Scrambling to parse what’s going on in the Middle East has got analysts coming and going. Two big events on Saturday, a few hours apart, bookend the problem: things are moving fast, and who’s zooming whom isn’t emerging clearly.
One of the events has gotten wide coverage. Air attacks on oil facilities in northeastern Saudi Arabia, apparently by drones just before dawn, took out a substantial portion of the Saudi petroleum infrastructure with “critical node” targeting. The U.S. seemed to attribute the attacks on Saturday to Iran-backed proxies, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested that the proxies are not the Houthi rebels in Yemen (who had promptly taken credit for the attacks).
Tehran is behind nearly 100 attacks on Saudi Arabia while Rouhani and Zarif pretend to engage in diplomacy. Amid all the calls for de-escalation, Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply. There is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen.
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) September 14, 2019
The implication is that the attacking drones were launched from Iraq, under the auspices of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Force (Hashd al-Shaabi) units, also known as “Shia militias.”
That said, Trump tweeted Sunday evening (see *Note* update below as well):
Saudi Arabia oil supply was attacked. There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 15, 2019
There’s more to this, and, as mentioned, it’s developing fast. See below.
The other event has received less coverage. A Navy destroyer, USS Ramage (DDG-61), docked in Beirut Saturday morning for a port visit, the first such visit by a U.S. Navy warship in 30 years. The port visit got little, if any, fanfare beforehand. The Lebanon Daily Star generated some confusion by initially illustrating its story on the Ramage visit with a photo of a French frigate, the FS Auvergne, which arrived in Beirut the day before (Friday the 13th). (The Daily Star has since switched its story photo to one that shows Ramage.)
US destroyer docks at Beirut Port https://t.co/b7fEskP4xy
— The Daily Star Lebanon (@DailyStarLeb) September 14, 2019
But the U.S. embassy in Beirut has posted updates on social media about Ramage’s visit, so there is no doubt the destroyer is there.
Lebanese press tour the #USSRamage, which docked in #Beirut on September 14 on a goodwill visit to showcase the strong U.S.-#Lebanon relationship 🇺🇸🇱🇧 and a commitment to freedom of navigation.@USNavy pic.twitter.com/PZ0Gvgi1AD
— U.S. Embassy Beirut (@usembassybeirut) September 15, 2019
These two events are related; they can’t help being so. Iran is a brooding presence in Lebanon, hand-in-glove with Hezbollah, which is an official political party and has the governing coalition by the short hairs. Skeptical analysts have been warning for years that U.S. policy in Lebanon takes too little account of this relationship – pointing out, for example, that providing weaponry to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) means making it available to Hezbollah for potential use against Israel (or U.S. partners in Syria), and through Hezbollah to Iran, for inspection and forensic analysis.
Hezbollah, meanwhile, receives weapons and technical support from Iran; has been supporting Iran’s military activities in Syria; and is developing military infrastructure in Lebanon that could be used by Iran in the future. Iran’s terrain-walk forays into the Golan in the last several years have involved coordinating with Hezbollah and approaching from Lebanon. Lebanon is a pillar of Iran’s strategy to surround Israel and hold her at risk.
Strategic significance in context: Driving wedges
The visit of a U.S. warship to Lebanon thus has significant meaning for Iran. That can’t be in question. The only thing that’s really in question is what President Trump’s intentions with the port visit are.
I don’t think his intention is the inexplicably fatuous hope of merely showing support to the government of Lebanon, in spite of its Hezbollah taint. Rather, we need to look some thousands of miles to the east to another situation in which Trump opened a door, against the tenets of the legacy foreign policy consensus, to an unexpected connection.
That example would, of course, be North Korea. With the Kim regime, Trump vaulted over decades of consensus on what was thinkable, and arranged direct talks without the “six-party” constraints thought indispensable in the past.
That move has naturally come to disrupt or put in question longstanding assumptions about regional security. The biggest one by far, which some of us previewed early on, is the special link between North Korea and China – and in particular, the perception that the path to Pyongyang lies through Beijing.
China has cultivated that perception for decades as a core element of her national policy. It has been so well-ingrained in conventional analysis that it has become part of the landscape, taken for granted and unexamined. Few outside of Beijing recognize even now, in my view, that it has been upended.
But it has. Trump’s seemingly superficial photo-op strategy has moved a geopolitical needle that everyone else has been willing to leave for 60 years in the same place.
