January 4, 2019:
Attacks from Hamas (and other Islamic terror groups in Gaza) were 28 times higher than in 2017. Despite that there were fewer Israeli deaths from Palestinian attacks. There were 16 deaths in 2018 (nine civilians, the rest security forces.) There were 20 deaths in 2017, 17 in 2016 and 28 in 2015. The decline is largely due to the decline in attacks (using knives and vehicles) in the West Bank. Even though most of these attacks fail to kill many Israelis they are dangerous (especially to the attackers). There were 87 attacks in the West Bank in 2018, 97 in 2017, 169 in 2016 and 219 in 2015.
The violence from Gaza was closer to war than terrorism. About a thousand rockets and mortar shells were fired from Gaza at Israel in 2018. Most landed in the unoccupied territory but about 30 percent were seen (by Iron Dome radars) headed for an occupied area and 84 percent were intercepted by Iron Dome missiles. The ones Iron Dome missed caused few casualties but caused a lot of stress to people in the area (who also get an air raid warning in time to take shelter). In retaliation, Israel carried out 865 air and artillery strikes at Gaza targets. Israel detected and destroyed tunnels being dug into Israel for terror attacks. One of these attacks was off the coast but was detected and destroyed anyway. This lack of success in Gaza was yet another disappointment for Iran, which is not the major backer (financially and otherwise) of Hamas. Iran spends a lot of money on Hamas and so far has nothing to show for it. Well, there is one thing. The Iranian support will stop if Hamas agrees to an Egyptian brokered ceasefire and does not violate it. Egypt is getting tired of being the sucker in these endless and ultimately futile negotiations. But Egypt continues because no one else in the Arab world is willing to do much for the people of Gaza because Hamas is so much trouble to deal with.
In the north (Lebanon border), Israel found and destroyed five Hezbollah tunnels during 2018 and expects that to discourage and reduce, but not stop, Hezbollah tunneling efforts. Hezbollah has a lot more cash and other resources for tunnel building and will probably at least experiment with new techniques. Israel assumes that one or more of these tunnels may remain undetected and operational for a while.
Israel discussed with the Americans the implications of the U.S. decision to pull their troops out of Syria. The Israelis concluded that the Americans supported whatever the Israelis did in Syria to defend themselves because the Americans agreed that the Iranians were desperate to cause some damage in Israel and would do anything they thought they could get away with. The Americans pointed out that the revived sanctions were working and the Americans were concentrating on that largely because there was a lot of popular support in the United States for that effort while there was a lot of opposition to keeping troops in Syria. Moreover, most Americans support providing Israel with more military support if Israel actually comes under attack and calls for assistance (last time that happened was in 1973). Most Israelis believe that they now have more support from the United States than they have had in a decade, but that support is not unlimited or free of political realities back in the United States. As far as Israel is concerned letting the Americans concentrate on the economic blockade while Israel bombs the hostile Iranians next door works, so why mess with it.
It is becoming quite obvious that the American sanctions are causing quite a lot of trouble for the religious dictatorship back in Iran. Many members of the senior clerical families (including younger clerics or religious scholars) are openly (even in state-controlled media) pointing out that the popular unrest Iran has been experiencing since late 2017 has been spreading and growing more intense. Part of the reason is the impact of the American sanctions but there is also the anger of most Iranians at their inept, corrupt and unelected rulers. The elder clerics may be dedicated to not recognizing what is really going on with most Iranians but their younger brethren have to confront and deal with that all the time and many of these younger clerics agree with the angry Iranians and see another successful revolution coming.
Sorting Out Syria
Israeli military leaders believe they are winning their battle to keep Iran from establishing a permanent presence in Syria, even with American troops leaving northeast Syria. This Israeli goal has been achieved via a combination of force (air and artillery strikes on Iranian bases and personnel in Syria) and diplomacy (convincing Russia to persuade Iran to keep their forces away from the Israel border or suffer Israeli attacks the Russians will not interfere with). Other diplomatic activities involved the Americans and Arab nations. There is general agreement by Israel and their Arab allies that the forces Iran has assembled in Syria and Lebanon are a far greater threat than Hamas in Gaza. But this war is not yet won and whether it is depends more on what happens in Iran. The Americans are preparing to pull their 2,000 troops out of Syria but not their support for the large force of Syrian Kurds who did most of the fighting to destroy the ISIL presence in eastern Syria.
