Since 2012 Israel has carried out at least 300 air raids on Iranian forces in Syria. This began when Iran decided to back the Assad government of Syria, an Iranian ally since the 1980s, with massive financial and military aid. The Assads were dealing with a massive uprising that began in 2011 and were in danger of losing. Iran was also interested in establishing a land route to move weapons and personnel from Iran, through Iraq to Syria and Lebanon. This was in preparation for major attacks on Israel. In response Israel began the airstrikes on Iranian weapons storage sites, bases and now missile assembly operations. Since 2012 there have been about 38 airstrikes a year but there have already at least 24 air strikes so far in 2020. At least five air strikes took place in in a two week period after April 20. These air attacks use various types of smart bombs and guided missiles and rarely miss or are aborted.
The Syrians increasingly claim to have intercepted Israeli air-launched (often from inside Lebanon or Israel) missiles but the reality is that few of the Israeli missiles fail to hit their targets. Commercial satellite photos are available to determine damage and there is always a lot of destruction. Iran and Syria complain that the Russian air defense system in Syria is not used to stop the Israelis. The Russians don’t want a fight with the Israelis, if only because the Israelis might publically demonstrate the ineffectiveness of Russian air defense systems. These systems are a major export item for Russia and the Israelis could reduce those export sales with demonstrations of how to get past the Russian air defenses.
Russians would prefer the Iranians to get out of Syria. The financial crises back in Iran has made the losses from Israeli air strikes more difficult to deal with. Iran cannot afford to keep replacing missiles and structures lost to these attacks. There is one exception to the Iranian reductions and repositioning in Syria. The new bases on the Iraqi border are being expanded. In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) the Iranian weapons storage near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq continues to be reinforced and expanded. Storage areas are being built underground. This may not prove very effective because Israel has plenty of “ground penetrating” bombs and even builds and exports these weapons. None of these “bunker buster bombs have been used against Al Bukamal yet. The Israelis usually wait until such new facilities are completed and full of weapons before attacking them. This way the maximum, and most expensive, damage is inflicted.
The Al Bukamal border crossings is vital for the Iran-to-Mediterranean land route. This road is essential to supporting any Iranian military expansion in Syria and Lebanon. Israel has bombed it before and will apparently continue doing so. That is what will also to happen to the new military base Iran is building here on the Syrian side of the border. The base is nearly complete despite several Israeli air strikes. At that point the Israeli airstrikes usually intensify in an effort to obliterate the completed base.
The Syrian Swamp
The unusual (in historical terms) alliance between traditional foes Russia, Turkey and Iran in Syria is becoming a losing situation for all concerned. The initial objective was to defeat the rebels, particularly the many Islamic terror groups that had come to dominate the rebels cause. The rebels eventually lost and that was obvious by 2018. Now the fighting is about Iran seeking to militarize Syria for a war against Israel while the Turks are literally at war with Syria over the Assad battles with the last concentration of rebels in Idlib province. This battle zone is on the Turkish border. The Assads don’t care if most of the several million civilians in Idlib flee into Turkey. Most of those civilians are pro-rebel Sunnis and the Shia Assads prefer that they leave. The Turks prefer that they stay in Syria. When things calm down in Syria Turkey hopes to persuade the three million Syrian refugees it already has to go home. With the Assads back in power, Syria is not a safe place for Sunni refugees. Iran supports the Assad approach. An Iran dominated Syria hostile to Turkey is not a good place for Russian to have troops and bases.
Israel also wants the Iranians gone, as does Turkey. Earlier in the year the Iranians began backing off because of economic problems back home and relentless air attacks by Israel. But the Iranians are not giving up. They have dominated Syria since the 1980s and finally have an opportunity to turn Syria into a base of operations against Israel. In reality, most Syrians don’t want that. War with Israel never turns out well for Syria or most Syrians. Now most Iranians agree with this attitude as well. Iranian mercenaries and Iran backed militias in Syria are responding to the continuing Israeli airstrikes by moving to better protected locations. The units involved are near the Iraqi and Israeli borders as well as Aleppo. Iran is undergoing a financial crises at home, caused by the plunging oil prices and covid19 disruptions of the economy. Some of these units are being disbanded or losing their Iranian financial support. Spending on the war in Syria, Yemen, Gaza and Lebanon is very unpopular in Iran. For over a year there have been public protests against the Iranian government because of the many economic problem attributed to government corruption and mismanagement.
Similar unrest has broken out in Lebanon where Iran–backed Hezbollah has been armed and paid by Iran to bully the Lebanese government tolerate southern Lebanon being turned into a base for attacks on Israel.
