Russia, Turkey and the Assad government see the continuing Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria as a matter between Israel and Iran. The obsession with destroying Israel is seen as an Iranian weakness. Although Russia, Turkey and Iraq are technically allies with Iran in Syria the historical record shows Iran is usually the enemy of these three nations and that has been the case for centuries, long before Israel came along in 1948. One thing everyone can agree on is the need to get rid of the remaining Islamic terrorist rebel groups in Syria. Most of these are currently surrounded in the northwest Syrian province of Idlib. There are some ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) groups hiding out in eastern Syria but these are seen as much less of a threat than the tens of thousands of Islamic terrorists in Idlib. Everyone in the area would like to see the Iranians go back to Iran and stay there. The few hundred Iranian troops and over 50,000 Iranian mercenaries in Syria are seen as a constant source of trouble. Iran realizes that their allies in Syria have, and will probably continue, to collaborate with Israel if an opportunity presents itself. Yet Iranian leaders fail to see the absurdity of this situation and despite widespread popular protest against the Syrian operations, Iran continues to operate like its forces in Syria are on the verge of destroying Israel.
Sorting Out Syria
The presidents of Iran, Russia and Turkey met on September 7th in Iran to decide what their common strategy would be in Syria, At that point, Syrian troops had already assembled in the northwest and Syrian troops had carried out some preliminary attacks. Russian aerial reconnaissance confirmed what the Syrian troops saw from the ground; the rebels were preparing to resist and a lot more of the pro-rebel civilians in Idlib were being armed or were building fortifications. Iranian officers agreed with the Syrians that victory via a quick offensive was not going to work, even with maximum Russian air support (including cruise missiles launched from ships and aircraft). Idlib would have to be taken the hard way, with numerous small battles to take individual villages and towns. That would keep Syrian/Iranian casualties down, which was essential since there were not enough Syrian experienced troops for a lot of these battles being fought at the same time.
The results of the September 7th discussions were that the attack would go forward but in coordination with the Turks who faced a very real refugee problem as the only place the rebels and their civilian supporters could flee to was Turkey. Russia said it would deal with American threats to intervene (if Syria used chemical weapons again). The Russians were not going to fight the Americans. Not just because the Americans appeared to be a formidable threat but also because the Israelis might get involved and Russia does not want to destroy its ties with Israel over this. Meanwhile, Russian warplanes have been hitting targets in Idlib with increasing frequency. In effect the offensive has already been underway for more than a month, but as a slow roll rather than a major assault.
Discussions continue on how Russia, Iran and Turkey will operate in Syria once the civil war is officially over. That will happen even before Idlib is back under Syrian government control. Because there are over 50,000 armed rebels in Idlib and fewer than 100,000 Syrian troops and Iranian mercenaries available for Idlib operations. Morale is not high among the attackers, especially the Syrian troops. Syria is negotiating peace deals with Kurds (who control the northeast), Druze (who occupy much of the Israeli-Jordan border) and Sunni groups (tribal leaders and local leaders who have not been hostile). Syria wants to attract a lot of foreign aid for reconstruction but that is complicated by Iranian plans to establish a permanent military presence and continue threatening Israel. Several members of the Assad clan are facing war crimes charges and Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan want to send back several million Sunni Arab refugees (which the Assads do not want). The war will not end quickly or in a tidy fashion.
Russia and the U.S. are still arguing over the chemical weapons issue in Syria. The UN agrees with the Americans that Syria has used chemical weapons against rebels and Syrians admit that they are ready to use chlorine gas against rebels. Russia still insists that the rebels are preparing to use chemical weapons despite available evidence indicating that the Syrian forces are more likely to use chemical weapons. The Americans threaten swift retribution if Syria uses chemical weapons again.
Russia is backing away from Iran in general because Iran is becoming more of a liability than an asset. Working closely with Iran in Syria was mainly about the 2015 treaty that lifted most sanctions on Iran and enabled Russia to do a lot more business in Iran. That did not work out as the corruption inside Iran delayed a lot of the expected new business and the Arab oil states pointed out that anyone who was really close to Iran would be getting a lot less business from the Arab states in general and the Arab oil states (which controlled more oil than Iran) in particular. Then the Americans pulled out of the 2015 treaty earlier this year and are restoring many of the sanctions. European nations are finding that the U.S. revival of sanctions makes it impossible for many European firms to do business in Iran. Then there are the continued Iranian threats to attack Israel, especially from newly established bases in Syria. Israel has made it clear it will not allow those bases to remain and has warned Russia to stand aside when Israeli airstrikes hit the Iranians in Syria. Russia is pushing back, so far verbally not with actions.
