Saturday, 13 December 2014

The SyAAF: L-39s over Deir ez-Zor

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

With the fighting in Deir ez-Zor raging on, it seems the SyAAF's L-39s are now finally back after a long absence. A video from Al Mayadeen, on a visit to Deir ez-Zor, shows some of the aircraft currently deployed at Deir ez-Zor's airbase.

Apart from the obvious MiG-17 gate guard, a Mi-8, an inoperational MiG-21UM and one of the remaining MiG-21UMs at Deir ez-Zor, it also gives us a glimpse at a L-39.

While the L-39 fleet was the most active in the early stages of the Syrian Civil War, one of its main bases was overrun by Jaish al-Islam, which later attempted to get at least two aircraft operational. The other base operating L-39s, Kweres, has been under siege since December 2012. However, a quick relief of the siege allowed the main training base of the SyAAF to evacuate some of its aircraft, and together with other surviving L-39s, these subsequently underwent overhaul at 'The Factory', the SyAAF's repair and maintenance center at Neyrab/Aleppo International Airport.

At least five L-39s were spotted here at any given time in late 2013, awaiting their overhaul.

A subsequent series of TOW strikes, which also destroyed an inoperational MiG-23MLD, destroyed one or possibly two L-39s. A huge slap in the face for the SyAAF, as these two precious airframes were just freshly overhauled by 'The Factory'.

The remaining examples were subsequently distributed between Syria's airbases. As the L-39s are easy to operate and maintain, they can be easily deployed throughout Syria. The deployment of L-39s to Deir ez-Zor is a perfect example of this tactic.

The remaining MiG-21s at Deir ez-Zor's airbase, strengthened by the deployment of the SyAAF's 819th Squadron flying the recently upgraded Su-24M2s already have their hands full stopping the Islamic State's attempts to capture the airbase and eliminate the Syrian Arab Army and Republican Guard in and around Deir ez-Zor. Therefore, L-39s are a welcome sight for the garrisons deployed here and show that Deir ez-Zor hasn't been abandoned just yet.

Interestingly, the overhaul also expanded the capabilities of the L-39s by adding the cability to carry 80mm B-8 rocket pods. These B-8s were believed to have been received from Russia last year. The L-39 was previously unknown to be capable of using the B-8, carrying the 57mm UB-16 rocket pod instead. The B-8 equipped L-39ZO seen below is currently deployed at Hama airbase.

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Why Israel is bombing Syria and getting away with it

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Why Israel is bombing Syria and getting away with it

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

Israeli airstrikes on targets in Syria remain shrouded in secrecy, and are often subject to speculation about what has been hit this time. For instance, the recent raids on Syrian territory, during which just one Popeye air-to-surface missile was intercepted by a Syrian Pantsir-S1 SAM system, saw depots near Damascus being hit by Israeli jets, although the content of these is unknown. The actual locations and targets reported to have been hit do often not correspond with the truth. This post will try to make clear why Israel is bombing Syria and why it is getting away with it.

Syria has direct access to the Mediterranean Sea and is a neighbouring country of Israel and Lebanon, and thus very attractive to any country wanting to enjoy both political and military influence in this region. One of these countries is, to no one's surprise, Iran.

Iran's involvement in financing and arming Hamas and Hizbullah is substantial, and often greatly underestimated. For example, the military wing of Hamas (the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades) frequently receives Iranian-made weaponry or weaponry acquired by Iran. These shipments usually include various sorts of lighter weaponry that is generally more suitable for Gaza's urban environment. It was also supposed to acquire C-704 anti-ship missiles, which were confiscated by the Israeli Navy onboard the freighter Victoria, and Syrian made 302mm Khaibar-1 'M-302' rockets, which were also intercepted by the Israeli Navy near Sudan's Red Sea coast. Members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard present in Sudan take care of the weapon shipments as they travel from Sudan to Gaza via Egypt. Sudan functions as a middle man here, as they allow the shipments to arrive and agree to see them transported over Sudan's soil. A number of past Israeli raids on such convoys and storage depots inside Sudan thus comes as no surprise.

