Russia/Iran Intelligence in Syria/Iraq

On October 7, Russia targeted Syria with 26 cruise missiles launched from the Caspian. Cost figures are not available for Russian systems, but the U.S. Tomahawk is comparable, at  $1.5M per unit. The Russian and American payloads are about 1000 lbs. A strike planner could choose gravity bombs delivered by strike fighter. The hourly incremental cost per mission of F-16 operation is about $10K. A typical payload is four 1000 lb gravity bombs. Each bomb is equipped with a JDAM (joint direct attack munition) guidance kit, which converts a dumb bomb into a precise, precision guided weapon with a range of 15 miles. The JDAM kit costs about $25k. The cost of the bomb itself is negligible. A two hour mission time delivers 4000 lbs of ordinance at about 1/40 the cost of cruise missile delivery. The use of cruise missiles by Russia is not a mere detail. It has implications.

Several legitimate reasons exist for the strike planner to choose cruise missile delivery. The press generally quotes a version of “shock and awe”, and it has a current Russian equivalent. But this is false. It just happens to be a convenient term to feed the press because they know and understand so little. Real reasons for spending all that money are:

  • The enemy has an integrated air defense. By degrading command and control, risk to follow-on manned platforms is reduced. This motivated U.S. expenditure of 220 Tomahawks at the start of the 2011 Libya intervention.
  • Decapitation strike. If hostilities are not expected by the enemy, cruise missiles provide the ultimate in stealth. An obvious requirement is very precise information as to the location of the enemy leadership.

But this is not a valid reason: to scare the hell out of rebels and/or ISIS. The skies of Syria are loud with the racket of jets. Guided gravity bombs have substantial range and excellent accuracy.

With the absolute requirement of intelligence indications of high value targets, the cruise missile strike certainly offered Russia a technology showcase. But that is secondary. It illuminates a question that is known to governments, but not to the press:  What kinds of intelligence do Russia and Iran have in the Syria/Iraq? Apparently, they have something, because a joint Russia/Iran/Iraq intelligence center has been set up in Baghdad. The answer is known to every professional with background in the region. But let’s address it here from the perspective of open-source.

Historical categories of intelligence were:

  • SIGINT – signals intelligence, eavesdropping and breaking the code
  • Aerial reconaissance, with a confusing similarity in name to military reconaissance
  • HUMINT – human intelligence, spying

Britain’s history as an island nation, with an empire that provided both cultural experience and assimilation, resulted in multicultural facility  that has never been equaled elswhere in the West. But with HUMINT, the Soviets stand alone, with the ideological lure, and their brilliant exploitation of human weakness. Even today, a CIA employee is not permitted to have a Russian girlfriend.

The U.S. relies more on technology and analysis. The technology has advanced far beyond the above nomenclature.  Analysis is a large part of the U.S. technique.  But the flood of information is so vast, the brains cannot keep up with it. Here HUMINT has the edge. In opposition to the C.I.A. emphasis on analysis, ex-Soviet spymasters take the view that all actionable information comes from spies, not analysis. This is not true. But HUMINT and technology based intelligence are highly complimentary,  a primary reason why the Russians proposed cooperation with the U.S.

Returning to the didactic purpose, what is the likelyhood that the Russians and Iranians have substantial intelligence presence in the conflict area? A spy impersonates loyalty to a cause. For the U.S. to train a spy to impersonate an Iranian is impossible. In fact, it is not done. The western model of HUMINT is recruitment, not training. Such spies as the U.S. has had in Iran were Iranians dissatisfied with the regime. But the population of the conflict area is divided:

  • Shia of native origin – southern Iraqis, Syrian Alawites who are syncretistic  Shia
  • Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy, drawn from Lebanese Shia
  • Sunni of native origin
  • Sunni of external origin, with heavy representation of Chechnya.

In this region, where the traditional model of foreign controller/native spy does not work, HUMINT requires cultural impersonation. If these groups find cultural impersonation of each other to be easy, then HUMINT is easy. If it’s easy and cheap, and hostility prevails, then spying is a matter of course. Without specific expertise, can we know whether, in this region, cultural impersonation is easy? The answer is yes. Suicide bombers require transit to within yards of the target. This is a fact of countless repetition in modern Iraq.  So an actor of any faction can pass with little effort as an actor of an opposing faction.

So spying is a matter of course. Years before the Syria conflict, Hezbollah was noted as possessing a sophisticated intelligence establishment. It also astonishes professionals with sophisticated counterintelligence capability, the significance of which may not be appreciated by the reader. Counter intelligence has always been considered the harder problem.

As Chechnya is part of Russia, Russia has the opportunity to insert sleepers into local jihadist cells. These proceed like drops of dye in the river that flows into the area, joined by a tributary that transits through Turkey. Together, Russia and Iran have a completely separate stream of intelligence that compliments and blends with political influence.

This deep penetration is the source of intelligence that motivated Russian strike planners to expend expensive missiles. The “shock and awe” theme provided to the press has some use to protect sources, at least with an unsophisticated adversary. That no decapitations were reported as a result of the 26 Russian cruise missiles reminds that no intelligence is golden until used successfully.

This is an example of the kind of analysis that can be performed without consideration of politics. It reduces a problem that appears political – why did they shoot those missiles – into one that is mostly technical. But the implication is political. U.S. strategies are challenged, perhaps fatally, by the underground rivers of HUMINT that flow through the region.

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