October 15, 2018

Amateur Hour in Riyadh - Saudi Arabia to admit killing Jamal Khashoggi

Jamal Khashoggi entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul

In a stunning turn of events, numerous news outlets are reporting that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will issue a report acknowledging the death of Jamal Khashoggi as the result of an interrogation that went bad. According to Russian media, citing Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials, Khashoggi died from a "suspicious" heart attack during interrogation at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

At least the Saudis are no longer pushing the myth that he left the consulate after a short visit. Anyone who has served in any intelligence, internal security or national-level law enforcement service knows that foreign diplomatic missions - embassies, consulates, legations, etc. - are under constant surveillance. That surveillance includes visual and electronic monitoring. In every assignment to embassies and consulates I had over the years, I just assumed that I was being watched and monitored at all times. In some countries, it was obvious.

The Saudis must have known that their consulate in Istanbul was the subject of Turkish intelligence service surveillance. I think the Turks compromised their surveillance operation against the consulate by claiming to have audio tapes of the interrogation and subsequent murder of Khashoggi.

The Turks' story about retrieving the audio from an Apple watch is ludicrous - even the Saudi intelligence service (not highly competent by any measure except maybe arrogance) would have made sure Khashoggi was not wearing any sort of device that could record the event. In addition, that suggestion was debunked by technical analysts.

I am surprised the Saudis were not able to detect and defeat what must be a Turkish intelligence service audio penetration of their facility. Then again, I have worked with both the Turkish national intelligence organization (Millî İstihbarat Teşkilatı) and the Saudi military intelligence directorate. While neither are particularly good at foreign intelligence collection operations, they do excel at supporting internal security in their countries.

In Saudi Arabia in particular, the function of the intelligence services is not to collect information on foreign military threats to the Kingdom, it is to develop intelligence on threats to the royal family and its continued rule. From personal experience, the United States intelligence agencies have repeatedly diverted valuable collection assets to assuage Saudi fears of a perceived coup against the ruling family.

That said, why would the Saudi intelligence apparatus concern itself with a journalist turned op-ed writer and political activist living in the United States?

Jamal Khashoggi* was once a prominent Saudi and at times an adviser to the royal family. In 2017, he left the kingdom after becoming a vocal critic of the government, in particular the newly-named Crown Prince Muhamad bin Salman, commonly known in the West as MBS.

Criticism of MBS is a sensitive issue in the kingdom, as his ascendance to the throne upon the death of his father King Salman bin 'Abdi al-'Aziz will be the test of the Saudi succession beyond the sons of the kingdom's founder. A smooth transition from the first to the second generation is essential to the ruling family's retention of power.

Since King Salman named his son as crown prince, both father and son have made sometimes astute and sometime not so astute political moves to consolidate support for the eventual transition of power. This has included a series of high-profile arrests - who can forget the spectacle of the Riyadh Ritz Carlton hotel being used to detain some of the richest men in the country? - as well as placing close allies in key positions.

By way of example, in April 2017 King Salman named his second son, Khalid bin Salman, to be the ambassador to the United States, arguably one of the most important diplomatic positions in the kingdom.

For more on the naming of the crown prince and ambassador to the United States, see my two earlier analyses:
- New Saudi ambassador the United States - another al-Sudayri in a power position
- Saudi Arabia - King Salman names his son as crown prince.

Turkish officials have accused Saudi Arabia of sending a team of 15 men (photo left), mostly military intelligence officers, to interrogate and kill Khashoggi and dismember his body with a bone saw before flying it back to his native country.

I find this hard to believe, but it is hard to argue with the facts as presented by the Turks. There were two charter flights, numerous rental cars, video surveillance, as well as the claim of audio recordings of the actual event.

On the face of it, it appears that the Saudis have committed premeditated murder.

That said, I cannot for the life of me fathom why the Saudis would kill Khashoggi - he was not that big of a deal.

For argument's sake, let's assume that at some level in the Saudi government, a decision was made to eliminate Khashoggi. That would have come from a senior official, likely someone in the diwan (royal court). Was it the king, the crown prince, director of general intelligence, the minister of the interior? While we may be told a name, we may ever know the truth.

It may be that Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman directed the intelligence director to "take care of" Khashoggi and that set a series of bad decisions in motion. I have met King Salman, and am familiar with MBS - neither are stupid. I am hoping that this was all a terrible chain of mistakes.

However, the two leaders still bear the responsibility for these actions. There will be consequences.

* If the name Khashoggi sounds familiar, it should. Jamal's uncle was Adnan Khashoggi, the billionaire arms dealer implicated in the Iran-Contra affair.

