Just how flexible are the America and Russia’s Middle East expeditions?

During Russia’s much publicized drawdown from Syria in mid-March (see Video below) Maria Dubovikova argued in Al Arabiya that Russia was “withdrawing [from Syria] in order to stay”. The apparent contradiction in that witty formulation echoes what a US officer told AP’s Peter Arnett concerning the destruction of Bến Tre, the capital city of Bến Tre Province, in the Mekong Delta area of southern Vietnam, in 1968, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it” (Ralph Keyes, “The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When“, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2006, p. 43).

From the get-go the Russians have taken clear steps not to end up embroiled in the complex conflict in Syria. Setting-up base in Syria’s west in late September 2015, they proceeded to rely heavily on air power to target and bombard Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents to enable his forces on the ground to advance on various battlefronts. In the short-term they bolstered and shored up their Syrian ally and gave him a stronger position from which to negotiate an end to that five-year-old conflict. In the long-term, however, they may well have to remain to secure and lock-in these successes.

Six weeks after the so-called “draw-down” began, it’s clear that Russia has withdrawn the bulk of its Su-25 and Su-34 strike aircraft, likely for some much needed maintenance. In their place the Russians are relying more on helicopter gunships and artillery to give close air support to the Syrian military and its allied militias. A small ground contingent of special forces also remains and helped coordinate the successful campaign against ISIS in the ancient city of Palmyra late last month.

All of this may be indicative of a much more protracted long-term Russian involvement in the Syrian conflict, especially if a political solution is not reached and the Kremlin risks seeing the tide turn against Assad once again (just as it had done up to the point of the Russian intervention when Assad was on the defensive in multiple fronts) in the near future, if they completely withdraw their forces, which could in turn see all their recent battlefield gains rendered worthless in the long-term.

So the Russians remain to ensure their recent gains are not reversed. Russian gunships are still operating in Syria and Moscow has said it will support future Syrian operations, be they in Aleppo or Raqqa.

Pilot by a Russian MI-8AMShT cargo and attack helicopter at the Hmeimim air base.

Pilot by a Russian MI-8AMShT cargo and attack helicopter at the Hmeimim air base.

Similarly since the Americans returned to Iraq following Islamic States’ blitz across that country’s north in the summer of 2014, they have found themselves becoming more and more directly involved. While US President Barack Obama repeatedly pledged that there would be no “boots on the ground” in neither Iraq nor Syria increasing numbers of advisors and trainers have been deployed to Iraq along with special forces. Delta Force has been deployed and is ready to carry out raids against ISIS positions in either Iraq or Syria.

Just this week Obama said another 250 special forces personnel will be deployed to Syria to advise and assist the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — America’s only real ground ally in Syria against ISIS — in addition to the other 50 special forces soldiers already there. Furthermore it was revealed last month that the US Marine Corps has established an artillery firebase manned by 200 Marines on the Makhmour front against ISIS. While that ground contingent is there solely in order to provide heavy supporting fire to Iraqi and Kurdish military forces battling ISIS the deployment is nevertheless noteworthy and indicates that the US is incrementally becoming more involved in what is an increasingly protracted war against ISIS.

Also Apache helicopter gunships are set to enter the fray to give the Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces more direct close air support in the upcoming offensive into Mosul. But even if Mosul is liberated within the next year or so the US may find itself remaining nevertheless to ensure that the area is substantially stabilised to ensure that ISIS isn’t soon replaced by yet another Sunni Islamist group.

Both these recent interventions share many characteristics: They both aim to spearhead the advances of established central authorities against armed militants by playing a supporting role, albeit supporting roles which have exponentially grown over time. Their efforts may well prove to be just a vain attempt to avoid inevitably becoming embroiled in the deep morasses that are modern day fractured states of Iraq and Syria.

U.S. Marines with Task Force Spartan, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), on Fire Base Bell, Iraq, fire an M777A2 Howitzer at an ISIS infiltration route March 18, 2016. The Marines fired upon the enemy infiltration routes in order to disrupt their freedom of movement and ability to attack Kurdish and Peshmerga forces. (Photo: Cpl. Andre Dakis / U.S. Marine Corps).

U.S. Marines with Task Force Spartan, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), on Fire Base Bell, Iraq, fire an M777A2 Howitzer at an ISIS infiltration route March 18, 2016. The Marines fired upon the enemy infiltration routes in order to disrupt their freedom of movement and ability to attack Kurdish and Peshmerga forces. (Photo: Cpl. Andre Dakis / U.S. Marine Corps).

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Battle for the Strategic Airlift Interim Solution

by Björn Müller (Facebook / Twitter; original published in German). Björn is journalist in Berlin focusing on security policy and geopolitics.

Antonov-124 on the SALIS hub at Leipzig Airport (Photo: Markus Kutscher / CC License / Wikipedia).

Antonov-124 on the SALIS hub at Leipzig Airport (Photo: Markus Kutscher / CC License / Wikipedia).

NATO is currently running the bidding process for a continuation of the Strategic Airlift Interim Solution (SALIS), beginning in 2017. European countries organise military air transport via a private company with this project. Since SALIS was launched ten years ago, RUSLAN SALIS GmbH has provided transportation services with Antonow-124 aircraft. The GmbH is a 50/50 joint venture of the Russian company Volga-Dnepr and the Ukrainian State company Antonov. That is now finished – in the current bidding process, these thus far partners have entered as competitors against each other. Until 9 March of this year, interested parties could submit their SALIS bids to the NATO Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA); between late April and early May, the decision will be made as to who will carry out the business in the future.

Essential for air transport
Although the exact contract amounts for SALIS are not known, interest in the contract is likely to be high. SALIS is more than a nice-to-have in military air transport. Launched in 2006, SALIS was initially meant to bridge the lack of capacity until the A400M was up and running. However, this transitional solution became a de facto essential pillar of air transport in the alliance. Whether it is used for medicines or tank howitzers — little air transport to European armies occurs without SALIS. The German Bundeswehr indicates that 70 percent of their total transport is carried out by civilian contractors, of which half is through SALIS. In 2015, that amounted to more than 4,000 tons of cargo and 65 flights. Use of SALIS is also planned for the transport of material and units of the NATO Response Force and the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, according to the German Federal Ministry of Defence.

Causes of the breakdown in cooperation
Why Volga-Dnepr and Antonov can no longer make common cause is not entirely clear. The current partnership began with a 2006 contract, which was initially extended, and they then won the last tender in 2012. There are however indications of why the break occurred.

Firstly, the Ukraine-Russia conflict played a role. Antonov has now been incorporated into the state armaments group UKROboronPROM. In the defence sector Ukraine has adopted sanctions against Russia, which also apply to Antonov. Their aircraft are still conceived primarily for military needs and the Russian market. As a result of the sanctions, Russia had to adjust the licensed production of the Antonov-140; the environment was not conducive to business between Ukrainians and a Russian company and vice versa.

What is likely to have been strained the cooperation: According to an industry insider, the joint venture of Ukrainians with the Russians is a so-called societas leonina. That is, formally both partners hold equal shares in the company; however the managing director is always a representative of Volga-Dnepr and decides what is defined as cost/profit in the GmbH. Thus, the Russians were in the comfortable position of receiving the lion’s share of the profits, while the Ukrainians received just enough to keep them in line.

Antonov An-124 on the apron of Cargo Area South at the Leipzig/Halle Airport.

Antonov An-124 on the apron of Cargo Area South at the Leipzig/Halle Airport.

Decision of the SALIS partners
It is likely that for the 2017 SALIS reissue that Volga-Dnepr or Antonov will be awarded the contract. Both are the world’s largest commercial providers of Antonov-124 machines (Volga-Dnepr: 10 / Antonov: 7). European forces will continue to need exactly these large-capacity transporters. A spokesman for the German Federal Ministry of Defence discussed the interests of the German Armed Forces in the context of the SALIS re-tendering:

The German Armed Forces needs to change the secure way of strategic air transport of oversized and heavy cargo. For this purpose, two types of aircraft are appropriate. These are the ANTONOV AN-124 and the American C5M GALAXY, which is operated only militarily. A national and multinational search was conducted for possible solutions to fill this capability gap. A commissioned study by the European Defence Agency (EDA) also came to the conclusion that there is no alternative to the entire AN-124 for secure commercial availability.

It will be exciting to see how the decision plays out and how the individual SALIS partner nations will position themselves. Although the NSPA in Kapellen/Luxembourg is implementing the bidding process, ultimately the 14 SALIS partner countries will decide with their shares of votes, corresponding to the size of their transport quotas. Germany stands here in the first place and is the lead nation.

It is conceivable that opposition in NATO on the proper containment strategy towards Russia will have an effect on SALIS. For the policy of Germany, the main representative of the strategy “pressure plus assistance”, it would be fitting to involve a Russian company. By contrast, the SALIS-nation of Poland with their “hard balancing” course against Russia, will be more interested in a Ukrainian or non-Russian company for the contract. It will also be interesting to see how the previous GmbH is phased out.

The Russian Germany network
As it stands, Volga-Dnepr tendered its bid for SALIS 2017 through Ruslan SALIS GmbH. This company under German law is involved with the bidding process, as shared with the author by Ivan Strelnikov, Commercial Director of the GmbH. The answer to the question as to whether the offer came about with compliance of Antonov and whether it reflects the interests of the Ukrainian partner in the GmbH, was not answered. If two companies have a fifty-fifty joint venture, can one use it then for their own offer? According to a specialist lawyer for procurement law, whose firm also manages German Armed Forces projects, that is possible because the “internal relationship” of the company for participation in the bidding process does not matter.

