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Striking from the Dark, Jaish al-Islam fires Iranian Zelzal-2 rockets

By Stijn Mitzer

Jaish al-Islam has once again secured its place in the spotlight after firing at least two Iranian Zelzal-2 artillery rockets against regime positions in Syria on the 6th of March 2017. Jaish al-Islam had previously deployed one of its Zelzal-2s in retaliation for the continued airstrikes on Jaish al-Islam held Eastern Ghouta on the 31th of August 2015, and although the target and results of the underreported attack remain unknown, the strike confirmed that the threat of a non-state party firing off long-range rockets was very real. A video of the March 2017 launches can be seen here.

The current deployment of Zelzal-2s, dubbed 'Islam-5' by Jaish al-Islam, likely serves the same goals of deterrent and revenge as it did back in August 2015. Indeed, shortly before the launch of the first Zelzal-2 a member of Jaish al-Islam reads the following statement:

''In response to attacks by regime forces on civilians in the districts of Qaboun and Tishreen in Eastern Damascus as well as on Eastern Ghouta, we Rocket and Artillery regiments of Jaish al-Islam in the Qalamoun area, declare the launch of missile shelling campaign on regime positions.''

The first deployment of the Zelzal-2 came as a surprise to many as Jaish al-Islam was previously unknown to be in the possession of such sophisticated weaponry. Indeed, the capture of these missiles was not featured in any of the rebel's press releases or videos. Although the exact story on how Jaish al-Islam acquired Iranian Zelzal-2s remains unclear, these artillery rockets were believed to have been captured in Syria's Qalamoun region by elements of the Free Syrian Army in 2013, which subsequently sold the Zelzal-2s (thought to total at least five in number) to Jaish al-Islam. As no launcher was believed to have been captured, Jaish al-Islam subsequently engineered its own launch platform.

The one-and-a-half year gap between the two launches confirms a pattern that has been typical of the usage of Jaish al-Islam's military assets throughout the course of the Syrian Civil War. Instead of utilising its assets to their full potential in the Civil War as they become available, Jaish al-Islam is deploying them mainly as a deterrent, threatening their use to force the regime to reconsider its military actions against Jaish al-Islam and Eastern Ghouta.

This strategy first became apparent with Jaish al-Islam's usage of its three 9K33 mobile surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems, which have only been used on several occassions in the past several years despite the fact that plenty of missiles are available to Jaish al-Islam. With no missiles confirmed to have been fired for more than two years in between the last two launches despite an abundance of targets, it appears Jaish al-Islam is indeed unwilling to constantly operate these systems in a conventional role.

The Zelzal-2 is a 610mm unguided artillery rocket originally developed by Iran during the 1990s, which became the subject of controversy after it was reported that Hizbullah was in possession of the system, thereby putting large parts of Israel in its range. Although it remains unknown if Hizbullah ever did possess the Zelzal-2s, their presence in Lebanon is unlikely. In the meantime, Iran was in the process of setting up an assembly line for Zelzal-2 artillery rockets and Fateh 110 ballistic missiles in Syria. The missiles were first seen in 2011's rocket and missile exercises, which were held in an effort to project Syria's strength to the outside world amidst the increasingly deteriorating security situation in the country.

Although often confused for a ballistic missile, the Zelzal-2 is in fact an unguided artillery rocket. Although the CEP (circular error probable) of the Zelzal-2 is currently unknown, the spin-stabilized projectile is anything but a precise weapon, and is best aimed at larger targets such as airbases. The Zelzal-2's 600 kilogram heavy warhead is capable of striking targets up to an impressive range of 200 kilometers, and possibly even beyond.

Interestingly, in Syria artillery rockets and missiles are seen as weapons of revenge and thus purposely named after military defeats suffered at the hands of foreign powers. Accordingly, the Zelzal-2 became the 'Maysalun', referring to the Battle of Maysalun, where the Arab Kingdom suffered a defeat at the hands of the French Army in 1920. The Fateh 110 became known as the 'Tishreen', which in turn refers to the October War. Along the same lines, the Scud is referred to as 'Joulan', in reference to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Only a limited number of Iranian Zelzal-2s and Fateh 110s are believed to have been fired against rebel targets throughout the course of the Syrian Civil War. Instead, regime forces have made heavy use of Soviet R-17 'Scud' and 9M79(-1/M) 'Tochka-U' missiles against rebel held villages, almost exclusively resulting in civilian casualties. Russia is reported to have delivered additional missiles for these systems as Syria is believed to have run out of its original stock of 9M79M missiles. The Maysalun (left) and the Tishreen (right) can be seen in the images below.

Despite their significance, the introduction of the Zelzal-2 'Maysalun' and the Fateh 110 'Tishreen' into Syrian service and the setting up of a production line for these weapons was especially notable due to the fact that they were but a part of a much larger Iranian-Syrian agreement to turn Syria into a weapons depot for Hizbullah. In this role, a large portion of the heavy weaponry destined for Hizbullah would be held back in Syria awaiting a future potential conflict with Israel. This included and still includes multiple rocket launchers, artillery rockets and ballistic missiles, but also anti-ship missiles.

