"Today the developments in Syria are less dynamic and less unpredictable compared to the last seven years," says Lt. Col. Yuval Litvin, Commander of the 595th Ayit (= Eagle) Combat Intelligence Battalion in a special interview with IsraelDefense. "The Syrians made an impressive move between June and August when they recaptured 600 square kilometers in southern Syria. In some places – through negotiations over surrender, and in other places through aggressive fighting with Russian support. Today we see the Syrian Army reconsolidating its positions. The same brigades that were deployed here prior to the civil war are returning to the front line, except one brigade that had been eliminated and a new one was formed in its place."
Force Build-Up on the Other Side
"Syria is building the same Army it has before 2012. The first contact brigades are deployed along our border with the divisions behind them and the GHQ reserves behind the divisions," explains Litvin. "The Syrians are building and reconstructing bases and posts. The rehabilitation of the Army is carried out according to the present reality. The Syrian Army was not a weak military force, and it is not a weak military force today. On the contrary – you see well-equipped soldiers who know how to fight and possess a fighting spirit. This army has emerged from six years of war. It is experienced and has a fighting spirit. They have not replaced the entire Army, but they learned a lot from the fighting. In the recapturing of southern Syria, opposite ISIS, we saw massive employment of fire and air power, pin-down efforts, assaults. They learned these things from the Russians. We saw combined arms operations and inter-arm combat efforts. They also learned guerrilla warfare tactics from Hezbollah – something they were not so good at previously."
The Ayit Battalion is responsible for surveillance and fire direction (a unique capability of the combat intelligence battalion deployed in the Syrian sector), from Mount Hermon to the Syria-Jordan-Israel border triangle. The length of this border is dozens of kilometers and in recent years, since 2012, it developed into a hot or even very hot border. "Between 1974 and 2012 it was quiet. We had a few surveillance resources in this sector plus a number of GHQ resources looking deep into Syrian territory," explains Litvin. "In 2013, the IDF realized that the cheese had moved and established this battalion.
I am referring to the period prior to the establishment of the IDF 210th Division.
"Initially, the Battalion was established as a small organ with surveillance operators and warfighters. Today we are talking about 5 to 6 times those figures. The Battalion has a personnel of several hundreds of regular servicemen and hundreds more of reservists. The Battalion's force build-up was determined by the intensity of the fighting in Syria. As the war there intensified, the Battalion's order of battle increased. At the moment, we are waiting to see how the fighting in Syria will stabilize before making any decisions to change our order of battle."
Operating opposite so many organizations compels the warfighters of the Battalion to understand who's who in the game. In the southern part of the sector, the Islamic State was deployed, under different names. In the center – Jabhat al-Nusra, and in the north – the radical axis (Iran/Hezbollah). Litvin explains that the collapse of the Syrian Army did not take place in a single day. The process started when units of the Syrian Army began to defect and adopt a local identity. In some places, officers hailing from a specific village defected and established a local unit. In other places there were units that controlled somewhat larger areas.
"And so, little by little, the Syrian Army collapsed," says Litvin. "The state disintegrated into secondary areas that assumed local tribal identities. From a situation where you dealt with one army marked in red, you suddenly faced 14-15 different colors. It changes your perception and makes it difficult to produce a status picture. The changes took place here during intervals of a week or less. It is a complex scenario for any intelligence collection effort."
In order to provide the surveillance warfighters with the knowledge they required, a need for the sharing of knowledge arose. The solution came from the commander of the IDF 210th Division, who decided to go for more cooperation and less compartmentalization. "The compartmentalization walls here are relatively low between the Battalion and the Brigade and other intelligence services," explains Litvin. "The servicewomen of the Battalion are subordinated to the divisional intelligence officer. We established a multidimensional intelligence collection cell made up of all of the collection agencies in a format that enables the team leader at the end to understand what is of interest to the division commander, and vice versa. There is tension, and that is a challenge. It was a decision by the commander of the 210th Division and the emergence of the reality that existed here. We have servicewomen here who have high security classifications."