While most of the mass media cover the clashes on the Gaza-Israeli border, less attention is paid to what is going on in the rest of the Sinai Peninsula. There Egypt has persuaded most of the Bedouin tribes to work with the security forces to curb ISIL activity. As is usually the case ISIL arrogance and brutal tactics turned the Bedouin from neutrals (and sometime allies) into implacable enemies. Over a hundred Bedouin have been killed by ISIL since 2016 and that has had an impact. This has gone from Bedouin sharing information about ISIL activities to quietly accepting weapons, vehicles and cash to assist in patrolling the Sinai. The Bedouin never pass up free weapons but working part-time for the security forces is OK as long as it increases security for their own tribe. For a long time, the security forces were reluctant to supply the Bedouin with weapons, because of the risk they would eventually be turned against Egyptian forces. That is still a risk but right now ISIL is a much larger danger to everyone.
As bad as the ISIL situation is in Sinai (mainly northern Sinai) what is going on in Gaza is worse. Hamas has managed to drive away most of its financial supporters. Fatah has cut off the $30 million a month it supplied for civil servants. This was the latest cut because of Hamas unwillingness get serious about merging the Hamas and Fatah to restore unified Palestinian government. The United States was equally exasperated (for somewhat different reasons) and cut off the $60 million a month it had long supplied via the UNRWA refugee aid program. Hamas support for (or tolerance of) Islamic terrorist groups in Egypt has led to a complete blockade of Gaza (from the Egyptian and Israeli side.) Food, medicine and similar essentials are allowed in but little else, especially anything that could be weaponized. The Gaza GDP was already shrinking when the border fence attacks began. GDP fell six percent in the first three months of the year and that rate has more than doubled since then. In Gaza, unemployment is over 50 percent and worse for the young men, which is why you see so many of them at the Hamas organized security fence attack efforts every Friday. Hamas is again trying to organize attacks on other days of the week. The fire balloon attacks are also taking place several times a week but if Israeli aerial surveillance spots a preparation or launching site they hit it with an artillery or airstrike.
October 1, 2018: For the second time Iran has fired Zulfiqar ballistic missiles from Western Iran at ISIL targets in Syria. This time three missiles were fired and the press release noted that each had a name; “Death to Israel.” “Death to America” and “Death to the Saud Family.” The point of these names was to remind everyone that from western Iran Zulfiqar missiles can hit American bases in Syria (most of which are near the Iraqi border). These missiles can also hit the Saudi capital, although Iran has been trying, without success, to do that since 2016 by firing over a hundred ballistic missiles (with varying ranges) from Yemen into Saudi Arabia. All have been intercepted by Patriot air defense systems. If Iran could operate Zulfiqar from Iraq (dubious considering the current anti-Iran riots) the missiles could reach Israel and be intercepted by Israeli Patriot systems (plus several other air defense systems). The Iranian press release did not mention the failure or interception rates of Zulfiqar and similar Iranian ballistic missiles.
In June 2017 Iran fired six of its new Zulfiqar ballistic missiles at ISIL targets in Syria (Palmyra and Deir Ezzor). Only two of the missiles hit anything of value but some of them traveled about 620 kilometers. Four apparently landed in western Iraq. Iran denied these Israeli claims about accuracy and Israel dismissed the denials as more Iranian posturing. This public disagreement went on for a week and the Israelis did not back down with their claims that the Iranian missiles performed poorly. For a nation constantly threatened with attack by Iranian ballistic missiles the Israeli observation of the Zulfiqar performance is yet another embarrassment for Iran. The Iranian media described (and published pictures) of the Zulfiqar ballistic missile. This appeared to be another version of the Fateh-110 which is a 3.5 ton, solid fuel ballistic missile with a range of 250 kilometers and a half ton warhead. Iran first revealed Fateh-110 in 2002. These missiles were also manufactured in Syria (as the M-600). The Iranian version appeared to be based on the Chinese DF-11, which entered service in 1979 and continues to be used by China and was exported to Pakistan. The DF-11 (also known as the M11) is a single stage solid fuel missile that weighs 4.2 tons has a range of 300 kilometers, and carries a .8 ton warhead. By 2011 there were reports of a DF-11A which used a smaller warhead and larger solid fuel to achieve a range of over 700 kilometers. Several years later an update of the DF-11A entered service with a more accurate and reliable guidance system. This is a missile quite similar to the Zulfiqar, which Iran announced in 2016. So far no Zulfiqars have been sent to Syria or Lebanon. In 2013 Iran was found to be airlifting more Fateh-110s to Syria, apparently meant for Hezbollah. These longer range missiles, that can reach all of Israel’s major cities, are a primary target for Israeli forces in any future war with Hezbollah and some were destroyed by during at least one of the recent Israeli air strikes in Syria.
