Iranian allies Hezbollah and Hamas are both threatening “war with Israel.” Such threats are not made without Iranian permission. That has long been the main Israeli fear, that Iran would support a simultaneous attack by Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Israel believed Iran would wait until it had built a significant force of fighters and rockets in Syria before trying such an attack. Iran, however, is more calculating than most Islamic terror groups and knows that such an attack would, at best, cause a lot of damage but would not destroy Israel. The repercussions for Iranian forces in Syria, Lebanon and Gaza would be considerable. Iranian hard-liners (mainly the IRGC or Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) have the most to lose by backing such an attack and then having to face the blowback in Iran for failure. Then there is the “use it or lose it” angle. For over a year anti-government (and anti-IRGC) demonstrations in Iran have persisted and grown. Iranians are angry over all the money being spent to support Hezbollah, Hamas and military operations in Syria. Over 2,000 Iranians have died in Syria, most of them IRGC personnel and five to ten times as many Iranian mercenaries (mainly Afghans), Iran pays death benefits to the families of the mercenaries killed and the Iranians are finding out how much these wars really cost and how that prevents the Iranian economy from improving. Many of the senior clerics who control the religious dictatorship that runs Iran would like to curb the power of the IRGC and the current crises are beginning to look like a good opportunity. Thus many IRGC leaders would see an all-out attack on Israel as something to be attempted sooner rather than later when it is no longer possible.
When it comes to Syria the Russians recently admitted via mass media that they were not really a major Iranian ally and that Russia was more concerned with helping Israel maintain its security. This lukewarm Russian support for Iran has been assumed for some time but now it is openly admitted. Turkey is another Iranian ally that is more frenemy than a staunch supporter of Iran. That means the Syrian support for Iran becomes questionable and there is growing evidence of that. In general Iran has few real friends when it comes to their Syrian operations. Iraq refuses to turn against the Americans and is getting cozier with the Gulf Arabs. Most Lebanese hate Hezbollah, which increasingly does whatever it wants no matter what harm it exposes Lebanon to. Egypt and most Palestinians (mainly Fatah in the West Bank) oppose Iran. Thus the growing risk of Iran losing Syria, Gaza and even Hezbollah. Something must be done and while many Iranians would prefer just declaring victory and going home the IRGC knows that means a defeat for them. Cutting support for Hezbollah and Hamas would not destroy those two but would encourage them to negotiate peace deals of their own.
Smells Like Victory
Israel has changed its approach to the war against Iran in Syria. Now the Israelis are attacking Iranian targets day and night and are taking credit for each attack. Senior Israel political and military leaders are now using the Internet to remind the Iranian IRGC commanders that they are losing and unable to do anything about it. This is done deliberately to destroy the myth the IRGC has been creating back in Iran about how IRGC forces are about to destroy Israel. In fact, the IRGC mercenaries in Syria have had success fighting ISIL and other Islamic terrorist rebels but not much else. Israel is now convincingly pointing out the IRGC lies and calling the IRGC incompetent and an embarrassment to Iran. A lot of Iranians agree with that.
In this way, Israel is winning their battle to keep Iran from establishing a permanent presence in Syria, even with American troops leaving northeast Syria. Israel now openly admits that it intends to drive Iran out of Syria. This Israeli goal will be 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. Israel sees the Syrian government leaning towards rejoining the Arab League, which is an anti-Iran/pro-Israel organization at the moment. The Arab League also opposes Turkish ambitions in the Arab world, specifically Syria.
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. The American withdrawal was dependent on Turkish willingness to continue the fight against ISIL in Syria. The Turks backed off from doing that and were unwilling to negotiate with the Syrian Kurds. The Americans also let Israel know that were still keeping troops on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border where the major road crossings were in order to ensure that Iran does not use these roads as a major weapons supply route for Iranian forces in Syria.
Israel still appears to be able to carry out air strikes on targets in Syria despite the presence of the most modern Russian air defense systems. Israel does not discuss this openly. In part that is to keep secret details of how it is done. This silence is also a favor to the Russians, who don’t want the bad publicity that confirmation of Israeli ability to neutralize the latest Russian air defense systems. That way Russia can continue to sell its S-300 and S-400 systems. The mobile anti-aircraft systems (Pantsir and Buk M2) are another matter and while these are a threat to Israeli aircraft, especially since Syria and Iran have some of them, Israel has demonstrated its ability to destroy these systems.
