#BreakingSyria: Iraqi Air Force Hunts ISIS in Syria

Videos published by the Iraqi Air Force confirm airstrikes in Syrian territory

Left: (Source: Twitter / iqAirForce); Right: (Source: GoogleMaps).

In recent years, many countries with deep or direct regional interests across the Middle East have taken direct part in fighting — against ISIS or otherwise — in Syria. Besides the Assad regime and other local fighting groups, several foreign countries have been active in the fight, to include the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and Turkey.

A new country recently joined the struggle against ISIS militants in Syria. As ISIS militants were pushed out of Iraqi territory, the Iraqi military took pursuit, extending its operations into Syrian territory. The Iraqi Air Force recently published aerial footage of aerial attacks via their Twitter account. @DFRLab took a closer look into the provided footage to see if these claims were true.

April 19 Videos

In the fight against ISIS, the use of airpower has been the strategy of choice for most countries foreign to the area. Iraq’s strategy in Syria is not an exception. The official Twitter account of the Iraqi Air Force is very active, providing a steady flow of posts about operations and achievements.

The first post related to the strikes in Syria appeared on April 19, 2018 and showed F-16 multirole fighters preparing to take off.

https://twitter.com/iqAirForce/status/986934114816348160

The post claimed that Iraqi Air Force fighter jets carried out deadly airstrikes in Syria on Thursday, April 19. Another post soon followed, allegedly providing aerial footage of an undisclosed target in Syria being destroyed.

https://twitter.com/iqAirForce/status/987019353219633154

The post did not specify the location or the actual function of the building and only mentioned that it was controlled by a group of ISIS fighters. @DFRLab confirmed the location to be in Syrian territory, close to the border with Iraq. The exact location of the destroyed building was in the village of Hajin, about 25 kilometers from the Iraqi border.

Geolocation of April 19 2018 video. Left, Top Right: (Source: GoogleMaps); Right: (Source: Twitter / iqAirForce).

Furthermore, we checked daily satellite imagery provided by Planet, which also confirmed the Iraqi military claims. The building in the video changed in appearance between April 18 and April 19. Despite the quality of the provided satellite imagery, actual changes of the exact building were clearly visible.

https://cdn.knightlab.com/libs/juxtapose/latest/embed/index.html?uid=b5b761d0-536e-11e8-b263-0edaf8f81e27

This set of open source evidence confirmed the Iraqi Air Force claims about the April 19 airstrike on Syrian territory.

May 6 Video

Another video mentioning an airstrike on Syrian territory appeared on May 6, 2018. The post did not provide a lot of information, except that Iraqi F-16s carried out the strike and that the target was an ISIS headquarters in the Dshisha (Dashisha) area. Immediately the location appeared to be in a completely different area than in the April 19 video.

https://twitter.com/iqAirForce/status/993103656877731840

@DFRLab confirmed the location to be on the Eastern Syrian border. The video recorded a lone building in a rural area destroyed with a single aerial strike.

Geolocation of May 6 2018 video. Left, Top Right: (Source: GoogleMaps); Right: (Source: Twitter / iqAirForce).

The video provided images of the same building from two different angles, helping the geolocation process. The destroyed building was only eight kilometers from the Iraqi border.

Geolocation of May 6 2018 video. Left, Top Right: (Source: GoogleMaps); Right: (Source: Twitter / iqAirForce).

@DFRLab also checked daily Planet satellite imagery to see if any changes to the building were visible. Very slight changes in the imagery were apparent between May 4 and May 6, but a definite conclusion cannot be made about this due to the limited quality of the imagery.

Visual comparison of May 4 May 6 satellite imagery. Left: (Source: GoogleMaps); Right: (Source: Planet.com).

On May 6, the Iraqi Air Force video also proved to be genuine. Here are the locations pin pointed on an interactive map:

https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?mid=1afWumQ4MM75hKP9UCjYaYuBMUCjz8_pd

By pursuing ISIS from the skies into Syrian territory, Iraq raised new questions about the balance of power in the Syrian conflict. These Iraqi airstrikes were reportedly coordinated with the Assad regime. Iraq, an ally of the United States and recipient of vast U.S. military support, decided to join the side of Russia and Iran in its coordination with Assad. A possible Iraqi shift was also evident in their recent choice of Russian instead of U.S. made weaponry.

Conclusions

The two aerial videos provided by the Iraqi Air Force suggested that airstrikes took place on Syrian territory on April and May 2018, @DFRLab confirmed these claims to be true. Not only has Iraq just joined the fight against ISIS on a foreign territory, but their attack was carried out after military and security officials from Iraq, Iran, Syria and Russia met in Baghdad to coordinate, or at the very least, deconflict their counterterrorism efforts.

This decision is particularly interesting in the wake of first signs that Iraqi military is switching from U.S. made to Russian made weaponry. The involvement of Iraqi military further complicates the already uneasy political map of Syria.


Lukas Andriukaitis is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

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