Back to Syria, which employs a similar method. Iran also functions as the supplier or financial backer of the weaponry here, with Syria being both the "middle man" and the party who receives the weaponry. Syria transfers a part of the received weaponry to Hizbullah or keeps it in storage sites within its borders awaiting a future potential conflict with Israel, after which it also gets transferred to Hizbullah.

The reason why a part of the weaponry is held back has to do with the inability to safely store and defend larger weapons systems in Lebanon. Buildings containing such weaponry can only be defended by an integrated network of surface-to-air missile systems (SAMs), something which Hizbullah lacks. Syria on the other hand had one of the most dense air-defence networks in the Middle East before the start of the Civil War. While Syria's SAM network has never managed to shoot down any of the Israeli aircraft striking locations in Syria, it does prove more of a deterrence than having no SAMs to defend your weapons systems at all.

Syria's most modern SAM units, some of which strategically positioned around such storage sites, all remain active. Most of these systems were ordered and received in the past couple of years. Should the SAM network have been completed, these storage sites would have been defended by S-300PMU-2s, Buk-M2s, Pechora-2Ms and Pantsir-S1s. It is unknown if Iran provided funding to allow Syria to buy so much high-grade equipment from Russia, but it at least seems likely.

The first time the Syrian method of smuggling armament was put to test was in 2006. Yet Syria's role in this war went further than just supplying some of the weaponry to Hizbullah; it also actively participated in firing rockets at Israel and might even be responsible for the attack on the INS Hanit, an Israeli Sa'ar 5 class corvette.

The most famous documented usage of Syrian weaponry by Hizbullah was the use of 9M133 Kornet ATGMs to destroy at least five Merkava tanks during the 2006 war. 9M133 missile containers captured by the IDF revealed the true origin of the shipment: Syria.

Direct involvement of Syria in the 2006 conflict came through the use of 302mm Khaibar-1 multiple rocket launchers (MRLs), an indigenous product of Syria. These MRLs, operating from within Lebanon, were responsible for much of the damage done on Israel's infrastructure. While it was initially thought these launchers were only provided by Syria to Hizbullah, all the Khaibar-1s were actually operated by Syria's 158th Missile Regiment in close cooperation with Hizbullah. At least one Khaibar-1 was destroyed by the Israeli Air Force.

Syrian-produced 220mm MRLs also saw use in Lebanon, where they were used by Hizbullah. Most of the launch platforms used for the 220mm and 302mm Khaibar-1 rockets are based on brightly coloured civilian trucks, which can be quickly reconfigured to a more civilian look shortly after launch.

The usage of such trucks is perfect for Hizbullah, as they're very mobile and its deadly weaponry is easy to hide. For example, this Falaq-2 used by Syrian troops in the Syrian Civil War was reconfigured to resemble a civilian truck within minutes after launching its rocket.

The relative ease of driving these trucks around in Lebanon is what caused another major incident: The assault on the INS Hanit by a C-802 (or the Iranian-produced copy by the name of Noor) anti-ship missile fired by Hizbullah, likely aided by members of the Revolutionary Guard. In order to fire a C-802, you need a launch platform, which is either a ship, a plane or a truck. The first two possibilities can be eliminated immediately as Hizbullah doesn't operate any fighter jets or missile boats. This leaves a truck-based launcher as the only remaining option.

Syria is known to have acquired a truck-based C-802 coastal defence system, which was shown in a live firing exercise by the Syrian Navy in 2012. This raises the question if Syria might have been involved in the assault on the C-802 at the INS Hanit.

While Syria was already in the possession of a C-802 based launcher, Hizbullah was not yet familiar with such a system, and would have had trouble storing it within Lebanon. Much more likely is that it was actually Syria who transported one of its C-802 launch platforms (as seen with the 220mm and 302mm rockets) to Lebanon disguised as a civilian truck, and subsequently used it to strike the INS Hanit in cooperation with Hizbullah and the Revolutionary Guard, after which the launch platform safely returned to Syria.

To ease the flow of such sophisticated weaponry, Iran established a production line for Zelzal-2 artillery rockets and Fateh 110 ballistic missiles inside Syria. These production lines are likely based in the undergound facilities of the Al Safir and Hama missile facility sites. In Syria, the Zelzal-2 is known as the 'Maysalun', referring to the Battle of Maysalun which was won by the French. The Fateh 110 is known as the 'Tishreen', which in turn refers to the October War. Syrian artillery rockets and missiles are seen as weapons of revenge and thus always purposely named after military defeats. The Maysalun and the Tishreen can be seen in the images below.