With the Americans leaving the SDF (Syrian Kurd rebels) are depending on the United States and Russia to keep the Turks out of the northeast (east of the Euphrates River). The SDF is willing to keep fighting the remnants of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in eastern Syria as long as they don’t have to worry about a Turkish attack. Ominously the Turks have 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 them 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 that comes with lots of casualties for the attackers. Morale in the Syrian Army is understandably bad and many current members have been in uniform since 2011 or before. Syria is now letting the most veteran conscripts out of the army, which has improved Syrian army morale in general. This is a clear sign to the troops that victory is at hand.
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. Syria has openly granted Iraq permission to send ground troops (usually Iran backed Shia militias) across the border or carry out airstrikes against remaining Islamic terror groups operating in eastern Syria. Most Russian air power is concentrated on the last major pocket of Islamic terrorist rebels in Syria, who control most of Idlib province that is on the Turkish border.
Paying For Egyptian Prosperity
In Egypt, the Arab Gulf states, particularly the UAE (United Arab Emirates) and Saudi Arabia have considerable political and economic influence. This is largely because the Gulf Arabs are major investors in the Egyptian economy and a reliable source of emergency loans for the government. In the last four years, UAE investors spent nearly six billion dollars helping over a hundred Egyptian businesses get started or grow. Egypt is chronically broke and the Arab Gulf states have been reliable rescuers. This aid comes at a price and the Gulf Arabs expect Egyptian support (usually diplomatic but occasionally military). Thus Egypt has been very hostile to Iranian influence. Iran has little money for loans and investments and puts most of their cash into Hamas, which in turn provides sanctuary for Islamic terrorists that operate in Egypt. While the UAE is primarily an in investor the Saudis will often donate billions of dollars to the Egyptian government. Sometimes this is in the form of loans being quietly forgiven when it is clear Egypt is too broke to pay. All this is paying off at the moment, with GDP growth at over five percent and inflation continuing to decline (from 17 percent in 2017 to nine percent in 2018 and even lower in 2019. Inflation results when there is too much cash seeking to buy too few goods. By investing in a lot of new and existing businesses the Gulf Arab money creates more locally made things to buy and that reduces inflation. Another sign the economy is doing well is the politicians worrying about the growing incidence of obesity (nearly 75 percent of the population is overweight). That’s not because so many Egyptians are well off economically but because most Egyptians have an income and relatively inexpensive food (most of it locally produced) to buy and consume.
The Dreaded C Word
For Israelis, the internal threat of Islamic terrorism and the external threat from Iran overshadows a third major threat; corruption. The Middle East has long been known as one of the most corrupt regions in the world and that explains why there is so much unrest and lack of social, economic and political progress. It also explains why some nations succeed and many do not. Israel has seen some growth in corruption but has done a better job of dealing with it than most. According to international surveys of corruption, Israel ranks 34th out of 180 countries (32 out of 180 in 2017). Egypt is 105 out of 180 (117 in 2017). Progress, or lack thereof, can be seen in the annual Transparency International Corruption Perception Index where countries are measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually North Korea/14, Yemen/14, Syria/13, South Sudan/13 and Somalia/10) have a rating of under 15 while of the least corrupt (New Zealand and Denmark) are over 85.
The current Israeli score is 62 (64 in 2017) compared to 35 (32) for Egypt, 13 (14) for Syria, 18 (18) for Iraq, 41 (40) for Turkey, 49 (49) for Saudi Arabia, 28 (28) for Lebanon, 49 (48) for Jordan, 33 (32) for Pakistan, 26 (28) for Bangladesh, 41 (40) for India, 16 (15) for Afghanistan, 28 (29) for Russia, 39 (41) for China, 17 (17) for Libya, 70 (71) for the UAE (United Arab Emirates), 72 (75) for the United States, 72 (73) for Japan, and 49 (49) for Saudi Arabia. A lower corruption score is common with nations in economic trouble and problems dealing with Islamic terrorism and crime in general. Israel’s corruption score has not changed much since 2012 when it was 60. A lower corruption score is common with nations in economic trouble. African nations are the most corrupt, followed by Middle Eastern ones. Fixing an existing culture of corruption has proved a most difficult challenge.
The Dreaded S Word
The year began with some more data leaks about Israeli counterterrorism operations. This one was about how, since 2015, Israeli interdiction efforts have prevented some 15,000 Iranian rockets, especially ones that can hit most Israeli cities, from reaching Gaza. The Iranian weapons smuggling effort is usually quite effective but after 2015 Egypt became more and more eager to isolate Gaza because more of the weapons headed for Gaza were showing up in the hands of Islamic terrorists fighting Egyptian security forces in Sinai. The Egyptian cooperation made it extremely difficult to get large shipments of anything into Gaza. Individuals and small quantities of goods could be moved, at great expense and not in a timely fashion. But multi-ton weapons shipments proved extremely vulnerable to Israeli surveillance (especially via UAVs and spy satellites). Israel had both of these plus cooperation from the United States which had even more spy satellites and a worldwide network of sources and sensors trying to keep track of Iranian and North Korea smuggling.