A part of the routine activity of the Battalion in recent years included intelligence support for the evacuation of wounded individuals from Syria. Over the course of the civil war in Syria, Israel avoided intervening in the actual fighting, but provided humanitarian aid, including the evacuation of some 5000 wounded individuals to hospitals in Israel. "When you evacuate wounded individuals from Syria, you want to provide the evacuating forces with accurate intelligence, lest the wounded individual place our forces at risk. That was our responsibility," says Litvin. "This activity presents a challenge to intelligence collection, to determine what is irregular and what isn't. If today I noticed armed individuals hanging around the border fence, I can determine that it amounts to an irregular event – and respond. While the humanitarian activity was in progress, you had to figure out who among those armed individuals was a risk factor and who was a friend."
Cover for Hezbollah
The redeployment of the Syrian Army on the Golan Heights front presents one significant challenge – the Syrian cover for Hezbollah. "We estimate that the Syrian Army returned owing a debt to Hezbollah," says Litvin. "The Syrian Army is committed to Hezbollah that regards this as an opportunity. Firstly, Hezbollah has found an opportunity to establish an intelligence collection system vis-à-vis Israel along the Syrian border. Today they have the same resources they had in Lebanon on the Golan Heights. Secondly, Hezbollah can take advantage of this sector to stage attacks from Syrian territory. In the long run, Hezbollah can form a force in Syria that would engage us in the context of a future war with Lebanon. They can also decide, according to their own interests, where to 'stab' you along a sector extending from the Mediterranean to Hamat Gader, almost 200 kilometers."
To deal with the threats, an additional specialist company was established within the Battalion. "Immediately as I entered office, I realized that a change had taken place. In the past, the enemy had its back on us. The State of Israel was secondary as far as they were concerned, and that enabled us to engage in surveillance relatively openly. The various organizations in Syria were busy dealing with one another, and did not want to mess with the IDF. We knew we were of no interest to them. Today, with Hezbollah operating covertly along the Syrian border, under the cover provided by the Syrian Army, it is a scenario that compels us to reinforce our dedicated teams. We have two dedicated companies made up of teams. Two teams are made up of Grade 05 Rifleman-qualified female operators capable of operating the entire range of our capabilities, blend into the terrain, operate drones or overhead surveillance resources of various types, including fixed-wing platforms, the aerostat by Shilat Optronics and other resources," explains Litvin.
As stated, the Battalion is also responsible for directing artillery fire throughout the Golan Heights sector. This is a unique capability of the Ayit Battalion. "We have a fire support officer in our battalion, our own artillery liaison officer. Our teams form a significant tool in the direction of fire in this sector, to any range. If the 210th Division intends to operate anything, we will carry out the preliminary surveillance effort and handle incrimination, fire direction and Battle Damage Assessment (BDA)," Litvin reveals. "We have several surveillance centers in the sector. Each such surveillance center knows how to operate opposite the battalion commander in charge of the sector. Our Battalion has an abundance of radar and optical surveillance systems and we can spot any movement by any object in any size – from a mouse to a tank," says Litvin.
Each surveillance center occupies a reinforced concrete structure that enables it to switch smoothly from routine to emergency operation. The center is divided into workstations, each one of which is manned by a surveillance operator. The computerized system assigns events to the surveillance operators according to a scale of importance determined by the Surveillance Battalion HQ, and each event is investigated. "The surveillance operators have thirty seconds to decide whether they are dealing with an irregular event. Any event other than an irregular event will be routed to the archive, where it is stored forever, for future debriefing – if one should take place," explains Litvin.
"The surveillance operators work a four-hour shift followed by eight hours of rest. We have built new accommodations for them, just like a hotel, adjacent to the surveillance center, so as to provide them with the best possible living conditions. This is one of the most difficult occupational specialties in the IDF. Sitting opposite a display screen for four hours, remaining sharp and alert throughout that period, enough to determine, regarding each event, what is irregular and what isn't – that is not a simple task."
The surveillance centers enable the brigade commander and battalion commander to receive information in near-real time regarding any event that takes place in the sector. "Every irregular event is reported to me within seconds," explains Litvin. "Depending on the event, the brigade commander may view the display of any operator workstation he wishes to view over a large display screen, and he can request to view events taking place in the present or events that had taken place in the past. The fact that everyone shares the same space enables very prompt sharing of information. As soon as an irregular event takes place, two to four clicks will have the information disseminated through the Masu'ah system to the entire the IDF."