August 15, 2018

Nostalgia for Saddam Husayn - who would have thought?

I was reading my Twitter feed a few days ago and the above post popped up. I looked at it and thought, you know, I have a series of photos that are also examples of this phenomena.

Let's go back to the era of Saddam Husayn, specifically 1987-1988, the last two years of the Iran-Iraq war. I had been sent to Baghdad as a liaison officer with the Iraqi Directorate of Military Intelligence.

While I was there, the Iraqis regained control of the al-Faw Peninsula in the spring of 1988 in Operation Blessed Ramadan (ramadhan mubarak). I toured the battlegrounds shortly after the battle and saw things like this.

On the left we see Iraqi soldiers' response to the Iranian occupiers of the al-Faw Peninsula southeast of the Iraqi city of al-Basrah. Iraqi troops - either by desire or order - defaced the image of Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini and re-established the portrait of Saddam Husayn.

Over the next few months, I was able to tour other battlefields as the Iraqis mounted a series of offensives - supported by U.S.-provided intelligence - that eventually led to the end of the war. I developed a friendship with my Iraqi Army "handler" - at one point I remarked about the number of photos and likenesses of Saddam Husayn on what seemed like every vertical surface in the country. After a few drinks one evening, I asked him how long it would take to remove all the posters of the president. He looked at me and quietly said, "Overnight."

Another example of what I call "truth in graffiti." When I was working as a military analyst for the NBC networks (NBC, CNBC, MSNBC), I remember seeing a news agency report that MSNBC carried on the air after the removal of Saddam Husayn. Here is one of the images in the report.

The accompanying text cited this as a defaced poster of Saddam Husayn in the former president's hometown of Tikrit with a comment that even people there were against him. I looked at the image and read the spray-painted Arabic words on the portrait. It reads: "Long live Saddam and the Ba'ath [Party]." Hardly anti-Saddam.

There is still a following in Iraq who remembers Saddam Husayn fondly - almost exclusively limited to the Sunni Arab minority. You will remember that this was the group that was (and remains) fertile recruiting ground for the insurgency and al-Qa'idah in Iraq, which later morphed into the Islamic State in Iraq, and later into the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, known more commonly as ISIS.

Nostalgia combined with new ISIS recruiting efforts as it reverts to an insurgency as it loses what little territory it might hold, means that the ISIS threat will be with us for some time.

The Defense Department agrees. This is their latest assessment: "We have assessed that, even after the liberation of ISIS controlled territory, ISIS probably is still more capable than al-Qaida in Iraq at its peak in 2006-2007...suggesting it is well positioned to rebuild and work on enabling its physical caliphate to reemerge."

August 13, 2018

At American urging, Saudis to investigate Yemen airstrike - we know the results

Screen capture from my interview on CNN

The August 9 Saudi airstrike on a crowded market in Sa'ada province in northern Yemen that struck a bus and killed 40 children on their way from school has finally drawn attention to one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.

The Yemeni civil war has been going on for over three years. It began as a Saudi attempt to prevent the Iranian-backed Houthi faction from removing the legally-elected government of 'Abd al-Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. The Houthis are a Shi'a group comprising almost 40 percent of the population.

Iranian support for the group derives from the fact that Tehran regards itself as the leader and protector of all things Shi'a, compounded by the fact that the Saudis support the Hadi government. In effect, the stalemated Yemeni civil war began and continues as a proxy fight between the two Gulf antagonists.

The initial Saudi-led coalition of 2015, which included forces and support from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Kuwait, Qatar, and Morocco, has dwindled to basically Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The primary participants in the conflict today are the Houthis, supported (armed, trained, and possibly led) by the Iranians on one side, and the Yemeni Hadi faction, supported by the armed forces of Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the other. This so-called "coalition" is supported by both the United States and the United Kingdom - primarily via weapons sales and intelligence cooperation.

U.S. Air Force and Royal Air Force officers have had decades of experience trying to train the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) not only how to operate their aircraft and weapons, but to gather and use intelligence to develop suitable targets. This includes a target selection process that limits civilian casualties as much as possible. From personal experience, training - and working with - the RSAF is difficult and frustrating.

With that as background, let me try to assess what likely happened last week, based on the limited information available.

On Wednesday (August 8), a Houthi group fired a surface-to-surface missile at the Saudi Arabian city of Jizan. The missile was intercepted by a Saudi Patriot missile and destroyed, however, falling debris killed one person and injured several others. In retaliation, the Saudis launched an airstrike targeting the Houthi group they believe were responsible for the missile launch.