October 8, 2018

Syrian S-300 Update - It's likely three S-300PM battalions

 Click on image to go to article
(Click on link to read article)

Middle East analysts have been waiting to learn what variant of the capable S-300 air defense system was delivered to the Syrian armed forces over the last few weeks. This should be read in conjunction with my earlier article, Syria to receive S-300 air defense system from Russia.

Almost immediately after the September 18 mistaken shoot down of a Russian Air Force IL-20M electronic reconnaissance aircraft by a Syrian air defense S-200 (NATO: SA-5 Gammon) missile while Israeli Air Force fighter bombers were operating off the Syrian coast, Russia announced that it would provide the S-300 system to their Syrian allies.

The Russians are assuming that the advanced electronics (including better friend-or-foe capabilities) of the S-300 will preclude future incidents such as this. I have spent much of my professional life studying the Syrian armed forces, especially the air force and air defense. It's not the systems the Syrians are using that is the problem, it is the lack of training and competence in the operation of even these older systems. Add to that the atrophy of the Syrian military caused by seven years of civil war.

The S-300 is a large family of air defense systems, dating back to the initial deployment of the original S-300P (NATO: SA-10 Grumble) system in 1978.

According to TASS, citing military sources, Russia delivered three battalions of the S-300PM (NATO: SA-10C Grumble C) surface-to-air missile system. Each firing battalion of the S-300PM consists of eight launchers, for a total of 24 launchers.

As far as I know, the article in TASS (click on image above to read the article) was the first semi-official report of the exact variant delivered to the Syrians. If true, it underscores the Russian leadership's commitment to provide an enhanced air defense capability to the Syrians.

The S-300PM battalions are not the export version, but refurbished regular versions formerly used by Russian air defense units that have now been upgraded to newer systems. Given the flight paths of the Russian Air Force AN-124 (NATO: Condor) heavy lift aircraft used to deliver the systems to Syria, it appears that these systems came from units in the Murmansk area.

S-300PM  transporter-erector-launcher and radar

The S-300PM is an upgraded version of the S-300P; it entered service around 1990. It is intended to defend against aircraft, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles. According to the military source, Russia delivered over 100 surface-to-air guided missiles for each battalion.

That is a lot of missiles, which partially explains the high number of AN-124 flights to Syria in a short amount of time. The entire system - command and control center, three firing battalions and extra missiles - was delivered in about 10 days.

If in fact the missile battalions provided to the Syrians are the S-300PM, it does not pose as great a threat as the expected S-300VM "Antey-2500" (NATO: SA-23 Gladiator Giant).

That said, the S-300PM is a capable air defense system and does complicate planning for both Israeli and U.S.-led coalition air planners. The Russians build excellent air defense systems - the presence of the S-300PM should not be taken lightly.

That said, there will be a long and steep learning curve for the Syrians to effectively use this (or any) system, and NATO and Israeli aircrews have flown against the export version of this particular system in the past.

October 6, 2018

Humaymim or Khmeimim Air Base - what's in a name?

Humaymim Air Base, Syria  -  القاعدة حميميم الجوية، سوريا

Since September 2015, the Russian Air Force has maintained a large presence at a Syrian Air Force base south of the major port city of Latakia on the country's northeast Mediterranean coast. The name of the base - حميميم‎ - is transliterated in English as Humaymim, and in Russian as Хмеймим, although it is often seen in the media as Khmeimim.

The air base is located approximately 12 miles south of the city of Latakia adjacent to the small village of Humaymim (population 3700). For map nerds, its location is 352411N 0355659E. The Russian presence at the base is roughly equivalent to that of a U.S. Air Force expeditionary wing. The Russians have used the base not only for support of their forces in Syria, but as a staging/stopover base for military and diplomatic flights to Europe and Africa.

The air base shares airfield facilities with Martyr Basil al-Asad* International Airport, which serves the city of Latakia and is in the homeland of the 'Alawi religious sect to which the al-Asad family belongs. The base has undergone major improvements since the Russians basically took over the base - runways have been extended; new taxiways, aprons, aircraft maintenance hangars, admin buildings, and barracks were built; and state-of-the-art air defense and electronic warfare systems deployed.

Humaymim is also home to the Syrian Navy's 618th Maritime Warfare Squadron, which operates Mi-14 (NATO: Haze), Ka-25 (NATO: Hormone), and Ka-27 (NATO: Helix) antisubmarine warfare (ASW) helicopters. During the seven-year Syrian civil war, these ASW helicopters have been used to drop naval mines on civilian targets.

In 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin secured a 49-year renewable lease for Russian use of the air base, as well as a 49-year extension on an existing lease for use of a naval facility at the port of Tartus, about 30 miles south of the air base.

