November 17, 2014

ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusrah alliance - a wrench in Obama's plan?

The flags of ISIS (left) and Jabhat al-Nusrah (right)

Media reports of an alliance between the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - which calls itself the Islamic State or the Caliphate - and the al-Qa'idah affiliate in Syria known as Jabhat al-Nusrah (the Victory Front), could derail the Obama Administration's strategy to "degrade, and ultimately destroy" the organization.

The Obama strategy has been to use American and coalition airpower to support a ground force - which does not include U.S. troops - in the fight against ISIS. In Iraq, that has a possibility of success, after all, there is a standing Iraqi army, supplemented by the Kurdish forces known as the peshmerga ("those who confront death"). The Iraqi army had been trained and equipped by the United States and some of our European allies, at great expense to the American taxpayer.

Many analysts were surprised, even shocked, when that U.S.-trained Iraqi army collapsed in the face of the ISIS advance on the northern Iraqi city of Mosul (al-mawsil, Iraq's second largest city). The Iraqi forces, who outnumbered and outgunned the attacking ISIS fighters, should have been able to easily stop and defeat the approaching Islamist forces.

Instead, the Iraqi ranks broke, the soldiers removed their uniforms, and abandoned much of their state-of-the-art American-made equipment. That equipment is now in the hands of ISIS, and being used by them - many of the ISIS fighters are former Iraqi army soldiers and capable of using the weapons and materiel.

Following the departure - premature in my opinion - of American troops in 2011, there were no Americans on the ground to monitor the status of the Iraqi army. Neither Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki nor President Barack Obama engaged in serious attempts to work out an agreement by which American forces could remain in Iraq.

Prime Minister al-Maliki was being pressured by his Iranian sponsors to force the Americans out, and President Obama was anxious to end the American involvement in the country, regardless of the security situation. The Iraqi army devolved from a fairly competent albeit nascent fighting force to a corrupt, undisciplined and hollow organization controlling (and stealing) vast amounts of national treasure. For a detailed description of what happened to the Iraqi military, see my June 24 article, Where is the Iraqi Army?

After taking Mosul, ISIS began a well-planned and well-executed military campaign in northern and western Iraq, moving down the Tigris Valley and expanding its holdings in the Euphrates Valley. This prompted an American response - the formation of a coalition and the commencement of air operations against ISIS targets in both Iraq and Syria.

The stated Obama foreign policy goal is to "degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL" (the government term for ISIS)*. The strategy to achieve that goal is to continue the air operations in both countries, complemented by ground operations. It is the ground operations that are the difficult part of the strategy. The Iraqi army must be re-organized into an effective fighting force - no small task.

The initial American assessments of just how bad the Iraqi army has become were worse than anyone had imagined. It was this realization that drove President Obama's decision to double the American troop presence in Iraq, and expand their operations from Baghdad and Irbil (in the Kurdish autonomous region) to training and adviser missions in embattled al-Anbar province.

That piece of the plan addresses Iraq, and given time and appropriate American commitment, at least has a chance of being successful. If it is not successful, that raises the possibility of the re-introduction of American combat units to address the threat posed by ISIS. That is an argument for another day.

The effort in Syria is much more problematic. The country is involved in a civil war that has raged since early 2011. Over 200,000 Syrians have been killed, hundreds of thousands more wounded, and millions have been displaced to refugee camps in Syria or in the neighboring countries.

The Obama plan for Syria is to vet, train and equip "moderate Syrian opposition" forces to fight ISIS. "Moderate opposition forces" generally means the association of groups that comprise the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The FSA is made up of a large number of Syrian military personnel who have defected and taken up arms against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad.

Here is where it gets complicated. ISIS is fighting in Syria to establish its so-called caliphate, the Islamic State. To accomplish this, they have been fighting virtually everyone in the country. That includes not only the Syrian regime, but also the FSA; the Syrian Kurds who occupy enclaves near Aleppo, along the Syrian border with Turkey and the areas of northeast Syria adjacent to Iraq; and Jabhat al-Nusrah.

There are other groups in Syria as well, and many have overlapping loyalties, most of them temporary and tactical. In short, it is a confusing mess. There are a few analysts who try to keep track of what is happening with the multiple groups in Syria, but things change daily based on the situation and the many moving parts.

That said, there is a major change that might be problematic for the Obama strategy. According to multiple media sources, Jabhat al-Nusrah and ISIS have agreed to a temporary alliance to fight the Syrian regime and any U.S./coalition forces in Syria. Both of these organizations now consider the FSA as part of the U.S.-led coalition.

With their combined forces and capabilities, ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusrah pose a real threat to the FSA. In the area around Aleppo where the FSA controlled large swaths of territory, attacks by the Syrian armed forces, ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusrah are taking a toll as the FSA appears to be under attack from all sides.

It is a smart strategy for ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusrah - make alliances with those who share a common enemy, or as we Middle East players recite the local adage, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." When ISIS joins with Jabhat al-Nusrah to fight the FSA, who has suffered from heavy attacks by the al-Asad regime in the Aleppo area, the FSA's chance of survival decreases dramatically. Several FSA units have been routed - they abandoned to ISIS/Jabhat al-Nusrah the new gem in the FSA arsenal - the U.S.-made highly effective TOW antitank guided missile system.

If ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusrah are successful in their campaign against the FSA, the Obama strategy, which is already in trouble, might actually strengthen ISIS instead of degrading it. According to public announcements from the Administration, it will take about a year to vet and train a few thousand FSA fighters - that is just too few, too late. With the new ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusrah alliance, the FSA may not survive that long.

Here is a key point. The FSA is focused on removing the regime of Bashar al-Asad from power, not the defeat of ISIS. The Obama Administration wants them to fight, well, actually to "degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL." These are two distinctly different objectives. If I was the FSA, I would say whatever the Obama Administration wants to hear, accept the money, weapons and training ostensibly to fight ISIS, and then go after the Syrian regime. Anyone who understands the Middle East knows that is exactly what will happen.

ISIS murdering Syrian air force captives - November 2014

The next few weeks will tell. It might be time to recognize the ISIS-Jabhat al-Nusrah alliance and go after both groups. Given the brutal murders of American Peter (also known as 'Abd al-Rahman) Kassig and 20 Syrian air force captives (photo above), they are cut from the same cloth and should be dealt with accordingly. Hopefully, we will hear no more talk of "managing ISIS" from the Administration.

This alleged alliance between ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusrah is a concern. The two groups have significant combat power and could conceivably pose a threat to the viability of the FSA, Obama's chosen proxy in Syria. The FSA is being currently battered by the Syrian army and air force - their stronghold of Aleppo is almost completely surrounded by regime troops. Even if they are successful in holding out against the Syrian forces, now they must contend with the combined power of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusrah.

For ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusrah, this tactical alliance is the smart move. It's what I would do in their shoes. It neutralizes the American proxy threat (the FSA) and removes an impediment to the establishment of a caliphate in the region.

* The debate over the terms ISIS versus ISIL revolves around the translation of the Arabic name for Damascus, Syria and the Levant. See my detailed explanation at ISIS versus ISIL - what's in a name?

November 14, 2014

Iranian nuclear talks - maybe time to walk away?

The only thing spinning faster than Iran's almost 20,000 centrifuges is the rhetoric coming from both sides of the issue.

According to the Iranians, 90 percent of the issues have been resolved. The American negotiator, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, says "there has been impressive progress on issues that originally seemed intractable. We have cleared up misunderstandings and held exhaustive discussions on every element of a possible text."

Amazing - you would think that with those statements from the two participants who matter the most, we are on the verge of a groundbreaking agreement that will end Iran's quest for nuclear weapons and that the economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic are about to be lifted.

You would be wrong.

The talks are nowhere - all the years of "negotiating" (if it can be called that) - have yielded almost nothing positive for anyone but Iran. While the P5+1 (the five permanent member nations of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) have been attempting to convince Iran to abandon its drive to acquire a nuclear weapons capability, Iran has been aggressively enriching uranium and building a reactor that can produce plutonium. We're talking while they are pursuing two separate efforts to acquire the fissile material required to produce nuclear weapons.

Time is and has been on Iran's side. In all of the years of talks on this issue, the Iranians have not agreed to much, and those conditions they they do accept, they violate. It is their strategy - keep the talks going while they develop the materials needed for a weapon. Each and every time the talks are about to collapse and the threats of additional sanctions loom on the horizon, Iran agrees to more talks, or agrees to talk about having more talks.

That is what is happening yet again. There are 10 days remaining until the next deadline, another deadline in an series of deadlines. In November 2013, the P5+1 and Iran reached an interim deal - at that point Iran agreed to reduce some of its enrichment activity in return for the easing of some of the economic sanctions. The parties agreed to continue the process for one year, with a new deadline of November 24, 2014. There was a strange mechanism of allowing "negotiations" until July 20, 2014, followed by four months of drafting the agreement.

As most Middle East analysts predicted, the negotiating period and drafting period have almost expired, and there is no deal in sight. Faced with the November 24 deadline, there are calls for yet another extension. Yes, the P5+1 will agree to talk, and the Iranians will continue to expand their inventory of fissile material. However, it gets better. Some of the parties are proposing that during the new extension period, there be additional sanctions relief for the Iranian economy, which is in a recession.

This is insanity. It rewards Iran's refusal to make any serious concessions in its enrichment activity. The Iranians have learned over the years that their intransigence is usually met with P5+1 concessions. It is the same cycle over and over.

Perhaps it is time to tell the Iranians that the time for talking is over, that additional tougher economic sanctions are a virtual certainty in the wake of the Republican gains in the recent U.S. elections, and that under no circumstances will the Islamic Republic be allowed to develop the capability to build a nuclear weapon.

President Obama needs to stick to his original position that no deal is better than a bad deal. Here are the conditions, what is your answer: yes or no? A "no" response means the imposition of crippling sanctions we have been promising for years.

If that doesn't work, nothing has been taken off the table. Iranian leaders only need look to the west and south - there is a lot of American airpower in the region dealing with ISIS, based in countries that are not favorable to the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.

If that sounds like a threat, so be it.

November 4, 2014

Voting - Syrian style

Syrian President Bashar al-Asad and wife Asma' casting their ballots

Today is election day in the United States, the day we Americans elect who will govern the country. It is a right most of us take for granted, and too few of us actually exercise. For those of us who have served abroad in countries that do not have this right, it is disappointing to watch the low turnout numbers.

