Two exceptionally important events are expected in mid-May 2018. One is the move of the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. The other is Donald Trump’s decision on the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” or JCPOA, on Iran’s nuclear weapons program, also called the “Iran nuclear deal.”
Around these two anticipated events swirl a number of related regional dynamics. Not the least of them is the disintegrating political situation inside Iran.
But the radical regime of the mullahs is not responding to that problem with any appearance of strategic foresight. The regime is focused instead on its power-projection campaigns around the Middle East, particularly in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
As we near the middle of May, it looks as if Iran’s goal is to put an infrastructure of arms in place in Syria that will create an advantage over Israel, in time to secure that advantage before Trump makes his big moves. When Trump announces his plan for the JCPOA (the decision deadline is 12 May), and the U.S. embassy’s move to Jerusalem becomes a done deal (expected to be 14 May), Iran wants to have the means in place to create risk at will for Israel.
Another way to put that: Iran wants to be able to pull a trigger when the Trump moves occur – or at least be able to credibly threaten to.
The regime in Tehran knows that missing this window would be a major setback. At the highest strategic level, Trump has initiative and momentum on his side. Failing to blunt that momentum will have Iran playing catch-up for some time.
After the U.S. coalition strikes in Syria on 13 April, U.S. intelligence reported seeing an uptick in air cargo movements from Iran to Syria, which are probably bringing in weaponry that can be used against Israel. That Iran wants to do this – in general – is nothing new; it’s the increase in activity that is noteworthy, and the timing prior to the JCPOA decision and the embassy move.
On Sunday night (29 April), a huge blast was reported at a weapons depot near Hama, Syria, said to be used by Iran. The blast was so significant it reportedly registered as a 2.6 magnitude seismic event.
— John Arterbury (@JohnArterbury) April 29, 2018
Video of the blast shows a sequence of sympathetic explosions typical for an ammunition depot, including a gigantic fireball – apparently toward the end – when a fuel reservoir was probably engaged by the nearby warhead explosions. (See thread for more videos.)
But the video doesn’t show the initial impact we would expect from a conventional air attack with a cruise missile or guided bomb. With such an attack, there should be a big initial blast, rather than the appearance that the whole sequence was set off by a random, smaller explosion inside the facility.
We can discount the theory that this was an attack by the U.S. coalition. Striking a depot in Hama is not necessary or useful for coalition objectives. (According to sources in eastern Syria, the U.S. did provide air support for Syrian rebel forces near Deir ez-Zor on Sunday, but that engagement offers no reason to attack the depot near Hama.)
If it was an air strike near Hama, it was probably conducted by Israel with the Sky Sniper air-launched rocket whose results we saw in a couple of previous strikes in late 2017 (see here and here). Hama is situated at a distance from Lebanese air space similar to the targets struck in September and December 2017, and could be attacked using the same IAF approach profile from those events.
The ingenious aspect of the Sunday attack, if it was a strike with Sky Snipers, would be the apparent use of smaller warheads. The Sky Sniper can deliver a 2,000-pound-class warhead, but the video evidence doesn’t suggest anything with that punch was used. If there was an initial hit from an air-delivered weapon, it looks like it was a smaller warhead, perhaps no more than 500 pounds. The intention might well have been to get the chain reaction going by initiating a smaller explosion, and counting on the sympathetic reaction of the ordnance packed into the storage facility.
If that was the plan, it seems to have worked.
As i24 News notes in this report, a Syrian cargo flight coming from Iran landed in Hama only hours before the blast at the depot. (Useful additional reporting from Jewish Press here.) Anyone planning to attack the depot would have had good reason to believe it would be a high-payoff strike.
Defense Secretary James Mattis was also quoted in the i24 News piece:
Earlier this month an Israeli security source noted that the flights are being watched, and on Thursday US Secretary of Defense James Mattis said he agreed that Iran has upped weapons shipments to Syria with the aim of preparing an attack on Israel.
Asked by a reporter if he agrees that “weapons shipments from Iran to Syria are for the purpose of striking Israel?” Mattis replied: “I can’t think of any other purpose for them right now.”
Two other regional dynamics are of particular importance in this mix. One is the campaign of harassment from Gaza being mounted by Hamas, which is absorbing considerable attention from the IDF. As usual, Hamas is getting a lot of Gazans hurt by putting them in the front line of violent attacks on the border fence, where near-daily attempts are being made to cut holes in the fence under cover of fire and smoke, breach it with Hamas operatives carrying weapons, hurl firebombs over it, and otherwise present a lethal threat to the Israelis who live immediately on the other side of it.
BREAKING: Palestinians have attempted to infiltrate Israeli territory from Gaza three times in the course of a single hour; two of the infiltrators attacked Israeli forces with explosive devices; another two were found to be carrying weapons; three were shot and three arrested.
— Avi Mayer (@AviMayer) April 29, 2018
Hamas is attempting to disguise terror activities as a civilian-led riot pic.twitter.com/WERPSrMtiR
— Israel Defense Forces (@IDF) April 29, 2018
Nahal Oz is just one of the communities that is within the short reach of the rioters. Their defense is the top priority of the IDF. Efforts must be made in order to prevent civilian casualties on both sides of the fence. pic.twitter.com/gqkQdYuyP1
— LTC (R) Peter Lerner (@LTCPeterLerner) April 28, 2018
This is one vector on which we can expect risk to be ramped up for Israel if Iran decides it’s necessary to pull a trigger. Interestingly, it appears less likely at the moment that a similar threat will be fomented from the West Bank. The influence of Saudi Arabia and Egypt under their current leadership would seek to deter that.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah would act effectively in concert with Iran. But the real wild card may be Russia, which is looking for a way to seize the initiative in Syria back from the U.S. coalition. Sponsoring the only real framework for settlement talks in Syria hasn’t bought Moscow the momentum the Russians might have expected – even though, as Seth Frantzman points out, the Russian-sponsored talking group (with Iran and Turkey, as well as the Assad regime) is the only one with a plan.
