July 24th, 2016
Do the Syrian Rebels in the Golan Heights have Surface-to-Surface Missiles?
Similar to other areas in Syria, the Syrian District of Quneitra, which borders the Israeli part of the Golan Heights is a stage for ongoing clashes, of varying levels of intensity and frequency, between different Syrian Rebel groups on the one side, and the Assad-Iranian camp’s forces on the other side.
Thus far, these clashes have had almost no impact on everyday life on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights. There have been a few incidents in which Israel has retaliated by firing back, after errant – or deliberate artillery fire from the Syrian side onto the Israeli side of the Golan Heights. And in September 2014 Israel shot down a Syrian Jet that had entered Israeli airspace.
On Sunday, July 17, 2016 a drone infiltrated into Israeli territory from the area of Quneitra, Israel failed to intercept it, and it returned to Syrian territory.
No factor claimed responsibility for the launching of the drone.
Throughout the week of July 17th some Syrian towns and villages located in the Quneitra district were bombed and shelled by Assad’s Air Force and Artillery Units. These attacks killed and injured Syrian civilians.
Information regarding the use of Surface-to-Surface Missiles by Syrian Rebels:
On Wednesday July 20, 2016 a military compound, reportedly manned by Assad’s troops and Hezbollah Militants located in Ba’ath, a town about two miles from the Syrian-Israeli cease-fire line in the Golan Heights, was attacked. The compound is identified, according to unverified information, as “Hotel Al-Zizo.” Various sources report that perhaps three to twenty-five of Assad’s soldiers and Hezbollah militants were killed in the attack. As of the time of this report, the exact casualties sustained in the attack are unknown.
In the first hours following the attack, Arab sources attributed the operation to the Israeli air force.
However, shortly after these initial reports, information platforms affiliated with Hezbollah, reported it was a missile launched by the Al-Qaeda branch in Syria, known as Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham –The Front for the Support of Syrian People.
On July 22, 2016 a Syrian rebel group, the Salahuddin Division, which is associated with The Free Syrian Army (FSA-*) one of the major Rebel groups in Syria, formally announced it was the one responsible for the July 20th attack. According to an official spokesman of the Salahuddin Division, the group used a surface-to-surface missile which the Engineering and Missiles Unit of the Salahuddin Division manufactured themselves in Syria. The missile is called “Omar” or the “Horan Scud” – Horan is the name of a geographical area in southern Syria bordering Jordan. Reportedly the missile weighs more than 2.5 tons, is about twenty-feet long, and has a detonation capacity equal to one or two Scud Missiles. This video published by the Salahuddin Division allegedly documents the launching of the missile on July 20th, as well as the moment of impact. Information platforms affiliated with the Assad Regime claim that the launcher used for the attack was destroyed. In my evaluation that information should be viewed cautiously.
Syrian Rebel groups use different rockets including heavy rockets such as the Grad Missile.
However, to the best of my knowledge, this is the first report or incident regarding the possible use of any type of surface-to-surface missile by a Syrian Rebel group.
The missile appearing in the video, does indeed seem to be domestically produced.
This episode presents some questions.
First, from a technical perspective, launching a Scud Missile requires technical capacities including special fuel, a specific fueling system, a special launcher, military knowhow, etc.
Second, the documenting of an alleged direct hit of the missile on the target, suggests that the missile has an accurate and advanced guiding capability.
Third, if it is domestically manufactured, one must wonder how is it possible to domestically produce a missile with such accuracy, plus a sophisticated delivery and launching system given the limited domestic production capacity and means.
There are two options:
One is that the attack was indeed conducted by the use of a surface-to-surface missile.
In that case, there are some inevitable questions:
Do the rebels really possess such domestic manufacturing capacities, and if so, how many missiles do the rebels have? Do they have the ability to sustain and increase that capacity?
Alternatively, is it a weapon which was stored at Assad’s army bases and was seized by the rebels?
Or, is it a weapon provide by a third party?
The other option is that the attack was conducted by Israel, and not by the rebels. A couple of arguments could support that assumption.
First, the accuracy of the hit can be only be achieved with a high precision guided weapon.
Second, the proximity – time-wise and locations-wise – of the attack to the infiltration of the drone from Syria to Israeli territory, could suggest the July 20th attack was an Israeli retaliation. Israel made it clear more than once that it wants to be left out of the war in Syria, and it holds the Assad regime accountable for any violation of Israeli sovereignty or attacks on Israeli areas and civilians launched from within Syria.
Third, the fact that Hezbollah rushed to “clear” Israel by arguing that the attack was launched by Jabhat Al-Nusrah.
Why does Hezbollah’s position indicate that Israel is behind the attack?
The answer relates to the complex balance of mutual deterrence between Israel and Hezbollah. Every time Hezbollah views that balance as being altered, they retaliate.
For example, in January 2015, six Hezbollah militants and one Iranian General were killed in the Syrian part of the Golan Heights, a stones-throw through from the Israeli side. The attack was attributed to Israel. (On that matter read my article A Significant Message). Hezbollah retaliated a few days later by attacking an Israeli military patrol on the border, killing two Israeli soldiers.
Why then did Hezbollah rush to “clear” Israel this time?
There are two possible reasons:
One, could be the fact that Hezbollah is the factor responsible for the launching of the drone earlier that week and therefore, Israel’s attack is a reply which complies with the unspoken mutually “agreed” ground rules.
Two, attributing the missile attack to Israel would force Hezbollah to retaliate since reportedly some Hezbollah militants were killed in the attack. By doing that, Hezbollah risks an Israeli response which could spin out of control and evolve into a wide collision with Israel. This scenario is not in Hezbollah’s interest right now, as it is mostly engaged in fierce battles in the area of Aleppo in northern Syria as well as along the Syrian-Lebanese border.
It should also be noted that Hezbollah accused Jabhat Al-Nusrah, Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, for the attack – and not by chance. Blaming Al-Qaeda complies with the Assad-Iran-Hezbollah Public Relations line, in which they cynically argue that they are “fighting against terror” in Syria.
In the case that a Syrian rebel group, not Israel, is behind the attack, this is a significant development for two major reasons:
One reason is military. The use of surface-to-surface missiles by the rebels adds new factor to the balance of power equation; it can theoretically compensate the rebels for their lack of aerial capacities. The use of surface-to-surface missiles enables the rebels to retaliate Assad’s against aerial raids by targeting sensitive areas in Damascus – including Assad’s palace, as well as other areas of importance for the Assad-Iranian alliance. After all, Quneitra is located only a mere twenty-miles from Damascus.
The second reason this is significant, is that this may indicate yet another stage in the possible creation of a buffer zone in southern Syria supported by Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Israel.(*)
How does episode relate to that buffer zone?
Assad’s Air Force, together with the Russian Air Force, massively bombard Syrian cities – particularly in the district of Aleppo, with a population of some six-million people. These operations, which have killed thousands of Syrian civilians, are deliberate and strategic. Their goal is to create a massive influx of Syrians fleeing to Turkey which Assad and the Russians hope will result in Syrian and Turkish citizens putting pressure on the Syrian rebels to give up.
Therefore. the aerial attacks on towns in the district of Quneitra last week, could have been launched with the same goal – to create an influx of Syrians fleeing to Jordan – thus increasing the pressure on the Syrian rebels in that region.
The use of surface-to-surface missiles by Syrian rebels, which would be a shift in the deterrence balance – could be a Saudi-Jordanian signal to Assad that the duplication of the modus operando he applies in Aleppo is not an option in the area of southern Syria.
The next few days could provide a better picture of both the specific episode, as well as its ramifications.
A cessation, or downsizing of aerial attacks by Assad in the District of Quneitra may indicate that a new deterrence balance is in effect.
The continuation of the aerial raids could result in the shooting of surface-to-surface missile or heavy rockets by the rebels perhaps targeting Assad forces, positions and sensitive locations, on the outskirts of Damascus.
In addition, the use of such weapons – heavy rockets, surface to surface missiles, etc. – by the rebels could expand to additional Assad-Iranian targets such as major Alawite major cities located along the Syrian coast.
In a possible context, it should be noted that, following the attack on Assad’s military camp, the commander of Salahuddin Division reportedly said: “More exciting news is expected within the next days”.
For Israel, it is likely that the appearance of such a weapon in the region does not come as a total surprise to Israeli Intelligence agencies who are following the situation in Syria very closely. There are different Syrian Rebel groups operating in southern Syria, including branches of Al-Qaeda and ISIS – and they are all hostile to Israel. Thus, from the Israeli perspective, southern Syria, like all areas in Syria, are a source of a growing threat.
That being said, these Rebel groups are currently engaged in fighting against the Assad-Iran Axis and ISIS – they very rarely focus their attention on Israel at this phase. Thus, in the foreseeable future, the likelihood of using such weapons to target the Israeli side of the Golan Heights is in my evaluation slim.
* I discuss these matters in depth, as well as the first time in Israel history in which major the strategic interests of central regional players coincide with Israel, in my recent book Inside the Middle East: Making Sense of the Most Dangerous and Complicated Region on Earth
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