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Implications of recent escalation in US-Iran tensions on Iranian domestic, foreign policy – Iran Analysis

Executive Summary

Over the months of April and May, the US took multiple measures as part of its “maximum pressure” campaign vis-a-vis Iran, including the revocation of sanction waivers to importers of Iranian oil and deployment of US military assets to the Middle East.

As a response to the perceived provocations, on May 8, Iran announced its decision to partially halt its commitments to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and set a 60-day deadline for European states to renegotiate the financial terms of the agreement, marking a highly significant development since the ratification of the nuclear deal in 2015.

The purported involvement of Iran and its affiliates in the recent uptick in attacks against US allies, particularly the May 12 attack against four naval vessels, including two Saudi oil tankers, off the coast of the UAE, has further fueled tensions in the region.

Iran has resisted direct negotiations with the US thus far, which indicates the high level of influence wielded by hardliners on the country’s foreign policy. Tensions are liable to remain high as both Iran and the US are likely to continue their strategic posturing in the region over the short term, in order to eventually coerce each other onto the negotiating table.

Western nationals operating or residing in Iran are advised to regularly review emergency and contingency protocols as a basic security precaution due to the risk of limited hostilities between Iran, the US, and its Gulf allies. Those operating in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria are advised to maintain a low profile due to threat of attacks by Iranian-linked elements.

Current Situation

On May 8, Iran’s SCNS released a statement announcing Tehran’s decision to partially halt its commitments to the JCPOA and setting a 60-day deadline for European states to take steps to counteract the negative effects of US sanctions.

The US President Donald Trump subsequently issued an executive order to impose sanctions on Iran’s metal industry.

On May 11, the US sent Patriot air defense systems to US CENTCOM based in Qatar’s al-Udeid Air Base.

On May 12, the US Embassy in Baghdad issued a security alert advising “all US citizens of heightened tensions in Iraq” and the “requirement to remain vigilant.”

On May 12, Saudi Arabia’s official news agency stated that two out of the four civilian commercial cargo ships that were subject to a “sabotage attempt” near UAE territorial waters in the Gulf of Oman, off the eastern coast near Fujairah, were Saudi oil tankers.

On May 14, the Yemeni Houthis claimed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) attack against an oil pipeline belonging to the official Saudi Arabian Oil Company in Riyadh Province’s towns of al-Duwadimi and Afif.

On May 15, the US ordered the departure of all non-emergency US government employees stationed at the US Embassy in Baghdad and the US Consulate in Erbil from Iraq.

On May 18, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) issued an advisory warning of risks to civil aviation over the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.

On May 19, a rocket landed in the vicinity of Baghdad’s Green Zone, less than two kilometers away from the US Embassy.

On May 20, the Spokesperson of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), Behrouz Kamalvandi stated that Iran’s 3.67 percent production capacity of enriched uranium had increased by four-fold.

On May 20, two ballistic missiles were reportedly intercepted over Mecca Province’s Taif and Jeddah. Yemeni Houthis denied involvement in the attack.

On May 24, the US announced additional deployment of 1,500 military personnel to the Middle East.

Background

In May 2018, the US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA, also known as the Iran nuclear deal, which was negotiated between Iran and P5 +1 (US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany) countries in 2015. Subsequently, the US re-imposed sanctions related to Iran’s export of oil in November 2018, but granted sanction waivers to eight countries including India, China, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Italy, and Turkey for a period of 180 days. On April 8, 2019, the US designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO). This was followed by the US’s decision to end sanction waivers to importers of Iranian oil starting on May 2, 2019. Out of the seven sanctions related to Iran’s uranium enrichment and civilian nuclear energy cooperation, the US revoked two sanction waivers related to Iran’s uranium enrichment process under the JCPOA – one that allowed Iran to store excess heavy water produced in the uranium enrichment process in Oman and one that allowed Iran to swap enriched uranium for raw yellowcake with Russia. On May 5, US officials announced their decision to deploy an aircraft carrier and bomber task force to the Middle East citing indications of Iranian threat, but provided no further details. This prompted Tehran’s decision to partially halt its commitments to the JCPOA on May 8, 2019.

