February 13, 2023

Interesting Syrian Air Force Flight Activity

Syrian Air Force IL-76 YK-ATA

The Syrian Air Force (SYAF), officially the Syrian Arab Air Force, operates three Ilyushin IL-76T (NATO: Candid) heavy lift transport aircraft: YK-ATA, YK-ATB, and YK-ATD (shown top to bottom). A fourth aircraft (YK-ATC) has not been operational for almost 30 years.

These are older photos – all three aircraft are in need of depot-level maintenance, upgrade, and overhaul. This is done at at the Ilyushin facility in Ramenskoye, Russia. Based on publicly available flight tracking information, YK-ATD was overhauled in 2016, YK-ATB in 2018, and YK-ATA in 2019. 

I suspect that YK-ATD is in dire need of major maintenance - it has not flown since November 24, 2022, and then only for a short domestic flight. It appears to have become what we in the U.S. Air Force refer to as a “hangar queen.”

Do not let the colorful livery of SYRIANAIR (Syrian Airlines) fool you – I have flown on both SYRIANAIR and with the SYAF - they’re different. One is a second-tier Middle East airline with great passenger service, and the other is a third-rate air force transport operation that worried me. I have flown on SYAF Antonov AN-24 (NATO: Coke), Tupolev TU-134 (NATO: Crusty), and Yakovlev YAK-40 (NATO: Codling) aircraft – the condition of the YAK-40 and AN-24 was far below U.S. Air Force standards.

The three IL-76 aircraft are actually assigned to the 585th Transport Squadron of the Syrian Air Force 29th Air Transport Brigade, based at Damascus International Airport. 

The military ramp at the airport is southwest of the civilian terminal. I have been on the 29th Brigade ramp a few times to catch attaché flights on the extremely rare occasions when the Syrians included American officers in official attaché trips.

These transports were built in 1980 (YK-ATA and YK-ATB) and 1981 (YK-ATD) – I remember them in the original IL-76MD (military) configuration, complete with tail guns. In the early 2000s, all were converted to their current IL-76T configuration.

Over the past few years, the Syrian IL-76’s made almost daily resupply flights to the regime-controlled enclave of al-Qamishly in northeast Syria, and almost daily flights to Mehrabad airport in Tehran, Iran. Once in a while, one of the aircraft would fly to/from Moscow. 

That pattern has changed a bit.

I have noticed a massive increase of SYAF IL-76 flights between Damascus International Airport (read that as 29th Air Brigade) and Benghazi/Beninah International Airport (coincidentally also an air base at which SYAF fighter pilots were assigned to support Mu’amar al-Qadhafi in the 1970s). It is in the area of Libya controlled by Field Marshal Khalifah Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA). 

Syrian media reported that Haftar’s armed forces have airlifted relief supplies to victims of the February 6 earthquakes that have devastated part of northern Syria. Some of that aid was delivered by LNA aircraft to the Russian-leased Humaymim air base south of Latakia.

Looking over publicly available flight records for the past three months, an interesting international flight pattern emerges. 

YK-ATA has flown 13 round-trip flights between Damascus, Syria and Benghazi, Libya, which seems to be its primary route. It did fly to Moscow three times, Beirut once, and once to, for whatever reason, Oral in northwestern Kazakhstan.

YK-ATB flew seven round-trip flights between Damascus, Syria and Benghazi, Libya. It also flew to Tehran/Mehrabad airport, using a ramp dedicated solely to the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), four times. Additionally, it was used at least six times for the routine domestic flight from Damascus to al-Qamishly.

In the last 90 days for the Syrian Air Force, there have been at least:

20 round trip flights to Benghazi, Libya (most before the earthquake)
4 round trip flights to Tehran/Mehrabad, Iran
3 round trip flights to Moscow/Vnukovo, Russia
1 round trip flight to Beirut, Lebanon
1 round trip flight to Oral, Kazakhstan

I am puzzled by the number of flights to Libya, specifically to the area controlled by Khalifah Haftar. If anyone has any insight into the relationship between Syrian President Bashar al-Asad and Khalifah Haftar, please inform me.

I will note that after the earthquakes that created catastrophic damage in northern Syria, all return flights from Benghazi to Syria stopped first in Latakia, and in at least one case in Aleppo, both areas that have suffered catastrophic earthquake damage. I have to assume that these aircraft were transporting relief supplies from Benghazi.

