Two major developments have occurred in the Syrian war since the Israeli air strikes of mid-March too close to the T4 airbase northeast of Palmyra, where Russian personnel have been active for Moscow to tolerate.
U.S./SDF Forces Continue to Advance Up the Euphrates Valley Closer to Raqqa
One, combined U.S. Special Forces/SDF units have crossed the Euphrates in a surprise attack relying on American helicopters and boats to ferry Kurdish fighters across the river into Daesh territory. The Taqba dam on the Euphrates is now fully secured and the success of the SDF/JSOC offensive has aided the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) further west in securing the town of Daer Hafer, after driving the Daesh terrorists away from a key water supply point on the Euphrates for Aleppo. The Taqba Air Base, which fell to ISIS back in 2014 when the Islamic State was fighting alongside so called moderate Free Syrian Army rebels, is now in the hands of Kurdish units. This could give American Apache gunships and Blackhawk transport helicopters another field from which to operate in the Raqqa offensive.
After heavy losses and defeats over the last several weeks at Palmyra and Mosul, Daesh appears to be in disarray and retreat on all fronts. Compounding the Daeshbags’ problems, they are now faced on the Raqqa front with heavy U.S. firepower from long range howitzers and HIMARS systems deployed by the U.S. Marines to strike mobile targets such as Toyota technical, VBIEDs or infantry concentrations.
Turkey, Unhappy with the Limits Imposed by the Tacit U.S.-Russia Alliance Against Daesh, is Supporting a New Jihadi Offensive
Two, it is now clear that Turkish forces will not be permitted by either the U.S. or Russia to participate in the assault on the capitol of the Islamic State Caliphate. In response, Turkey has thrown its support behind a counteroffensive by Al-Qaeda and non-ISIS jihadist groups in northern Hama province, threatening to cut the highway to the SAA held city. For the first time not only Soviet model ex-Eastern Bloc armored vehicles have appeared in the jihadis order of battle, but also Turkish-made armored cars.
Russian Aerospace forces in Syria have counterattacked, dispatching SU30 and 35 air superiority fighters to attack the jihadi convoys with anti-personnel rockets. Suspected Al-CIA-eda propagandist from New York State Bilal Abdel Kareem and the OGN Twitter feed are providing lavish coverage of the jihadists’ advances. However, the extensive interviews with Russian-speaking jihadists by Mr. Kareem has made the subjects he intends to glorify higher priority targets for Russian spetsnaz forces to eliminate. The ample video footage of the jihadis’ Toyota technical and armored car columns is also likely providing Russian military intelligence the GRU with geolocation data useful in plotting air strikes.
— Bilal Abdul Kareem (@BilalKareem) March 22, 2017
While the jihadi offensive is likely to run out of gas due to the superior firepower of the SAA, the attack does show the jihadist enclave in Idlib province bordering Turkey remains a serious threat to pro-government forces, and the SAA currently lacks the manpower to clean it out and sustain the advance against Daesh in the east. The jihadi offensive also shows that questions of where OGN’s takfiri propaganda is receiving funding and whether it is tied into the public relations groups funded by MI6 in London that promoted the anti-Assad jihad for the British government is not going away.
As longtime Mideast correspondent Elijah J. Magnier wrote this past week, even after Daesh is crushed Al-Qaeda will remain a dangerous adversary for the Syrian government, Russia and Iran in the Levant. For now EJM reports the U.S. prioritization of taking Raqqa and fresh supplies from Turkey have allowed Al-Qaeda and its allies to regroup, particularly using manpower that was expelled by the SAA from other parts of the country to form new assault squads. In the medium term as Magnier reports, the Russian military may have to get more involved on the ground than it is at present to root Al-Qaeda out of Idlib province. However the current Russian forces including private military contractors on the ground seem adequate along with the jets and choppers based in Syria to beat back the latest jihadist offensive.
The Israelis Vow to Continue Air Strikes Inside Syria That Threaten to Aggravate the Situation and Boost the Risk of Direct Confrontation with Hezbollah
Continued Israeli pressure in the form of vows to strike anytime they please may limit the potential to use additional Hezbollah and Iranian troops in lieu of Russian advisers, artillery-ists and spetsnaz teams against the Idlib terrorists. As the Syrians sarcastically noted when the IAF’s bombed its forces near the T4 base, Israeli is effectively acting as a spoiler and as an aviation arm of the terrorists, both Daesh and Al-Qaeda. And this is where the highest potential for escalation looms, despite neither Russia nor the U.S. wanting any distractions from the destruction of ISIS.