Assessments & Forecast

Impact of IRGC’s designation as an FTO:

The designation of the IRGC in its entirety, including its extraterritorial wing, the Quds Force, as a “terrorist entity” marks a highly significant development, as it constitutes the first ever instance wherein the US has labelled a country’s military organization as an FTO. Such a designation comes amid the US’s continued policy to apply “maximum pressure” on the Iranian government to end its alleged role in destabilization activities across the regional as well as the international stage. It forms part of the US’s efforts to depict the Iranian administration as “rogue” or an “outlaw”, and is aimed at further isolating Iran on the international stage.

The move is largely symbolic, given the fact that US sanctions already target the IRGC and its leaders, affiliates, and subsidiaries such the Basij Resistance and the Quds Force and the US had already designated the IRGC as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” in 2017. However, the latest step will likely augment the existing pressure on Iran. Any individual or entity knowingly providing material support to the IRGC will now face the possibility of a 20-year US prison sentence. It will also impose immigration restrictions on members of the IRGC who attempt to travel to the US simply by virtue of their membership or affiliation to the organization. FORECAST: Given that the IRGC has significant stake in the Iranian economy, through this measure, the US likely intends to make it further difficult for foreign entities to conduct business with Iran, which, in turn, would have a negative impact upon the Islamic Republic’s economy. However, the fact that a large extent of the IRGC’s business dealings are known to be carried out through illicit channels, such dealings are unlikely to be significantly affected by the recent designation.

FORECAST: Moreover, such a move is also unlikely to alter Iran’s policies on the regional setting, like its involvement in supporting proxies such as the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Yemeni Houthis, and Shiite militias in Iraq such as the Harakat al-Nujaba (HNA). Rather, given the increased restraints faced by the IRGC, the recent move is liable to increase Iran’s motivation to expand its regional footprint through the above-mentioned proxies as well as other sponsored militias. To this effect, the Iranian government will continue to divert large funds, at the expense of its domestic population, in order to sustain its influence in neighboring countries. This, in turn, is likely to inflame already existing local grievances, which may result in further instances of widespread civil unrest in the country. However, on a broad basis, given Iran’s history of strategic culture and great power rhetoric, a majority of the Iranian populace views the US sanctions as the source of their economic hardship, as compared to the Iranian government’s policies. While this is partly aided by the intensive propaganda campaigns in the country, it nevertheless galvanizes unity in the face of a “foreign aggression”. Thus, it is likely that the Iranian administration will attempt to placate the inherent domestic concerns related to the government’s regional activities and support for its proxies amidst an economic crisis, by attempting to project strength vis-a-vis the US. This may take place through the continued portrayal of strength through military exercises, display of new defense equipment, such as the unveiling of the new domestically produced “Khordad 15” air defense system on June 9. Moreover, the Islamic Republic will seek to counteract the US’s measures by maintaining a relatively belligerent posture, given the influence wielded by hardliners on the country’s foreign policy.”

FORECAST: By continuing, or rather increasing support for its proxies, the IRGC may be able to effectively target its adversaries, namely the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia-aligned countries in the Gulf over the coming months. In this regard, given that much of the recent attacks in the region, such as the May 19 rocket landing in Baghdad’s Green Zone near the US Embassy, the June 1 rocket attack into Israel’s Mount Hermon from Syria, or the spate of attacks against Saudi targets have consistently targeted Iran’s adversaries, it is likely that they were encouraged by Tehran in an effort to destabilize the region. Moreover, the fact that some of the attacks were carried out against energy-related targets, such as the May 12 targeting of Saudi oil tankers off the coast of UAE’s Fujairah in the Gulf of Oman and the May 14 Houthi-claimed UAV attack on the oil pipeline in Riyadh Province, suggests that Iran may be attempting to weaken the economies of Saudi-aligned countries, given their significant dependence on oil revenues. This would align with Tehran’s strategy of preventing its rival, Saudi Arabia, from expanding its influence in the region and subsequently positioning itself as the dominant regional power in the Middle East. This, in turn, would allow Iran to prevent the regional balance of power from significantly shifting away from itself, particularly in light of the reimposition of US sanctions.

