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Islamic State claim of church shooting in Dagestan likely to trigger increase in counter-militancy raids amid growing threat ahead of elections, World Cup – Russia Analysis

Current Situation

Islamic State claim of church shooting in Dagestan likely to trigger increase in counter-militancy raids amid growing threat ahead of elections, World Cup - Russia Analysis | MAX Security

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On February 19, the Islamic State (IS)claimed responsibility for a shooting attack that left five worshippers dead and five others wounded, including two security personnel, outside a Christian Orthodox Church in Kizlyar City of Dagestan on February 18.

The incident reportedly began when the assailant, now identified as a local resident named Khalil Khalilov, opened fire using a hunting rifle, targeting a group of worshippers who were leaving a church ceremony dedicated to the start of the lent season for Russian Orthodox Christians. According to a statement from the Ministry of the Interior, the assailant was neutralized by the security forces almost immediately following the incident.

At the end of December 2017, the North Caucasus saw a significant rise in anti-militancy operations from the Russian authorities, with a threefold rise in raids compared to the previous two months combined. This came before the entry into the holiday and election seasons, as the Russian Orthodox calendar celebrates a number of festivals at the beginning of the year and the first round of elections are slated for March 18, 2018. In addition, these operations came as part of a more macro plan by the government to increase the levels of security in Russia in general, ahead of the 2018 World Cup to be held in June/July.

Islamic State claim of church shooting in Dagestan likely to trigger increase in counter-militancy raids amid growing threat ahead of elections, World Cup - Russia Analysis | MAX Security

Assessments & Forecast

Given that the claim was an official publication from IS, that it came less than 24-hours after the incident, and that it explicitly mentions “Qawqaz Wilayah” at the top, referring to the IS’s affiliate in the North Caucasus, we assess that the attack was likely directed by IS leadership. IS has recently been looking to increase its focus in Russia and one of the primary ways it has achieved this goal is through the Qawqaz Wilayah affiliate, built primarily of local Caucasian militants who have long been organized into jihadist cells. Initially stemming from the Chechen wars in the 1990s and 2000s, many militants received training within the group’s ranks in Syria, where North Caucasian Russians made up a significant number of the foreign fighters.

The reason for IS’ interest in Russia is based on both ideology and practicality. From an ideological point of view, Russia played a significant role in reducing the power of the Islamic State in Syria, by supporting the Bashar al-Assad government militarily, making them one of the most prominent targets for retribution in the eyes of the group’s leadership. In addition, with the elections and World Cup coming up in 2018, the country is receiving particular international attention, compounding the attractiveness of carrying out attacks.

From a practical point of view, given that Russia already has a high number of radical jihadist militants and Islamist minded individuals, both in the form of Caucasian cells and Central Asian semi-organized lone wolf groups, it is a prime country to encourage attacks. There are also a large number of fighters from Syria who are believed to have returned to the country and have both the training and motivation to carry out major attacks. In that regard, Russia is somewhat of a vulnerable target, given the extensive militant networks which have existed in the country for decades, as well as the large numbers of poor, disenfranchised Muslims, particularly Central Asian immigrants, who are good targets for online radicalization.

While attacks are fairly common in the North Caucasus (occurring almost every month), they usually target security forces and not civilian targets. Not only was the February 18 attack directed at a civilian target, but it was directed at an Orthodox Church, viewed by many as a symbol of Russian pride and culture, likely making the attack particularly negative for many of the Russian populace. This incident stands out from the regular trends of militancy in the North Caucasus as a notable and particularly heinous attack, which will spur the government to pay particular attention.  IS and their affiliates likely deliberately targeted an Orthodox Church knowing how sensitive the issue is, in an attempt to catalyze ethnic and religious tensions in the country, between Muslim Caucasians and Orthodox Russians. Such tensions allow them to better recruit and carry out attacks, as Muslim youth in the country becomes increasingly disenfranchised by the religious friction.