Transliteration Issues

As noted above, the true name of the Syrian air base is حميميم‎. People will ask how it is spelled - the Arabic script is the actual spelling. What they are really asking is how is the Arabic name transliterates into other alphabets - Latin, Cyrillic, Hebrew, etc. The differences in transliteration not only cause confusion, but at times have placed American forces at risk.

In addition to being an extremely difficult language to learn**, the Arabic alphabet creates its own set of problems. The writing system consists of 28 consonants; the three vowels are not normally written. As with Hebrew and the other languages that use the basic Arabic alphabet (Persian, Urdu, Malay, etc.), the script is written from right to left.

The problem is how to properly transliterate the Arabic script. Although there is only one correct spelling in Arabic, converting it to something readable in Latin letters can be confusing. For example, was it Saddam Hussein or Saddam Husayn? Technically, neither can be correct/incorrect since the actual spelling is the Arabic letters hah sin yah nun. Most media used the transliteration Hussein, although Husayn is closer to the Arabic script.

The United States intelligence community is required to use a standardized system, especially in the era of computerized databases that require specific letters. That system is the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN) transliteration system developed jointly with the government of the United Kingdom. See Romanization of Arabic for a technical explanation of the system.

An example of the consequences of not adhering to the mandated system is the U.S. Army destruction of an Iraqi munitions storage depot in the days immediately following the end of the Gulf War in 1991. Operating under orders to destroy all Iraqi military facilities in the area under coalition control, Army officers checked the databases to determine if the Al-Khamisiyah depot was used to store chemical weapons. Unfortunately, the records indicating that artillery shells filled with the nerve agent Sarin were stored at Al-Khamisiyah were filed under a different – and non-BGN – transliteration. When the facility was blown up, American forces (me included) were exposed to low levels of the nerve agent.

So, while the media prefers to use the transliteration Khmeimim, the better transliteration - and that mandated for official U.S. government use - is Humaymim.

* The late Basil al-Asad was the older brother of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, who until the time of his death in an automobile accident in 1994, was being groomed by the brothers' father Hafiz as the successor to the presidency. Following Basil's death, the mantle of heir apparent was passed to the next eldest brother (Basahr). Although the President's presumption of the dynastic selection of his son as the next president did not sit well with many Syrians - the ones who were under the delusion that the Syrian Arab Republic actually had a democratic government - they really had no vote.

** The State Department's Foreign Service Institute considers Arabic to be a Category V language, the most difficult for native English speakers to learn. The others are Chinese, Korean, and Japanese.

September 29, 2018

Syria to receive S-300 air defense system from Russia

Russian S-300VM "Antey-2500" (NATO: SA-23 Gladiator/Giant)

Following the accidental shootdown of a Russian Air Force IL-20M (NATO: Coot-A) electronic intelligence aircraft last week, Russia announced that it is deploying at least one S-300 air defense missile system to Syria to bolster Syria's air defenses.

It was a Syrian air defense S-200 (NATO: SA-5 Gammon) missile that downed the Russian reconnaissance plane, killing all 15 on board. Syrian air defenses have been plagued with not only maintenance issues due to the seven-year civil war, but poor training and leadership.

Russian Federation Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov announced that the delivery of the air defense system has already started.

Russian Air Force AN-124 airlifter unloading S-400 missiles in Syria

In fact, in the last few days, at least three Russian Air Force AN-124 (NATO: Condor) heavy transport aircraft have flown from Russian air bases to Humaymim air base, Syrian, a base now used almost exclusively for Russian forces. While other Russian military transport aircraft fly daily resupply flights, the size of the S-300 system components require the use of the jumbo Condor airlifters.

It is still unknown which version of the S-300 system will be delivered to Syria. Versions of the S-300 family of air defense missiles have been in use by Russian and other militaries for decades - the initial deployment of the original S-300P (NATO: SA-10 Grumble) was in 1978. An anti-ballistic missile capability (the S-300V) was added in 1983.

The Russians developed an export version in the early 1990's - the S-300PMU-1 (NATO: SA-20A Gargoyle) with a range of 75 miles, followed shortly thereafter with the extended range (120 miles) S-300PMU-2 (US designation SA-20B). Since 1996, the primary export version has been the 120-mile range S-300VM "Antey-2500" (NATO: SA-23 Gladiator/Giant).

I suspect the SA-23 is the version that will be supplied to the Syrians. It is the same system sold to Egypt in the wake of the ill-advised U.S. arms embargo after the military coup of 2014 led by then-General (now President) 'Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi.

