Missile Strikes Hit Near Masyaf and Homs

Investigating allegedly Israeli missile strikes in Syria on April 12, 2019

(Source: @Landriukaitis/DFRLab via Google Maps)

A series of missile strikes on April 12 inside Syria was attributed to Israel, despite no direct acknowledgment from the Israeli military. The attacks targeted a Syrian military base, with alleged ties to the Iranian regime, in the Masyaf region of northern Syria.

Two days after the attack on April 14, the first reports of the strikes with accompanying satellite imagery appeared on i24News and Telesur. These initial reports attributed the strikes to Israel. On the same day, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insinuated that Israel might have been responsible for the strikes. He said, “[Israel] is continuing to operate on all fronts, including the northern one.” Soon after Netanyahu’s statement, social-media users suggested that additional strikes occurred that day but were ignored by news media outlets.

The reported attack on Masyaf is not the first of its kind in the region. Israel is actively involved in the Syrian conflict when it comes to Iran-related targets in the country. Israeli missiles destroyed an alleged Iranian-run missile production facility in Masyaf on July 22, 2018, according to The Times of Israel.

A total of three strikes occurred in the latest volley, all of which are marked on the interactive map below.

https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?mid=1_zwRN7wafmIftL9LGqO7Mpd1jpPzxnLK

Two of the recent strikes were geographically close to the target hit in 2018.

Geolocation of the Syrian Military Base in Masyaf

The first piece of open-source evidence of the April 12 attack appeared in various media outlets on April 14, including The Times of Israel. The sources quoted ImageSat International (ISI), which released high resolution images that showed damage to various hangars and buildings. These images were geolocated on publicly available satellite imagery providers.

The location in the provided imagery was in the Masyaf region, a few kilometers north of the town of Masyaf and a few dozen kilometers south from the facility destroyed in 2018.

Location, circa 2017, of the alleged Syrian military base in Syria. (Source: Google Maps)

Using Planet.com’s publicly available imagery, the DFRLab compared satellite imagery of the first strike’s target location, looking in particular at the difference between April 10 and April 13, given the strike occurred on April 12. Despite the low resolution, the area with hangars was clearly damaged, as it showed structural changes between the before and after images.

Comparison of April 10 and April 13, 2019, satellite imagery — the dark terrain in the background indicates the destroyed buildings and other burn marks. (Source: Planet.com)

According to a Syrian Observatory for Human Rights report, a number of “Iranian elements and pro-Iranian militants” were killed during the attack and 17 more people were injured. A Twitter user posted photos on April 13 allegedly showing the destruction, and a reverse image search suggested they had not previously been posted. Given the limited amount of detail in the background, however, geolocation was not possible.

Additional Strikes

After ISI released the satellite imagery and Netanyahu gave his public statement on April 14, a number of social-media users suggested that an additional two strikes had occurred the same day. These areas had not been mentioned in the news media reports.

The first suggested area was a few kilometers east of the destroyed missile facility. The area was identified as the Masa Scientific Research Complex on social media, yet marked as an army storage area on Wikimapia.

Location, circa 2017, of the warehouse structures in Scientific Research Complex in Syria allegedly struck during the April 12 Israeli airstrike. (Source: Google Maps)

The comparison of the April 11 and April 14 satellite imagery from the area showed a clear change in at least four structures. While the low resolution of the satellite imagery, however, did not allow for assessment of the full scope of the damage, the lighter silhouettes of the buildings in the April 14 imagery suggested substantial changes in the structures or full demolition, likely caused by an airstrike.

Comparison of the daily satellite imagery from April 11 and April 14, 2019, shows significant changes in the structure in the days prior to and immediately after the airstrike. The orange, green, yellow and blue lines show the buildings that were likely demolished by the airstrike. (Source: Planet.com)

Lastly, social-media users have suggested that a third strike took place in the area of Homs. The destroyed objects were not identified. As this strike occurred on the same day as the strike on the Masyaf complex, the targets were likely related.

Location, circa 2017, of the warehouses in Syria allegedly struck by the Israeli airstrike on April 12. (Source: Google Maps)

Using Planet.com satellite imagery, a comparison of April 11 and April 14 images revealed significant changes. The April 14 imagery featured darkened terrains similar to the imagery in the first strike, signifying burn marks and rubble.

Comparison of the daily satellite imagery from April 11 and April 14, 2019. (Source: Planet.com)

Conclusion

The situation in Syria remains violent and complex, with fighting ranging from Bashar al-Assad and his Russian backers fighting Syrian opposition, Israel’s strikes against Iran’s proxy forces, and continued strikes against residual ISIS forces by the U.S.-led coalition.

The exact details of the latest airstrikes around Masyaf and Homs remain unclear. The Israeli Defense Forces did not claim responsibility for or comment on the strikes, despite Netanyahu’s claims of Israeli “activity in the north.” In previous cases, Israeli forces have intervened in the region to disrupt Iranian activity.

While the April 12 military operation in Syria received attention from international media outlets, only one strike on the Syrian military facility was discussed. Nonetheless, the available open-source data revealed that at least two more airstrikes on other targets in the Masyaf and Homs regions may have occurred. The nature of these targets has not been fully confirmed, but various media outlets suggested that they were also linked to the Iranian military presence in the region.


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

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