May 13, 2017

Erdoğan - Trump meeting -- here are your talking points, Mr. President

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and U.S. President Donald J. Trump 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is scheduled to visit President Donald Trump at the White House on May 16. The main topic of discussion will be the situation in Syria - primarily the ongoing fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

One of Mr. Erdoğan's reasons for the quick and short trip to Washington is to request President Trump reconsider the American decision to provide more arms to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF is composed of Syrian Arabs and Kurds operating in northern Syria against ISIS - they have been by far the most effective ground force combatting ISIS.

The Kurdish component of the SDF is the People's Protection Units, in Kurdish Yekîneyên Parastina Gel‎ (YPG). The Turks maintain that the YPG is nothing more than the Syrian branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, in Kurdish Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê (PKK).

The PKK has been designated as a terrorist organization by not only Turkey but also the United States, NATO and the European Union. However, the United States does not consider the YPG to be part of the PKK. To the Turks, they are one and the same.

Since August 2016, the Turks have been supporting a major Free Syrian Army (FSA) incursion into northern Syria codenamed Operation Euphrates Shield. Turkish support has included airpower, armor, artillery, reconnaissance, logistics and special forces. Several Turkish troops have been killed by ISIS, including two captured soldiers who were burned alive.

The Turks had hoped that the FSA force would eventually make its way south and east into Syria via al-Bab, Manbij and on to al-Raqqah. Unfortunately, as the FSA force moved into Syria and fought successfully against ISIS, the Turks opted to have the FSA engage in offensive operations against the SDF as well as ISIS, claiming that the SDF's YPG component was part of the PKK.

In an unusual but not unheard of arrangement with the Syrian Army - and their Russian backers (some would say masters) - the SDF allowed the Syrian military to move north into the Manbij area and effectively block the advance of the FSA and their Turkish Army support troops. Russian and U.S. troops monitor the agreement in close proximity to each other.

This map shows the current situation.

Perhaps Turkish intelligence has failed to brief Mr. Erdoğan that the FSA forces he wants to liberate al-Raqqah are effectively blocked by the SDF and Syrians. The FSA force is at least 60 miles away from al-Raqqah, but in reality about 100 road march miles away. They are not in a position to mount an attack on al-Raqqah. In fact, Euphrates Shield forces no longer have a front line with ISIS.

The Turkish decision - I assume Mr. Erdoğan was involved in making the decision - to attack SDF positions while both the FSA and the SDF were fighting ISIS has probably eliminated any chance that there will be cooperation between the two anti-ISIS forces.

To illustrate why this decision was a major blunder, let's look at the Turkish armed forces' proposals for the FSA Operation Euphrates Shield force to mount an assault on al-Raqqah. First, the Turks attack U.S.-backed forces, then demand the United States arrange for them to take the lead in the attack on al-Raqqah.

The Turks have proposed two options. As seen on the map, one option is to have the United States arrange with the SDF - the same force the Turks have been attacking along the entire length of the Syrian border - a safe passage corridor from the Turkish city of Akçakale (opposite the Syrian city of Tal Abyad) south 50 miles to al-Raqqah.

The Turks would have to move the entire FSA force from current positions in the al-Bab area back to Turkey, then east to Akçakale, cross the border into SDF-controlled Syrian territory, and finally move to attack positions near al-Raqqah. These positions have been secured by the SDF at great human cost.

I do not believe the SDF will countenance a Turkish-backed and supported FSA force moving through their territory. The Turks have poisoned those waters by the airstrikes and artillery attacks on SDF units over the last few weeks.

The second option is less challenging politically, but might be logistically impossible. Note the twisted ribbon-like arc to the south of the FSA positions ending near al-Raqqah. The twisted ribbon represents an airborne/heliborne assault.

If - big if - the United States wants to placate an important NATO ally despite its unhelpful actions, it could offer to try and coordinate some FSA participation in the coming attack on al-Raqqah. A small air assault might be the vehicle to do this. However, this would reward the Turks for their petulance.

So, Mr. President - to summarize your talking points:

- Mr. Erdoğan, your FSA supported forces are bottled up near al-Bab, almost 100 miles from al-Raqqah.
- Your air and artillery attacks on SDF forces, which are backed by my forces - including U.S. troops on the ground - have obstructed progress in the fight against ISIS and wasted valuable time.
- The Kurds are now only about three miles from al-Raqqah and pressing the attack.
- Time is of the essence - we believe ISIS is planning attacks on the West, and the people of al-Raqqah deserve relief from ISIS rule.
- Once al-Raqqah falls, there may be a role for the FSA, but I do not see a role for them in the assault.
- Now, let's talk about the future of the Kurds in Syria....