With the Americans leaving the SDF (Syrian Kurd rebels) is shifting its forces to face the Turks who are, and always have been, their most formidable threat. Ominously the Turks have also reinforced their forces facing the SDF. But figuring out who might attack, or support, the SDF now is not easy. The Turks do not want to fight the SDF for the very simple reason that there is not much popular support in Turkey for any operation that would get a lot of Turkish troops killed in Syria. For that reason, since the Turks crossed the border into Syrian in 2016 they have used local FSA (secular Free Syrian Army rebels) forces to do most of the fighting. What the Turks do want is to get the Kurds, especially YPG (Syrian Kurdish separatist) forces, away from the Turkish border. Going much further than 20 kilometers south of the border (at least on a permanent basis) is not part of the Turkish strategy. Turkey expects to use over 10,000 FSA fighters against the Kurds, along with Turkish tanks, artillery and air power.
Likewise, the Syrians use Iranian mercenaries (many of the Afghan Shias) for the heavy combat. The Syrian Army was never noted for its combat capabilities and after seven years of civil war, there are few Syrian combat units with much ability or willingness to carry out a successful offensive.
The Russians don’t have sufficient ground troops to carry out a large-scale offensive and the most effective Russian ground troops are Russian mercenaries because Russian popular opinion is very hostile to Russian troops getting killed in foreign wars. Iraqi officials openly discussed sending Iraqi troops into Syria but the Iraqis have an even worse reputation for combat effectiveness than the Syrians. There was talk of the Saudis and UAE replacing the Americans in Syria. Possible in theory but not likely in practice. The Saudis are more concerned with the Iranian threat to Saudi Arabia itself.
That leaves Israel, which is focused on Iranian forces in Syria and Lebanon and continuing Iranian public backing for the destruction of Israel. Armed with the most formidable air force and special operations troops in the region Israel is currently allied with the Gulf Arab states being threatened by Iran.
The Americans are long-time allies of Israel and Saudi Arabia (and most other Gulf Arabs) but the American government has no popular support back home for getting into another Middle Eastern war. The American troops were in Syria to help the Kurds defeat ISIL and other Islamic terrorist threats. That is one thing most everyone in Syria (Turks, Russians, Iranians and most Syrians) can agree on. With the Americans gone, there are few factions in Syria who do not want to see all the Islamic terrorists eliminated. There are some ISIL remnants still active in eastern Syria which everyone has been allowing the American backed SDF deal with. In northwest Syria, the remaining non-ISIL Islamic terrorists are trapped in Idlib province and the Turks, Syrians, Iranians and Russians are still debating how to eliminate that lethal (if attacked or left alone) collection of over 20,000 Islamic terrorists (including some ISIL members).
With all this, the Syrians are willing to discuss some sort of autonomy deal for the SDF led Kurds in the northeast. All Syrians agree the Turks should be kept if at all possible using whatever resources available (including the SDF). All factions in Syria agree that Iran is a serious problem what with the Iranian goal of trying to destroy Israel the most militarily effective nation in the region and the only one with nukes. No one wants to be collateral damage if Iran makes a major attack on Israel.
Another factor in all this is that the Syrian economy is a mess and Iran is currently the only one helping out. Syrian GDP is about half what it was in 2011 and limping along largely with the help of economic aid from Iran. The enormous expense (billions of dollars a year) has caused growing unrest in Iran and that aid may have to be cut. Gulf Arab states have expressed an interest in providing huge amounts of aid and loans for reconstruction, but only if Iranian troops and mercenaries are removed from Syria. In fact, no one is willing to put a lot of money into rebuilding Syria has long as Iran has a large military force there whose main goal is to start a war with Israel. This presents the ruling Assad clan with a dilemma. Do they try and betray their long time (since the 1980s) benefactor Iran for the good of Syria or stand by while Syria remains rubble, poverty and hunger while Iran tries to take on Israel. Even Iranian allies Russia and Turkey are unwilling to invest in a potential war zone and would prefer that Iranian military forces leave Syria. Worse, for the Iranian religious dictatorship, most Iranians back withdrawal from Syria and have been openly demonstrating for that since late 2017.
