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.

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* 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.