For more detailed coverage of the Turkish experience in northern Syria and Erdoğan's resulting petulance, see my earlier articles: Syria - has Turkey been marginalized and the Americans thrust into the fight? and Turkey and the fight against ISIS - whose side are you on?

May 9, 2017

Russian parade in Syria shows off some of their equipment

"Title: "Military exhibition at Humaymim Air Base" (Video is in Russian)

To celebrate the Allied victory in World War II, the Russian expeditionary force deployed to Humaymim air base, Syria, conducted a military parade (watch above). While the parade itself was pretty mundane, the music performed by a Russian Army band was pretty good, but what interested me was the glimpse at some of the military equipment at the base.

The base parking apron used for the parade looked like a sales brochure for the Sukhoi aircraft company - a display of a SU-24 (FENCER D), SU-25 (FROGFOOT), SU-30 (FLANKER C), SU-34 (FULLBACK), and SU-35 (FLANKER E) combat aircraft.

However, for us military equipment junkies, there was a glimpse of less exciting, but interesting equipment.

Having been the Air Attache at the U.S. Embassy in Syria in the 1990's, I have looked at a lot of this equipment in the past. Surprisingly, much of the Russian electronic equipment at the base is still of that earlier vintage.

Although the Russians have deployed state-of-the-art air defenses and electronic warfare systems to the base, those were not caught by the cameras.

Some things I thought were of interest:

Background: A-50 (MAINSTAY) airborne early warning

Two IL-20 (COOT A) reconnaissance aircraft flanking
an AN-30 (CLANK) cartographic aircraft

TU-154 (CARELESS) – transport "The Ivan Express”

- P-18 (SPOON REST D) early warning radar
- prob ATC radar in radome
- 1L22 Parol IFF dish
- P-18 radar

Same as above, then:

PRV-11 (SIDE NET) and PRV-9 (THIN SKIN) height-finder radars

Note drone and the PRV-9 THIN SKIN

Russian girls enjoying the celebration


My thanks to CWO3 R. A. Stonerock, U.S. Army (Ret), my colleague in the Defense Attache Office in Damascus for his assistance on the radar identifications. I learned a lot about weapons/equipment from him.

May 8, 2017

Russian military police as monitors in Syrian safe zones? Seriously?

Russian Military Police in Syria

At least two senior Russian Federation government officials have announced the deployment of additional Russian Army military police to monitor and provide security for the "de-escalation zones" as part of a three-party agreement reached by Russia, Turkey and Iran. The agreement took effect on May 6. (See my last article, "De-escalation" zones in Syria - call me skeptical)

Neither the Syrian government, the United States, nor any of the opposition groups are party to the agreement. The Syrian government, not surprisingly, has followed the bidding of its Russian and Iranian masters and has proclaimed support for the pact.

The Russian announcements may be a bit premature at best, or a downright power play at worst. The agreement is somewhat ambiguous - call me conspiratorial, but when the Russians write anything, they make sure there are loopholes - okay, I will be kind, ambiguities - that serve their interests.*

According to the text of the agreement, security zones along the lines of the de-escalation zones are to be established in order to prevent incidents and military confrontations between the combatants. This security includes checkpoints and observation posts, and "administration of the security zones" - all conducted by the forces of the three signatories.

Although the agreement allows for third party forces to be introduced, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mu'alim** has rejected any "international" presence. I take that as a reference to the United Nations or powers not acceptable to the regime of Bashar al-Asad. Why have anyone interfere with the Russians?

So let me see if I have this right. Two key provisions:

- Russia, Turkey and Iran signed an agreement on "de-escalation" zones in Syria, without buy-in from the opposition, the Kurds, or the U.S.-led coalition, but dictate who can and cannot fly or conduct ground operations in specific areas of the country.

- The agreement charges the three powers to deploy their forces to lines around the safe zones, and then establish checkpoints, observation posts and "administer" those zones.

So, in effect, we have the military forces of primarily Russia (with possibly some Iranian and Turkish units) surrounding the areas of the country that remain under opposition control. The Russians then control movement into and out of the opposition areas while monitoring the enemies of the very regime that the Russians are in Syria to protect.

What could possibly go wrong?

When this ceasefire, like those in the past, fails - the Russians will be in perfect position to usher in Syrian and Iranian troops, and begin airstrikes with tactical air control parties already in place. No doubt, the Syrian forces, with their Iranian and Hizballah supporters, are redeploying and resupplying for that day.

That's what could go wrong.