January 3, 2019: In Egypt there is some hope that the latest Islamic terror attack against tourists (that killed three from Vietnam) will not have a serious impact on tourism, which is up 42 percent from 2017 and has long been a major part of the economy and source of good jobs for many Egyptians. The prompt Egyptian response to the latest attack seems to have reassured most current (in Egypt) tourists and those planning to visit. But any attack can be the one that triggers an aversion response and keeps a lot of tourist away for years even if the government promptly restores security. While many Egyptians agree with the Islamic terrorist goal of reducing corruption they see that as only one plus among many negative aspects (attacks on tourism and Egyptian civilians, goals that include discouraging foreign tourists and imposing unpopular lifestyle rules). Another example of how complex Egyptian politics is the Egyptian president recently confirmed that Israel and Egypt had been cooperating in fighting ISIL in northern Sinai and along the Israeli border. This was actually no secret and it was generally acknowledged on both sides of the border that some of the air strikes on ISIL targets (usually at night and not reported in the media) where Israeli UAVs firing guided missiles at ISIL. The targets were often located with the help of Egyptian security forces. The confirmation was made during an interview with American journalists and the Egyptians later had second thoughts and tried to halt or edit the release of the interview but were unsuccessful. Those “second thought” efforts may be sufficient to limit the political damage from Egyptian and Arab critics of open cooperation with Israel. These critics have less influence these days but can still muster troublesome public protests.
January 2, 2019: Russia reported that is believed Israel had successfully used six F-16s armed with air to ground missiles and firing them from Lebanon to destroy their targets during a December 25 attack. Russia and Syria had claimed that the Syrian air defenses (including several operational S-300 batteries) had shot down some of the Israeli missiles but there was no evidence of that (Israeli missile fragments from someplace other than the target area) and in any event, the targets were destroyed.
December 29, 2018: In Egypt, security forces carried out three raids in Sinai and near the pyramids (Giza) killing about 40 Islamic terrorists. Most (30) of the deaths occurred near Giza and some may have not been Islamic terrorists because this was in response to a bombing of a tourist bus yesterday.
Israel carried out an airstrike in Gaza in response to a rocket fired into Israel earlier in the day.
December 28, 2018: In the south (Gaza), about 4,000 Palestinians, led by Hamas organizers, tried to force their way through the border security fence. Six Palestinians wounded and one killed when Israeli troops used rifle fire to disperse the crowd, which contained Hamas members throwing rocks and explosives at the Israelis. This is the 40th week Hamas has organized these attacks and this was the most violent one this month. Since these Hamas organized border operations began in March 255 Palestinians (and one Israeli) have been killed and over 20,000 Palestinians wounded. Hamas called off the border demonstrations as part of the November ceasefire and calls these remaining demonstrations nonviolent, which they are not. But the post November ceasefire demonstrations were much less violent and aggressive so Israel tolerates them, for the moment. But the last two demonstrations were more violent. On the December 21st four Palestinians were killed during Israeli efforts to prevent any of the Palestinians from getting into Israel. Later in the day an Israeli airstrike against a Hamas facility in Gaza was retaliation for a mortar attack from Gaza the earlier in the evening. There was also a resumption in the use of fire balloons. Some were found in Israel but none of them had gone off, or at least not in any area where they could start a fire that spread. This was the first use of fire balloons since early December. There had been no mortar or rocket fire since the November 13 ceasefire.
In Egypt, near Giza and the pyramids, Islamic terrorists used a bomb on a tourist bus to kill three foreign (from Vietnam) tourists and an Egyptian guide. There were twelve wounded. This was the first such attack on tourists since 2017. As expected this attack caused foreign tourists to cancel visits to Egypt, or at least to the pyramids.
December 27, 2018: Commercial satellite photos show that the Iranian Fajr-5 rocket storage site outside Damascus was completely destroyed by the Israeli airstrike on the 25th. That complete destruction was made possible by their being a lot of rockets at the site, which also exploded thus increasing the destruction. These are called “secondary explosions” and indicate that the target contained a lot of explosive materials.