FORECAST: The incident on February 18 underscores the previously assessed threat of militant activity targeting the civilian population in the coming months, based on their attempts to carry out attacks in the run-up to the elections and World Cup. Such attacks are likely to primarily manifest in two ways. The first will come from small cells and organized groups in the North Caucasus, who primarily operate within that region. The second will come from IS-inspired “homegrown” cells in major cities in Russia, which are predominantly made up of self-radicalized militants of Central Asian origin. While both militant threats have the potential to manifest in attacks in major cities going forward, past precedent has indicated that the threat from Central Asian radicals is more pertinent in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

FORECAST: The Russian government is aware of the acute militant threat in the country, particularly in the North Caucasus, and the current administration, led by President Vladimir Putin, who is running for reelection, is cognizant of its need to maintain a strong hold on the country’s security. Security forces will likely be instructed to carry out a large number of visible counter-militancy raids, particularly in the North Caucasus, to display to the electorate that the Putin administration is handling the militancy problem properly and to build confidence in the Kremlin. This will occur similar to what happened before the winter holiday season, which saw a dramatic increase in anti-militancy operations. The Russian government is also keen to portray a stable security situation to the international community, ahead of the 2018 World Cup, which is being staged throughout the country, (with games being played in Sochi and Rostov-on-Don both near to the North Caucasus region) and has been explicitly mentioned by the Islamic State as a potential target for attacks.

FORECAST: The raids are likely to occur over the coming weeks and involve major operations in the North Caucasus which will likely see Special Operations units attempt to arrest or neutralize armed militant cells, predominantly in the republics of Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia. In addition, it is also likely that arrests will be recorded in both Moscow and St. Petersburg, focusing more on Central Asian self-radicalized homegrown cells.

Islamic State claim of church shooting in Dagestan likely to trigger increase in counter-militancy raids amid growing threat ahead of elections, World Cup - Russia Analysis | MAX Security

Recommendations

Travel to Moscow and St. Petersburg may continue at this time while adhering to standard security protocols given the latent threat of militancy, crime, and civil unrest.

Avoid all nonessential travel to the North Caucasus region, including Dagestan, given the elevated potential for militant incidents targeting civilians.

Maintain vigilance when traveling in Russia around notable events such as the national elections or 2018 World Cup, given the increased potential for militancy.

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.

Islamic State-linked media reports shooting attack in Nizhny Novgorod on May 6; first 2018 Islamist militant attack in World Cup host city – Russia Analysis

Please be advised

On May 6, the Islamic State (IS)-linked media group, al-Amaq, claimed that a shooting attack which took place in Nizhny Novgorod, western Russia, was committed by a ‘soldier’ of the Sunni-jihadist group. According to a statement from Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) on May 4, an assailant opened fire on police officers during an identity check and barricaded himself inside an apartment in the city. The statement indicated that the perpetrator was later neutralized by security forces.

From 14 June to 15 July 2018, Russia will host the FIFA World Cup in a number of cities, including in Nizhny Novgorod. In the run-up to the tournament, Russian security forces have carried out a large number of raids and arrests, looking to neutralize militant cells made up of both Central Asian migrants, mostly based in major cities, and North Caucasian militants, mostly from the Republics of Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia.

Since the beginning of 2018, at least 38 militant counter militancy raids have been recorded in Russia, the majority focusing on reportedly IS-linked militants. At least five of the raids occurred in or near World Cup cities, including Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, and Rostov-on-Don.

On April 17, three suspected IS-linked militants were arrested near Rostov-on-Don by FSB agents. A number of reports suggested the possibility that the militants were embedded in the city to wait until the start of the World Cup and carry out an attack during the tournament.

Islamic State-linked media reports shooting attack in Nizhny Novgorod on May 6; first 2018 Islamist militant attack in World Cup host city - Russia Analysis | MAX Security
Islamic State-linked media reports shooting attack in Nizhny Novgorod on May 6; first 2018 Islamist militant attack in World Cup host city | MAX Security

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Assessments

The claim from IS and the reports from the FSB indicate the first case of a successful attack occurring in a World Cup host city in 2018. The most recent Islamist militant attack in one of the host cities was in St. Petersburg in mid-2017. The incident underscores previous assessments that militants, from both Caucasian and Central Asian origins, are looking to focus their operations on the World Cup, so as to maximize exposure during the tournament. In addition, the developments come following the publication IS’ official newsletter, Al-Naba, on May 4 which called on its supporters to conduct attacks across Russia, underscoring the group’s continued interest in projecting its militant capabilities in the country. This assessment gains further credence considering IS’ repeated threats to the World Cup.