Let me contrast our right to vote with an anecdote about voting in Syria.

In the early to mid-1990s, I served as the air attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus. As with any embassy tour, you develop friendships among the local population. Since both my wife and I could speak Arabic, it was fairly easy for us to meet people. One of the couples that we met were a doctor and his wife - great people. We will call them Samir and Layla Fulani.

One night we were invited to dinner at the Fulanis' - it happened to be election day in Syria. Samir was a bit late getting home from the state-run hospital where he worked. After his initial greetings to Layla and the children, he sat down and we began a conversation. I asked him if he had voted in the election during the day. He laughed, shaking his head, saying the Arabic equivalent of "what a joke."

I asked him what he meant - although I was under no illusion that the Syrian regime of Hafiz al-Asad (father of the current president) was going to conduct free and fair elections. Samir recounted his "voting" experience.

The doctor had arrived at the hospital that morning at the usual time. As he was walking across the lobby to his office, the hospital director called out to Samir and asked him to come into his office. In the office were two Ba'th Party officials. I asked Samir how he knew they were party officials. He smiled at me and said, "Oh, you just know."

The officials welcomed Samir and asked him if he planned to vote that day. He responded that he was planning to stop by on his way home from work and cast his ballot. One of the officials gave the typical Levantine click of the tongue and remarked that since the doctor was so busy and of course a loyal supporter of the Ba'th Party, that he had taken the liberty of filling out Samir's ballot for him.

Before I continue, I want to stress that Samir and I were good friends, so we often "tweaked" each other a bit. So, I asked him how the official had voted? He just nodded and gave me the "I'll get you later" smile. I then asked how he let them get away with such obvious voter intimidation and voter fraud. He asked me, "My brother Rick, how long have you lived here?"

I replied, "Long enough to know the answer."

That's how the Syrian president is elected and re-elected. Normally in the past, it was a referendum - do you want Hafiz al-Asad, or later, Bashar al-Asad to be the President of the Syrian Arab Republic? Yes or no. In the last election, the system was changed to allow multiple candidates. Who but an approved patsy is going to run against a brutal dictator?

The joke in Damascus - and you have to laugh sometimes to get by in these countries - was that after the election/referendum, an aide ran into the president's office and reported that the president had won 99.7 percent of the vote - what more could he want? The president replied, "The names of the .3...."

No matter how many hiccups there are today, and there will be some, at least we get to cast a real vote. Please exercise that right - many of us served in some faraway places to guarantee that you continue to have that right.

October 29, 2014

Iraqi peshmerga troops cross Turkey to Kobani - why, and will it matter?

The initial cadre of Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters headed for the northern Syrian town of Kobani arrived in Turkey early Wednesday (October 29). The group of 80 men flew from an Iraqi air base outside Irbil to a Turkish air base near the city of Saniurfa, about 30 miles north of Kobani - they brought with them just light weapons. The fighters were loaded onto buses and headed south toward the Syrian border, with a Turkish military escort.

At the same time, a convoy of 70 Iraqi peshmerga fighters and vehicles - heavy trucks, armored vehicles and a variety of SUVs - departed Irbil and made its way into Turkey at the Habur border crossing*, adjacent to the Iraqi city of Zakhu.

The Iraqi Kurd convoy (see top photos) is transporting the remainder of the peshmerga force with heavy weapons - artillery and mortars - which will be of great use in the fighting against members of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The Syrian Kurds, who are not as experienced or well-equipped as their Iraqi cousins, have been outmanned and outgunned in the battle for Kobani which has been raging for weeks now.

As many as 200,000 Syrian Kurds have fled the ISIS assault on Kobani and the surrounding area. It was only the introduction of U.S.-lead coalition airpower that has provided enough firepower to allow the Kurdish fighters of the People's Protection Units (abbreviated as YPG in Kurdish) to stave off what appeared to be an inevitable defeat.

The peshmerga convoy must traverse 375 road miles to bring the additional troops and the greater firepower from Irbil to Kobani (see maps) - it is 125 miles from Irbil to the border crossing at Habur/Zakhu, and then another 250 miles to Kobani, Syria.

I traveled these roads years ago - they were in good condition, used for years by the the Turkish Army in its military campaign against its own Kurds and the Kurdish Workers' Party, known by its Kurdish abbreviation, the PKK. The PKK has been designated to be a terrorist organization by the U.S. Department of State.

There are several extraordinary things going on here. Having followed events in these countries for almost four decades, some of it is surprising and beyond what I thought I would ever see. The Turks allowing an armed Kurdish force, be they Iraqi, Syrian or Turkish Kurds is almost mind boggling. The conflict between the Turks and the Kurds resident in Turkey has been going on for 30 years. The separatist PKK mounted an armed insurgency, killing tens of thousands of Turkish citizens - and used northern Syria as a base of operations.

To complicate things, the former Syrian president, Hafiz al-Asad - father of the current ruler - allowed the PKK to use Syrian territory when he wanted to try to pressure Ankara to settle border or water rights issues. The Turks regard the YPG as linked to the PKK and as having cooperated with them in their cross-border operations into Turkey. You can be sure that the Turks are paying close attention to how many of which weapons are entering Turkey and then being introduced into Syria. They will probably want an accounting when this is all over.

So why are the Turks being so cooperative all of a sudden?

