Thursday, 30 October 2014

The Shaer gas field recaptured by the Islamic State

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

After launcing a renewed offensive on Shaer, near Homs and Palmyra, the Islamic State is once again in control of this important gas field and associated facility, providing the bulk of the gas to Syria's energy sector. The capture comes as the world remains distracted by the Islamic State's offensive for control of the now infamous city of Kobanê.

While Shaer was already captured by the Islamic State in the mid of July, it was recaptured in the end of July following a series of heavy offensives and airstrikes. The fighting left hundreds of deaths and the Pro-Assadists lost at least a dozen tanks during these battles.

The Islamic State subsequently shifted its focus on Regiment 121, Brigade 93 and Tabqa and thus, Shaer remained firmly in the hands of the Pro-Assadists. The facility was reinforced by the National Defence Force (NDF) along with associated tanks and vehicles. Unsurprisingly, most the troops defending Shaer belonged to the NDF.

The defending troops were also promised support of the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF), which was to come to the aid of the NDF when needed.

Although the SyAAF held its promise and came to the aid of the troops defending the facility, most of the soldiers were forced withdraw. At least two dozen were killed however. The capture also saw at least three T-62 Model 1972 and one T-55 destroyed.

Captured at the base were at least six tanks, two BMP-1s, two VT-55KS armoured recovery vehicles (ARVs), one ZSU-23, one 2S1 Gvozdika, numerous technicals equipped with 14.5mm KPV heavy machine guns, several 9M133 Kornet missiles along with one asscociated 9P163-1 launcher, heavy mortars, RPG-7s and RPG-18s, machine guns, small arms and asscociated munitions.

It is yet to be seen if the Pro-Assadists will counterattack to try to retake the facility once again. As it provides large parts of Syria with energy, they likely will. If so, the battle for control of Shaer will likely end up as an attrition war. While the Pro-Assadists have the advantage of superior weapon systems and the presence of the SyAAF, losing dozens of soldiers and tanks in such attacks will only speed up the process of deplenishing available resources, with questionable results.

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Sunday, 19 October 2014

The espionage triangle, Iran's involvement in the Russian espionage facilities in Syria

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

As the significance of the Russian espionage network in Syria becomes clearer, exclusive information suggests Center S wasn't only housing Russian SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) experts before its capture, but also Iranian experts in this field.

An ex-SAA conscript now residing in Turkey and speaking on the basis of anonymity told Oryx Blog he frequently visited the base as part of his conscription in 2006 and 2007 and not only saw Russians there, but also Iranians. He stated that the base housed Iranian equipment, which was regularly checked and maintained by Iranian personnel usually staying there for around ten days.

He goes on that Russian experts used to visit the facility every three or six months, but does not recall if these were replacements for other Russian experts working there or just personnel providing maintenance for the equipment at the base.

This new information shows the signifance of the joint spy effort on Israel in the light of escalating tensions in the Middle East. As the Syrian Civil War is once again pushed further from the prospect of a possible ceasefire with the rise of the Islamic State, both Iran and Russia appear to be consolidating their stakes in the Assad regime, as possible new Russian equipment showing up in Damascus testifies.

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Friday, 17 October 2014

The Islamic State operating fighter aircraft, fact or fiction?

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

News spread by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), Reuters and other media indicate the commencement of Islamic State jet operations from Kshesh Air Force Base.

A video uploaded after the first news spread proved to show the planes being operated by the Islamic State. However, the first part shows fighters of Ahrar al-Sham inspecting the hardened aircraft shelters housing L-39s after just capturing Kshesh on 12th of February 2013, the second part shows Jaish al-Islam operating two of the L-39s and the last part shows a L-39 from the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) on a bombing sortie over Aleppo early in the Syrian Civil War.

