Israel: New Friends, Old Enemies, More Mayhem

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October 31, 2018: Israel is warning Lebanon and Iraq that Iranian use of their territory to upgrade unguided rockets with GPS guidance kits will result in Israeli airstrikes to destroy those operations unless local governments act. Lebanon is more of a problem because of its relationship with Iran and Syria. Hezbollah, a 1980s creation of Iran, is an autonomous military force in Lebanon and dominates local politics via terror and threats of violence against those who resist. Hezbollah, like its patron Iran, is dedicated to the destruction of Israel. Iran is currently trying to turn Syria and Iraq into subject states similar to Lebanon. Most Syrians and Iraqis want to avoid this but it isn’t easy because Iran is clever, determined and fanatic about the “destroy Israel” thing. What complicates the situation in Syria is that there a lot of major players.

Although Russia, Turkey and Iraq are technically allies with Iran in Syria the historical record shows Iran is historically hostile, and often at war, with these nations and that has been the case for centuries, long before Israel came along in 1948. What makes the unusual alliance possible is that everyone can agree on the need to get rid of the remaining Islamic terrorist rebel groups in Syria. Most of these are currently surrounded in the northwest Syrian province of Idlib. There are some ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) groups hiding out in eastern Syria but these are seen as much less of a threat than the tens of thousands of Islamic terrorists in Idlib. Despite the remaining Islamic terrorist threat in Syria, everyone in and bordering Syria would like to see the Iranians go back to Iran and stay there. The few hundred Iranian troops and over 50,000 Iranian mercenaries in Syria are seen as a constant source of trouble. Iran realizes that their allies in Syria have, and will probably continue, to collaborate with Israel if an opportunity presents itself. Yet Iranian leaders fail to see the absurdity of this situation and despite the widespread popular protest in Iran against the Syrian operations the Iranian leaders continue to operate like its forces in Syria are on the verge of destroying Israel.

Turkey is increasingly unsure about its alliance with Russia. Turkeys’ decades of membership in NATO has given Turks a different, and more professional, military experience than their Russian and Iranian counterparts. For that reason, the Turks have attempted to run their own operation along the Syrian border and most of their disputes were with fellow NATO members, mainly the Americans. With the Russians, the Turks are concerned about the Russian tendency to fantasize, especially when it comes to tech. The Russians and the Iranians have a tendency to announce new military gear that does not perform as advertised. This is particularly the case with weapons sold to Arab nations. The Russians have been doing this since 1950s and found the Arabs are even more into self-serving fantasy than the Russians. The latest example is the recent delivery of S-300 air defense systems to Syria. The arrival of these S-300s was officially prompted by a September incident when, in the immediate aftermath of an Israeli airstrike, a Syrian S-200 SAM (Surface to Air missile) shot down a Russian four-engine Il-20 maritime patrol aircraft off the coast. Russia blamed Israel and Turkey kept quiet because the Turks knew what happened and were appalled that the Russians would not recognize the problems and try to fix them. There were three issues the Russians ignored. First, the Israeli warplanes were back in Israel when the Il-20 was shot down. Second, the Syrians frequently launch lots of SAMs right after an Israeli airstrike even through Syrian radars provide no evidence of where any Israeli warplanes are. The Syrian air defense commanders fire lots of missiles to show that they are “doing something” even though they never manage to shoot down any Israeli warplanes. Third, the Syrians and Russians are supposed to have an IFF (Identify Friend or Foe) system whereby Russian aircraft carry an IFF transmitter that will tell Syrian SAMs (or SAM unit commanders) that the Russian aircraft is “friendly” and not to be fired on.

Russia and Syria imply that the Israelis somehow deceived Russian and Syrian equipment and were at fault for the Il-20 loss. The Turks know better, and so do many Russian and Syrian officers. But the official line for Russians and Syrians is that the Israelis are somehow responsible and don’t bother us with reality because that’s not how we roll. By bringing in the more advanced and powerful S-300 systems and giving them to the same Syrians who cannot handle S-200s correctly what can one expect? Nothing good, especially since the Russians are also bringing in more of their EW (Electronic Warfare) equipment and promise to use it. This bothers the Turks because the Russian EW gear is often quite powerful but also tends to produce unexpected (and unfavorable) results in a combat zone. This puts Turkish aircraft and troops at greater risk and also sets the Russians and Syrians up for even more embarrassment. That also makes Russian assurances of how they will aid the Turks in dealing with the last rebel stronghold in Syria (Idlib province) more of a risk. The Turks have always considered the Syrians as unreliable and unpredictable and were hoping the Russians would be an improvement. Improving is not what Russia does these days. Mostly it is improvising and that is a riskier and more uncertain approach to anything. Meanwhile, the Israelis are quietly continuing to launch airstrikes against Iranian and Hezbollah operations in Syria.