While Syrian claims to have shot down or badly damaged an Israeli Air Force F-16 that crash landed upon its return to base cannot be independently verified, there were reports published at Southfront a few months back (as presidential candidate Hillary Clinton threatened a no fly zone in Syria) that Russia supplied its Pantsir air defense systems to the Syrians. If those reports were accurate, Syrian crews have now had several months to train alongside their Russian counterparts on the NATO designated SA-22 Greyhound system at the Kheimmim air base.
Several of these systems could be used to defend Damascus and its suburbs from Israeli drones and aircraft, though they may not be able to shoot down the slower or larger type of stand-off missiles or glide bombs fired from IAF jets flying over the Golan Heights. The Pantsir’s engagement range is roughly between 15 and 18 miles and with networked radars and an infrared tracking capability that can target aircraft trying to fly low while trying to evade detection. It is likely these Syrian Pantsirs and not the Syrians old S200 SAM systems, that the IAF fears could damage its aura of invincibility. That is, unless strikes are carefully planned or standoff missiles are employed to avoid the Pantsirs. Israel does have some surface to surface missiles capable of hitting targets in and around Damascus from its own territory as an alternative to using air power.
Whether or not Israel will choose to escalate its conflict with Hezbollah and Damascus, most likely after U.S. forces have secured Raqqa by late summer or early autumn, depends on a number of factors. The soft coup and general war waged by the Establishment against the Trump White House weakens the new president and his Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ hand in dealing with a war-like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The corruption scandal surrounding Netanyahu and possibility of snap elections in the Knesset’s parliamentary system are also raising the risk of a general Israel-Hezbollah war. The IDF/IAF’s desire for payback against the Lebanese Shi’a militia, and the failure of Israel’s proxy support for the jihadists to break the Syrian regime due to massive Russian and Iranian support are accelerating the drive for war in Tel Aviv.
What holds Israel’s hardliners back from attack are fears that Hezbollah, as it demonstrated in 2006, has upped its tactical if not strategic game, including via rockets that can reach as far south in Israel as the aging nuclear facility at Dimona in the Negev. Hezbollah has also, as we’ve pointed out several times in this space, likely acquired weaponry more advanced than the short range infantry portable Kornet anti-tank missiles which inflicted heavy losses on the IDF’s vaunted Merkava tanks in 2006. These would include drones capable of guiding ‘pop up’ artillery strikes by howitzers pulled from bunkers or caves on IDF positions, and Iranian copies of Russian multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) like ‘Smerch’ already demonstrated by Hezbollah in Syria. These systems along with the tens of thousands of rockets Hezbollah has stored in Lebanon have the capability of overwhelming Israel’s vaunted Davids Sling defenses. A Persian knock off of the Smerch or Urugan system in particular can strike Israeli infantry, soft skinned vehicles and bases in northern Israel with cluster munitions.
For all its advantages in air and firepower, Israel’s Achilles heel in any war with Hezbollah (if not the severely depleted and overstretched Syrian military) remains an unwillingness to take heavy casualties in a small country where everyone knows someone with a son or daughter in the IDF. A single well-timed Smerch strike on an IDF convoy, possibly aided by on the ground intelligence from Hezbollah sources among Israeli Arab spies on the ground near the Lebanese border, could kill a dozen Israeli soldiers and wound twice as many.
A New Israeli-Hezbollah War Will Be Devastating But Likely End Just Like the 2006 War — In Strategic Failure
Despite all these factors, the investment Israel along with its Sunni Persian Gulf allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar made in toppling the Assad government has only partially paid off, in that Syria is badly weakened. Yet the goal of breaking the so-called Shi’a Crescent and cutting off the flow of arms from Iran to Hezbollah and discrediting the Lebanese hybrid army has been a total failure.
Despite losing several thousand men killed or seriously wounded, Hezbollah has emerged stronger from the conflict in Syria and with a few tricks up its sleeve acquired while fighting alongside Russia’s spetsnaz ‘Polite People’ and artillery gunners. Finding out the hard way that the drones buzzing overhead aren’t friendlies or that Hezbollah can rain counter-battery fire on IDF units for the first time since the bloody Yom Kippur War nearly forty five years ago would come as a great shock to the Israelis.
Let us hope that the inter mediation of Russia and the voices of military realism from the Trump Administration’s Pentagon will restrain the Israelis desire to once more test their strength and try for a military solution to the small country’s deteriorating strategic position. It is the Russia Analyst’s thesis that the state of Israel will only survive to its 100th anniversary in 2048 if it is at peace with the Palestinians and economically integrated with its neighbors into a greater Eurasia.