I do more writing on New Pundits now but I thought I would point to three recent posts of mine dealing with the geopolitics in the region:
The Ghost of the Persian Empire will Own the Middle East: The ghost of geopolitics means that the only true counterweight to Iran is not Saudi Arabia, Pakistan or Israel (The Sunni-Semitic axis Egypt doesn’t even figure, as it’s geopolitically so dependent on Israel post Aswan Dam) but Turkey. However Anatolia is ultimately a bridge to the West and Turkey’s highland configuration point towards Istanbul and that land bridge.
The “Iran deal” signals Persia’s return to Geopolitical Preeminence: The Iranians, like their closely related kin the Indians, are an Aryan people who settled on the hugely strategic Iranian plateau. Unlike the Indians upon conquest (or a few centuries after) the Iranians gave up their hugely influential native born faith, Zoroastrianism, to embrace Islam and consequently the hugely Iranian inflected Shi’ite faith. Of course Islam can properly be conceived of a fine line between the more orthodox (and less theologically innovative) Sunni practises, which adhere most closely to the original Arabian teachings, and the far more syncretic Ismaili cluster, in which 12ver Shi’ite Islam falls in the middle.
How Pakistan and Turkey must play the crisis in the Middle East: Now far more interesting, in that it is much contestable, about what is Pakistan. I would argue Pakistan is the Mughal Empire successor state reimagined (even if partially) on the Indus River Valley System. This linkage survived 1971’s breakup and to put it succinctly Pakistan looks to Akbar, its arch rival fratricidal twin India looks to Asoka.
“The desire to gain an immediate selfish advantage always imperils their ultimate interests. If they recognize this fact, they usually recognize it too late”. Reinhold Niebuhr
There is long history of security relations between Pakistan and several Arab countries. In 1970s and 80s, many Arab countries flushed with oil money bought state of the art equipment but local population lacked technical skills. A number of Pakistan army and air force personnel were deputed to several countries including Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan, Syria and Iraq. A much smaller number of naval officers also served in UAE training local naval forces. The numbers and duration of deployment varied from less than a dozen to few thousand and from few weeks to several years. The main role of Pakistani officers was in training local security forces although they also manned complicated equipment such as radars.
Pakistan sometimes got into difficulties in view of squabbles among Arab countries as well as internal strife in some of these countries. Pakistani troop presence in Saudi Arabia though very small put it at odds with Egypt. Saudi Arabia and Egypt were supporting opposing parties in the civil war in Yemen. This continued till Anwar Sadat got off the ship of Arab socialism and took a turn towards the right side of the curve. In 1980s, in the context of Iran-Iraq war, presence of Pakistani troops in Saudi Arabia put Pakistan at odds with Tehran.
Pakistani army and air force personnel trained Saudi forces in 1970s and 80s. Iran-Iraq war changed Saudi security environment and both countries started to negotiate about limited Pakistani troop deployment. After prolonged negotiations it was agreed to deploy a limited Pakistani contingent on Saudi soil. Delay in negotiations was partly due to differences among Saudi decision makers. Debate among Saudis was on the issues of a larger foreign contingent (about two division strength), expansion of Saudi army and balance between army and Saudi Arabian National Guards (SANG). Finally, a negotiated middle ground agreed on a much smaller foreign contingent that consisted of only a reinforced brigade strength. In 1982, a formal agreement was signed and Saudi Pakistan Armed Forces Organization (SPAFO) headquarters was established at Riyadh. Pakistani troops were stationed at Tabuk and Khamis Mushayet. An armored brigade group was stationed at Tabuk from 1982 to 1988. It was a complete formation deputed for three years and two brigades rotated in 1982-85 and 1985-88. Initially, Major General Shamsur Rahman Kallu (later Lieutenant General) was appointed to the SPFAO headquarters but he never took charge and the contingent was headed by a Brigadier rank officer. First commander was Brigadier Mehboob Alam (later Major General) who served from 1982-85 and under him Colonel (later Brigadier) Saeed Ismat served as GSO-1 Operations and Training. From 1985 to 1988, Pakistani armored brigade was commanded by Brigadier Jahangir Karamat (later General and Pakistan army Chief). In 1988, for a variety of reasons, the brigade was withdrawn and only a small number of Pakistani personnel involved in training remained (majority of foreign training personnel were from United States and Britain).