I want to preface some of the more technical details of the SA-23 with a few comments about Russian air defense systems. The Russians have always emphasized development of air defense systems - it fits into their military strategy, just as the United States tends to emphasize offensive systems. Russian air defense systems are state of the art and highly capable.

Although the Russians have developed even more advanced systems than the S-300VM, such as the S-400 and S-500 systems, the S-300VM system to be provided to the Syrians will pose a serious threat to almost all aircraft in the region, with the exception of fifth generation U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor and Israeli Air Force F-35I Adir stealth fighters.

The Antey-2500 system consists of a command post vehicle, three general surveillance radars, a sector surveillance radar, and a guidance radar. These electronics support/control up to six missile radar-equipped transporter-erector-launchers (TELAR), and six loader-launcher vehicles. It is a large, but completely land mobile system. It was the first system in the world capable of simultaneously engaging aircraft, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles. The Russians claim that it can successfully track low radar cross section aircraft (stealth) aircraft at ranges over 100 miles.

The Russian Ministry of Defense said they would deploy two S-300 battalions to Syria. That means about 24 launchers.

Since late 2016, the Russians have operated S-300 and S-400 missile systems in Syria around the air base at Humaymim and their naval facility at Tartus. Although these systems have been noted active electronically, they have yet to engage either Israeli or U.S.-led coalition aircraft.

The Russians and Israelis have established deconfliction protocols to avoid engagements when Israeli aircraft conduct operations against Iranian targets in Syria. It is an uneasy arrangement - it is in question now that rather incompetent Syrian air defense units downed the Russian reconnaissance aircraft.

It is unknown where the Syrians will deploy their new air defense capability. In the past, Syrian air defenses have been concentrated in the southern part of the country in an attempt to defend Damascus. However, the recent spate of Israeli attacks have been against Iranian targets across the country, ranging from the Damascus suburbs to the central deserts and the northwest coastal area.

Remember that it is not the range of the S-300MV/Antey-2500 that is the threat, it is the capability. The existing S-200 missiles in the Syrian inventory have a longer range (190 miles versus 120 miles), but it is the lethality of the S-300 system and its ability to operate in a dense electronic warfare environment. It remains to be seen just how the Syrians will integrate the new system into the existing Syrian air defense network, and if the S-300VM will significantly raise the threat to Israeli and U.S.-led coalition aircraft.

It is also unknown what Russian support will be provided. Since Syria had contracted in the past to purchase the S-300 system, a deal that has been on hold, they do have a small cadre of officers trained in the system. I suspect the Russians will provide on-site trainers and advisers as part of the deployment to prevent another deadly and embarrassing incident.

In any case, the introduction of yet another capable Russian weapons system into Syria increases the likelihood of continued confrontation between Syrian and Israeli forces, and increases the risk of a direct U.S.-Syria confrontation.

In a word, unhelpful.

September 12, 2018

ADDENDUM: Iranian Air Force or SAHA airlines - who really owns this aircraft?

ADDENDUM: In light of the September 15 Israeli airstrike on the cargo associated with this particular aircraft, I wanted to update this article with new information and photographs. The new information appears immediately following the original article.

Hard-to-catch track of this Iranian Boeing 747-200 freighter aircraft over Syria, here as civil registration EP-SHB. Note the Mode S (Hex) code 734D02 – this stays with the aircraft as it changes registration and owners. The Mode S and registration seem to agree on SAHA airlines.

This particular aircraft was delivered to the Imperial Iranian Air Force in 1977 as 5-8113. For 1984 and 1985, it was leased to then national civil flag carrier Iran Air, and then returned to the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF). In 1991, it was “leased” to SAHA airlines, a wholly-owned company of the IRIAF. In the intelligence business, we call this a shell company.

In 2013, SAHA airlines suspended all operations, restarting again in 2017. At that time, EP-SHB was returned to the IRIAF, again as 5-8113. It appears to be in IRIAF service today, operating from Tehran/Mehrabad airport – home to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) aircraft fleet. How coincidental.

I first saw this aircraft in Syria in this livery. Note the Iranian flag on the tail, over the military airlift service logo, plus the IRIAF identification in Farsi on the front of the fuselage and IRIAF in Latin letters below. No question that this was an Iranian air force jet.

As Iranian support for terrorist groups became notorious, we saw the aircraft in this livery. Note the removal of the IRIAF identification in Farsi and the IRIAF letters. The flag and logo remained. Iranian, but whose? The logo alone tells me it's still IRIAF.

As Iran promoted the fiction that this and other aircraft were not part of the the Iranian air force or involved in support to terrorist groups - notably Hizballah - the military airlift service logo was removed, and the civilian registration EP-SHB was applied.

