It’s been edifying to see how quickly the international press has discovered that Syrian air defense systems are not quite so “formidable” as they were once described by senior Pentagon officials. It apparently takes a heavily-subsidized American client state to demonstrate via mushroom clouds the flaws in American strategic thinking now that leading from behind has become a happy conceptual partner to being led by the nose by forty years of Ba’athist propaganda about Syria’s military might. But then, the Israelis have openly mocked Washington’s failure to uphold its own “red lines” and they never tire of reminding their American patrons that when it comes to human intelligence and dealing with state actors in the Middle East, the heavy lifting is really best left to them.
In the hours between Thursday and Friday last week, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) struck a convoy of Iranian-made Fateh-110 missiles destined for Hezbollah that being warehoused near Damascus International Airport, as well as Russian-made Yakhont shore-to-sea cruise missiles. Then, between Saturday and Sunday, the IAF waged nine more air strikes on the Syrian capital, including on the Jamraya chemical research facility in north Damascus (a target it already struck in a similar raid last January), the Fourth Armored Division Headquarters in Mezzeh, southwest Damascus, and the Republican Guard’s 104th Brigade in the Qasioun mountain region, which was engulfed in flames. Syria claims that more than 100 of its soldiers were killed by these attacks, and many more injured. (The Fourth Armored Division and Republican Guard are Assad’s praetorian divisions, without which his conventional military would virtually cease to exist.)
According to press accounts, both Israeli sorties, as well the earlier one waged in January, occurred without the IAF ever penetrating Syrian airspace; it used stand-off missile systems from the skies above Lebanon. And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was so unbothered by the threat of retaliation from powdering some of Bashar al-Assad’s impregnable fortresses that he didn’t even cancel a scheduled trip to China. Israelis then indicated that this isn’t the last time they intend to pay call on Damascus. Assad, meanwhile, retaliated against the Zionist aggressor by bombing more of his own people.
Michael Ross, an ex-Mossad officer, told me that the key to Israel’s in-and-out operations is its advanced electronic warfare system, which was constructed by Unit 8200 (“Israel’s NSA”) and is an advanced form of the “Suter” network that blinded Syrian radars during the IAF’s 2007 attack on Syria’s nuclear facility at al-Kibar. “The software identifies emitters and entry into enemy communications networks,” Ross said. “Then it shuts down some or all enemy emitters or injects misleading information or even malware. To control the skies, you must first control the electromagnetic spectrum. This is now IAF doctrine.” Ross also said that the Fateh-110 missiles had been delivered by Iran no more than a week before they were destroyed, which indicates that either the Islamic Republic is remarkably lax with its shipping manifests or that Israeli assets come and go in Syria like I do my own living room.
The last few days have seen a grit-teeth conversation among Syrian dissidents about what to make of Israel objectively aiding their cause. They needn’t disturb their consciences overmuch because the IAF looks right past them and doesn’t even see Syria as an independent country anymore, only an emerging Iranian suzerainty in the Levant. Dr. Shimon Shapira, a retired brigadier general of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), has written a paper unambiguously titled “Iran’s Plans to Take Over Syria,” which emphasizes comments made by Mehdi Taaib, the head of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s think tank, that Syria is “35th district of Iran,” tantamount to Khuzestan, the Arab-populated district of Iran. The architect of this grand strategy is Major General Qasem Suleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp-Quds Force, who, in an ambitious operation named for himself, has begun the training and financing of 150,000-strong sectarian militia in Syria known as Jaysh al Sha’bi, drawn from fighters from Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraq, and even the Gulf states. This Basiji-style irregular army, as well as older Syrian formations such as the minorities-staffed Popular Committees and the shabiha (both of which also receive the mullahs’ largesse), stand to inherit the responsibilities of the Syrian Army, and further Iranian interest, in the event of regime collapse.
Lest anyone think that these claims amount to Israel overstating its own security threat, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) has put out a new study about the Persian bulwark keeping Assad alive which legitimates and expands on Shapira’s analysis. ISW also suggests that a major imperative for grounding Syrian aircraft or destroying the Air Force’s infrastructure is to halt to the uninterrupted supply-line of personnel and materiel from Tehran.
The report neatly lays out the history of proven Iranian involvement in Syria such as the assassination of IRGC-QF Brigadier General Hassan Shateri in the Damascus countryside in February 2013, and the prisoner swap deal brokered between the regime and the Free Syrian Army in January, which saw the release of high-ranking officials of the IRGC-Ground Forces including the current and former commanders of IRGC Shohada unit; the commander of 14th Imam Sadegh Brigade (Bushehr province); and members of the 33rd al-Mahdi Brigade (Fars province). All of these units have extensive experience in counterinsurgency tactics, as they deal with provinces of Iran used to tribal and ethnic unrest. As the ISW authors observe: “The forward deployment of high-ranking current commanders of IRGC Ground Forces units is unusual, as IRGC-QF is Iran’s traditional foreign military arm while IRGC-GF is responsible for internal security and conventional operations inside of Iran.”
