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US Air Strike Kills IRGC Commander Qassem Soleimani – Situation Analysis

US Confirms Killing IRGC Commander Qassem Soleimani in Air Strikes Near Iraq’s Baghdad International Airport on January 3

Please be Advised:

The US Department of Defense (DoD) released a statement announcing that the US military, on the orders of the US President, Donald Trump, had taken “decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad” by killing Qassem Soleimani, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)- Quds Force (QF) commander during airstrikes near Iraq’s Baghdad International Airport during the early morning hours of January 3.

The statement announces that “General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region. General Soleimani and his Quds Force were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more”. The airstrikes aimed to deter future Iranian attacks against US assets in the region.

Iran’s national news agency have confirmed that the US airstrikes resulted in the death of IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soliemani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMU).

Iraq’s national news agency reported that the US airstrikes targeted the convoy of Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis traveling near the Baghdad International Airport.

Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei released a eulogy on January 3 for Qassem Soleimani and declared a three-days of mourning in Iran. The statement announces that the killing of Soleimani is a “criminal act” and “will reinforce the motives of the resistance against the US and Israel”.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called the US airstrikes “extremely dangerous and a foolish escalation” and held the US responsible for “all consequences of its rogue adventurism.”

Prominent Iraq Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, released a statement during the morning hours of January 3 giving orders for “readiness” to the Shiite militias in Iraq, particularly the Mahdi Army, “to protect Iraq”.

Reports indicate that Iran’s Supreme National Security Council has convened during the morning hours of January 3 to discuss the development.

US Embassy in Baghdad on January 3 issued an advisory urging US citizens to depart Iraq immediately due to “heightened tensions in Iraq and the region”. Consular services in the US Embassy in Baghdad have been suspended until further notice. However, the US Consulate in Erbil remains operational at the time of writing.

Iraqi President has reportedly condemned the US airstrikes and called US action as a “blatant violation of Iraqi sovereignty”.

Developments Near the Baghdad International Airport and Green Zone:

Reports indicate that three rockets fired by unidentified perpetrators landed in the Baghdad International Airport cargo area during the overnight hours of January 2-3 that resulted in several civilian casualties and the destruction of two vehicles.

Reports indicate that US military personnel arrested Hadi al-Amiri the head of the Badr Organization, the military wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), as well as Qais Khazali, the founder and leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a Shiite paramilitary group that is a part of the Iran-backed PMU in Baghdad during the morning hours of January 3. Iraq’s national news agency reported that a senior member of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq has denied the arrest of Qais Khazali.

Picture material on social media indicate that Iraqis gathered at Baghdad’s Tahrir Square during the early morning hours of January 3 to celebrate the death of Soleimani.

At the time of writing, operations have resumed at the Baghdad International Airport following a temporary ceasure of operations during the morning of January 3 after the US airstrikes.

Reports indicate that US military personnel have bolstered security protocols in the Green Zone in Baghdad, and the Iraqi security officials have completely locked down the Green Zone following the US airstrikes.

Other Related Developments:

Iran’s state-sponsored news agency reported that the Swiss Ambassador to Iran, who is considered as a “guardian of US interests in Iran” has been summoned to the Iranian Foreign Ministry on January 3 to strongly protest the killing of Qassem Soleimani.

Reports indicate that Israel has closed access to Hermon ski resort, located in the Golan Heights, near the Israel-Syria border, due to the risk of attack by Iran and its proxies. Additional reports indicate that Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are on alert following the US airstrikes.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) official in the Gaza Strip reportedly released a statement calling the development a “great tragedy” and extended PIJ’s support to Iran.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon reportedly released a statement condemning the US airstrikes as a “big crime” and stated that “punishment of Soleimani’s killers is responsibility of all fighters”.

Reports indicate that foreign oil companies have commenced the evacuation of its employees holding a US citizenship via the Basra Airport following the advisory issued by the US Embassy in Baghdad that urges US nationals to depart the country immediately.

Iran has reportedly appointed Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani as the next IRGC Quds force chief on January 3.

UK has reportedly increased security protocols at its military bases across the Middle East following the US airstrikes.

Reports quoting the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that the US airstrikes in Iraq are a “reckless move” that will escalate tensions in the region.

Assessments & Forecast:

The development comes amid a marked increase in tensions in Iraq over the past two months following an uptick in attacks against US assets by Iran-backed forces in the country. Most recently, on December 31, hundreds of Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) members and supporters besieged and attempted to breach the US Embassy compound in Baghdad’s Green Zone to condemn US’s December 29 airstrikes that targeted five Kataib Hezbollah assets in Iraq. The continued risk posed to US-linked interests in Iraq is further evidenced by the statement issued by the US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper on January 2, that holds Iran and its backed proxies in Iraq responsible for perpetuating the attacks and warned that “attacks against us will be met with responses in the time, manner, and place of our choosing.” Given this context, the recent US airstrikes constitute a decisive action against Iran and its proxies to deter further such attacks against US interests in the region.

