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.

June 26, 2018

Reality (is the) Winner - former NSA contractor pleads guilty

Reality Winner - yes, that's her real name - pleaded guilty in federal court in Georgia on June 26. She had been in pretrial confinement since her arrest in June 2017 for alleged violations of the Espionage Act.

Winner was accused of - and has now admitted to - leaking a classified report produced by the National Security Agency about Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election. It detailed attempted hacks by the GRU, Russia's military intelligence service, against local election officials and a company that sold software for voter registration.

Let's put that in perspective. I served in the intelligence community for almost 28 years in a variety of positions with assignments to the Central Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, and yes, NSA. (No one in the intelligence community calls it "the NSA" - that identifies you as an outsider.)

Virtually every foreign intelligence report published by NSA is not just classified, but is also designated as Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) that requires special handling in designated communications channels. This one was no exception.

Here is an image of the first page*:

I have highlighted the classification markings that appear at the top and bottom of each page. Note that each paragraph and the title also bear a classification marking that pertains to that portion of the text. This report is marked:



TOP SECRET - The material is classified Top Secret, the highest level. The lower classifications are Confidential and Secret.

SI - This material is based on Special Intelligence, or information derived from the intercept and exploitation of foreign communications. This is probably the major issue - the Russians will easily determine which of their communications systems are vulnerable and will secure them, eliminating forever a valuable intelligence source.

ORCON - the report is Originator Controlled, meaning that further distribution of the report requires the producing agency's (NSA in this case) express authorization.

REL TO USA, FYEY - the information is releasable to authorized recipients in the USA and the "Five Eyes" countries. These are Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States.

FISA - This report contains information collected in response to a warrant issued in accordance with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

This was not an act of a whistleblower - a whistleblower reports issues, violations, fraud, etc. to his/her chain of command, or the organization's inspector general (all government agencies have them), but NEVER to the media. This is especially true when dealing with classified information - as in this case. Ms, well now, Inmate Winner knows this full well - she is a former U.S. Air Force linguist. Military personnel are trained on the proper handling of classified material.

So why did she feel the need to photocopy a highly restricted Top Secret document from her place of work and email it to a media outlet - The Intercept - with past associations with the likes of the traitor Edward Snowden and his shill Glenn Greenwald? She said she was mad about some things she had seen in the media, and wanted to set the facts right. No excuse to go to a media outlet with a record of releasing sensitive national security information.

Winner entered a guilty plea, part of a deal with the federal government which will require her to serve up to five years and three months in prison. She has been jailed at the Lincoln County Justice Center since her arrest. The photos above tell the toll incarceration has taken.

Who knows what five years in a federal prison will do to her? Given the fact that she has pleaded guilty to a violation of the Espionage Act - it is as serious as it sounds - I doubt she is going to a Martha Stewart level minimum security facility, also known as "Club Fed."

At her plea hearing, she stated, "All of these actions I did willfully, meaning I did them of my own free will." At least she owned up to her treason.

I guess the views of her mother's clouded judgment will be the end of this story. In her words, she hopes the public will see her daughter as a “good person... Reality Winner, I don’t want her name to go down as being someone in history who betrayed or hurt her country.”

Sorry, mom, that's exactly who she is and what she did. Look on the bright side - with time served, she'll likely be out by age 30.

By that time, The Intercept will have forgotten her and moved on to the next betrayal of the country.

No worries, though, I am sure there will be a big demand for ex-con waitresses who might still remember how to speak Farsi.

* You can download/read the entire leaked document (with NSA-requested redactions) here.

** Here is The Intercept's reportage of convicted felon Inmate Winner's plea deal. As you might expect, their view is a bit afield of mine. In my opinion, they threw her under the bus - a first year counterintelligence officer would have figured this out in about eight hours.

June 4, 2018

Requiescat in pace - Lt Gen Bernard Trainor, USMC (Ret)

Lieutenant General Bernard "Mick" Trainor, USMC (Ret)

It is with profound sadness that I acknowledge the passing of a legend and personal mentor.

Lieutenant General Bernard E. Trainor, United States Marine Corps (Retired), has died at age 89 of cancer. Time has taken its toll on yet another of America's finest warriors, those who we as a country send forward to fight our wars. The general was a combat veteran of the Korean War and two tours in Vietnam. I was honored to know Mick, as he was called by his friends, although I never called him anything but General.

