Russian, Iranian technology is boosting Assad’s assault on Syrian rebels

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 technology includes 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 adopting 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, who spoke on the condition that his name and nationality be withheld in discussing sensitive intelligence, said the new gear is cementing an advantage 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.

Interactive Grid: Keeping track of the conflict in Syria through videos, images and tweets.

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 President Bashar al-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 has added to a sense of momentum that pro-government forces have been enjoying since mid-spring.

Russia and Iran, 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 antiaircraft 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. White described the new tactics as “Qusair rules,” an allusion to the ongoing Syrian military offensive to retake the key city of Qusair near Lebanon’s northern border.

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,” said White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank. “It’s operational-level warfare, using maneuver-in-battle to achieve a strategic goal.”

The improved gear appears to be conferring an advantage on Syrian forces in the near-daily battle for control of government outposts along the border. On a recent afternoon, Zyoud, the border guard commander, and other Jordanian troops watched by live video feed as a battle raged around a Syrian checkpoint less than two miles away, across from the Jordanian border village of al-Torrah.

As frequently happens, the rebels quickly overran the checkpoint, setting fire to a tank and forcing the handful of Syrian guards to fall back to another post a few miles away. But within hours, as night fell, the Syrian army easily reclaimed the outpost, scattering the dozen or so rebel fighters who had briefly held it. The rebels could be seen strapping one of their wounded comrades onto a motorcycle heading toward the border with Jordan, apparently in hopes that Jordanians would provide medical care.

“They attack the checkpoints in a primitive way,” Zyoud said. “Sometimes you see them holding their weapons awkwardly and wasting their ammunition. They almost never take advantage of the vehicles and equipment the Syrians leave behind.”

“It is clear from watching them that they are not well-trained,” he said.

Loveday Morris in Beirut contributed to this report.

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