Furthermore, the US airstrikes constitutes a highly symbolic and notable development given the high-profile nature of the target, namely, IRGC-QF commander, Qassem Soleimani. This is given that Soleimani is considered to be highly influential within the Iraqi political and security dynamics, and is perceived to be responsible for the destabilizing activities carried out by Iran-linked elements in Iraq. Moreover, on April 18, 2019 the US designated the IRGC, including its extraterritorial wing, the QF as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). Therefore, the killing of Soleimani in the US airstrikes is likely aimed to adversely impact the IRGC’s leadership structure and mitigate the threat that the group is perceived to pose to the region’s security and stability. Regardless, the killing of Soleimani is liable to have a significant impact on the morale of the IRGC and Iran-backed fighters operating regionwide.

However, the development is unlikely to significantly alter Iran’s policy within the regional setting, such as its support for proxies like the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Yemeni Houthis, and Shiite militias in Iraq. Rather, as evidenced by the statement released by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, the incident will likely prompt Iran and its proxies to increasingly target the interests of the US and its allies, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia in the region. Furthermore, the statement issued by Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr calls for “readiness” from Shiite militias in Iraq to “protect Iraq” indicating the fact that Iran and its proxies will seek to take revenge against the US, and its allies, over the coming days.

FORECAST: Over the short term, there remains a heightened potential for attacks perpetrated by Iran-backed elements based out of Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, Iraq and the Gaza Strip. Such attacks may also be directed at critical infrastructures, such as oil facilities, and other strategic infrastructures affiliated with the US or its allies in the region, where relevant. Given precedent, attacks targeting Israel may likely manifest in the form of rocket attacks or localized ground attacks, such as placing of IEDs, from Syria, or less likely from Lebanon. Such instances are likely to be limited in scale, and are unlikely to trigger a large-scale escalation and a broad deterioration of the security situation in Israel in the short term. Cross-border hostilities along the Gaza Strip-Israel border may also increase over the coming days. This is bolstered by the statement released by the PIJ official calling the death of Soleimani in the US airstrikes as a “big crime” and affirming the militant group’s support for Iran.

FORECAST: Given precedent, there also remains a significant potential for Iran-perpetrated security incidents in the strategic waterways of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, especially near the Strait of Hormuz, which indicates a general risk of navigation through these waters over the coming days and weeks. A similar risk exists in the Red Sea, given that the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen have been known to conduct attacks against foreign vessels in this area. Additionally, an uptick in cross-border hostilities into Saudi Arabia perpetrated by the Shiite group may be witnessed over the coming days, despite a significant downtick in such activity over the recent months. This may manifest in the form of missile, rocket or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) launches towards military and civilian assets in Saudi Arabia.

FORECAST: In the longer term, over the coming weeks and months, the development is liable to further heighten tensions between the US and its allies, on the one side, and Iran and its proxies on the other, which will likely result in increasing hostile rhetoric towards the other party and potentially a more significant retaliation by Iran against US interests. Given that Iran-backed proxies, such as Hezbollah, are known to operate in Latin America, as well as other African, Asian and European countries, the risk for attacks by such elements against the interests of the US and its allies in the aforementioned regions cannot be ruled out.

Recommendations:

Travelers are advised to regularly review their emergency and contingency procedures as a basic security precaution, as the current tensions between Iran on one side and the US and its Gulf allies on the other will likely lead to additional hostilities. For on-ground or intelligence assistance contact us at: [email protected] or +44 20-3540-043.

Foreigners, particularly US nationals, conducting travel in Middle East, particularly in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Lebanon are advised to maintain a low profile due to the increased potential for militant attacks while practicing extra vigilance near US and Western diplomatic missions and interests across the region.

Ensure that places of stay are equipped with sufficient perimeter security details, alter travel routes, and avoid disclosing sensitive itinerary information to unknown individuals.

For those conducting essential operations in Baghdad, it is advised to restrict travel to the Green Zone and ensure that contingency and emergency evacuation plans are updated. Contact us for itinerary and contingency support options.

Those managing or operating vessels in the Red Sea, Gulf of Oman, the Persian Gulf, and the Strait of Hormuz are advised to take necessary precautions, including reviewing security protocols and adhering to international instructions, in light of the potential for security incidents in the area.

Surface-to-air missile lands in Cyprus after reported Israeli airstrikes in Syria – Israel & Syria analysis

Executive Summary:

On June 30-July 1, the official Syrian news agency reported that Israel Air Force (IAF) attacked targets in areas surrounding Damascus and unspecific locations in Homs Province. The airstrikes reportedly targeted a scientific research center in Rif Dimashq’s Jamraya, and other military research facilities linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah.

Given precedent of previous IAF operations in Syrian territory, reports of the military action are likely credible. The development thus reaffirms Israel’s known policy of targeting Iranian-affiliated installations across Syria in an attempt to prevent Tehran’s entrenchment in the country. The current attack is particularly notable due to the broad scope of the airstrikes.