The 2017 Iranian ballistic missile attack was in response to a recent attack in the Iranian capital by six ISIL men armed with firearms and explosive vests. The attack went after two targets; the parliament (in central Tehran) and a shrine to religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (who established the current religious dictatorship) south of Tehran. All six attackers were killed but not before seven other people died and 43 wounded. It was soon discovered five of the dead ISIL men were Iranians who police knew or suspected had left the country to join ISIL. The five apparently returned to set up an ISIL branch in Iran and ISIL boasts that this is the first attack of many in Iran.
In the south (Gaza) the UN ordered nine of its eleven foreign UNRWA (UN Palestinian refugee aid agency) employees out of Gaza because of death threats from their Palestinian subordinates. The Palestinian UNRWA workers are losing their jobs because the United States has stopped supplying most of the money for UNRWA operations. The Americans had always been the largest donor to UNRWA but is no longer willing to subsidize decades of self-destructive, and often violently anti-American Palestinian behavior.
September 28, 2018: In the south (Gaza) the weekly (since March) Hamas effort to use thousands of civilians to force their way through the border fence failed once more, leaving seven Gazans dead and over 400 injured. This week Hamas had gathered crowds (totaling about 20,000 people ) at five different locations plus several boats full of demonstrators to attempted to reach Israeli territory by sea. Hamas members in the crowds were armed with firebombs, grenades and bombs to be placed on the fence to create an opening. In southern Gaza two small Israeli UAVs crashed. Gaza is under heavy surveillance to determine where weapons (like grenades, firebombs and other explosives for the Friday attacks are stored) as well as sites for launching the fire balloon attacks. These sites are attacked late Fridays once their purpose has been confirmed. There were airstrikes for this late today. With more numerous fence attacks some of the Gazans get through. Their problem then is that there is nowhere to go. The border area on the Israeli side is largely uninhabited desert. The areas near the coast that are inhabited contain a lot of Israeli civilians who are armed and will call the security forces while also being able to defend themselves in the meantime. Gazans who get through are either rounded up or return to Gaza after realizing that the only other option is to get arrested by the Israelis. The fence attacks today were more violent than any in the past and involved the use of over a hundred explosive devices. Many of these were duds and now Israel engineers have to find and dispose of all the duds.
September 27, 2018: Israel released photos of an Iranian missile assembly and upgrade facility in Lebanon (next to the Beirut airport). This facility will be used to upgrade (with a GPS guidance system) a lot of the long-range Iranian rockets Hezbollah already have. Israel also revealed photos of the Iranian capital where the hardware for the Iranian nuclear weapons program (including 15 kg of nuclear material) had been stored. Israel accused Western, especially European, nations of deliberately ignoring information like this even when it was obtained by their own intel agencies rather than via public Israeli revelations.
In the West Bank, Israeli police raided a house and found several M16 rifles, ammo and other military equipment. A Palestinian man was arrested.
In Iran, government controlled media reported that Russia refused to defend Iranian facilities in Syria being attacked by Israel. Russia has asked for Israel to not attack Iranian targets close to Russian bases. That won’t work either because if Iran tries to use proximity to a Russian base as a sanctuary Israel will attack the Iranians anyway and warn the Russians to keep Iranians away from Russian bases.
September 24, 2018: Russia announced that it would begin upgrading Syrian air defenses with up to four S-300 SAM batteries. First deliveries will arrive by mid-October. In addition, Russia said it would try to jam electronics of aircraft making attacks in Syria. In other words, Russia is threatening to stop Israeli air operations in Syria. Unless Israel could get around this jamming electronically (possible, but difficult) the usual response is to destroy the jamming equipment. In most cases, the jammers will be operated by Russians and that would be a problem for Israel and disastrous for the Russians, who are trying to hide the fact that a lot of their military equipment is not as effective as the Russians claim it is. This is all about the recent loss of a Russian four engine Il-20 maritime patrol aircraft off the coast to Syrian S-200 SAMs. This sort of “friendly fire” is not supposed to happen, at least if your IFF (Identify Friend or Foe) equipment works. Something failed and it was apparently Russian and Russia does not want to dwell on that with existing or potential customers. One of those potential customers, Saudi Arabia, is not happy about the Syrians getting S-300 systems, because the S-300 surveillance radars have sufficient range (over 300 kilometers) to monitor air traffic in much of Saudi Arabia. Israel has repeatedly made it clear that it will not stop attacking Iranian targets in Syria. This sort of threat is usually the Russian way of saying (to Israel); we have to talk about how Israel is going to help get Russia out of this mess.