Up until now, the Turks have paid only lip-service to supporting the coalition. The coalition can only use Turkish air bases for humanitarian operations, not to launch the airstrikes required to blunt ISIS's offensives in eastern Syria and western Iraq.

Turkish leaders have stated conditions that must be met before they fully participate in the coalition: they want a commitment that the coalition will support the removal of the current Syrian regime, the imposition of a no-fly zone over Syria and establishment of a security buffer zone inside Syria along the Turkish border. Thus far, the coalition has not agreed to those conditions.

The Turks have been soundly criticized in world public opinion for their lack of support to the coalition and their seeming willingness to sit within sight of the slaughter in Kobani and do nothing. The decision to allow the Iraqi Kurds to transit Turkey to reinforce the Syrian Kurds in Kobani is nothing more than a compromise - it makes Turkey look good without having to really do anything other than continue to sit an watch.

If the reports we are reading in the media are accurate, there will now be an additional 150 Kurds in Kobani fighting the ISIS assault. Granted, the Iraqi Kurds are bringing some better firepower in the form of artillery and mortars - indirect fire weapons that can accurately place rounds on ISIS targets. There are also reports of a group of 50 Free Syrian Army (FSA) having arrived in Kobani to assist in the fight against ISIS. The FSA is the "moderate" opposition fighters the United States hopes will be "boots on the ground" to confront ISIS and to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Asad.

Are 200 more fighters going to turn the tide against ISIS?

It depends - what do the 200 bring to the table? There is increased firepower, and most likely skilled artillery soldiers to make it effective. One can hope that in that group of Iraqi peshmerga there are a few that have received training from the American "advisers" on how to properly coordinate airstrikes and close air support. The airstrikes by American B-1 bombers appear to be the key reason the city has not fallen to ISIS.

Both sides have blood and resources invested in winning the battle of Kobani. For the Syrian Kurds, it is their home. For the Iraqi Kurds, it is the commitment to defend their fellow Kurds, their cousins if you will.

On the opposite side, ISIS wants to consolidate their gains in this part of Syria, particularly on the Syrian border. They have lost hundreds of fighters and do not want to face another defeat - it would represent the beginning of the end of the blitzkrieg between the Turkish border and Baghdad. In Iraq, the Iraqi Army with Shi'a militia support has retaken a key area southwest of Baghdad. Another defeat - such as a loss in Kobani - would deal a serious blow to ISIS's momentum.

That said, will the 200 additional fighters make a difference in the battle? Hard to say. With constant American airstrikes and now Kurdish artillery, it is certainly more of an equal fight. I am now more optimistic, but the realist in me believes it could still go either way.

* In the 1990's, I used this crossing numerous times while assigned to the CIA to work with the Kurds in northern Iraq.

The author and Kurdish peshmerga fighter in northern Iraq - 1995

October 27, 2014

Messrs Obama, Kerry, Hagel - send the Apaches to Egypt already!

It was supposed to be part of the solution, part of the reconciliation effort between the governments of Egypt and the United States. Relations between the two countries - once close allies - had been strained since the 2013 ouster of the elected President of Egypt, Muslim Brotherhood member Muhammad Mursi.

On July 3, 2013, following a series of massive protests - at one point comprising almost 30 percent of the Egyptian population - Minister of Defense General 'Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi removed President Mursi from power, appointed an interim government, suspended the constitution, and called for new presidential and parliamentary elections.

The author with then-Minister of Defense General 'Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi (September 2013)

For all practical purposes, and in the U.S. government's view, this was a military coup d'etat. The new Egyptian leadership disagreed - I had this conversation with General al-Sisi in Cairo soon after he had removed Mursi. He explained that he was merely "executing the will of the Egyptian people."

I asked if he had mobilized units of the Egyptian Army and deployed them at key positions around Cairo and other major cities around the country. He allowed that he had, but claimed that it was not a coup as he did not assume power, but instead had asked the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to act as the interim authority pending new elections.

I knew where he was going with this line of explanation. American law is very specific in how we react as a nation to military takeovers. I said that I understood his concern that the United States government would label this a coup and be forced to react. His fears were well placed.

The United States, citing the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, immediately cut off all aid to Egypt, including the annual $1.5 billion in military assistance. Although President Barack Obama had the authority to waive the requirements of the law, he chose not to do so and applied sanctions on the interim Egyptian government.

The results were immediate. The Egyptian armed forces, charged with keeping the peace in the face of the expected Muslim Brotherhood violence - aimed mainly at the mostly defenseless Coptic Christians - found themselves without access to needed military hardware and spare parts.

The United States still maintains those sanctions on Egypt. The Egyptian military has had to ground many of its Apache helicopters and F-16 fighter-bombers when they are sorely needed to fight a growing Muslim Brotherhood insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula.

By April 2014, it was obvious to the United States that the Egyptians needed the additional 10 Apache helicopters that were on order, as well as the spare parts and maintenance assistance to address the Sinai situation. Egypt had ordered the 10 helicopters in 2010 to augment the 35 aircraft which have been in the Egyptian Air Force inventory since 2003.

On April 22, 2014 the Department of Defense announced that the U.S. government has vacated it suspension of the delivery of helicopters. The mood in Cairo was one of relief, that the helicopters would soon be on their way and the relationship between the two militaries was on the mend. When asked about the delivery, Secretary of State John Kerry said the deliveries would "take place without further delay."