In my view, several factors such as increased confidence about Saudization process of armed forces, modernization of forces, acquisition of surface to surface missiles and friction with Pakistan about composition and control of the contingent contributed to this decision. Saudis had asked General Zia that Shia officers and troops should be excluded from the units sent for deployment. Zia presented this condition during one of his meeting with his Corps Commanders. Several senior officers protested stating that this may significantly damage the cohesion of Pakistani armed forces. The reason was that the policy could not be implemented discreetly. They argued that a complete formation with full cohesive battalions was to be deputed and removing a particular group of soldiers based on their sect would negatively affect the cohesion of the units.
In 1990s, need for Pakistani troops became obsolete in view of presence of large number of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of First Gulf War. In late 1990s, the key strategic issue between two countries was nuclear factor. There is no conclusive proof but it is generally believed that both countries agreed in principle that in case of Tehran acquiring nuclear weapons, Pakistan will provide nuclear umbrella to Saudi Arabia. In return, Saudi Arabia provided oil at discount rate to cash strapped and sanctioned Pakistan in the aftermath of its 1998 nuclear tests. This was done off the books to avoid Pakistan’s creditors asking for more pound of the flesh. In 2003, revelations about Pakistani nuclear proliferation by its lead scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan including clandestine shipments to Iran stunned the world. Saudis were angry and felt that Pakistanis were a bunch of cheaters trying to milk money from all sides. Saudis showed their displeasure by now asking for full price for the oil supply. Saudis have mediated between ruling elites of Pakistan dating back to mass protest movement organized by a coalition of opposition parties against then Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1977. Saudi ambassador tried to negotiate a deal but eventually military staged a coup. Most recently, Saudis guaranteed exile of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to the Kingdom as well as negotiated safe passage to former President Pervez Mussharraf. This has severely damaged Pakistan’s reputation among Saudis. Saudi royal family has very little respect for feuding Pakistani ruling elite.
Intelligence agencies of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia enjoy close relationship going back over two decades. Currently, main focus of cooperation is Arab extremists. Though small in numbers but shuttling of Saudi militants between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and Afghanistan is a major Saudi concern. Details of this cooperation are usually not made public and both countries prefer to work behind the scenes. Pakistani and Saudi intelligence officials usually don’t leak; a nuisance that has been taken to an art form by Americans. One case became public when in May 2009; Pakistani paramilitary force Frontier Corps (FC) arrested four Saudi militants in Mohmand tribal agency. These four Saudi militants along with a Libyan and an Afghan national were arrested at Khapakh check post. FC troops were escorting them to FC camp in Ghalanai when they came under attack. Over 60 militants attacked FC escort and gunfight lasted for over two hours with many casualties.
Looking from Riyadh point of view, the security dilemma has mushroomed into a nightmare. Externally, Shia dominated government in a fragile Iraq, unrest in Bahrain with potential rise of another Shia entity on the border, unraveling of Yemen, increasing voices of demand of constitutional monarchy in Jordan, exit of Mubarak in one of the most historic change in Egypt are enough to cause many sleepless nights for Saudi decision makers. Internally, presence of a small but lethal extremist fringe and undercurrents of discontent in Saudi society and much more alienation of small Shia minority in the Kingdom are additional worries. Traditionally, Saudi Arabia carefully balanced its security structure to prevent a coup. Army doctrine was more static in orientation and ‘jointness’ was carefully avoided to prevent cohesion of armed forces to a level where they could easily overthrow the rulers. In addition, SANG was used as a check against army. SANG operates independent of Ministry of Defence running its own recruitment, training and retention. SANG is also structured in a way to prevent it from posing a threat to the government. Out of total strength of over 50’000 personnel of SANG only about 10’000 are on active duty. Remainder is divided into regular reserve and part time tribal irregulars.
In case of massive protests though less likely in Saudi Arabia, there is always the question of how much force local security apparatus will be willing to use against their own countrymen. Potential requirement of foreign troops forced Saudis to work with current Pakistani civilian government for whom they had nothing but utter contempt until very recently. President and Prime Minister of Pakistan faced with grim economic situation of the country and army brass uncertain about continued U.S. funding are too delighted at the potential of cash windfall from Saudi patrons. Secretary General of Saudi National Security Council Prince Bandar bin Sultan made too quite trips to Pakistan in the aftermath of protests. Main subject was getting Pakistani support for Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) action to send Saudi troops to Bahrain, encourage Pakistan to send retired personnel for Bahrain security forces and in case of mass unrest in Saudi Arabia possibility of deployment of Pakistani security personnel. Presently, Saudi security apparatus is able to handle most internal security problems and use of any foreign troops is more a contingency plan and will be used as a last measure if things spiral down out of control.