The following reality has been so embedded in the environment that few even recognize its as a changeable condition now. As long as outside interests are encamped on her northeast quadrant – i.e., Japan, the U.S., Russia – China wants to keep a divided Korea, with the North in thrall to China. The only thing better would be a unified Korea in thrall to China.
If there is a coalition of South Korea with a powerful patron to keep that from happening, then a divided Korea with the North in China’s orbit is the best option Beijing sees.
And by giving Kim a potential, very real alternative path for strategic communication and vision, Trump has dealt that long-embedded condition a major blow.
Trump has begun breaking the thrall of North Korea. If that wasn’t clear from the two summits to date, it was clear from the walk across the DMZ. Xi Jinping has been scrambling so hard in his own right largely because Trump has found some of the most sensitive ways to rock his world. (Oddly enough, Reuters just today reports on a South Korean news item indicating that Kim Jong-Un sent a new invitation to Trump to visit Pyongyang, in a letter in August 2019.)
The impact of the overture to North Korea has been felt in terms of nuclear proliferation and the expectations of the other regional powers, of course. But its biggest impact is the pressure it puts on China, with a bedrock condition beginning to slip out of Beijing’s control. That control has always depended on tacit quiescence from the United States – and Trump has withdrawn it. Nothing is changing overnight. But the breezes of change have been loosed to stir.
In the West, our ruling geopolitical vision is locked in a post-Cold War framework in which everything is already bagged and tagged. It looks like sacrilege to posit that an unorthodox approach to North Korea could be useful for incentivizing all of China’s reactions. Trump doesn’t explain himself in terms Morgenthau or Kissinger would draw upon, and if we focus solely on day-to-day events (like Kim’s short-range missile launches, which don’t breach his understanding with Trump and in which China and Russia are eagerly encouraging him), no picture resolves itself quickly.
Giving Iran and Lebanon a wedgie
But the principle of giving your opponent’s core clientele an alternative to their dependence on your opponent is (a) classic Trump, and (b) working, in the case of China and North Korea. It’s a big part of what’s got the Xi regime in fits. Therefore (c), it could work in the case of Iran and Lebanon.
That would be Trumpian thinking. It’s also something the Iranians would understand without breaking a sweat. If getting a U.S. destroyer into Beirut for the first time in 30 years is a way of opening hailing frequencies with Lebanon to suggest there’s a good life out here with the fun crowd, if there’s a balanced approach to Iran, as opposed to a sickly dependent one – no one is going to see that challenge as clearly as Iran’s regime leadership.
Think about it. Sure, the U.S. has been shipping military hardware to Lebanon under the demeaning fiction that the LAF is a genuinely independent entity. But a U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) destroyer making a port visit in Iran’s, er, flagship client in the Mediterranean, at a time when Tehran is desperately, angrily at outs with Washington? That’s not a signal of weakness on the part of the United States.
That’s a signal that – as Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke might say – hell, yes, the U.S. can schedule a port visit by a warship right in the Iranian regime’s face. In its own way, it’s a walk across the DMZ. It’s a visible symbol that the path to Beirut doesn’t have to lie through Tehran.
It won’t change anything overnight. But it’s inherently related to Iran’s desperation to get something started that will deal blows to the United States. It’s a ramp up of pressure from a quarter Iran been able to take for granted for quite a few years. It could inaugurate a growing loss of control over the environment of Hezbollah and Iranian domination in Lebanon.
Iran’s very big attack adventure
Iran, meanwhile, managed to bring off the most complex regional attack yet on Saturday, one that probably involved using Iraq, and might even have entailed launching drones from Iran’s own territory.
*Note*: I wrote that last sentence several hours ago. Since writing the next paragraphs below, also a few hours ago, ABC News has issued a report citing unnamed U.S. officials who say Iran in fact launched cruise missiles from Iranian territory. That is the kind of confirmation I would wait for, before suggesting that cruise missiles were used. It makes my point that cruise missile use is detectable as such, and the U.S. would detect it quite reliably. Since there had been no such report up to that point, I was reluctant to discuss the possibility of cruise missiles being used. (Iran does, of course, have cruise missiles that could potentially have been used for the 14 September attack. They were developed based on the former-Soviet Kh-55 cruise missile and would be launched from mobile launchers on Iranian territory.)