That Volga-Dnepr made its SALIS offer for NATO through the German company shows that the Russians in the company have the final say. The commercial registry excerpt of Ruslan SALIS GmbH states, “If only one managing director is appointed, he shall represent the company alone.” Since the beginning of SALIS 2004, that person has been the Volga-Dnepr man, Valery Aleksandrovich Gabriel. His deputy has also always come from the Russian company, until recently. But now the Russians are converting the GmbH for the period after the Ukrainians depart. According to the Leipziger Volkszeitung, the German Dierk Näther is now Vice Managing Director of Ruslan SALIS. Näther was Director of the Leipzig airport until 2015. Thus the Russians are building their network in the SALIS lead nation, Germany. The legal representative of Volga-Dnepr for SALIS is Elmar Rauch, former Undersecretary at the German Mission to NATO in Brussels. Rauch retired from the service voluntarily in 2001, and was hired by Volga-Dnepr. In industry circles, Rauch is regarded as the designer of the recent SALIS joint ventures. Moreover, Volga-Dnepr lobbied its interests with the German-Russian Economic Alliance, whose council includes a representative of the Leipzig airport.

The Antonov An-225 Mriya

The Antonov An-225 Mriya

The Ukrainian-Polish alliance
The Germany network of the Russians is seen by the Ukrainians as a threat. According to Ukrainian sources, the upcoming SALIS service provider no longer needs to provide six AN-124s as per requirement the NSPA catalogue, but seven or eight. The Ukrainians suspect the lobbying by Volga-Dnepr is behind this. While the Russian competitor can muster ten AN-124s, Antonov with its seven machines of this type would already be at the limit. To compensate for this shortcoming, Antonov has designed its SALIS bid as follows: through an agreement with Maximus Airlines from the United Arab Emirates, the Ukrainians will procure two additional AN-124s. To get the job, the Ukrainians are offering NATO the only AN-225, the largest cargo aircraft in the world, for use by SALIS at the price of an AN-124. While the Russians are putting their stock in Germany, the Ukrainians are relying on Poland. Currently, both sides are negotiating the formation of a consortium between Antonov and companies in the Polish aviation industry. The goal: to make the Antonov aviator independent of Russian components. In addition, the Ukrainian aircraft builders want to diversify their portfolio for the 21st century. Between Antonov and the Polish defence company WB Electronics there is a memorandum for the construction of drones for the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

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The Islamic World’s Tectonic Plates

by Major Chad M. Pillai. He is a Strategist in the U.S. Army who received his Masters in International Public Policy from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He has published articles in Infinity Journal, War on the Rocks, Small Wars Journal, The Strategy Bridge, Military Review, and Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC).

20160109_woc948The Middle East and North African (MENA) and South and Central Asian (SOCA) regions of the Islamic World, despite sitting atop vast energy (oil and natural gas) resources, remain in a cycle of perpetual instability. The once hopeful Arab Spring turned into the Arab Sorrow where conflict rages, refugees pour across the borders of Europe, and where a medieval and evil form of political Islam, in the name of the Islamic State (IS), has taken root. Understanding the various causes of the region’s instability requires viewing them as a confluence of factors, best described as tectonic plates, where recent seismic activity point to a convergence and collision at a single point – the Muslims of the MENA-SOCA. As the study of geology demonstrates, when tectonic plates suddenly collide with each other, the results are destructive. The Islamic World, like our earth’s geology, is experiencing a violent transformation as three tectonic plates (sectarianism, ethnic conflict, and reaction to modernity) collide.

1st Tectonic Plate – Sectarianism (Sunni vs. Shia)
Sectarianism, like the San Andreas Fault, is the best known tectonic plate in the Islamic World. The Sunni-Shia Schism began around 680 AD and has resulted in conflict ever since. The excellent Council of Foreign Relations Info Guide on the Sunni-Shia Divide states:

An ancient religious divide is helping fuel a resurgence of conflicts in the Middle East and Muslim countries. Struggles between Sunni and Shia forces have fed a Syrian civil war that threatens to transform the map of the Middle East, spurred violence that is fracturing Iraq, and widened fissures in a number of tense Gulf countries. Growing sectarian clashes have also sparked a revival of transnational jihadi networks that poses a threat beyond the region.

The fault line of the sectarian plate is presently manifested by the Saudi Arabian and Iranian competition and proxy conflicts across the region. Saudi Arabia, the de facto leader of the Sunni World, has been sponsoring Sunni groups in Syria seeking to overthrow the Shia Alawites; prevent the takeover of Yemen by Shia Houthis; and supporting the Sunni tribes against IS and the Shia led government in Iraq. Iran and the Iran Threat Network (ITN; a term also used by the U.S. Department of State) represents the counter-balance force of Shia-ism within the Islamic World. Iran sponsors Shia groups in Iraq, Yemen, Western Afghanistan, and Lebanon. The growing influence of Iran since the toppling of Saddam Hussein was dubbed by the Jordanian King Abdullah II as the Shia Crescent, symbolism for the rise of Shia power across the Islamic World at the expense of the Sunnis (“Jordan’s Abdullah concerned Iraq may tilt toward Tehran“, NBC News, 08.12.2004). Sectarianism is not the only driver of instability and conflict. Ethnic Conflicts within and between religious sects also contribute to tensions; some that predate the rise of Islam.

Distribution of Shia and Sunni Muslims across the Middle East (by Dr. Izady / Gulf/2000).

Distribution of Shia and Sunni Muslims across the Middle East (by Dr. Izady / Gulf/2000).

2nd Tectonic Plate – Ethnic Conflicts (Arabs vs. Turks vs. Kurds vs. Persians vs. Others)
The conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran exposes another tectonic fault line – ethnic conflict that in many cases predates the rise of Islam. Prior to Islam, the dominate powers in the MENA-SOCA were the Persians (Modern day Iranians) and Egyptians, who competed with the Greeks and Roman Empire. The rapid rise and spread of Islam can partially be contributed to the ongoing super power wars between the Eastern Roman and Persian (Sassanid) Empires. Despite their conversion, the Persians (Iranians) and other groups always maintained a sense of superiority against the Bedouin tribes of Arabia Desert. Since the split between the Sunnis and Shia, ethnic groups across the region have been divided. One could ask are all Sunni Arabs and Shia (Persian) Iranians? Are Libyans really Arabs or are they descendants of the Berbers, and are both sects represented? Do Egyptians, whose ancient civilization and contributions predate the rise of Islam, really believe they are Arabs? How do the Turks, the descendants of the Ottoman Empire and last Caliph, react when they are mistaken as Arabs? Do the Pashtu Pakistanis see themselves as their fellow Punjabi Pakistanis despite their religious commonality?

These are some of the difficult questions one encounters in the Islamic World. Iraq is a microcosm of this conflict. Both Sunni and Shia Arabs, despite their mutual hostility, view the Kurds with suspicion. And the Kurds themselves are divided between the Sunni and Shia sect, something the Iranians and Turks both use to their advantage as they compete for influence. And the Turks view the Kurds in Syria and Northern Iraq, despite being fellow Sunni Muslims, as a threat. Likewise, Iraqi Arab Shia views the Iranian Shia with suspicion despite accommodating them for near-term gains against their Arab Sunni enemies. Some groups, like IS are willing to attempt genocide to purge ethnic groups, despite being fellow Muslims, they view as inferior. The convergence of the Sectarian and Ethnic Tectonic Plates colliding is known as Ethno-Sectarian Conflict.

Ethnic groups of the Middle East -- traditional Western view (by Dr. Izady / Gulf/2000).

Ethnic groups of the Middle East — traditional Western view (by Dr. Izady / Gulf/2000).

3rd Tectonic Plate – Modernity (Secularism vs. the Faithful)
The third tectonic plate is modernity, or the struggle with modernity, within the Islamic World. Fouad Ajami, a former scholar at the Hoover Institute and at the Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS), provided the most concise summary of this fault line in his 2014 Hoover Digest article where he wrote:

In the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt, and North Africa, mainstream Sunni Islam is ascendant. The fault line that bedevils those lands is between secularists, who want to keep the faith at bay, and Islamists, who have stepped forth in recent decades to assert the hegemony of the sacred over the political.

Since the end of European Colonialism at the end of World War II, the nations of the MENA-SOCA have been ruled by Autocrats (Secularists or Monarchists). As a result, a generation of potential wealth was squandered as the people of the region remain poor, highly uneducated (or highly educated but underutilized), and outside of energy, are increasingly disconnected from the globalized economy.

The ranks of the secular autocratic rulers range from Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, and currently Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Qaddafi and Mubarak were swept from power during the Arab Spring; however, the aftermath in both Libya and Egypt has been less than euphoric. Assad appeared near imminent collapse until the Russian intervention in Syria strengthened his position against the opposition.

The monarchists consist of the Gulf Kingdoms (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and United Arab Emirate), Jordan, and Morocco in Northern Africa. Saudi Arabia, like its fellow Gulf Kingdoms, has lived off its oil wealth to pay off its people, and made a bargain with the devil by accommodating the Wahhabist. The Wahhabist not only enforce conservative Islamic rule domestically, but have exported their harsh brand of Islamic throughout the MENA-SOCA as seen in Madrassas in Pakistan.

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, represented the Shia Monarchist model until his overthrow by the Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhollah Khomeini and his theocratic Shia regime – the first modern fundamentalist regime in the Islamic World. Ironically, the Iranian theocratic government faced a major threat in 2009 when it appeared the pendulum was swinging in the opposite direction as the Green Movement challenged its authority.

Muslim majority countries classified by constitutional role for religion (Graphic by NuclearVacuum, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported).

Muslim majority countries classified by constitutional role for religion (Graphic by NuclearVacuum, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported).

The Autocrats face an existential threat at the hands of the fundamentalist. This group consists of various elements ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Taliban in Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda, and most recently IS. Groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Taliban are Fundamentalist Insurgencies seeking to overthrow a government or occupying power. The Muslim Brotherhood has been attempting to overthrown the Egyptian Government for decades and has recently faced a crackdown by the el-Sisi regime. The Taliban defeated the Soviet puppet regime in Afghanistan, was removed in 2001 and has fought an insurgency primarily against the United States (The Government of Afghanistan is viewed simply as a puppet state of the U.S.) ever since to regain control of Afghanistan.