My question: What were the Syrian IL-76 aircraft moving between Damascus and Benghazi before the earthquake?

January 30, 2023

Miniseries Review: "Fauda - Season 4" (Netflix 2023)


Fauda (the Arabic word for chaos) Season 4 is now available in the United States, much to the delight of fans of the series – I’m one. The first three seasons* were all “must see,” and this season again is in that category. I will try to avoid spoilers in my review.

This season’s action shifts to the international stage with operational activities in Belgium, Syria, and Lebanon as well as the usual venues of Israel and the West Bank. The antagonists of this season’s operations are also international – Lebanese Hizballah.

The former chief of the IDF special operations unit, Captain Gabi Ayoub, is running an intelligence source inside Hizballah via the Mossad station in Brussels. The source reports that Hizballah is planning a large operation in Israel and the West Bank. This is unprecedented for Hizballah – normally they strike Israeli targets from their home territory in Lebanon. Operating within the Palestinian Authority is an escalation and exactly what Israel does not want – cooperation between Hizballah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Gabi and the main character Doron – now brought back out of retirement – travel to Brussels to make contact with the asset. As with many intelligence assets, at times the case officer has to do a bit of “hand-holding” and reassuring. Suffice it to say that once the two get to Brussels, things go downhill quickly.  The team follows in support.

The asset Gabi is running – Omar Tawalbe – turns out to be the brother of an Israeli Arab – a female Israeli police officer. Lucy Ayoub’s performance as Maya Binyamin (née Tawalbe) is stellar.

As I have advised in the past three seasons, pay attention to the languages being spoken. For the most part, if the characters’ voices are in English, what you are listening to is Hebrew dubbed into English. When the characters are speaking Arabic, the audio is played in Arabic and subtitled. The Arabic subtitles are an interpretation rather than a literal translation, and are generally well done.

I especially enjoyed this season’s Arabic dialog as the characters not only were speaking the Palestinian Levantine dialect, but also the Lebanese Levantine dialect, depending on the venue of the action. For the most part, the Arabic was excellent, although at times a bit of an Israeli accent was evident. This is important since the special operations team often impersonates Arabs. If you are going to do that, your accent has to be perfect.

There are letters and sounds in Hebrew that do not exist in Arabic, and vice versa. During one of my liaison tours with an Arab intelligence service, the officers explained that when they create security challenges and responses (the “password”), they always chose words that are difficult for native Hebrew speakers to vocalize correctly.

For example, Hebrew-speakers have problems with the Arabic aspirated HAH (what we Arabic linguists sometimes refer to as the “hard H”). Hebrew speakers tend to say the Arabic KHAH – Hizballah normally sounds like Khizballah, which raises a flag that the subject is not a native Arabic speaker.

I will complement one of the actors, Itzik Cohen (playing Captain Ayoub), on his vocalization of Arabic. Cohen does not speak Arabic, and is coached on his lines before each scene. It sounds native to me. In episode 1 (minute 26:45), Cohen/Ayoub breaks into an Arabic song (Habibi ya ‘ayni – My love, my eyes) at a wedding, and it is well done.

Season 4 is a definite must watch. As I have commented in the past, enjoying good fiction requires the literary concept of “suspension of disbelief.” In other words, even though you know that some of the things that happen in a book, movie, or show range from “that’s a stretch” to “that’s not possible,” you suspend your disbelief and enjoy the story. 

While there was quite a bit of the suspension of disbelief required in this season, especially the scenes in Syria and Lebanon, it was never to the level that I was tempted to stop watching – in fact, I couldn’t stop watching.

Watch it on Netflix.


*My reviews of the previous seasons:

Season One

Season Two

Season Three

January 7, 2023

Miniseries Review: "Rise of Empires: Ottoman – Mehmed vs Vlad" (Netflix - 2022)


The second season* of this docudrama about the Ottoman Empire focuses on the rivalry/enmity between Sultan Mehmed II** and Vlad III Dracula (also known as Vlad the Impaler), the Voivode of Wallachia, a vassal state under the Ottomans.