* For an example of Russian skill at wordsmithing, see my article on Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and former Secretary of State John Kerry, Iran's ballistic missile program - more fallout from the "Kerry Collapse"

** Personal anecdote:

When I was the Air Attache to the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, I met with Dr. al-Mu'alim on several occasions, including an extended conversation on his Syrian Air Force VIP jet flying to and from the air base at Humaymim, now the primary Russian base in Syria. I found him to be a very capable representative of his government - tough and committed, but a pleasant conversant. He graded my Arabic language as A-.

May 6, 2017

"De-escalation" zones in Syria - call me skeptical

Russian military map of "de-escalation" zones in Syria

Today (Saturday, May 6) starts yet another effort to stop some of the carnage in Syria - the establishment of four what the Russians are calling "de-escalation" zones, a variation of no-fly zones.

While we all hope for a diplomatic solution to the six-year-old civil war in the country, this appears to be another in a series of ceasefire agreements, all of which have failed.

This one, unfortunately, will likely be no different. There are undoubtedly side deals between the three sponsoring parties - Russia, Turkey and Iran - and many loopholes for the combatants. The losers, or course, are the Syrian people, the opposition forces, and the Kurds.

I have numbered the four zones designated by the three parties on the Russian military map above. Zone 1 consists of most of Idlib and parts of Hamah governorates. Zone 2 is a smaller area occupied by elements of the opposition called the "al-Rastan pocket" located just north of the city of Homs. Zone 3 is the East Ghutah, the suburbs just east of the capital of Damascus, while zone 4 is the opposition-occupied areas in the south in al-Qunaytirah and Dara' governorates.

The agreement specifically exempts what are called "designated terrorist groups" - groups which have been identified as Islamist or former affiliates of al-Qa'idah. The al-Qa'idah affiliate was formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusrah, then later Jaysh Fatah al-Sham, and now as Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).

Because of numerous instances of tactical cooperation between so-called "moderate" groups that comprise the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the designated Islamist groups, they are all intermingled in a complex patchwork throughout the designated de-escalation zones.

Before the first day was over, combat aircraft of the Russian and Syrian air forces dropped a variety of weapons on the delineated de-escalation zone in Hamah - supposedly a no-fly zone. The areas in and around the highly contested city of al-Lataminah were hit with artillery and numerous air strikes, including at least 10 by barrel bombs. According to reliable maps, the opposition fighters in al-Lataminah are not members of HTS or other specifically designated terrorist organizations.

This is exactly what happened in virtually all previous attempted ceasefires. All of the previous agreements included the same provision - the ceasefire did not apply to designated terrorist groups. The Syrians and Russians failed to honor the distinction between the two categories - any group in opposition to the regime of Bashar al-Asad was deemed to be a terrorist organization and targeted as such.

I suspect this lack of distinction between groups opposing the regime will continue. How trustworthy is a regime that uses chemical weapons on its own population?

The United States is not a signatory to the de-escalation agreement, but, according to the State Department, "the United States supports any effort that can genuinely de-escalate the violence in Syria, ensure unhindered humanitarian access, focus energies on the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other terrorists, and create the conditions for a credible political resolution of the conflict." (Read the Department of State statement.)

The U.S. Department of Defense noted that the de-escalation agreement would not affect the U.S.-led air campaign against ISIS. To make that point clear to the Russians, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joe Dunford spoke by telephone with his Russian counterpart. Both officers agreed to continue deconflicting air operations in Syria.

I suspect the Russians are anxious to avoid a confrontation with the United States - Russian President Vladimir Putin believes, rightly in my opinion, that any political solution in Syria will require American support. Putin and President Donald Trump held a lengthy telephone conversation about Syria earlier in the week.

Should the two presidents come to an understanding about resolving the conflict in Syria, each will have to make accommodations with groups the two countries are supporting. The opposition may have to give up its hopes for the removal of the Ba'th Party regime, while the Russians may have to agree to the removal of the party's leader, President Bashar al-Asad.

In any case, there are other problems with the de-escalation agreement. The exact details are not yet known, but I am certain there are side deals between the three signatories, especially between the Russians and Turks.

This de-escalation agreement appears to repair relations between Moscow and Ankara, strained since November 2015 when Turkish Air Force F-16 fighter jets downed a Russian Air Force Su-24 fighter-bomber which the Turks claimed violated Turkish airspace. The pilot was killed by Syrian rebels after parachuting safely to the ground.

The Turks are seeking relevance in northern Syria and hope that the terms of this agreement provide that. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is angry over how Turkey has been marginalized in northern Syria.