September 22, 2018: In southwest Iran (Khuzestan province) four gunmen fired on a parade killing 25, including at least eight IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) personnel. There were even more wounded. Local Arab separatists (al Ahwaz National Resistance, a coalition of several groups) took credit as did ISIL. Over the next three days, more than 20 people were arrested and Iran blamed Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States and threatened to take revenge by attacking American forces in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. responded by reminding Iran that it has only itself to blame and most Iranians would agree. Since 2003 the Iranian Arabs in Khuzestan have been increasingly vocal, and often violent, about the harsh rule of the Iranian Shia. Iran is acutely aware of how unruly its own Arab minority (a few percent of the population) can be. There are a growing number of terrorist incidents inside Iran traced to Iranian Arabs. Most Iranian oil is pumped from the ancestral lands of these Arabs, who are bitter about how they receive little from all that oil income. The three million Arabs in Khuzestan province (formerly Arabistan) are Shia and have been ruled by non-Arab Iranians for centuries. Arab unrest here has grown since 2003 when the Sunni dictatorship was overthrown in Iraq and the Shia majority won elections to take power. Iranian Arabs noted that the Iraqi Shia were now getting most of the Iraqi oil income, unlike just across the border in Khuzestan. Since 2003 hundreds of Iranian Arabs have been arrested for separatist activities. Many are still in prison and over 30 have been executed.
September 18, 2018: Israeli airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria since July have killed about 120 Iranians and Iranian mercenaries.
September 17, 2018: An Israeli airstrike in eastern Syria (Latakia) destroyed a large warehouse used to store Iranian weapons as well as a nearby facility for assembling large rockets and ballistic missiles. During the airstrike Syrian SAMs (surface to air missiles) hit a Russian Il-20 maritime patrol aircraft, killing the crew of 15. Russia automatically blamed Israel but soon even Russian news commentators pointed out that the fault lies with Syrian and Russian procedures for preventing this sort of thing. Russia promptly said it would deliver S-300 SAM systems to Syria and Israel pointed out it could destroy them. Syria currently has older S-200 SAMs but uses them in a careless and reckless fashion, apparently frustrated at being unable to hit anything.
Israel also published high-resolution satellite photos of the Syrian presidential palace compound in Damascus. These photos were recently taken by the new Israeli made Ofek 11 spy satellite, which was put into orbit by an Israeli rocket.
In Egypt (Sinai) ISIL took credit (via an online announcement) for recently killing three local civilians who were cooperating with the security forces. In the last few months, there has been a lot less ISIL activity in Sinai.
September 15, 2018: An Israeli airstrike in Syria (Damascus) not only destroyed a warehouse full of Iranian weapons. The airstrike also destroyed a B747 freighter aircraft belonging to Saha Airlines, an operation owned by the IRGC. This aircraft had recently landed at the airport and not yet been unloaded. The IRGC operates several freighter aircraft, most of them B747s using several Iranian airlines. Apparently, Israel is seeking to destroy the aircraft.
September 10, 2018: In Egypt (Sinai) soldiers found ISIL had taken over an abandoned vehicle service station and turned it into a base. The ISIL gunmen resisted and all were killed during the subsequent battle. The location was found to contain supplies ISIL had stockpiled for future attacks.
September 4, 2018: Israel revealed that since 2017 they had carried out more than 200 attacks (usually from the air) against Iranian forces in Syria. Many of these attacks were not made public by anyone, especially those against convoys or troop positions in the countryside. Israel released this data to emphasize that it will fight to prevent Iran from establishing a Syrian version of Hezbollah. The Israelis believe that Iran is using thousands of its foreign mercenaries (mainly Afghans but also Iraqis and other Arabs.
September 3, 2018: In the West Bank a Palestinian man was shot dead as he attempted to attack soldiers (at a checkpoint) with a knife. These attacks began in 2015 but were largely unsuccessful and have been rare this year. Before the last one was in July against Israeli civilians in the West Bank. One Israeli civilian and the attacker were killed.
September 1, 2018: In eastern Syria (Homs province) an Iranian military convoy was hit by an airstrike. This killed four Syrians, one Iranian and three foreign mercenaries. At least eleven people were wounded. The airstrike may have occurred because the convoy was too close to the American special operations base of Tanf, on the Syrian side of the Iraqi border near the Jordan border. The American forces there reported they had been fired on by unknown forces but there was no damage and they did not return fire. So it remains a mystery whose warplanes did the deed. The Americans have some support from Sunni tribes in Syria and Iraq and that is mainly to keep informed on what is going on in the area around Tanf. Iran has assisted (with its mercenaries) Assad forces in trying to eliminate the Tanf base but these efforts have failed. The Americans have too much airpower and too much aerial and ground surveillance around Tanf. The U.S. has declared a “free fire” zone that means any Assad/Iranian forces getting within 30 kilometers of Tanf are automatically attacked. Iranian and Assad forces rarely test this free-fire zone. They know it works. While no one took credit for the airstrike it is now believed to be Israeli, but the Israelis often try to hide their involvement.
August 31, 2018: In Egypt (the Nile Delta) police raided a suspected Islamic terrorist hideout and were met with gunfire from a man in the house. The gunman was killed and identified as one of the Islamic terrorists police were seeking in the area.