The two leaders had a complicated relationship spanning two decades. In 1442, when Vlad was only 12, he and younger brother Radu were sent to the court of Ottoman Sultan Murad II (Mehmed’s father and predecessor) as collateral to assure the sultan that their father – Vlad II, then Voivode – would support Ottoman policies. It was here that Vlad learned to speak fluent Turkish and studied Ottoman culture, including its military strategies and tactics. It was also the time in which he was exposed to Mehmed, who was just two years his junior.

Vlad was released in 1448 after the assassination of his father and elder brother. Although he was able to replace his father, his reign lasted only two month. It was not until 1452 that he was able to reclaim the voivodate.

At this time, Wallachia was required to pay tribute to the Sultan. In return, the Ottomans stayed out of Wallachia’s internal affairs. It was a beneficial arrangement for both sides – Vlad had a throne, and Wallachia served as a buffer to the Kingdom of Hungary, which Mehmed, who had acceded to the sultanate after the death of Murad II, regarded as a threat.

After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the victorious 21-year old Mehmed set his sights on expanding the Empire further into Europe.

Mehmed continued his conquests in Anatolia with its reunification and in Southeast Europe as far west as Bosnia. During this time, Vlad paid the tribute and remained on the Wallachian throne.

In 1459, Vlad stopped paying the tribute to the Sultan, considering a possible alliance with Hungary. Mehmed sent two envoys to remind Vlad of his obligations and to collect the tribute. Vlad ordered them to be impaled — his preferred method of execution. 

This act of diplomatic perfidy was too much for Mehmed – he mobilized an army of as many as 150,000 troops, including the well-disciplined and highly-trained Janissaries,*** to subdue Wallachia and remove Vlad from the throne.

Without spoiling the outcome of the struggle between Mehmed and Vlad, the conflict reached its zenith during the battle for the Wallachian capital city of Târgoviște in 1462.

After the battle, Vlad left a field filled with thousands of impaled victims as a deterrent to the Ottoman forces. He remains a Romanian folk hero for his fight against the far superior Ottoman forces.

I recommend it, but suggest keeping your internet search engine of choice handy to clarify things that might not be well-known to people who do not have a background in Middle East or Central European history. I needed it as well, since I normally begin my presentations about the Middle East with the defeat of the Ottomans in World War One and the breakup of the empire shortly thereafter.

Watch it on Netflix.


* The first season of this series dealt with Mehmed’s successful conquest of the Eastern Roman Empire capital of Constantinople in 1453, after which it was renamed Istanbul. I reviewed the first season, and highly recommend it.

** Mehmed is the Turkish rendition of Muhammad. His full title was Fatih Sultan Mehmed II (Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror).

*** The Janissary corps was originally manned by Christian youths taken from the Balkan provinces, converted to Islam, and drafted into Ottoman service. Subject to strict rules, including celibacy, the Janissaries were known particularly for their archery, but by the 16th century had also acquired rudimentary firearms.

January 4, 2023

Movie Review: The Swimmers (Netflix - 2022)


Sometimes you need a story that reminds you of the power and resilience of the human spirit. This movie does that in spades.

By August of 2015, the civil war in Syria had been going on for over four years. Having lived in Syria and covering much of the civil was as a military analyst for CNN, this was of great interest.

The violence was non-stop; irreplaceable antiquities were destroyed as multiple factions began killing each other; a flood of refugees* created a humanitarian disaster and forever changed the character of numerous European cities; our nominal Turkish NATO allies strained the unity of the alliance with senseless interventions focused not on the new threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but on a generated/perceived threat from the Kurds in northern Syria while turning a blind eye to their almost open borders allowing jihadi terrorists from the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe to join ISIS in Syria; and American air support of the only group – Kurds – willing to take on ISIS.

The situation was so chaotic that a month later, the Russians deployed troops to bolster – and save – the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, their puppet in Damascus. The Russian intervention was not driven by love for Bashar al-Asad, but to guarantee continued access to a naval base on the Syrian Mediterranean coast at Tartus, and an air base just south of the port city of Latakia.

It was against this backdrop that two teenage sisters, Yusra and Sarah Mardini, decided that the violence in their Damascus suburb of Darayya had gotten so bad that they would try to leave Syria and seek refuge in Europe.

I am very familiar with the Darayya area. When I was posted as the air attaché at the American embassy in Damascus, I lived a mere half of a mile from the area. It is located on the edge of a Syrian air force base which was often the venue of sensitive activities. I took note – the role of an attaché is to observe and report.