The airstrike, employing an unknown number and type of weapons, struck a crowded market and a bus carrying children. It is unclear if the bus was a planned target of the strike or just happened to be in the area. In any case, 40 children and 11 others are dead in one of the worst attacks of the war.

I suspect the Saudis wanted to retaliate for the missile strike on Wednesday and mounted a quick reaction airstrike. Quick reaction airstrikes are not unusual, but they do require a pre-planned target set. That requires accurate, up-to-date intelligence.

Thus, I was concerned by the Saudi military spokesman's statement, that the market was a "legitimate target," and "No, this is not children in the bus. We do have high standard measures for targeting."

That statement leads me to believe that the pilots deliberately targeted the bus, possibly considering it a target of opportunity. It also leads me to believe that they were unaware there were children in the bus, and that the bus was suspected of carrying the Houthis the Saudis were in fact targeting.

The RSAF operates fourth generation fighter aircraft, including the American-made F-15SA Strike Eagle, dropping precision guided munitions. The Saudis are competent in the employment of these weapons and more likely than not hit what they were aiming at.

The U.S. State Department supports a United Nations call for an investigation. Secretary of Defense James Mattis went one step further, announcing, "I have dispatched a three-star general into Riyadh to look into what happened here and if there is anything we can do to preclude this in the future."

The Saudis have announced they will investigate the incident, probably to preclude a confrontation with the United States and a possible unilateral U.S. investigation.

I can predict what the Saudi investigation will "reveal" - they were operating on the best intelligence information available, it turned out not to be accurate.

In the end, no one will be held accountable.

August 12, 2018

Arabic no longer an official language of the State of Israel - so?

Israeli currency with both Hebrew and Arabic text

On July 19, 2018, the Israeli Knesset adopted a new law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People (Hebrew: חוק יסוד: ישראל - מדינת הלאום של העם היהודי‎). It is more commonly referred to as the "nation-state bill." The law is controversial and passed only after years of failed attempts. The vote was 62 for, 55 against, with two abstentions.

The eleven-clause law defined the State of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and addressed the flag, state motto, state symbol, and national anthem. It also declared that the language of the State is Hebrew.

This is a surprising change - since the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, Arabic was an official language of the country. After 70 years, two months, and five days, it now has "special status" - whatever that means.

Here is a translation (from the Hebrew) of the fourth clause of the law:

4 — Language
- a. The language of the State is Hebrew.
- b. The Arabic language has a special status in the State; regulating the use of Arabic in State institutions or by them will be set in law.
- c. This clause does not harm the status given to the Arabic language before this law came into effect.

Not being either a lawyer or a politician, it seems to me that the only actual statement in that clause above is the first one - the state's language is Hebrew. The other two sentences are "feel good" pablum in an attempt to assuage what the law's drafters must have known would be anger on the part of the Arabic speakers in the country. Note to those drafters: it didn't work.

Israel's population is approximately 8.9 million. The Israelis keep meticulous records - here is the population breakdown: Jewish 74.5 percent, Arab 20.9 percent, Druze* 1.6 percent, and other 3.0 percent. Combining the Arabs and Druze together brings the Arabic-speaking portion of the population to be 22.5 percent.

The new law has sparked outrage among the non-Hebrew speakers, as well as with many of the Jewish population who believe that the law causes unnecessary divisions in the country. Many Israeli military personnel object to it because it marginalizes the Druze, who serve in the armed forces in higher numbers than their percentage of the population and are well-respected for their capabilities.

I titled this article, "Arabic no longer an official language of the State of Israel - so?" Here is the "so."

The law in general, and the language clause in particular, sends different messages to the two groups, one to the Hebrew speakers, and one to the Arabic speakers.

To the Hebrew speakers - in reality the three quarters of the population who are Jewish: this is the Jewish state where we speak Hebrew, this is your country.

To the one quarter who do not speak Hebrew - the Arabs (Muslim and Christian), Druze, and other minorities: you can live here because your birth venue happens to be inside the national borders of the Jewish state, but it's really not your country. Feel free to leave - drive in almost any direction for an hour and you could be home.

The above tweet was posted by Avital Leibovich, a retired Israeli military intelligence officer, and a professional acquaintance. She raises a key point - if these Israeli Arabs believe they really are Israelis, why not carry the Israeli flag?

On the other hand, the Nation-State law goes one step further towards making the term "Israeli Arab" an oxymoron.