On the extreme end are Al-Qaeda and, its main rival, the Islamic State. Both groups are revolutionary movements with affiliates across the MENA-SOCA seeking to upend the existing order in the Islamic World by forcing a complete withdrawal of the West and a return of the Caliphate. Both have sought and expressed a willingness to use Weapons of Mass Destruction to achieve their aims. The major differences between the two are their strategic approaches to waging global Jihad, and the Islamic States’ apocalyptic prophetic belief that its objective is to bring about the end of times.

Caught in the middle between the autocrats and fundamentalists are the reformers. Ayaan Hirsi Ali eloquently stated in hers 2015 Foreign Affairs article that “a battle for the future of Islam is taking place between reformers and reactionaries, and its outcome matters. The United States needs to start helping the right side win.”

Consequences of Seismic Activity
All three tectonic plates are colliding and causing violent struggles in Libya, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, and even in Pakistan. The U.S. and its western allies can partially contain the problem within the region and attrite the elements that directly threaten their interests. However, only the leaders and people within the MENA-SOCA can solve the consequences of the seismic activity whether through a reformation or some other mechanism of reform. Without reform, the Islamic World may find itself a victim of another seismic event similar to the European Age of Sail. The period when the Europeans to bypassed the Middle East using sea routes to the markets of India and China leading to the gradual decline in economic vitality and competitiveness. The new seismic event led by the likes the U.S. fracking industry will be energy independence as the U.S. and other global powers transition to more renewable forms of energy and greater transition to ever greater energy efficiency that will once again leave the Islamic World behind. Unless the Islamic World addresses its instability and creates a reason for the world to stay engaged, it will find itself facing an earthquake it will not recover from – the end of oil.

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Kampf um die Strategic Airlift Interim Solution

von Björn Müller (Facebook / Twitter; English version). Er ist Journalist in Berlin mit dem Schwerpunkt Sicherheits- und Geopolitik.

Antonow-124 auf dem SALIS-Drehkreuz Flughafen Leipzig (Foto: Markus Kutscher / CC-Lizenz / Wikipedia).

Antonow-124 auf dem SALIS-Drehkreuz Flughafen Leipzig (Foto: Markus Kutscher / CC-Lizenz / Wikipedia).

Zurzeit läuft bei der NATO das Bieterverfahren für eine Fortführung der Strategic Airlift Interim Solution (SALIS) ab 2017. Über das Projekt organisieren europäische Länder militärischen Lufttransport über ein Privatunternehmen. Seit SALIS vor zehn Jahren aufgelegt wurde, erbrachte die RUSLAN SALIS GmbH die Transportleistungen mit Antonow-124 Fliegern. Die GmbH ist ein 50/50 Joint-Venture der russischen Firma Wolga Dnepr und des ukrainischen Staatsunternehmens Antonow. Damit ist nun Schluss — im aktuellen Bieterverfahren treten die Noch-Partner als Konkurrenten gegeneinander an. Bis zum 9. März diesen Jahres konnten Interessenten ihre Gebote für SALIS bei der NATO Support und Procurment Agency (NSPA) einreichen; zwischen Ende April und Anfang Mai soll die Entscheidung fallen, wer in Zukunft das Geschäft macht.

Essenziell für Lufttransport
Auch wenn die genauen Vertragssummen bei SALIS nicht bekannt sind, das Interesse an dem Kontrakt dürfte groß sein. SALIS ist mehr als ein nettes Nice-to-have im militärischen Lufttransport. Bereits 2006 ins Leben gerufen, sollte SALIS zunächst nur den Mangel an Kapazitäten überbrücken, bis der A400M zugelaufen ist. Die Übergangslösung wurde aber de facto zu einem essenziellen Pfeiler des Lufttransports in der Allianz. Ob Medikamente oder Panzerhaubitzen in Einsatzgebiete – ohne SALIS geht wenig im Lufttransport europäischer Armeen. Die Bundeswehr gibt an, dass 70 Prozent ihres gesamten Lufttransports über zivile Auftragnehmer läuft, davon allein die Hälfte über SALIS. In 2015 waren das mehr als 4’000 Tonnen Fracht bei 65 Flügen. Auch für den Transport von Material und Einheiten der NATO Response Force und der Very High Readiness Joint Task Force ist SALIS vorgesehen, so das Bundesverteidigungsministerium.

Ursachen für den Bruch der Kooperation
Warum Wolga Dnepr und Antonow nicht mehr gemeinsame Sache machen, ist nicht ganz klar. Seit 2006 bekam die bisherige Partnerschaft den Vertrag zunächst verlängert und gewann auch die letzte Ausschreibung 2012. Es gibt aber Indizien, warum es zum Bruch kam.

Zum einen wird der Ukraine-Russland-Konflikt eine Rolle spielen. Antonow ist inzwischen in den staatlichen Rüstungsverbund UKROboronPROM eingegliedert worden. Im Wehrsektor hat die Ukraine Sanktionen gegen Russland erlassen, von denen auch Antonow betroffen ist. Deren Flugzeugtypen sind noch vor allem für militärische Bedürfnisse und den russischen Markt konzeptioniert. Infolge der Sanktionen musste Russland beispielsweise die Lizenzfertigung der Antonow-140 einstellen; kein gedeihliches Umfeld für Geschäftsbeziehungen der Ukrainer mit einer russischen Firma und vice versa.

Was die Kooperation ebenfalls belastet haben dürfte: Laut einem Branchenkenner ist das Joint-Venture der Ukrainer mit den Russen eine so genannte “Löwengesellschaft“. Das heißt, formal halten beide Partner zwar die Unternehmensanteile zu gleichen Teilen; der Geschäftsführer ist aber stets ein Vertreter von Wolga Dnepr und entscheidet darüber, was in der GmbH als Kosten / Gewinn definiert wird. Damit wären die Russen in der komfortablen Position, sich den Löwenanteil an den Gewinnen zukommen zu lassen und den Ukrainern stets nur soviel, damit sie bei der Stange bleiben.

Antonov An-124 auf dem Vorfeld des Frachtbereichs Süd auf dem Flughafen Leipzig/Halle.

Antonov An-124 auf dem Vorfeld des Frachtbereichs Süd auf dem Flughafen Leipzig/Halle.

Entscheidung der SALIS-Partner
Dass für die SALIS-Neuauflage ab 2017 Wolga Dnepr oder Antonow den Zuschlag erhalten, ist wahrscheinlich. Beide sind weltweit die größten gewerblichen Anbieter von Antonow-124 Maschinen (Wolga Dnepr: 10 / Antonow: 7). Genau diesen Großraumtransporter brauchen die europäischen Streitkräfte weiterhin. Ein Sprecher des Bundesverteidigungsministeriums über die Interessen der Bundeswehr im Kontext der SALIS-Neuausschreibung:

Die Bundeswehr benötigt die gesicherte Möglichkeit übergroße und überschwere Fracht im strategischen Lufttransport zu verlegen. Hierzu sind derzeit zwei Luftfahrzeugtypen geeignet. Dieses sind die ANTONOV AN-124 und die amerikanische C5M GALAXY, die nur militärisch betrieben wird. Es wurde national und multinational nach Lösungsmöglichkeiten zum Schließen dieser Fähigkeitslücke gesucht. Auch eine beauftragte Studie der European Defence Agency (EDA) kommt zu dem Ergebnis, dass es für die gesicherte gewerbliche Verfügbarkeit keine vollumfängliche Alternative zur AN-124 gibt.

Es wird spannend, wie die Entscheidung ausfällt und wie sich die einzelnen SALIS-Partnernationen dabei positionieren. Die NSPA in Kapellen / Luxemburg führt zwar das Bieterverfahren durch, letztendlich entscheiden aber die 14 SALIS-Partnerstaaten mit Stimmenanteilen, je nach Größe ihres Transportkontingents. Deutschland steht hier an erster Stelle und ist somit die Lead-Nation.

Denkbar wäre, dass der Gegensatz in der NATO über die richtige Eindämmungsstrategie gegenüber Russland, auch auf SALIS durchschlägt. Zur Linie Deutschlands, Hauptvertreter der Strategie “Druck plus Handreichen”, würde es passen, ein russisches Unternehmen zum Zuge kommen zu lassen. Dagegen wird der SALIS-Nation Polen mit ihrem “Hardbalancing” Kurs gegen Russland, eher daran gelegen sein, einer ukrainischen bzw. nicht-russischen Unternehmung den Zuschlag zu erteilen. Interessant wird zudem, wie die bisherige GmbH abgewickelt wird.

Das Deutschland-Netzwerk der Russen
So wie es aussieht, hat Wolga Dnepr sein Angebot für SALIS ab 2017 über die Ruslan SALIS GmbH abgegeben. Die Gesellschaft deutschen Rechts ist am Bieterverfahren beteiligt, so Iwan Strelnikow, kaufmännischer Geschäftsführer der GmbH, gegenüber dem Autor. Die Antwort auf die Nachfrage, ob das Angebot mit Übereinstimmung von Antonow zustande kam und auch die Interessen des ukrainischen Nochpartners bei der GmbH widerspiegelt, wurde verweigert. Zwei Firmen haben zusammen ein fifty-fifty Joint Venture und eine nutzt es dann für ihr eigenes Angebot? Laut einem Fachanwalt für Vergaberecht, dessen Kanzlei auch Bundeswehrprojekte betreut, ist das möglich, da das “Innenverhältnis” der Gesellschaft für die Beteiligung an Bieterverfahren keine Rolle spielt.