Darayya saw massive destruction as the city was initially controlled by opposition groups. Given the sensitive location near the al-Mazzah air base, the regime decided to commit whatever force was necessary to bring it back under control. There was substantial damage to the city, and there were numerous civilian casualties in what became known as the “Darayya massacre.”

These two sisters are not just any teenagers. Both of the girls, especially the younger Yusra, were world class competitive swimmers, and had competed internationally.  Yusra’s goal was to swim in the Olympics. Training at that level during the ongoing civil was impossible, despite being trained by their father, a champion swimmer himself.

I did note that there is almost no mention of the Bashar al-Asad regime in the movie. I am not surprised - the family appears to be proud Syrians, and, the key here, Christian. During the civil war, most Christians sided with the government, fearing the backlash if a more Islamist regime replaced the secular Ba'ath party regime.

I do not want to spoil the flow of the movie. It is an incredible story of the Mardini sisters who finally realized their dreams. I am sure some of it is dramatized, but considering what these girls went through, I can live with it.

Yusra has become a United Nations goodwill ambassador, and Sarah became a volunteer assisting refugees in 2016 on the Greek island of Lesbos, where they arrived in Europe in 2015. Although she was arrested for her activities, she was allowed to post bond and leave Greece. Note to Sarah: Don’t go back.

Sarah and Yusra Mardini
Sarah and Yusra Mardini

When the movie was released at the Toronto Film Festival, the audience gave a four-minute standing ovation for the two sisters and the two Lebanese actresses (Manal and Nathalie Issa). Well deserved, in my opinion.

It’s a good movie and a great story - watch it on Netflix.


* I think the correct term is refugee. These people are not going back to Syria. Why would they?


September 17, 2022

Syrian "Voice of the Capital" reporting on recent Israeli strikes

(Note: This is my translation of an article from Syrian "Voice of the Capital")

Israeli air raids destroy early warning and air defense systems in the environs of Damascus

17 September 2022

Military sources close to the Syrian government discovered damage to radar and air defense systems as the result of the latest Israeli raids in the environs of Damascus.

Voice of the Capital sources said the surface-to-surface missiles fired from the Golan Heights struck a Buk-M air defense system and an early warning radar located on one of the hills around the town of al-Sabinah south of Damascus.

The source added that the Israeli missiles also hit an air defense system belonging to the 75th Brigade on a mountain in the village of Marnah in the al-Kiswah district - the 75th Brigade belongs to the 1st Division of the [Syrian] Army.

The sources also confirmed that 15 were killed or wounded during the direct targeting of the radar and air defense bases south of the city of Damascus.

The area also saw heavy movement of ambulances after the bombing to transport the dead and wounded to nearby hospitals.

Voice of the Capital correspondents observed intense military movement by the Syrian army and Iranian militias during the bombing.

Israeli aircraft launched air raids targeting several points in the environs of Damascus with various munitions.

The Syrian government, via its military media, acknowledged the killing of five air defense troops, while saying that the air defenses engaged most of the Israeli missiles which targeted the environs of al-Kiswah and Damascus International Airport.

September 8, 2022

Movie Review: The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem (Netflix – 2022)

If you are interested in Middle East history and culture, this series is for you.

It combines an interesting fictional story woven around a Sephardim Jewish family with an accurate portrayal of the tumultuous events in Jerusalem during the years between the two world wars. It spans the period from the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in 1917, through most of the period of the British Mandate – including the Arab-Jewish conflicts and terrorism against each other as well as against the British occupation forces. The first season (in two parts totaling 20 episodes) ends in 1942. The series has been renewed for a second season, which will be screened towards the end of 2022.

In addition to an accurate portrayal of historic events, it also addresses the struggle between Oriental and European Jews, at that time referred to as Sephardic and Ashkenazi, respectively. Today, the Sephardim are identified as those whose roots were in the Iberian Peninsula and parts of North Africa, and those from other areas in the Middle East and Western Asia are referred to a Mizrahi Jews. There are still vestiges of perceived class distinctions between the Ashkenazim on one hand and the Sephardim and Mizrahim on the other.

