How can we be certain, the intelligence game?

How can we be certain, the intelligence game?

How can we be certain, the intelligence game?

In the run-up to the action in the early hours of Sat 14thApril to bomb very specific targets in Syria to send a clear message, not just to Bashar Al-Assad but the world, that the use of chemical weapons is completely unacceptable, I have noted with sadness the large number of dissenters questioning the decisions of 3 elected heads of state, who represent the worlds policing body, the P5 of the United Nations Security Council.

Even after the attack, we have the leader of the opposition calling it illegal, questioning the decision making and the evidence to say it was Assad who carried out the horrific chlorine attack on Douma killing countless women and children.

The reports that came out of Douma alongside video released by the Syrian civil defence force, the White Helmets was not the evidence or intelligence the leaders of the USA, France and UK used to make their decision to bomb Syria, it was merely the initiator of a complex, layered process to understand what happened.

For the uninitiated, I am going to describe the sorts of processes that are in place to ensure that our leaders know that Assad’s forces were behind the chemical attack.  I am leaving myself open to criticism as I cannot go into the real detail of how systems work and what their exact capabilities are, but I ask that people recognise I have used these systems and processes in the past, I have personal experience. Also, intelligence can be wrong but the more independent sources used and the fact here there would be 3 independent national collection and assessment operations reduces that possibility enormously.

The Middle East and Syria, in particular, is a focus for the intelligence capabilities of many countries involved or affected by the conflict.  These will include the USA, UK, France, Russia, Turkey, Israel, Iran and many more. It is a part of the world with a huge volume of intelligence gathering platforms listening, sniffing, watching, reporting every piece of activity. Banks of analysts will be trying to analyse and interpret that activity, 24/7, 365 days a year – the intelligence cycle of direct, collect, analyse and disseminate is unending.

So, starting with the video from the White Helmets it gave a possible activity at a claimed time with a claimed weapon, how can we know it was a chlorine bomb dropped from an aircraft by Assad’s forces?

Once the reports started coming in, the banks of analysts pouring over their intelligence databases will have started to put together the questions they need answering, and looking for information collected that relates to those questions.  The first in this instance would be – was there an aircraft at the claimed time over Douma and if so what type was it, where did it come from and who owned it?

AWACS Airborne early warning aircraft and other capabilities are watching all aircraft movements on a continual basis – they can track hundreds of movements simultaneously and will know if one was there, what type of aircraft it was, civilian/military, fixed wing/rotary wing and possibly even the callsign and model.   They will know where it took off from, the route it took to Douma and where it went back to and the route with the exact times of all activities.

Cross-referencing the movement with signals intelligence data gathered from the aircraft, ships, UAVs and other assets hoovering up all radio traffic and more, there will be recordings of the aircraft’s crew checking in with their air traffic control and operational base. Those recordings will be translated, and translations checked.

So, we now know there was an aircraft in the right vicinity at the right time and we know where it came from and when.  Imagery Intelligence of the base it flew from the moment it took off going back in time will be poured over by imagery intelligence specialists looking for the preparation of the aircraft, the weapons being loaded onto it, the crew joining it and everything that happened prior to it taking off.  That capability exists and can be cross-referenced with capability from partner nations.

It will take time, but the loading of the aircraft will have been photographed. From those pictures an assessment of the weapon can be made – a barrel bomb is not easy to hide from the prying eyes of Western Intelligence. Once that assessment has been made and the number and types of vehicles used to move the weapon to the aircraft identified, the next task is to find the convoy which brought the bomb to the airfield.  Intelligence gathered by the likes of the US JSTARs or UK Sentinel R1 can look for movement from known weapons dumps to the airport over a period of time.  Various possibilities will be identified and will be cross-referenced with detailed imagery analysis of all of these sites and communications to and from the sites. The picture is building.

Human Intelligence (HUMINT) agents on the ground and Signals intelligence (SIGINT) assets will have been tasked to see what they can find out, what are personnel from the bases saying? What are the discussions Syrian military and political decision-makers having? How are they reacting to the international condemnation? What is being said between Assad’s people and the Russians? What are the Russians saying back to Moscow? Information in little snippets will be being fed to the analysts, agents will be talking to their contacts, supercomputers will be cross-referencing thousands of communications.

It is highly unlikely that there will be a report of the clarity, “Hello base, this is the heli, we have just dropped the chlorine bomb on Douma and are returning to base, over.” But what our intelligence will have told us is there was a Syrian aircraft over Douma at the time the alleged incident occurred, that aircraft came from an airfield where an object consistent with a barrel bomb was seen to be loaded.  That object is consistent with one loaded onto trucks from a known chemical weapons storage site. HUMINT and SIGINT will add further context.

Intelligence is an art, scientifically approached, it can be wrong, it never (well rarely) gives a 100% picture, but we can be confident that the picture it does give is pretty close to what actually happened.

What I have described above is not necessarily what happened in the run-up to the decision to attack Syria but it will be in the right ballpark….

Note: This blog is written by Philip Ingram MBE, a former British Army Intelligence Officer who has served in the Middle East and Cyprus. If you would like any further comment from Philip, please contact him by clicking HERE

Oooooh Betty, I think I’m in a bit of a pickle, what are our options on Syria?

Oooooh Betty, I think I’m in a bit of a pickle, what are our options on Syria?


Oooooh Betty, I think I’m in a bit of a pickle, what are our options on Syria?

The suspected chemical attacks on Saturday on Douma, the last rebel-held town in the Eastern Ghouta region of Syria have stirred up a hornet’s nest of rhetoric flying between Trump and Putin with the UK and France caught in the crossfire not just internationally but domestically.

