January 15, 2020

Middle East oil pumping stations and military air bases

Tiyas Air Base, also known as T-4, located east of Hims, Syria© Google Earth

Over the last year, there have been a series of confrontations between the Israelis on one side, and the Iranians and their Syrian allies on the other, at an airbase in western Syria. The air base is located between the Syrian cities of Hims (Homs) and Tadmur (Palmyra). The base has been identified as both Tiyas, and as T-4, depending on the media outlet doing the reporting.

In the above image, the Arabic descriptions give both names. Which is correct? Actually, both are.

The name Tiyas comes from the name of the closest village. It is customary in the Syrian Air Force to name bases and installations for the nearest city, town, or village. However, the base is not just close to the village of Tiyas, it is also close to the location of an oil pumping station in Tiyas designated as T-4. The T-4 designator goes back to the early days of oil exploration and transport in Iraq as far back as the 1930s.

This map shows the oil pipelines used to move oil from the Kirkuk oilfields in Iraq to Mediterranean ports - Haifa, (now in Israel but then in British-mandated Palestine) and Tarablus al-Sham (Tripoli, in French-mandated Lebanon).


The K-prefix indicates pumping stations on the Kirkuk pipeline, which transported the oil from Kirkuk to a station near the city of al-Hadithah. At Hadithah, the oil was routed into the Tripoli triple pipeline or the Haifa double pipeline. Pumping stations on the Tripoli pipeline are designated with a T prefix, while the Haifa pipeline stations are designated with an H prefix.

Not only were the pipelines accessible by the series of roads paralleling the lines, the Iraq Petroleum Company constructed private airstrips to move men, supplies, parts, etc. between stations and facilities. Many of the airstrips still exist in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan. Many of them were converted into civil airports, some into military air bases, and some into shared civil/military facilities. K-1, K-3, T-3, T-4, H-2, H-3, H-5 all were/are major air bases. The current T-4 air base is about four miles west of the original Iraq Petroleum Company airstrip.

Tiyas was the location of the fourth pumping station on the al-Hadithah-Tripoli pipeline. There are three such stations in Syria, all in use today. T-2 is located just inside the Syrian border near the city of Albu Kamal, the site of a large Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) base populated by both IRGC personnel as well as Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi'a militia groups.

The station at T-3 is now the shared military air base and civilian airport in the city of Tadmur (also known as Palmyra, site of ancient Aramean, Arabic, and Roman ruins).

The air base at T-4 is used by not only the Syrian Air Force, but by Russian forces in Syria, and elements of the IRGC. Having been there a few times, I can vouch for the description as being "in the middle of nowhere."



Note: Given the political situation following the 1948 creation of Israel, and later political turmoil in both Syria and Lebanon, the Iraqis constructed an alternate pipeline from al-Hadithah to Faysh Khabur on the Turkish border, then west to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. It is still in use today.







January 5, 2020

Fallout from the killing of Qods Force commander Qasem Soleimani

Iran-backed militia members outside US Embassy in Baghdad
Note red boxes contain names of Kata'ib al-Imam 'Ali (left) and Kata'ib Hizballah (right)

These are my responses to an interview request from Eurasia Diary. I will post a link to the actual article once it is published.


Q. Colonel Francona, attacks organized by radical Shi’a groups on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad protesting U.S. airstrikes against Iran-backed militia Kata’ib Hizballah on the last day of 2019. As a result, the U.S. Secretary of Defense ordered the deployment of additional troops to the region. An American drone strike killed Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force commander Qasem Soleimani. Do you think that such actions could ignite a war between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran, in Iraq, or elsewhere in the region?

A. I have no doubt there will be reactions, both by Iraqi Shi’a groups/militias, and possibly even the Iranians directly. While in the past, we have seen the Iranians conducting their operations in the region via their Iraqi, Lebanese, even Afghan and Pakistani proxies, the U.S. killing of Qasem Soleimani may cause a direct Iranian response on an American target. I suspect it will be against an American target in the region, possibly the Persian Gulf.

A quick word on the killing of Soleimani. There has been speculation in some media that the intelligence used to support the decision to kill Soleimani and Kata’ib Hizballah leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was not as definitive as portrayed by U.S. Administration officials.