As with many cultures in the region in this time frame, marriages were often arranged, as in the family around which this story revolves. It also addresses other social mores at the time, dealing with infidelity, adultery, prostitution, women’s jobs, single motherhood, loan sharking, divorce – it runs the gamut.

I recommend the series – it is truly entertaining – with the following caveats.

- The story line runs on two time lines, about a decade apart. Although the year is usually displayed when the timeline switches, it can be a bit confusing. You have to remember at times that you already know things that have not happened yet.


 - Use subtitles. The original soundtrack is in Hebrew, which is dubbed into English. When the characters speak English, it can be heavily accented (except for the British troops, of course). There is also some Arabic (Lebanese and Palestinian dialect) and some Ladino, the language of the Sephardic Jews who originate in Spain and which is based on Spanish. In my opinion, Ladino is to Spanish as Yiddish is to German.

- You will hear references to several Jewish organizations:

-- Haganah, Hebrew for “defense,” was a Zionist military organization in Palestine from 1920 to 1948. Organized to combat the revolts of Palestinian Arabs against the increasing Jewish immigration and settlement of Palestine, it is the forerunner of what is now the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).  

-- ETZEL is a Hebrew acronym for Irgun Tzvai Le'umi, “National Military Organization,” a Jewish underground group established in what is now Israel during the period of the British Mandate, which conducted terrorist attacks against both Arabs and British troops. In 1946, members of the group (including future Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin) would bomb the British headquarters in the King David Hotel, killing 91 (including 15 Jews) and injuring 45, mostly innocent civilians outside the hotel. It will be interesting to see how that event is portrayed in the next season.

-- Histadrut (General Organization of Workers) was a socialist organization founded in December 1920 in Haifa to look out for the interests of Jewish workers. It became one of the most powerful institutions in the mandatory area and remains so today.

Watch it on Netflix.

April 12, 2022

Movie Review: All the Old Knives (Amazon – 2022)


This movie focuses on a CIA investigation into a failed intelligence operation that takes place in Vienna, Austria eight years earlier. The movie is set in 2020, with the botched operation in 2012. The film uses flashbacks mixed in with the contemporary story, and with a few exceptions, flows well.


The movie is inspired by actual events. Any of us who have been subjected to either Department of Defense or Central Intelligence Agency internal investigations of botched intelligence operations – I have been subjected to both – will easily identify with the “witch hunt” mentality present in the movie.


As always, I will try not to reveal things that will spoil your enjoyment of the film, which actually requires very little suspension of disbelief. The events depicted in the movie actually happened (for the most part).


Most of the action takes place in city of Vienna, particularly at the CIA station in the U.S. Embassy there. I have spent a lot of time in Vienna (wife’s family), and for the most part, the scenes matched the script, with one glaring exception – the Gloriette was badly mismatched.


The other venue in the movie, which was beautifully videographed, is the Monterey Peninsula - specifically Carmel-by-the-Sea and Pacific Grove, as well as the stunning vistas of California Highway 1 along the Monterey County coast. To those of us who spent time learning foreign languages at the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey, it was a trip down memory lane. My wife and I liked it so much, we were married there, and vacation there to this day.


The plot: A Turkish passenger jet is hijacked by Islamist terrorists at the airport in Vienna. The CIA station rallies to gather information on who perpetrated the crime, and any possible solutions.


Based on an interrogation, an Agency source, now dead – one assumes he died under “enhanced interrogation” (how inconvenient)– claimed that there was a leak (a “mole” in the parlance) from inside the Vienna station that led to the debacle that ensues. I am being vague here so as to not reveal too much.


Eight years later (now 2020), “Langley” – “Agency-speak” for CIA headquarters – wants to know what went wrong, or more correctly, if there was a leak at Vienna Station and who the mole was. One of the case officers from that botched operation – well-played by Chris Pine – is assigned to re-investigate the station’s actions and ultimately discover the mole.


Of course, there are the unnecessary gratuitous sex scenes and too many personal aspects to the story. Enjoy them – the actors are attractive – and the storylines are not that farfetched.


The plot line takes numerous twists and keeps you guessing until the end – well done. Enjoy trying to figure out who the mole was.


The four main characters were all played well:

·       Chris Pine as Henry Pelham

·       Thandiwe Newton as Celia Harrison

·       Laurence Fishburne as Vick Wallinger

·       Jonathan Pryce as Bill Compton


Bottom line: Enjoyable film - watch it, immerse yourself in the plot’s twists and turns, and put a bit of money on who you think it is.


