After receiving a barrage of Iranian rocket fire on positions in the Golan Heights on May 10, 2018, Israel said it responded by returning fire. On Thursday, Israel claimed to have responded with strikes on nearly all of Iran’s military infrastructure in Syria. Information on a number of targets was shared by Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), including an aerial video of an allegedly destroyed Russian made air defense system.
In the video, the Pantsir-1 system appeared to be destroyed without firing a single shot, putting Russian media claims about an impregnable defense shield in doubt. @DFRLab analyzed the available open source data to check if the strikes actually happened.
Confirmation of Israeli Strikes
Following a massive airstrike on what it called Iranian targets in Syria on Thursday, the IDF released a number of satellite images to support their claims. The imagery did not come with coordinates, but instead vague names, so the locations had to be geolocated manually.
@DFRLab found some of these positions and checked the available satellite imagery before and after the day of the strikes, to ascertain whether any significant changes to the targeted structures were visible. Here are a few examples of what we found.
One of the strikes carried out by Israeli forces targeted an alleged military compound belonging to the Iranian Quds Force. Comparing the satellite imagery of May 4 and May 12, damage was observed with the widening of sand around the structures, marking the area of impact. This destroyed infrastructure resembled military barracks.
Another target that was named by the IDF as Tel Kleb was located near the town of As Suwayda (Al Suwayda). The purpose of this structure was unknown, nonetheless minor changes signifying a possible attack were visible when comparing May 5 and May 10 imagery.
Lastly, a strike carried out by Israeli forces targeted the area of Damascus International airport. This strike was mentioned researchers at the Institute for National Security Studies article. The target was located on the western part of the airport territory. On May 10, what once resembled a storage facility was replaced by a crater seen in Planet’s satellite imagery.
The actual purposes of these structures were not confirmed by other sources than the IDF. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the retaliatory strikes from the IDF side were launched into the Syrian territory.
The most interesting footage provided by the IDF appeared the same day via Twitter. A short ten second video showed the last seconds of an aerial attack before successfully hitting the target. According to the IDF, a camera aboard of a Spike NLOS cruise missile, captured the last moments before hitting what appears to be a Pantsir-S1 (NATO reporting name SA-22 Greyhound) air defense system.
We confirmed the location to be in the Mezzeh Military Airport in the south-eastern part of Damascus. The shape of the runway and its taxiways confirmed the location and helped to identify the exact spot where the Pantsir-S1 system was stationed.
Comparing the provided video footage with images of the Pantsir-S1 in Syria, suggests that these claims were true. Furthermore, a photo allegedly depicting the destroyed Pantsir-S1 system also surfaced. The image had no geolocation data to verify whether the pictures were genuine.
Three soldiers were also visible standing next to the vehicle, one of them started running towards the vehicle seconds before the impact. Social media posts claimed to have identified the dead soldiers, but these claims remain to be verified. Judging by the video, the soldier who approached the vehicle had little to no chance of surviving.
The available satellite imagery also helped to verify this strike. Comparing the the imagery of May 4 and May 10 revealed that the location where the Pantsir-S1 was stationed on May 10 appeared darker. These dark marks most likely portray the burned tarmac and the destroyed vehicle itself.
Russian media quickly responded the following day (May 11) and claimed that the system most likely was off. According to a former Russian Air Force Deputy Commander-in-Chief Aytech Bizhev:
Functional SA-22 would never let a missile reach it. The Russian-made system filmed getting hit by an Israeli missile in Syria was either turned off or out of ammo.
According to the Russian media, when the Pantsir-S1 is battle-ready it performs constant surveillance of enemy aircraft and has a very fast reaction time. It requires between three to five minutes to go operational. Keeping the systems on full alert at all times is impossible, mainly because it’s going to be absolutely exhausting for the crew. Close geographical proximity of Golan Heights arguably gave the advantage for Israeli forces to catch their targets, including Pantsir-S1, by surprise. The burnt missile tubes in the aftermath photo, suggested that this unit could have engaged the IDF jets, as some sources implied. Nonetheless, judging by the IDF provided video, it seemed that the crew was not in the process of reloading.
Another interesting detail of this incident was that the Pantsir-S1 system was located in the Al-Mezzeh area, only four kilometers from Assad’s Presidential Palace. This Israeli operation clearly demonstrated gaps in the Syrian air defense network.
Here are all of the above-mentioned places marked on an interactive map:
The situation in Syria continued the trend of increasing complexities, as an more countries are more actively involved in Syria militarily. The open source evidence suggested that a large-scale Israeli operation was carried out on Syrian territory against alleged Iranian targets.
This incident gave an interesting look into the effectiveness of the Russian Pantsir-S1 air-defense system, which was usually regarded on the Russian media as practically impregnable. The Russian MoD was quick to argue that this could have only have happened if the system was turned off, in the process of reloading or broken, it does not sound convincing. It would seem that the operators would maintain a loaded system, as Israeli and Iranian forces had been trading strikes.
This is not the first time when the Russian made air defense systems in Syria were in the spotlight. During the United States missile strikes in Syria on April 2018, Russian missile defenses reportedly had little to no impact on the incoming U.S. missiles. In this case, Russian-provided air defenses proved incapable of protecting targets four kilometers away from Assad’s Presidential Palace.
@DFRLab will continue to monitor military operations and developments in Syria.
Lukas Andriukaitis is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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