However, the helicopters have yet to be delivered. This despite the assurances by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel just last month that the deliveries were forthcoming. The decision to release the helicopters does not affect the ban on other weapons systems on order - F-16 fighter jets, M1A1 main battle tank kits for local production, and Harpoon anti-ship missiles.

The AH-64 Apache bases - Abu Hamad and Wadi al-Jandali

Egypt's Apaches are flown by the Air Force's 550th Air Brigade (the "Dragons"), with the 51st Squadron "Vipers" operating out of Wadi al-Jandali air base (east of Cairo) and the 52nd Squadron "Eagles" based at Abu Hamad air base (north of Cairo). It is a short flight to the Sinai.

The continuing violence in the Sinai was underscored last Friday (October 24) by a coordinated attack on an Army checkpoint on which 31 soldiers were killed - it was the Army's largest one-day loss of military life in decades. Egyptian authorities believe the attacks were inspired and carried out by the Muslim Brotherhood in retaliation for the coup that removed President Mursi from power in 2013.

President Obama, Secretary Kerry and Secretary Hagel - live up to your word. Give the Egyptians the tools they need to fight the Muslim Brotherhood - deliver the helicopters already.

October 26, 2014

Baghdad and its two supporting coalitions

The members of the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are not the only foreign countries supporting Iraq. As evidenced by the Facebook post above, both the Russian Federation and the Islamic Republic of Iran are participating, and have opened up a joint operations center in Baghdad. This is a parallel, separate operations center from the two American-Iraqi joint operations centers (one in Baghdad and one in the Kurdish regional capital of Irbil).

Iranian and Russian presence in Iraq is nothing new. The Russians are in the process of delivering a variety of weapons to the Iraqi armed forces - these include fighter jets, attack helicopters, mobile air defense systems, artillery pieces and rocket launchers. Those sales packages, of course, come with the requisite trainers and advisers.

The Russian-Iraqi military relationship goes back decades - Moscow was the primary supplier of Iraqi weapons from 1958 until the removal of the Saddam Husayn regime in 2003. The current Iraqi inventory is a mixture of American and European - both East and West - equipment.

The deployment of Russian officers as advisers in this joint Iraqi-Iranian-Russian operations center is a new development. For the Russians, it is an attempt to once again be relevant in Iraq, part of Russian President Vladimir Putin's effort to once again be relevant in the overall Middle East.

The Iranians have been a key player in Iraqi politics since the fall of the Ba'th Party and Saddam Husayn. Almost immediately after the Americans removed Saddam, the Iranians attempted to become the major power broker in the Persian Gulf region - with some success.

Iran has been able to create what many analysts call the "Shi'a Crescent" - a band of influence that extends from Beirut through Damascus and Baghdad to Tehran. Iraq has been transformed from an anti-Iran, anti-Syria country to a close ally of both of its neighbors.

Iranian special forces, members of the elite Qods Force, have been in both Syria and Iraq for months fighting ISIS, as well in Syria for years fighting the "moderate" anti-regime rebels. In fact, had Iran not come to the assistance of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad in 2012 by deploying its forces and those of its Lebanese proxy Hizballah, the Syrian regime may well have fallen.

Note the Facebook post on the Iran Military page above - it makes no secret that Iranian forces are in the fight against ISIS. The page highlights the success of the Iranians in retaking the Jurf al-Sakhar area (see map below) from ISIS.

The Jurf al-Sakhar area is located about 25 miles south-southwest of Baghdad in a Sunni-populated area. On the Euphrates River, it is part of the ISIS campaign to seize as much of the Euphrates Valley as possible, putting them in an excellent position to threaten Baghdad and the strategically essential Baghdad International Airport.

Pushing ISIS out of this area is a good thing, and it appears that the Iranians did a good job. I do need to point out that this area was the focus of the very first American airstrikes in Iraq after President Barack Obama authorized U.S. military action in August. One wonders if there was U.S. or coalition air support, or perhaps Iraqi Army Aviation assistance, for this operation.

Iran's stance on the U.S.-led coalition was predictable. Media coverage of a recent meeting between new Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-'Ibadi and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (photo) provided some interesting dialogue.

Khamenei: "We have no trust and confidence in the honesty of those making these remarks (against ISIS) and believe that the issue of ISIS and terrorism should be resolved by regional countries. The present circumstances in the region, including in Iraq, are the outcome of irresponsible policies adopted by transregional powers and certain regional countries in Syria. We believe that the Iraqi nation and government, particularly the country’s youths, are capable of overcoming terrorists and establishing security and there is no need for the presence of foreigners."

I particularly like the hypocrisy of his claim that there is no need for the presence of foreigners in Iraq at the same time as his troops celebrate a victory, as well as announce the formation of a joint Russian-Iranian-Iraqi operations center in Baghdad. I can understand where he might in some tangential way believe that Iranians are not foreigners in Iraq, but then there are the Russians....

So now we have the U.S.-led coalition consisting of Americans, Europeans and Arabs - including the Iraqis, and a parallel coalition of Iranians, Russians and the Iraqis. One has to assume that the Iraqis, the only common denominator in the two, will be coordinating between the two groups.