No one trusts Erdogan, especially given his recent attacks on the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) while they are engaged in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

For more detailed coverage of the Turkish experience in northern Syria and Erdogan's resulting petulance, see my earlier articles: Syria - has Turkey been marginalized and the Americans thrust into the fight? and Turkey and the fight against ISIS - whose side are you on?

Erdogan hopes to insert Turkish troops into Idlib province, making up for his marginalization in Aleppo province. He will use authority under this agreement to operate in Syria (which technically he now lacks) to continue his attempts to ensure that the Kurdish population on his southern border is not permitted to create an autonomous region similar to the Kurdish Autonomous Region across the border in northern Iraq.

Erdogan further hopes that his participation in this agreement will give him standing to convince the Trump Administration that Turkish troops supporting the FSA should lead the coming assault on the ISIS stronghold of al-Raqqah.

There is a senior delegation made up of Turkish military and intelligence officials headed to Washington for discussions - I suspect their pleas will fall on deaf ears. President Erdogan himself is due to meet with President Trump on May 16 - I expect this issue to be raised.

In addition to Turkey's petulance, it is also a matter of time and distance. The American-backed SDF is on the northern outskirts of the city and is pressing an attack from the west, having recently closed on the city of al-Tabaqah. SDF forces are as close as five miles to al-Raqqah, while the Turkish-supported FSA is at least 50 miles away, bottled up in a pocket bordered by Syrian regime forces and the SDF.

Turkey's attacks on the SDF along the Syrian border have closed any window of opportunity for Erdogan to salvage his role in northern Syria, and rightfully so.

In the meantime, Russian and Syrian aircraft will continue to bomb - albeit at a lower operations tempo - the same targets they have for months.

May 4, 2017

American troops in Iraq after the "defeat" of ISIS? A good idea....

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joe Dunford
meets with members of the coalition (DoD Photo) 

According to officials of both the U.S. and Iraqi governments, Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi has opened talks with the Trump Administration to keep American troops in Iraq after the presumed "defeat" of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

I applaud the prime minister's decision to reach an agreement whereby the gains of the past almost three years are not lost when American troops are no longer present to advise and assist their Iraqi colleagues. I think it is clear that until the Iraqi forces are capable of defending the country on their own, the presence of American troops is needed to ensure Iraq’s security.

I think it is also a realization that after the battle of Mosul is over (as well as the coming battle of al-Raqqah in Syria), ISIS will not be completely defeated - it will remain a threat to Iraq. The group knows full well that at some point in the not too distant future, they will lose their territorial holdings.

ISIS has already begun the transition from a so-called "state" to an insurgency. Surprisingly, their message resonates with many Sunni Iraqis who believe themselves to be disenfranchised by an Iranian-influenced, Shi'a-dominated government in Baghdad.

Of course, Prime Minister al-'Abadi may not be in a position to guarantee a continued U.S. presence in Iraq. A new round of elections is scheduled for September of this year - the voting might well be the end of al-'Abadi's government.*

The two major threats to his continued leadership are the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki. In my opinion, either would be a disaster for Iraq, U.S.-Iraqi relations, and American foreign policy in the region.

It was Nuri al-Maliki - in concert with Barack Obama in what I believe was a colossal foreign policy blunder, easily his worst - who presided over the complete withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in 2011.

The result of the Obama/al-Maliki decision was the corruption and atrophy of the Iraqi Army, the resurgence of the almost-defeated al-Qa'idah in Iraq (AQI) terrorist group, the transformation of AQI into ISIS, and the mess that is the current geopolitical situation we now have in the region.

We do not need a repeat of that disaster. A small American military presence is a good idea until ISIS is no longer a threat, or the Iraqis are capable of their own defense.

* For my assessment of the upcoming Iraqi elections, see Iraqi Prime Minister al-'Abadi in Washington - some realities.

April 27, 2017

French government evaluation of Syrian chemical weapons agreement

The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs released an official assessment of the April 4 Syrian chemical weapons attack on Khan Shaykhun, and analysis of the Syrian chemical weapons program. The report can be read or downloaded in English from the Ministry's website

The report consists of four sections:

1. – Technical analysis of the chemical attack on 4 April
2. – Militarily analysis of the tactical situation around 4 April 2017
3. – Analysis of the presence of armed groups in Hama and of their capabilities
4. – Continuation since 2013 of a clandestine Syrian chemical weapons programme

Sections 1 through 3 are consistent with the conclusions of other competent intelligence services, except perhaps the Russians, and no one believes the Syrian regime. It lays out a compelling case that the Syrian Air Force was responsible for the use of sarin gas in the attack.