While there is no indication as to the origin of the militant at the time of writing, there are three main possibilities, all of which have been previously recorded in Russia. In the event that the attacker was a lone-wolf Central Asian migrant, who was locally radicalized within Russia through online and on ground Islamist networks, the incident highlights that lone-wolves in major cities are heeding to IS’ demands to carry out attacks on World Cup cities, demonstrating the threat in any city with a significant Central Asian diaspora community. In the event that the militant had links to Caucasian militant cells, it highlights attempts by the Caucasian Emirate pro-IS group to embed radicals within major cities, prior to the tournament, who will then carry out attacks. This is likely designed to occur before security in the North Caucasus becomes overwhelming around the time of the World Cup. The third option is that the militant may have had connections with both Central Asian militant networks and Caucasian cells, which would constitute a significant threat as such an assailant would be able to utilize the covert nature of the loosely linked Central Asian networks and the expertise of the well established Caucasian groups.

Going forward, a significant increase in counter-militancy operations in major cities and the North Caucasus will occur in the run-up to the World Cup. Furthermore, the potential for both minor and major attacks in all host cities remains before and during the tournament, likely looking to specifically target stadiums and locales with international attention, so as to maximize exposure.

Recommendations

Travel to Russia may continue while maintaining vigilant given the elevated risk of militancy and crime, particularly in major cities and World Cup host cities. (Click for our special report on threats to the 2018 World Cup).

Remain cognizant of any suspicious individuals or items that look out of place. Immediately alert authorities if identified.

Avoid all nonessential travel to the North Caucasus region, given the high risk of militancy and kidnapping.

US, UK, France missile strikes against Syrian government likely attempt to deter Damascus from further use of chemical weapons – Syria Analysis

Executive Summary

During the early morning hours of April 14, the US, UK, and France fired more than 100 cruise missiles against Syrian government facilities in Homs Province and near Damascus.

The strikes are likely an effort by the West to deter the Syrian government from further use of chemical weapons, as well as to send a message to Iran and Russia, amidst their perceived expansion across the Middle East.

The attacks are unlikely to significantly impact the Syrian conflict on-the-ground in the long-term, given pro-government forces’ overall superiority over rebel forces.

While tensions will increase between the parties, an escalation of hostilities between Russia and the West remains unlikely at this time.

Iranian-backed groups may target US interests and allies across the region over the coming days.

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.

Current Situation

During the early morning hours of April 14, the US, France, and the UK conducted multiple strikes against Syrian military facilities across Syria, with approximately 120 cruise missiles fired at these targets.

The strikes, which were carried out from naval vessels in response to the suspected chemical attack by the Syrian government against the town of Douma on April 7, targeted government military facilities in Homs Province and the Damascus area. Near Damascus, US Tomahawk missiles hit Kiswah Military Base, Mezzeh Airbase, Dumayr Airbase, as well as a scientific research facility in Barzeh District. In Homs Province, the attacks, which involved the UK’s Shadow Storm cruise missiles, targeted a scientific research facility in Qusayr District. At the time of writing, while French forces also carried out missile attacks, their exact targets and scale are yet to be known.

According to pro-government forces, the Syrian Arab Army’s (SAA) air defense systems intercepted the “majority of the US fired missiles at the Damascus’ area”.

While at the time of writing the exact number of casualties is unconfirmed, according to pro-government media outlets, three civilians were wounded as a result of the attack.

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis stated,“Right now, this is a one-time shot”. UK Prime Minister Theresa May stressed that there was “no practicable alternative to the use of force”. However, May also stated that the strikes were not about “regime change”.

The Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson condemned the missile attacks. The spokesperson further stressed that there were no Russian casualties as a result of the strikes.

Assessments & Forecast

Assessments: Strikes likely symbolic and meant to deter Syrian government from further use of chemical weapons, send message to Moscow, Tehran 

The strike highlights our previous assessments that the Western response to the chemical weapons attack will be localized and target facilities linked to the use of chemical weapon, although they were larger than last year’s US response to the Khan Shaykhun incident. The use of cruise missiles, which allow attacking targets from a standoff distance, was likely meant to avoid any potential risks associated with operating in or near Syrian government airspace.Because the strikes hit research centers and storage facilities, the West’s response will likely impede the short-term capabilities of the Syrian government to use chemical weapons. However, in the medium-term, particularly in light of recent reports that the Syrian government transferred some of their weapons and forces away from multiple bases, these capabilities were likely not be significantly damaged and it is therefore possible that further attacks using chemical agents may be witnessed across Syria over the coming weeks and months.