Iran even went as far as to claim that Hizbullah already received weapons with ''pinpoint accuracy", which would make the next war "much tougher for the Israelis".[1] As the Zelzal-2 is an artillery rocket, a type which is not known for its pinpoint accuracy, such a statement could only point at the Fateh 110. Israel was already known to have bombed a shipment of ''game-changing weaponry'' which was being supplied to Hizbullah, also likely to be Fateh 110s.[2]

As weapons such as the Zelzal-2, Fateh 110 and C-802 would require a whole new Israeli strategy to cope with such threats, taking out some of the advanced weaponry destined for use with or alongside Hizbullah seems exactly what Israel is doing. By taking out advanced equipment before it even reaches its destination, Hizbullah is derived of offensive capabilities that could otherwise inflict serious damage on the Israeli military, yet while running a low risk of actually provoking a war or suffering losses itself.

If Syria would retaliate by firing ballistic missiles on Israel, it would undoubtedly result in a direct war, which the already battered Syrian military simply isn't capable of waging at this point. Such a war would see the whole Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) destroyed by Israel, leaving a gap easily exploited by groups such as the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic State. This imbalance in military capabilities essentially means has Israel can roam free through Syrian airspace without having to fear serious retaliations.

Syria's inability to protect these shipments against Israeli attacks is the only hitch in the method of covertly providing arms to Hizbullah. As the Israeli Air Force makes heavy use of electronic countermeasures and deploys weapon systems outside the range of Syrian SAM systems, Israel can freely continue to roam over the Syrian skies, at least until Syria receives its first S-300PMU-2.

Buk-M2 SAM systems and Bastion-P coastal defence systems were reported to have been struck out of fear of these weapons falling in the hands of Hizbullah. This has much to do with Israel's fear of a repetition of the INS Hanit scenario.Yet it remains unlikely Syria would use its most advanced Russian SAM systems and coastal defence systems in Lebanon in the foreseeable future. In turn, transferring such large weapon systems to Hizbullah would likely meet fierce resistance from Russia, and thus seems unlikely.

In case of a future war with Israel, we might see an increasing amount of Iranian and Syrian weaponry being used by Hizbullah and by Syria itself within Lebanon. Advanced weaponry such as the Igla-S and Fateh 110 missiles will surely change the way any future war in the region will be fought. 

Essentially, both parties are waging a covert war spanning a large period of time. Syria (as well as Iran for that matter) use Hizbullah and other anti-Israel groups in the Middle East as a proxy to fight the war on their own terms, whereas Israel manages to strike at its enemies without any retaliation.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Battlefront Syria: Deir ez-Zor

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

Deir ez-Zor is perhaps Syria's most underreported city; while originally largely under Free Syrian Army control after the start of the civil war, the city was taken over by the Islamic State in early July, which subsequently faced a little-reported Republican Guard offensive aimed at encircling the city. In early December, the Islamic State made a push in the direction of Deir ez-Zor's airbase, a vital lifeline to the city.

Deir ez-Zor is perhaps best known for its oilfields, and previously much of the fighting around the city involved fighting for control over these strategically important objectives. As the oilfields used to provide much of the fuel for the Syrian Arab Army, the Republican Guard, the National Defence Force and Suqur al-Sahara (Desert Falcons), their takeover about a year ago was a serious blow to all forces loyal to Assad and endangered the fuel supply badly needed to mount new offensives. While Russian contractors belonging to the Slavonic Corps were intially sent to protect these oilfields, they did not even manage to reach Deir ez-Zor.

The dwindling fuel supplies already forced the widespread introduction of tank trailers, as there simply isn't enough fuel for the tanks to drive to their deployment zone by themself. A situation that isn't going to improve unless the oilfields around Deir ez-Zor are recaptured.