Iran is finding less consideration and cooperation from its allies in Syria. Russia, Turkey and the Assad government see the continuing Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria as a matter between Israel and Iran. The obsession with destroying Israel is seen as an Iranian weakness. Discussions continue on how Russia, Iran and Turkey will operate in Syria once the civil war is officially over. Iran insists that it will still be in Syria at that point. Syria is negotiating peace deals with Kurds (who control the northeast), Druze (who occupy much of the Israeli-Jordan border) and Sunni groups (tribal leaders and local leaders who have not been hostile). Syria wants to attract a lot of foreign aid for reconstruction but that is complicated by Iranian plans to establish a permanent military presence and continue threatening Israel. Several members of the Assad clan are facing war crimes charges and Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan want to send back several million Sunni Arab refugees (which the Assads do not want). The war will not end quickly or in a tidy fashion.

The Grief In Gaza

In Gaza (the smaller of the two Palestinian territories) Hamas, the Islamic terrorist group that has controlled the Palestinian enclave since 2007, has suffered another defeat in its most recent war with Israel. Actually it’s worse than that as Hamas has, at the same time, suffered setbacks in its struggles against Fatah (the other Palestinian government in the West Bank), Islamic Jihad (a smaller, Iran backed Gaza rival) and Egypt (that has also blockaded its border crossing and shut down most of the smuggling tunnels. These multiple catastrophes were triggered by another Hamas effort to develop a new strategy that would defeat, or at least hurt, Israel. Once more Hamas thought they had it had it all figured out only to discover that the Israeli military superiority represented more than weapons and well-trained troops.

The Hamas defeat in the latest war (that began in March) was due to being outmaneuvered by Israeli tactics that exposed the weaknesses and ruthlessness of Hamas and left the rulers of Gaza much worse off than when they began. This time Hamas thought they could win via a media war campaign by encouraging civilians (via free food, publicity and cash payments for those injured or killed) to try and physically force their way through the security fence and into Israel. It didn’t work and so far over 200 Palestinians have died. One Israeli has been killed, by a Hamas sniper using a long-range 12.7mm Iranian sniper rifle. Hamas lost dozens of members, many of the promising young leaders. So did Islamic Jihad. These men were in the crowds to urge the largely male (and teenage) force to keep going in the face of tear gas, rubber bullets and real bullets for the few who made it through the fence. This was all captured on video, from both sides, and it did not reflect well on Hamas, which lost more support from its few remaining Arab allies (and donors). This included Egypt, which also closed its border to Gaza as well as increasing efforts to find and destroy Hamas smuggling tunnels into Egypt. One surprisingly successful aspect of this round of violence was the Hamas use of kites and balloons to send fire bombs across the border. So far these attacks have burned over 2,800 hectares (6,900 acres) of shrub, forest and farmland. The kite and balloon assembly and launch sites are increasingly being hit with airstrikes and artillery, contributing to the Palestinian death toll. The fire kites and balloons are the only things the Gazans can get across the border, depending on the wind.

Another Hamas defeat, that was not unexpected, was new Israeli technology which made it very difficult (and apparently, for the moment, impossible) to dig tunnels under the security fence and into Israel. Moreover, it soon became apparent that the Israelis had no intention of invading, as they had in 2014. That war was another major disappointment for Hamas and they failed to realize that the Israelis learned more from the 2014 war than Hamas did. Six months into this latest war Hamas is faced with more unrest among the nearly two million Palestinians it rules. Hamas is under even greater pressure from its rival Fatah, which rules the West Bank. Egypt, which had brokered numerous efforts to achieve peace with Israel, is pressuring Hamas to make peace with Fatah and form a unified Palestinian government, even though everyone believes Hamas would no longer be in charge of Gaza, or anything else because the group has become so unpopular with most Palestinians. Everyone in the Arab world wants Hamas and Fatah to merge. But the long record of failure means that would cost Hamas its control over Gaza where most Palestinians are decidedly anti-Hamas. In fact, the only ally Sunni Hamas has is Shia (and non-Arab) Iran which is currently calling for Iranian Shia to replace the Sunni Arabs who have always controlled the most sacred Islamic shrines in Mecca. Because of this latest war against Israel Hamas has less support in Gaza, fewer Arab allies, less cash and is generally despised by the Arab world.