In spite of the still relatively limited scope of the strike, the West’s operations in Syria are likely symbolic and meant to deter the Syrian government from using such weapons, especially because of the large number of targeted bases and installations. The strikes also aim to prevent the “normalization” of the usage of chemical agents across the globe, as these type of weapons had been used persistently throughout the Syrian conflict. Despite the low likelihood that many missiles were actually intercepted, if at all, these claims by the Syrian government, as well as the lack of significant casualties among pro-government forces, will likely be capitalized on to bolster its image among its troops and supporters across the country. Coupled with the aforementioned assessments regarding the potential for further chemical attacks by the SAA, the strikes’ deterrence impact will also be limited.

Globally, the development comes amidst an uptick in tensions between the West and Russia over Moscow’s perceived aggressive policies across the globe. These include Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, alleged interference in elections in Western countries, as well as most recently, the suspected attempted assassination of a Russian national in the UK. The West likely used these attacks to deter Moscow from engaging in further actions perceived as hostile towards the West and its allies. In the Middle East, the strikes occurred amidst growing concerns among Western allies, chiefly Israel and Saudi Arabia, regarding Iran’s growing regional influence, including in Syria. The Western strike against Tehran’s important ally, is likely an attempt to intimidate Iran and send a message that its actions are not unnoticed.

Assessments: Strikes unlikely to impact on-ground situation in medium-to long-term; retaliation by Iranian-backed elements against US interests, allies possible across region 

FORECAST: In the short-term, the US-led operations may slightly impact the situation on-the-ground in the vicinity of the targeted facilities. In addition to hindering their operational capabilities, the strikes also led pro-government forces to reportedly transfer some of their weapons and vehicles away from bases. This now forces them to redeploy and reorganize. During this period of time, rebel forces may exploit the possible disarray from the strike and launch assaults on government-held territories and capture some areas from the Syrian government. This is especially likely on fronts near targeted facilities, such as the rebel enclave in the Dumayr area, northern Daraa Province, and northern Homs Province. Nonetheless, in the medium- to long-term, given the strikes’ limited scale and overall superiority of pro-government forces vis-a-vis rebel forces, the developments are unlikely to significantly impact the situation on-ground, with the SAA and its allies likely reversing any possible short-term gains by rebel forces.

The attack by the US, France, and the UK does not represent a shift in the West’s policy regarding the Syrian conflict. This is highlighted by the statements of these countries’ officials that the strikes are a singular, isolated response. However, should the use of chemical weapons persist, additional missile strikes, as well as air raids to a lesser degree, may reoccur over the coming months, targeting the Syrian government’s military facilities.

The operations are liable to increase the already heightened tensions between Moscow and the West. However, particularly given the lack of reports about Russian casualties as a result of the missile attacks, an escalation of hostilities between Russia and the US, UK, and France remains highly unlikely at this time. Instead, Moscow’s response will focus on diplomatic measures against these three countries, such as sanctions. This assessment is highlighted by the April 13 bill by Russia’s Duma to implement sanctions on US alcohol, tobacco, and agro-products. Additionally, cyber attacks by Russian hackers against government institutions in the UK, US, and France may also be witnessed over the coming days.

The events are unlikely to have a significant impact on regional dynamics as a whole. However, it remains possible that a localized retaliation by pro-government forces and Iranian-backed militias will take place against US troops and their backed forces in Syria, such as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeastern Syria and factions within the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in southern Homs Province. Should this occur, it will likely include mortar fire and IED detonations. Attacks against US interests may also occur in Iraq, where such actions have occurred in the past. Iranian-backed elements throughout the region may also seek to target countries that are considered Western allies. This mainly includes Saudi Arabia, as the Shiite Houthis may be directed by Tehran to intensify their ballistic missile attacks deep in Saudi territory. Additionally, albeit to a much lesser degree, it cannot be ruled out that Iranian-backed groups, such as Hezbollah and some Palestinian factions, will target Israel, including in the form of IED and anti-tank guided missile attacks against Israel Defense Forces (IDF) troops along the border with Syria.

Recommendations

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 further deterioration in the security situation. Avoid all travel to outlying areas of the city given the persistent threat of militancy.

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.

Those seeking to enter Syria are advised to confirm the status of their crossing points and final destinations, remaining aware of recent kidnapping incidents and the nature of military forces deployed in those areas.