It is Section 4 that interests me. So that I am not accused of cherry-picking words, I have included the text of the entire section (in British English). I have highlighted what I believe are significant passages.

4. – Continuation since 2013 of a clandestine Syrian chemical weapons programme

a) In a previous declassified national report in 2013, the French services laid out their knowledge of the Syrian chemical weapons programme and chemical attacks perpetrated by the regime. They noted that sarin was principally used in binary form: a mixture of methylphosphonyl difluoride (DF), a key precursor in the manufacture of sarin, and isopropanol produced just before use.

France informed the OPCW that Syria’s explanations on the quantities of DF declared – approximately 20 tonnes – as having been used in tests or lost in accidents were exaggerated. Moreover, France has observed since 2014 Syrian attempts to acquire dozens of tonnes of isopropanol. The Declaration Assessment Team (DAT) from the Technical Secretariat of the OPCW has been unable to obtain any proof of the veracity of Syria’s declarations. The OPCW itself has identified major inconsistencies in Syria’s explanations concerning the presence of sarin derivatives on several sites where no activity relating to the toxin had been declared.

b) On the basis of the conclusions of the DAT and its own intelligence, France assesses that major doubts remain as to the accuracy, exhaustiveness and sincerity of the decommissioning of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. In particular, France assesses that Syria has maintained a capacity to produce or stock sarin, despite its commitment to destroy all stocks and capacities. Lastly, France assesses that Syria has not declared tactical munitions (grenades and rockets) such as those repeatedly used since 2013.

c) The Damascus regime has continued to employ chemical weapons against its population since Syria’s accession to the CWC on 13 October 2013. There have been over 100 allegations of such use, concerning chlorine as well as sarin.

Since 2014, the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) has published several reports confirming the use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria. The UN-OPCW Joint Investigation Mechanism (JIM) has investigated nine allegations of chemical weapons employment. In its reports in August and October 2016, the JIM attributed three cases of employment of chlorine to the Damascus regime and one of mustard gas to Daesh.

The French seem to agree with me. The Syrians lied, had no intention of complying with the agreement, and continued to produce and stockpile chemical weapons.

In June of 2015, two years after the Russian-U.S. brokered agreement that supposedly led to the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons and chemical weapons production facilities, U.S. intelligence agencies warned that Syrian forces might again use chemical weapons against opposition groups. This was almost two years after the Syrians agreed to rid themselves of their stockpile of chemical weapons. I wrote a detailed article - Syrian regime might use chemical weapons - how is that possible? In the article, I reviewed the situation as of that point in time, as well as provide links to a series of my articles on the Syrian chemical weapons program.

Anyone* who has ever worked or lived in Syria got a chuckle out of the thought that the regime of Bashar al-Asad would give up his chemical weapons. Syria maintains its chemical weapons arsenal and delivery systems to provide a deterrent against an attack by the vastly superior (and nuclear-equipped) Israeli armed forces. Its ballistic missiles and squadron of SU-24 (NATO: FENCER) fighter-bombers can deliver chemical weapons to virtually anywhere in Israel.

The thought that the Syrians would give up their chemical weapons arsenal was, and remains, ludicrous. However, the Syrians' primary sponsor - Russia - saw an opportunity to back [then Secretary of State John] Kerry and the United States into a corner. The Russians announced that they had brokered a deal in which the Syrians would give up their chemical weapons in return for an American commitment to call off impending military action against Syria. Obama jumped at the chance.

I have to wonder if U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry actually believed his own rhetoric. I know of no serious Middle East analyst who thought that Syrian President Bashar al-Asad had any intention of complying with the 2013 agreement, for the reasons I have been stating since at least 2000.

I also have to wonder if Russian Minister of Foreign Sergey Lavrov, an accomplished negotiator and excellent advocate for the Russian regime and the president he serves, was complicit in the Syrian deception. It would not surprise me if President Vladimir Putin, Sergey Lavrov and Bashar al-Asad all conspired to craft an agreement that they knew was no more than a sham.**

I am also struck by the seeming naivete of John Kerry, and possibly Barack Obama. Their later performance in negotiating - well, mostly capitulating - the Iran nuclear deal does not fill me with confidence that the Iranian deal has any more chance of achieving its objectives in the nuclear arena than the Syrian deal did about chemical weapons. Call me skeptical.


* From 1992 to 1995, I served as the Air Attaché to the U.S. Embassy in Damascus. It was part of my brief to monitor the capabilities of the Syrian armed forces, including their chemical warfare capabilities.
** My Arabic-speaking friends will appreciate that definition. Al-Sham is the Arabic word for Damascus, Syria or the Levant, depending on context.