The plan only really interests Assad, Iran, and Turkey, however. And without U.S. participation, other parties will continue to feel that they have better options than negotiating against that stacked deck.
It has been evident since the beginning (and by that, I mean since 2011) that no settlement can be approached effectively unless the U.S. and Russia are both in the talks. To my eyes, Russia doesn’t want to be leveraged into talks by Trump’s recent seizure of momentum, and is looking for a way to gain leverage so that the U.S. has to come to Russia’s table, on Moscow’s terms.
One way to do that is by threatening, once again, to complete the delivery of the S-300 air defense system to the Assad regime. That has the key consequences of making the Syrian battlespace more complicated for the U.S. coalition to operate in, and making it prohibitive for the main option Israel needs to retain, which is the ability to preempt preparations in Syria by Iran, at relatively low cost.
The S-300, if made operational under Assad’s control, would drive the cost of preemption up for Israel, to the point that merely trying to preempt Iran – e.g., attacking a weapons depot – could in many cases require the same scale of effort as going to war. Suppressing the response of the Syrian air defense system would take a lot more assets, and more kinetic effects against Syria, than Israel has to use right now to bring off a single attack on a weapons depot. The risk to Israeli platforms would be much greater as well.
That’s why Israel has invariably urged Russia not to complete delivery of the S-300. In 2013, when delivery was reportedly imminent (or partial delivery underway), the Netanyahu government warned that Israel would do what was necessary to prevent the system from being delivered and made operational in Syria. In 2018, with Russia threatening again to fulfill delivery of the system, Avigdor Liberman has issued a different warning: that if Syria tries to use the S-300 against Israeli aircraft, Israel will destroy it.
A new worst-case with the S-300
It’s important to keep in mind that it is no longer 2013, and the delivery and operationalization timeline for Syria could have been significantly foreshortened in the last five years. For one thing, Russian officials were quoted on multiple occasions in 2013 and 2014 saying that some components of the S-300 had already been delivered to Syria, and that delivery was suspended in 2013. It’s possible that some of the biggest components, the ones hardest to deliver, are already there.
(See here for speculation that deliveries have been underway in the last couple of weeks; i.e., since the 13 April U.S. coalition strikes.)
For another thing, Syrian crews have had plenty of time to train on the system in Russia. Every aspect of the opportunity for that has been available to them, including the Russian training range in Astrakhan, and transportation to and from it via frequent Russian logistics flights between Syria and southern Russia.
Moreover, copies of an S-300 system essentially like the one Syria bought (the S-300PMU-2) have been delivered to Iran in the interim since 2013. For Syria in 2018, Russia is not the only place pieces and parts for an array of S-300 batteries could come from.
For that matter, Russia isn’t necessarily the only place Syrians could get their training on the system. Nor need Russians be involved in surveying sites for optimum mobile deployment of the S-300 batteries in Syria. All these activities could have been underway already, with Iran’s help as well as Russia’s, for months or even years.
Bottom line: the military problem here may very well not be one of watching Russia fixedly for signs of a big shipment headed to Syria, followed by months of training and operational planning before the system could be usefully employed. In the worst case, the only things Assad is waiting on are the missiles themselves. The system – with power, command vans, radars, launchers, and trained crews – can be deployed immediately once the missiles arrive.
To achieve the most effective preemption of the S-300, what Israel must take out is the launchers. Without them, the missiles are useless. The launchers are harder to deliver undetected, so it’s not as easy to replace them.
But ideally, Israel will want to interdict most or all of the components, whether before or after the first attempted use. The point to understand, as mid-May 2018 approaches, is that the S-300 might in fact be a live problem for the mid-May timeline.
A reason not to dismiss this worst case is that the S-300 in Syria is a major advantage for Iran. Assad may have no money to import air defense components on the sly, but for the mullahs, paying for it — even donating components to it — isn’t charity for Assad, it’s preparing the battlespace for their own purposes.
If I went by my gut right now, I’d predict that mid-May will come and go without Iran cutting any big didos. That’s partly because the example of seminal developments on the Korean peninsula will continue to punctuate the same timeline.
What we’re seeing with the Koreas is as unexpected for Russia, China, and Iran as it is for the rest of us. They’re scrambling in their capitals too – and for their own, additional reasons, as with China brooding on her south, Russia on her west, and Iran on her innards. They aren’t necessarily readier than we are to execute big plans in the Middle East.
Moreover, Israel’s determination and readiness to keep mounting a preemptive effort against Iranian preparations in Syria will have some deterrent effect. We can reasonably hope it will be enough.
It’s quite possible that Trump can complete the embassy move, and effectively decouple from the imposed paralysis of the JCPOA (i.e., force a calendar for renegotiation, or even withdraw outright), without Iran trying anything untoward. The signal importance of both can hardly be overstated.
But the elements are there for something worse.
The wild card, as always, is Russia, which can backstop Iran – or not. Is Putin ready to shoot a big wad on this one? (For what it’s worth, I don’t think so. The alternative of a relatively frictionless passage through the shoals of the next month has implications that could be mind-bogglingly positive.)
We live in interesting times.