There will be enough articles and recitations of his accomplishments that I will not review them here. I will merely recount my personal recollections of the general.

Shortly after returning from an overseas tour (was that vague enough?) in 1987, I was assigned to an office at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) responsible for operations and analysis of the various situations in the Middle East and South Asia. Our office was authorized to provide background information to the press - General Trainor at that time was a correspondent for the New York Times.*

In late 1987 and early 1988, there were several major issues facing the United States - Afghanistan and our support for the mujahidin, the Iran-Iraq War and our nascent support for the Saddam Husayn government, and the threat posed by the Libyan government under Mu'amar Qadhafi's acquisition of chemical weapons. It was a busy time. Our office routinely provided interviews to General Trainor.

American support for the Iraqis in the Iran-Iraq War had just begun when I met the general for the first time. He was by all accounts a legendary U.S. Marine three-star general now writing for the New York Times. I was intrigued by the thought of retired senior military officer now working as a member of the Fourth Estate. For many of us serving in the military, it seemed a bit incongruous.

At that time, our program to support the Iraqis through the provision of U.S. military intelligence was very close-hold. Few members of the government were aware of the Presidential-directed program to give the Iraqi military the information they needed to stave off an expected Iranian offensive that we believed would lead to the eventual fall of the Iraqi government.

I was one of the officers tasked with going to Baghdad and working with the Iraqi Directorate of Military Intelligence as part of that program. According to the Los Angeles Times, the program was known by the code names "Elephant Grass," "Druid Leader" and "Surf Fisher." I will neither confirm nor deny.

Imagine my surprise while on a flight from Paris to Baghdad running into General Trainor. Since the flight was headed for Baghdad, there was no sense in denying that I was headed for the Iraqi capital. I tap-danced around the obvious question, "What are you going to be doing in Baghdad?" with a "visiting our defense attache office at the embassy."

I am not sure he bought it, but extending professional courtesy from one military officer to another, he did not pursue it. I was glad he did. I did not want to lie or mislead him - but as a professional intelligence officer, I was prepared to do so.

Years later, I again worked with General Trainor, but in a different capacity - we were both on-air analysts for NBC News, which included the cable outlets CNBC and MSNBC. He was always a gracious analyst, even when we disagreed. My experiences in Iraq were markedly different, so it was reasonable that our analyses varied. In every instance, he was personable and willing to listen to a much junior officer.

I will mourn the passing of a fine officer. General Trainor - "Mick" - served his country well as a warrior, and later as a journalist and author.


* I have chosen to not acknowledge the obituary from the Times as I disagree with the political spin attached to it. I knew General Trainor and believe that he would not have not been pleased with it.

Peugeot pulls out of Iran - restored American sanctions begin to bite

Iran Khodro - Peugeot's joint venture partner in the Islamic Republic

The Reuters headline could not be more clear: "France's PSA suspends joint ventures in Iran to avoid U.S. sanctions." French carmaker PSA Group, Europe's second largest automaker, has begun the process of halting its investments in the Islamic Republic of Iran in response to the withdrawal of the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The JCPOA was, in my opinion, a flawed agreement that traded sanctions relief for Iran in return for a delay in its quest to acquire a nuclear weapons capability. Since U.S. participation in the JCPOA was mandated by an executive order of former President Barack Obama without Senate ratification (required for international treaties), it was subject to revocation by President Donald Trump via the same mechanism.

Inherent in that withdrawal from the JCPOA is the restoration of American sanctions on Iran. They have come incrementally, targeting both individuals and organizations in the country. What has real teeth, however, are the "secondary" sanctions, those sanctions against individuals and organizations who choose to ignore U.S. sanctions and continue to do business with Iran. This is what is driving (pardon the pun) Peugeot to reassess its investments in Iran - fear of American sanctions on the company.

The message is quite clear - companies can do business with the United States and its $18.5 trillion economy, or with the Islamic Republic, whose gross domestic product is about the same as the state of Maryland. Companies who ignore the sanctions also risk being cut off from the U.S. financial system, the kiss of death in international business.

Peugeot follows other major businesses in suspending dealings with Iran, including Total, Siemens, Allianz, Maersk, BP, and GE. The sanctions will also affect proposed commercial aircraft sales to Iran by Boeing and Airbus.