April 26, 2017

Turkey and the fight against ISIS - whose side are you on?

Blue=Turkish forces / Yellow=Kurdish (YPG) forces

In an unnecessary and unhelpful turn of events, a series of armed confrontations has broken out in several locations along the Syrian-Turkish border. The combatants, unfortunately, are both U.S. allies.

Turkish forces have mounted a series of artillery attacks and air strikes on a variety of Kurdish targets along virtually the entire Syrian-Turkish border, claiming that they are attacking members of the outlawed and designated terrorist organization Kurdistan Workers' Party, known more commonly by its Kurdish initials PKK.

The problem - most of the targets are not PKK targets, they are actually elements of the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units, more commonly called the YPG. The YPG is an integral part of a U.S.-backed force, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF was created, trained and equipped to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). They are the "boots on the ground" support by coalition air power, artillery, special forces, and logistics.

The Turks are acting like petulant children, unfortunately, petulant children with artillery and F-16 fighter bombers.

For those who do not follow events in Syria and the inherent animosity between the Turks and the Kurds, a brief (and by no means comprehensive) overview of the situation in northern Syria.

It has taken the Turks years to actually commit to the fight against ISIS. It delayed the U.S.-led coalition access to Incirlik air base, located near the city of Adana just north of the Syrian border until late 2015, although the air campaign against ISIS began a year earlier.

In August 2016, the Turks supported a Free Syrian Army (FSA) assault into ISIS-held territory along the Turkish border in an operation called Euphrates Shield. The FSA was supported by Turkish air, armor, artillery and special forces, and was moderately successful, eventually seizing the key ISIS stronghold of al-Bab. The next target was the city of Manbij, in the Syrian Kurdish enclave.

The FSA move towards Manbij revealed the actual reason for the Turkish-supported - some would say Turkish-directed - intervention. Although nominally an attack on ISIS, the Turkish objective was to ensure that the Syrian Kurds were not able to form an autonomous region similar to the Kurdish Autonomous Region in Iraq. The Kurds have already declared such an area, calling it Rojava.

The United States determined that time was of the essence in the effort to mount an attack on al-Raqqah. The choices were to wait until the Turks and FSA were able to fight the 100 miles to al-Raqqah, an effort that would take months, or support an SDF assault on al-Raqqah. SDF units were virtually at the outskirts of the city.

To head off a fight between the Turkish-backed FSA and the U.S.-backed Kurds, the Kurds made contact with the Syrian regime and allowed Syrian (with Russians) to occupy the Manbij area. This move isolated the Turks into a pocket, stopping their eventual march on the ISIS-declared capital city of al-Raqqah. See my earlier articles on these events: Has Turkey been marginalized and the Americans thrust into the fight?, and Russian and American cooperation in Syria - a policy change?

The Turks have always insisted that they be involved in the liberation of a-Raqqah, claiming that their FSA force, comprised of Syrian Arabs, would be more welcome in the city. They further claimed that the people of al-Raqqah would not want to be liberated by the Kurds, claiming that would be trading "one terrorist occupation force for another." Given my reading of what little information leaks out of al-Raqqah, I assess that the people don't care - they just want to be rid of the ISIS yoke.

Just days ago, as it appeared that the SDF was on the verge of reaching the city in force and preparing to mount an assault, the Turks conducted airstrikes in Syria and Iraq. While the attacks in Iraq appeared to strike legitimate PKK targets, the follow-on artillery strikes along the border in multiple cities inside Syria were undoubtedly attacks on SDF units and facilities.

Here is an exchange on Twitter I had this morning with an excellent Turkish analyst - I respect his views, we just happen to disagree on this particular issue.

It appears to me the Turks are throwing a tantrum. If they are not to be involved in the attack on al-Raqqah, they are going to employ military force to interfere with the execution of the U.S.-backed SDF attack. It may work, and it may not.

Now we have the Turks fighting the one viable military force that is in position with the requisite firepower and coalition air support to mount an attack on a key ISIS target in Syria. They believe that a multi-faceted attack on the SDF under the guise of fighting the PKK will tie up valuable SDF resources as the YPG is forced to defend itself.

Who benefits from Turkish petulance? ISIS, and no one else.

Again - if Turkey wants to be a NATO ally, it needs to act like one. Sabotaging another NATO ally's military efforts hardly qualifies.

April 23, 2017

President Trump and the Purple Heart presentation to Sergeant First Class Barrientos

CNN New Day Sunday - April 23, 2017

President Donald Trump presented the Purple Heart to U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Alvaro Barrientos at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on April 22, 2017. Sergeant Barrientos's wife Tammi was present as the President presented the medal reserved for troops wounded or killed in action.