Israel and Egypt became a valuable portion of that surveillance and kept over 15,000 rockets (and much else) from reaching Gaza. That explains the growing desperation of Hamas. They have limited supplies of munitions and irregular shipments of cash to keep their security forces loyal.
January 27, 2019: In Egypt (northern Sinai), an airstrike against Islamic terrorists apparently killed two of the local ISIL leaders along with several of their subordinates.
January 26, 2019: In the south, Israeli troops arrested a Gaza Palestinian who had used wire cutters to get through the border fence. He was also carrying a knife when he was arrested. He was apparently an economic refugee, not a terrorist but both types try such desperate measures. You can cut through the fence but while doing that you will trigger other sensors and troops, or a remotely controlled machine-gun, will prevent any further progress.
January 25, 2019: Egypt told Hamas to choose between working for Iran or with Egypt. Hamas is currently the recipient of cash and other aid from Iran, but the cash and the legal (no weapons) aid gets in with Egyptian cooperation. Egypt already has the one legal crossing from Gaza to Egypt closed most of the time and continues to destroy any smuggling tunnels they find. It is more and more difficult to build a tunnel into Egypt and keep it operational. Hamas also has to worry that Egypt will, or already has, invited the Israelis to test their new tunnel detection technology along the Egyptian border with Gaza. That would mean all currently operating tunnels would be found and destroyed. Hams would then be almost completely cut off from Iranian aid. Iran could still get some material and people through, but much less than now and at much greater risk and expense (for bribes and smuggler fees). Hamas has not yet responded to the Egyptian offer, which includes assistance in negotiating with Israel. This is something most Gazans would like but that Hamas is largely opposed to.
January 23, 2019: Russian and Israeli negotiators worked out an agreement that enables Israeli warplanes to enter Syria and avoid conflict with Russian warplanes or air defense systems. Russia also confirmed that the S-300 systems they sent to the Syrians last October are still not active and are under the control of Russian troops. These systems will apparently remain under Russian control because Russia does not want the Israelis demonstrating how they can defeat the S-300 system. That sort of thing discourages export sales. That has already happened with the mobile Pantsir system, which has been attacked and destroyed several times by the Israelis. Most of the airstrikes on Syria do not involve Israeli aircraft entering Syria. Instead, the Israeli warplanes launch guided missiles from over the Mediterranean or Lebanon. These attacks will continue to be kept completely secret with no advance warning to anyone. Israel also destroyed a lot of S-200 equipment and warned the Syrians that all of it will be destroyed unless the Syrians stop trying to use it against Israeli airstrikes.
January 22, 2019: In Israel, there was an Arrow 3 anti-missile missile test in southern Israel against an air-launched rocket that returned to earth at the same speed as a ballistic missile warhead fired from Iran. The test warhead was intercepted. This test had been planned for a long time and was not carried out just to send a message to the Iranians, but it did that as well.
In northern Egypt (Qalyubia province) and Sinai, there were several raids on Islamic terrorist hideouts over the last few days that led to 64 Islamic terrorists dead and the seizure of weapons, ammo, explosives and equipment. Six soldiers were killed and many more wounded in the gun battles the raids tended to ignite. There is more terrorist activity outside Sinai, which is a lot more dangerous for the Islamic terrorists. While many Egyptians support the Islamic terrorists stated goals of dealing with corruption there are still plenty of civilians opposes to terrorism and the inevitable civilian casualties. That means there are still lots of tips via cell phone describing suspected terrorist activity. That’s why many of these raids take place in non-residential areas where the Islamic terrorists try to keep a low profile and avoid detection. That is difficult to do in the Nile Delta, which Qalyubia province is part of, where most of the population lives. Even in the Western desert, a hideout favored by ISIL, it is hard to hide.
January 21, 2019: In Syria, Israel carried out air and missile strikes against several Iranian military targets. This included an IRGC munitions warehouse near the Damascus airport. This warehouse complex is apparently the main IRGC supply center in Syria and the Israelis have been bombing this area regularly. Also hit were a nearby IRGC training center as well as an IRGC intelligence facility. In addition, Israel bombed Syrian air defense locations, after warning Syria that these weapons would be destroyed if Syria kept using them to interfere with Israel airstrikes. Israel hit mobile as well as fixed air defense weapons. The Syrians regularly claim that their SAM (surface to air missiles) are intercepting Israeli aircraft and missiles but there is no evidence (wreckage) to prove it. However, firing these S-200 missiles does require Israeli aircraft to change their tactics and there is some risk that an aircraft might be damaged or destroyed. Most of these air attacks were at night and apparently, 21 military personnel (12 IRGC, 11 Syrian) were killed. It was later reported that an IRGC freighter aircraft that was in the air and headed for Damascus when these attacks took place soon turned around and returned to Iran.