In 1969, Pakistan sent a military training mission to Jordan. The mission’s primary task was to assess state of Jordanian forces in the aftermath of 1967 defeat at the hands of Israelis and recommend overhaul. Officers from different arms (Infantry, Armor and Artillery) of army and air force were part of this mission. Main objective of the mission was survey of Jordanian armed forces, find deficiencies, recommend solutions and guide in training. Pakistanis got entangled in Jordan’s clash with Palestinians. The simmering tensions between Jordanians and Palestinians resulted in September 1970 showdown when King Hussain ordered Jordanian forces to quell an attempt by Palestinian groups based in Jordan to overthrow the Hashemite kingdom. There were exaggerated reports circulated by Palestinian sympathizers that Pakistani troops helped Jordanian forces in combat. Later, after General Zia-ul Haq’s coup, those opposing him continued these unsubstantiated reports as Zia was in Amman during that time period.
Pakistani training mission consisted of only about two dozen army and air force officers and no combat troops (only exception was an Anti-Air Craft detachment sent in June 1970 at King Hussain’s request as he was worried that Syrian and Iraqi air forces may intervene in support of Palestinians). Pakistan military mission was headed by Major General Nawazish Ali while Air Commodore Anwar Shamim (later Air Chief Marshal and Pakistan air force chief) was in charge of air force officers. During main Jordanian offensive in September, Pakistani ambassador in Amman Nawab Rahat Ali Chattari as well as head of military mission Major General Nawazish were not in the country. Brigadier Zia ul Haq was in charge of the military mission. King Hussain asked Brigadier Zia to take over the command of a Jordanian division. Pakistan’s charge de affairs got approval of this move from Ministry of Defence.
In Amman, 4th Mechanized Division commanded by Brigadier Kasab al-Jazy operated and 60th Armored Brigade of the division commanded by Colonel Alawi Jarrad was at the forefront. After 1967 war, 3rd Iraqi Armored Division had stayed back in Jordan and was deployed in Zarqa. King Hussain was suspicious about the motives of Iraqis and he deployed 99th Brigade commanded by Colonel Khalil Hajhuj of 3rd Jordanian Armored Division near Iraqis to keep them in check. However, young Saddam Hussain emerging from his own recent successful power struggle inside Iraq shrewdly pulled Iraqi troops away from conflict area and finally removed them from Jordan to avoid getting entangled.
2nd Jordanian Infantry Division was based in Irbid near the Syrian border. Palestinian guerrillas had taken control of the town. Syria entered the fray in support of Palestinians by sending 5th Division commanded by Brigadier Ahmed al-Amir. This was a reinforced division consisting of 67th Mechanized, 88th Armored and 91st Armored Brigades of Syrian army and Hittin Brigade consisting of Palestinians. Commanding officer of 2nd Jordanian Infantry Division Brigadier Bahjat al-Muhaisen (he was married to a woman from a prominent Palestinian family) went AWOL and Brigadier Zia took command of the division at the request of King Hussain. 2nd Jordanian Infantry Division was shaky after desertion of Jordanian commander and Zia helped to keep the formation intact. This division helped to take back control of Irbid. Syrian armored thrust near Irbid was tackled by 40th Armored Brigade commanded by Colonel Atallah Ghasib of 3rd Jordanian Armored Division. Major damage to Syrian armor was done by Royal Jordanian Air Force. Inside Syria, a power struggle between Saleh Jadid and Defence Minister and Air Force commander Hafiz al-Asad was at its peak and Asad decided to keep Syrian Air Force out of conflict. In the absence of air cover, Syrian forces were mauled by Jordanian air force and within two days, battered Syrian troops retreated back. Two months later, Asad took control of the affairs of the country sending Jadid to prison. In 1970, Nawazish gave a bad Annual Confidential Report (ACR) to Zia although details of it are not available. It is not clear whether report was written before or after September 1970. Apparently, report was bad enough to possibly end Zia’s career at the rank of Brigadier. Zia asked his former Commanding Officer (CO) of Guides Cavalry Colonel (R) Pir Abdullah Shah for help. Abdullah asked then Chief of General Staff (CGS) Major General Gul Hassan Khan (Zia had also served under Gul Hassan) and report was quashed by army chief General Yahya Khan on Gul’s recommendation.
