The Blog / April 2018

The Telegraph talks to Le Beck about a suspected Israeli strike in Syria

Michael Horowitz, a senior analyst at the Le Beck geopolitical consultancy, said the strikes were deeper into Syria than Israeli forces usually venture and that the attack in Hama appeared to involve massive weaponry to penetrate the mountainside.

“The context is very important because we are a few weeks away from the possible collapse of the Iran nuclear agreement and the possibility that Iran will resume its nuclear programme. I think this strikes sends a message to Iran that Israel can strike these underground facilities,” Mr Horowitz said.

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Syria strikes fail to alter Assad’s calculus on chemical weapons, reveals risk-averse US administration

This section is an extract from Le Beck’s Weekly Security Brief that provides insights on more strategic issues.

Following a week of tension and speculation in the wake of US President Donald Trump’s threat to retaliate against the use of chemical weapons against the opposition enclave of Ghouta, multiple strikes were carried out by assets belonging to the US, France, and the UK. The strikes targeted three main sites, including the Barzah research centre in Damascus and two storage facilities west of Homs. Further reports indicating that additional facilities were targeted have not been confirmed by any official sources.

While Russia claimed that the Syrian regime’s air defence was able to shoot down most of the missiles fired, the Pentagon, as well as the French Ministry of Defence, both denied this. Satellite images of the Barzah Research Centre also show that the targeted area was completely destroyed.

Of the various responses likely presented to Trump and his French and British counterparts, the one picked by the tripartite coalition certainly wasn’t one of the most extensive ones. Both the number and nature of the targets were limited, with the strikes focusing exclusively on Syria’s chemical program rather than on any of the vectors used to deliver such weapons.

Concerns over the possibility that the strikes could aim to disable or damage the Syrian Arab Air Force (SAAF) prompted efforts by the regime to move its main assets within Russian/Russian-protected air bases, yet this did not materalise. It is likely that, while Russia stood out of the way of the strikes, it did waive the threat of a response or more significant efforts to protect Syrian assets should the West decide to target Assad’s air force. Yet, in light of the precedent of the strike against the Shayrat air base last year, such threats aren’t enough to rule out strikes against the Syrian air force and air bases.

This sends the broader message that the US and its allies do not seek to impact the civil war. The US is, rather, focusing on a narrower approach that also limits the risk of an escalation both with Russia and Iran despite Trump’s initial tweet warning both countries.

This is an important conclusion to draw from the strike, particularly as it relates to the decision-making of the US administration with the arrival of John Bolton who, along with Trump, favoured a broader strike, while Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis sought to avoid an escalation. The fact that Mattis was able to prevail in spite of Bolton and Trump does highlight the fact that the recent changes within the administration may not drastically change the course of US foreign policy, although it also may be too early to draw that conclusion.

Regardless, even within the framework of a narrower effort to only specifically target the chemical program, the strikes were limited. To be sure, they did result in extensive damage to the targeted facilities, particularly the Barzah Research Centre, sending the message that the three countries do have the capability to put key facilities used by the regime out of order for good. Yet, the limited number of targets, the absence of several other relevant facilities, and and the significant delay between the threat to strike and the strikes themselves likely resulted in only limited damage to Assad’s chemical stockpile.

What’s more, despite the cost now clearly associated with the use of chemical weapons, this is still lower than the likely losses Assad and his allies would have suffered in Douma had the main opposition group there, Jaish al-Islam, continued to refuse to surrender. Despite years of siege, the group still had thousands of fighters, tanks, and even anti-aircraft weaponry that would have made even a limited offensive aimed at breaking Jaish al-Islam’s will costly for the regime, which is shorter in manpower than it is in chemical facilities. While Assad initially feared that Trump would order an immediate and extensive strike instead of a response similar to the one in Shayrat, such concerns were unfounded and the use of chemical weapons can still be considered “worth it” for the regime. The fact that they announced the “liberation” of Ghouta the day after the strikes was certainly meant to highlight that thought.

In the wake of the strikes, little will change in terms of the dynamic of the Syrian civil war. Assad’s forces, along with other pro-regime militias fighting, will likely be deployed to conduct offensives against two small opposition pockets, namely, the Rastan pocket and the opposition enclave in the Qalamoun, before potentially turning their eyes towards larger opposition-held territories in northwestern and southern Syria. During these battles, Assad or his commanders on the ground will still consider using chemical weapons if the cost of such use is still assessed to be inferior to the potential losses expected from a conventional offensive.

Iran and Russia are also liable to be unphased by the strikes. If anything, and as noted above, the decision-making behind the response highlights the fact that, despite the recent appointment of Iran hawks, the Pentagon’s position that the US is in Syria to fight Islamic State (IS) still prevails. Tehran and Moscow, who both favour a US withdrawal, can further count on Trump’s own isolationist reflexes and view of the Middle East as a “troubled place” from which the US should exit as quickly as possible.