Dass Wolga Dnepr sein Angebot für die SALIS der NATO über die deutsche Gesellschaft laufen lässt, zeigt, dass die Russen in der Firma das Sagen haben. Im Handelsregisterauszug der Ruslan SALIS GmbH heißt es, “Ist nur ein Geschäftsführer bestellt, so vertritt er die Gesellschaft allein.” Seit Beginn von SALIS 2004 ist das der Wolga-Dnepr Mann Valery Alexandrowitsch Gabriel. Auch dessen Stellvertreter kam bis vor Kurzem stets aus dem russischen Unternehmen. Doch nun bauen die Russen die GmbH um, für die Zeit nach dem Abgang der Ukrainer. Laut der Leipziger Volkszeitung ist der Deutsche Dierk Näther jetzt Vize-Geschäftsführer bei Ruslan SALIS. Näther war bis 2015 Chef des Flughafens Leipzig. Damit bauen die Russen ihr Netzwerk in der SALIS-Leadnation Deutschland aus. Wolga Dnepr Rechtsvertreter für SALIS ist Elmar Rauch, ehemaliger Ministerialrat an der Vertretung Deutschlands bei der NATO in Brüssel. Rauch schied 2001 freiwillig aus dem Dienst und heuerte bei Wolga Dnepr an. In Branchenkreisen gilt Rauch als Konstrukteur des bisherigen SALIS Joint Ventures. Zudem lobbyiert Wolga Dnepr über die Deutsch-Russische Wirtschaftsallianz für seine Interessen, in deren Beirat wiederum ein Vertreter des Leipziger Flughafens sitzt.

Die Antonov An-225 Mriya

Die Antonov An-225 Mriya

Die ukrainisch-polnische Allianz
Das Deutschland-Netzwerk der Russen sehen die Ukrainer als Bedrohung. Laut ukrainischen Quellen, muss der kommende SALIS-Dienstleister laut Anforderungskatalog der NSPA nicht mehr sechs, sondern sieben bis acht AN-124 bereitstellen. Dahinter argwöhnen die Ukrainer Lobbyarbeit von Wolga-Dnepr. Denn während der russische Konkurrent zehn AN-124 aufbieten kann, wäre Antonow mit seinen sieben Maschinen dieses Typs bereits am Limit. Um dieses Manko auszugleichen, hat Antonow sein SALIS-Angebot wohl wie folgt konzipiert: Über ein Abkommen mit Maximus Airlines aus den Vereinigten Arabischen Emiraten erhalten die Ukrainer zwei zusätzliche AN-124. Um den Auftrag zu bekommen, bieten die Ukrainer der NATO an, das einzige Exemplar der AN-225, dem größten Frachtflugzeug der Welt, für SALIS zu nutzen, zum Preis einer AN-124. Während die Russen den deutschen Vektor bespielen, setzen die Ukrainer auf Polen. Zurzeit verhandeln beide Seiten über die Bildung eines Konsortiums zwischen Antonow und Firmen der polnischen Luftfahrtindustrie. Ein Ziel dabei: Die Antonow-Flieger unabhängig von russischen Komponenten zu machen. Außerdem möchten die ukrainischen Flugzeugbauer ihr Portfolio für das 21. Jahrhundert diversifizieren. Zwischen Antonow und dem polnischen Rüstungsunternehmen WB Electronics gibt es ein Memorandum zum Bau von Drohnen für die ukrainischen Streitkräfte.

Posted in Björn Müller, International, Russia, Security Policy, Ukraine | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

How Israel fears its qualitative military edge will be undercut

Throughout its almost seven-decade existence, the leaders of the State of Israel have long worried that their far larger Arab neighbours would one day brandish more advanced weapon systems against them, effectively combine those weapons with their superior numbers and erase the qualitative military edge Israel has over them and defeat it.

A Royal Air Force Boeing Sentry AEW.1 (E-3D serial ZH103) from No. 8 Squadron, RAF Waddington, deployed to the U.S. Air Force 363rd Air Expeditionary Wing, prepares to take off for a mission from Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia, on 22 March 2003.

A Royal Air Force Boeing Sentry AEW.1 (E-3D serial ZH103) from No. 8 Squadron, RAF Waddington, deployed to the U.S. Air Force 363rd Air Expeditionary Wing, prepares to take off for a mission from Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia, on 22 March 2003.

This fear saw Israel come out in staunch opposition to the Americans decision in the early 1980’s to sell Saudi Arabia advanced E-3 Sentry AWACS surveillance aircraft since, in the wrong hands, they could potentially have alerted an enemy to where Israelis aircraft were operating and could in turn compromise the element of surprise for Israel in a future war, a crucial element for its victory against Egypt in the June 1967 war. [1]

Presently the Israelis are concerned about the tiny oil sheikdom of Qatar buying a fleet of F-15 jets from the US. An interesting situation considering that Israel hasn’t been concerned about Saudi Arabia’s manic military build-up over the course of the last decade given the fact it perceives Riyadh as a bulwark against Iran, its number one regional adversary, and the salient fact that Qatar is a trusted US ally. This is primarily due to the fact that Qatar has been supportive of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood in recent years and is therefore seen as too untrustworthy and volatile to Israel to possess advanced military hardware.

While its opposition and lobbying in United States Congress to stop the Qatar deal is reminiscent of its opposition to the Saudi-AWACS deal, there is another respect to which the Israelis have increasingly feared that its qualitative military edge could be undermined. That being the acquisition by formidable non-state actors of hi-tech weaponry which could undercut the technological edge the Israeli military wields against its enemies.

Historically Israel’s greatest battlefield victories have been achieved against conventional adversaries. The aforementioned 1967 war was such a stunning success given Israel’s ability to knock out the air power of its adversaries and take speedy control of the skies. Air superiority over the Sinai Peninsula enabled the Israelis to strike convoys of the Egyptian Army out in the open and effectively neutralise the threat posed by that army. Egypt tried to prevent a repeat of that defeat in the ensuing 1973 Arab-Israeli war by establishing a network of surface-to-air missiles to prevent its ground forces from being decimated from the air before advancing in a failed bid to recapture its lost territory.

Locations_bombed_Aug13_no_fact_boxBy the time the Israelis began fighting Hezbollah in Lebanon in the early 1980’s, they found themselves facing a vastly different enemy. Facing off against an elusive guerilla enemy has invariably proven more difficult for the Israeli military than facing off against a conventional enemy in the open. To effectively cripple a group like Hezbollah, without risking a large ground deployment and a large number of casualties, entails directing firepower against Hezbollah positions without harming civilians, which has proven extremely difficult given the fact that Hezbollah is deeply embedded and entrenched among the population. Meaning that to even cripple the group militarily the Israelis would risk killing large numbers of civilians.

Add to this the fact that Hezbollah has amassed many more surface-to-surface missiles since its last war with Israel ten years ago. Weapons which could do considerable damage to Israel itself. To quickly destroy those weapons the Israelis would be unable to warn civilians in areas it targets to minimize innocent casualties without risking losing the all-important element of surprise.

One Israeli official last year outlined how frustrating this has proven to be. He pointed to 200 Shiite villages in southern Lebanon which constitute military strongholds and would need to be quickly razed in the event of another war to prevent rockets from being fired into Israel. “It is a win-win situation for Hezbollah,” the official pointed out. “If we attack them, we kill civilians, If we don’t attack because there are civilians, it is good for Hezbollah as well.”

In the last round of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah approximately 1,200 people in Lebanon were killed. The first sign that Israel’s qualitative technological edge over Hezbollah is at risk of being undermined took place when the Israeli naval vessel, the INS Hanit, was badly damaged by a Chinese-made Hezbollah C-802 anti-ship missile (see also Mark Mazzetti, “Striking Deep Into Israel, Hamas Employs an Upgraded Arsenal“, The New York Times, 31.12.2008). Similarly Hezbollah guerrillas also managed to hit eleven of Israel’s advanced Merkava tanks during Israel’s limited ground incursion into south Lebanon, killing 12 soldiers, in the latter phase of that war using Kornet anti-tank missiles.

AT-14_07 AT-14_15
Boxes with Russian 9M133 Kornet anti-tank guided missiles seized in the South Lebanese village Ghandouriyeh. Click on the image to enlarge.

While its forces were threatened on the ground and in the sea the Israelis still dominated the skies and were, albeit with the risk of increasing the civilian death toll, able to rapidly bomb Hezbollah anywhere in Lebanon (see the map of Israel’s bombings during the 2006 Lebanon War above).

That superiority could also be undermined sometime in the future and Israel is well aware of it. Since the war in Syria began, Israel has launched air-strikes into that war-torn country numerous times, all of their raids appeared to serve a single purpose: Prevent Hezbollah from getting its hands on advanced Russian-made anti-aircraft missile systems. Such weaponry in Hezbollah’s hands could further undermine Israel’s ability to rapidly get the upper hand against the group in any future war since it could significantly undermine its superiority of the skies.

This is one scenario Israel has had to fear the most in recent times, the day it has to deal with a large conventional adversary are essentially gone. The threat of the elusive, guerilla adversary garnering the means to undercut Israel’s long-held qualitative military edge is likely what keeps the minds of many military strategists in Jerusalem preoccupied.

In July 2015, the US have begun to upgrade Saudis E-3 Sentry fleet with the new Interrogator Friend or Foe (IFF) systems, as part of the fleet’s Block 40/45 upgrade program (for more details about the upgrade see “Saudis Seek E-3 Fleet Upgrades“, Defense Indutry Daily, 31.07.2015).

Posted in English, International, Israel, Proliferation, Saudi Arabia, Security Policy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The largest-caliber mortar system in the world is shelling cities in Syria and Ukraine (2/2)

by Sébastien Roblin. He holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States.

Excluding rockets, the Russian 240 mm Mortar M240 — both the 2S4 vehicle and towed M240 systems — is the largest caliber land-based artillery weapon in use. Part one has covered the basic characteristics and its employment in the Yom Kippur War by the Egyptian and Syrian armies, as well in Afghanistan by the Soviets and during the Second Chechen War by the Russian Army. The following second part will cover its use in Ukraine and Syria.