This is the 2018 livery of the aircraft. This is what we in the intelligence business call a “vanilla” airplane. Although in the color scheme of the IRIAF, there is no visible identification – it’s likely there, but so small it is virtually undetectable from more than 10 feet.

Recent flight history – note the numerous flights listed from Kermanshah to Tehran. Also note the dubious flight path – I am not buying it. I suspect this aircraft is part of the Iranian resupply effort to Syria dubbed the “Shi’a Express.”

Who really owns this aircraft?

Spoiler: That was a rhetorical question. We know.

ADDENDUM: Updated information begins here.

This image is a screen shot from the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting network showing this same aircraft. As I indicated above, its identification is there, but very small and not very descriptive. Note the numbers 113 on the lower fuselage. That is an abbreviated form of the IRIAF registration 5-8113. If you look closely at the earlier photograph in the original article, and now know where to look, you can make out the 113. This image is likely at the military ramp at Tehran's Mehrabad airport.

This image shows this IRIAF aircraft, using its false civilian registration EP-SHB en route from Tehran to Damascus on the evening of Saturday, July 15.

It landed later at the Syrian Air Force 29th Air Brigade ramp at Damascus International Airport.

After the cargo was unloaded Saturday night, it was struck by Israeli Air Force missiles, destroying the cargo, and likely damaging the aircraft. The image above, posted in a tweet from an imagery analyst, shows the aircraft on the military ramp with blackened tarmac where the cargo was struck.

Thoughts on the coming battle for Idlib

This is a recapitulation of a Twitter thread concerning the upcoming battle for Idlib, based on two recent CNN interviews.

Lt Col Rick Francona, USAF (Ret): Syria would be insane to use chemical weapons in the assault on Idlib governorate. Syrian President Bashar al-Asad knows using chemical weapons will draw a military response from the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and now possibly even Germany.

It’s hard to understand the absurdity, but it appears that as long as you only use barrel bombs, artillery, rockets, and missiles to kill, it is deemed almost acceptable, but cross that line and use chemicals, the ire of the world demands a military response. So why use them?

There is no military reason for the Syrians to use chemical weapons. With Russian airpower, artillery, and rocket and missile strikes, combined with Iranian and Hizballah support on the ground, the Syrian military has the required force to reassert control over all of Idlib.

The “battle of Idlib” will likely be the last major military operation in the Syrian civil war, but it's not the end of the crisis. After Idlib falls - and it will – we need to address the political situation.

What of the US-supported mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)? Are they to be integrated into the Syrian Army? Not likely.

Will the Kurds be allowed some form of autonomy like their Iraqi cousins? Bashar al-Asad says no, as does Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

In fact, Turkey - our erstwhile NATO ally – wants all the Kurdish “militants” to leave northern Syria. By this, Erdoğan means all the members of the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish party that he believes is nothing but an extension of the PKK, a Turkish Kurdish separatist group recognized as a terrorist group by NATO. The problem: they’re Syrians, where are they going to go?

After the trilateral meeting in Tehran with the leaders of Russia, Turkey, and Iran, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia is worried about civilians in Idlib but finds it “unacceptable” when civilians are used a pretext to “shield terrorists” ... and supports Syria retaking control of all of Idlib governorate. Translation: Get ready for a bloodbath.

Erdoğan urged Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to include a [unilateral] ceasefire in the final statement on Syria. Putin said since opposition groups were not present at the meeting, there could be no such agreement. Teaching point: When it comes to ceasefires, the enemy also gets a vote.

On the United Nations proposal for the self-segregation of combatants and civilians whereby the combatants will voluntarily move from civilian areas. This is a non-starter; the opposition groups, be they rebels or the al-Qa'idah affiliated Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), will co-locate with civilians as human shields to raise the risk of large numbers of civilian casualties.

Despite reports that the Syrian regime is faced with a troop shortage and the Iranians and Hizballah are balking at providing forces as they did in Aleppo, I believe a Syrian regime assault on greater Idlib governorate is inevitable. The Syrians and Russians, with urging from Iran, are committed to the extermination of remnants of the rebels and HTS, no matter the cost.

August 26, 2018

Iranian defense minister in Damascus - the Syrian situation map

Iranian and Syrian defense ministers meeting in Damascus

Iranian defense minister Brigadier General Amir Hatami arrived in Damascus today for a two-day visit for a series of consultations with Syrian officials, no doubt to discuss the current situation in the country, but also to protect Iran's equities for the future.

The Iranians are concerned, rightly, that the Russians, along with the Americans and Israelis, might pressure the Syrian government of Bashar al-Asad to ask his Iranian allies to leave the country. Bashar would have to decide who is the more critical ally. I am betting on Russia.