That said, I do believe, as stated further below, that some of the targeting accuracy observed in this strike would have required drones used as flying bombs controlled all the way to the aimpoint. We’ll see how it plays out as more information rolls in. I’ve decided to leave the original discussion intact, as it will still apply to multiple scenarios that remain possible in the days ahead.
*Continuing with the original text*:
Although some are suggesting that cruise missiles were used, I don’t believe so. A cruise missile requires a launch platform that is inherently detectable. (Even cruise missiles launched from land are detectable to someone; e.g., the United States.) And a cruise missile launch itself is inherently detectable as a cruise missile launch. Neither Iran nor Iraq would want to court the detectability – and hence loss of deniability – that would come with launching cruise missiles.
But drones can be launched without special platforms, and with no more detectability than attends launching a manned aircraft with the same kind of propulsion.
Iran has two classes of drones especially suited to the scenario that appears to have unfolded in which two target complexes were struck, at the Abqaiq and Khurais processing facilities. One is the Shahed 129, with a body style similar to the U.S. Predator and the ability to carry a bomb payload and operate over a range of about 1,100 statute miles (1,700 km).
The other is the Shahed 171 Saegheh or Simorgh (two variants), patterned after the RQ-170 Sentinel. The Saegheh is thought to be the type shot down by Israel in February 2018, when Iran infiltrated one into Israeli air space from Syria. The 171 series uses turbofan (jet) propulsion and reportedly has a range of about 280 miles (450 km).
The drone shot down by Israel was a drone-bomb, or flying bomb, apparently seeking a target to fly into and detonate. Note also that the Saegheh was thought to be used in a combined drone and ballistic missile strike launched from Iranian territory against ISIS targets in Deir-ez-Zor, in Syria, in 2018.
The Simorgh would conceivably have a similar capability, although there is no demonstrated use of it in this manner. The Shahed 129 is capable of delivering bombs against targets and then returning to base.
Any of the drones in question can carry sensors for reconnaissance and surveillance. That, in my view, may be one of the most interesting aspects of the 14 September attack. As analyst Seth Frantzman has pointed out, the approaches to the Saudi targets would have been through (or immediately next to) the network of Patriot batteries arrayed along the coast of the Persian Gulf.
To bring off a multi-drone attack – and very possibly a multi-vector one – the planners would want to have surveillance informing them in a tactically immediate way of the activity in the air defense network.
That is especially the case if the planners hope to bring any of the drones back to base afterward. The strikes on the oil facilities would serve as alertment if nothing else did; any drones trying to exit the air space would be more likely to be detected.
Using existing Iranian assets, it would be possible to have surveillance drones feeding the operators with real-time updates on the air defense environment, while attack drones maneuvered toward the targets. Iran’s sensor capabilities are rudimentary compared to those of the U.S., but they would be sufficient for basic alertment during the mission.
Two factors argue for the Shahed 171 drones being used as the attack aircraft. One is the operational ability demonstrated in the brief infiltration of Israel in 2018 to keep the Saegheh drone at a low altitude for its approach, and then rapidly decrease its altitude to engage a target. That’s what appeared to be happening in the Israeli video of the shootdown, just before the shootdown order was issued.
Operating at low altitude to approach the target area would be optimal for minimizing detectability to the Patriot radars along the coast. The stealth design of the 171 series, mimicking the Sentinel, would also be a factor. Small, less-detectable aircraft at lower altitudes have been a known vulnerability for the Saudi air defense system as the war in Yemen developed; that threat is not the one the various subsystems were originally designed to confront.
The other factor is the apparent accuracy with which the crucial elements of the oilfield facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais were targeted. A fixed-wing drone that can arrive on station, locate its target visually, and then plunge into it under remote operator control will hit with an accuracy it is hard to replicate with any other targeting package.
The ‘wingspan’ of complexity
As for the possibility of a multi-vector attack, the concept would have the key advantage of increasing the likelihood that at least one of the target complexes would take the maximum planned hit. If all the drones flooded through a single approach vector on the way in, the probability of the whole attack package being detected and thwarted could be increased.
If there were two approach vectors, they could both have been from Iraq. If we take seriously the reports of drone detections over Kuwait, we would have data points from both the east side of the country and the extreme west end of it, a short distance from the Iraq-Saudi border.