Russia is threatening to cut much, or all, if its support for the Assad government if the Assads do not cooperate and back off on their attacks in Idlib province. Al Qaeda groups hold about half of Idlib province in the northwest and small portions of adjacent Aleppo and Hama provinces. ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) still has scattered, but active, factions in the east (Deir Ezzor province).
Iran still backs the Assads but is not willing or able to force the Russians to remain in Syria. What also annoys the Russians is the extent of the corruption by the Assads, who have been stealing Russian and Iranian aid as well as portions of the government budget. The Assad clan seems more concerned about their own survival than they do of Syria’s. Iran has been the powerful patron of the Assads since the 1980s and now have more influence over Syrian affairs than the Russians. The Iranians are not willing to do anything about the Assad Clan misconduct, at least not right now.
So far Israel has suffered nearly 2,000 infected per million Israelis and 32 dead per million. The Israeli population travels to foreign destinations more (per million people) than any other nation in the region. That meant Israel was infected about the same time the rest industrialized nations were. The virus and quarantine response measures hurt the economy. The unemployment rate is up from 4 percent on March 1st to 25 percent, the highest ever for Israel. The GDP will contract 5.6 percent for 2020. The infections and deaths are declining and the economy will be operating at full capacity and by 2021 the usual economic growth will return.
Egypt is detecting more people with covid19 but the pandemic has not done major damage. Currently the virus has infected 125 per million Egyptians and killed six per million. The national health system in Egypt is largely non-existent and many cases of covid19 will go undetected as will deaths, which can be confused with any number of similar diseases. In contrast Israel has the best health care system in the region and more of its population is regularly exposed to foreign travelers who unknowingly spread such diseases all over the world.
The Egyptian GDP growth is expected to be, at best, only half a percent for 2020, but rebounding to over five percent in 2021.
Hamas has been much less aggressive about attacking Israel lately. This is in part to concerns about covid19 becoming a major problems which it has not become in Gaza or the West Bank. Hamas is growing more concerned about the economic damage it has inflicted on Gaza with its constant attacks on Israel. Hamas is trying to negotiate some kind of ceasefire that would lift the embargo on Gaza. Years of these efforts have not succeeded and may never do so because there are too many Islamic terror factions in Gaza that constant war with Israel and don’t care about the Gaza economy.
May 18, 2020: Israel finally has a new government, not much different from the previous one. This comes after 17 months of stalemates because of three national elections and multiple failures by parliamentary factions to form a new coalition government.
May 17, 2020: In the north Israeli troops shot and wounded a man who had been caught crossing the border into Israel. Normally the Lebanese border guards prevent anyone from getting close to the border. In the last month there have been several cases where people showed up on the Lebanese side of the border and crossed it. These illegal crossers are usually detected and arrested or shot before they can get too far into Israel. It is unclear what the Lebanese border guards, or Hezbollah (which can intimidate the security forces to do whatever) are up to.
May 16, 2020: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) another Israeli airstrike hit the Iranian weapons storage near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. There were several large explosions, not all of them missile warheads. At least seven Iranians (or Iranian mercenaries) were killed.
May 15, 2020: In Egypt (Sinai) a raid on a suspected Islamic terrorist hideout left seven terrorism suspects dead. One of the terrorists died during the raid while the other six escaped. Police tracked them down (via security camera video) to another hideout where the six were killed. Found there were ten bombs, four explosive vests, some rifles and ammo along with vehicles, cell phones and walkie-talkies.
May 14, 2020: In the West Bank a Palestinian deliberately drove his car at two soldiers, injuring one while the other shot dead the driver.
May 13, 2020: In the West Bank a raid to arrest Islamic terror suspects led to a mob of local civilians threatening the troops. The mob refused to disperse and threw rocks and other objects at the troops, who opened fire to disperse the mob. That worked but only after five of the rioters were hit and one of them died.
May 12, 2020: In the West Bank a night raid to arrest Islamic terror suspects led to the death of an Israeli soldier when Palestinians on the roof of a building dropped large rocks on the troops. That led to a search for the Palestinians responsible.
May 10, 2020: Officials at the Iranian Shahid Rajaee container port near the Strait of Hormuz admitted that local government networks had been hit with an Internet based attack. The official insisted the attack did no lasting damage to port operations. But commercial satellite photos later showed trucks (delivering or going to pick up containers) backed up on roads to the port. An unusually large number of container ships were stuck waiting to get a berth. In a rare move Israel took credit for the hack, which was meant to port operations. Israel rarely takes credit for these attacks but did so in this case to warn Iran there would be a lot more of this if Iran did not halt its efforts to hack Israeli water supply systems. The latest of these was in late April.