If that happens, it would be a major blow to Iran's designs on becoming the key power broker in the area extending from Iran, across Iraq and Syria, all the way to Lebanon, in addition to its growing influence in Yemen, Bahrain, and even Afghanistan.

I will leave analysis of the meeting between the defense chiefs of the two countries to my colleagues. For a good rundown on the meeting, I refer you to a piece written by Seth Frantzman of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, How Iran's Defense Minister in Damascus sent a message to Washington.

For the purposes of my article, I draw your attention to the above photograph of a meeting released by official Iranian media of Hatami and his Syrian counterpart Lieutenant General 'Ali 'Abdullah Ayyub.

I recognize the conference room at the Syrian Ministry of Defense - I've been in it a few times when I was the air attaché to the American Embassy in Damascus.

Note the situation map on the wall. I have enlarged and enhanced the map to bring out some of the details as best I could, and added captions. While maps released to the public by Syrian state media have not always portrayed the true situation, this is a map intended for the two ministers of defense and is accurate based on my understanding and analysis.

It does not take a military genius to see that the regime now has the upper hand as well as momentum, given the advances over the last three years. That coincides with the initial Russian deployment in September 2015 to augment the basically failing Syrian forces which remained viable only because of the earlier commitment of Iranian-sponsored militias and Hizballah fighters.

I view Hizballah as nothing more than an expeditionary force of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its Qods Force. Remember that the Qods Force grew out of the IRGC's Syria/Lebanon contingent (IRGC-SL), formed as "the resistance" (al-muqawamah) to the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

The Iranians have expanded their commitment in Syria since they intervened in 2012 to prevent the collapse of the Syrian armed forces and the likely fall of the Bashar al-Asad regime. A regime defeat would have severely limited their access to Lebanon and Hizballah. Not only did the IRGC provide advice and leadership for the Iranian militias, but brought in Iraqi Shi'a militias, as well as Afghan Shi'a volunteers.

With Russian airpower, field and rocket artillery, and special forces support augmenting the efforts of the Syrian armed forces and their Iranian-led allies, it was only a matter of time before the disjointed, ill-equipped, and poorly led factions of the opposition forces were defeated.

In most of these military operations, the Syrians preferred to make deals by which fighters were allowed to surrender in exchange for passage to opposition areas, primarily Idlib. Note the position of Idlib on the map - it remains the single largest rebel holdout.

Preparations are underway for the impending assault on Idlib. Idlib will be different than previous battles - there is nowhere for the rebels to go. Their choice here will not be to surrender and relocate, it will be to surrender or die. Again, it is just a matter of time before the regime reasserts control over the entire area.

After the defeat of the rebels, the remaining pockets of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) will be reduced and eliminated. We have always known how and where the ISIS fight ends, we just did not know exactly when.

After Idlib is retaken and ISIS is a bad memory, the real battle for the future of Syria begins.

What becomes of the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF), the mainly Kurdish force which was arguably the most effective ground force in the fight against ISIS? The Syrian Kurds have tried to politic for what their Iraqi cousins have institutionalized - an autonomous Kurdish area. They have already formed a political entity - the Syrian Democratic Council in the area they have named Rojava, the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria.

The Syrian government has thus far refused to discuss automomy, stating that in time they plan to reassert control over the entire country. It is uncertain what the United States will do to support its Kurdish allies, keeping in mind the NATO ally Turkey is also against any Kurdish autonomy anywhere - Syria, Iraq, Iran, and especially Turkey.

The battle for Idlib is not the end of the war by any stretch of the imagination, but it does move it into a new phase. Russia, Turkey, the United States, the Kurds, and the Iran have vested interests in the future of Syria.

What we are seeing today is Tehran letting everyone know they certainly intend to be a key player.


Personal anecdote. Back to the map on the wall of the conference room. Note the international boundary to the west of Idlib governorate. It indicates the de facto border between Syria and Turkey (shown below in red), with the sanjak of Alexandretta in Turkey. Syria does not recognize the inclusion of the sanjak in Turkey - public maps in Syria all show it as part of Syria. The disagreement is the result of a treaty between Turkey and France, the League of Nations mandatory power for what are now the countries of Syria and Lebanon.

When I was the air attaché in Damascus, with few exceptions, I had virtually no contact with the Syrian military. One exception was the monthly attaché dinner at the Syrian Officers Club to welcome new attachés and bid farewell to those about to depart.

Departing attachés were presented a small inlaid wooden box, a Syrian specialty. On the top of the box was a medallion with a map of Syria, inclusive of the sanjak of Alexandretta.