* The Druze in Israel do not identify themselves as Arabs. In Syria and Lebanon, they identify as Arabs by ethnicity, and Druze by religion.

June 26, 2018

Reality (is the) Winner - former NSA contractor pleads guilty

Reality Winner - yes, that's her real name - pleaded guilty in federal court in Georgia on June 26. She had been in pretrial confinement since her arrest in June 2017 for alleged violations of the Espionage Act.

Winner was accused of - and has now admitted to - leaking a classified report produced by the National Security Agency about Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election. It detailed attempted hacks by the GRU, Russia's military intelligence service, against local election officials and a company that sold software for voter registration.

Let's put that in perspective. I served in the intelligence community for almost 28 years in a variety of positions with assignments to the Central Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, and yes, NSA. (No one in the intelligence community calls it "the NSA" - that identifies you as an outsider.)

Virtually every foreign intelligence report published by NSA is not just classified, but is also designated as Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) that requires special handling in designated communications channels. This one was no exception.

Here is an image of the first page*:

I have highlighted the classification markings that appear at the top and bottom of each page. Note that each paragraph and the title also bear a classification marking that pertains to that portion of the text. This report is marked:



TOP SECRET - The material is classified Top Secret, the highest level. The lower classifications are Confidential and Secret.

SI - This material is based on Special Intelligence, or information derived from the intercept and exploitation of foreign communications. This is probably the major issue - the Russians will easily determine which of their communications systems are vulnerable and will secure them, eliminating forever a valuable intelligence source.

ORCON - the report is Originator Controlled, meaning that further distribution of the report requires the producing agency's (NSA in this case) express authorization.

REL TO USA, FYEY - the information is releasable to authorized recipients in the USA and the "Five Eyes" countries. These are Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States.

FISA - This report contains information collected in response to a warrant issued in accordance with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

This was not an act of a whistleblower - a whistleblower reports issues, violations, fraud, etc. to his/her chain of command, or the organization's inspector general (all government agencies have them), but NEVER to the media. This is especially true when dealing with classified information - as in this case. Ms, well now, Inmate Winner knows this full well - she is a former U.S. Air Force linguist. Military personnel are trained on the proper handling of classified material.

So why did she feel the need to photocopy a highly restricted Top Secret document from her place of work and email it to a media outlet - The Intercept - with past associations with the likes of the traitor Edward Snowden and his shill Glenn Greenwald? She said she was mad about some things she had seen in the media, and wanted to set the facts right. No excuse to go to a media outlet with a record of releasing sensitive national security information.

Winner entered a guilty plea, part of a deal with the federal government which will require her to serve up to five years and three months in prison. She has been jailed at the Lincoln County Justice Center since her arrest. The photos above tell the toll incarceration has taken.

Who knows what five years in a federal prison will do to her? Given the fact that she has pleaded guilty to a violation of the Espionage Act - it is as serious as it sounds - I doubt she is going to a Martha Stewart level minimum security facility, also known as "Club Fed."

At her plea hearing, she stated, "All of these actions I did willfully, meaning I did them of my own free will." At least she owned up to her treason.

I guess the views of her mother's clouded judgment will be the end of this story. In her words, she hopes the public will see her daughter as a “good person... Reality Winner, I don’t want her name to go down as being someone in history who betrayed or hurt her country.”

Sorry, mom, that's exactly who she is and what she did. Look on the bright side - with time served, she'll likely be out by age 30.

By that time, The Intercept will have forgotten her and moved on to the next betrayal of the country.

No worries, though, I am sure there will be a big demand for ex-con waitresses who might still remember how to speak Farsi.

* You can download/read the entire leaked document (with NSA-requested redactions) here.

** Here is The Intercept's reportage of convicted felon Inmate Winner's plea deal. As you might expect, their view is a bit afield of mine. In my opinion, they threw her under the bus - a first year counterintelligence officer would have figured this out in about eight hours.

June 4, 2018

Requiescat in pace - Lt Gen Bernard Trainor, USMC (Ret)

Lieutenant General Bernard "Mick" Trainor, USMC (Ret)

It is with profound sadness that I acknowledge the passing of a legend and personal mentor.

Lieutenant General Bernard E. Trainor, United States Marine Corps (Retired), has died at age 89 of cancer. Time has taken its toll on yet another of America's finest warriors, those who we as a country send forward to fight our wars. The general was a combat veteran of the Korean War and two tours in Vietnam. I was honored to know Mick, as he was called by his friends, although I never called him anything but General.