Traditionally, Oman recruits from specific Baluch communities to man its state security forces. This is not new and the practice goes back to several decades. Pakistan is not the sole source of manpower for security services but citizens of a number of other countries also serve in Omani security forces. Oman was facing a rebellion in southern region in 1960s and 70s. In 1960s, two Southern Regiments consisting of Baluchis were raised. In 1971, a Frontier Force battalion consisting of Baluchis was also raised.
Many Pakistanis along with other foreigners serve in Bahrain’s police, National Guard and armed forces. This fact has been highlighted recently in view of protests in many Arab states and additional requirement of personnel for riot control. Bahrain saw large scale protests recently against ruling dynasty. Government needed more man power to control the situation. GCC under the leadership of Saudi Arabia sent about 4000 soldiers mostly Saudi troops to Bahrain. Bahrain’s foreign minister Khalid Bin Ahmed al Khalifa visited Islamabad in March 2011 and Commander of Bahrain’s National Guards Lieutenant General Sheikh Mohammad bin Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa visited Pakistan in December 2010 and June 2011. Defence cooperation between two countries was the main subject during the talks, however Pakistan army knowing the potential political fallout stayed in the background and let the President and Prime Minister handle the issue. No exact data is available but some estimate that few thousand Pakistanis serve in Bahrain’s police, National Guards and armed forces. A small Pakistani contingent of about a battalion strength has been serving mainly in training capacity long before the start of protests. There is no evidence that these Pakistani soldiers were used in crackdown on protesters. In the last few months, about 1000 additional retired military personnel from Pakistan have been recruited for Bahrain by welfare foundations run by Pakistan army and navy.
In Bahrain the negative fallout is for a large number of Pakistani workers and there have been instances of violence against them. Several Pakistanis were killed and many wounded by angry mobs of Bahrainis. Many Pakistanis left their homes for fear of their safety. Some of these Pakistanis families are now living in facilities run by Bahraini government as well as Pakistan Club run by Pakistani embassy. Bahraini protesters obviously object to presence of foreigners in security apparatus but there is also a sectarian angle. Majority of population is Shia while ruling family is Sunni. They view recruitment of foreign Sunnis as an attempt to suppress Shia. Iran obviously sympathizing with Shia kin of Bahrain has strongly objected to recruitment of Pakistanis in Bahrain’s forces. Pakistan’s charge de affairs in Tehran was summoned by Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister and warned about negative fallout on Pakistan-Iran relations. In addition, Shia organizations in Pakistan also protested this action of Pakistani government. As expected Pakistani Sunni clerics came out supporting Saudi Arabia and Gulf sheikhdoms.
The best course for Bahrain is to use minimal force, deploy mainly indigenous forces for law and order and institute constitutional reforms to satisfy its own citizens. Heavy handedness will surely radicalize some in the opposition resulting in a self-fulfilled prophecy. If there is any proof of foreign involvement in unrest, they should make it public. On part of opposition forces, it will be suicidal for their cause to get direct help from Iran. This will simply confirm the ruling dynasty’s narrative that Shia are not loyal citizens of the state thus justifying continued denial of their rights. Leaders of opposition movement have great responsibility to keep protests peaceful.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in a sectarian war for the last three decades. The battlefields are scattered everywhere including Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. New battle lines are being drawn where Saudi Arabia is trying to scare Iran by threat of overwhelming Sunni numbers. Riyadh is lining up Sunni countries including almost all Arab countries, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia. Iran is left with a smaller team of ruling Alawi Syrian regime and Hezbollah. The prospect of a new potential ally in case of overthrow of minority Sunni ruling dynasty in Bahrain is quite a welcome thought for Iran. To counter enormous numbers Tehran is also trying to work with Sunni schools of thought at variance with Saudi puritanical version as well as trying to take control of the ‘emotional push button’ issue of Palestinian cause by supporting almost exclusively Sunni Hamas in occupied territories.