Potential Ramifications of the imposition of various sanctions on Iran:

A) Oil-related sanctions:

The US’s refusal to extend the 180-day sanctions exemptions for importers of Iranian oil (China, India, South Korea, Turkey and Japan) from May 2 constitutes a core segment of the US’s “maximum pressure” campaign, as it aims to completely diminish Iran’s oil revenue. Although India and China, the two top importers of Iranian oil, were envisaged to face significant setbacks to its energy security policy due to the US move, it appears that both countries have planned for this eventuality and are effectively looking at alternate sources to fulfill their energy requirements. In this scenario, while neither of the two countries have officially announced their position on the future of Iranian crude imports, it is likely that imports from other key energy players such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE will feature on a higher side, specifically in the case of India. This will put further strain on Iran’s revenues from its oil sector, which, in turn, will have a significant adverse impact upon its national economy.

FORECAST: Given that the move has been anticipated since the reinstatement of US sanctions on Iran in November 2018, early indications suggests that apart from the initial shock, the decision has not drastically impacted the global oil market, despite fears of an oil price surge and supply disruptions. This is primarily due to a boost in Saudi Arabia’s oil production in May to fill the gap of Iranian crude, along with similar boosts in production by Iraq and Libya. However, Iran may resort to illegal trade of its oil in the black market, particularly in countries such as Yemen, where the Houthis have been reportedly deriving a majority of its income by selling Iranian oil. Furthermore, Iran may also attempt to export its oil through the use of “switch-off-the-transponder” tactics, which makes tracking ships increasingly difficult.

B) Uranium enrichment-related sanctions:

The May 8 statement released by the SNSC, which was reiterated by Iranian President Rouhani in a televised address, represents a pronounced effort by the Islamic Republic to project strength in response to perceived US provocations in recent years. The decision to halt its partial commitments under the JCPOA regarding enriched uranium and heavy water reserves follows the US’s May 4 revocation of the two sanction waivers, which practically forces Iran to completely overhaul its production of heavy water and uranium enrichment or continue production and find itself in breach of the JCPOA. Moreover, the five sanction waivers that were extended were also reduced from 180 days to 90 days, in which the remaining adherents of the JCPOA are allowed to cooperate with Iran on the sites of Bushehr, Arak, and Fordow without facing US sanctions.

This was followed by the May 20 announcement from the Spokesperson of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), Behrouz Kamalvandi according to which, Iran’s 3.67 percent production capacity of uranium had increased by four-fold. However, Iranian officials reportedly stressed that the uranium would be enriched only to the 3.67 percent limit set under the JCPOA. Thus, although Tehran still remains party to the JCPOA, its increased capacity to produce enriched uranium suggests that Iran is likely to soon exceed the 300 kg uranium stockpile limitation set by the accord. FORECAST: However, as indicated in Rouhani’s speech, Tehran will likely retain its enriched uranium (upto 300 kg) and heavy water (upto 130 tons) rather than selling them to other nations while remaining within the limits prescribed in the nuclear deal over the short term, at least until July 8. This would allow Iran to project its adherence to the terms set under the JCPOA.

FORECAST: However, as per the joint statement released by France, Germany, and the UK on May 9, while the European states expressed “regret” over the reinstatement of US sanctions and continued to pledge their willingness to support alternate trade mechanisms such as the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), they also categorically rejected Tehran’s 60-day ultimatum for negotiations. While this highlights their unwillingness to publicly be strong armed onto the negotiation table, it is also indicative of their reluctance to oppose US policies. Furthermore, the reimposition of the US sanctions has increased the risk of conducting business with Tehran for foreign companies, several of whom have already ceased their operations in the Islamic Republic. This is likely to have a significant adverse impact upon Iran’s economy over the coming months.

C) Metal industry-related sanctions:

The US President Donald Trump’s May 8 decision to impose new sanctions on Iran’s metal industry are aimed at undermining Iran’s revenue from the export of industrial metals, the country’s largest non-oil sector, which reportedly accounts for approximately ten percent of its export economy. While Iran’s mining industry was already facing severe setbacks due to shipping and payment restrictions, the recent move is liable to inherently impact employment provided by the metal as well as the automotive industry, which reportedly constitutes almost six percent of Iran’s total labor force. This is liable to significantly exacerbate domestic workers’ grievances, which have manifested in the form of persistent localized demonstrations across Iran over the recent months.