Kshesh (also known as Jirah or Jarrah) was once home to the SyAAF's 2 Squadron operating L-39ZAs and one unknown squadron operating L-39ZOs. After being captured by Ahrar al-Sham on 12th of February 2013, it saw the birth of the first rebel air force in Syria.

Jaish al-Islam managed to get at least two of the around dozen remaining L-39s operational and briefly showed them in a video. Although aided by former SyAAF personnel, Jaish al-Islam was never reported to have conducted any sorties with the L-39s and the base was abandoned in light of the Islamic State's advance in the Aleppo Governorate in early 2014. After the capture of Kshesh by the Islamic State, the base was transformed into a training base for fresh IS recruits.

According to the original report [1], Iraqi personnel formerly serving in the Iraqi Air Force (IrAF) under Saddam Hussein aided in the training of IS fighters to operate the three planes at Kshesh. And while the IrAF indeed owned L-39s, most of the fleet was already inoperational after the first Gulf War in 1991. Nonetheless, the L-39 is one of the easiest jet aircraft to fly and maintain, making it ideally suited for groups like Jaish al-Islam and the Islamic State.

Given their past experience, the theory of Iraqi personnel solely working on the planes seems much more plausible than the Iraqis giving training to other fighters how to maintain and operate the three L-39s.

However, witnesses reportedly told the SOHR that the planes appeared to be MiG-21s or MiG-23s. But as none of these were ever stationed at Kshesh, this can be quickly dismissed. As every fighter aircraft in Syria automatically gets branded as a MiG, it is likely the witnesses were clueless about the exact type and MiG-21 or MiG-23 got added later on.

Seen below are from top to bottom; The L-39, a MiG-21 and a MiG-23.

The claim of three aircraft being operated by the Islamic State also comes as a suprise as Jaish al-Islam, with aid of personnel formerly stationed at the base, was only known to have managed getting two L-39s in operational condition. As there was no flow of spare parts, Jaish al-Islam likely cannibalized the other L-39s presence at Kshesh to make this happen.

But even if Jaish al-Islam departed the airbase without sabotaging their L-39s, it still doesn't explain the presence of a third aircraft. If the Islamic State really managed to get a third aircraft operational, which should have been non-operational since early 2013, it truly shows the ingenuity and willingness of the group to to turn every possible weapon against its former owners.

The photo below, showing three fighters of the Islamic State (now both KIA) inspecting a L-39 shortly after the capture of Kshesh from Jaish al-Islam indicates that at least one of the two L-39s formerly operated by Jaish al-Islam was, although looking worn-out due to weather elements or bad quality paint, still reasonably intact. The presence of a protective cover suggests the plane wasn't sabotaged by Jaish al-Islam.

According to other testemonies of witnesses [2], the planes clearly took off from Kshesh. If true, and linked to the base while in the hands of the Islamic State and not Jaish al-Islam, L-39s operating from the nearby Kweres airbase, which is already being under siege since December 2012, can be definetely ruled out.

Most flights of aircraft only lasted for about five to ten minutes according to witnesses. The short flightime was likely for tests and out of fear to be intercepted by the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF).

For combat missions, L-39s can carry up to 1.290 kg worth of UB-16 rocket pods for 57mm rockets, bombs or fuel tanks distributed over four pylons. The L39ZA's outer two pylons are wired for R-60 short tange air-to-air missiles. Although in widespread use by Syria, none were seen at Kshesh or Tabqa.

It's difficult to tell if and to what degree the Islamic State is envisaging fast jet operations from either Kshesh or Tabqa, especially with the U.S.-led bombing campaign now in force. Known is that if definite proof of IS operating jet fighters arrives, Kshesh might finds itself on the receiving end of the U.S.-led airstrikes.

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Thursday, 16 October 2014

UR-77s in Syria, a force to be reckoned with?

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

In early October 2014, the Republican Guard was seen using a vehicle not believed to be in Syrian service for the first time, in an attempt to clear the rebel stronghold of Jobar, Damascus.