There will be enough articles and recitations of his accomplishments that I will not review them here. I will merely recount my personal recollections of the general.

Shortly after returning from an overseas tour (was that vague enough?) in 1987, I was assigned to an office at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) responsible for operations and analysis of the various situations in the Middle East and South Asia. Our office was authorized to provide background information to the press - General Trainor at that time was a correspondent for the New York Times.*

In late 1987 and early 1988, there were several major issues facing the United States - Afghanistan and our support for the mujahidin, the Iran-Iraq War and our nascent support for the Saddam Husayn government, and the threat posed by the Libyan government under Mu'amar Qadhafi's acquisition of chemical weapons. It was a busy time. Our office routinely provided interviews to General Trainor.

American support for the Iraqis in the Iran-Iraq War had just begun when I met the general for the first time. He was by all accounts a legendary U.S. Marine three-star general now writing for the New York Times. I was intrigued by the thought of retired senior military officer now working as a member of the Fourth Estate. For many of us serving in the military, it seemed a bit incongruous.

At that time, our program to support the Iraqis through the provision of U.S. military intelligence was very close-hold. Few members of the government were aware of the Presidential-directed program to give the Iraqi military the information they needed to stave off an expected Iranian offensive that we believed would lead to the eventual fall of the Iraqi government.

I was one of the officers tasked with going to Baghdad and working with the Iraqi Directorate of Military Intelligence as part of that program. According to the Los Angeles Times, the program was known by the code names "Elephant Grass," "Druid Leader" and "Surf Fisher." I will neither confirm nor deny.

Imagine my surprise while on a flight from Paris to Baghdad running into General Trainor. Since the flight was headed for Baghdad, there was no sense in denying that I was headed for the Iraqi capital. I tap-danced around the obvious question, "What are you going to be doing in Baghdad?" with a "visiting our defense attache office at the embassy."

I am not sure he bought it, but extending professional courtesy from one military officer to another, he did not pursue it. I was glad he did. I did not want to lie or mislead him - but as a professional intelligence officer, I was prepared to do so.

Years later, I again worked with General Trainor, but in a different capacity - we were both on-air analysts for NBC News, which included the cable outlets CNBC and MSNBC. He was always a gracious analyst, even when we disagreed. My experiences in Iraq were markedly different, so it was reasonable that our analyses varied. In every instance, he was personable and willing to listen to a much junior officer.

I will mourn the passing of a fine officer. General Trainor - "Mick" - served his country well as a warrior, and later as a journalist and author.


* I have chosen to not acknowledge the obituary from the Times as I disagree with the political spin attached to it. I knew General Trainor and believe that he would not have not been pleased with it.

Peugeot pulls out of Iran - restored American sanctions begin to bite

Iran Khodro - Peugeot's joint venture partner in the Islamic Republic

The Reuters headline could not be more clear: "France's PSA suspends joint ventures in Iran to avoid U.S. sanctions." French carmaker PSA Group, Europe's second largest automaker, has begun the process of halting its investments in the Islamic Republic of Iran in response to the withdrawal of the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The JCPOA was, in my opinion, a flawed agreement that traded sanctions relief for Iran in return for a delay in its quest to acquire a nuclear weapons capability. Since U.S. participation in the JCPOA was mandated by an executive order of former President Barack Obama without Senate ratification (required for international treaties), it was subject to revocation by President Donald Trump via the same mechanism.

Inherent in that withdrawal from the JCPOA is the restoration of American sanctions on Iran. They have come incrementally, targeting both individuals and organizations in the country. What has real teeth, however, are the "secondary" sanctions, those sanctions against individuals and organizations who choose to ignore U.S. sanctions and continue to do business with Iran. This is what is driving (pardon the pun) Peugeot to reassess its investments in Iran - fear of American sanctions on the company.

The message is quite clear - companies can do business with the United States and its $18.5 trillion economy, or with the Islamic Republic, whose gross domestic product is about the same as the state of Maryland. Companies who ignore the sanctions also risk being cut off from the U.S. financial system, the kiss of death in international business.

Peugeot follows other major businesses in suspending dealings with Iran, including Total, Siemens, Allianz, Maersk, BP, and GE. The sanctions will also affect proposed commercial aircraft sales to Iran by Boeing and Airbus.

