Syraq SITREP 52: Beating the War Drums, Bibi to Moscow for Victory Day and S300 Ambiguity

 Archive photo of Syrian Arab Army and Lebanese Hezbollah soldiers. After the Russians and Iranians stood up new and revamped effective SAA formations from 2015-17, the Shi'a militia group withdrew from combat in Syria to focus on the territorial defense of Lebanon against what its leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah regards as inevitable Israeli aggression.

Archive photo of Syrian Arab Army and Lebanese Hezbollah soldiers. After the Russians and Iranians stood up new and revamped effective SAA formations from 2015-17, the Shi'a militia group withdrew from combat in Syria to focus on the territorial defense of Lebanon against what its leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah regards as inevitable Israeli aggression.

Reviewing the 'Balance of Forces':
Why Time is Not on Israel's Side in Syria and the Limits of Israeli Military Power

For those listeners and readers new to RogueMoney, we will repeat here what has already been said many times: our mentor 'W' the Intelligence Insider believes a war between Israel and Hezbollah is only a matter of when, not if, and likely soon. The most likely roles of the world's two leading military powers the U.S. and Russia will be to stand aside if Israel does go to war with Iran in Syria and faces a second front against the Lebanese Shi'a force and a third front against a new Palestinian intifada in Gaza. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have plenty of troops, but the 2006 war against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon exposed major shortcomings in the Israelis vaunted ground forces. The U.S. war colleges in their studies of Israel's 34 day ground campaign in 2006 and its failures have freely acknowledged these problems. As a consequence, Netanyahu and the political leadership have largely relied on their Saudi allies and their Sunni Arab jihadist proxies in the failed attempt to break the so-called 'Shi'a crescent'.

As it has become clear in 2016-17 that Assad was winning the war against the jihadists Israel supported, together with the Americans, the Turks, and Washington's Sunni Gulf Allies working alongside the British and French, the Israelis relied more on their airpower and the Americans. The Saudis also relied on airpower and mercenaries from Sudan and other countries only to discover the 'axis of resistance' in Yemen would not be broken by blockade and starvation. Despite warming ties and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman making the Kingdom's previously covert cooperation with Israel overt, the Saudis military effectiveness in a U.S.-Israeli showdown with Iran remains highly suspect -- if only because the Kingdom's refineries are well within Iranian missile range.

Washington occupied together with the French much of northeastern Syria, claiming the oil and gas fields as spoils from ISIS defeat, but a shortage of troops committed to holding such a large mostly sparsely populated desert territory makes the American position tenuous. Even after baiting Russian private military contractors into a clash U.S. propaganda has wildly over-hyped into some great victory over slaughtered Russian combatants, the American military remains haunted by its Iraq occupation experience. Regardless of how delusional the neocons in and outside of the Trump Administration may be, Secretary of Defense Mattis and Joint Chiefs chairman Dunford are aware that American forces inside Syrian borders are vulnerable to the IED planting and hit and run mortar/rocket fire tactics that U.S. troops faced in Iraq. This and not just Russia's threats of retaliation if Russian personnel were harmed is why Mattis and Dunford reportedly dialed down the intensity of the bombing and number of targets the Trump White House planned to strike in mid-April.

Neither repeated Israeli air strikes nor the illegal under international law American presence can prevent Assad from regaining control over all of Syria west of the Russian-U.S. agreed Euphrates demarcation line (at least the portion not occupied by the Turks and their proxies). The most the Israeli Air Force (IAF) has been able to do is embarrass the Russians, the Assad government, and kill alleged Iranians or Iranian-trained forces inside the country in numerous strikes. Although Moscow has agreed to deconflict with Tel Aviv just like it did with the Americans, the Israelis are severely testing the Russian general staff's patience. The strike on the Tiyas air base, which followed the alleged chemical attack in Douma and subsequent Anglo-American missile strikes against Syrian 'chemical weapons production facilities' last month, may have risked the lives of Russian personnel. The base near Palmyra had been used by Russian forces in the recent past to liberate the desert area from ISIS, months before the Iranians reportedly launched an armed drone from Tiyas that penetrated Israeli air space.

