving the seizure of the border town of Tel Abyad from the Kurdish-led SDF. Sporadic air strikes and cross-border artillery attacks continue to indiscriminately pound the entire border region, targeting both rural and urban areas. 

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Turkish “Danger Close” Fire on US troops in Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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Turkey Begins Northern Syria Offensive

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

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

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

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

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



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

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



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

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Israel Raids Iranian Position near Syrian-Iraqi border

Yesterday night, an air attack destroyed an Iranian logistics node near Abu Kamal (Syria). The likely culprit behind the attack is the Israeli Air Force (IAF), since Jerusalem has recently…

Yesterday night, an air attack destroyed an Iranian logistics node near Abu Kamal (Syria). The likely culprit behind the attack is the Israeli Air Force (IAF), since Jerusalem has recently expanded air operations to Syria’s border region and even Iraq. The strike was allegedly conducted by F-35Is “Adir” (Israeli-modified F-35As). The Iranian logistical support operations hub in Abu Kamal had been established earlier this year. 

The Israeli geospatial company ImageSatIntel (iSi) recently released a battle damage assessment of an earlier IAF raid on the same facility, which took place on September 8, 2019. The analysis accounted for a total of eight storehouses that were completely destroyed. The structures were part of a wider military base, codenamed “Imam Ali” compound, which has been built and financed by the Iranain Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force for the purpose of weapons storage. The logistics node likely hosted missiles, small weapons, rocket launchers, and ammunition smuggled to Syria from Iran and Iraq. 

Abu Kamal is located on a strategic border crossing between Syria and Iraq. Iranian-backed forces seized the area from ISIS in mid 2017. For Iran, control over the Abu Kamal area is key to solidify the “Shia Crescent” line of communication that links the Iranian homeland to Syria and Lebanon via Iraq. This “land bridge” diversifies Iran’s logistics routes, as the IAF continues to prosecute Iranian air transports to Syrian airfields.

Iran’s “Shia Crescent” land corridor visualized by T-Intelligence


Cover photo: The F-35 Integrated Test Force is completing a series of night flights, testing the ability to fly the jet safely in instrument meteorological conditions where the pilot has no external visibility references. The ITF, which has the lead on all F-35 mission systems testing, is responsible for five of the six night flights. (Courtesy photo)

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Released Iranian Oil Tanker Spotted in Syria

The Iranian very large crude carrier (VLCC) M/T Adrian Darya-1 was spotted anchoring off the Syrian coast. The oil tanker, previously known as “Grace-1,” was seized by British Royal Marines…

The Iranian very large crude carrier (VLCC) M/T Adrian Darya-1 was spotted anchoring off the Syrian coast. The oil tanker, previously known as “Grace-1,” was seized by British Royal Marines in July, as it was suspected of breaching EU sanctions by transporting oil to the Syrian regime. Panama, the Grace-1’s flag country, deleted the tanker from its shipping registry and banned the vessel from using the Panamese flag. 

Gibraltar released the Iranian vessel on August 15, after receiving written guarantees from the Iranian government that the ship would not discharge its 2.1 million barrels of oil in Syria. The tanker was renamed “Adrian Darya” and took the flag of its real patron, Iran. While the Adrian Darya did not conduct a port call in Tartus, the vessel’s close proximity to the coast suggests that it unloaded or will unload oil via a ship-to-ship transfers. The Adrian-Darya deactivated its AIS on September 2. The United States has warned that any group assisting the Iranian Guard Corps’ oil smuggling operations will be prosecuted. 

Iran has yet to release the British oil tanker that it captured in retaliation for the seizure of the Grace-1 in July. 


Photo credits Maxar Technologies 2019/ Handout via Reuters

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Israel Reveals Hezbollah Precision Missile Factory in Lebanon

Satellite imagery shared by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) has revealed a precision missile factory near Nabi Chit, Lebanon. The facility is likely operated by Hezbollah with financial and technological…

Satellite imagery shared by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) has revealed a precision missile factory near Nabi Chit, Lebanon. The facility is likely operated by Hezbollah with financial and technological assistance from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ (IRGC) irregular warfare and external branch, the Quds force. 