Normally, having this many military forces in close proximity to each other with different command structures would be dangerous. However, since no one has significant "boots on the ground" except the Iraqis and the Iranians, and the fact that the Iranians*, Iraqis and Russians are not flying combat aircraft, it may work.

What a way to run a war.

* Although the Iranian military is not flying its combat aircraft in Iraq, it is almost certain that Iranian pilots are flying the Iraqi Air Force Sukhoi SU-25 fighters provided by the Islamic Republic. Iraqi pilots have not had experience in that aircraft since 1991, and anyone that has SU-25 experience is either long out of date or no longer serving in the now Shi'a-dominated Iraqi Air Force.

October 21, 2014

The Islamic State Air Force - some perspective, please.... - ADDENDUM

This is an addendum to my October 18 article, The Islamic State Air Force - some perspective, please....

The last section of that article states, "That said, why wait for an engagement? We know where the Syrian air bases are, and we know which are in the hands of ISIS. These are large, fixed targets - put them out of commission. Problem solved. Surely I am not the only one who has thought of that."

Almost immediately after I published the article, I received numerous emails, Facebook comments and Twitter tweets assuring me in no uncertain terms that I was not the only one to advocate bombing the ISIS jets and bases.

Today on Facebook, this was posted on the quasi-official Syrian Arab Army page:

IF TRUE - and I capitalize that for a reason since the Syrian Arab Army Facebook page has in the past promulgated a lot of Syrian regime propaganda, this is a positive development. The Syrian government has much to fear from an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) air capability.

I doubt the Syrian leadership in Damascus was concerned about an air-to-air or air-to ground capability on the part of ISIS - no one is sure what kind of weapons were available at the al-Jirah air base, a base solely used for Syrian Air Force basic jet flight training before the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011.

I believe that the Syrian government, as well as the Iraqi government and the U.S.-led coalition, was more concerned that ISIS might use the captured jets as suicide bomb delivery vehicles, possibly targeting the palace in Damascus. Having lived there, I can attest to the fact that it is an obvious target, dominating the Damascus skyline.

Suicide ISIS jets? Farfetched? We all remember September 11, 2001 when jet airliners were used by al-Qa'idah in the same role, albeit on a grander scale. Another reason I believe this is a possibility is the information that former Iraqi pilots were training ISIS fighters to operate the captured jets. If the jets were to be used as combat aircraft, the Iraqis would just fly them. Training ISIS fighters as pilots indicates something different than mere air operations.

In response to the threat, IF (capitalized) the Syrian government announcement can be believed, Syrian Air Force Sukhoi fighter-bombers flew the 100 miles from Tiyas air base and bombed the captured jet aircraft at the base at al-Jirah, about 45 miles east of Aleppo (see map).

The Syrian Ministry of Information announcement calls the air base "T-4" - this is the old name of the fourth pumping station on the now defunct Kirkuk-Tripoli crude oil pipeline, used to carry oil from the oilfields in Kirkuk, Iraq to the Mediterranean port of Tripoli in what is now Lebanon.

Syrian Air Force Su-24 fighter-bomber

The airstrip at the old pumping station is now known as Tiyas air base, home of the Syrian Air Force 819th Squadron, flying the capable fourth-generation Sukhoi SU-24MK (NATO: Fencer D) fighter-bomber (image).

Over the more than four decades that I have been observing and analyzing the Syrian Air Force, I have never assessed them as a very capable force. However, over the last few years of civil war, it has surprisingly adapted its operations, tactics and even equipment to make itself a relevant part of the Syrian military effort against the Free Syrian Army and other groups supporting the overthrow of the regime of President Bashar al-Asad.

For example, it has developed the very effective although controversial helicopter-delivered "barrel bomb" used against rebel targets in populated areas. (See The Syrian "barrel bomb" - a terror weapon.)

More importantly, the leadership of the Syrian Air Force detected a threat, although that was not an intelligence triumph - ISIS put it all over social media. That said, the Syrians reacted immediately, striking the target at al-Jirah before ISIS could move to the next step of their operation. In this case, it appears that the Syrian Air Force is operating inside the decision cycle of ISIS, a notable achievement.

Why didn't the U.S.-led coalition hit al-Jirah?

In any case, IF the Syrian government claim is true, there may not be an aerial threat from ISIS at the present time. I would have preferred that we had handled this rather than the Syrians.

October 19, 2014

Kobani struggling to survive as ISIS attacks another Syrian Kurdish border town

ISIS controlled areas in gray - advances into Kurdish-controlled areas in red

Kobani, also known as 'Ayn al-'Arab in Arabic, is a Kurdish city in northern Syria on the border with Turkey. It has been the focus of media coverage over the last few weeks as the fighters of the Islamic State (also the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) have besieged the town and moved to take it and make it part of their territory.

The ISIS assault on the city has followed the same pattern the group has used elsewhere in both Syria and Iraq - they encircle and lay siege to the city, use artillery to weaken the defenses and demoralize the inhabitants, send in a series of suicide car-bombers or simple vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, and finally attack the city with mobile and foot assaults.

This time has been a bit different, however. The media has made an issue of the town, calling it at times either a "key" or "strategic" city in northern Syria. That media attention, coming soon after the beginning of U.S. and coalition airstrikes on ISIS targets in Syria, called into question the coalition's commitment to the people in the towns of northern Syria, particularly the Kurds of northern Syria, as well the efficacy of the airstrikes themselves.