At least one S-200/SA-5 surface-to-air missiles fired by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) to intercept the IAF aircraft reportedly landed in Turkish-controlled Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). This underscores the underlying threat of collateral damage, including to air traffic, due to spillover from the firing of surface-to-air missile against IAF aircraft operating against targets in Syria. The development is also liable to heighten tensions between Israel and Turkey.

Overall, the incident comes amid heightened regional tensions over recent months between Iran and its proxies on one side, and the US and its allies in the Middle East, on the other. As the current development will increase tensions between Israel and Syria over the coming hours and days, a retaliatory attack against Israely may occur by either Syrian, or more likely, Iranian-linked forces in Syria.

Please be advised:

According to the official Syrian news agency, several projectiles fired by the Israeli Air Force (IAF) towards military sites in areas surrounding Damascus and unspecified locations in Homs Province were intercepted by the Syrian air defense system during the overnight hours of June 30-July 1. It further reported on extensive material damage and civilian casualties, particularly in Sahnaya, located approximately ten kilometers south of Damascus.

Additional reports indicate that at least 15 individuals were killed as a result of the airstrikes.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), the targets of the airstrikes include a scientific research center in Rif Dimashq’s Jamraya, and other military and strategic research facilities linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah, including along the Qalamoun mountains near the Syria-Lebanon border, and in unspecified locations in Homs Province.

At least one S-200/SA-5 surface-to-air missile fired by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) to intercept Israeli aircraft reportedly landed in the Tashkent area in Turkish-controlled Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). The missile reportedly caused a fire, but no casualties have been recorded as of the time of writing.

Location of Reported IAF Airstrikes Around Damascus

Assessments & Forecasts:

The latest incident follows a recent escalation in hostilities between Israel on one side, and Syria and Iranian-backed groups, on the other. On June 2-3, the IAF reportedly conducted airstrikes against Syria’s T-4 military base in retaliation to the launch of two rockets from Syrian territory towards northern Israel’s Mount Hermon on June 1. Moreover, on June 12, Syria’s official news agency reported that the SAA intercepted Israeli projectiles over Daraa Province’s Tal al-Hara. Thus, given past precedent, as well as the fact that the nature of the latest airstrikes is consistent with Israel’s known policy of targeting Iranian-affiliated installations across Syria, the reports attributing Israel with the latest strikes are likely credible.

The development is notable given the broad scope of the airstrikes. The IAF-attributed airstrikes targeted at least ten Iranian-linked sites, which is higher than most similar incidents recorded within Syrian territory over the recent months. Moreover, the last such airstrikes targeting areas surrounding Damascus was witnessed on January 11-12, which adds to the significance of the latest incident. This highlights Israel’s determination to curb the entrenchment of Iranian-linked elements and its evolving presence in Syria, which Israel perceives as posing a substantial threat to its national security.

The impact of the Syrian surface-to-air missile in Turkish-controlled TRNC is highly notable, as this is the first time such an incident has occurred. The S-200/SA-5 missile is technologically inferior to IAF aircraft, and is therefore usually employed by the SAA in volley fire without achieving a lock on target, with the intention to deter the aircraft and increase the potential for one of the missiles to hit. This was the case when Syrian air defense systems shot down a Russian plane off the coast of Syria on September 17.

In this context, as IAF aircraft likely conducted the recent airstrikes from over Lebanese airspace or from offshore Lebanon, the SAA likely responded with a volley fire, and the missiles that missed continued to fly in their trajectory until they ran out of fuel and fell to the ground in northern Cyprus. This also corresponds with the fact that Nicosia is approximately 325km from Damascus and the operational range of the S-200/SA-5 is approximately 300km. This nonetheless underscores the underlying threat of collateral damage, including to air traffic over Cyprus, posed by the firing of surface-to-air missiles against IAF aircraft operating against targets in Syria.
FORECAST: The incident has the potential to raise tensions between Israel and Turkey over the coming days and weeks, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may perceive such actions as provocative and use them as leverage against Israeli operations against targets in Syria.

Location of Missile Landing in Northern Cyprus

The airstrikes were reportedly conducted hours following indications that Syria’s entire Russia-supplied S-300 air defense system was in an operational conditional. Until now only three of Syria’s four surface-to-air-missile launchers had reportedly appeared in a raised position in Hama’s Masyaf. Thus, by conducting airstrikes at this time, Israel likely attempts to convey to all actors operating in Syria, including Russia, that it will not be deterred from its objectives of acting against the perceived Iranian threat.

In this context, the latest strikes occurred days after a tripartite meeting between Israel, the US and Russia from June 24-26 in Jerusalem. During the meeting, Russia’s national security adviser, Nikoali Patruschev, reportedly stated that Iran was his “ally and partner” and it was “contributing a lot to fighting terrorists on Syrian soil and stabilizing the situation there”. The official also reportedly stated that Russia “pays special attention to ensuring Israel’s security.” Despite characterizing Israeli airstrikes against Iranian assets in Syria as “undesirable”, the short span of time between the meeting and the latest incident points towards the possibility that Moscow may have given Israel its tacit consent to act against the expansion of Iran’s influence. Patruschev’s prior comments regarding Iran’s status as a Russian ally are thus likely indicative of Moscow’s attempts to balance its geopolitical interests amid the various regional actors.

