Israel: The Slow Roll Backwards


January 20, 2020: For the first time Israel revealed actual numbers for airstrikes in Syria and Gaza. During 2019 there were 54 airstrikes against Syrian targets and 900 in Gaza. Israeli UAVs also spent 40,000 hours in the air during the year carrying out surveillance in Gaza and along the northern border. The airstrikes in Syria tended to be larger, involving more aircraft and weapons (missiles, smart bombs). In Gaza, an airstrike was usually one missile or smart bomb against a Hamas or Islamic Jihad facility in retaliation for a rocket, mortar and fire balloon attack against Israel. In the West Bank, Israeli soldiers and police made about 5,500 arrests, mainly for Islamic terrorist activity. Hamas has put a lot of effort into establishing terror operations in the West Bank but these arrests, often in cooperation with Palestinian police, have so far prevented that.

In Gaza, fire balloon use resumed in the last week and Israel believes several Hamas factions are deliberately violating the ceasefire agreement because some factions refuse to accept any agreements with Israel. There is also the Iran factor. Iran is desperate to score some kind of victory over Israel and fire balloons are the best Hamas can muster at the moment. Inside Gaza, most people oppose any resumption of attacks and openly criticize the Hamas decision to side with Iran against Israel and Egypt. Hamas is desperate for cash and a foreign ally who can at least try to smuggle in weapons and other military equipment. Iran has stepped up but has not been able to help much so far.

Israeli analysts are still translating and deciphering the thousands of documents on the Iranian nuclear program. The latest findings include notes written in 2002 describing what was needed to develop and build a nuclear warhead for use on ballistic missiles. There was a handwritten notation that was archived with other documents related to this effort. Since these documents were obtained in early 2018, many intelligence and nuclear weapons experts from foreign nations have been allowed to examine all the documents and the consensus continues to be that they are authentic and reveal details of the Iranian effort to develop nuclear weapons while keeping that effort a secret. Many Iranians believe Israel did indeed get these documents and that Mossad carried out a well planned and executed operation in January 2018 that took the material from a well-protected warehouse and hustled them out of Iran overnight to avoid getting caught. Israel spent months getting these documents authenticated while the news that the documents had been taken slowly went from rumor to reality in the three months between the documents that were taken and Israel announced it. Since then the Israelis have been releasing more and more of the documents, and details of the Mossad operation, including photos of the inside and outside of the warehouse while the Iranian government tries to depict all of this as another clever Israeli fabrication. But even inside Iran, enough details of the Mossad operation got into circulation to confirm, for most Iranians, that it was all true.

Iran continues to call for the destruction of Israel. Syria was supposed to be a step in that direction. Instead, Syria has been a money pit where expensive efforts to bring in missiles and other weapons for use against Israel are regularly blown up by Israeli airstrikes. Iranian efforts have faltered a bit as anti-government protests grow in Iran and anti-Iran protests in Gaza, Lebanon and Iraq. All this opposition makes it more difficult to justify all the money spent in these places to “destroy Israel.”

Sinia Stalemate

In Egypt (Sinai), the war against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) is stalemated because north Sinai has always been an unruly tribal frontier for the government. Until the arrival of better organized Islamic terrorists after 2000, the government could afford to ignore what happened up there. That began to change in 2005 when Hamas, a radical Moslem Brotherhood faction from Egypt, took over Gaza and turned it into a sanctuary for many of the Islamic terror groups including, by 2014, ISIL.