US missile strikes against Syrian airbase in Homs Province likely symbolic; military conflict between US, Syria remains unlikely – Syria Analysis

Current Situation

US military operation

The US Department of Defense (DoD) has stated that two US naval destroyers stationed in the eastern Mediterranean Sea launched a total of 59 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAMs) at Syria’s Sharyat Airbase, located approximately 25 km southeast of Homs City, at 04:40 (local time) on April 7.
According to the DoD, “the TLAMs targeted aircraft, hardened aircraft shelters, petroleum, logistical storage, ammunition supply bunkers, air defense systems, and radars”.
Additionally, the DoD further stated that the operation was conducted in response to a chemical weapons attack on April 4 in Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib Governorate, which the US intelligence services assessed was conducted by Syrian Arab Air Force (SAAF) aircraft from the Sharyat Airbase. The DoD claimed that the base had been used to store chemical weapons, though the chemical weapons storage units were not among the specific targets stated by the department. Additionally, Russian forces were stationed at the base.
Moreover, the DoD stated that Russia was notified of the operation before it had commenced, which was meant to “minimize risk to Russian and Syrian personnel stationed at the airfield.”

Results and international reaction

According to reports, at least six Syrian military personnel were killed in the airstrikes. While multiple reports state that Syrian leadership had removed some of its aerial fleet in advance of the TLAMs’ launching, additional reports indicate that at least 15 Syrian aircraft were destroyed during the operation. In response, a spokesperson for the Syrian army reportedly described the missile strike as an act of “flagrant aggression.”
According to reports citing Russian officials, the Kremlin considered the US operation as “ an act of aggression against a sovereign state,” thus “violating the norms of international law.” Furthermore, Russian defense officials reportedly stated that military cooperation with its US counterparts, specifically that relating to the movement of their aircraft in Syrian airspace, has been suspended as a response to the US missile strikes. Moreover, a spokesperson for Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that the US operation represented a “significant blow” to US-Russian relations.
Additionally, a spokesperson for the Iranian Foreign Ministry reportedly condemned the operation, claiming that the missile strikes would lead to “the strengthening of failing terrorists” throughout the region.
That said, multiple Western nations, including the UK, France, and Germany, reportedly voiced support for the US operations, perceiving it as a “proportional response” to the Syrian government’s alleged chemical attack. In addition, the Israeli government reportedly “fully supports” the US operation, while Turkey reportedly viewed the missile strikes as a “positive response” to the Syrian government’s actions, and called for “safe zones in Syria without further delay.”

US missile strikes against Syrian airbase in Homs Province likely symbolic; military conflict between US, Syria remains unlikely - Syria Analysis | MAX Security

US missile strikes against Syrian airbase in Homs Province likely symbolic; military conflict between US, Syria remains unlikely - Syria Analysis | MAX Security

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Assessments & Forecast

US operation likely symbolic, as opposed to being conducted for tactical advantages, and aimed to limit diplomatic fallout with Russia in order to prevent political and military backlash

This event is highly notable given that this is the first occasion on which the US military has conducted an attack against government-controlled targets in Syria, thus marking a significant change in US policy towards Syrian leadership. Furthermore, the high number of TLAMs launched is particularly significant, as this indicates that the US sought to inflict heavy damage to the airbase, as the use of this number of missiles, which feature a heavy payload, would render the airbase as unusable.
In this context, while this US operation was intended to cause physical damage to the airbase, it was also likely one of symbolic nature, as opposed to an effort at gaining a tactical advantage or military gains, namely given that the DoD stated that the planes that conducted the April 4 chemical attack in Idlib Governorate originated at Sharyat Airbase. This likelihood is further bolstered by the fact that the missile strike, while reducing Syria’s capabilities by air in the immediate area, does not significantly hinder the Syrian Army’s operations in the country overall. Although, the US maneuver likely limits the potential for the Syrian government to launch chemical attacks from Sharyat in the short term. Furthermore, it is important to note that the US military avoided hitting the chemical weapons stores likely in order to prevent the potential consequences of chemicals then being released into the air, thus causing unintended casualties in the vicinity.
Moreover, the US’s notification of Russian authorities prior to the strike likely demonstrates that the US sought to limit the diplomatic fallout between itself and Russia by avoiding sustaining casualties to Russian and allied Syrian military personnel. While bilateral tensions between the US and Russia have likely been strained, as would have been anticipated by US authorities, the situation would have been further exacerbated if Russian military personnel had been killed in the operation, or if a higher casualty count among Syrians had resulted. Thus, the likely aim of the US government was to avoid such implications, and instead, keep the missile strike in the framework of an act of retaliation against the chemical attack.