Overall, the incident comes amid heightened regional tensions over recent months between Iran and its proxies on one side, and the US and its allies in the Middle East on the other. Against this backdrop, several attacks against US interests and its allies over the recent weeks have been attributed to Iranian-linked elements and proxies.
FORECAST: The incident is liable to increase tensions between Israel and Syria over the coming hours and days. While there remains a potential for retaliatory action by the Syrian government, the likelihood for such attacks by Iranian-backed elements against Israel is relatively higher particularly given that the latest IAF airstrikes primarily targeted Iranian-linked facilities.

Recommendations:

Syria:

We advise avoiding all nonessential travel to Damascus due to the remaining threat of militancy in the city. In addition, it is advised to avoid all travel to the vicinity of military installations due to the potential for Israeli strikes.

Avoid all travel to outlying areas and cities including Daraa, Homs, Hama, and Idlib due to persistent fighting and heightened risk of kidnapping targeting foreigners, particularly in combat zones and rebel-held areas.

Israel:

Travel to Israel may continue at this time while adhering to security precautions regarding militant attacks, while avoiding the immediate vicinity of the Syrian, Lebanese, and Egyptian borders, due to the persistent risk for cross-border violence.

Those residing or operating in Israel are advised to monitor the situation in the vicinity of the border areas regarding incidents of cross-border hostilities and possible rocket attacks. Remain cognizant of the situation along the Lebanese and Syrian border areas, as minor hostilities between various groups can escalate into a broader conflict.

Homs Province’s Tiyas Military Air Base targeted with guided missile strikes during early morning hours of April 9 – Syria & Israel Alert

Please be advised

Reports indicate that Homs Province’s Tiyas Military Air Base was targeted with missile strikes during the early morning hours of April 9. According to Syrian pro-government sources, its Air Defense System intercepted five of the total eight guided missiles that were used.

According to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights (SOHR), at least 14 pro-government soldiers were killed, including an unspecified number of Iranian forces.

While Syrian state media initially described the incident as “American aggression”, Pentagon officials have reportedly denied any US involvement.

According to a Russian state news agency, the Russian Defense Ministry stated that the Israeli Air Force (IAF) carried out the strikes from Lebanese airspace with two F-15 fighter jets.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have not issued any comment regarding the development.

Assessments & Forecast

The development comes amidst a marked increase of tensions between Syrian pro-government forces and Israel over the past months. This is highlighted by the February 10 launch of an Iranian unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) into Israel from Tiyas Military Air Base. While the IAF retaliated by conducting strikes against four pro-government bases in Syria, the downing of an Israeli F-16 fighter jet with Syrian anti-aircraft fire during this action marked an achievement for the Syrian pro-government forces unprecedented in recent years. As these developments highlight the growing willingness of Iran and Syrian pro-government forces to challenge Israel, we assess that the aforementioned reports ascribing the current missile strike to the IDF are highly credible.

The operation follows the February statement by Hezbollah Leader Hassan Nasrallah, who praised the aforementioned downing of the F-16 fighter jet as “beginning of a new strategic era which puts an end to the violation of Syrian airspace and territory”. Thus, the targeting of Tiyas Military Air Base, which lies deep within Syrian territory, serves to reassert Israel’s deterrence and the countries’ adherence to its well-established policy of targeting any pro-government facilities which are liable to threaten Israel’s military and technological edge. More significantly, in light of Israeli concerns about the growing fortification of Iranian operational bases in Syria, the current missiles strikes demonstrate Israel’s increased resolve to target military installations used by Iranian forces.

Meanwhile, the Russian Defense Ministry statement holding Israel responsible is unprecedented, and thus highly notable. While Israel has carried out multiple airstrikes in Syria over the past years, since September 2015, Israel and Russia have coordinated such strikes through a bilateral deconfliction mechanism in order to mitigate the risk of conflicts between their armed forces. While the maintenance of this channel was hitherto regarded as tacit Russian approval of IDF action in Syria, the current statement indicates Moscow renunciation of this policy. FORECAST: Such a development would reduce Russia’s ability to function as a diplomatic backchannel to de-escalate tensions between Israel and Iran. Furthermore, it decreases the likelihood that Russia will pressure Iran to desist from expanding its presence near the Syrian-Israeli border. As a result, Israel will likely consider more robust military measures in order to contain this threat. Thus, over the coming months, the IDF is liable to increase airstrikes against Syrian pro-government targets across Syria, including Iranian bases.