Iran is very nervous at losing its only Arab ally Syria. Tehran is vocally supporting opposition movements in all Arab countries but totally silent about Syria. The reason is quite obvious that in case of a democratic change in Syria, the power hold of minority Alawi regime will disappear. Thought of a Sunni government in Damascus is quite discomforting to Tehran. If new government aligns with Saudi Arabia, it can cut off the lifeline of Tehran’s support to its proxies in Lebanon. Tehran can potentially loose one important ally (Syria) and left with a much weaker proxy (Hezbollah) in one stroke. If recently concluded Egypt mediated reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas results in weaning of Hamas from Tehran, then Iran will be left only with a weak Hezbollah on Middle Eastern chessboard. The case of Bahrain is opposite where Shia majority is ruled by a Sunni dynasty. In case of democratic change, a Shia dominated government more friendly with Tehran can come to power. It was this fear that sent shock waves in Riyadh forcing dispatch of Saudi troops to Bahrain. Riyadh is trying to rally Arab as well as non-Arab countries to its cause. GCC welcomed Jordan and Morocco’s request to join GCC. Saudis are also negotiating with Indonesia and Malaysia for possible troop commitment in Gulf.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are actively involved in Afghanistan and Pakistan through their proxies. Recently, Director General of Inter Services Intelligence (DGISI) Lieutenant General Ahmad Shuja Pasha disclosed during in-camera briefing to Parliament that some Pakistani clerics were receiving funds from Saudi Arabia. It is an open secret that a large number of madrassahs in Pakistan receive funds from government and non-government sources from Gulf and Saudi Arabia. Iran on its part is trying to counter this by supporting its own proxies inside Pakistan.
Tehran and Riyadh are embarking on a very dangerous course and both countries are equally guilty of stoking the sectarian fires all over the Muslim world. Every effort should be made by citizens of both countries to put pressure on their respective governments to focus on internal problems and avoid proxy war. Citizens of both countries deserve a peaceful and prosperous future and not to be used as instruments of another round of fratricidal war. Tehran should remember that the ‘spring’ is not going to be restricted to Arab world. Young Iranians are as disappointed from their own cleric cum politicians. Large scale protests in the aftermath of President Ahmadinejad’s elections were the first warning shots. The pressure from below is gradually building and in the next 2-3 years, it is very likely that streets of major Iranian cities will see large scale protests. It is in Iranian interest to focus more on internal problems and avoid stoking the sectarian fires.
Increased involvement of Pakistan in the security affairs of Arab countries can have some negative fallout. It will increase the sectarian gulf inside Pakistan and first shots were recently fired. In Karachi, there was wall chalking against recruitment of Pakistanis in Bahrain’s security forces and Shia organizations staged protests. In response, clerics of Ahl Hadith (group close to Saudi school of thought) and Deobandi school of thought gathered and raised concerns about criticism of Sunni ruling houses of Arab world. There was a grenade attack on Saudi Consulate in Karachi and few days later a Saudi diplomat was assassinated in Karachi. A large number of Pakistanis work in Gulf states and Saudi Arabia. Pakistan’s involvement in security affairs in the context of protests entails the risk that all Pakistanis will be linked with the state’s oppression thus coming under attack from opposition forces of these countries. Recently, there were attacks on Pakistani workers in Bahrain causing fear among all Pakistanis.
Pakistan’s main problem is its economy. Pakistan’s increased engagement in security affairs of Gulf is transactional in nature. In view of deteriorating relations with U.S. and potential drying up of economic resources from Washington is forcing Pakistani civilian and military leaders to look towards newer and greener pastures. Oil prices running over $100 a barrel means that new checks will come from Arab patrons. No one hands money freely and in return Pakistan will be asked to do some heavy lifting. Poor countries like Pakistan are now caught in the fratricidal war in the house of Islam. Pakistan can diminish the fallout for its own country by following the example of Bangladesh. Bangladesh has so far kept its forces out of the Middle East fires. Instead it gets economic benefits from increasing troop contribution to more acceptable and less risky United Nations peace keeping missions. If Pakistan can strictly limit military missions to training in Gulf then it can mitigate some of the side effects of such ventures.
Some more tidbits from Arab Air-Force historian “Crowbat”
Here some additional ‘bits and pieces’ that might be useful to enhance Mr. Hussain’s write-up. It’s based on interviews with several Jordanian, Egyptian, and one of Bangladeshi (ex-Pakistani) pilots that served during those fateful times (entire story can be found in books Arab MiGs, Volume 3, and Arab MiGs, Volume 4):
– Pakistani Air Force was posting two of its pilots to the RJAF already since early 1960s. One of them, Hamid Anwar, barely survived a crash with a two-seat Hunter flown by RJAF pilot 1st Lt Amer Zaza, in 1964 (Anwar ejected on time, Zaza too late: he descended with the parachute right into the burning wrecakge of their aircraft…).