FORECAST: In this context, public protests surrounding employment, pensions, inflation, increase in the prices of basic commodities and other economic-related issues are liable to continue in a significant manner over the coming weeks and months. Such demonstrations will likely take place across Iran, including in major cities such as Tehran, as well as in outlying provinces such as Khuzestan and Kordestan, where the locals comprising of an Arab-majority or Kurdish population perceive themselves as marginalized by the Shiite Iranian government’s policies. This will not only increase the threat of civil unrest in the country as a whole, but also exacerbate sectarian tensions between the countries minority communities and the Shiite-led government.

Lack of direct engagement, continued strategic posturing liable to prolong tensions in the region:

The Iranian administration’s current position to resist direct negotiations with the US, albeit agreeing to mediation talks with Japan, highlights the high degree of influence wielded by hardliners on the country’s foreign policy at this juncture. Such elements continue to criticize the Rouhani administration’s moderate approach towards dealing with the US and aspire to correct the perceived weakness with which the terms of the JCPOA were negotiated in 2015. FORECAST: This, combined with the relative lack of tangible economic benefits from JCPOA, is liable to further embolden segments of hardliners and conservative elements within Iran’s political sphere. This may result in further appointments of such elements in key leadership posts, which is liable to significantly hinder the popularity of more moderate officials, consisting of figures such as President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. This is underscored by the appointment of General Hossein Salami, a prominent hardliner within Iran’s military establishment as the IRGC’s Commander-in-Chief on April 21. Such appointments are not only liable to increase the anti-US rhetoric emanating from the Islamic Republic but also significantly hamper the potential for backchannel negotiations with the US, which are generally conducted by more moderate officials.

FORECAST: On a regional level, tensions are liable to remain high due to the strategic posturing of the two countries, in order to eventually coerce each other onto the negotiating table. The deployment of US warships, including an aircraft carrier and a bomber task force on May 5, the sending of Patriot missile systems on May 11, as well as the decision to deploy an additional 1500 US military personnel to the region, is likely to significantly increase tensions in the Persian Gulf waters and the Strait of Hormuz over the coming weeks and months. This is particularly in light of Tehran’s persistent effort to assert its authority as the legitimate custodian of security across its territorial waters. These tensions may manifest in the form of limited confrontation between the naval forces of the two sides, which constitutes a general risk to shipping through the critical energy choke point.

FORECAST: Tensions are also likely to increase between Saudi-aligned countries and Israel on one side and Iran on the other. Iran may encourage its backed elements, particularly the Yemeni Houthis, to increase their attacks against targets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This would also align with the Houthis’ aim of weakening the economies of countries that are part of the Saudi-led Coalition in Yemen in order to reduce their ability to engage in the ongoing civil war in the country. Iran may also use its proxies and backed elements in Syria and Lebanon, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah, to put pressure on the US by using them as leverage against Israel, the US’s closest ally in the Middle East. This may manifest in the form of attacks against Israel by Iranian-backed elements in Syria, as witnessed on June 1, when a rocket was launched from Syria towards Israel’s Mount Hermon. However, such attacks are likely to remain limited and constrained to areas within close proximity to the Syria-Israel border. This is because an attack deep inside Israeli territory would trigger a large-scale conflict between Israel on one side and Syria and Lebanon on the other, and Syria is currently not interested in such a scenario given its preoccupation in hostilities with rebel forces.

FORECAST: Overall, as tensions between the US and Iran get prolonged, the risk of a military confrontation between the two countries will increase. Such a military confrontation is likely to be limited at least in the short term, with Iran attempting to use its proxies as a means to put pressure on the US and its Gulf allies and the US retaliating with a further increase in military presence in the Persian Gulf. While Iran is currently not interested in a broad conflict with the US given that its economy is unlikely to be able to sustain such a cost, as previously assessed, the influence of hardliners on the country’s foreign policy reduces the possibility of backchannel negotiations. This combined with the fact that the US is unlikely to agree to any terms that do not significantly diminish Iran’s nuclear and military capabilities, further reduces the possibility of successful negotiations. Therefore, as these tensions persist over a long period of time, the risk of a full scale conflict between the US and Iran 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 may manifest in some form of cold war or even a limited or full military confrontation.