2S4 Tyulpan

2S4 Tyulpan

The M240 mortar in the Syrian Civil War
With the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, the rebel-held city of Homs was bombarded by the Syrian Arab Army. In February 2012, a month in which the bombardment is believed to have killed 1,000 civilians, reports began to surface that the Syrian army was using its 240mm mortars on the densely populated city. Conclusive evidence for which was eventually given in the recovered tail-fin fragments of an F-864 shell in the Baba Amr district, and later videos showing the mortars being fired. Human Rights Watch then published several reports that gained wide traction in the media, leading to articles in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor and other outlets. (Many articles stated that 2S4 Tyulpan vehicles were used, but none have ever been recorded being sold to Syria nor has any media emerged showing their use, so it is safe to conclude that the systems in question are towed M240s).

Paul Conroy, a war correspondent in Homs who experienced the bombardment, singled out the terror the mortars inspired in several passages in his book “Under the Wire“. After Conrony’s media center was hit by a rocket strike, killing two journalists, and wounding him and fellow French journalist Edith Bouvier, he wrote about being stuck in a makeshift hospital while the city shook under a constant barrage from the mortars:

The first shell of the opening salvo shook our world. […]
“Paul, what do you think that explosion was? It was bigger than anything we have heard so far.” […]
“Okay, since you asked, Edith, that was 240mm mortar – the largest in the world […] If one hits us, we won’t know about it. Not a thing.” […]
In the far off distance we heard three deep, muffled, bass-like thumps. “Here they come,” I said. “Now listen.” There was a four-second delay before we heard the scream of the huge mortars. The sound was long and drawn out […] — Paul Conroy in “Under the Wire“, Weinstein Books, p. 237ff.

In an article he later wrote: “I lay there and listened as salvos of three of these mortars were launched at a time, 18 hours a day, for five days […] The question was, where was all the ammunition coming from?”.

Cluster Munitions in the Suburbs of Damascus
There were few reports of the use of 240mm mortars in 2013 and 2014, besides a YouTube video claiming to depict a mortar strike in 2013 (see video below). This could be a result of depletion of ammunition stocks. However, in late 2015 and early 2016, casings of 240mm rounds designed to carry cluster munitions were identified by ARES in Dhouma and East Ghouta, both suburbs of Damascus. In both cases, the fragments were parts of rocket-assisted 3O8 Nerpa (Seal) cargo projectiles (the rockets double the mortar’s range to 20 kilometers or more).

Photo of the 240mm 3O8 cargo shell that struck the school in Dhouma. The man is holding an unexploded O-10 submuntion, of which 14 are carried in the cargo shell (Photo: Yasser el Doumany).

Photo of the 240mm 3O8 cargo shell that struck the school in Dhouma. The man is holding an unexploded O-10 submuntion, of which 14 are carried in the cargo shell (Photo: Yasser el Doumany).

These specialized “cargo-shells” are designed to rain O-10-FRAG and A01-SCh cluster bomb sub-munitions over an area equivalent to four football fields. Cluster munitions are more deadly than regular High Explosive shells to exposed persons and vehicles, but their use has been curtailed or discontinued in many militaries because a significant percentage of the sub-munitions fail to explode after impact, remaining behind as deadly traps for civilians that may come across them after the fighting has moved on or ended. The 3O8 container shells can carry fourteen O-10 bomblets, weighing 4 kg (8.8 lbs.) each, which fall to the ground with parachutes. O-10s had never been confirmed used in war before, though there were rumors they were used in Chechnya.

Most of the cluster munitions have been dropped by aircraft, but Nerpa shells have been positively identified in at least two cases.

On the 13th of December, two different schools were struck by the Nerpa cluster warheads while students were in class, killing eight children and two teachers. A local organization associated with the rebels, the Damascus School Directorate, posted pictures of the aftermath of the attack, and Human Rights Watch noted that the “photographs and video footage of injured children and damage consistent with a cluster munition strike to what appears to be a school.” To put it plainly: the surviving children in the photographs exhibit multiple deep wounds. Another photo shows two children in pink school clothes lying in a pool of blood next to a wall pocked with multiple impact craters. One of the 3O8 cargo-shells remains buried in the concrete next to the school, where it was photographed, giving proof of the attacks that reportedly had been ongoing for months.

The sudden appearance in late 2015 of these more sophisticated, long-range projectiles for the weapon system leads to the obvious, though unconfirmed, conclusion: these rounds were part of a new shipment of arms sent by Russia, reflecting Vladimir Putin’s intensified support for Bashar al-Assad in 2015, which also has included the transfer of major hardware such as the T-90 tank.

The terminal at Luhansk International Airport after the final bombardment by 2S4 Tyulpans in September 2014.

The terminal at Luhansk International Airport after the final bombardment by 2S4 Tyulpans in September 2014.

The “Tactical Nuke” of Luhansk Airport
Meanwhile, fighting raged in Eastern Ukraine between the Ukrainian army and Russian-backed separatists. The first Tyulpan was sighted in Ukraine on July 5th, 2014 by an OSCE drone. These provided early, indisputable proof of Russian support for the rebel, as the Ukrainian army never owned 2S4s. At least four “batteries” are reported to be in use by Russian-backed separatists.

By the Fall of 2014, the conflicted entered a static phase in which the Ukrainian army and the separatists fought protracted artillery duels punctuated by occasional assaults for control of strategic positions. Chief amongst them were Luhansk and Dontesk International Airports, both barely held on to by Ukrainian government forces. But after a particularly devastating bombardment in September, Ukrainian Defense Minister Valery Gelety wrote on Facebook that Luhansk had been struck by a “tactical nuke”. After this panicked claim, the Gelety later clarified: “In particular, the forces of the Russian Federation made two strikes with self-propelled mortar 2S4 “Tulips” in Luhansk airport. It is for this reason that our military had to leave. The blows were so powerful that “completely destroyed the building from the fifth floor to the basement.”

He further pointed out that 2S4s were capable of firing nuclear projectiles, and claimed the Russians were testing out their “new equipment” in Ukraine. (Russian media mocked him, pointing out the 2S4s had been developed in the 1970s). Gelety said: “If it were not for the Tyulpans, we could have been holding the airport for months and nobody would have ousted us from it.”

A video taken just before the fall of Luhansk airport captures the devastation caused by the bombardment:

160 kilometers to the West, the battle for Donetsk International Airport raged on for 240 days. Again, 2S4s were moved into position. Ukrainian nationalists operating in the rebel-held claimed to have exploded a mine or IED under one 2S4, preventing it from joining the attack. But in January, 2015 the 2S4s launched a heavy bombardment which caused the terminals in the airport to literally collapse onto their foundations. The ensuing tank attack finally forced Ukrainians to withdraw on January 21st.

Once again, the 240mm mortars had a tremendous psychological impact as well as physical one—and incited intense discussion in the media.

Note: An earlier version of this article included a YouTube video which claimed to portray an explosion caused by a 2S4 artillery strike.  However, this explosion was actually that of a chemical plant likely struck by the artillery of the Ukrainian army. 

Artillery and Ethics
No Western army today operates tube artillery as large-caliber as the M240/2S4. But that is simply because they instead rely upon aircraft using precision-guided munitions often heavier than the M240’s 282-lb shells to destroy heavy fortifications, such as JDAMs (which vary in weight from 500 to 2,000 lbs.). There are also large rocket artillery-systems such as the 227mm M270 MRLS used by the US Army. On this basis, some Russian and Syria commenters argue that Western forces have frequently employed heavier, higher-tech ordnance, and that the M240/2S4 are no different than any another weapon of war.

This ignores the context in question. Accurately targeting a 240mm mortar against an identifiable military position, such as fortifications on the Suez canal or a mujahidin cave in Afghanistan, though still gruesome in effect, is not the same as saturating them in an urban area with a heavy civilian population, like Homs or Beirut. A strike from such a massive shell can plunge through reinforced roofs and easily kill or injure all of the occupants in an apartment building, even if they are in “safe” cover. As Conroy observed when he encountered a 10 by 15 meter large cellar packed with 300 female civilians in Homs: “The cellar was a haven for these women and children but it wasn’t a bombproof shelter. A direct hit from a 240mm mortar would kill all of them.” Furthermore, the use of cluster munitions which explode indiscriminately over a wide area, will leave behind a deadly legacy of unexploded sub-munitions outlasting the war itself.

In short, using big guns is not in itself the concern. It is the willingness to employ them against civilian areas — sometimes even with the civilians as the intended target — that is at the heart of the critique.

Posted in English, International, Proliferation, Russia, Sébastien Roblin, Security Policy, Syria, Ukraine | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The Syrian Army of Islam Can Learn a Lesson from Hamas

by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College and a reporter for War Is Boring. He focuses on the relationship between Islam and conflict in Syria and Sudan.

Jaysh al-Islam

Jaysh al-Islam

The Army of Islam (Jaish al-Islam) represents one of the most powerful factions in the Syrian opposition and the most powerful in the Damascene countryside. When comparing Jaish al-Islam and the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) many similarities between the two are striking. As the Syrian paramilitary comes to resemble the Palestinian terrorist organization, both defending their besieged strongholds against stronger enemies, Jaish al-Islam may try to mimic Hamas further.

Though Jaish al-Islam represents the strongest rebels in the countryside of the Syrian capital, it, like Hamas, much share territory with rivals. Sometimes, it has solved potential problems by absorbing similar, smaller paramilitaries. Elsewhere, Jaish al-Islam has resorted to attacking potential enemies among the Syrian opposition. “Jaish al-Islam recently launched a campaign of arrests against its rival faction — Jaish al-Umma,” reported Syria Deeply March 22. “This led to the execution of the group’s leader Abu Ali Khayba and the imprisonment of high-ranking official Abu Subhi Taha”. Hamas has often approached its rivals in the Gaza Strip with more benevolence, cooperating with Islamist factions such as the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine and secularist factions such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. However, the terrorist organization little questioned expelling Fatah, Hamas’ greatest competitor, during the Battle of Gaza (for more see also Austin Michael Bodetti, “Hamas Is Hardline but Palestinian Islamic Jihad Is Even More Extreme“, offiziere.ch, 04.04.2016). Jaish al-Islam and Hamas have balanced cooperation with violence in overpowering and subduing their revolutionary rivals. Maintaining hegemony in their insurgencies, they are the Syrian government’s and Israel’s preeminent enemies.