The attack on targets around Damascus that took place during daytime yesterday came a few hours after another IRGC freight aircraft had landed at the Damascus airport. Israel released satellite photos the next day showing the extensive damage caused by these attacks. Israel also taunted the Iranian commander, via the Internet, about their inability to do any damage to Israel while Iranian bases in Syria are destroyed on a regular basis. This particular message is apparently intended to weaken IRGC influence in Iran, where most people oppose Iranian participation in the Syrian war and the Israeli tweet undermines Iranian government claims that the Syrian effort is succeeding.
In other respects, Iran is succeeding and is doing so by bringing in Shia from other countries (including Afghanistan) and providing them with homes (formerly occupied by Sunni Arabs who fled the country) and land. Iran is also providing aid directly to existing Shia communities in Syria. This sort of thing is not popular with the Assad government because Iran is creating a population loyal to Iran, not Syria. By demonstrating the inability of the Iranians to defend themselves against Israeli attack, or even retaliate, it becomes easier for the Assad government to consider rejoining the Arab League and siding with the Arab states against Iran. That would be a very risky move, but it becomes more difficult to pull off the longer Iran has to entrench itself in post-war Syria.
Israel released a video from one of its Skystriker loitering missiles destroying a Russian made Pantsir mobile antiaircraft system. Each Pantsir-S1 vehicle carries radar, two 30mm cannon, and twelve Tunguska missiles. The 90 kg (198 pound) Tunguska has a twenty kilometer range while the Pantsir-S1 radar has a 30 kilometer range. The missile can hit targets at up to 8,400 meters (26,000 feet) high. The 30mm cannon is effective up to 3,200 meters (10,000 feet). The vehicles used to carry all the Pantsir-S1 can vary, but the most common one used weighs 20 tons and has a crew of three. This is the second time Israel has shown one of its loitering missiles destroying a Pantsir system, which was designed to defend against such low altitude, slow-moving threats. The last disclosure was after a May attack and featured another type of loitering missile. The Skystriker is basically a small (35 kg/77 pound), very quiet propeller driven cruise missile with a two hour endurance and capable of autonomous and operator controlled movement. Skystriker is launched from a catapult mounted on a vehicle. If Skystriker, with five kg of explosives on board, does not find a target it can return and land (using a small parachute) and be reused. Other types of loitering munitions can be carried by aircraft.
January 20, 2019: In southern Syria, an Iranian long-range rocket was fired at Israel and was intercepted by Iron Dome before it could hit the Israeli Golan Heights. Israel immediately retaliated with a daylight attack on Iranian targets. That was followed by overnight attacks.
In Egypt (northern Sinai), several raids on ISIL hideouts left 14 Islamic terrorists dead and over a ton of explosives seized, along with weapons and ammo.
January 19, 2019: Russia and Syria are making plans to triple the size and capacity of the Damascus airport but cannot proceed as long as Iran has facilities in or near the airport and Israel keeps attacking the Iranian warehouses and other targets in the area. Israel refuses to halt these attacks unless Iran leaves and stops using the airport. Iran refuses to do this.
January 18, 2019: In Egypt (northern Sinai), ISIL attacked a bus carrying police and a civilian criminal researcher (who happened to be Christian). Three policemen were killed in the attack and several taken captive, including the civilian.
In Lebanon, the Hezbollah leader says his organization will continue building tunnels and that they have been building these tunnels since 2005. The available evidence indicates that neither is probably true but that’s the sort of thing Hezbollah leaders say to placate their nervous followers.
January 17, 2019: In Israel, a Russian military delegation completed several days of meetings with their Israeli counterparts to refine procedures and agreements between the two nations to prevent accidental clashes in Syria.