The UR-77 'Meteorit', once designed to breach minefields with its two mine-clearing line charges to make way for assaulting infantry and armour saw heavy use in Chechnya, blowing whole houses and apartments suspected to house Chechen rebels away. It also saw use in Angola, which acquired a limited number for its fight against UNITA.

As the vehicle wasn't part of the standard Soviet client state vehicle park, it was never believed to have been exported to any nation but Angola. It is certain that the UR-77 has never been sighted in the now three-and-a-half year long war. This while the Republican Guard was desperately in need for such a vehicle as they had to use T-72AV tanks and 2S3 self-propelled howitzers to engage housing believed to be harbouring rebels, leading to huge and unnecessary losses of valuable T-72AVs.

The fact that it was reportedly flown to Mezze on an Il-76, offloaded and rushed to the neighbourhood of Jobar [1] does not correspond with the theory of the UR-77 already being in Syrian service. As the Republican Guard already started its offensive on Daraya back in 2012, losing many tanks in the progress, the need for this vehicle was already apparant two years ago. Although much can be said about the Pro-Assadists's tactics, waiting two years to transfer this important vehicle from one part of Syria to Damascus does not make sense.

Much more likely is that the UR-77s and associated munitions were sold to Syria by either Russia or (less likely) Belarus, subsequently loaded onto an Il-76 and flown to Mezze. As the UR-77 was most likely never operated by Syria, it is possible foreign personnel are in fact manning the UR-77s currently used in Jobar.

In a video provided by Wassim Issa, the operator of the UR-77 is blurred. This while all the other faces of the fighters around him remain perfectly visible. One shot of the operator gives a part of his face away, but as soon as the camera zooms in, it immediately gets blurred.

Although the unblurred shot and footage later on shows the operator's caucasian look, this doesn't tell us much about the origin of the operator. He is later seen in a direct conversation with a soldier of the Republican Guard, and despite the heavy usage of hand signals, the soldiers seem to understand him perfectly.

Although the Assad regime is deprived of hard currency, the capabilities that come with the UR-77 outweighs the costs. The mine-clearing line charges of the UR-77 are a definite improvement over the several types of IRAMs (also known as Volcanoes) and Iranian made Falagh (or Falaq) rockets in use with Pro-Assadist forces such as the National Defence Force (NDF) and Hizbullah. Although few UR-77s are believed to have been acquired, they will likely be a common sight in Pro-Assadists's offensives around Damascus from now on.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Russian espionage network in Syria exposed as more facilities are uncovered

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

After the initial news about the Russian spy facility Center S, more information on the now infamous Russian espionage network in Syria has become available, and it turns out Center S isn't the only Russian operated espionage facility in Syria. While the existence of a second facility, Center S-2, was quickly confirmed by a badge commemorating the ten year anniversary of this base, it now appears there's a third facility around.

A high resolution photo of one of the maps in the operations room of Center-S reveals the location of three marked places inside Syrian held territory, connected by double lines. Oddly enough, a secondary set of lines continues to Cyprus through Lebanon and even to Amman, Jordan. It is currently unknown what these lines are supposed to signify.

Center S, located near al-Hara, can be seen in middle, which leaves the Northern and Southern bases unaccounted for. As other Syrian military bases are not marked on the map, it suggests only SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) bases are shown.

The one to the North brings us to a hill near Jaba.

While the one to the South brings us to another hill, near the town of Nawa.

Interestingly, all three facilities are based on and (presumably) in hills, a rare sight in Syria's Southern West. As Center S and S-2 account for two of these bases, this leaves a third possible candidate, (likely named Center S-1 or Center S-3), proving Russian involvement in espionage activities in Israel to be significantly larger than originally thought.