Western nationals operating or residing in Iran are advised to remain cognizant to prevailing negative sentiment toward the United States and other North American and Western European countries.

US citizens and other Western nationals operating or residing in other countries in the Middle East with sizeable Iranian-backed elements are advised to keep a low profile and maintain heightened vigilance, given the potential for attacks by such groups.

Those operating vital infrastructure, particularly in the oil sector, in Saudi Arabia are advised to review security protocols in light of the threat posed by Yemeni Houthi-perpetrated attacks, particularly through the use of UAVs.

Those planning to operate commercial aircraft over the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman are advised to exercise heightened caution and remain apprised of further FAA notices regarding the increased threat to aviation in this region.

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

 

Lebanon Analysis: Is Lebanese newly elected president liable to bolster political stability?

Current Situation: The Lebanese newly elected president

On October 31, the Lebanese Parliament elected the Free Patriotic Movement’s (FPM) leader, Michel Aoun, for President of Lebanon. The Lebanese newly elected president was elected in the second round of voting after 83 out of 127 members of parliament voted in his favor, following a failure to achieve two-thirds of the votes in the first round. Days later, on November 3, the newly elected President Aoun tasked Mustaqbal Movement leader Saad Hariri with the formation of a new government, after the latter was elected by the Lebanese Parliament as the new Prime Minister, receiving 110 votes out of 127. Additionally, on December 18, a national accord cabinet, led by the newly appointed Prime Minister Saad Hariri, was formed following the reaching of an agreement regarding portfolios. The cabinet includes 30 appointed ministers who represent various factions of the Lebanese political demography.

Assessments

The aforementioned developments are highly notable given that they follow a two-and-a-half year deadlock, with Lebanon’s political system failing to elect a President, as well as the fact that the recently formed government was agreed upon by rival political elements. This includes the FPM’s leader and a prominent member of the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance, Michel Aoun, and the Mustaqbal Movement’s and March 14 alliance leader Rafiq Hariri. Thus, it is clear that the two sides struck a deal that includes the endorsement of Aoun by Hariri, while in return the latter would be appointed as the new Prime Minister. Previously, tensions have been elevated between these two political adversaries, mainly surrounding the FPM leader’s alliance with Hezbollah, as well as his support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In light of these recent developments, we assess that the political situation in Lebanon is liable to significantly stabilize over the coming months due to the Lebanese newly elected president.

In this context, Rafiq Hariri’s willingness to make concessions and his endorsement of Aoun can potentially be linked to a number of factors. For instance, over the past several months, Hariri’s popularity has been decreasing across the country. This is highlighted by the Hariri-backed candidates’ poor performance in May’s municipal election, including in Tripoli, a city which has traditionally been a known stronghold of Hariri. By finally agreeing to endorse Aoun’s appointment as president, and the placing of himself in the role of the Prime Minister, it remains likely that Hariri seeks to secure his political power as Lebanon’s most powerful political figure, thus avoiding the risk of a further decrease in his popularity. Additionally, in light of the growing influence by Hezbollah and its ally President Bashar Assad, it is possible that Hariri is attempting to assert his power as a prime minister in order to curb any potential attempt by the former to subsequently bolster their influence in Lebanon.

Lastly, on part of the March 8 Alliance, namely Hezbollah and the FPM’s leader Michel Aoun, we assess that by making such concessions they attempt to improve their domestic image in the eyes of the Lebanese public. In this context, over the past several years, the Shiite militant group, which is the main political ally and backer of Aoun, has been criticized for its support for the Syrian government and its participation in the Syrian conflict. With this in mind, by becoming Lebanon’s “number one citizen”, Michel Aoun and his March 8 alliance may seek to appear less sectarian.

Expected political stability is liable to diminish instances of civil unrest, Sunni militant activity in coming months; Hezbollah-linked activity likely to increase in coming months.