On a lighter and more personal note. Peugeot has a long history with the Iranian automobile industry. In 2007, Peugeot's partner in Iran, Iran Khodro, partnered with a Syrian government-owned company (it is a socialist state, after all) to produce a car in a joint Syrian-Iranian auto factory in the environs of Damascus.

The car was a direct copy of the Iranian-built Samand, which was itself a derivative of the Peugeot 405. Since the car was mainly built for the domestic Syrian market, the name chosen for the car was the Sham.

Syrian President Bashar al-Asad at the wheel of a Sham automobile

I wrote a short article about the joint venture when it was announced in 2007: What's in a name? - the Syrian-Iranian car company

Here is the article in its entirety.

A Syrian state-owned company and an Iranian public company are jointly manufacturing a car in Syria. The car is based on a Peugeot design.

Having lived in Syria for a few years, cars make an interesting issue. Prior to the mid-1990's, it was almost impossible to import a car as a private citizen. When restrictions were relaxed, cars imported into Syria carried a 100 percent duty. An indigenously produced car will certainly find a market and replace many of the antique cars kept running only by creative repairs by innovative Syrian mechanics.

Although it will not be a problem in Syria and it does not look like the car will be marketed in the English-speaking countries, they have decided to name the car with the old name for Syria and the Syrian dialect word for Damascus - the Sham automobile.

My Syrian driver's license

I hope the car is well-built and easily repaired, since accidents are quite common, and the mandatory state-owned insurance coverage is basically worthless. My wife was in a fender-bender - when I translated the police report, the other driver, who was clearly at fault claimed that the accident was the will of Allah. The police accepted that and it was the official cause of the accident.

The Sham - going on sale next month. From the people who brought you Hizballah.

May 25, 2018

Memorial Day 2018

Note: I wrote this in 2007 while a military analyst at NBC News. While the situation has changed, I think the sentiment is still true today.

Let us not forget that as I write this in 2018, there are still American forces in harm's way. From the mountains of Afghanistan in America's longest war, to the deserts of the Middle East where the remnants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria still pose a threat, to the hinterlands of sub-Saharan Africa, and on virtually every ocean on the planet, and the skies all over the world, every day American forces conduct a variety of military operations - often at great risk.

Just in these first few months of this year, we have lost troops in combat in Afghanistan, Syria, and Niger. In addition, we have lost fine young men and women in training accidents - their deaths are just as tragic and need to be honored and remembered.

These are our sons and daughters. Every one of them contributed to the cost paid to maintain the freedoms that define who we are as a nation.

'On behalf of a grateful nation'
Do not forget our fallen men and women
By Lt. Col. Rick Francona, U.S. Air Force (Retired)
Military analyst - NBC News

Lt. Gen. Ed Soriano, left, presents Jessica Hebert, sister of Spc. Justin Hebert who was killed in Kirkuk, Iraq, with an American flag during his military funeral (AP Photo/The Herald, Meggan Booker). Ed and I served together during and after Desert Storm - this must have been his toughest duty.

Memorial Day weekend – most people associate that with the start of the "summer driving season" or a chance to buy appliances on sale. The constant news coverage of still high gasoline prices tends to overshadow the real meaning of the holiday. It is not about driving or shopping – it is about remembering the men and women or our armed forces who died while in service to the country. It is important that we not forget that – after more than a decade, we are still at war and we still lose some our finest young men and women every week.

Yes, we are still at war. No one knows this more than the families of those who have fallen on battlefields far from home with names most of us cannot pronounce. Unlike most of the wars America has fought in the past, we are fighting with an all volunteer force – there has been no draft since 1973. Every one of the fallen volunteered to serve this country, and deserve a moment of remembrance. Less than one-half of one percent of Americans serve in uniform (in World War II, it was over 12 percent) at any one time.

In the draft era, a much higher percent of the population entered the service, creating a large pool of veterans. Veterans understand the unique demands of military service, the separation from loved ones, the dangers of combat. With far fewer veterans or a veteran in the family, community and government, it is easy to lose sight of the demands military service requires of our men and women in uniform – and to forget too quickly those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

Sometimes one could get the feeling that foreign countries – especially those that have been liberated by American forces in the past – pay more tribute to our fallen troops than we do. I will never forget standing in a church in rural France – not a fancy cathedral, not a tourist spot, nothing architecturally significant, just a small village church. I would not have paid much attention until I spotted a well-maintained corner with a small American flag and a plaque.

I walked over and read the simple but powerful words in French and English:

"In gratitude to the United States of America and in remembrance of her 56,681 sons that now and forever sleep in French soil."