The ambush shoot down of an IAF F16 and the severe damaging of an F15I happened in February after the Israelis took the Iranian drone bait -- and after the Russians had quietly improved Syrian command and control over their Soviet legacy SAMs. According to Elijah J. Magnier, the Israelis pummeled the base with more missiles out of revenge, not because the base presented such an attractive target. Israeli claims to have destroyed half of Syria's air defense capacity this spring were clearly false, as were the Pentagon's ridiculous claim that not a single cruise or standoff missile was shot down by Syrian defenders (or most likely, brought down by Russian electronic warfare systems) on April 14. For its part, Moscow may have exaggerated the effectiveness of the Syrians old air defenses -- but the proof is in the pudding of limited damage from the American strikes on the Al-Shayrat air base in April 2017 and again just three destroyed facilities out of several more Syrian government bases that the Russian Defense Ministry says were targeted. What is clear is that the February losses suffered by the IAF which almost killed one of the F16I pilots upon ejection, as well as Russia's gradual improvements to Syria's air defense network have forced a shift in Israeli tactics. 

Russia and Iran's Defensive Posture Versus U.S.-Israeli Aggression is Being Mistaken for Weakness, Israelis Also Seem to View Trump Administration Support as a Blank Check

No longer is the IAF simply performing the same routine it did for much of the war in Syria dating back to 2012: flying over Lebanese air space, firing standoff missiles, and returning to base. Instead the Israelis have had to modify their tactics, in order to account for the density of SAM and radar coverage around Damascus and the Mediterranean coast up to Russia's powerful electronic warfare systems at Tartus and Kheimmim. Moscow providing the Syrians with up to 40 highly mobile Pantsir anti-air missile and anti-aircraft gun systems has also increased the potential for nasty surprises should IAF pilots actually fly over Syrian government held territory.

This is likely why the IAF used trickery and posed its almost identical on radar F15I aircraft as American F15 Strike Eagles, flying over the American occupied territory through 'deconflicted' air space east of the Euphrates. Whether or not the Russian S400 crews at Kheimmim were fooled by this ruse, the Syrian air defense operators likely were before glide bombs struck an ammunition depot near Hama. Contrary to some initial speculation, the size of the explosion on April 29 was not due to a large Jericho ballistic missile warhead, but secondary blasts from the ordinance stored at the site.

It seems doubtful, even if approval was received at the highest levels of the Pentagon, that everyone within the U.S. Department of Defense was happy about Israeli jets posing as American fighter planes, considering that this increases the risk Syrian air defenses would shoot down U.S. fighters in the future. Hence the leak about it to NBC News. Nonetheless with the late April air strike that killed several dozen and the Knesset granting Netanyahu and his aggressive (and Soviet born/Russian speaking) defense minister Avigdor Lieberman extraordinary war powers, Tel Aviv was signaling its readiness for a broader war. The campaign of harassment against Syrian targets which Iranian officials vowed to avenge was teetering on the precipice.

Nonetheless, when looking at the timing of Israel's belligerent acts, there is a certain logic to them. The glide bomb strike on the alleged Iranian (actually SAA ground unit) ammo dump embarrassed the Russians at a delicate juncture, with Putin preparing for his inauguration on May 7 and the Victory Day celebrations of May 9. If the Israelis intent was to dissuade the Russians from supplying advanced S300 air defense systems to the Syrians, it remains unclear whether they succeeded. Netanyahu's willingness to fly to Moscow for face to face talks with Putin suggests the S300 is still an undecided issue, regardless of the Russian Defense Ministry urging Putin to get tougher on the Israeli attacks against Moscow's allies.