A number of reasons explain why there's still a large Syrian military presence in Deir ez-Zor. Firstly, Deir ez-Zor was reinforced by elements of the Republican Guard's 104th Brigade led by Brigadier General Issam Zahreddine in early 2014. Secondly, the airbase is still in government hands; it has proven vital to quickly resupply the city and fighter-bombers stationed there also provide much of the air support to forces in and around the city. Thirdly, the Damascus - Palmyra - Deir ez-Zor highway remains under government control. This highway is used to ferry reinforcements and supplies to the city. Lastly, the high ground around the city remains in the hands of the Syrian Arab Army (SyAA). The SyAA positioned numerous howitzers, field guns and multiple rocket launchers (MRLs) here, which can fire at any target within the city and also cover the approaches to the airbase.

The Republican Guard's 104th Brigade was intially rushed to Aleppo to launch a new series of offensives in the hope of regaining some of the lost ground in and around Aleppo, but saw itself transferred to Deir ez-Zor in early 2014 to reinforce the remainder of the Syrian Arab Army garrison. It is unknown if the entire 104th or only a part of it was transferred to Deir ez-Zor. As the amount of Republican Guard fighters in Deir ez-Zor remains low, the latter seems more likely. The contingent currently deployed in Deir ez-Zor is led by Issam Zahreddine, a Druze and undoubtedly the most popular general found within Syria. The reason for his popularity is that he personally leads his soldiers into battle, can always be found on the frontline and shares the same priviliges as his soldiers, even if that means sitting in a BMP-1 driving towards the frontline.

The 104th is sometimes classified as the 104th Airborne Brigade of the Republican Guard, and while a few soldiers in the brigade were indeed trained as what one would call paratroopers, and others were learned how to deploy from low-flying helicopters, the 104th is believed to have been "airborne" only in name, displaying the characteristics of a mechanised brigade instead. The fact that Syrian military doctrine does not envisage  airborne operations supports this theory.

Nonetheless, the contingent deployed to Deir ez-Zor only managed to acquire a limited amount of older T-72 Urals, T-72M1s, BMP-1s and some ZSU-23s from other units. A couple of Falaq-2 launchers are also operated. The 104th using T-72s in Deir ez-Zor marked the first deployment of this type in the city, as the 137th Mechanized Brigade had only been operating T-55s.

During the initial operations in Damascus, the 104th operated several TURMS-T equipped T-72s (Syria's most modern tanks) but all appear to have been transferred to another unit within the Republican Guard. While the brigade thus lacks large amounts of modern tanks, it did receive a sizeable batch of Sayyad-2 anti-materiel sniper rifles and AK-74Ms, Syria's most modern assault rifle.

Unsurprisingly, the 104th Brigade contingent boosts a significant amount of Druze fighters. Issam Zahreddine's bodyguard unit is also believed to consist mainly of Druzes. The need for bodyguards is a direct result of his popularity in Syria and more importantly, the $200,000 bounty on Zahreddine's head.

The 104th came to Deir ez-Zor with two important tasks: Securing the airbase by pushing back the fighters of the Islamic State and encircling them within the city centre so a new offensive on the oilfields could be initiated. The first goal was accomplished quite quickly after the 104th arrived. After Tabqa fell, Issam Zahreddine remarked: ''Deir ez-Zor airbase is not Tabqa airbase. We will bury IS here.''

Ground forces already operating in Deir ez-Zor were limited to 137th Mechanized Brigade, which already lost most of its fighting power and tanks during two years of heavy fighting, yet remained in control of parts of the city and the strategic hills. Along with NDF troops, made up of civilians, reservists and a few regular soldiers they were already busy with defending the remaining parts of the city and airbase, and did not have the power to launch an offensive themselves.

The 104th contingent deployed to Deir ez-Zor was also quite small, and was forced to carefully balance its troops in order to be able to fend off any assauls on its flanks during its own offensives. So while much of the 104th was mostly on the offensive, a part was distributed along the city permiter to reinforce the SyAA and NDF soldiers already present here. The battles fought within the city centre were extremely fierce. Local offensives usually saw both sides fighting for housing blocks, during which neither sides could really advance. The Islamic State also made extensive use of tunnels, some of which were ultimately destroyed. The SyAA and NDF could count on artillery support from the nearby hills, which subsequently destroyed most of the city and due to the close proximity of both sides, did also occasionally result in SyAA casualties.[1] Footage of the fighting inside Deir ez-Zor can be seen here.