January 15, 2019: In Egypt, the government again imposed a curfew in some parts of Sinai to make it more difficult for Islamic terrorists to move at night. The government (actually parliament) also extended the nationwide “state of emergency” another three months (until mid-April). The state of emergency is similar to martial law and unpopular for obvious reasons. The state of emergency gives the government nearly unlimited power to investigate anyone anyway they can, arrest and hold people without warrants or obligation to bring charges and basically run the country like a dictatorship. The three decades of Mubarak rule, which ended in 2011, was made possible by a permanent state of emergency and getting rid of that was one of the main demands of the 2011 rebels. The current state of emergency began in April 2017 because of increased Islamic terrorist activity, especially efforts to attack Israel from Egyptian territory. So far Egypt has continued to uncover and attack or arrest Islamic terrorists all over Sinai and to a lesser extent elsewhere in the country. There has been more Islamic terrorist activity coming out of Libya apparently because of recent defeats ISIL and other Islamic terror groups have suffered there. But the martial law is generally unpopular and the government is under growing popular pressure to end it.
January 14, 2019: In the north, on the Lebanese border, the Israeli military said the search for Hezbollah tunnels was finished and that a sixth tunnel had been discovered. This one was about 60 meters (180 feet) deep and extended less than ten meters (30 feet) into Israel and was about 800 meters long.
January 13, 2019: The Israeli leader confirmed what was widely known, that Israel has been regularly carrying out airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria. During those comments, it was revealed that these air strikes involved some 2,000 smart bombs and guided missiles as well as some short-range ballistic missiles in 2018 alone. There were thousands of air, missile and artillery strikes at Syrian targets in 2017 and 2018 when the decision was made to make an all-out effort against the Iranian military buildup in Syria. This effort has been considered a success because it has cost the Iranians a lot of money as the destroyed weapons often included large rockets and guided missiles which are not cheap, even in Iran. In addition, hundreds of Iranian or Iranian allied military personnel were killed or wounded. Worse, Iran has not been able to respond. All this has encouraged Turkey and Syria to openly consider asking Iran to get out of Syria. This is an even more humiliating defeat for Iran. This also encouraged Iraq to more forcefully call for Iran to get out of Iraq.
In Egypt, the government deported a second German citizen who was trying to join ISIL in Sinai. Both German men were of Egyptian ancestry and held dual Egyptian-German citizenship. Both were held and interrogated before being expelled. It is much more difficult to seek out ISIL in Iraq or Syria now and Egypt is seen by Western Moslems as the best available place to join. Some succeed, most do not.
In Sinai, an ISIL roadside bomb killed a soldier and wounded four others.
January 11, 2019: Another Israeli airstrike destroyed a warehouse at an airport near Damascus. Also attacked was the site of a meeting between Iranian and Hezbollah military commanders. Some of them were at least wounded.
January 7, 2019: In Egypt Fatah, the Palestinian party that controls the West Bank and what is left of the united Palestinian government (the PA or Palestinian Authority) told Egypt that it was now at war with Hamas and was withdrawing all support for Hamas in Gaza. Egypt has been trying, for years, to get Fatah and Hamas to unite and form a single Palestinian government. In the last year, Egypt thought it had finally brokered a unification deal only to have Hamas back out. Fatah still has a lot of supporters in Gaza and these Gaza residents have been declared hostile by Hamas. More importantly, to Hamas, Fatah has withdrawn its representatives from the Rafah crossing from Gaza to Egypt. This is the only crossing on the Egyptian border and without Fatah participation in managing that crossing Egypt will no longer open it temporarily. The Rafah crossing has been closed most of the time over the last few years because of disputes between Hamas and Egypt. With the total closure that means the cash from Qatar is no longer getting through. As part of a ceasefire deal Egypt brokered between Hamas and Israel last November, Hamas would cease rocket and border fence attacks against Israel and Egypt would allow Qatar to deliver six $15 million cash payments to Hamas over the next six months so Hamas could meet its payroll. Qatar was doing this because it is on friendly terms with Iran (more so than any other Gulf Arab state). Two of these monthly payments have been delivered but as of now, no more are getting through, at least not legally via the Rafah crossing. Meanwhile, Hamas has responded by arresting more than 500 Fatah supporters in Gaza and increasing its violent threats and actions towards Israel. That means more fire balloon attacks and rockets fired towards Israel as well as more violence at the weekly mass demonstrations on the Israeli border fence.
January 5, 2019: In Egypt, a police EOD (bomb disposal tech) was killed while trying to disable a bomb found outside a Coptic church on the outskirts of Cairo. Two other policemen were wounded. Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7th. The man carrying the bombs towards the church was spotted by two Moslem students, who alerted the imam of a nearby mosque who in turn notified the priests running the church, who evacuated the church until the police could arrive. The two students who spotted the bomber initially hailed and chased the man, who dropped the suitcase before he could get to or into the church. Most of the time Moslems and Coptic Christians get along and have done so since Islam displaced Christianity as the major religion in Egypt a thousand years ago. But Egyptian Islamic terrorists consider Copts “enemies of Islam” and attack them frequently.