In the north on the Lebanon border, Israel completed the destruction of five Hezbollah tunnels intended to get Islamic terrorists into Israel for surprise attacks. Explosives and concrete were used to seal the tunnels. Israel believes there are other tunnels and is using its new tunnel detection sensors to sniff them out.
December 25, 2018: In Syria Israel carried out air strikes against three targets outside Damascus that were apparently Iranian or Hezbollah bases or warehouses. One of the targets was a meeting of senior Hezbollah leaders that left several of those Hezbollah commanders dead, or maybe not. The Hezbollah leaders may have flown off to Iran shortly before the attack. Half an hour before the airstrikes an Iranian B-747 freighter aircraft left Damascus after making a delivery from Iran that was believed to be weapons because the 747 belonged to the IRGC. The same 747 had left Iran earlier in the day and apparently arrived in Damascus and unloaded before it returned to Iran. Shortly after the airstrikes in Damascus, an Israeli anti-missile missile intercepted a missile from Syria. There was no damage (from falling debris) to any residential areas. The Syrian missile was apparently an S-200 antiaircraft missile that fired at a target south of Damascus and missed. Because Damascus is so close to the Israeli border this sort of thing was expected and has already happened before. The problem is the incoming spent S-200 (not aimed at anything in particular) looks like an incoming missile headed for a specific target and Israeli anti-missile defenses react automatically. Since the missile is intercepted over Israeli territory fragments of that missile can be collected and the missile identified.
December 24, 2018: An Israeli military intelligence official said that Iran had apparently shut down all missile factories in Lebanon, apparently because of the Israeli success in finding and destroying them.
December 23, 2018: In the north (the Syrian border in Golan Heights), Israeli troops fired on several armed men trying to enter Israel. The intruders fled back into Syria. Iran is trying to move more Iranian controlled forces to the Israeli border.
December 21, 2018: Israeli intelligence believes Iran is moving all its missile upgrade to Lebanon because it is believed that the upgrade facilities would be safer from Israeli air attack there. But the Israelis keep finding the factories and telling the Lebanese government that those Iranian facilities will continue to blow up, even when Hezbollah puts them in a residential neighborhood. This is becoming a major issue in Lebanese politics.
For the first time, an Iranian B-747 freighter aircraft delivered missile components directly to Lebanon. These components add GPS guidance to long-range unguided rockets. The transport flew over Iraq and Syria. In mid-November, Israel is warning Lebanon and Iraq that Iranian use of their territory to upgrade unguided rockets with GPS guidance kits will result in Israeli airstrikes to destroy those operations unless local governments act. Lebanon is more of a problem because of its relationship with Iran and Syria. Hezbollah, a 1980s creation of Iran, is an autonomous military force in Lebanon and dominates local politics via terror and threats of violence against those who resist. Hezbollah, like its patron Iran, is dedicated to the destruction of Israel. Iran is currently trying to turn Syria and Iraq into subject states similar to Lebanon. Most Syrians and Iraqis want to avoid this but it isn’t easy because Iran is clever, determined and fanatic about the “destroy Israel” thing. What complicates the situation in Syria is that there a lot of major players.
December 20, 2018: Albania expelled the Iranian ambassador and another Iranian diplomat after the two were connected to a recently uncovered plot to kill Israelis by bombing a 2016 World Cup football (soccer) qualifying match in Albania between Albanian and Israeli teams. These expulsions are part of a Europe wide investigation into Iranian terror plots in Europe and the Iranian use of their diplomats (who have diplomatic immunity) to organize the attacks.
In Gaza, Al Aqsa TV, a Hamas owned media outlet, went off the air because it was bankrupt. One reason for that was that last November one of the 160 Israeli air strikes on Islamic terrorist targets included four major structures, including the seven story headquarters of the Al Aqsa TV station. That alone would cost about $5 million to replace. Before hitting these larger buildings Israel spent 45 minutes calling civilians living nearby and telling them to leave the area until the Hamas target was destroyed. All these airstrikes were delivered over a few days in response to a major Hamas rocket attack. After the retaliatory airstrikes, Hamas accepted a ceasefire.