Jaysh al-Islam on training.

Jaysh al-Islam on training.

Despite Hamas’ membership in complex, contradictory coalitions with not only Iran and Syria but also Qatar and Turkey, Israel has managed to outgun the terrorist organization and all other Palestinian factions for decades. Jaish al-Islam faces a similar problem, for, as long as Iran and Russia continue to support the Syrian government with firepower and manpower, the paramilitary will need to use asymmetric, guerilla warfare. The Syrian government has besieged and encircled Jaish al-Islam’s territory for years, so the rebels have responded by tunneling below the Syrian Army’s frontlines. “Jaish al-Islam also operates several underground smuggling tunnels in the area,” notes the OSINT Blog. “These tunnels reduce the effectiveness of the near total government siege on Jobar. Other tunnel networks allow the transfer of supplies into [Eeast] Ghouta and allow Jaish al-Islam’s leadership to leave and enter the [Eeast] Ghouta pocket at will. […] The network of tunnels crisscrossing under [Eeast] Ghouta makes it extremely hard for the Syrian government to totally blockade areas they are besieging.” In Aleppo and Idlib Governorates, rebels have used tunnels for less-obvious objectives, such as exploding Syrian soldiers’ military bases beneath them. Tunnel warfare remains an important component of Hamas’ arsenal too. Palestinian fighters have used tunnels to ambush Israelis, hide rockets, and smuggle weapons. Earlier this month, Israeli soldiers discovered another of Hamas’ tunnels despite two years without incidents. Because the Syrian government and Israel exercise air supremacy, Jaish al-Islam and Hamas have found creative methods of avoiding enemy warplanes. Surprisingly the rebels outside Damascus have yet to bomb the Syrian government like their northern allies, given that Iran and Russia continue to arm the Syrian government well beyond the support that the Syrian opposition receives from regional powers.

One of the Jaish al-Islam infiltration tunnels used to successfully attack from behind SAA lines in the 2015 Tal Kurdi Offensive (Source: "The Economics of War: A Case Study on Jaish al-Islam", The OSINT Blog, 19.03.2016).

One of the Jaish al-Islam infiltration tunnels used to successfully attack from behind SAA lines in the 2015 Tal Kurdi Offensive (Source: “The Economics of War: A Case Study on Jaish al-Islam“, The OSINT Blog, 19.03.2016).

Targeted killings have forced Jaish al-Islam and Hamas to heighten their adaptability and durability. Last year, an airstrike from Russia or Syria killed Zahran Alloush, Jaish al-Islam’s leader. His followers replaced him soon enough. Since then, Jaish al-Islam has sustained its preeminence among the Syrian opposition in general. The Syrian opposition’s leading negotiator to Geneva III is Muhammad Alloush, an important politician in Jaish al-Islam. The paramilitary has also counterattacked Kurdish and Syrian soldiers as far as Aleppo after accusing them of violating the ceasefire. The consequences of Zahran Alloush’s killing have been minimal at worst. Hamas, meanwhile, remains as strong as ever even though Israel has assassinated dozens of its leaders. It has coordinated with Egypt to patrol its territory bordering the Sinai Peninsula, showing that its strength has only increased since the 2014 conflict with Israel. “This emphasizes the Palestinian stand to tighten security on the border and nothing that harms Egypt will come out of Gaza,” said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri.. Jaish al-Islam and Hamas have proved their durability in confronting the military superiority of the Syrian government and Israel.

Where the Syrian Civil War and the conflicts in Israel and Palestine overlap, comparing Jaish al-Islam and Hamas becomes difficult. Once, Hamas worked with Iran, one of the Syrian opposition’s enemies. The Palestinian terrorist organization has transitioned away from Iran because of the Syrian Civil War’s inherent sectarianism, presenting opportunities to ally with other states. Some journalists have even alleged that Hamas has backed the Syrian opposition. However these relationships develop, they should intrigue analysts enough to consider a comparison between Hamas and Jaish al-Islam.

The Syrian ceasefire degrading daily, Jaish al-Islam may look to Palestine for an example of how to resist an enemy with superior airpower, firepower, and manpower. Unless the Syrian opposition receives long-requested surface-to-air missiles, the present military dilemma will require a creative yet violent response. In fact, Hamas has already learned one for Israel.

Posted in Austin Michael Bodetti, English, Gaza, Syria | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Has Sudan Received More Su-24 Fencer?

Sudan probably received additional Su-24 Fencer aircraft from Belarus, recently acquired satellite imagery from DigitalGlobe suggests.

DG (25JAN2016) Wadi Sayyidna

Satellite imagery acquired by DigitalGlobe on 25JAN2016 show two Su-24 Fencer ground attack aircraft parked on the apron at Sudan’s Wadi Sayyidna.

Back in 2013, it was reported that Sudan would acquire 12 Soviet-era Su-24 Fencer aircraft from Belarusian BelTechExport. The aircraft, previously flown by the Belarusian Air force, were decommissioned from the cash-strapped air arm not long before.

We’ve been tracking the swing-wing bombers ever since Belarus transferred them to the 558th Aircraft Repair Plant in Baranovichi. There, workers overhauled the ground attack planes and repainted the bombers in a fresh desert camo scheme.

The same year the aircraft were delivered. The Harvard-based Satellite Sentinel Project were the first to publish satellite imagery showing three of them parked at Wadi Sayyidna just north of Khartoum. United Nations arms control documents later showed that Sudan received a total of four in their first shipment.

With new bombers, the north African country wasted no time putting them to use. Since then, they’ve been involved with several bombing runs in South Kordofan’s Nuba Mountains, helping kill and displace the local Nuba population. Earlier in 2015, Khartoum’s Sudan Armed Forces stepped up their campaign by continuing to arm brutal militias to attack the region. There’s even evidence that the regime has employed cluster munitions.

By December, the warring parties failed to come to a cessation agreement which means these ground attack aircraft haven’t flown their last flight in the conflict. But the question remains, will future strikes involve the same aircraft received in 2013?

DG (19DEC2015) Sudan Su-24 King Khalid AB

Satellite imagery acquired by DigitalGlobe on 19DEC2015 show two Su-24 Fencer ground attack aircraft parked on the apron at KSA’s King Khalid Airbase.

It’s hard to say, but here’s what we know.

Last year Sudan deployed forces in support of Operation Decisive Storm, Saudi Arabia’s Yemen intervention to restore Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to power. Among those forces include Sudan’s recently acquired Su-24. Media reports citing the number of aircraft deployed by the north African country unfortunately conflict. Sudanese sources say between three and four. Imagery acquired on 19 December 2015 available in Google Earth still showed two Su-24 Fencer parked on the apron and active at KSA’s King Khalid Airbase.

New satellite imagery (top header image) of Wadi Sayyidna also show two Fencer parked on the apron in January 2016. Assuming the number of aircraft deployed is correct, the January imagery suggests either the aircraft have returned from the conflict or that new arms transfers occurred. However, it seems unlikely that Sudan would have recalled the bombers from the Saudi-led coalition given developments in Aden throughout the month. (See more about that here). There’s also been no media attention on the return of the aircraft to Sudan.

By late February, the Sudan Tribune reported that the Saudis would be providing the north African country USD 5 billion in military assistance. Citing unidentified sources, the article suggests the additional funds were a reward for Sudan’s political and military support confronting Iran [read: Yemen]. The new support comes in addition to renewed Saudi agricultural investment and banking support.

Then there’s also previous satellite imagery from Belarus to consider. Back in 2014, we watched Belarus move more of the decommissioned bombers to the 558th’s work apron. The following year, we saw the finished products roll out of the drive-through maintenance hangars and parked nearby. Given the camo scheme observed in the imagery, it’s likely Belarus has provided a second batch of Su-24 to Sudan.

If confirmed, it would suggest that Belarus is continuing with additional deliveries of the rumored contract. While at present we can’t be 100% certain, we await further imagery to provide a higher confidence level of this assessment.

Posted in Armed Forces, Belarus, Chris B, English, General Knowledge, Intelligence, Saudi Arabia, Sudan | Tagged | Leave a comment

The largest-caliber mortar system in the world is shelling cities in Syria and Ukraine (1/2)

by Sébastien Roblin. He holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States.

Excluding rockets, the Russian 240 mm Mortar M240 — both the 2S4 vehicle and towed M240 systems — is the largest caliber land-based artillery weapon in use. Part one of the following article will cover the basic characteristics and its employment in the Yom Kippur War by the Egyptian and Syrian armies, as well in Afghanistan by the Soviets and during the Second Chechen War by the Russian Army. The second part will cover its use in Ukraine and Syria.

Remnants from a 240 mm rocket-assisted mortar projectile in Damascus.

Remnants from a 240 mm rocket-assisted mortar projectile in Damascus.

The Russian M240 mortar is the largest-caliber contemporary mortar system in use — indeed, along with its vehicle mounted counterpart, the 2S4 Tyulpan (Tulip), it is possibly the largest caliber tube artillery system (not including rockets) used in combat today. Its massive shells were intended to smash apart heavy military fortifications, but just as often they have been employed to rain devastation upon densely populated urban areas.

The fascination with “the biggest guns” often can seem of doubtful relevance. The most extreme designs often remain impractical prototypes that rarely see widespread production or use. This is not the case with the M240 and 2S4, however, since the mortar was first produced by the Soviet Union in the 1950s, it has been employed in six wars (the Yom Kippur War, Lebanese Civil War, Soviet War in Afghanistan, Second Chechen War, War in Ukraine, and Syrian Civil War) by Syria, Egypt and the Soviet Union/Russia.