Moreover, the presence in Syria of agents from Iran’s Law Enforcement Forces, a sub unit of the Iranian Interior Ministry answerable to the Supreme National Security Council (and thus Khamenei himself), suggests that Tehran views Syria much the same way that Moscow views Georgia: as a domestic rather than foreign concern.
How are Iranian agents and weapons arriving in Syria? Through Iranian commercial and sometimes even Air Force planes, which ISW considers the “most critical component of Iranian material support to Syria.” In June 2011, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Iran Air for sending military hardware including “missile or rocket components” to Syria, which the IRGC of course dressed this up as medical equipment or innocuous spare parts. Another Iranian airline, Yas Air, was also sanctioned in March 2012 for moving IRGC-GF agents and weapons. In total, the Treasury Department has identified 117 cargo and passenger planes associated with Yas Air, Iran Air, Mahan Air facilitating the regime’s war machine. To quote from the ISW report:
“One Syrian Air Ilyushin-76... has been identified as having travelled between airfields around Moscow, Tehran, and Damascus in 2012. Unauthenticated flight manifest records indicate that this Syrian plane has used Iraqi, Iranian, and Azeri airspace to deliver equipment from Russia. The aircraft reportedly transported over 200 tons of Syrian banknotes printed in Russia over multiple trips in 2012. The aircraft also attempted to transport refurbished Mi-25 Russian attack helicopters in this manner, although Iraqi authorities denied the over-flight request.”
When the U.S. controlled Iraqi’s air space, Iran had to travel via Turkey’s to deliver materiel to Syria. Yet Turkey started interdicting and inspecting Iranian aircraft in March 2011, forcing Iran to revert to Iraqi skyways. Nuri al-Maliki’s assurances to the State Department that he would inspect all flights coming from Iran and headed to Syria would be worthless even if they weren’t mendacious because the Iraqi Air Force in its current state can hardly patrol its own airspace. (Don’t worry, though: the Transport Minster Hadi al-Amiri is a member of the Tehran-supported Badr Organization and widely seen as an accomplice of the IRGC.)
Still another problem is Iran’s enabling of Iraqi Shiite militias in Syria such as Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), Asai’b Ahl al-Haq (AAH) and the newly formed Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade (AFAB), which is diverse outfit of Syrian, Iraqi, and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters. Some of these militants are first flown to Tehran for training before being flown back to Damascus, chiefly to guard the Seyyada Zeinab district of the capital, where the daughter of Imam Ali is entombed.
Moving Iranian personnel and hardware within Syria is also best done through air transport. Yet the regime relies almost exclusively on the IL-76 transport plane, of which it currently has only five left in its inventory. Of its main strafing aircraft, the L-39 trainer jet, the Syrian Air Force is down to between 40 and 70. All other fixed-wing aircraft in its order of battle, particularly the MiG and SU attack jets, are Soviet-era, require heavy maintenance and even heavier training to make them mission capable. An intervention that confined itself to Syria’s air traffic would therefore severely hinder Iran’s ability to prop up Assad or further Suleimani’s “takeover” project.
Perhaps seeking to drive this point home, ISW released a helpful slideshow yesterday examining the three ways that such an intervention can be accomplished. The first is to wage limited air strikes on Syrian infrastructure (runways, fuel depots, command, and control centers) without really going after the planes themselves. This would degrade the regime’s ability to receive Iranian air cargo (or IRGC facilitators or repatriating militiamen) as well as then redistribute them around Syria. It would further reduce the regime’s capability to launch air attacks against the opposition, thus improving, albeit not guaranteeing, conditions for a safe zone in the north. The second option is go after some Syrian aircraft and degrading the regime’s ability to transport anyone or anything incoming from Iran around the country (though this option wouldn’t necessarily stop personnel or materiel from entering Syria). The third option is a no-fly zone, which would eliminate the regime’s ability to conduct bombing runs or receive aerial resupply from Iran. It would protect any safe zone established along the Syrian-Turkish border from aerial attack, though not from any ground incursions (here is where trained and well-equipped rebels would be necessary stand-in forces for foreign boots on the ground).
In a follow-up interview with Foreign Policy, ISW analyst Christopher Harmer explained: "Establishing a classic no-fly zone is time consuming and costly; grounding the Syrian Air Force is as simple as sending a few cruisers and destroyers from Norfolk over to the Eastern Med and dropping 250 (Tomahawk) TLAM into Syria. That ends the Syrian Air Force in less than an hour.”
The good news is that this wouldn’t cost nearly as much as the executive branch has let on. The bad news is that so long as President Obama gives his consent to further IAF sorties, I don’t see the United States looking to compete with a regional ally for control of Syria’s skies. The likelier outcome is that Israel will continue with pinprick operations to disrupt the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah missile nexus, while Suleimani’s sectarian insurgency plans will continue unabated.