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.