The first thing we have to realise is that this suspected chlorine attack is only the latest weapon used against the civilian population in Eastern Ghouta. In February, forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad launched an assault on the Eastern Ghouta that has reportedly left more than 1,700 civilians dead. Those deaths were through bombs, artillery and gunfire; there is one fact that is very clear; civilians are being targeted and dying in this conflict. The targeting of civilians by whatever means is illegal under international law. The use of chemical weapons just breaks a different law but has the same effect – dead civilians.

The second fact about these deaths, un-guided bombs from aircraft and artillery are area weapons, they are not precise, they are designed to rip apart anything in their blast and shrapnel zone and cannot distinguish between civilian and fighter.  That is why coalition forces attacking so-called ISIS targets use precision-guided munitions, accurate enough to hit a very precise target and care is taken to ensure the safety of any nearby civilians.

The bigger question the people of the world have to ask themselves is in a globally focused world is it right to do nothing when you know atrocities are happening, and by doing nothing does that make us as guilty as the perpetrator of these heinous acts?

If the decision is that you have to do something, then the questions are who and how? For international matters the organisation responsible for policing the world, the who, is the United Nations and in particular the United Nations Security Council.  The 5 permanent members of the Security Council are expected and should show leadership when it comes to policing global conflicts. Of the 5, China has maintained a stance of not getting involved in wider issues outside an immediate interest to China.

That leaves the USA, Russia, the UK and France who all pulled together to stabilise the Balkans. Historically and primarily because of NATO cooperation the US, UK, and France have worked closest together, and Russia has been on the outside. That changed to a degree is the run-up to NATO intervention into Bosnia when a formal Russian delegation was set up in NATO headquarters just outside Brussels, to facilitate greater military and political cooperation.

So, coming back to Syria how have we got to where we are and what can be done? We have to recognise the Russians have a real strategic interest in Syria.  The Russian Naval facility on the northern edge of the Syrian seaport of Tartus is a vital strategic facility and Russia has had other long-standing strategic interests in Syria given its location in the region, bordering on NATO’s southern flank, within a short distance of the British bases in Cyprus, able to monitor Iran and Israel and more.  Putin needs Syria.

In addition to Putin needing Syria, we have seen him regenerating the old cold war strength of the Soviet Union at least in the minds of the Russians. That is why he has reconstructed his naval capability, why his strategic air capability is now flying, and he parades new complex fighting machines. It is why he fired cruise type missiles under the glare of the global press against ISIS targets from his submarines and warships and deployed an aircraft carrier to the Mediterranean to fly air sorties. He wanted to show the world the same pictures the Americans had done in the Iraq war, he wanted to show Russia was back.

Emboldened by his political successes at home built on nationalistic fervour and fear when his economy is collapsing and in any normal democratic country he would be politically held to account, we have seen him go on the offensive. He sees the political cracks in institutions around the world and he influences them as any old spy would do by sticking his knife into them and wiggling it.  That knife just happens to be propaganda, fake news, data manipulation, information operations, what the Russians call маскировка (maskirovka) – masking. Banging his military drum is part of that process as is his abject failure to sanction the UN Security Council resolution to let independent teams from the OPCW investigate the Douma incident.

Putin is sticking 2 fingers up at the world and has used the attack on the Skripal’s in Salisbury with the deadly novichok nerve agent and is using Assad’s willingness to terrorise and kill his own people as his latest tactics to do this.

The USA, UK, and France are now carefully looking at not just the reports that have come out of Douma but the wider intelligence they will have relating to the situation in Syria.  All 3 countries have had extensive intelligence assets continuously watching, listening and analysing what is going on, so any action taken will not just be on the say so of the White Helmets in Eastern Ghouta or the activists from the Violations Documentation Center (VDC) who record alleged violations on international law in Syria, or any other group.

The USA, UK, and France should be looking at the objectives of any retaliation into Syria, asking what collateral damage could be done politically with the Russians and what the risk of escalation is and then asking if any proposed action is worth those risks? They will be balancing the dangers associated with striking militarily with the dangers of doing nothing. However, it is certain that any action will fall well short of an attempt at regime change or anything that could escalate into a wider conflict with Russia.

At the same time, no matter what President Trump does on Twitter, behind closed doors measured diplomatic actions will be taking place to de-conflict any potential actions with Russia.  Whilst the public rhetoric of a Twitter-addicted Trump and a маскировка (maskirovka) enabled Putin play out, good old-fashioned diplomacy will set and ensure clear boundaries.

Militarily the use of conventional aircraft to bomb Assad’s bases is virtually impossible. Many of them are protected by sophisticated and very capable Russian air defence systems.  Military tactics dictate that these would have to be destroyed before attacks on the bases took place and as they are manned by Russian personnel, that would be an immediate escalation.

Therefore, a military response will rely on attacks by cruise missiles and it takes time to get these into firing positions.  The USA will not want to be the only country attacking. That time will be well spent with diplomatic de-confliction activity and gathering more intelligence to increase the understanding of what happened in Douma.

In addition, a military assessment of how many missiles will be needed to penetrate the potential Russian Air Defence network and cause a sufficient show will be happening. It would hand President Putin a real propaganda coup if he managed to shoot significant numbers of them down.

Douma is merely the straw that has broken the back of the camel of world opinion. Do we act or do we not, what is morally right for not just the people of Syria but the people in the next conflict zone?

Note: This blog is written by Philip Ingram MBE, a former British Army Intelligence Officer who has served in the Middle East and Cyprus. If you would like any further comment from Philip, please contact him by clicking HERE