Forecast

With this in mind, on the ground, we assess that the aforementioned political concessions will likely lead to a significant quieting of civil society activity and incidents of unrest, as well as strikes by Lebanon’s labor unions, which witnessed a peak in the last two years. Such unrest was largely attributed to the persistent refusal of Lebanese lawmakers to resolve socioeconomic issues, given the lack of a president. This includes, for example, during the summer of 2015, when numerous wide-scale demonstrations were held to denounce the Lebanese government’s inability to solve the issue of overflowing garbage and inadequate disposal.

With the Lebanese newly elected president and formation of a government, these issues are liable to be finally addressed by the Lebanese parliament, and potentially resolved, likely leading to a resulting decline in related protest movements over the coming weeks and months. Furthermore, given the interest of multiple regional powers to sustain Lebanon’s long-term stability, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, it remains possible such countries will enhance their financial support to Lebanon, thus allowing the latter to effectively solve some of the socioeconomic and labor-related issues over the coming months. That said, should internal battles within future governments prolong the resolution of socioeconomic issues, the likelihood for additional protest campaigns will increase, as activists will denounce the government’s ineffectiveness, despite the short-term anticipated political stability.

With regard to the threat of militancy, in light of the possible increase of financial support by the international community to the Lebanese state, there remains a potential that such aid will be directed to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), thus enhancing its capabilities and resulting in a potential decline in militant activity over the coming months. This is further likely given the anticipated reduction of criticism towards Hezbollah’s militant activity, which traditionally emanated from Hariri’s political camp, thus enabling the Shiite militant group to operate more freely against militants across the country without the partial restraints of negative public opinion. However, due to such elements’ increased interest in destabilizing the Lebanese state, Sunni Islamist militants are liable to persist in their efforts to conduct acts of militancy throughout the country, albeit to a more limited extent.

Finally, the new political conditions bear the potential to increase the threat of an escalation of hostilities between Hezbollah and Israel along the border area over the long term. This can be explained by the previously mentioned anticipated decrease of criticism regarding Hezbollah’s militant activity, given the formation of a unity government between the Shiite group’s main political ally and their chief critic, namely Hariri. With the potential removal of this obstacle, the Shiite militant organization may be able to operate more freely along the border with Israel. With that being said, in light of Hezbollah’s deep involvement in the Syrian conflict alongside the Syrian government, which required heavy deployments by the group on the expense of the border area with Israel, the probability for an escalation of hostilities between Israel and the Iranian-backed group into a broad conflict does remain low at this time.

Recommendations

We advise against all nonessential travel to Lebanon at this time, while restricting essential travel to Beirut’s northwestern districts. Those operating or residing in Beirut are advised to continue avoiding nonessential travel to the interiors of the capital’s southern suburbs, including Dahiyeh neighborhood, given the potential for militant attacks, spontaneous Hezbollah checkpoints, and civil unrest.

Due to ongoing instability, it is advised to avoid all travel to Lebanon’s outlying areas, particularly near the Syrian border, the Bekaa Valley, the area south of the Litani River, and the cities of Tripoli, Hermel, Baalbek, Arsal, Tyre, and Sidon. In such areas there remains an increased risk for sectarian related attacks and abductions targeting foreign nationals as well as local Lebanese residents. Travelers are additionally advised to keep identification and travel documents on their persons at all times, due to the increasing prevalence of Lebanese military or Hezbollah checkpoints in Beirut. When coming in contact with a security checkpoint, comply with the instructions of security personnel, regardless of their affiliation, avoiding behavior which may be viewed as threatening.

International consulting firm uses custom intelligence and security support for travelers

Lebanon Unrest following assassination, 2012

Intelligence and security support enables client to continue business following high-profile assassination and unrest  in Lebanon.

In October 2012, a car bomb detonated in Beirut’s Ashrafiyeh District, killing a high-profile security official with ties to Lebanon’s political opposition and Syrian rebels. The assassination sparked mass protests, including violence in central Beirut, terror threats and closures of airport access routes. Max Security’s intelligence department warned ahead of the destabilizing impact of the assassination and alerted clients with assets on ground of possible threats to employee security. An International Consulting firm requested custom intelligence tactical monitoring and security support, for foreign travelers visiting Lebanon, with the goal of safely carrying out the remainder of meetings if possible.