Outside of Gaza there were the Bedouins, who have long supported armed opposition to the government. Despite that the Bedouins quickly developed an openly hostile attitude towards ISIL because ISIL tries to impose harsh “Islamic” lifestyle rules on the Bedouins. That is one thing you should not even attempt. The Bedouins forced ISIL to back down frequently because of all this. This did not drive ISIL out of the area because the Sinai Peninsula is a big place (60,000 square kilometers) with only about 600,000 people, mainly in a few urban areas. Lots of places to hideout. ISIL is also accused of killing popular clerics who support Islamic terrorism but not ISIL and planning to become the only Islamic terror group in Sinai (and eventually the world). The Egyptians found that the Islamic terrorism problem in Sinai got a lot worse once ISIL showed up. The Egyptians have mobilized several major operations to eliminate ISIL but all they have been able to do is contain it. Security force commanders report that the ongoing (since February 2018) counter-terror operations in Sinai have so far left nearly a thousand Islamic terrorists, along with a few local tribesmen, dead as well as over a hundred soldiers and police. Civilian deaths often occur when the troops call in airstrikes (F-16s and armed helicopters) or artillery fire. Independent estimates of losses, based on Internet chatter, media reports and some plausible paranoia, believe that from January 2014 to mid-2018 some 3,000 Islamic terrorists were killed in Sinai, along with 1,200 soldiers and police. No estimates of civilian losses were made. That would include losses among pro-government tribal militias and many cases where it was difficult to tell if dead civilians were the result of attacks on innocent or partisan (pro-ISIL or pro-government) civilians and who the attacker was.

There is always some tribal feuding going on that kills civilians as well as deaths from criminal activity (bandits and smugglers). Egyptian security services are also notorious for simply kidnapping civilians, using violent interrogation methods and if the interrogation proves fatal, denying they ever had the victim in custody. This has occurred in Sinai but, of course, there are never any official stats on how often. In some cases, the disappearances are the result of Islamic terrorist or gangster activity or even a tribal feud. In Sinai, the government is believed responsible for nearly a hundred lethal disappearances.

Egypt continues to avoid accurately reporting casualties in Sinai. Since early 2018 all the government reports are that so many Islamic terrorists and government forces were killed “recently” while deliberately not specifying precise time periods. This only applies to operations in Sinai, because that area, unlike most of Egypt, is thinly populated and has been effectively isolated from the rest of Egypt and the outside world in general. While this helps prevent the Sinai based ISIL and other Islamic terrorists from getting into the rest of Egypt, it also prevents journalists from getting in. There is still the Internet and travelers from Sinai. Thus it is known that the battle against Islamic terrorism continues and ISIL has been unable to launch more large-scale attacks. The security forces continue to carry out raids and Islamic terrorists are arrested and killed. But the exact extent of this activity is now unknown. This loss of accuracy in reporting was gradual and is now standard. At the start of 2018 ISIL in Sinai was thought to have 1,300 active members. There appear to be fewer of them now, but still at least a few hundred to nearly a thousand. The lower number is more likely based on the low level of ISIL activity.

ISIL insists that both Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza are not competent and that if ISIL were running Gaza things would be different. Most Gazans agree that Islamic Jihad or ISIL rule would probably be worse than what Hamas provides. All three Islamic terror groups are disliked or hated by most Gazans. Hamas cannot attack Islamic Jihad too hard because both Hamas and Islamic Jihad depend on Iran for financial and military (weapons and advisors) support. Islamic Jihad is more dependent on Iranian support and anything it does is with Iranian permission or ordered by Iran. ISIL has been driven out of Gaza but is still active in northern Sinai. Egypt has responded by sealing off their border with Gaza and opening that border only when Hamas cooperates, which is not all that often.

January 19, 2020: In the south (Gaza) more fire balloons were spotted coming from Gaza. None have caused any casualties or property damage yet.

In northern Syria, near the Hmeimim (or “Khmeimim”), Russian airbase Syrian troops activated at least one battery of their new Russian S-300 air defense systems. It has taken nearly a year for the Syrian crews to be trained. Russia is believed to still have a veto over when the Syrian S-300s can be used.

January 18, 2020: In the north (the Lebanon border), Israeli engineers began installing more seismic sensors that are part of a tunnel construction detection system that has already proved its worth on the Gaza border and a few times on the Lebanon border. The new sensor network is being expanded to more of the Lebanese border.

January 17, 2020: In the south, near the Gaza border, at least four balloon bombs from Gaza have been found in the last three days. Israeli surveillance spotted Hamas men preparing balloon bombs for release in northern Gaza. An airstrike soon hit the location but caused no casualties. Large scale use of balloon attacks stopped in mid-2019 and it is unclear why it is starting up again.