You can watch it on Amazon.

Footnote: I was involved in the National Security Agency coverage of the hijacking of a 1984 Kuwaiti Airways flight to Tehran, Iran, and listened live to the murder of an American diplomat. It still haunts me.


March 23, 2022

Movie Review: The Operative (Yuval Adler, 2019)

The Operative is an adaptation of the novel The English Teacher by Yiftach Reicher-Atir. Reicher-Atir is a former Israeli army commando (he led part of the force during the 1976 raid on Entebbe) and commander of the army’s special operations directorate.


Some of the reviews label the author as a former intelligence officer, however, given his long career as a special operations soldier, I believe he has had exposure to many intelligence operations, but is not an intelligence officer himself. That would explain some of the tradecraft missteps in the film.


The movie stars Diane Kruger, Martin Freeman, and Cas Anvar. I think Kruger and Anvar were quite credible in their roles. Freeman, a skilled actor with a long list of credits, was badly miscast in this role as a British Jew and Mossad case officer. Watching him in that role required quite a bit of suspension of disbelief. (That is what fiction requires – that you are able to enjoy the story even though you know it is not only untrue but sometimes unbelievable.)


The film revolves around a Mossad operation to place an operative (Kruger) in Tehran to meet an Iranian electronics dealer (Farhad, played by Anvar), with the goal to eventually recruit him. I’ll not spoil the experience for you if you choose to watch it.


Most of the tradecraft is fine, if a bit elementary. The missteps are quite obvious to the trained eye, however. The use of two legends simultaneously is dangerous if not impossible, the clumsy use of easily detectable electronic communications, and the strange side operation to smuggle explosives into Iran via Turkey – puzzling at best, unnecessary at worst.


I still wonder how Rachel (Kruger’s character) was supposed to make initial contact with her target, but I guess I will have to find the book and read it – it has recently been translated into English.


Bottom line: for all its minor flaws, it’s still a good story. It shows a side of the intelligence business not often seen – the toll of operational life on the people who do this for a living. It can be extremely stressful. Trust me.


Watch it on Netflix.

February 12, 2022

Movie Review: Death on the Nile (20th Century, 2022)


There have been three movie adaptations of Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel Death on the Nile. The first was in 1978 starring Peter Ustinov as the legendary Hercule Poirot, followed by the gold standard version starring the quintessential Poirot portrayed by David Suchet in 2004. 

In 2022, we have Kenneth Branagh attempting to salvage his disastrous portrayal of the Belgian sleuth in his adaptation and remake of Murder on the Orient Express. When I saw the publicity surrounding the release of his adaptation of the novel, I was skeptical. 


So when I saw that Branagh remade one of my favorite movies, I was skeptical – given his past, I was not in the mood to give him the benefit of the doubt. Then, I thought, “Okay, I have personally been to all of the venues of this novel – let’s see how he interprets this.”


Flashback: In 1987, I was in war-torn southern Iraq (don’t ask) driving north of al-Basrah when I can across an old airfield. There was a vintage tri-motor aircraft parked on the side of the hangar bay and I thought to myself, “This is an Agatha Christie moment.” It haunts me to this day.


Years later, I was in Egypt (again, don’t ask), and took the opportunity to visit the historical sites in Aswan and Abu Simbel. Agatha Christie wrote her novel in 1937 while staying at the First Cataract hotel in Aswan. I stayed at the same hotel, which by then had become the Pullman Hotel, and visited Philae Island as seen in the movie – what great venues. I understand these were recreated in a movie studio in England, but the producers did an excellent job. (See my photos of Aswan from the late-1990s)


 To the critics that will claim that the scenes what is purported to be Abu Simbel are not accurate, remember that prior to the construction of the Aswan High Dam in 1960, these archeological treasures were rescued from the resultant rise of the water level and the creation of Lake Nasser.


What most of us have visited are the relocated actual monuments. (See my photos of Abu Simbul from the late 1990’s)

I watched the Branagh version on an XD screen, then came home and watched the 2004 David Suchet version to make a comparison. Branagh in Murder on the Orient Express and this adaptation of Murder on the Nile was like night and day – Branagh has completely changed his portrayal of Hercule Poirot from a rigid automaton to an actual likeable character with flaws and personal introspections.