Solution provided

  • Max’s Intel division dedicated an analyst to monitor the client’s specific itinerary in relation to ongoing civil unrest and provided prompt updates on security-related events taking place in the vicinity. Local media, on ground sources and social media were utilized and cross referenced.
  • Max Security’s Operations department provided low profile security & logistical support.
  • Max Intel monitored airport routes and provided updates on closures and alternative routes in case a quick evacuation will be needed.
  • Additional crisis and evacuation support staff was retained on standby.

Result: Business continued, security ensured, financial loss prevented

The client’s employees were able to continue their business trip according to travel recommendations provided in real time by Max Security’s Intelligence department. The client’s security manager was recommended to refrain from employing close protection, evacuation, or other costly emergency procedures while allowing company employees to complete their business goals safely.

Syria: Opening of expatriate voting on May 28, June 3 presidential elections underline increasing stability in regime-held areas of Syria

On May 28, polls opened at Syrian embassies around the region for expatriate voting for the country’s presidential elections, and will remain open to 19:00 (local time) in each country. Syrians living in Syria are slated to vote on June 3, however elections will only be held in government-held areas of the country. Incumbent President Bashar al-Assad is challenged by two relatively unknown candidates, Maher Abdel Hafij Hajjar and Hassan Abdullah al-Nuri. Twenty-four candidates registered for the elections, however, only Assas, Hajjar, and al-Nuri, were approved by the Supreme Constitutional Court based on criteria outlined in a recently passed electoral law.
  • At the time of writing on May 28, heavy traffic has been reported in Beirut, Lebanon, resulting from the significant influx of Syrians to the city to vote in the polls. Congestion has particularly been reported in the cities southern suburbs. Lebanon presently hosts
    Syria Flag
    Syrian Flag

    over 1 million Syrian refugees.

  • In Jordan, a heavy security presence has been reported in the vicinity of the Syrian Embassy. On May 26, Amman declared Syrian’s Ambassador to Jordan persona non grata, ordering his departure from the country within 24 hours. In response the Jordanian Charge d’Affaires was expelled from Damascus. However, Jordan has indicated that Syria will be permitted to appoint a new ambassador, and that elections would not be disrupted. Syria’s ambassador was expelled after “repeated insults to Jordan and its leadership, institutions and citizens”. Jordan presently hosts over 600,000 Syrian refugees.
  • The UAE, as well as France, Germany, and Belgium have barred the elections from taking place. Over 30,000 Syrians living in the UAE registered to vote. Semi-official media sources in Syria have indicated that at least 200,000 Syrians abroad are slated to vote at 39 different embassies. 

Continue reading Syria: Opening of expatriate voting on May 28, June 3 presidential elections underline increasing stability in regime-held areas of Syria

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

Israel: Recent incidents along Lebanese border reminder of ongoing tensions between the IDF, armed Lebanese factions (July 9, 2012)

Current Situation
Recent events occurring along the Israeli-Lebanese border highlight the elevated tensions between the Israeli military and various armed forces in southern Lebanon.

  • On July 9, Israeli officials condemned a Lebanese construction project near the shared border, charging that the project intends to divert water from the Haztbani River. The Haztbani River supplies 25% of the water for Israel’s Jordan river, a major source of water for the country.
  • On the week of July 8, Lebanese Army troops patrolling their side of the border allegedly threatened Israeli patrols on the other side, reportedly aiming their weapons in their direction. A Lebanese commander was reportedly overheard dividing targets to his troops. The standoff was quelled after UN peacekeepers arrived at the scene.
  • As the 6th anniversary of the 2006 Lebanon War is set to be marked on July 12, Israeli officers have made numerous statements indicating that another outbreak of hostilities will result in widespread damage to southern Lebanon- Hezbollah’s primary operating area.

Assessments: Tensions with the Lebanese Army

 

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Assessments: Tensions with Hezbollah

 

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Recommendations

 

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