FORECAST: Moreover, while Iran and its proxy forces are likely not interested in a broad escalation of hostilities with Israel at this point, the fact that Russia openly named Israel as the perpetrator of the current missiles strikes may pressure them to conduct retaliatory measures. While we assess that any such action will likely remain localized, more sophisticated attacks, such as IED detonations or RPG attacks targeting IDF soldiers positioned along the border cannot be entirely excluded. Should such a scenario materialize, both parties may be forced to react with increasing force to perceived transgressions of the other party in order to reassert their deterrence. Thus, while broad conflict between the parties remains unlikely to erupt over the coming months, a gradual increase of hostilities alongside the Syrian-Israeli border cannot be ruled out.

Recommendations

Recommendations: Syria

We advise against all travel to Damascus and Aleppo, given the general threat of indiscriminate aerial bombardment and artillery shelling from government forces as well as attacks by various militant groups. Attacks by rebel forces may include the use of rocket-propelled grenades, suicide bombings, and mortar attacks.

Those remaining in Damascus should ensure that contingency and emergency evacuation plans are updated due to the potential for a further deterioration in the security situation. Avoid all travel to outlying areas of the city given the persistent threat of militancy.

Recommendations: Israel

Travel to Israel may continue at this time while adhering to security precautions regarding militant attacks, while avoiding the immediate vicinity of the Syrian, Lebanese, and Egyptian borders, due to the persistent risk for cross-border violence.

Those residing or operating in Israel are advised to monitor the situation in the vicinity of the border areas regarding incidents of cross-border hostilities and possible rocket attacks. Remain cognizant of the situation along the Lebanese and Syrian border areas, and continue adhering to all safety precautions regarding early warning sirens for incoming rockets. In case you hear a siren, seek shelter in a protected area and remain inside for at least 10 minutes.

Syria & Lebanon Special Report: Air defense disposition and regional impacts

Executive Summary

  • Recent engaging of Israeli Air Force (IAF) aircraft by surface-to-air missile launched from Syria is indicative of the remaining, albeit limited capabilities of the Syrian Air Defense Forces (SyADF).
  • Moreover, it likely points to a shift in the Syrian government’s approach to perceived violations of its sovereignty by Israel, taking a more proactive and aggressive military stance, likely due to recent successes and strong backing from Russia.
  • As the IAF’s volume of operations is unlikely to be hindered by this reemerging threat, similar incidents are liable to occur in the coming months. While not posing a direct threat, these still pose a very limited indirect threat to civil aviation, particularly in Israel’s northern areas.

Background: Syria

Prior to 2011, Syria maintained a strong air defense force – the Syrian Air Defense Forces (SyADF). Its  reference threats were primarily from Israel and to a lesser degree from Turkey, featuring a possible conflict with a superior air force, and lending to an investment in assets that would offset their enemies’ advantages, namely surface-to-air missiles. This was set up as a layered defense, with a variety of stationary, mobile, and man-portable systems allowing to cover the greatest possible ranges while offering redundancy and survivability of assets in case these systems would be targeted.

Following the commencement of the Syrian civil war, the Syrian government’s reference threat changed from that posed by a neighboring conventional military to that posed by domestic paramilitary forces that strictly rely on land warfare in regular and irregular fighting scenarios, namely rebels and militants. This induced a change in the Syrian Armed Forces’ force structure and resource allocations, which placed the SyADF at a lower priority compared to other forces deemed more valuable to the new type of conflict. Additionally, large numbers of the SyADF platforms were captured or destroyed by rival forces throughout the conflict, significantly damaging its capabilities. That being said, the SyADF was not disbanded and was still maintained as a fighting force, however not to a comparable level to that of the pre-war era.

Relevant systems:

Stationary: SA-2, SA-5 – maximum range 240 km.
Semi-mobile: SA-3 – maximum range 35 km.
Semi-mobile: Russian operated in Syrian territory: SA-23 – maximum range 250 km.
Mobile: SA-6, SA-8, SA-9, SA-11, SA-13, SA-17, SA-19, SA-22 – maximum range 35 km.
Man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS): SA-7, SA-14, SA-16, SA-18, SA-24- maximum range 5 km.

Syria & Lebanon Special Report: Air defense disposition and regional impacts | MAX Security

Background: Hezbollah

Historically, Hezbollah, due to its status as an organization committed to guerilla warfare in the military sphere and the difficulties associated with operating high-profile weapons system resulting from Israel’s longstanding aerial superiority over Lebanon, was not able to acquire surface-to-air platforms. Instead, the organization made efforts to acquire man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS), which are of lower profile however also have significantly limited capabilities.

That said, due to Hezbollah’s large-scale intervention in the Syrian conflict in support of the government, the organization increasingly adopted conventional tactics and weapons systems, including being trained and gaining experience in the operation of surface-to-air missile systems. Additionally, operating in Syria made it more difficult for Israel to acquire the same level of intelligence and take comparable measures against Hezbollah as it does in Lebanon. As a result, Hezbollah constantly makes significant efforts to acquire mobile surface-to-air systems in order to offset Israel’s relative advantages against the group, in preparation for a future possible broad conflict between the sides. Such mobile systems have reduced ranges compared to the stationary ones, but also require less infrastructure and support to operate, and have a lower profile increasing the survivability rate.