May 6, 2020: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) Russian troops are replacing Iranian mercenaries in key areas. Iran appears to have withdrawn some forces from Deir Ezzor province, either to move them closer to the Israeli border or disband mercenary units it can no longer afford to pay and support. Many of these mercenaries are local civilians who go back to lower-paying jobs for local warlords. The Russian presence consists of a few checkpoints and some patrols backed by Russian air power. The Syrian government is technically in control of Deir Ezzor province but the lack of security forces has enabled some of the ISIL groups hiding out there to assert themselves and terrorize civilians with kidnappings and murder. ISIL wants civilians to provide support and not cooperate with police or soldiers who come after the Islamic terrorists. In the last week at least nine civilians have been murdered and in over a dozen rural towns and villages ISIL is a constant presence and menace.
May 5, 2020: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) Israeli air strikes hit several Iranian targets causing about over 30 casualties and extensive property damage. The explosions were huge and sustained indicating the Israelis had blown up stores of Iranian rockets and ammo.
May 4, 2020: In northern Syria (outside Aleppo) an Israeli air strike hit a research center where Syrians and Iranians were working on chemical weapons. Satellite photos later showed the damage was extensive. Further east of Aleppo province, another Israeli air strike hit an ammo storage site, causing a large explosion.
In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province), an Israeli air strike hit the Mayadeen army base and the Iran-backed militia stationed there. Outside Mayadeen ISIL ambushed and killed two Iranian troops.
May 3, 2020: The overall level of violence in Syria is way down from levels that had been the norm from 2013 to 2017. Instead of over a thousand civilians killed each month, in April the number was less than 80. Military losses are several times that and all the losses are primarily in the northwest (Idlib, Aleppo and Hama) or the south east, mainly near the Iraqi and Israeli borders.
May 2, 2020: In Egypt (Sinai) ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) beheaded three members of the Terabin tribe, leaving the heads on the side of a road. Three other Terabin men were kidnapped. This is apparently yet another ISIL effort to compel cooperation from the tribe. Such cooperation can range from simply not reporting ISIL movements to the security forces, up to actively supporting ISIL and allowing the Islamic terrorists to openly recruit from the tribe. ISIL rarely gets any degree of tribal cooperation. By 2018 Egypt had persuaded most of the Sinai tribes to work with the security forces to curb ISIL activity. As is usually the case ISIL arrogance and brutal tactics turned the Bedouin from neutrals (and s0metime allies) into implacable enemies. Over a hundred Bedouin were killed by ISIL between 2016 and 2018 and that has had an impact. This pro-government attitude has gone from Bedouin sharing information about ISIL activities to quietly accepting weapons, vehicles and cash to assist in patrolling the Sinai. The Bedouin never pass up free weapons but working part time for the security forces is OK as long as it increases security for their own tribe. For a long time the security forces were reluctant to supply the Bedouin with weapons, because of the risk they would eventually be turned against Egyptian forces. That is still a risk but right now ISIL is a much larger danger to everyone. ISIL persists in using violence against tribes it feels might succumb to such pressure.
May 1, 2020: In Egypt (Sinai) a raid on a suspected Islamic terrorist hideout killed two armed men.
In central Syria (Homs province) an Israeli airstrike triggered large explosions at a Hezbollah ammo storage site.
April 30, 2020: In the north (Golan Heights) Israeli helicopters hit Iran-backed militia near the border. The next day more airstrikes hit Hezbollah positions in the Golan Heights.
In Egypt (Sinai) a military convoy was hit by a roadside bomb, leaving ten soldiers dead and three wounded. Security forces went looking for those responsible and two days later raided a nearby town where a home was being used as an Islamic terrorist base. When the house was surrounded the 18 men inside said they would not surrender and all were killed during the subsequent gun battle. In the building troops found 13 assault rifles, two explosive vests and three other bombs.
April 27, 2020: In central Israel (Lod and its international airport) three fire kites (kites with incendiary devices attached) were released by local Arab-Israelis as part of Ramadan activities. Two kites came down in a residential areas and one five kilometers from the airport. These tactics are normally only seen in the south, coming from Gaza. Police are seeking those responsible for the fire kites in Lod.
April 24, 2020: Iran claims it succeeded, on its fourth attempt since 2010, to launch a satellite into a stable orbit. The Iranian confirmation comes two days after the satellite was launched. The Noor photo satellite is in a stable 450 kilometers high orbit but appears to be tumbling out of control. Unless Noor has thrusters that can be used to stabilize it the satellite is useless. Noor is actually quite small, weighing about 4 kg (9 pounds) and about half the size of a microwave oven. One success in all this was the use of the new Qased SLV (satellite launch vehicle) to get their satellite into orbit. Since 2010 there were three previous attempts, all failures and all using the Simorgh SLV. Both Qased and Simorgh are multi-stage rockets that can carry a satellite into orbit or a warhead to a distant target. The U.S. and Israel describe the Iranian SLV test as a cover for what is actually an effort to develop an ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile).