Analysis 12-26-2015


The Kuntar Assassination
Drone assisted or collaborators?

Hezbollah commander Samir Kuntar was killed in an airstrike in Syria. Kuntar was killed along with eight others in the airstrike on a residential building in Jaramana, on the outskirts of the Syrian capital of Damascus. Approximately 20 other people were rescued from the wreckage. Also killed in the attack, according to pro-government websites, was Farhan al-Sha’alan, a leader of the Syrian Resistance in the Golan, a group affiliated with Hezbollah.

Reports say that 4 Israeli missiles hit the building. The reason for the attack is unclear, but he reportedly was setting up a Hezbollah-trained militia in the southern province of Swaida. Kuntar would be the second leader of Hezbollah’s southern front to die in an Israeli strike. Jihad Mughniyeh was killed in January in Quneitra.

The attack raises several questions. Did Israeli aircraft enter Syrian airspace to carryout the attack? If so, did the Russians know? If the Russian knew, why didn’t they attack the IAF aircraft with surface to air missiles?

According to Lebanese newspaper As-Safir, Israeli Air Force fighter jets fired their payload from within Israeli airspace, sending the bombs some 90 kilometers (56 miles) to Damascus, where they struck Kuntar’s sixth-floor apartment. Syrian aerial defense systems identified the Israeli planes, As-Safir said, but since the planes were operating within Israeli territory, the Syrian army did not react to them.

According to the other reports based on Syrian sources, two Israeli F-15 airplanes flew from the Hatzerim IAF base near Beersheba to the Sea of Galilee, where they fired four SPICE-2000 missiles. After the attack, Syrian search and rescue teams recovered pieces of the missiles, which were created by Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems.

Were Other Nations involved?

No matter the type of weapons used, the attacks showed the ability to obtain critical intelligence. Kuntar reportedly had just arrived at the apartment a few hours before the attack.   This means that Israeli intelligence either received up-to-date intelligence on him or was tracking him on a regular basis. That might have meant that the Israelis (with the possible help of the American NSA) were tracking his or an associate’s cell phone and decided to launch a strike against him, once he was in range.

Contrary to reports, the SPICE 2000 isn’t a missile, but a guidance package for a regular “dumb” bomb. Although it can be guided to its target with preprogrammed target information or use satellite guidance, it is the most accurate using “electro-optical guidance.” This gives it the smallest CEP (circular error probability) and allows the bomb to be redirected if the target moves.

One such electro-optical guidance system is laser designation. When a target is marked by a designator, the beam is invisible and does not shine continuously. Instead, a series of coded pulses of laser-light are fired. These signals bounce off the target into the sky, where they are detected by the seeker on the SPICE 2000, which steers itself towards the center of the reflected signal. Unless the people being targeted possess laser detection equipment or can hear aircraft overhead, it is extremely difficult for them to tell whether they are being marked or not.

Since laser designators work best in clear atmospheric conditions, the SPICE 2000 has several back up guidance systems that would bring the bomb on target, but not with the precision of a laser designator.

However, such a laser designator required either an Israeli drone flying above Damascus or a Special Forces team on the ground or local collaborators and in close proximity to the Kuntar apartment.

If the final target designation was done by a Special Forces team, then it would have required months of work to insert the team into Damascus or the assistance of collaborators and into an apartment with a good view of Kuntar’s apartment.

That means that the most preferred targeting option was an Israeli drone flying above Damascus.

Israel based on copying US technologies pioneered the modern use of UAVs, which are popularly known as drones, for intelligence gathering and target identification starting in the mid-1970s. The country remains one of the world’s leading exporters of UAV systems. Drone technology and manufacturing is the fastest growing sector of the global aerospace industry — Israeli companies producing UAVs made over $4.5 billion dollars from foreign sales from 2005 to 2012. It is also a leader in anti-drone technology and the Iron Dome missile defense system is designed to be effective against small UAVs flying at high and low altitudes

Israeli drones aren’t “stealthy” as such. However, a small drone will have a small (and therefore hard-to-detect) radar and heat signature. But, the S-400 radar system is designed to detect drones – even ones with low radar signature. In fact, the 91N6E Big Bird acquisition and battle management radar of the S-400 can detect and track aircraft, rotorcraft, cruise missiles, guided missiles, drones and ballistic rockets within the distance of 600km. It can simultaneously track up to 300 targets.

The Israel National News obviously speculating, reported Israel notified Russia that it intended to strike a target inside Damascus. Dr. Aaron Lerner, of Independent Media Review Analysis (IMRA) bases this conclusion on the fact that the strike took place at a time that the Russian S-400 system was in full operation.

This week Seymour Hersh wrote an article that indicated considerable cooperation between the US military, the Russians, the Syrians, and the Israelis. According to Hersh, in 2013, The American Joint Chiefs Of Staff (JCS), let it be known that in return for helping the Syrians, the US would require four things: “ (President)Assad must restrain Hezbollah from attacking Israel; he must renew the stalled negotiations with Israel to reach a settlement on the Golan Heights; he must agree to accept Russian and other outside military advisers; and he must commit to holding open elections after the war with a wide range of factions included.”

Hersh continues, ‘We had positive feedback from the Israelis, who were willing to entertain the idea, but they needed to know what the reaction would be from Iran and Syria,’ the JCS adviser told me. ‘The Syrians told us that Assad would not make a decision unilaterally – he needed to have support from his military and Alawite allies. Assad’s worry was that Israel would say yes and then not uphold its end of the bargain.’ A senior adviser to the Kremlin on Middle East affairs told me that in late 2012, after suffering a series of battlefield setbacks and military defections, Assad had approached Israel via a contact in Moscow and offered to reopen the talks on the Golan Heights. The Israelis had rejected the offer. ‘They said, “Assad is finished,”’ the Russian official told me. ‘“He’s close to the end.”’ He said the Turks had told Moscow the same thing. By mid-2013, however, the Syrians believed the worst was behind them, and wanted assurances that the Americans and others were serious about their offers of help.”

If the Hersh report is true, it can explain what happened. Israel wants to rein in Hezbollah, especially in the Golan Heights. Syria wants a rebel’s free zone along the Syrian/Israeli border especially after seeing close cooperation between some rebels and the Israelis in the region.

It was already clear that Israel felt threatened by a Golan Heights resistance formed by Hezbollah. In addition to killing Kuntar, Israel has also assassinated Farhan al-Sha’alan, a leader of the Syrian Resistance in the Golan and Jihad Mughniyeh, who was killed in January in Quneitra

In this case, Kuntar would have posed a threat. Any Kuntar led force in the Golan Heights – even if supported by an Assad ally, would have heightened tensions with Israel, which would have required transferring forces from the battlefields up north to the border with Israel – forces that Syrian government can’t afford to tie down during the war.

The response by Russia after the Kuntar killing suggests a desire to keep the border area void of tensions. Russia urged Lebanon and Israel to exercise patience in connection with the “worsening” of the situation on the border between the two countries, the Russian Foreign Ministry said on Monday, according to TASS. “Over the past few days we have been witnessing an escalation of tension on the border between Israel and Lebanon,” the ministry said, adding, “According to media reports, several rockets were fired from the Lebanese territory on December 20, to which the Israeli army retaliated with artillery fire. No deaths or injuries have been reported.”

While this may be surprising, it’s important to remember that every country involved in the Syrian war has its own reasons and policy interests. While Russia is siding with President Assad, Hezbollah, and Iran in Syria, its goals aren’t always identical with its partners.




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Center for the Study of War
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PolicyWatch 2539

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PolicyWatch 2538

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