In this context, there are unconfirmed reports that the group was able to acquire an SA-8 and according to reports, the IAF foiled several Hezbollah attempts to acquire SA-17s, however it cannot be ruled out that such an attempt was successful at some point in time. Additionally, even if acquired by Hezbollah, it remains possible that such systems are still in Syria, and were not yet deployed to Lebanon. Lastly, there are unconfirmed reports that Iran had exported Shahab Thaqeb platforms, a copy of the chinese HQ-7, to Hezbollah.

Relevant systems:

Mobile: SA-8, SA-17, Shahab Thaqeb- maximum range 8/25 km.
MANPADS: SA-7, SA-14, SA-16, SA-18, QW-1, Misagh-1, Misagh-2 maximum range 5.2 km.

Assessments & Forecast

The remaining capabilities of the SyADF, limited as they currently are, were portrayed in the recent firing of an SA-5 against an Israeli Air Force (IAF) aircraft on March 17. This retaliatory action is notable as the overwhelming majority of previous airstrikes against pro-Syrian government targets that were attributed to the IAF, as recent as November 30 2016, did not encounter any direct countermeasures by the SyADF.

Furthermore, the incident comes amidst ongoing general positive momentum for the Syrian government and its allies (including Hezbollah) in the ongoing Syrian conflict, which yielded several strategic successes. This likely contributed to a shift in the Syrian government’s position regarding what it perceives as a violation of its sovereignty by Israel, placing it as a “red line” which warrants immediate countermeasures, possibly followed by a more calculated retaliation, which Israel likely preempted in a subsequent airstrike on March 19. The calculated nature of events are further evident in the immediate summoning of the Israeli ambassador by Russia, which backs the Syrian government, as well as the seeming coordination with the Syrian Foreign Minister, who sent letters to the UN’s Secretary General and President of the Security Council accusing Israel of violating Syrian sovereignty and UN resolutions. Moreover, this serves as indication of the strong support lent to the Syrian government by Russia, which is a major factor contributing to the aforementioned shift in strategy.

With this in mind, further similar incidents in which IAF aircraft are engaged by the SyADF following airstrikes against targets in Syria are likely to occur in the coming weeks and months, following the aforementioned shift in the Syrian government’s strategy. This is particularly likely since the IAF is liable to maintain its current strategy of limited scale and scope operations in Syria in order to prevent Hezbollah from acquiring what Israel perceives as “game changing” weapons systems, or to eliminate fighters perceived as planning direct military action against Israel, both of which designated as “red lines” by Israel. To a lesser extent such a response may be conducted by Hezbollah should they be able to acquire relevant weapons systems, given the strong cooperation between the Syrian government and Hezbollah, as well as due to the IAF’s use of Lebanese airspace to conduct at least some of its airstrikes in Syrian territory. However, Hezbollah is more likely to retain such valuable assets for use as a strategic surprise in a possible future round of hostilities with Israel and not to expose them and thus risk losing them in what Hezbollah perceives as a less important scenario.

However, the new situation may entail further complication between Russia and Israel, given the former’s staunch support for the Syrian government, in which Russian forces currently in theater will confront IAF aircraft should the letter be perceived as posing a strategic threat to the Syrian government and Russian regional interests. Such a scenario would not be unprecedented, as Russian aircraft reportedly scrambled in the past to confront IAF aircraft in or near Syrian airspace, most recently as April 2016. While so far such incidents did not result in hostilities between Russian and Israeli forces, a recurrence of IAF airstrikes in Syria facing ground fire, as is currently expected, contributes to growing tensions between Israel and Russia, and through that the possibility, albeit a low-likelihood one, of direct hostilities between the sides, most likely as result of a spiral of mistakes and/or miscommunication.

Taken as a whole, at this time any possible firing of a surface-to-air missile from Syrian territory in response to an IAF airstrike is liable to target IAF military aircraft. However, while not posing a direct threat, such events will pose an indirect threat to civil aviation in the region to a limited degree. This is due to the fact that in case a missile misses its designated target due to maneuvering or countermeasures, and is not intercepted as was the case in the latest incident, the missile may automatically lock on and engage the nearest available target, regardless of if it is military or civilian. At the current state of affairs the Syrian government is uninterested in an escalation with Israel and thus the SyADF is unlikely to engage aircraft over central Israel, despite potentially having the capabilities to do so, as this too will be considered a “red line” by Israel, and therefore such a risk is limited to the northern areas of the country.

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This report was written by:

Tzahi Shraga – MAX Security’s Chief Intelligence Officer, ret. LTC from the Israeli intelligence community

Oded Berkowitz – MAX Security’s Associate Director of Intelligence, Middle East & North Africa

 

Strategic Analysis: Impact of Iranian covert activity on the interim nuclear agreement

They say old habits die hard. For Iran’s elite Quds Force, the secretive external branch of the Revolutionary Guard, the habits of subversion and mafia-style revenge against the Islamic Republic’s adversaries may never die at all.  The actions of these self-described promoters of the Islamic Revolution may just determine whether the smiles, handshakes, and twitter posts of President Rouhani signal an end to Iran’s destabilizing meddling in the Middle East — or are a mere diversion from the unrelenting sectarian aims of the regime’s true power brokers.