On a lighter and more personal note. Peugeot has a long history with the Iranian automobile industry. In 2007, Peugeot's partner in Iran, Iran Khodro, partnered with a Syrian government-owned company (it is a socialist state, after all) to produce a car in a joint Syrian-Iranian auto factory in the environs of Damascus.

The car was a direct copy of the Iranian-built Samand, which was itself a derivative of the Peugeot 405. Since the car was mainly built for the domestic Syrian market, the name chosen for the car was the Sham.

Syrian President Bashar al-Asad at the wheel of a Sham automobile

I wrote a short article about the joint venture when it was announced in 2007: What's in a name? - the Syrian-Iranian car company

Here is the article in its entirety.

A Syrian state-owned company and an Iranian public company are jointly manufacturing a car in Syria. The car is based on a Peugeot design.

Having lived in Syria for a few years, cars make an interesting issue. Prior to the mid-1990's, it was almost impossible to import a car as a private citizen. When restrictions were relaxed, cars imported into Syria carried a 100 percent duty. An indigenously produced car will certainly find a market and replace many of the antique cars kept running only by creative repairs by innovative Syrian mechanics.

Although it will not be a problem in Syria and it does not look like the car will be marketed in the English-speaking countries, they have decided to name the car with the old name for Syria and the Syrian dialect word for Damascus - the Sham automobile.

My Syrian driver's license

I hope the car is well-built and easily repaired, since accidents are quite common, and the mandatory state-owned insurance coverage is basically worthless. My wife was in a fender-bender - when I translated the police report, the other driver, who was clearly at fault claimed that the accident was the will of Allah. The police accepted that and it was the official cause of the accident.

The Sham - going on sale next month. From the people who brought you Hizballah.

May 25, 2018

Memorial Day 2018

Note: I wrote this in 2007 while a military analyst at NBC News. While the situation has changed, I think the sentiment is still true today.

Let us not forget that as I write this in 2018, there are still American forces in harm's way. From the mountains of Afghanistan in America's longest war, to the deserts of the Middle East where the remnants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria still pose a threat, to the hinterlands of sub-Saharan Africa, and on virtually every ocean on the planet, and the skies all over the world, every day American forces conduct a variety of military operations - often at great risk.

Just in these first few months of this year, we have lost troops in combat in Afghanistan, Syria, and Niger. In addition, we have lost fine young men and women in training accidents - their deaths are just as tragic and need to be honored and remembered.

These are our sons and daughters. Every one of them contributed to the cost paid to maintain the freedoms that define who we are as a nation.

'On behalf of a grateful nation'
Do not forget our fallen men and women
By Lt. Col. Rick Francona, U.S. Air Force (Retired)
Military analyst - NBC News

Lt. Gen. Ed Soriano, left, presents Jessica Hebert, sister of Spc. Justin Hebert who was killed in Kirkuk, Iraq, with an American flag during his military funeral (AP Photo/The Herald, Meggan Booker). Ed and I served together during and after Desert Storm - this must have been his toughest duty.

Memorial Day weekend – most people associate that with the start of the "summer driving season" or a chance to buy appliances on sale. The constant news coverage of still high gasoline prices tends to overshadow the real meaning of the holiday. It is not about driving or shopping – it is about remembering the men and women or our armed forces who died while in service to the country. It is important that we not forget that – after more than a decade, we are still at war and we still lose some our finest young men and women every week.

Yes, we are still at war. No one knows this more than the families of those who have fallen on battlefields far from home with names most of us cannot pronounce. Unlike most of the wars America has fought in the past, we are fighting with an all volunteer force – there has been no draft since 1973. Every one of the fallen volunteered to serve this country, and deserve a moment of remembrance. Less than one-half of one percent of Americans serve in uniform (in World War II, it was over 12 percent) at any one time.

In the draft era, a much higher percent of the population entered the service, creating a large pool of veterans. Veterans understand the unique demands of military service, the separation from loved ones, the dangers of combat. With far fewer veterans or a veteran in the family, community and government, it is easy to lose sight of the demands military service requires of our men and women in uniform – and to forget too quickly those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

Sometimes one could get the feeling that foreign countries – especially those that have been liberated by American forces in the past – pay more tribute to our fallen troops than we do. I will never forget standing in a church in rural France – not a fancy cathedral, not a tourist spot, nothing architecturally significant, just a small village church. I would not have paid much attention until I spotted a well-maintained corner with a small American flag and a plaque.