I like the updating of a 1937 period novel to the 21st Century – the adaptation is well done, with maybe the exception of the gay couple (no spoiler alert here). It works well for a story told in the 1920s.


Go see it – immerse yourself in the minimal suspension of disbelief. Kenneth Branagh is totally believable as Hercule Poirot. He may not be the quintessential Poirot as portrayed by David Suchet, but it’s a fast-moving and enjoyable two hours.


January 23, 2022

Movie Review: Munich – The Edge of War (Netflix, 2021)


Yes, I know this is not about the Middle East. I am reviewing this because of the intelligence aspects of the movie.


As with all good fiction, the reader must exercise what authors refer to as “the suspension of disbelief” - avoidance of critical thinking or logic in examining something unlikely or impossible in reality. Watch it, and go along with it for the sake of enjoyment. This movie does a fair job in blurring that line between belief and disbelief, although there are a few scenes of various meetings that are pretty far-fetched.


The movie, an adaptation of British author Robert Harris’s novel Munich, is set in 1938 as Adolph Hitler threatens to seize the Sudetenland portion of Czechoslovakia, claiming it to be rightfully German territory. Of course, as anyone remotely familiar with modern history knows, there were negotiations between British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Hitler. Yes, the Italians and French were there as well, but this was basically London versus Berlin. This is where “appeasement diplomacy” began.


The talks took place in Munich. The two lead characters who walk us through these events turn out to be a British civil servant (Hugh Legat) and a German diplomat (Paul von Hartmann), both of whom attended Oxford for a period of two years in the early 1930’s, and struck up a friendship.


At some point in the preparations for the talks, Legat is summoned to a meeting with a colonel from MI-6 (British Military Intelligence, now the Secret Intelligence Service, although the MI-6 moniker is still heard). At that meeting, a plan is set in motion that utilizes the untrained Legat as an intelligence operative.


I will leave the political and other aspects of the movie to others, and don’t want to provide any more spoilers that I may have inadvertently done. I will focus on the intelligence aspects of the movie.


First, dispatching a completely untrained civil servant on a dangerous intelligence operation into "unfriendly" territory without any preparations whatsoever is a recipe for disaster. At the very minimum, Legat should have been given some rudimentary counterintelligence training – basic do’s and don’t, some simple surveillance detection concepts (there was no time for real training), some sort of concealment device for documents, a communications plan, and emergency/distress signals. He got none of that.


It gets worse – he is tasked by the MI-6 colonel to carry out this operation without notifying his superiors. Not a good idea, when you are working at the level of the prime minister and his most senior adviser Sir Horace Wilson. What might be sound operational procedure could very appear to be to working at odds with your own government.  At least the colonel provided some clandestine support, but I’ll stop there.


It becomes obvious that there has been an MI-6 penetration of the German government at the highest levels – that’s a real intelligence success. I suspect there was a "walk-in" to the defense attache office at the British Embassy, but that's just speculation. It rarely gets any better than what we deduce is happening, but in this case, it could have been just that. Unfortunately, they never take it to the next level.


In any operation, the overriding concern is collection of the intelligence. I remember having that drilled into me at intelligence operations school – get the intelligence, get the intelligence, get the intelligence. That’s why you are there, that’s why we spend the money, that’s why we take the risks. You’ll see that Legat never got that admonition.


The other overriding concern is the security and safety of your asset. Both of the main characters, mostly through no fault of their own, repeatedly put each other at risk. It’s so obvious, there is no need to belabor it.


One more comment about the historical and political aspect of the movie. At the end, in what appears to be an attempt to rehabilitate Neville Chamberlain and his legacy as the prime minister who appeased Hitler. The producers put forth the supposition that Chamberlain knew Hitler would not be satisfied, but sacrificed the Sudetenland to buy time to allow the Allies (which at that time did not include the United States) to prepare for inevitable war. Interesting, but not accurate.


BOTTOM LINE: As far as historical fiction goes, it takes a lot of liberties, but with enough suspension of disbelief, it’s a good story. It’s not The Hunt for Red October, but it will keep you entertained.


It should also provide a badly-needed reminder that appeasement does not work.

Netflix: https://www.netflix.com/watch/81144852