A elderly parishioner sitting in a pew nearby saw me reading the inscription and asked if I was an American. I said that I was – she slowly rose, nodded at the memorial and said, "You are welcome in France."*

Over the years, well over 1.3 million American troops have died in military service. Each fallen warrior is afforded a military funeral - military funerals symbolize respect for the fallen and their families.

Anyone who has attended a military funeral will never forget it – the American flag draped on the coffin, an honor guard in full dress uniform, the crack of seven rifles firing three volleys as Taps is played on the bugle, the snap of the flag as it is folded into the familiar triangle of blue, the reverence of fellow warriors.

Before his final salute, the officer in charge presents that folded flag to, in most cases, a young widow. He makes that presentation "on behalf of a grateful nation."

At some point on this day, let us make sure that we do not forget our fallen men and women, and that we are in fact a grateful nation.

* France is our oldest ally, a military alliance going back to 1778. For more information, see my article, The Nice attack - standing with our first and oldest ally.

May 6, 2018

A Palestinian refugee pecking order - and a bad translation....

Note: This article is more of an informative piece rather than an analytical effort. A friend sent a tweet to me and asked if I had heard the obviously distressed remarks of a Palestinian "refugee" from the Yarmuk camp just south of Damascus. She asked me if this was real. Here is the video.

The tweet was posted by journalist CJ Werleman, a respected correspondent with over 78,000 followers on Twitter. I saw the caption, the alleged translation of the video, and was curious - these are not the words I would expect from a Palestinian refugee from the Yarmuk camp.

As a student of the Levantine (Palestinian) dialect of Arabic - that spoken in Syria, Lebanon, "Palestine," and parts of Jordan - I decided to give it a listen. Although I was trained in the Egyptian dialect, I have always been posted to countries where the Levantive dialect is spoken - it took me years to divest myself of an Egyptian accent.

I digress. The term "Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp" is somewhat of a misnomer. In my former role as the Air Attaché (photo) to the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, I spent a lot of time observing the situation in the environs of the capital, including Yarmuk. The word "camp" brings to mind images of tents and a population living in squalor.

The "Yarmuk Palestinian Refugee Camp" in Damascus is in reality just another section of the city. It consists of high-rise apartment buildings and a vibrant commercial center - hardly what one thinks of when the term "refugee camp" is used.

About refugees. There are various categories of Palestinian refugees, depending on the date a person or family departed their homes and applied to the United Nations (UN) for refugee status.

A “1948” stamp in either a national identity document, or a UN-issued Palestinian laissez passer which indicates that the bearer left the area which is now part of the State of Israel in 1948 is considered the gold standard among refugees, affording the holder the highest level of benefits.

These benefits are provided by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). Refugees who departed areas considered Palestinian at later dates still qualify for benefits, but not at the same level.

There are 560,000 Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA - 438,000 of these are in Syria (including 254,000 internally displaced).

Now to the video.

As I said, I was taken aback by the caption on the video. I read the posted caption: "Return me to the Jews. Even Israel is more merciful than Assad," says elderly Palestinian refugee in besieged Yarmuk.

I thought it was out of character and listened to the video. This is my translation, with the understandable caveat - his speech is difficult to understand, so I may have a few words wrong, but the meaning is easily understood.

“I am sick, I am starving, it’s the Jews – I have identification with 1948 (repeats several times), I am a refugee from 1948. I have children, I have four children and they’ve all been taken. It’s a shame, a shame.”

What the man says is entirely in keeping with reality in Syria, reality in Damascus, among the Palestinians. When I was there, I had a good friend - a Palestinian doctor - who explained the pecking order among refugees. The "1948" imprimatur is the top of the line in regards to benefits from UNRWA and hence the Syrian government. He is adamant that we know that he has a 1948 stamp on his identification documents.

That said, the issue here is the incorrect translation. Over 78,000 followers of the original poster saw the incorrect translation - it was retweeted over 275 times to who knows how many readers.

It is important that subscribers of social media be aware of the veracity of their sources. In this instance, the meaning was far from the truth.

The Iranian nuclear deal - fix it or nix it

With the growing use of various social media, I have begun putting more immediate and shorter pieces of analysis on such fora as Twitter (please follow me: @MiddleEastGuy).

Here is what is called a "thread" about the Iranian deal and the upcoming Presidential decision on whether to continue certifying Iran as in compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and continue to provide sanctions relief, or refuse to certify the agreement and trigger the re-imposition of crippling US sanctions. I have expanded some of the text to make it easier to read for "non-tweeters."