Most importantly Israel learned that they could defeat Hamas without invading Gaza. That deprived Hamas of an opportunity to get lots of Gaza civilians killed because Hamas had learned how to construct new residential buildings (from single-family homes to apartment buildings) with military features. Hamas learned that from Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia. Hezbollah builds a lot of new government, commercial and residential buildings and all have a secondary military purpose. Often it is just ammunition storage bunkers in the basement and special passageways to allow rockets to be quickly moved to firing positions (either right next to or in the building). Hezbollah shared its techniques for forcing civilians to stay in their homes during conflicts, even though these homes and been weaponized and were now legitimate military targets. Israel could have gone after Hamas anyway but found it better to stop Hamas at the border fence and let Gazans know what else Hamas had in store for them. For Hamas, that was not a win.

Sinai Shutdown For ISIL

The Egyptian campaign against ISIL in Sinai, that began in February, continues. So far that effort has killed some 400 Islamic terrorists and arrested over a thousand suspects. More than a thousand roadside bombs, landmines and other explosives were disabled or destroyed before they could be used (to kill, on average, more civilians than anyone else). Hundreds of ISIL motorbikes and other vehicles have been seized along with hundreds of rifles and machine-guns and large quantities of ammo and other military equipment. At least once a month the military releases a summary of recent operations and the list always contains many hideouts and much equipment (and weapons) seized as well as many (often fifty or more) mines and roadside bombs disabled. These operations are also doing a lot of damage to Sinai based smuggling operations. The government is telling the smugglers (usually Bedouins) that if they want to avoid these counter-terrorism raids, don’t work with the Islamic terrorists, especially ISIL. That has had some impact although by now most of the Sinai tribes have turned against ISIL, which is still the primary Islamic terror group operating in Sinai. That is largely because Egypt has greatly reduced access between Gaza and Egypt. Gaza is still a sanctuary for several Islamic terror groups but because of another Hamas military campaign against Israel Gaza is difficult to get in or out of. That leaves a much diminished ISIL as the major terrorist threat in Sinai. ISIL can still attract some recruits and other support but, as happened in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere ISIL made too many enemies and is declining. ISIL has tried moving to other parts of Egypt but has not found any part of the country as “hospitable” as Sinai.

October 30, 2018: In the last few days three Gulf Arab states (UAE, Oman and Bahrain) have openly admitted their links to Israel. The UAE and Oman have recently received Israeli leaders as official visitors. So far the closer Arabian ties with Israel have not generated a lot of internal unrest. That may not be the case in Saudi Arabia, the largest and most powerful Arabian state. Despite that risk, Saudi Arabia has taken the lead in forming an alliance with Israel. The last time there was such public enthusiasm for Israel was in the 1990s after Israel and the Palestinians met in Norway and worked out a peace deal. In 2000, when Israel offered a peace deal that the Palestinians would love to have today, the Palestinians turned it down because the radicals wanted Israel destroyed and nothing less would do. That did not work out well and this time around most Moslem nations blame the Palestinians and see Israel as a much more reliable and useful ally and economic partner. The Palestinians are still calling for the destruction of Israel but the only one siding with them is Iran, which has declared war on the Arab states, especially the one in Arabia with lots of oil.

October 29, 2018: Israel admitted that it continues to carry out airstrikes in Syria against Iranian and Hezbollah targets. Since Septembers 17 (when a Syrian SAM shot down a Russian recon plane off the coast in the aftermath of an Israeli airstrike) most of the news has been about Russia sending Syria free S-300 SAM batteries (which are still not operational) and openly blaming Israel for the loss of the recon aircraft and its 15 member crew. Israel rarely comments on these airstrikes, at least not soon after they occur or not until someone else (Syria, Iran or Russia) complains. None of these nations mentioned (much less complained of) recent Israeli airstrikes but the news eventually gets out as the aftermath of these airstrikes is very visible and not hidden.

In the south (the Gaza border) local Israeli civilians held a demonstration that blocked traffic into Gaza at the only Israeli crossings. Although many items are banned, basics like food, medicine and fuel are shipped int0 Gaza. The Israeli civilians wanted stronger measures to be used against Islamic terrorists in Gaza in order to stop the border violence. It took a few hours to clear the demonstrators out of the way and allow trucks to get into Gaza again.

October 28, 2018: Details of recent Israel-Saudi Arabia security cooperation were revealed. The clandestine meetings between Israeli and Saudi security officials have been an open secret for years and are now rarely clandestine. Now it was revealed that Israel had recently sold the Saudis $250 million worth of high-tech espionage gathering equipment. Israeli firms are major developers and manufacturers of this equipment and this was the first major sale to a Gulf Arab nation.