Sergeant Barrientos was wounded in Afghanistan on March 17 - his right leg was amputated below the knee as a result of his wounds.

During the presentation, the President congratulated the soldier. Granted, it was not the best choice of words - the predictable criticism from the anti-Trump crowd began almost immediately.

I was asked for my thoughts on the needless controversy this morning on CNN. (Disclosure - I am a paid military analyst for the network.)

This should not be about President Trump - it should be about Sergeant Barrientos, and his service and sacrifice. His life has changed forever. Lest we forget, troops like the sergeant pay the cost of our freedom.

I agree that it would have been better if Mr. Trump had thanked the sergeant for his service and sacrifice instead of the awkward "congratulations," but I like the fact that the President made the presentation publicly.

In response to a question comparing President Obama's preference of presenting Purple Heart medals in private, I said that I was glad to see the President publicly acknowledging the high cost we as a country pay - the high cost that troops like Sergeant Barrientos pay - to maintain our freedom and security.

I do not want the American people to forget the fine men and women who are fighting our nation's wars, their efforts often unheralded in the cacophony of the daily news cycle focused on partisan bickering.

President Trump's public recognition was appropriate.

April 22, 2017

New Saudi ambassador the United States - another al-Sudayri in a power position

 Khalid bin Salman bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud - خالد بن سلمان بن عبد العزيز آل سعود 

Saudi King Salman bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud has appointed one of his sons, Prince Khalid, to be the kingdom's new ambassador to the United States. While on the surface, it appears to be a simple case of a monarch placing a son in a key leadership position, in the Saudi ruling family hierarchy, it is a clever power play.

Over the past two years, a group inside the ruling House of Sa'ud has reasserted its power and influence. This group is the so-called al-Sudayri Seven, a moniker derived from the name of the tribe of the mother of seven of the sons of the kingdom's founder 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud. King 'Abd al-'Aziz's third wife was Hussah bint Ahmed al-Sudayri. All seven of her sons rose to influential positions in the kingdom, including two who became king (Fahd and Salman).

The succession issue in Saudi Arabia has always been a concern. Kings have been succeeded by their younger brothers, all sons of 'Abd al-'Aziz. There was no provision for the succession beyond the first generation, the sons of 'Abd al-'Aziz.

The issue was finally addressed - but by no means settled, two years ago when King Salman removed his half-brother Prince Muqrin (up until then the crown prince) from the succession line and replaced him with his full nephew Muhammad bin Nayif bin 'Abd al-'Aziz.

For the first time since the foundation of the kingdom, a king will be of the second generation of 'Abd al-'Aziz, a grandson of the founder. For the Saudi-watchers among us, this was huge.

I wrote a detailed piece on this in April of 2015 - see Saudi Arabia - the resurgence of the al-Sudayri clan for the whole story.

What does this have to do with the appointment of the new ambassador? I know it can be confusing, so I have condensed the earlier article here.


King Salman bin 'Abd al-'Aziz
Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayif bin 'Abd al-'Aziz (top right)
Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman bin 'Abd al-'Aziz (bottom right)

Upon the death of his half-brother King 'Abdullah, Crown Prince Salman bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud became the king with no controversy - the Saudi succession has been remarkably smooth for decades. As expected, Salman named his younger brother Muqrin (one of the few surviving sons of the kingdom's founder) as the new crown prince.

However, the new king surprised many "Saudi watchers" by removing King 'Abdullah's son Muta'ib from the recently created position of deputy crown prince and naming his full nephew Muhammad bin Nayif, the Minister of the Interior to fill the position. Muhammad bin Nayif is the son of Salman's full brother Nayif - thus also one of the al-Sudayri Seven brothers.

In April 2015, King Salman removed his half-brother Muqrin as crown prince and elevated Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayif to the position of crown prince, in essence personally selecting (rather than via a family meeting) the new king from the grandsons of 'Abd al-'Aziz. It will also maintain the superior position of the al-Sudayri clan.

The king also named as new deputy crown prince his son Muhammad bin Salman, who also serves as the powerful Minister of Defense and Aviation.

What King Salman has done effectively consolidates the major centers of power of the kingdom in the hands of the al-Sudayris:

- The King of course is the monarch.

- The king's full nephew Muhammad bin Nayif is now the crown prince as well as the powerful Minister of the Interior.

