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.