Motivations for US missile strikes likely political, including efforts by President Trump to distinguish himself from policies of Obama administration, and to demonstrate distance with Russian leadership

Through directing such an operation, the administration of US President Donald Trump is likely attempting to advance specific political objectives, as opposed to solely projecting an image of military might. Firstly, the president likely seeks to indicate that the US government maintains a low level of tolerance for Syrian actions that it perceives as war crimes and human rights violations, as those witnessed in the April 4 incident. In this context, such actions contrast greatly to the policies of former US President Barack Obama, who in August 2012 had established a “red line” regarding the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, but hesitated on acting once such attacks were ultimately conducted. Thus, given that Trump had widely criticized Obama for this inaction, the US President likely seeks to present himself as active in similar situations, responding against such perceived violations as took place on April 4.
Furthermore, in light of vast media attention being given to alleged ties between the Trump administration and Russian leadership, the move may have also been an effort by the former to demonstrate distance between itself and the latter, as the missile strike clearly opposed Russian interests in Syria. While the move was likely not intended at damaging bilateral relations between the two countries, as mentioned above, the maneuver does indicate the US government’s willingness to engage in policies that contradict the objectives of Russian authorities, thus shedding new light on the perception of Russian influence on US affairs.
With this in mind, the April 7 developments likely establish a new precedent, namely that the US will respond militarily to possible further war crimes and human rights violations by Syrian leadership affecting the civilian population. Furthermore, this US operation was likely launched at least in part to reassure the US’s Middle Eastern allies, who largely oppose the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, that the US is willing to take military action in Syria against Assad. Overall, the missile strikes indicate the Trump administration’s increasing willingness to invoke more forcible measures in Syria and throughout the region to fulfill its own national security interests.

While military conflict between US, Russia, and Syria remains unlikely, on-the-ground fighting in country likely to be impacted as rebels and jihadist militants take advantage of disarray

Given that both the US and Russian governments likely seek to avoid a large-scale military confrontation with one another, as well as the Syrian government’s preoccupations in the ongoing civil war, we assess that the US missile strikes are unlikely to trigger armed conflict between the US on one side, and the Russian and Syrians on the other. While the Assad government likely desires to retaliate against the US missile strikes, such a move could be highly detrimental to the Syrian government, as the US military response to such retaliation would likely cause significant damage to Syrian infrastructure and personnel. Furthermore, as the US government has demonstrated an increased willingness to work with Russian leaders, particularly following the loosening of US sanctions on Russia on February 2, Russian authorities are likely attempting to avoid the potential backlash of a military conflict with the US, thus limiting the potential of military retaliation.
That said, the missile strikes are likely to impact on-the-ground fighting in Syria between the government on one side and rebels and jihadist militants on the other, potentially benefiting the latter in the short term. Given that the US operation caused significant damage to Syrian infrastructure in Homs Province, the rebels are likely to benefit from the move, as the Syrian aircraft in this area was likely used to target rebels in the general region. Thus, rebel forces may attempt to take advantage of the situation tactically, by consolidating positions north of Homs City, and potentially launching offensives against the Syrian Army in the coming days. Furthermore, the US operation has the potential to alter the Syrian government’s willingness to engage in large air raids against rebel-populated areas given the potential for backlash, thus potentially benefiting rebel forces throughout the country.
In addition, jihadist militants, namely Islamic State (IS), are likely to attempt to take advantage of the disarray caused by the US operation and attempt to make further gains in the region. Such instances have already been witnessed on April 8, when pro-Syrian government media reported that IS launched an offensive in the eastern Homs countryside, hours after the US missile strikes. In addition, given the disruptions in coordination between US and Russian forces regarding the targeting of IS positions throughout Syria, IS may capitalize on such interruptions in order to strengthen its footholds in the country. Overall, the potential for gains by rebel forces and IS against the Syrian government remains heightened in the coming days, namely as the Syrian government attempts to recover from the US missile strikes. That said, while an uptick in hostilities may be recorded in specific areas, particuarly Homs Province, we assess that the US operation is not likely to increase the threat level to foreign businesses operating in the region and in neighboring countries at this time.