In Gaza Islamic Jihad said it would agree to a ceasefire if Egypt could arrange one and Israel would agree to it. Israel believes that Iran ordered Islamic Jihad to make the rocket attack and will continue to order Islamic Jihad to take such orders because Iran is the primary backer of Islamic Jihad and without that support, Islamic Jihad would be much reduced in size and influence.

October 27, 2018: Overnight Gaza based Islamic Jihad fired at least 34 rockets into southern Israel. Thirteen rockets, headed for populated areas, were intercepted by Iron Dome. Another two rockets landed in Gaza and the rest landed in unpopulated areas of Israel. Six civilians were injured, mainly from shock or accidents rushing for shelters. After sunrise, Israeli airstrikes hit 95 Islamic Jihad and Hamas facilities in Gaza. In the afternoon Islamic Jihad told Egyptian mediators that they were willing to observe a ceasefire with Israel. Islamic Jihad takes it orders from Iran while Hamas has a little more autonomy.

In Egypt (Cairo), someone placed a bomb behind a police vehicle. When the bomb went off it wounded a police commander.

October 26, 2018: The Israeli prime minister visited the Persian Gulf state of Oman for the first time and met with Omani ruler Sultan Qaboos. News of the visit was kept secret until it was over. Oman is one of the Arab states that has backed diplomatic recognition of Israel and accepting Israel as an ally in the struggle against Iran.

Hamas organized its weekly assembly of thousands of civilians who, urged on by hundreds of Hamas members, attempt to force their way through the security fence. This week five Gazans were killed and about 170 wounded in yet another failed effort to get into Israel. This has been going on since March. Hamas has offered to reduce the violence if Israel paid Hamas $15 million a month in cash.

Later in the day, more than 30 rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel. Israel believes Iran ordered Islamic Jihad to fire all these rockets. It was later claimed that the rocket fire was in retaliation for the four Palestinians killed during the Friday fence demonstrations. Three of the dead were teenagers seen planting a bomb at the fence and hit with an airstrike. Over the weekend the airstrikes kept up and by the 29th there had been nearly a hundred airstrikes. Most were directed at Hamas targets, mainly because Hamas is by far the largest Islamic terror organization in Gaza. Iran-backed Islamic Jihad had all its major facilities hit.

In western Egypt (the Libyan frontier), border guards detected, intercepted and seized two four-wheel drive trucks attempting to cross the border via the desert. In the trucks, smugglers had over a ton of illegal drugs and five rifles, ammo and a satellite phone. The primary cargo was the drugs (mainly a million methamphetamine pills and marijuana). Illegal drugs have replaced weapons as the most valuable items smugglers can bring out of Libya.

October 25, 2018: In Egypt (northern Sinai), a roadside bomb killed four workers and wounded ten others who were on their way to work on construction of a security wall in the city of El Arish. The attackers were believed to be ISIL, seeking to discourage work on the wall.

October 24, 2018: In the south (Gaza), a rocket fired from Gaza hit a residential area in Israel but there were no injuries. It is rare for a rocket to evade Iron Dome interception and the event is being investigated. In response, eight Islamic terrorist targets in Gaza were bombed.

Israel revealed that it had refused Russian demands that Russia be notified about all Israeli airstrikes in Syria.

In Egypt (Western Desert) troops raided a desert cave and found it was an Islamic terrorist base. The eleven armed men there fought to the death but failed to blow up the weapons and bomb-making equipment in the cave.

October 20, 2018: In Egypt (northern Sinai), gunmen attacked four men outside their homes, killing three and wounding a fourth. The victims all worked on construction of a security wall in the city of El Arish. The attackers were believed to be ISIL, seeking to discourage work on the wall. Elsewhere in the area there two raids on suspected Islamic terrorist hideouts. Six Islamic terrorists were killed, two policemen wounded and much equipment (and weapons) seized.

October 17, 2018: In the south (Gaza), a rocket fired from Gaza hit a residential area but there were no injuries. It is rare for a rocket to evade Iron Dome interception and the event is being investigated. In response, Israeli airstrikes hit twenty Islamic terrorist targets in Gaza and fuel deliveries were temporarily suspended.

October 15, 2018: In Egypt (Western Desert), troops raided a desert cave and found it was an Islamic terrorist base. The nine armed men there refused to surrender and fought to the death. Documents, weapons and bomb-making equipment were found in the cave.