Although the city of Kobani is on the border with Turkey and its fall would represent another victory for the seemingly unstoppable ISIS militants, it is not exactly "key" nor "strategic." Unfortunately, what makes it most important (read: key and strategic) in the eyes of the media is the fact that the battle can be captured on camera from the Turkish side of the border and broadcast live to the world.

As you can see from the photo above, and by way of disclosure, I am part of that media, although I have made known my assessment of the city as less than critical.

Kobani is a border crossing, but not a major border crossing. ISIS already controls major border crossings on the Turkish border to both the east and west of Kobani. The crossing at Tal Abyad (Kurdish: Girê Sipî) to the east is on the main route from the self-proclaimed ISIS capital in al-Raqqah and the Turkish city of Urfa; that route follows the al-Balikh river.

To the west of Kobani is the border crossing at Kilis, on the route from Aleppo to the Turkish city of Gaziantep. Both crossings are under ISIS control. Kobani is merely a remaining pocket of resistance on the border, but not a strategic venue.

There were relentless claims by the media, echoing complaints from the Kurds from Turkey and Syria, that the airstrikes were ineffective in stopping ISIS, that there was no effort to save Kobani from falling to ISIS. I believe in reaction to those complaints, we have seen an obvious effort to use airpower to support the Kurdish People's Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, or YPG) in their defense of Kobani.

The coalition airstrikes have halted the ISIS advance and pushed the lead elements back. The accuracy of the recent strikes and proximity of the weapons placements to YPG forces indicate to me that there is someone on the ground either spotting targets for coalition aircraft or coordinating the air operations. While not American "boots on the ground," it does provide that ground component critical for effective close air support.

Kobani was on the verge of falling to ISIS - it may still, but at least the coalition will have made them pay a price for it, and it will have demonstrated coalition resolve to defend the population of Syria. That said, ISIS continues to press the attack on Kobani. In addition, they are expanding their attacks to the east, pushing out their area of control to the next border city, this one called R'as al-'Ayn (Kurdish: Serêkanîye).

This move to the east is consistent with what we have seen in other ISIS operations. They have used the areas they control along the border to mount attacks on other border cities - their goal is to completely control the Syrian-Turkish frontier, which in their view is the border of their caliphate, albeit temporary.

Interestingly, the Turks seem content to merely observe these ISIS advances on the Syrian border. They have refused to allow American arms shipments to transit the border into Syria to aid the Syrian Kurds in their fight against ISIS. It is well known that there is great animosity between the Turks and the Kurds in that border area. It will be refreshing when the Turks realize what side they are on.

Although Kobani in and of itself is neither key nor strategic, it has become symbolically both. If ISIS can be stopped from taking the city through the combination of U.S.-led coalition airpower and Kurdish ground forces, it may be a turning point in containing the ISIS expansion. It is important that the coalition treat R'as al-'Ayn/Serêkanîye the same as Kobani.

While the coalition is conducting a large number of airstrikes in support of YPG efforts to stop ISIS in Kobani, ISIS units to the west of Baghdad airport continue to move slowly toward the facility and the capital. Surely the coalition can deal with two fronts at one time - ISIS is.

October 18, 2014

The Islamic State Air Force - some perspective, please....

ISIS fighter with destroyed Syrian Air Force MiG-21 at Tabaqah air base

There are numerous press reports citing ISIS claims and even eyewitness reports of captured Syrian Air Force fighter aircraft being piloted by Islamic State (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS) members. There is even a video (below), posted on YouTube that purports to be an ISIS-piloted aircraft landing at a Syrian air base that is now under ISIS control.

My translation of the header and caption that accompanied the original video post:

  • Header: Exclusive first video of a MiG aircraft of the Islamic State landing at Jirah air base in Aleppo (province).
  • Text: A MiG aircraft seized by the Islamic State flew three training sorties at a low altitude yesterday at dusk near Jirah air base, also called Kashaysh, which is about 70 kilometers east of Aleppo (city) in the first use of this aircraft.

As the text indicates, Jirah air base is located about 45 miles east of the city of Aleppo. It is one of three air bases formerly used by the Syrian Air Force for jet flight training. I have annotated the bases on the map - Jirah is the furthest east of the three.

Syrian Air Force jet training bases west to east: Nayrab, Rasm al'-Abud and Jirah

All three of these training bases are either under ISIS control or are under siege. Although it would not be uncommon for MiG fighter aircraft to be at these bases, the primary aircraft used at these three bases was the Czech-built L-39 Albatros trainer.

The L-39 is also an excellent counterinsurgency aircraft - armed with a machine gun pack and rocket launchers - and was used to great effect by the Syrian Air Force in the early stages of the war. At least one of these aircraft was shot down by the Free Syrian Army.

Syrian Air Force L-39ZA firing rockets near Aleppo - 2012

According to the media accounts, former Iraqi Air Force pilots are training ISIS members to pilot MiG aircraft seized at captured Syrian air bases. The Iraqi pilots would be familiar with the L-39 trainer, as well as the MiG-21 and MiG-23 fighters - all three were in the Iraqi inventory years ago.