Interestingly, a detection reported near Kuwait City involved a drone entering from off the coast and then heading toward Kuwait City – suggesting either a brief excursion overwater from a launch point in Iraq, or even a launch point in Iran. The latter should not be discounted, especially if there were two attack packages approaching from separate vectors. Again, the advantage of the drone is that it doesn’t launch with unique detectability, doesn’t announce its presence as a threat system, and can be controlled throughout its flight in terms of altitude and speed. If 171 series drones came from Iran, and then through Kuwait, to attack one of the target complexes in Saudi Arabia, they had no need to embarrass anyone by returning home.
But for the vector(s) from Iraq, there is another consideration, and that’s where they would launch from in an environment more susceptible (than in Iran) to inconvenient local detection and reporting. Guesses I’ve seen about that (e.g., link above) have the drones being launched from further inside Iraq than I would think advisable. No good purpose would be served by maximizing the time spent by attack drones in either Iraq or Kuwait.
That’s one reason the reported drone detection in the extreme west of Kuwait is interesting.
— محامي عبدالعزيزالشيباني (@LAWYER__kw) September 14, 2019
The location is Salmi, and it’s eye-catching because of its proximity to a very empty quarter of Iraq: Al -Muthanna Governorate, as well as the extreme southwest tip of Basra Governorate, which lies immediately adjacent to the western Kuwaiti border. Unlike the heavily populated precincts of the river delta further north, running to the Shatt-al-Arab, this area is virtually devoid of organized human presence. From over the borders of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, it also has terrain advantages that thwart monitoring: undulating hills that give into a sub-basin of the Euphrates on the Iraqi side, blocked naturally by the surrounding higher elevations, which subside in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia rather than affording good “visibility” for land-based monitoring tools.
Effective monitoring could be arranged easily enough. But it probably hasn’t been yet, even though Saudi Arabia deployed some tactical air defense monitoring systems to the border back in the summer.
•SAUDI INFORMS IRAQ ITS IS DEPLOYING AIR DEFENSE TO THE BORDERS
•Move follows US reports that May attack on Saudi oil pipeline was from Iraq
•Iraq PM announced nominal merger of pro- Iran militias into military yesterday following call with Saudi kinghttps://t.co/4Ql89eSocp pic.twitter.com/eHlefOSqWu
— Firas Maksad (@FirasMaksad) July 2, 2019
A certain amount of dedicated and manpower-intensive monitoring would be required to deny this area to undetected drone support. Merely setting up a radar and intercept capability wouldn’t do the job.
Also of interest: a very small man-made outpost in Al-Muthanna, in a valley and not on the one main road that runs north and south through the empty governorate on its eastern side. It’s neither on the road nor close enough to the border to be an administrative outpost for border activity.
The image resolution available through Google Earth isn’t good enough to form a confident judgment of what it is. But it’s evidence of a human presence, and doesn’t appear to be related to animal husbandry. There’s no obvious source of water nearby. It’s also located not far, over dirt roads, from a hilltop to the east streaked with evidence of vehicle operation.
This may or may not be anything of interest to the militarization of Iraq’s terrain as Iran pushes toward the Mediterranean and the Arabian Peninsula. But this area is where it would make sense to set up temporary locations for drone operations (potentially including control vans) in order to optimize mission-by-mission system use against Saudi Arabia.
The Hashd units in fact have a presence in Al-Muthanna (along with the much larger, more developed one in Basra Governorate). They would encounter little detection and less resistance from local sources in the area in question. After multiple “mystery” air strikes on known Hashd bases in the populated areas further to the north, it would be no surprise to see them use remote locations for launching Qods Force-directed and managed activities like the 14 September attacks in Saudi Arabia.
Iran has brought off an operation of noteworthy complexity with these attacks, although we are well short of all the details needed to assess just how complex. Analysts are dog-paddling to keep up with the parade of asymmetric events over the last four months. Countering Iran’s operational actions is eminently doable, but first we have to understand what the moving parts are.
Meanwhile, President Trump is moving in ways that defy pigeonholing – and may not make sense to some observers, if we keep thinking in the old, familiar ruts of Pax Americana assumptions and axioms. Readers will have to decide for themselves how they feel about that.
The thing about leaving the well-worn ruts is that we lose our handy cue-cards in the process. Perhaps it’s mandatory to assume that Trump’s unconventional, geopolitically kinetic negotiating tactics are just too unsettling. But perhaps it’s not.