I walked over and read the simple but powerful words in French and English:

"In gratitude to the United States of America and in remembrance of her 56,681 sons that now and forever sleep in French soil."

A elderly parishioner sitting in a pew nearby saw me reading the inscription and asked if I was an American. I said that I was – she slowly rose, nodded at the memorial and said, "You are welcome in France."*

Over the years, well over 1.3 million American troops have died in military service. Each fallen warrior is afforded a military funeral - military funerals symbolize respect for the fallen and their families.

Anyone who has attended a military funeral will never forget it – the American flag draped on the coffin, an honor guard in full dress uniform, the crack of seven rifles firing three volleys as Taps is played on the bugle, the snap of the flag as it is folded into the familiar triangle of blue, the reverence of fellow warriors.

Before his final salute, the officer in charge presents that folded flag to, in most cases, a young widow. He makes that presentation "on behalf of a grateful nation."

At some point on this day, let us make sure that we do not forget our fallen men and women, and that we are in fact a grateful nation.

* France is our oldest ally, a military alliance going back to 1778. For more information, see my article, The Nice attack - standing with our first and oldest ally.

May 6, 2018

A Palestinian refugee pecking order - and a bad translation....

Note: This article is more of an informative piece rather than an analytical effort. A friend sent a tweet to me and asked if I had heard the obviously distressed remarks of a Palestinian "refugee" from the Yarmuk camp just south of Damascus. She asked me if this was real. Here is the video.

The tweet was posted by journalist CJ Werleman, a respected correspondent with over 78,000 followers on Twitter. I saw the caption, the alleged translation of the video, and was curious - these are not the words I would expect from a Palestinian refugee from the Yarmuk camp.

As a student of the Levantine (Palestinian) dialect of Arabic - that spoken in Syria, Lebanon, "Palestine," and parts of Jordan - I decided to give it a listen. Although I was trained in the Egyptian dialect, I have always been posted to countries where the Levantive dialect is spoken - it took me years to divest myself of an Egyptian accent.

I digress. The term "Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp" is somewhat of a misnomer. In my former role as the Air Attaché (photo) to the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, I spent a lot of time observing the situation in the environs of the capital, including Yarmuk. The word "camp" brings to mind images of tents and a population living in squalor.

The "Yarmuk Palestinian Refugee Camp" in Damascus is in reality just another section of the city. It consists of high-rise apartment buildings and a vibrant commercial center - hardly what one thinks of when the term "refugee camp" is used.

About refugees. There are various categories of Palestinian refugees, depending on the date a person or family departed their homes and applied to the United Nations (UN) for refugee status.

A “1948” stamp in either a national identity document, or a UN-issued Palestinian laissez passer which indicates that the bearer left the area which is now part of the State of Israel in 1948 is considered the gold standard among refugees, affording the holder the highest level of benefits.

These benefits are provided by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). Refugees who departed areas considered Palestinian at later dates still qualify for benefits, but not at the same level.

There are 560,000 Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA - 438,000 of these are in Syria (including 254,000 internally displaced).

Now to the video.

As I said, I was taken aback by the caption on the video. I read the posted caption: "Return me to the Jews. Even Israel is more merciful than Assad," says elderly Palestinian refugee in besieged Yarmuk.

I thought it was out of character and listened to the video. This is my translation, with the understandable caveat - his speech is difficult to understand, so I may have a few words wrong, but the meaning is easily understood.

“I am sick, I am starving, it’s the Jews – I have identification with 1948 (repeats several times), I am a refugee from 1948. I have children, I have four children and they’ve all been taken. It’s a shame, a shame.”

What the man says is entirely in keeping with reality in Syria, reality in Damascus, among the Palestinians. When I was there, I had a good friend - a Palestinian doctor - who explained the pecking order among refugees. The "1948" imprimatur is the top of the line in regards to benefits from UNRWA and hence the Syrian government. He is adamant that we know that he has a 1948 stamp on his identification documents.

That said, the issue here is the incorrect translation. Over 78,000 followers of the original poster saw the incorrect translation - it was retweeted over 275 times to who knows how many readers.

It is important that subscribers of social media be aware of the veracity of their sources. In this instance, the meaning was far from the truth.