The underreported offensive was aimed at cutting off the city centre from Islamic State-held territory at the opposite side of the river. The 104th was split into two, with both parts attacking from a different direction.

As seen in the map, one part attacked from Al Filat while the other part crossed the river to Saqr (Saqer) Island. Contrary to the fighting in the city, the battle for Saqr Island was fought between thick layers of trees, bushes and crops. Footage from the Battle of Saqr Island in chronological order can be seen here and here.

During his operations, Issam Zahreddine used tactics the SyAA and NDF could only dream off, especially in the early stages of the Syrian Civil War. T-72s moving up while followed by infantry and covered by other T-72s and ZSU-23s, the infantry clears the housing, again supported by T-72s and ZSU-23s and the process is repeated again and again. This in sharp contrast to the use of tanks in the early days of the Civil War, when they were used as battering rams charging through cities, often falling prey to RPG fire. One of the T-72M1s deployed to Deir ez-Zor can be seen below. The flag seen on the right belongs to the Druze community.

The ultimate goal of the Al Filat - Saqr Island offensive was to encircle the fighters of the Islamic State within Deir ez-Zor itself, after which the 104th could be used in a new offensive to regain the lost oilfields scattered around Deir ez-Zor. The fighting for the city would be left to the Syrian Arab Army, the National Defence Force and a new militia called the National Security.[2] Trained at the base of the 137th Mechanized Brigade, it would have consisted of people not yet fighting with the Syrian Arab Army or National Defence Force.

The downside of this offensive for the SyAA, NDF and 104th was that it exposed the weak flanks even more. As the forces were already stretched thin here, it was just a matter of time before the Islamic State would attempt to benefit from this situation.

Although some suggest the push on the airbase is a direct result of the stalemate in Kobanî, which brought the need for another victory, this could be questioned as Kweres airbase would be better suited for a quick victory. Kweres, formerly the main training base of the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF), has been under siege since December 2012 and is now nothing more than a runway littered with plane wrecks and troops only capable of defending the base.

Deir ez-Zor's airbase is home to the SyAAF's 8th Squadron operating the MiG-21. Around a dozen decommissioned MiG-21s can be seen on satellite imagery, suggesting 8th Squadron received more MiG-21s from other Squadrons within Syria to stay operational. 8th Squadron also suffered several losses because of ATGM teams around the airbase, which destroyed at least two MiG-21s within their hardened aircraft shelters (HAS). This forced the SyAAF to hide most its planes behind raised sand covers.

Deir ez-Zor also sees regular deployments of Mi-8/17s, Mi-25s and even MiG-23BNs. Furthermore, the 104th can call upon the SyAAF's 819th Squadron, flying recently upgraded Su-24M2s, for precision attacks.[3] [4] These aircraft have been frequently spotted over Deir ez-Zor.

Deir ez-Zor used to house four 2K12 SAM sites for the protection of the airbase and city. While one of these was destroyed by the Free Syrian Army while retreating to regime-held territory and another inactive site was overrun by the Islamic State (one of the inoperational captured launcher units can be seen below), two still remain under regime control. Of these two, only one remains partially operational.

The Damascus - Palmyra - Deir ez-Zor highway, which was used by the 104th to reach Deir ez-Zor, also remains under government control and has proven to be of vital importance as it is the city's primary lifeline.

Holding on to this road, the strategic airbase and surrounding hills is of great importance for the SyAA, NDF and 104th in and around Deir ez-Zor. Previously gained ground might have to be abandoned to free up forces for the defence of Deir ez-Zor's airbase. The SyAA, NDF and 104th's ability to call in air support and artillery due to their control of the high ground might be just enough to ensure their presence in Deir ez-Zor is there to stay.

But as the magnitude of the Islamic State's offensive remains unknown, it is as of yet impossible to judge if they've embarked on a large scale offensive aimed at finishing the regime's presence in Deir ez-Zour once and for all, or if they're simply probing the defences of the SyAA, NDF and 104th around the airbase, hoping to gain a direct line of sight of the runway via the neigbourhoods of Jaffra and Al-Mari’iyya, making it impossible for the SyAAF to take off. It is also possible the assault is a diversion for a future offensive aimed at retaking some of the ground it lost in the recent months, thus preventing possible encirclement.

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