Recommendations

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. Additionally, those remaining in Damascus are advised to avoid all travel to outlying areas of the city given the persistent threat of militancy.

Those continuing to operate or reside in Aleppo are advised to minimize movement in the city and its surroundings, given the frequency and broad nature of fighting in the city.

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

Those seeking to enter Syria are advised to confirm the status of their crossing points and final destinations, remaining aware of recent kidnapping incidents and the nature of military forces deployed in those areas.

 

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

 

Assad’s Military Gains and the Western-Sunni Setback in Syria

 

The Alawite regime in Syria has by and large won a series of impressive tactical victories. Fighting is not yet over, however mere mop-up operations and rebel raids remain. The war has been costly, as bloodshed has already claimed more than 10,000 lives in Syria. To that point, the existing sectarian tensions and the asymmetrical nature of the conflict, mean that Syria is likely to endure a prolonged low-level insurgency for some time. With Assad no longer clinging to power, his military successes’ highlight the regime’s overall mastery of sectarian divisions, and the premier factor for his sect’s ability to rule Syria for over four decades. Needless to say, without mastering those divisions – mainly the ethnic and religious minorities against the Sunni Arab majority – Syrian military gains and continued Alawite rule would have been impossible.

Furthermore, Assad agreed to a recent UN-brokered ceasefire after he and his advisers likely calculated that they could officially declare an end to the fighting with the upper hand, which could theoretically offer him greater leverage in post-conflict negotiations. However, those negotiations are unlikely to happen any time soon, as militants within Syria and their supporters abroad are unlikely to recognize any peace deals with Damascus in the near future. Simply, their intransigence towards negotiating will serve to show that the Assad regime is an illegitimate ruler of Syria.

Even so, immediately after the fragile agreement was being announced, Assad’s forces stormed the population centers of al-Mazareb, Khirbet Ghazale, Homs, Latame, and Saraqeb, showing once again that it is on the offensive and reaffirmed that it has the upper hand. Although the ceasefire is by and large holding, it remains unlikely that it will last in the near term, given that there still exists fighting on both sides throughout Syria and the opposition’s reluctance to re-accept Alawite rule. 

On the diplomatic front, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently warned Sunni Arab and Western states against continuing to arm Syrian rebels by saying, even if they were “armed to the teeth”, they will still lose. Russia’s warning shows that Moscow is indeed confident that Assad’s regime will stay put. But most importantly for the Kremlin, Russia has been successful, along with other powers, in deterring its Western rivals from taking more aggressive action in Syria.

At present, Assad and his army have by and large defeated the potency of Sunni militants in Syria. The current low-level insurgency does not pose an existential threat to the regime in Damascus for the near future and desperate calls for intervention are unlikely to bear fruit any time soon. In addition, after regaining greater stability within Syria, Assad’s regime will likely seek retaliation against those entities that increased their meddling in the country. Chiefly, Assad could use his sectarian allies, such as the Kurdish PKK – a new ally, the Alevis in Turkey, Hezbollah, and minority Shiites across the Middle East to punish those actors who acted against him, mainly Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.

Assad’s victories have shown that the era of dictatorial rule is indeed not over and the forces which promoted the ousting of Qaddafi in Libya and Mubarak in Egypt, are losing the current battle in Syria. Moreover, those who predicted Assad’s demise soon after protests broke out over a year ago- spoke to soon. For his continued rule highlights that despite claims that the new era of the “Arab Spring” would bring sweeping democracy throughout the Middle East, sectarianism prevails.

For up to date analysis on the Syrian conflict, click here.

The Kremlin’s Syrian Gambit

By Yagil B. and Danny B.

Russia’s continued support for Syria is no more than a coldly calculated move meant to bolster its position as global super power.

Russia sent a strong message to the West earlier this month when its aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kutznetsov, docked in the Syrian port of Tartus amidst much bravado. Since that time, the Kremlin has unabatedly remained steadfast in its diplomatic support for the embattled regime by threatening to block any punishing UN Security Council resolutions, drawing the ire of the Sunni Arab world. on January 27, Moscow said a UN draft that condemned Bashar al-Assad and called for his ouster, failed to address Russia’s interests. Like Iran, Russia continues to demonstrate its loyalty to the embattled Alawite-led Assad regime, even as it becomes ever more isolated within the Arab League and the international community.
Continue reading The Kremlin’s Syrian Gambit