Stepped up deliveries of ground equipment as well as Pantsir and Tor short range missile systems to the SAA suggests a possible compromise between Putin and his hardliners. The compromise may be the Syrians' abilities to intercept incoming missiles are continuously being improved while they are being denied S300s capable of blowing Israeli jets out of the sky over Haifa. An alternate theory is that Moscow has already delivered the S300 covertly, flown into the country on airlifters in order to evade NATO and Israeli electronic surveillance, and is patiently waiting until the right moment to quickly assemble the parts and activate these systems as a surprise.

Other nasty surprises could include the limited 'launch and run' firing by the Syrian Arab Army of surface to surface missiles or longer ranged Smerch cluster munition rockets against the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) along the Quneitra front near the Golan Heights, especially if the Israelis persist in bombing the SAA. Pro-government forces may turn their attention to jihadi pockets closer to the Israeli-occupied Golan, after the operation to clean ISIS out of the Yarmouk refugee camp and remaining south Damascus outskirts is complete.

Netanyahu's Personal Political Fortunes and the Limited Window for a Hezbollah War

Sunday's elections in Lebanon, in which Hezbollah and its allied Christian political parties are expected to do very well, may prove another factor in Israeli calculations -- more so than Moscow's threats to supply Iran with its latest military equipment if the Trump Administration rips up the nuclear deal. If painful retaliation comes upon the Israelis, Hezbollah is the force most capable of inflicting humiliating blows upon the Mideast's most vaunted military. However the Lebanese Shi'a militia also has to consider Lebanon's internal politics and its position versus Saudi funded factions that have tried and failed to undermine Hezbollah's integral connections to the Lebanese military. Netanyahu's own deteriorating political capital at home while facing serious criminal investigations into corruption is also known to all the regional and external players, and may explain why Russia and Iran are showing tremendous restraint -- they don't think Bibi is going to last much longer in office. As the experienced Mideast correspondent Magnier writes:

Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu knows that he can maybe get away with hitting Iranian forces (with little damage), but only in Syria. Hitting Iran as a country would certainly ignite a wider war on several fronts, triggering the involvement of countries where Iran’s allies are present (on the Lebanese front, Syria and Iraq). Such an unlikely war would definitely stop civilian air traffic over the entire Middle East due to the “congestion” of mutual missiles flying in all directions and the risk to civilians. Maritime navigation and oil tankers would not be allowed to navigate, and oil rigs in the Middle East may be bombed and destroyed. Military bases in Iran, Israel, Syria, Lebanon and other US bases in the Middle East would be potential targets.

In the case of this scenario, the Middle East would slip towards the crater of a volcano in eruption. Although Iran and its allies maybe seriously damaged, it is to be said that Iran today is no longer as it was 5 or 10 years ago, its military potentiality is very much greater, and therefore the damage to its opponents can be expected to be highly significant.

The good news is, the Trump Administration has decided to cut off financial aid to the so-called White Helmets, reducing that group's capacity for faking chemical attacks. Escalating to direct hostilities between the U.S. and Israel on one side and the Iranians with their Shi'a allies across the region on the other side attacking American bases and Sunni Gulf energy exports, is likely a war too large for fragile Western economies to handle. The presence of the USS Harry Truman strike group in the eastern Mediterranean does not appear to signal any imminent American strikes against Syrian government targets, and Moscow's Victory Day display of fully operational hypersonic anti-ship Khinzhals is intended to ensure the Pentagon understands the risks of deliberately attacking Russian forces in the country.

Just as the U.S. economy appears to be showing sputtering signs of life, it would be very bad for President Trump and the Republicans political fortunes headed into the midterm elections if the conflict proved less than short and victorious, or if American troops in Syria started coming home in flag draped coffins from Iraqi Hezbollah attacks on their vulnerable bases. But a 'just right' Goldilocks sized conflict between the Lebanese Hezbollah and Israel appears to be a very high probability event before this autumn. In what London Paul calls the 'event driven scenario' with more potential false flag chemical attacks on the way, RogueMoney readers should plan on a potential short lived oil price spike and brief spooking of the markets when Hezbollah rockets start falling on Israel.