December 19, 2018: The American president, in keeping with a campaign promise, announced the withdrawal of American forces (about 2,000 troops) from Syria. No timetable was given. This campaign promise arose from the fact most Americans have noticed that since the 1990s there have been a growing number of overseas military operations undertaken by different American governments and that these operations, initially described as short-term, never seem to end. For example, there are still U.S. troops stationed in Kosovo, a late 1990s assignment which was to have ended within a year but somehow never did. Putting American troops into Syria was supposed to be temporary until ISIL was destroyed. That task has largely been accomplished and the remaining anti-ISIL forces in Syria can mop up. When asked about Israel the Americans pointed out that Israel receives over $4 billion in aid from the United States each year, is the most powerful military power in the region and the U.S. is a longtime ally who will provide support if needed. But the U.S. will not get involved with the Iranian operations against Israel via Syria, especially not by stationing troops in Syria just for that purpose. That seemed to satisfy, or at least silence the Israeli critics.
The Iranian Foreign Minister gave an interview with French media and declared that Iran was not intent on making war with and destroying Israel and that the constant call for “death to Israel” was all about the fact that Iran believed Israel would self-destruct. This caused some controversy in France and Iran. Many French leftist politicians back the idea that Israel is the aggressor in the Middle East while in Iran the Foreign Minister found himself sharply criticized by his own government where most senior clerics interpret “death to Israel” to mean Iran will do the destroying. Soon the Iranian foreign minister had to issue an official statement disavowing his statements to the French media and agreeing the call for “death to Israel” was all about actually killing or driving all Israelis out of Israel.
The UN met and agreed that the Hezbollah tunnels into Israel existed but refused to take any action against Hezbollah or Lebanon unless such a resolution also condemned Israel for regularly flying over Lebanon to carry out recon missions or to launch missiles at targets in Syria. The head of UN peacekeeping backed action against Hezbollah because the tunnels were clearly a warlike act that took place, literally, under the noses of the UN peacekeeping force on the Israel/Lebanon border. The tunnels were about 25 meters (80 feet) deep and two of them crossed the border. Hezbollah launches attacks on Israel and when Israel responds it is condemned for aggression.
December 16, 2018: In Egypt, the government revealed that investigations of recent ISIL members arrested and being prosecuted revealed that they had financial support from local sources, often Egyptians who support their campaign of violence. There are still many active ISIL members who received training, usually in Syria when ISIL had training camps there. That training included practical demonstrations of the use of commercial quadcopters to recon targets or the activity of security forces. These ISIL quadcopters have been encountered in Sinai this year.
December 15, 2018: Russia has done Iran a favor in Syria by allowing them to use Russian flags on Iranian and Hezbollah bases. Israel went public about its complaints to Russia about this. The Israelis indicated that Russia had refused to halt the practice. This seems to be a setup because normally when Israel coordinates its air operations over Syria with the Russians it is done quietly and not in the open. The Israelis have ways to verify if the presence of a Russian flag at a base or compound actually indicates the presence of Russians and moreover it has long been known that the Russians quietly share location information for all their forces in Syria to ensure they are not hurt by an Israeli air, missile or artillery strike. Going by where flags are flying sounds like the Iranians would use to indicate a victory over Israel, something Iran badly needs.
December 13, 2018: An Israeli military and diplomatic delegation is meeting with their counterparts in Russia to work out details of future cooperation in Syria, especially with regards to Israeli operations against Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon. Russia has never agreed with the Iranian goal of trying to destroy Israel. Russia sees Israel as a valuable ally in the region while Iran is considered, apparently, a necessary evil for Russian operations in Syria.
In the West Bank, two Islamic terrorists were killed when they resisted arrest. One of the Islamic terrorists was from the Balkans and the other was the son of a local Hamas leader.
December 12, 2018: In the West Bank, four Palestinians were arrested as suspects in several recent attacks against Israelis in the West Bank. A fifth suspect was shot dead when he tried to use his car against the Israeli arresting officers. These arrests and some earlier ones indicated that recent increase in West Bank violence against Israelis was largely the work of a Hamas terror cell that now appeared to be wiped out.
December 11, 2018: The head of Israeli military intelligence believes that Iran is reducing its involvement in Syria because of growing public protests against the expense and risks of continuing the Syrian operation (to establish a permanent military presence and threat on the Israeli border.) The renewal of economic sanctions on Iran also plays a role.