Qassim Solemani, the head of the IRGC-QF
Qassim Solemani, the head of the IRGC-QF

With the eyes of the world still sharply focused on Iran’s behavior following the clinching of an interim nuclear agreement with the P5+1, the restraint of the Quds Force is already being tested.

A New Turning Point?

On November 19, just as Tehran’s negotiating team arrived in Geneva to hammer out the last details of that agreement, the Iranian embassy in southern Beirut was hit by a devastating double suicide bombing attack. Twenty-three people were killed, including Iran’s cultural attaché and several other nationals whose identities and affiliations have not been disclosed.

On the surface, the attack could be construed as part of an ongoing campaign by Syrian rebel sympathizers to target pro-Assad regime elements in Lebanon, preceded by two other indiscriminant bombings in Hezbollah-dominated suburbs of the city in recent months.

But both Hezbollah and Iranian officials red-flagged this attack for its notable sophistication, indicating the hand of a far more capable foreign power. According to their claims, the attackers knew the location of the ambassador’s office and his itinerary that day, with the second bomber using sophisticated explosives meant to detonate upwards rather than horizontally in order to collapse the building. Continue reading Strategic Analysis: Impact of Iranian covert activity on the interim nuclear agreement

Strategic Analysis: Lebanese-Israeli border tensions marked by erosion of UN resolution 1701

Lebanon
Hezbollah has claimed responsibility for a recent bombing attack near the Israeli border.

On the seven-year anniversary of the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah claimed responsibility for an August 7 explosion in the Israeli-Lebanese border area, near the town of Labboune. That day, at least one explosive device injured four Israeli soldiers, who were accused by Lebanese parties and UNIFIL of crossing into Lebanese territory during a patrol in an un-demarcated area of the border.

Lebanese media outlets and politicians asserted that the IDF crossed both the technical fence and the international border, which do not coincide in some areas. Initial reports indicated that the troops were hit by a landmine which may have been a remnant from previous conflicts. The IDF has since declined to comment on the details of the incident, including whether or not troops entered Lebanese territory or whether the attack was intentional. Nasrallah claimed that Hezbollah had prior knowledge of an upcoming Israeli incursion, leading their operatives to plant explosive devices. He ended with what would some consider an ominous warning: “This operation will not be the last; we will not be lenient with those who violate our land. Whenever we feel that the Israelis have entered Lebanese soil, we will act.” The truth about what actually happened on August 7 may forever be disputed, but it remains clear that Hezbollah still seeks to avoid a conflict with Israel — despite Nasrallah’s seemingly confident claim of responsibility. Continue reading Strategic Analysis: Lebanese-Israeli border tensions marked by erosion of UN resolution 1701

Lebanon Political Analysis: Failure of political leaders to compromise risks further instability

After three months of fruitless negotiations, the efforts of Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam to form a cabinet remain at square one. The parliament remains unable to fill a quorum due to a cyclical boycott by more than half of its members at any given time. Meanwhile, the March 8 alliance between Hezbollah, Amal, and the Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) has dissolved, with all parties trying to pull the latter’s influential leader Michel Aoun in their direction.

Incoming Lebanese-P.M. Tammam Salam
Incoming Lebanese-P.M. Tammam Salam

Impasses at Lebanon’s highest levels of government threaten to institutionalize a leadership vacuum at a time when the country is barely able keep the floodgates of violence from the Syrian war closed. Amidst this political tumult, Lebanon’s most potent political player, Hezbollah, is finding itself increasingly isolated.

Continue reading Lebanon Political Analysis: Failure of political leaders to compromise risks further instability

Intelligence Analysis: Assad regime gains push back prospects for rebel victory

While many pundits continually debate a timeframe for Assad’s downfall, the regime is on the offensive, pushing back their estimations. In recent weeks, Assad’s forces have succeeded in securing several tactical victories, mainly in Damascus, Idlib Province, and around Homs, all the while preventing additional rebel gains around Deraa. Overall, those tactical developments are likely to further secure the capital’s northern and southern flanks and supply lines to other government-controlled cities while furthering the process of isolating and eliminating opposition strongholds around Damascus. The rebels, therefore, will not be taking Syria’s capital anytime soon.

Syria (Map created using Google Earth)
Syria (Map created using Google Earth)

Syrian military and loyalist gains in Damascus are likely to continue in the near term, as tenuous advances in Homs and Idlib provinces and the continued holding of strategic areas in southern Syria will inhibit rebel efforts to bring more fighters and supplies to the four Damascus fronts. While not given the publicity it deserves, much of Assad’s recent successes in the Homs region could be credited to Hezbollah’s increased intervention from Lebanon. This intervention has furthered tensions in Lebanon, but burgeoned Assad’s strength between Damascus, the Alawite stronghold of Latakia, and Homs. It now appears that both Hezbollah and Syrian government troops are set to enter the main rebel-held town in the area, al-Qusayr. Rebel fighters inside Damascus, meanwhile, are increasingly finding themselves isolated and outgunned. They are left mostly defending positions determined following the stalling of their last capital offensive that began in November 2012.