The reason for this peculiar deal has to do with the inability to safely store and defend larger weapons systems in Lebanon. Buildings containing such high value targets are extremely vulnerable without an integrated network of surface-to-air missile systems (SAMs), something which Hizbullah lacks. Syria could be said to perform much better in this department with the planned acquisition of S-300PMU-2s, Buk-M2s, Pechora-2Ms and Pantsir-S1s, although the delivery of the first has been postponed and is ultimately believed to have been cancelled. This dense network of surface-to-air missiles should have deterred the Israeli Air Force from targeting these weapons depots, yet it has so far proved unable to counter the continued aerial intrusions and airstrikes by the Israelis.

This agreement was first put to the test in 2006, when Syrian 220mm and 302mm Khaibar-1 multiple rocket launchers (MRLs) crossed the border with Lebanon and positioned themselves throughout the country in preparation of striking targets in Israel. While Hizbullah was responsible for the covert transportation and operations of these MRLs in Lebanon, Syria's 158th Missile Regiment is believed to have operated the Khaibar-1s in close cooperation with Hizbullah. At least one Khaibar-1 was destroyed by the Israeli Air Force during the course of the war. A large-scale possible deployment of Syrian MRLs and ballistic missiles vehicles in Lebanon is also the reason why all vehicles are based on brightly coloured civilian trucks, which can move through Lebanon relatively unnoticed and quickly be reconfigured to a more civilian look shortly after launching their deadly payload.

Yet Syria's participation is believed to have gone much further than supplying Hizbullah with arms and ammunition (including 9M133 Kornets) and operating multiple rocket launchers on behalf of Hizbullah. Similar to its involvement in operating these systems, it is also believed to have been the primary culprit behind the attack on the INS Hanit, an Israeli Sa'ar 5 class corvette, which killed four crew members. This ship was hit by a Chinese C-802 or its Iranian derivative; the launcher and personnel employed were likely supplied by Syria.

Although nowadays completely overshadowed by those of the Islamic State, Jaish al-Islam's accomplishments during the course of the Civil War have been nothing short of spectacular. It was the first faction to operate its armour and infantry in a single mechanised force, as opposed to the poor coordination between the two often seen with other forces. Also, as mentioned before it can be said to be the only rebel faction to successfully maintain air defence forces. In late 2013, Jaish al-Islam even established its own air force based at Kshesh airbase. While none of its L-39s ever flew operational sorties, it proved what Jaish al-Islam was capable of.

Similarly, it remains the only rebel faction to operate weapons in the Zelzal-2's class, even if it is uncertain how many missiles are in their arsenal. Despite the fact that the inaccuracy of this weapon makes it unlikely it actually managed to destroy anything, Jaish al-Islam's warning of a continued shelling campaigns should not be taken lightly, and only the future will tell if they are capable and willing of following through on it.

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  1. Great article! What are the chances of these rockets being detected by Syrian radar systems and subsequently shot down by a SA-22 system? Could they lock on to a Zelzal-2 and shoot it down like it did with the Israeli Popeye missile?

    1. SA-22 missiles are supposed to be able to engage Mach 3 targets.
      Terminal velocity of Scud-B was Mach 2.5, and Scud-B has the same range as Zelzal-2, so I suppose the latter's terminal velocity is likely very similar.

      What makes you claim that SA-22 has a 0% chance to intercept a Zelzal-2? Do you know of any failed SA-22 tests against TBMs?

    2. I'll be honest and admit this field is incredibly hard to predict. Going by what the manufacturer claims, the newer variants might indeed be capable of intercepting such targets. Looking at real-world intercepts, it seems highly implausible. Indeed, the chance that a SyAADF Pantsir could have intercepted one of these Zelzal-2s is basically 0%.

    3. It depends on fuse, warhead, crew training, wavelength of radar (ability to look high enough into the atmosphere), power-up time of SA-22, possible early warning etc.

      I suppose a SA-22 unit could intercept such an unguided TBM if deployed with the intent to defend against it (with a good guess of the point of origin) and high readiness maintained.
      The expanding rod warhead might cause an "all or nothing" result even if the fusing is fine.

      The probability of hit would likely be below 10% with a small footprint and the overall probability of effective intercept little better even with expenditures of multiple SAMs per target, but "definite 0%" is a quite daring claim without very detailed knowledge of the fuse or test results.

    4. 0% refers to the SyAADF's ability to shoot those rockets down.

  2. wow fast turn around. Great job as always

  3. Intended Iranian tactical application for these heavy artillery rockets include part of a broader rocket artillery campaign of varying types; rendering an effective economic siege on an attacking power's populated areas. That is to say, populations within range are forced into CD shelters, disrupting business activity of a developed economy that relies on finance and in particular timely debt repayment. It was an effective siege by rocket artillery campaign that was one of the larger factors that contributed toward abrupt IDF withdrawal from southern Lebanon during the 2006 war.

    Very much appreciate your perspectives, Oryx. Thanks again.


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