At every presentation - like clockwork - the two Turkish military attachés (one seen with me in the photo) would stand at attention and march from the room in protest of the inclusion of what they considered to be Turkish territory on a map of Syria.

August 15, 2018

Nostalgia for Saddam Husayn - who would have thought?

I was reading my Twitter feed a few days ago and the above post popped up. I looked at it and thought, you know, I have a series of photos that are also examples of this phenomena.

Let's go back to the era of Saddam Husayn, specifically 1987-1988, the last two years of the Iran-Iraq war. I had been sent to Baghdad as a liaison officer with the Iraqi Directorate of Military Intelligence.

While I was there, the Iraqis regained control of the al-Faw Peninsula in the spring of 1988 in Operation Blessed Ramadan (ramadhan mubarak). I toured the battlegrounds shortly after the battle and saw things like this.

On the left we see Iraqi soldiers' response to the Iranian occupiers of the al-Faw Peninsula southeast of the Iraqi city of al-Basrah. Iraqi troops - either by desire or order - defaced the image of Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini and re-established the portrait of Saddam Husayn.

Over the next few months, I was able to tour other battlefields as the Iraqis mounted a series of offensives - supported by U.S.-provided intelligence - that eventually led to the end of the war. I developed a friendship with my Iraqi Army "handler" - at one point I remarked about the number of photos and likenesses of Saddam Husayn on what seemed like every vertical surface in the country. After a few drinks one evening, I asked him how long it would take to remove all the posters of the president. He looked at me and quietly said, "Overnight."

Another example of what I call "truth in graffiti." When I was working as a military analyst for the NBC networks (NBC, CNBC, MSNBC), I remember seeing a news agency report that MSNBC carried on the air after the removal of Saddam Husayn. Here is one of the images in the report.

The accompanying text cited this as a defaced poster of Saddam Husayn in the former president's hometown of Tikrit with a comment that even people there were against him. I looked at the image and read the spray-painted Arabic words on the portrait. It reads: "Long live Saddam and the Ba'ath [Party]." Hardly anti-Saddam.

There is still a following in Iraq who remembers Saddam Husayn fondly - almost exclusively limited to the Sunni Arab minority. You will remember that this was the group that was (and remains) fertile recruiting ground for the insurgency and al-Qa'idah in Iraq, which later morphed into the Islamic State in Iraq, and later into the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, known more commonly as ISIS.

Nostalgia combined with new ISIS recruiting efforts as it reverts to an insurgency as it loses what little territory it might hold, means that the ISIS threat will be with us for some time.

The Defense Department agrees. This is their latest assessment: "We have assessed that, even after the liberation of ISIS controlled territory, ISIS probably is still more capable than al-Qaida in Iraq at its peak in 2006-2007...suggesting it is well positioned to rebuild and work on enabling its physical caliphate to reemerge."

August 13, 2018

At American urging, Saudis to investigate Yemen airstrike - we know the results

Screen capture from my interview on CNN

The August 9 Saudi airstrike on a crowded market in Sa'ada province in northern Yemen that struck a bus and killed 40 children on their way from school has finally drawn attention to one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.

The Yemeni civil war has been going on for over three years. It began as a Saudi attempt to prevent the Iranian-backed Houthi faction from removing the legally-elected government of 'Abd al-Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. The Houthis are a Shi'a group comprising almost 40 percent of the population.

Iranian support for the group derives from the fact that Tehran regards itself as the leader and protector of all things Shi'a, compounded by the fact that the Saudis support the Hadi government. In effect, the stalemated Yemeni civil war began and continues as a proxy fight between the two Gulf antagonists.

The initial Saudi-led coalition of 2015, which included forces and support from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Kuwait, Qatar, and Morocco, has dwindled to basically Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The primary participants in the conflict today are the Houthis, supported (armed, trained, and possibly led) by the Iranians on one side, and the Yemeni Hadi faction, supported by the armed forces of Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the other. This so-called "coalition" is supported by both the United States and the United Kingdom - primarily via weapons sales and intelligence cooperation.

U.S. Air Force and Royal Air Force officers have had decades of experience trying to train the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) not only how to operate their aircraft and weapons, but to gather and use intelligence to develop suitable targets. This includes a target selection process that limits civilian casualties as much as possible. From personal experience, training - and working with - the RSAF is difficult and frustrating.

With that as background, let me try to assess what likely happened last week, based on the limited information available.

On Wednesday (August 8), a Houthi group fired a surface-to-surface missile at the Saudi Arabian city of Jizan. The missile was intercepted by a Saudi Patriot missile and destroyed, however, falling debris killed one person and injured several others. In retaliation, the Saudis launched an airstrike targeting the Houthi group they believe were responsible for the missile launch.