In that context, a direct response to these strikes would be a mistake, despite explicit Iranian threats, as it could force Washington and its allies back into the conflict, something neither Tehran nor Russia want. Pro-Iranian militias will, however, likely continue to try and undermine the US presence in northeastern Syria, either by pushing into remaining IS territory on the northern bank of the Euphrates, or by staging indirect attacks against the US and its allies through proxies. While such a response may be accelerated by the strikes, it would likely have happened regardless, and it is unlikely that Tehran will take any harsher measures unless the US does actually implement a more proactive anti-Iran policy.

Le Beck talks to the Daily Beast about Trump and Syria

“There’s a lot of confusion in Israel about Trump’s stance,” says Michael Horowitz,  a senior analyst specializing in Israel and Syria at Bahrain’s Le Beck International. “The Israelis are puzzled by the American strategy in Syria and concerned there’s no real commitment to roll back Iranian influence in Syria.”

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Le Beck talks to The Telegraph about Trump’s threats against Syria

Analysts believe the lull in the bombing is a result of Assad’s forces rushing to move their aircraft to Russian bases in Syria, which are less likely to be targeted by American missiles.

“Since Trump tweeted its initial threats the regime has completely changed its military deployments, particularly its air force, which in turn disrupted its air campaign,” said Michael Horowitz, a senior analyst at the Le Beck geopolitical consultancy.

“In a way, the mere threat of action has already been enough to save lives on the ground,” he added.

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Sydney Morning Herald talks to Le Beck about Western strikes in Syria

Michael Horowitz, a senior analyst at the Le Beck geopolitical consultancy, said that the regime would probably move its most sensitive equipment close to Russian forces, in the hope that the US would be less likely to risk accidentally striking Russian troops.

Le Beck talks to L’Orient le Jour (FR) about the Israeli raid in Syria

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Le Beck talks to The Telegraph about Trump, Russia, and Syria

Michael Horowitz, a senior analyst at the Le Beck geopolitical consultancy, said that the regime would probably move its most sensitive equipment close to Russian forces, in the hope that the US would be less likely to hit it and risk accidentally striking Russian troops.

“The Syrian military has already had time to take some contingency measures and evacuate some of the potential targets Washington could decide to strike, which could limit the impact of any possible American intervention,” he said.

“The Syrian air force in particular will likely redeploy to Russian or Russian-protected air base, in a bid to limit its exposure.”

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The Washington Post talks to Le Beck about Israeli strikes in Syria

“There are two colliding trends, the first being that Iran is growing bolder as highlighted by the sending of a drone to Israel in February,” said Michael Horowitz, a senior analyst at Le Beck International, a Middle East-based geopolitical and security consultancy. “The second trend is Israel’s feeling that neither Washington nor Moscow are willing to do anything about it, which in turn forces Israel to take additional risks.”

Horowitz said that the Iranian presence at the T-4 base included members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Quds Force, who sent the drone and “hence directly and actively threatened Israel.”

“By striking the base once again, Israel sends the message that Russia simply cannot ignore this trend, both because of the risks it implies, and because Russian and Iranian soldiers are physically working a few feet away from each other,” he said.

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The Washington Post talks to Le Beck about Israeli strikes and Trump’s policy in Syria

Israel, meanwhile, which has repeatedly expressed concerns about the expanding Iranian military presence in Syria as the Syrian government consolidates its control, may have seen Trump’s threats on Sunday as an opportunity, said Michael Horowitz, a senior analyst at Le Beck International, a Middle East-based geopolitical and security consultancy.

“The timing of the strike isn’t coincidental,” he said. “By striking [Assad] and his Iranian allies just a day after Trump warned them of the price they would pay . . . Israel mitigates the risk of an Iranian response,” he said. “Israel has been trying to convince Washington to adopt a more pro-active, anti-Iran strategy in Syria, and certainly sees Trump’s rhetoric in the wake of the chemical attack as an opportunity.”

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Le Beck talks to the LA Times about US and Israeli policy in Syria

Michael Horowitz, a senior analyst focusing on Syria and Israel for the Bahrain-based Le Beck International, said Israeli officials are worried that there is no real U.S. commitment to rolling back Iranian influence in Syria. “They are very concerned by the gap between Trump’s rhetoric and his policy,” Horowitz said.

He suggested that Israel might have been taking advantage of a rare confluence of circumstances to strike Monday “as the United States and Europe ponder their response to the chemical attack, reducing the chances of Iran risking a major retaliation against Israel.”

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