– Two PAF officers served with No. 1 Squadron RJAF (flying Hunters), during the June 1967 Arab Israeli War, and were granted permission to fly combat sorties over Jordan. Flt Lt Saif-ul-Azam flew two sorties on 6 June 1967, then evacuated to Iraq with rest of RJAF fighter-pilots, and flew another sortie with Iraqi Hunters over H-3 airfield, two days later. He was credited with three confirmed kills and highly decorated (by Jordanians, Iraqis, and Pakistanis), before quitting the PAF and joining the newly-established Bangladesh Air Force, following the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War. Flt Lt Sarwar Shad fell ill and was hospitalized, on 5 June 1967, and did not fly during that war.
– After the June 1967 War, Azam and Shad were replaced by two unknown pilots. For most of the next two years, they served with the RJAF contingent in Iraq (based there because nearly all of Jordanian Hunters were destroyed and airfields had to be repaired). In March 1969, these were replaced by Flt Lts Noor Khan (future Air Marshal) and Akmal: immediately on arrival in Amman, Noor Khan and Akmal were sent to Dmeyr AB in Syria, where they joined the rest of reorganized No.1 Squadron RJAF. Within few weeks, they were reinforced by a bigger group of advisers, including Muhammad Mahmood Alam (probably the most famous PAF pilot of the 1965 Indo-Pakistani War), Arif Manzoor, Atique Sufi, Shahid Foozi and Sarafaz…. (there would be a lot to say about what kind of training they run in Syria, but that’s ‘a different story’…).
– As soon as Mafraq AB was completely rebuilt and extended, they moved back to Jordan and then the RJAF began receiving F-104 Starfighters from the USA. During the summer 1969, Pakistanis assisted in conversion of about 15 Jordanian pilots to that type…
…that said, it seems at least a few Pakistanis did remain in Syria until at least 1972, when they were met there by the CO of an Egyptian MiG-17-squadron deployed in that country…
A big delegation from Pakistani Army visited Jordan immediately after the June 1967 War. I don’t know much about it though. Jordanians only told me that the Pakistanis were instrumental for reorganization of the Jordanian Army and introduction of divisional structure.
– In regards of Saudi Arabia… it was around the same time – i.e. between 1967 and 1970 – that another group of PAF pilots was seconded to the RSAF. They flew six Hunters acquired to support introduction to service of Lightning interceptors purchased by Saudi Arabia from the UK, and did so together with a small group of contracted British personnel. It was them that saw the ‘standoff’ with Egyptian forces involved in Yemen War ofthe 1960s, mentioned by Mr. Hussein. I do not know any of their names, though…
and from Pakistani Air-Force writer Group Capt. M. Kaisar Tufail (PAF) Post-haste summons for volunteers found an eager band of sixteen Pakistan Air Force (PAF) fighter-pilots on their way to the Middle East, in the midst of the 1973 Arab-Israeli ‘Ramadhan’ War. After a gruelling Peshawar-Karachi-Baghdad flight on a PAF Fokker F-27, they were whisked off to Damascus in a Syrian jet. Upon arrival, half the batch was told to stay back in Syria while the rest were earmarked for Egypt. By the time the PAF batch reached Cairo, Egypt had agreed to a cease-fire; it was therefore decided that they would continue as instructors. But in Syria it was another story.
The batch in Syria was made up of pilots who were already serving there on deputation (except one), but had been repatriated before the war. Now they were back in familiar surroundings as well as familiar aircraft, the venerable MiG-21. They were posted to No. 67 Squadron, ‘Alpha’ Detachment (all PAF). Hasty checkouts were immediately followed by serious business of Air Defence Alert scrambles and Combat Air Patrols from the air base at Dumayr.
Syria had not agreed to a ceasefire, since Israeli operations in Golan were continuing at a threatening pace. Israeli Air Force missions included interdiction under top cover, well supported by intense radio jamming as the PAF pilots discovered. The PAF formation using the call-sign “Shahbaz” was formidable in size – all of eight aircraft. Shahbaz soon came to stand out as one that couldn’t be messed with, in part because its tactics were innovative and bold. Survival, however, in a jammed-radio environment was concern number one. As a precaution, the Pakistanis decided to switch to Urdu for fear of being monitored in English. Suspicions were confirmed during one patrol, when healthy Punjabi invectives hurled on radio got them wondering if Mossad had recruited a few Khalsas for the job!