This intelligence confirms that Hezbollah is now attempting to “homegrow” precision guided missiles, as Israel’s raids in Syria have disrupted the IRGC’s advanced weapons transfers to its Lebanese ally. In response to the tactical air strike campaign of the Israeli Air Force (IAF), the IRGC has started to supply Hezbollah with GPS kits that can convert “dumb” rockets into precision missiles. According to a 2015 estimate by Israeli Intelligence, Hezbollah currently stockpiles around 150,000 rockets. 

Iran has deployed senior IRGC-Quds operatives in Lebanon to oversee Hezbollah’s precision missile program. Israeli Intelligence names Brigader General Muhammad Hussein-Zada Hejazi as the IRGC commander in Lebanon. Hejazi is aided by technological manager Colonel Majid Nuab and chief logistician Brigadier General Ali Asrar Nuruzi. The Lebanese cell reports directly to the infamous al-Quds commander General Qasim Soleimani. 

In 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu disclosed the location of three Hezbollah missile assembly and storage sites in the Lebanese capital. By building factories and warehouses in Beirut’s busy neighborhoods, Hezbollah is using the local population as a human shield against Israeli attacks. In light of these developments, Jerusalem authorized targeted assassinations of Hezbollah and IRGC operatives in Lebanon and instructed the IAF to hit IRGC logistics nodes in Iraq. 

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

Hezbollah’s hybrid fusion of conventional military capabilities and irregular tactics renders it the strongest non-state actor in the world. If Hezbollah manages to convert even a quarter of its estimated 150,000 rockets into precision guided missile, it could overwhelm the Israeli air defense systems and strike any target of choice. The joint Iranian-Hezbollah operation is in direct violation of the United Nations Resolution 1701 and threatens to destabilize the fragile Lebanese security environment.

 
An Israeli Intelligence source told Hareetz that Hezbollah has started to evacuate the production site near Nabi Chit location. By publicly disclosing the facility’s location, the IDF has thus disrupted Hezbollah’s missile manufacturing efforts without engaging in a direct attack in Lebanon (that would virtually certain trigger retaliatory violence).

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US Bombs Al-Qaida meeting in Idlib, Dozens Killed

Open-source reports claim that the United States conducted an airstrike in Idlib province (Syria) on August 31, 2019. The operation targeted a building near Kafarya village (south of Ma’arrat Misrin),…

Open-source reports claim that the United States conducted an airstrike in Idlib province (Syria) on August 31, 2019. The operation targeted a building near Kafarya village (south of Ma’arrat Misrin), in which the leadership of an al-Qai’da (AQ) affiliated group conducted a meeting. Images and videos shared on social media confirm the attack. It is believed that more than 40 militants were killed in the attack. 


The United States Central Command confirmed the rumors and issued the following statement:

“U.S. Forces conducted a strike against al-Qaida in Syria (AQ-S) leadership at a facility north of Idlib, Syria, Aug. 31, 2019. This operation targeted AQ-S leaders responsible for attacks threatening U.S. citizens, our partners, and innocent civilians. Additionally, the removal of this facility will further degrade their ability to conduct future attacks and destabilize the region. Northwest Syria remains a safe haven where AQ-S leaders actively coordinate terrorist activities throughout the region and in the West. With our allies and partners, we will continue to target violent extremists to prevent them from using Syria as a safe haven.”

The targeted militant group targeted is likely Tanzim Huraas al-Din (Arabic for “Guardians of the Religion”). The group of die-hard salafi-jihadists separated from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), after the latter publically broke ties with AQ’s central leadership. Alternatively, the operation may have targeted Huraas al-Din’s allies of the “Ghurfat Eamaliat wa-Harid al-Mu’minin” coalition (Arabic for “Rouse the Believers”). The United States has prosecuted Huraas al-Din before. Two month ago, a United States missile strike broke up a senior leadership gathering in Western Aleppo.

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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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