January 16, 2020: Israel has activated its second F-35I stealth fighter squadron. Israel currently has sixteen F-35Is with 34 more on the way. It is possible Israel will order another 25 or 50 of these aircraft if they continue to perform as they have so far. Details of what the F-35I can and cannot do in hostile airspace are rarely disclosed but the F-35I has apparently lived up to its reputation.

January 15, 2020: In the south, Islamic Jihad fired four mortar shells into Israel. Iron Dome intercepted two of them while the other landed in an open area. Israel launched several airstrikes at Hamas and Islamic Jihad facilities in Gaza. The Gaza had been pretty quiet since last November when a ceasefire deal was worked out.

In Egypt, about a hundred kilometers north of the Sudan border, the military opened its largest base on the Red Sea coast. The Barnis base covers 62 hectares (155 acres) and includes docks for ships as well as an airbase, hospital and hardened shelters for warplanes. The base will make it easier to monitor the Red Sea and patrol the Yemeni coast, where Iran-backed Shia rebels are threatening to disrupt Red Sea traffic. This traffic includes nearly 20,000 ships a year headed for the Suez Canal, which earns Egypt nearly $6 billion a year in transit fees.

January 14, 2020: In Syria, Israeli airstrikes again hit the T4 airbase in Homs province, killing at least three pro-Iran soldiers and destroying a lot of structures and equipment. This airbase, in central Syria near Palmyra, has been hit by Israeli airstrikes several times in 2019 and many more times in earlier years. The T4 airbase is the largest in Syria and Iran is building new structures for storing weapons and housing personnel. This is where Iran moved its UAV operations in 2018 after its original UAV base in Syria was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike.

In Egypt (Sinai), an Egyptian F-16 crashed in while on a training flight. The local ISIL groups quickly claimed to have shot the jet down and captured the pilot. That turned out to be untrue as the pilot died as a result of the crash and ISIL did not continue claiming to have brought down the jet and captured the pilot.

January 13, 2020: Video from an Iranian university shows (in an above shot from a nearby building) how two large American and Israeli flags painted on pavement for students to insultingly walk over, The flags were now being avoided by students. The video showed the few Iranians who dared to walk on the flags were being visibly jeered and criticized by nearby students. In the past, the release of a video like this would bring prompt, and often fatal, retaliation. Not this time, or at least not yet. The IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) now has to take into account the amount of resistance they could encounter if they entered the campus to administer punishment. Students are fighting back if attacked.

January 9, 2020: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province), there was another Israeli airstrike against Iranian weapons being stored near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. There were eight deaths, all of them pro-Iran militiamen.

Senior officials from Egypt and Algeria met once more and affirmed that both nations opposed any foreign intervention in the Libyan civil war. This was directed at Turkey, which was now openly intervening in Libya. Egypt also wanted to establish good relations with the new Algerian president, who already had a good reputation in Europe and had been invited to visit Germany and Italy and discuss new economic and diplomatic efforts. Algeria has stayed out of the Libya fighting while Egypt has not. That’s because a lot more Libya based Islamic terrorists and weapons smugglers headed east (for Egypt) rather than west (into very Islamic terrorists unfriendly Algeria). The Egyptians backed the more popular, anti-Islamic terrorist government in Libya because that group was based in eastern Libya and had rebuilt the Libyan army (as the LNA or Libyan National Army) which sealed the eastern border with the help of Egypt and has since 2014 gained control over almost all of Libya. Only Tripoli, the traditional capital in the west) is controlled by the UN-backed GNA (government of national accord) which is not a government, national or able to establish any accord with anyone. The Turks back the GNA because the GNA approves of the Moslem Brotherhood and many other Islamic radical groups that Turkey approves of. The UN is unwilling to block the Turkish intervention and European nations are divided.