After several months of sporadic activity, it seemed that hostilities were petering out. While the Shahbaz patrols over Lebanon and Syria had diminished in frequency, routine training sorties started to register a rise. Under these conditions it was a surprise when on the afternoon of 26th April 1974, the siren blasted from the air-shafts of the underground bunker. Backgammon boards were pushed aside and the “qehva” session was interrupted as all eight pilots rushed to their MiGs; they were airborne within minutes. From Dumayr to Beirut, then along the Mediterranean coast till Sidon, and a final leg eastwards, skirting Damascus and back to base – this was the usual patrol, flown at an altitude of 6 km.
The limited fuel of their early model MiG-21F permitted just a 30 minutes sortie; this was almost over when ground radar blurted out on the radio that two bogeys (unidentified aircraft) were approaching from the southerly direction ie Israel. At this stage fuel was low and an engagement was the least preferred option. Presented with a fait accompli, the leader of the formation called a defensive turn into the bogeys. Just then heavy radio jamming started, sounding somewhat similar to the “takka tak” at our meat joints, only more shrill. While the formation was gathering itself after the turn, two Israeli F-4E Phantoms sped past almost head-on, seemingly unwilling to engage. Was it a bait?
Flt. Lt. Sattar Alvi, now the rear-most in the formation, was still adjusting after the hard turn when he caught sight of two Mirage-IIICJ zooming into them from far below. With no way of warning the formation of the impending disaster, he instinctively decided to handle them alone. Peeling away from his formation, he turned hard into the Mirages so that one of them overshot. Against the other, he did a steep reversal dropping his speed literally to zero. (it takes some guts to let eight tons of metal hang up in unfriendly air!) The result was that within a few seconds the second Mirage filled his gun-sight, the star of David and all. While Sattar worried about having to concentrate for precious seconds in aiming and shooting, the lead Mirage started to turn around to get Sattar. Thinking that help was at hand, the target Mirage decided to accelerate away. A quick-witted Sattar reckoned that a missile shot would be just right for the range his target had opened up to. A pip of a button later, a K-13 heat-seeker sped off towards the tail of the escaping Mirage. Sattar recollects that it wasn’t as much an Israeli aircraft as a myth that seemed to explode in front of him. (The letter ‘J’ in Mirage-IIICJ stood for ‘Jewish’, it may be noted.) He was tempted to watch the flaming metal rain down, but with the other Mirage lurking around and fuel down to a few hundred litres, he decided to exit. Diving down with careless abandon, he allowed a couple of Sonic bangs over Damascus. (word has it that the Presidential Palace wasn’t amused). His fuel tanks bone dry, Sattar made it to Dumayr on the vapours that remained.
As the other formation members started to trickle in, the leader, Sqn. Ldr. Arif Manzoor anxiously called out for Sattar to check if he was safe. All had thought that Sattar, a bit of a maverick that he was, had landed himself in trouble. Shouts of joy went up on the radio, however, when they learnt that he had been busy shooting down a Mirage.
The Syrians were overwhelmed when they learnt that the impunity and daring of the Pakistani pilots had paid off. Sattar was declared a blood brother by the Syrians, for he had shared in shedding the blood of a common enemy, they explained.
Sattar’s victim Captain M. Lutz of No. 5 Air Wing, Israeli Air Force (IAF), based at Hatzor, ejected out of his disintegrating aircraft. It has been learnt that the Mirages were on a reconnaissance mission, escorted by Phantoms of No. 1 Air Wing, IAF operating out of Ramat David Air base. The Phantoms were to trap any interceptors while the Mirages carried out the recce. Timely warning by the radar controller (also from the PAF) had turned the tables on the escorts, allowing Sattar to sort out the Mirages.
The dogfight over Golan is testimony to the skills of all PAF pilots, insists Sattar, as he thinks anyone could have got the kill had he been “Shahbaz-8” on that fateful day. Sattar and his leader Sqn. Ldr. Arif Manzoor, were awarded two of Syria’s highest decorations for gallantry, the Wisaam Faris and Wisaam Shuja’at. The Government of Pakistan awarded them a Sitara-e-Jurat each. Sattar, an epitome of a fighter pilot, befittingly went on to command PAF’s elite Combat Commanders’ School (CCS) and the premier PAF Base Rafiqui (Shorkot). He retired recently as an Air Commodore.