New equipment includes surveillance drones

Russian, Iranian tech boosts Syrian forces

The Washington Post, AP

Sophisticated technology from Russia and Iran has given Syrian government troops new advantages in tracking and destroying their foes, helping them solidify battlefield gains against rebels, according to Middle Eastern intelligence officials and analysts.

The new systems include increased numbers of Iranian-made surveillance drones and, in some areas, anti-mortar systems similar to those used by U.S. forces to trace the source of mortar fire, the officials and experts said. Syrian military units also are making greater use of monitoring equipment to gather intelligence about rebel positions and jamming devices to block rebel communications, they said.

At the same time, Syrian military leaders are adapting new tactics that some experts also attribute to foreign advisers and training.

“We’re seeing a turning point in the past couple of months, and it has a lot to do with the quality and type of weapons and other systems coming from Iran and Russia,” said a Middle Eastern intelligence official whose government closely monitors the fighting. The official said the new gear is cementing an advantage recently gained by Syrian forces with the arrival of hundreds of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon in recent weeks.

“The government troops clearly have a much better view of the battlefield, and they’re better able to respond to incoming fire — sometimes even before the other side can land a blow,” the official said.

Eighteen rockets and mortars rounds from Syria slammed into Lebanon on Saturday, the largest cross-border salvo to hit a Hezbollah stronghold since Syrian rebels threatened to retaliate for the militant group’s armed support of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The rockets targeted the Baalbek region, the latest sign that Syria’s civil war is increasingly destabilizing Lebanon. On Friday, the Lebanese Parliament decided to put off general elections, originally scheduled for June, by 17 months, blaming a deteriorating security situation in the country.

The Syrian conflict is increasingly shifting into a proxy war. Predominantly Sunni rebels backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are fighting against a regime that relies on support from Alawites, Shiites and Christians at home, and is aided by Iran and Hezbollah.

Rebel commanders confirmed a sharp increase in the number of surveillance drones they have seen. Opposition leaders claimed to have brought down two Iranian-made drones in the past four months, including one three weeks ago in al-Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus.

Rebel spokesmen have described the drones as Iranian-made, citing Farsi script on one that was downed near the Lebanese border. Iran is known to be a significant manufacturer of unmanned aircraft and has previously provided drones to the Shiite militia Hezbollah, its ally.

“We are seeing unmanned aircraft much more frequently,” Louay al-Mokdad, the political and media coordinator for the Free Syria Army, said in a phone interview.

U.S. officials and independent experts also have noted an increased use of drones, and some said Syria is getting better at using them to direct artillery fire at rebel positions.

“It’s all about how to put bombs onto targets,” said Jeffrey White, a former analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Analysts say the presence of other technically advanced weapons, including mortar-tracking systems, has been inferred from reports by rebel fighters and intelligence operatives inside Syria, as well as military observers in neighboring countries. From their scattered observation posts along the border, Jordanian military officials described seeing direct and indirect evidence of new weapons and equipment tipping the balance in favor of Syrian troops and allies supporting Assad’s government.

“We’re seeing many things we haven’t seen before,” said Brig. Gen. Hussein al-Zyoud, commander of Jordanian border security forces. “We’ve seen new kinds of armored vehicles, and other vehicles used for jamming communications. We’re seeing night-vision and thermal devices that we haven’t seen in the past.”

The new hardware, much of it from Russia and Iran, has added to a sense of momentum that pro-government forces have been enjoying since midspring.

The longtime Syrian allies have acknowledged providing Syria with a wide range of military equipment, from tanks and helicopters to small arms and ammunition. Moscow’s apparent decision to supply S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Syria drew stern warnings this past week from the Obama administration and Israeli officials, who say the missiles pose a threat to Israel’s security.

Despite the ability of Syrian troops to beat back rebel advances in some parts of the country, U.S. and Middle Eastern analysts said government forces are unlikely to recapture broad swaths of territory that is firmly under rebel control.

“Foreign assistance to the Syrian regime has allowed Assad’s forces to make some recent tactical gains, but overall, they’ve lost a lot of ground since the conflict began,” said a U.S. official with access to classified intelligence reports from the region.

Improved communication and surveillance are a key part of an evolving Syrian military doctrine that has been strikingly successful in recent weeks.

The approach involves the use of regular and irregular troops to isolate rebel units and cut off their access to supplies and reinforcements. Government forces squeeze the rebels into a small area and then unleash a heavy bombardment to inflict as many casualties as possible, White said. “Eventually they wear down the rebels, killing enough of them so they either leave or get wiped out.”