What is confusing to me is why the Iraqis are training other ISIS members to fly the aircraft - why don't they just fly them? Training a new pilot takes time, whereas a former pilot would only need to re-familiarize himself with the aircraft and ensure that the required rehabilitation and maintenance has been accomplished.

Syrian Air Force Mig-21 (top) and MiG-23 (bottom)

Although there is a chance that there were MiG fighters at the three jet training bases, it is more likely that if ISIS has obtained either MiG-21 or MiG-23 fighters as claimed, they were probably seized at Tabaqah air base outside the self-proclaimed ISIS capital city of al-Raqqah.

The Syrians have consistently removed operational aircraft from bases about to be lost to either Free Syrian Army or ISIS, especially fighter aircraft. Most of the MiG aircraft at Tabaqah appear to be beyond repair, however, there were a few L-39 trainers at Jirah that may have been repairable.

Let's assume for the sake of discussion that ISIS has acquired a few operational jets - I have seen the number three in the media. The MiG-21 is considered a second-generation jet fighter, and the MiG-23 is considered third-generation. Neither one is in the same category as the fourth-generation aircraft being flown by the coalition or the state-of-the-art fifth-generation U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor. While any jet fighter can theoretically pose a threat to coalition aircraft, we are not sure if ISIS is in possession of any air-to-air or air-to-ground weapons for the aircraft.

Coalition aircraft operating over Iraq and Syria are supported by a variety of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft and assets to provide warning of any threat posed by Syrian, and now ISIS, forces. Should an ISIS fighter aircraft - or a Syrian fighter, for that matter - attempt to engage a coalition aircraft, it will likely be detected early and dealt with. The pilots of the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy are quite skilled at downing Russian-made aircraft, as demonstrated on numerous occasions over the years.

That said, why wait for an engagement? We know where the Syrian air bases are, and we know which are in the hands of ISIS. These are large, fixed targets - put them out of commission. Problem solved.

Surely I am not the only one who has thought of that....

October 13, 2014

"Finally, the Turks..." - allow U.S. and coalition access to Turkish airbases

UPDATE: According to media reports, this may be premature.

This is from the New York Times:
ISTANBUL — A day after American officials said Turkey had agreed to allow its air bases for operations against the Islamic State, which they described as a deal that represented a breakthrough in tense negotiations, Turkish officials on Monday said there was no deal yet, and that talks were still underway.

The Turkish comments represented another miscommunication between the United States and its longtime ally Turkey, as President Obama pushes to strengthen an international coalition against the militants that control a large area of both Syria and Iraq, by securing a greater role for Turkey.


Turkish air bases - Adana (Incirlik), Malatya (Erhac), Diyarbakir and Batman

Finally the Turks have granted access for U.S. and coalition aircraft to use its strategically located airbases to conduct offensive operations against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) targets. Until this decision, the coalition could only use Turkish airbases for humanitarian operations.

This is a welcome development as it significantly reduces the flight time from the airbases currently being used in Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Hopefully, the coalition can quickly begin use of the airbases - the primary bases of interest (shown on the map above) are the sprawling NATO facility at Inclirlik in Adana, Erhac in Malatya, the dual-use airport at Diyarbakir and the base at Batman.

To illustrate the importance of access to these Turkish airbases, had coalition aircraft had access to these bases while attacking targets in the Kobani area along the Syrian-Turkish border, the flight distances would have been as little as 100 miles versus the 800 to 1500 miles using current bases in Jordan and the Gulf. That would have allowed more aircraft to operate for longer periods of time dropping significantly more ordnance - they could have reacted quicker to the changing situation on the ground. The reaction time to fast-changing events on the ground can be measured now in minutes, not hours.

Turkey has been criticized over the past few weeks for its refusal to engage ISIS in northern Syria as it encircled and almost seized the Kurdish border town of Kobani ('Ayn al-'Arab in Arabic). While Turkish military intervention with its well-trained and well-equipped army would be welcome, Turkey still has reservations about moving its forces unilaterally into northern Syria. They are demanding that the coalition impose a no-fly zone over Syria and participate in establishing a security zone inside Syria.

As of now, the United States is not in favor of either of those steps. Until there is resolution of these differences, it is doubtful that Turkish troops will engage. The question that remains is whether Turkey will participate in the air campaign - Turkey operates the F-16 fighter-bomber and would lend additional capability to the coalition.

Now that the U.S. and the coalition have access to Turkey's airbases, will they simply move the existing aircraft from other bases in the region, or will they deploy more combat power to the area and step up attacks from this new axis? Or will they deploy different aircraft with better ground attack capabilities. To better attack the asymmetric threat posed by ISIS, the U.S. might consider the employment of their proven ground attack "trifecta" - AC-130 Spectre gunships, A-10 "Warthog" attack aircraft and the AH-64 Apache helicopter gunship. Given the proximity of Turkish airbases to the action, these aircraft could bring a much welcome enhanced close air support capability.

It appears that the Turkish change of heart is a compromise to actual participation in the coalition. The world has been watching on live television the relentless attack on Kobani, while Turkish armored vehicles are seen on their side of the border in the fields adjacent to the fighting, but not engaged in either defending the Syrian Kurds or attacking ISIS fighters. While the decision to allow U.S. and coalition access to Turkish airbases is welcome, it is not full Turkish participation in the coalition, but it does dampen criticism of the the Turks.

Finally, the Turks.