January 3, 2020: In Iraq, IRGC general (and Quds Force commander) Soleimani was killed by an American Hellfire missile attack. Soleimani was also in charge of the Iranian military buildup in Syria. This was aimed at Israel, as was a similar mobilization in Lebanon (Hezbollah) and Iraq (a local Hezbollah Iran is trying to establish). It was later revealed that Israeli intel contributed to tracking and confirming the presence of Soleimani on an airliner flight from Damascus to Baghdad. Israel also believes the death of Qassem Soleimani is a big win for Israel in its effort to prevent an Iranian military buildup in Syria. The death of Soleimani added to the political division of the Palestinians, with Iran-backed Hamas mourning the loss of Soleimani while Fatah (which governs the West Bank and most Palestinians) saw Soleimani as an obstacle to a united Palestinian government and the man most responsible for the failure of the 2011 Arab Spring. Soleimani was the key to the survival of the Assad dictatorship in Syria. The Assads had long hosted many (at least 600,000) Palestinians in Syria and also provided sanctuary for senior Hamas leadership. This all changed after the 2011 uprising against the Assads. A lot of Palestinians were killed in Syria as the Syrian army began attacking the Yarmouk refugee camp outside Damascus. In 2011 Yarmouk (population 160,000) was the largest Palestinian community in Syria, holding about 30 percent of the Palestinians in Syria. Hamas got involved in the fighting between Palestinians loyal to the camp leadership (a Palestinian terrorist organization, which has long enjoyed the support of the Assads) and Palestinians who support the Syrian rebels. Hamas realized that if the rebels won, and during the first two years of the rebellion it looked like they would, Hamas would be driven out unless pro-rebel Palestinians took control of Palestinian refugee camps. These are not “camps” but rather separate towns or neighborhoods occupied and run by Palestinians. Hamas had long received support from the Assads. But under pressure from major donors (oil-rich Sunni Arabs) Hamas turned on the Iran-backed Assads. In early 2012 Hamas moved its headquarters out of Syria and openly denounced the Assads. Hamas apparently also told the Syrian Palestinians to oppose Assad if they wanted Hamas and other Arab states to persuade the new rebel government to allow “loyal” Palestinians to remain and avoid retribution. The 600,000 Palestinians in Syria were 1.7 percent of the Syrian population back then. By 2018 Yarmouk was largely empty of Palestinians, most having fled the constant air, artillery and ground attacks by the Assads. Far more Palestinians have been killed by the Assads in Syria since 2011 than died in Israel (including Gaza and West Bank). Most of the Palestinians killed in Israel were trying to kill Israelis. Arab journalists who are not Israeli citizens generally do not report the Palestinian situation in Syria unless they want to risk considerable backlash and risk of jail or worse.

January 2, 2020: Turkey agreed to send troops to Libya to defend the pro-Islamic government. Egypt supports a rival government that now controls most of Libya including nearly all the oil facilities. Egypt is seeking allies to hale prevent Turkish troops from operating in Libya.

December 26, 2019: Yemeni Shia rebel leaders met with the Iranian foreign minister in Oman to discuss the future of Iranian support for the Shia rebels. Iran continues to suffer economically from sanctions and has had to cut support for overseas operations in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq and Yemen. While Gaza and Yemen are relatively low-cost for Iran, Yemen is considered particularly important because it puts an Iranian ally on the Saudi border and able to launch attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE whenever Iran needs it. Right now the radicals (IRGC leaders) in Iran are pushing for more violence against Gulf Arabs and American forces in Iraq. Attacks on Israel are much more difficult so IRGC wants to concentrate on the Americans and Arab states. A growing number of Shia rebel leaders are reluctant to go along with what Quds Force is demanding. Being on the Saudi border makes the Shia rebel home province vulnerable to Saudi attack and a growing number of Saudis support a major escalation involving more air and ground attacks on Shia rebels just across the border.

December 25, 2019: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province), there was another Israeli airstrike against Iranian weapons being stored near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. There were five deaths, all of them pro-Iran militiamen. Around the same time, there were some explosions in nearby Deir Ezzor city (the provincial capital) that were attributed to another Israeli airstrike.

December 22, 2019: In southern Syria, there was an explosion in a Damascus that killed three Iranian mercenaries. The Syrians attributed this to another Israeli airstrike.

December 19, 2019: In Syria, Russian anti-aircraft weapons opened fire on an Israeli UAV that was flying along the Syrian border and strayed into Syrian airspace for about 90 seconds. The UAV was not hit.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close