My response is that there has been sufficient cause for years to eliminate Soleimani. It was Soleimani who was behind proxy Iraqi Shi’a militias which caused the death of over 600 American troops, and the wounding of hundreds more. That alone, to me, is enough reason to kill him. Killing al-Muhandis? A bonus.

It appears that Iran’s initial response, other than the almost elevation of Soleimani to sainthood in the Shi’a- controlled media in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, has been a non-binding resolution in the Iraqi majlis an-nuwab (Council of Representatives, or Parliament) to expel “foreign” forces from the country.

Note that this was what we in the United States would call a “party line” vote – the Shi’a representatives, to no one’s surprise, overwhelming followed Tehran’s urging to demand the removal of coalition – but aimed at the United States – forces from the country. I suspect this was for domestic consumption and an attempt by Shi’a lawmakers to appease their masters in Tehran.

The Iraqi majlis should be careful what they wish for. There is little support in the United States for continued American presence in Iraq. Most Americans understand the need to continue the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but are weary of the actions of the Iranians in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, etc.

I have even heard what I believe is a short-sighted claim that since we (the United States) no longer are dependent on any foreign oil or gas, we should not be putting our troops at risk in the Middle East.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the calls for the removal of American and coalition forces becomes actual legislation in Iraq – I don’t think it will but let’s examine that possibility. Are the Iraqis – even with their Iranian masters’ support – capable of defeating the remaining ISIS presence in the country? A look at Iraqi operations would tell you it’s not likely. The Iraqis still rely heavily on U.S. intelligence and airstrikes to take the fight to ISIS.

In the unlikely event there is actual legislation to expel U.S. forces, it will be 2011 all over again.


Q. About 2011, you have repeatedly said that it was major mistake for the U.S. to leave Iraq in 2011, in essence leaving it to Iran. Do you still believe this?

A. I do. I had to laugh when I read the comments of one of the Shi’a legislators today – it may have even been the prime minister, who is essentially an Iranian puppet. He said (and this is my interpretation of his remarks in Arabic) that there were no foreign forces in Iraq from 2011 to 2014, and that they did just fine.

Seriously? Let’s remember what actually happened. With no residual U.S. troops in the country (thanks to the decision of President Obama to not push for a new Status of Forces Agreement), the Shi’a proved themselves incapable of resisting the bribery, graft, and corruption that effectively hollowed out the Iraqi Army, a once-proud army that collapsed in the face of an inferior ISIS force.

Are the Iranians going to be able to replicate the capabilities of the anti-ISIS coalition? I doubt it – the Iranians are not in Iraq for the Iraqis, they are in it for the Iranians. As the self-appointed guardians and leaders of all things Shi’a, the Iranians believe they are destined to be the key power broker in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and as much of Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and even Azerbaijan as they can.


Q. After the killing of Soleimani, what are the next steps likely to be taken by Washington in Iraq?

A. Good question. I hope that after the initial anger wears off, cooler heads will prevail and the two sides can continue to work towards the elimination of ISIS, and the eventual development of Iraq as secular republic.

Do I think those things will happen? Yes and no. On one hand, the Iraqis will realize that to defeat ISIS completely, they need U.S. support.

On the other hand, the killing of Soleimani was a serious and visceral blow to the pro-Iranian groups – the Shi’a proxies if you will – which rely on Tehran for leadership and funding, by what they believe is “the Great Satan” in Iranian parlance. They regard this as just the latest attack on the Islamic Republic by the United States.

We’ve been tap-dancing around a major confrontation between the United States and Iran since 1979. This event may bring the animosity between the two governments to a head. If there is a lethal Iranian attack on an American facility, I think we have to assume that there will be an American response – I believe there will have to be. Anyone who is watching the region cannot help but notice the buildup of American military capabilities. The Iranians should be very circumspect in their next moves.

One last comment – unless something changes in Iraq, it will continue to be a failed state. The government and its institutions do not serve the interests of the Iraqi people. I think the Iraqi people are beginning to realize that they are in effect a vassal state of Iran. The recent spate of protests against Iranian influence indicate that awakening.