You can probably guess my view on the JCPOA debacle....

The above photo appeared in a Washington Post article that begins:

WASHINGTON — John Kerry’s bid to save one of his most significant accomplishments as secretary of state took him to New York on a Sunday afternoon two weeks ago, where, more than a year after he left office, he engaged in some unusual shadow diplomacy with a top-ranking Iranian official.

He sat down at the United Nations with Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to discuss ways of preserving the pact limiting Iran’s nuclear weapons program. It was the second time in about two months that the two had met to strategize over salvaging a deal they spent years negotiating during the Obama administration, according to a person briefed on the meetings.

Tweet 1:
[Former U.S. Secretary of State] @JohnKerry was badly outplayed by #Iran|ian counterpart [Foreign Mininster] @JZarif and #Russia's [Foreign Mininster] Sergey Lavrov to further [U.S. President Barack Obama] @POTUS44's signature [foreign policy] failure. Now he is likely in violation of the #LoganAct* as he conspires to aid [Iran,] the world's primary state sponsor of terrorism.

Tweet 2:
Lavrov went one better than @JZarif requesting that ballistic missile restrictions be lifted - I doubt he thought even the hapless @JohnKerry would agree. Not only did Kerry cave in to virtually every Iranian demand, he gave in to the Russians,too.

Tweet 3:
During the "negotiations" - an ambitious description of the total Kerry cave-in - the "anytime, anywhere" inspection/verification protocol was changed to a lengthy notification and appeals process, and former military aspects declarations of the Iranian program were forgotten.

Tweet 4:
As for Iranian military sites, the final document does theoretically grant access to [United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency] IAEA inspectors. The Iranians dispute this - who knows what side secret agreements were reached by Zarif and Kerry? Anything to get a deal - any deal, even a bad one.

Tweet 5:
I am not against an agreement that removes #Iran as a nuclear threat. I am against a bad deal that is not verifiable. The #IAEA refuses to demand access - authorized by the deal - to Iranian military sites, as it believes Iran's refusal will be a reason for the U.S. to leave the deal.

Tweet 6:
I suspect [U.S. President Donald Trump] @realDonaldTrump may stay in the deal for the sake of the @NATO alliance ([French President Emmanuel] Macron and [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel), but remember the "allies" are in this to sell things to Iran, not to limit Iranian nuclear efforts. I urge the President to consider American national interests, not Europe's.

Of course, I was savaged by supporters of the JCPOA. Most of these detractors are either members of the Obama Administration, supporters of the terminally ineffective John Kerry, or have no appreciation for the Iranian regime. They all have a vested interest in the Obama legacy - otherwise, they will be unmasked as supporting the world's worst supporters of terrorism, the mullahs in Tehran.

Either fix this disastrous agreement - not likely - or kill it.

On the May 6 edition of the CNN show Fareed Zakaria GPS, retired General Danny Yatom, former director of the Israeli intelligence service, urges President Trump to remain in the JCPOA, with the following important condition, which Fareed did not highlight.

Yatom advises the President to use the recent Israeli intelligence revelations about Iranian failure to declare the scope of its previous nuclear weapons programs, the Previous Military Dimensions (PMD), as specifically required by the JCPOA, to force the Iranians to agree to amendments to the agreement.

I know Danny Yatom - he is a tough former commando, experienced strategic and tactical intelligence officer, and a skilled politician. He is not naive. Certainly he knows that the Iranians have specifically rejected any amendments or adjustments to the JCPOA.

Why would they agree to changes? They have received almost all the benefits already - another Kerry failure. If the agreement fails, they will feel justified in resuming (many of us believe it has never stopped) their nuclear weapons program and will have reaped most of the benefits of the JCPOA as well.

That said - I can live with Yatom's suggestion, but I seriously doubt the Iranians will agree.

* The Logan Act is a 1799 statute that bars private citizens from interfering with diplomatic relations between the United States and foreign governments. It makes it a felony, punishable by a fine or imprisonment of up to three years, if an American citizen, without government authorization, interacts “with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States.”

April 10, 2018

Notional message from Russian commander to President Bashar al-Asad on chemical attack

Syrian child killed in Duma chemical weapons attack - April 7, 2018

By now, most of the world has been repulsed by the dramatic, tragic images emerging from the eastern suburbs of Damascus, Syria. These images of dead children, and probably more so, of suffering children have had the same effect as in the past - anger that any government would unleash chemical weapons on its own population.