The departure of the Russians from Center S is described in an article written for The Daily Beast;

''Firas Al Hawrani, the official spokesman for the FSA in southern Syria, told The Daily Beast Monday that FSA forces had seen about 15 Russian personnel operating in the Al Harah area before the FSA took the facility, but they left before the area fell out of regime control. “The Russians who were at the Al Harah mountain, the regime took them to Damascus by plane two weeks ago,” he said.''

No reports are available on the status and exact function of the other two bases, but it is presumed both are still being operated by the Russian Osnaz. Nevertheless, in light of the Free Syrian Army's advance in the Quneitra region Moscow seriously has to reconsider its stance on keeping the other two bases operational,

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Monday, 6 October 2014

Captured Russian spy facility reveals the extent of Russian aid to the Assad regime

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans 

On the 5th of October 2014, the Free Syrian Army captured the Центр С - المركز س - Center S SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) facility (logo on top) jointly operated by the Russian Osnaz GRU radio electronic intelligence agency (logo on the right) and one of the Syrian Intelligence Agencies (logo on the left). Situated near al-Hara, the facility was of vital importance for the Assad regime as it was responsible for recording and decrypting radio communications from every rebel group operating inside Syria, making it likely the Russian-gathered information at this facility was at least partially responsible for the series of killings of rebel leaders by airstrikes.

Translation from 3:08; ''A directive issued by the surveillance office on May 31 to eavesdrop and record all radio communications of the terrorist groups, directive signed by brigadier-general Nazir Fuddah, commander of the first center''

The facility was recently upgraded and expanded by Russia to provide Syria and Iran with situational awareness of the Middle East. After the upgrade, which took from January to mid-February, it reportedly covered the whole of Israel and Jordan and a large part of Saudi Arabia.[1] According to the report, the upgrade was a reaction to Iranian concern of the facility being too much focused on the Syrian Civil War, neglecting espionage on Israel. New equipment and additional personnel was thus added to the base. As only static and worn out looking sensors were captured [2] [3], the more modern equipment and Russian personnel were undoubtedly evecuated days or weeks before.

It is unknown if the facility is named Center S ('S' for Syria or special), it is known there's at least one other Russian-Syrian SIGINT facility around, named Center S-2. A badge commemorating the ten year anniversary of this other spy facility can be seen below.

The Russian operator of Center S was the Osnaz GRU, responsible for radio electronic intelligence within Russia's Armed Forces. Although not much is known about this unit, its logos can be seen below. "Части особого назначения" - Osnaz GRU and "Военная радиоэлектронная разведка" - Military Radio Electronic Intelligence.

Various photos on the wall inside the captured facility once again emphasise the Russian involvement in the Middle East, showing even a map of Israeli Armed Forces bases and units. Other photos detail Russian personnel working at and running the center, as well as highlight a visit by Kudelina L.K., Counselor to the Minister of Defence of Russian Federation.

''Совместная обработка информации российскими и сирийскими офицерами'' and ''معالجة مشتركة للمعلومات بين الضباط السوريين والروس'' - Joint processing of information by Russian and Syrian officers.

''Начальники "Центра-С" - Chiefs of Center S. The six lines beneath reveal the ranks of the Russian chiefs, their names and dates when they commanded the Center. All six seem to have rank of Полковник - 'Colonel'. Surnames are not readable.

''Визит советника МО РФ Куделиной Л.И. в Центр'' and ''زيارة مستشار وزارة الدفاع الروسية كوديلني لي للمركز'' - Counselor to the Minister of Defence of Russian Federation Kudelina L.I. visiting the Center. 'Kudelina L.I.' is likely an error as the name should be 'Kudelina L.K'.

''Рабочий визит начальника ГУ МВС ВС РФ'' - Visit by the chief of the Main Directorate of International Military Cooperation of the Armed Forces of Russian Federation.

''Объекты и источники северного военного округа ВС Израиля'' - Bases and sources of Northern Military District of Israeli Armed Forces. 'Sources' indicates sources of radio signals.

"Карта радиоэлектронной обстановки" - Radio electronic situation map.