The airstrike, employing an unknown number and type of weapons, struck a crowded market and a bus carrying children. It is unclear if the bus was a planned target of the strike or just happened to be in the area. In any case, 40 children and 11 others are dead in one of the worst attacks of the war.

I suspect the Saudis wanted to retaliate for the missile strike on Wednesday and mounted a quick reaction airstrike. Quick reaction airstrikes are not unusual, but they do require a pre-planned target set. That requires accurate, up-to-date intelligence.

Thus, I was concerned by the Saudi military spokesman's statement, that the market was a "legitimate target," and "No, this is not children in the bus. We do have high standard measures for targeting."

That statement leads me to believe that the pilots deliberately targeted the bus, possibly considering it a target of opportunity. It also leads me to believe that they were unaware there were children in the bus, and that the bus was suspected of carrying the Houthis the Saudis were in fact targeting.

The RSAF operates fourth generation fighter aircraft, including the American-made F-15SA Strike Eagle, dropping precision guided munitions. The Saudis are competent in the employment of these weapons and more likely than not hit what they were aiming at.

The U.S. State Department supports a United Nations call for an investigation. Secretary of Defense James Mattis went one step further, announcing, "I have dispatched a three-star general into Riyadh to look into what happened here and if there is anything we can do to preclude this in the future."

The Saudis have announced they will investigate the incident, probably to preclude a confrontation with the United States and a possible unilateral U.S. investigation.

I can predict what the Saudi investigation will "reveal" - they were operating on the best intelligence information available, it turned out not to be accurate.

In the end, no one will be held accountable.

August 12, 2018

Arabic no longer an official language of the State of Israel - so?

Israeli currency with both Hebrew and Arabic text

On July 19, 2018, the Israeli Knesset adopted a new law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People (Hebrew: חוק יסוד: ישראל - מדינת הלאום של העם היהודי‎). It is more commonly referred to as the "nation-state bill." The law is controversial and passed only after years of failed attempts. The vote was 62 for, 55 against, with two abstentions.

The eleven-clause law defined the State of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and addressed the flag, state motto, state symbol, and national anthem. It also declared that the language of the State is Hebrew.

This is a surprising change - since the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, Arabic was an official language of the country. After 70 years, two months, and five days, it now has "special status" - whatever that means.

Here is a translation (from the Hebrew) of the fourth clause of the law:

4 — Language
- a. The language of the State is Hebrew.
- b. The Arabic language has a special status in the State; regulating the use of Arabic in State institutions or by them will be set in law.
- c. This clause does not harm the status given to the Arabic language before this law came into effect.

Not being either a lawyer or a politician, it seems to me that the only actual statement in that clause above is the first one - the state's language is Hebrew. The other two sentences are "feel good" pablum in an attempt to assuage what the law's drafters must have known would be anger on the part of the Arabic speakers in the country. Note to those drafters: it didn't work.

Israel's population is approximately 8.9 million. The Israelis keep meticulous records - here is the population breakdown: Jewish 74.5 percent, Arab 20.9 percent, Druze* 1.6 percent, and other 3.0 percent. Combining the Arabs and Druze together brings the Arabic-speaking portion of the population to be 22.5 percent.

The new law has sparked outrage among the non-Hebrew speakers, as well as with many of the Jewish population who believe that the law causes unnecessary divisions in the country. Many Israeli military personnel object to it because it marginalizes the Druze, who serve in the armed forces in higher numbers than their percentage of the population and are well-respected for their capabilities.

I titled this article, "Arabic no longer an official language of the State of Israel - so?" Here is the "so."

The law in general, and the language clause in particular, sends different messages to the two groups, one to the Hebrew speakers, and one to the Arabic speakers.

To the Hebrew speakers - in reality the three quarters of the population who are Jewish: this is the Jewish state where we speak Hebrew, this is your country.

To the one quarter who do not speak Hebrew - the Arabs (Muslim and Christian), Druze, and other minorities: you can live here because your birth venue happens to be inside the national borders of the Jewish state, but it's really not your country. Feel free to leave - drive in almost any direction for an hour and you could be home.

The above tweet was posted by Avital Leibovich, a retired Israeli military intelligence officer, and a professional acquaintance. She raises a key point - if these Israeli Arabs believe they really are Israelis, why not carry the Israeli flag?

On the other hand, the Nation-State law goes one step further towards making the term "Israeli Arab" an oxymoron.

* The Druze in Israel do not identify themselves as Arabs. In Syria and Lebanon, they identify as Arabs by ethnicity, and Druze by religion.