October 8, 2018: In northern Libya (Derna), LNA (Libyan National Army) forces captured the local ISIL leader, Hesham Ashmwai, along with the widow and two daughters of prominent Egyptian Islamic terrorist leader Omar Rifai Sorour. The widow confirmed that her husband had died of wounds suffered from an airstrike in Derna and revealed his burial site. This was considered a major event because Ashmwai, a former Egyptian special operations officer, had been a notably effective Islamic terrorist leader in Libya and long sought. Ashmwai continued to organize attacks in Egypt after he moved to Libya in 2014 (to recover from wounds). Ashmwai was the most wanted Islamic terrorist in Egypt. Ashmwai agreed to provide LNA interrogators with information on what he knew of current and past Islamic terrorists operations he was involved with. Egypt wants Ashmwai returned to Egypt for interrogation and prosecution. The LNA may have agreed to keep him away from Egypt in return for information. Western or Russian intel agencies would like to have Ashmwai for questioning and that may be how the LNA is keeping Ashmwai out of Egypt without offending the Egyptians unduly. On October 21st the widow Sorour, who is Egyptian, and her daughters were turned over to Egypt by the LNA, which has been supported by Egypt for years. Raids like this are capturing a lot of key Egyptian and Libyan Islamic terrorists or their families and that results in a lot of useful information on past, current and future Islamic terrorist operations in North Africa.

October 6, 2018: In the north (Golan Heights) several dozen Israeli Druze held a pro-Assad demonstration that was acknowledged by Syrian soldiers guarding the border (who shouted encouragement). The Israeli border police did not interfere because even though most of the 20,000 Druze living in Israeli controlled (since 1967) Golan Heights have retained their Syrian nationality they have been loyal to Israel. A growing number of younger Druze are accepting the offer of Israeli citizenship. Many of the Druze in Syria (about five percent of the population) turned against the Assad government by 2015. Since late 2014 al Nusra and other Syrian rebels controlled most of the border adjacent to Israel. This created problems with the Israeli Druze who feared for the safety of the 500,000 Syrian Druze.

The 130,000 Israeli Druze have been pressuring Israel since 2013 to rescue or help protect Druze living across the border in Syria. Israel agreed to help but never released a lot of details. The solution apparently involved quietly making deals with Syrian rebels. This solution meant there was no need to allow lots of Syrian Druze into Israel or send Israeli troops across the border to establish a “safe zone” for Syrian Druze. This would preserve the lands of Syrian Druze and not turn them into refugees, but would also be more expensive (in cash and lives) for Israel by establishing a new border. That never happened. With ISIL gone from the Israeli border by late 2017, al Nusra (al Qaeda rebels) and Assad forces controlled most of the border. Al Nusra was driven away from the Israeli border by Syrian soldiers and Iranian mercenaries in early 2018 and now the entire southern border is controlled by the Assad forces.

October 3, 2018: In northwest Syria (Latakia province) S-300 SAM equipment for the Syrian military began arriving by air. This equipment is from the Russian 583rd Air Defense Regiment based near Murmansk on the Russian northern coast (Arctic Ocean). Russia said this unit had recently upgraded to the S-400 and that their former S-300PM equipment was checked over and any problems were fixed. Russia often sells or gives away these used S-300 systems. Flying 39 vehicles (launchers, radars, control vans) to Syria via An-124 transports included some of their Russian operators and maintainers. Russia says Syrian crews will be trained by the end of October but that seems unlikely. It is quite possible that Russia is sending enough S-300 operators to get at least one of the batteries operational by the end of October but that did not happen. Russia wants the S-300s capable of confronting the Israeli air threat to Iranian and Syrian forces as soon as possible and is actually sending experienced crews along. Russia said it is providing the three S-300 batteries (24 launchers plus associated search radars and control centers) free of charge. Senior Israeli officials have said the S-300 won’t make any difference in Syria and that Israeli forces can deal with the S-300s as effectively as they did the S-200s. Israel already has lots of experience with the S-400 batteries Russia has brought in to protect its bases near the Mediterranean coast and Israel sees the Russian S-300s for the Syrians as an unfriendly gesture as well as a potentially embarrassing one. If the Israelis go ahead, as they say they will, and keep attacking Iranian targets and the Syrians use their S-300 systems to try and stop them and get the same dismal results as they did with their S-200 systems it is bad news for Russian military tech. Maybe Russia felt it had no choice after the recent embarrassing incident (a Syrian S-200 missile destroyed an Il-20 maritime surveillance aircraft operating off the coast). But Russia is doing more than deliver S-300 missiles, it is also assigning Russian troops to operate with Iranian forces, making it more likely that Russians will get hurt if the Iranians get hit by an Israeli airstrike. The Israelis have made it clear they will not tolerate an Iranian presence in Syria and if the Russians want to take more losses because of that, it is a Russian decision.

 

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