- The king's son Muhammad bin Salman is now deputy crown prince as well as the Minister of Defense and Aviation, controlling the armed forces and anything that flies, military or civilian - that same son is concurrently the secretary general of the royal court.

These three men, all al-Sudayris, in essence run the kingdom. The royal family has always run the kingdom, but now most of the power has been concentrated into one small faction of the royal family - the descendants of 'Abd al-'Aziz and his favorite wife Hassah bint Ahmad al-Sudayri.

Now add to the above list the position of ambassador to the United States. This is a key position in the Saudi government, charged with what is arguably the most important foreign relationship for the kingdom. The Saudi ambassador enjoys excellent access to the President of the United States in Washington and has the ear of the King in Riyadh.

The new ambassador, Prince Khalid bin Salman, is the son of the king, first cousin of the crown prince, and brother of the deputy crown prince. Another key power position in the Saudi government is now filled by an al-Sudayri.

The al-Sudayris continue to maintain and expand their power base in the ruling family and by extension the entire kingdom.

As I said in 2015 - and reiterate now: well played, Your Highness, well played.

April 19, 2017

Syrian Air Force moves its remaining fighter jets to Russian-controlled air base

Russian Air Force SU-25 attack jets - Humaymim Air Base, Syria

According to several news outlets, the Syrian Air Force has moved all its operational fighter jets to the Russian-controlled Humaymim Air Base, located along Syria's Mediterranean coast south of the major port city of Latakia. The moves began 10 days after the United States struck al-Sha'ayrat Air Base with 59 Tomahawk missiles in response to a Syrian air-delivered chemical warfare attack in the city of Khan Shaykhun in which almost 100 people were killed.

The American strike on al-Sha'ayrat Air Base destroyed over 20 Syrian fighter aircraft, including Sukhoi Su-22 (NATO:FITTER) and MiG-23 (NATO:FLOGGER) fighters. At the time of the strike, the general consensus among open-source publications which follow air forces credited the Syrian Air Force with seven operational fighter or fighter-bomber squadrons. That would equate to anywhere between 85 and 100 aircraft. If in fact 20 were destroyed in the April 7 American strike, that would seriously impact Syria's sortie generation rate. This number fits in with Secretary of Defense James Mattis's statements that 20 percent of Syria's [fighter] aircraft were destroyed.

Humaymim Air Base is about 10 miles south of Latakia, east of the main coastal highway adjacent to the town of Humaymim (hence the name) - it is colocated with the Basil al-Asad International Airport. Prior to the Russian deployment of several squadrons of fighter, fighter-bomber and attack aircraft to Humaymim, the base was used almost exclusively by the Syrian Navy's 618th Maritime Warfare Squadron. The squadron operated Mi-14 (NATO:HAZE), Ka-25 (NATO:HORMONE) and KA-28 (NATO:HELIX) anti-submarine helicopters.

As the Air Attache to the U.S. Embassy in Damascus in the 1990's, I had the opportunity to visit this base on several occasions. It was usually not a busy base - the Syrian Navy is by far the least resourced and used arm of the armed forces. That said, the maritime helicopters have been used during the civil war to drop naval mines on opposition targets. The fact that the Syrian military has resorted to using these helicopters to drop naval mines on ground targets is indicative of a shortage of aircraft or munitions, or both.

Since September 2015, the Russians have made extensive modifications to the base to accommodate dozens of Russian tactical aircraft, as well as deploying the state-of-the-art S-300VM (NATO:SA-23 GIANT/GLADIATOR) and S-400 (NATO:SA-21 GROWLER) air defense missile systems, effective against both aircraft and missiles. The base facilities have been expanded to house thousands of Russian military personnel - there are daily personnel rotation and resupply flights to and from Moscow.

The base is now almost completely Russian controlled. Although the Russians are in Syria ostensibly to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the overwhelming percentage of their sorties target anti-regime opposition groups. They are there to support and prop up the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad.

In return, the Russians have negotiated a 49-year lease for the use of Humaymim Air Base and a naval facility about 30 miles south at the Syrian port of Tartus. This is Russia's sole military operating facility abroad since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. They are also attempting to gain base rights in Egypt and Libya.

If true, it goes without saying that the move of Syrian Air Force assets to the Russian-controlled air base was at the very least coordinated with, and possibly directed by, the Russians. The presence of 60 to 80 additional fighters on the base will strain the base's resources, but it effectively brings them under Russian protection.

Although the United States could target the Syrian fighters on the base, attacking what is essentially a Russian air base would be politically difficult and provoke a confrontation that neither the United States nor Russia wants.

Again, as with some of your other moves in Syria, well played, Mr. Putin, well-played.