Mortars are considered the infantry man’s personal artillery. Unlike heavy howitzers and field guns, lighter mortars can be disassembled and carried on foot, and used at the discretion of low-ranking officers without having to pass on a request to a separate artillery unit. Mortars deliver explosive payloads comparable to cannons of the same caliber, and at a higher potential rate of fire if needed, though at the cost of having shorter range: a modern medium or heavy mortar typically has a range of 6-7 kilometers using regular projectiles, while a contemporary heavy howitzer might shoot to distances of 24 kilometers or more. But the sheer portability of the mortar—combined with its usefulness for concealed, indirect fire has made them ubiquitous in guerilla conflicts and insurgencies around the world. Indeed, mortars are numbered among the “small arms” or “light weapons” that cause 90% of civilian deaths in contemporary wars.

Video capture from Syria: a 240mm F864 shell compared to a regular shell.

Video capture from Syria: a 240mm F864 shell compared to a regular shell.

The Soviet M240 Mortar, however, is an aberration. Mortar designs above 120mm caliber are few in number, but the M240 shells are twice that in diameter. Hardly a “light weapon”, it weighs over 4,150 kg (9,130 lbs.) once it is deployed for combat (which takes 25 minutes), with each of its 1.5 meter-long shells weighing in at 130kg (282 lbs.), including 34 kilograms of high explosives. It can deliver these shells to a distance between 800 to 9,700 meters at a rate of fire of one shell per minute, although special rocket-assisted ammunition can extend the range to above 20 kilometers. Unlike the coughing report of most mortars, each shot from an M240 makes a ringing sound like a gigantic bell as the projectile shoots up at a seemingly vertical angle into the sky.

What was the rationale behind such a combination of extreme firepower with comparatively short range? Well, the M240 still weighs a lot less than other weapons of the same caliber, such as the 29,000 kg. (64,000 lb.) 240mm M1 howitzer still operated by Taiwan, and its shorter range is less of an impediment if used against an immobile, fortified target. In other words, the M240 is a siege weapon.

Goliaths of the Yom Kippur War
The Soviet Union supplied M240 mortars to both the Egyptian and Syrian armies, who gave the weapon its baptism of fire in the Yom Kippur War. The Egyptian mortars were tasked with pounding the heavy Israeli fortifications along the Suez Canal. The Syrian mortars, grouped in a special high-level artillery formation, smashed the Israeli outposts on Mount Hermon and Tel Fares on the Golan Heights, disrupting Israeli communication networks and blinding artillery observation and intelligence-gathering posts.

Alon Harksberg, an Israeli veteran of the battle on the Golan Heights, later wrote about the effects of a 240mm bombardment in a web forum:

With the 240mm, warning [of an incoming bombardment] and cover didn’t really matter since if you happened to be in the same general area where they impacted, you’d be dead (if lucky) or horribly maimed / injured from giant shrapnel and flying debris (if not so). During the war of attrition that developed on the Hermon following the 1973 armistice, the Syrians used 240mm (and 180mm [Soviet S-23 field guns]) to rake the ridge from end to end, sometimes on a nightly basis, until we put an end to that in an operation which still cannot be discussed. That was a very unsettling experience to say the least, with many brave men succumbing to mental fatigue under the relentless bombardment. […] We used to call them these huge bastards “Goliaths”, both after the biblical character and after the map grid in which one of the more notorious batteries was located (submerged under nearly 2 meters of anti-air raid concrete, with only the barrels sticking out, ala Guns of the Navarone).

The Syrian mortars were not permanently silenced however. Sixteen years later, in an ominous foretaste of their employment in the Syrian Civil War, 240mm mortars and heavy 180mm guns were used to shell East Beirut in 1989 during the Lebanese Civil War. A 1989 briefing in the Knesset by then-Israeli defense minister Yitzhak Rabin suggests a chilling death toll: “In the previous round of fighting, the Syrians employed 180 mm. and 240 mm. artillery, and mercilessly shelled urban centers in East Beirut. As a result of this shelling and the Christians’ return fire at West Beirut, more than 900 people were killed, and more than 3,000 injured in the last round of fighting”.

A UN account of the bombardment notes that “[e]ach projectile weighed 110 kilos and could penetrate the concrete shelters which had hitherto afforded the civilian population some protection. Fifteen people had been killed and more than forty-wounded two nights before in a shelter close to the UNIFIL and UNTSO offices in East Beirut.” (Marrack Goulding, “Peacemonger“, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003, p. 105).

The Washington Post and the New York Times also marveled at the devastation, one article noting that it was more “like a bomb than a shell. It can leave a crater 15 feet in diameter“.

The Siege of Beirut in 1982.

The Siege of Beirut in 1982.

The M240 and 2S4 Tulip in Afghanistan
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union first employed its 240mm mortars in combat in Afghanistan. Konstantin Scherbakov, a gunner in the 1074th Artillery Battalion gave a detailed account of a 1985 strike against a fortress in the Panjshir Valley belonging to the Afghan warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud — yes, that Massoud, the future leader of the Northern Alliance opposing the Taliban who was assassinated two days before the 9/11 attacks (for Massoud’s role in AFghanistan see also Dr. Adrian Hänni and Lukas Hegi, “The Pakistani Godfather: The Inter-Services Intelligence and the Afghan Taliban 1994-2010”, offiziere.ch, 2013. part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4). The 1074th was equipped with M240 mortars (not 2S4 vehicles as reported in some sources) towed by MT-LB armored tractors, and had received specialized laser-guided Smel’Chak (Daredevil) rounds that could be landed on target by a laser designator.

Going into the gorge, the battery took up firing position on crests to the left and right of our units. Soon the situation was they had blocked our progress with DShK heavy machine guns firing from a protected position inside Massoud’s fortress. At this point, the commander of the battalion, Major Vershinin enlisted the team into destroying the gun emplacements. Commander Beletsky lit the target with a laser rangefinder and we took our first shot using a regular round and then the second with the laser-guided “Daredevil.” […]. — Konstantin Scherbakov.

In a twelve minute fire mission, the fortress was reduced to rubble. The engagement highlighted one of the advantages of the mortar system: like all mortars, the M240 shot shells at a high-angle trajectory, and could arc over the walls of the fortress while conventional bombardment from 122mm guns slammed into the fortress walls. The laser-guided shells drastically improved accuracy, and furthermore, the sheer weight of the shells meant that they were little affected by meteorological conditions. However, the weapons could become dangerous if not well-maintained:

When firing, it was of great importance to thoroughly clean the barrel, literally after every shot […] Once we accidentally left a fragment from a previous shot in the barrel, and the next shell jammed while loading. The situation was rather unpleasant, since we could neither pull nor push the shell in or out. We had to stack mattresses under the breech and carefully hooked the jammed shell with drag ropes to an MT-LB tractor which pulled in one direction, while a second MT-LB pulled the barrel in another. It barely came out! After that, we made sure to clean the barrel perfectly after every shot. — Konstantin Scherbakov.

The towed M240s were replaced in Afghanistan by self-propelled 2S4 Tulip vehicles, where they continued to prove effective in destroying mountain strongholds and fortified caves. The 2S4 mounts the M240 mortar on a 30-ton armored vehicles with a crew of nine. The peculiar name comes out of a Russian tradition of naming self-propelled artillery after flowers (there are also the 2S1 Carnation, the 2S3 Acacia, the 2S5 Hyacinth, and the 2S7 Peony). These vehicles equipped special “High Powered Artillery Brigades” during the Cold War that had access to nuclear projectiles.

M240 Mortars in the Panjshir Valley, 1985 (Photo by Konstantin Scherbakov).

M240 Mortars in the Panjshir Valley, 1985 (Photo by Konstantin Scherbakov).

Leveling Grozny
The 2S4 showed up again in Russian service in the Second Chechen War in a manner which foreshadowed tactics employed in Syria. An independent 2S4 artillery unit “destroyed over 127 targets” in the separatist capital of Grozny, according to one source.

One analysis states that “[t]he Russians used these [2S4s] in the Second Chechen Campaign to help level Grozny […] Tanks and artillery ringed the city while dismounted infantry and special forces personnel, accompanied by artillery forward observers and snipers, slowly crept into the city searching for Chechen strong points. When they found them, artillery and long-range tank fire was directed to eliminate the strong point and crush the building. Large segments of the city were flattened before ground forces moved into the city.”

“Conservative” estimates suggest 25,000 to 29,000 civilians were killed by all causes in Grozny. By contrast, the Russian Army admits to the loss of 368 soldiers, and claims to have killed 1,500 rebels. In 2003, the United Nations named Grozny the “most destroyed city in the world”.

Three buildings in Chechnya reportedly struck by just two 240mm mortar rounds (Photo from the archives of Alexei Terentiev).

Three buildings in Chechnya reportedly struck by just two 240mm mortar rounds (Photo from the archives of Alexei Terentiev).

Posted in Afghanistan, Egypt, English, History, International, Israel, Lebanon, Russia, Sébastien Roblin, Syria, Technology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Iran Expands Presence in Syria With Special Forces Deployment

by Galen Wright.

Recent comments by Iranian military personnel suggest that their support for the Assad government in the Syrian Civil War includes previously unknown contributions by the country’s conventional armed forces (the Artesh). Specifically, the deployment of advisors including those from the 65th Airborne Special Forces Brigade. This revelation is significant because it hints at an increasingly expeditionary role for a branch previously oriented for territorial defense.

65th Airborne Special Forces Brigade on exercise, December 2014 (IRNA).

65th Airborne Special Forces Brigade on exercise, December 2014 (IRNA).

Despite this development it is confidently assessed that the bulk of support to Damascus remains under the control of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and their militias from around the region (see Galen Wright, “Examining Iranian Drone Strikes in Syria“, offiziere.ch, February 29 2016; for a description of the IRGC’s role in Syria, see: Paul Bucala and Frederick W. Kagan, “Iran’s Evolving Way of War: How the IRGC Fights in Syria“, AEI’s Critical Threats Project, March 24 2016).