The latest regime offensives in Damascus were a likely answer to rebel gains near Jordan and Israel, and thus meant to preempt another rebel attempt to ride their momentum for a push into the heart of Damascus. By taking the initiative, regime troops and loyalist militias have become increasingly able to isolate opposition bastions in the capital’s outskirts. Layered defenses in the capital, barrages of indirect fire, long supply lines, and local opposition to rebel gains are also likely contributing to the opposition’s general inability to move beyond their initial strongholds.

Continue reading Intelligence Analysis: Assad regime gains push back prospects for rebel victory

Strategic Analysis: Regional implications of suspected Israeli airstrikes in Syria

Since Israel’s brazen airstrike on Syrian territory Jan. 30, Israel’s enemies have yet to retaliate. Syria, Iran, and their proxy, Hezbollah, together comprise the region’s heavily-armed fighting force, and yet remain unwilling to make good on pledges to respond with aggression to any Israeli force.

Even Syria’s enemies have begun to take notice of the nonresponse, exploiting the Assad regime’s inaction for their own propaganda purposes. In Turkey, where relations with Israel are seriously strained, President Ahmet Davutoglu asked: “Why didn’t [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad even throw a pebble when Israeli jets were flying over his palace and playing with the dignity of his country?”

Israeli airstrikes reportedly targeted a weapons convoy leaving the Jamraya research facility near Damascus on January 30.
Israeli airstrikes reportedly targeted a weapons convoy leaving the Jamraya research facility near Damascus on January 30.

Depending on whom you ask, Israel either hit sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles in Syria that were en-route to the Lebanese border and Hezbollah (this is the US and Israeli explanation), or it hit a symbolic military research center northwest of Damascus (the Syrian version). But at this point, speculation over which targets were hit, where they were located, or what exact purpose they served is irrelevant.

What is relevant, is that Israel clearly retains the strategic high ground against its enemies, with full knowledge that Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah are bogged down in the swamp of civil war, economic sanctions, or diplomatic isolation.

The Israeli strike against Syria has to be looked at in the context of last November’s conflict between Hamas and Israel – when Hamas fired some 1,500 rockets from the Gaza Strip, including longer range Iranian-made missiles that reached Tel Aviv for the first time. Israel successfully protected itself with its anti-missile system, called Iron Dome. The Syria strike shows that the last round in the Gaza Strip emboldened the Israeli military to go after Hezbollah, a far more fearsome enemy.

Knowing that its Iron Dome system was battle tested, Israel was able to confidently deploy the anti-missile system near Israel’s strategic industrial centers in Haifa prior to the attacks on Syria. Tanks and troops had been moved to the border with Syria, backed by a political establishment that had spent months coordinating with regional and international allies through back channels to gain support for such action. Continue reading Strategic Analysis: Regional implications of suspected Israeli airstrikes in Syria

Intelligence Analysis: External influences in Bahrain’s opposition movement

On November 5, the morning calm in Bahrain’s capital was shattered when an unsuspecting foreign street sweeper was killed after erroneously kicking an crude homemade explosive device planted near a trash can. That morning, four other pipe bombs detonated almost simultaneously in Manama, killing another foreign worker and wounding several more.  The Bahraini government alleged that this amateurish attack bore the prints of Hezbollah, the world’s most capable militant group. In all likelihood, the attack was the product of an increasingly radicalized younger generation of Shiite activists, whose long-ignored anger threatens to boomerang back in the form of an intensifying wave of violent attacks. Indeed, these pipe bombs may have been unsophisticated, but their impact will ultimately be felt across the island, from King Hamad’s palace to the top floors of Manama’s glimmering financial towers.

Bahrain’s opposition demonstrates at the now-demolished Pearl Roundabout.

In recent months, Bahrain’s activists have taken to burning tires in an effort to block major roads, particularly near Bahrain’s International Airport. On the Island of Sitra, which hosts Bahrain’s largest industrial centers, the local police station has become a fortress, falling under nightly attacks by Molotov-cocktail wielding youth. Just two weeks prior to the Manama bombings, a police officer was killed by another crude explosive device after an anti-government demonstration in the village of al-Eker. The opposition is clearly attempting to hit the government where it hurts by staining Bahrain’s hard-earned image as a safe, foreign-friendly hub for international commerce.

For its part, the government doesn’t seem deterred. The al-Eker bombing led security forces to impose an unprecedented security blockade on the village. On October 29, the government banned all demonstrations, while revoking the citizenship of 31 opposition activists weeks later. These moves have only resulted in further boiling the blood of Bahrain’s February 14 youth activist network, resulting in rioting, tire burning, and an increasingly worrying trend of bombing attacks.
Continue reading Intelligence Analysis: External influences in Bahrain’s opposition movement