1_Arasteh Speaks

Brigadier General Ali Arasteh speaks at the NEZAJA’s Rapid Reaction Training Center, March 2016. (Mizan News)

Unlike the IRGC’s involvement, which gradually came to light as casualties mounted, evidence of the Artesh’s involvement comes from unsolicited comments made by Brigadier Ali General Arasteh, the chief-of-staff for the Artesh’s Ground Force (NEZAJA). [1] First, while speaking during a graduation ceremony at one of the force’s training centers in March 2016 he remarked: “This training session is not exclusive to the forces’ advisors in Syria and Iraq, but in some cases these personnel will be used.” On April 4 he spoke directly to Tasnim News, stating that the NEZAJA had already sent advisors to Syria, including some from the 65th Airborne Special Forces Brigade.

This comment was followed by a number of reports from Syria. On April 6, Iran’s Fars News tweeted an unconfirmed picture of the brigade’s personnel in al-Hadher, south Aleppo. This was followed by casualty reports on April 10 & 11 from the same area, where pro-government forces had just begun a major offensive. [2] At the same time, pro-government sources reported that the brigade deployed alongside Lebanese and Iraqi Hezbollah during fighting against Jabhat al-Nusra in al-Eis.

2_Around Aleppo

Location of NEZAJA activity in Syria. (Google Earth / Landsat)

Although the Artesh’s deployment to Syria is surprising, their choice of units isn’t. The 65th Airborne Special Forces Brigade – often referred to by its Persian acronym “NOHED” – is the Artesh’s counterpart to US Army Special Forces, whose own responsibilities include advise and assist missions.

3_Qualification BadgeThe similarity between the two is more than coincidence. When the unit was originally constituted as the 23rd NOHED Brigade in the 1970s, it was done so under the supervision of advisors from the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center & School. Despite the collapse of this relationship following the 1979 Revolution, the legacy is still evident in the brigade’s green berets and qualification badge, which is nearly identical to the Special Forces’ De oppresso liber unit insignia.

One of the brigade’s core specialities is irregular warfare, a term of art equivalent to the DoD’s unconventional warfare (guerrilla warfare supported by special forces). Their first experience actually came in the form of UW’s converse – foreign internal defense (FID) – when the brigade was deployed to support the Oman government during the 1970’s Dhofar Rebellion. This continued after the Revolution when the brigade assisted in suppressing the 1979 Kurdish rebellion on Iran’s western border by clearing villages and training counter-guerrilla militias. When Iraqi forces invaded later that year, touching off the Iran-Iraq War, the tables were turned and the brigade was tasked with organizing pro-Iranian guerrillas to operate behind Iraqi lines, under the auspices of the newly-created Irregular Warfare Headquarters. [4]

Over the course of 1980-1988 the brigade grew to a full division. After the war, the division’s special forces – remnants of the original 23rd – were reconstituted as the independent 65th NOHED Brigade in 1991.

Mojtaba Hashemi, a veteran of the pre-Revolutionary NOHED Brigade who would later be instrumental in operating the Irregular Warfare HQ during the Iran-Iraq War. Pictured wearing insignia of the US Army Special Forces. (Sajed.ir)

Mojtaba Hashemi, a veteran of the pre-Revolutionary NOHED Brigade who would later be instrumental in operating the Irregular Warfare HQ during the Iran-Iraq War. Pictured wearing insignia of the US Army Special Forces. (Sajed.ir)

These remnants included a hostage-rescue unit, which specializes in tactics that are largely synonymous with counter-terrorism. This training emphasizes small unit combat, especially in populated urban areas, often with the objective of capturing enemy combatants alive and with a minimum of collateral damage. With experience in this field dating back to the 1970s, the brigade also found themselves tasked with helping the IRGC and police establish their own special forces during the 1990s.

More important than the brigade’s capability itself, their deployment to Syria is also a product of one of the Artesh Ground Force’s rare moments of preeminence. Since the outbreak of civil war in Syria, and especially since the rise of the Islamic State (IS), Tehran has been preoccupied with what they refer to as “proxy wars” and the danger posed by spillover from neighboring intrastate conflicts. NEZAJA officials argue that the brigade’s mix of counter-terror and irregular warfare capabilities is an antidote to these non-traditional threats.

After the IS seized Mosul in summer 2014, NEZAJA commanders used the fear that Iranian territory was next to press their case for expanding special forces training to other units. In the official telling, the IS’s advance was only turned aside because the NEZAJA was able to quickly mobilize and deploy several combat brigades to the border. In a 2015 interview with Defa Press, the Ground Force’s commander Ahmad Reza Pourdastan claimed: “When they saw the power of our forces they dared not take another step, but instead went deeper into Iraq”.

A few months later Pourdastan argued to Iran’s legislature that this incident demonstrated the NEZAJA’s importance to the country’s counter-terrorism operations, and – importantly – the need to increase their funding: “As soldiers we say that today we see the footsteps of Daesh in Afghanistan and Pakistan and they are preparing themselves. As a soldier I plead that in these conditions the ground forces of the Artesh and IRGC must be strengthened in terms of mobility and readiness so that we can afford the equipment nescessary. […] Today’s battle is the ground force’s battle […]”.

To this end, NEZAJA planners have advocated the development of “rapid reaction forces” modelled on units like the 65th Brigade, which are lightweight and can be deployed to most locations without a lengthy mobilization process. Colonel Tazgari, the commander of the Rapid Reaction Training Center that Arasteh spoke at in March, elaborated further: “Rapid reaction forces are forces that must enter operation as soon as possible and deal a fatal blow to the enemy and in fact they operate as the tip-of-the-spear for operational units in times of crisis and then these operational units use the window of opportunity that these forces created. In the field of equipment and vehicles it is necessary that rapid reaction units to have the highest mobility […]”. This translates into an emphasis on airborne assaults delivered by helicopter, raiding tactics, up-arming of light-infantry with weapons like large-caliber small arms and man-portable anti-tank weapons, and close-coordination with supporting elements like artillery and UAVs.

5_CT Training-MRA Exercise

A hostage-rescue scenario during counter-terrorism exercises, December 2014 (IRNA)

When Arasteh visited the center’s graduation ceremony, personnel from the 65th Brigade were documented among the instructors. Even before the center was formally inaugurated in summer 2015, the brigade was responsible for providing similar training on an ad hoc basis to NEZAJA units rotating through border security assignments.

Although the development of rapid reaction forces indicates the NEZAJA’s intent to deal with regional violence like that in Syria, their responsibilities are constitutionally circumscribed to protecting the country’s borders and its “territorial integrity”. The question is whether or not the Artesh is allowed to, in protecting the borders, go beyond them.

The Islamic State’s 2014 advance described above clarified both this question and the Artesh’s answer. The NEZAJA’s leadership believe they are constitutionally entitled to operate beyond Iran’s borders. In short, they’ve codified a doctrine of preemption. Pourdastan has made it clear that he thinks preemption is justified by the unique conditions of the irregular battlefield: “Today we face the new methods [being used by] these threats, threats which are different from those in the past, and as an arm of the Islamic Republic we must create and strengthen our capacity to confront them. One of these threats is the activity of takfiri groups in Iraq, Syria, and around Iran. […] We’ve determined that if these terrorist groups or takfiris come close to crossing our red-lines, which are very far away from Iran’s borders, a heavy blow will be dealt to them”.

8_65th at RR Training Center

NOHED instructors at the Rapid Reaction Training Center, March 2016. (IRNA)

Over the past two years the NEZAJA has been responsible for a handful of known extra-territorial missions. According to reporting by Babak Taghvaee in the February 2015 issue of Combat Aircraft Monthly, when the NEZAJA mobilized against the IS in summer 2014 the 65th Brigade sent troops to coordinate with Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army, as well as direct fire support provided by the Artesh’s fixed and rotary-wing aircraft. The brigade also sent troops to the Mosul Dam and Baiji oil refinery. [5]

Postings on social media also document the brigade’s presence in Iraq through 2015, and at least one raid into Pakistan involving the arrest of six men claimed to be IS members (see image below).

This mandate isn’t just limited to fighting the Islamic State. Additional reporting by Taghvaee in Combat Aircraft’s July 2015 issue claims that in May a detachment from another NEZAJA unit – the 55th Airborne Brigade – conducted a heliborne assault into northern Iraq to strike guerrillas, not from IS, but Kurds from the anti-Iran PJAK.

Although Pourdastan says that this doctrine is limited to a 40 km buffer, it’s hard not to see the NEZAJA’s Syria deployment as the inevitable evolution of this logic. Once the initial justification has been made, what’s to stop further extensions of the so-called “red lines”? Why not 41 km? Why not 42? Why not Aleppo?

9_Instagram Photo

The results of a cross-border raid into Pakistan (Instagram / setare_tipe_makhsoos )

[1] Arasteh holds the position of coordination deputy, which is equivalent to the “chief-of-staff” or “executive officer” position in other command structures. This effectively makes him the NEZAJA’s third highest ranking officer.
[2] Documented casualties, as of writing, include:
…..– 2nd Lt. Mohsen Qeytaslou, 65th NOHED Brigade (Twitter)
…..– Maj. Zolfaqari Nasab, 65th NOHED Brigade (Twitter)
…..– 2nd Lt. Mojtaba Yadollah, 388th Mechanized Infantry Brigade (ABNA)
…..– Cpt. Hamidollah Bakeshnadeh, 65th NOHED Brigade (Twitter)
…..– Cpt. Morteza Zarharan, 258th Commando Brigade. (Twitter)
…..– Col. Mojtabi Zulfiqar-Naseb, 45th Commando Brigade. (ABNA)
[4] The Irregular Warfare Headquarters was later abolished and its responsibility passed to the IRGC.
[5] Private correspondence with author.

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