As I have repeatedly said during my interviews on CNN, no sane military commander would have authorized this attack. The Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Asad is on the verge of victory over virtually all of the disparate opposition groups in the country, be they the Free Syrian Army or the jihadist groups still fighting in the few remaining pockets of resistance in the country. This victory has been made possible by the massive application of Russian airpower, as well as Iranian and Hizballah fighters on the ground.

The forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have been largely ejected from almost all of the areas they previously controlled. The remaining ISIS-held areas in northeast Syria had been steadily defeated by the primarily Kurdish Syrian Democratic Front (SDF), supported by the U.S.-led coalition airpower, intelligence, artillery and special forces.

Thanks to NATO "ally" Turkey, the ground offensive against ISIS has been virtually put on hold as Turkish forces and their sycophantic Syrian allies launched an unnecessary and unhelpful offensive against the Syrian Kurds.

Despite the slowdown of the offensive against ISIS, the Syrian regime is on the path to reasserting almost complete control over the suburbs of Damascus, finalizing its operations in the Eastern Ghutah. There was no need to use chemical weapons.

I believe that the Syrians decided to use chemical weapons on their own, without seeking counsel from either their Russian or Iranian supporters. Given the international reaction to the images of dead and injured Syrian children, the Russians must be understandably upset at their Syrian clients.

I can imagine a strongly worded message from the senior general in charge of the sizable Russian expeditionary force headquartered at Humaymim air base just south of the major port city of Latakia on Syria's northwest coast. Here's how it might have read:


T O P   S E C R E T

Date: 8 April 2018

From: General-Colonel Sergey Vladimirovich Surovikin
Commander, Russian Group of Troops - Syria

To: His Excellency Bashar al-Asad
President, Syrian Arab Republic

Subject: Chemical Attack on Duma

Mr. President,

It is with great distress that I learned of the recent use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Arab Army in the Eastern Ghutah city of Duma yesterday.

As you are aware, Russian forces have supported Syria's military operations with virtually unlimited airpower, as well as special forces (Spetznaz) troops, artillery and rocket fires, intelligence information, and military advisers embedded at the battalion level. Our joint forces are on the verge of victory over the rebels and terrorists that threaten your government.

Duma is the last remaining enclave in the Eastern Ghutah. Russian military officers have struck a deal with the primary opposition force in Duma, the jaysh al-islam (Army of Islam). The fighters and their families will be allowed to leave Duma, and your forces will enter the city and reassert Syrian sovereignty over the entire area. Our joint forces will then turn our attention to the remaining pockets of resistance in the Damascus area, primarily in the area of the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp.

Unfortunately, the Syrian Arab Army's use of chemical munitions has created an unstable situation. As we witnessed just one year ago, the use of chemical warfare nerve agents risks a military response from certain Western nations. Last year, the United States Navy launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles into the Syrian Arab Air Force base at Sha'yrat, destroying a significant percentage of the SYAAF fighter-bomber inventory, as well as causing damage to the airfield facilities. Yesterday's attack may provide the impetus for an additional attack, or series of attacks, on Syrian military facilities.

Of course, the Russian armed forces are here to support your government. Unfortunately, the actions of your soldiers have forced us to change our offensive posture in parts of the country to prepare for a possible American or coalition military operation.

To that end, I have altered our operations here at Humaymim air base from attacking the forces opposed to the Syrian government, and refocused them on detecting and possibly countering a US/NATO/coalition strike. I await specific orders from President Putin on what actions I am to take. As you can appreciate, relations between the United States of America and the Russian Federation are at a particularly sensitive stage.

The American destroyer USS Donald Cook is moving into a position from where it can launch strikes against Syrian facilities, as is a French Navy frigate. I have ordered vigilance operations against these two ships - they now claim that Russian Air Force aircraft are harassing them. We will continue to maintain surveillance and monitoring of these naval assets until ordered to stand down by Moscow.

Mr. President, with all due respect, you have placed me in a difficult and unnecessary position. The use of a chemical agent by Syrian troops has galvanized world public opinion against both of our countries.

While normally that is of little concern to Russian troops, we now run the risk of heightened international attention and potential military action that will complicate our efforts to re-establish your control over all Syrian territory, including that currently occupied by the Islamic State, the American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, and the areas currently occupied by the Turks and their surrogates.

The use of chemicals was unnecessary - victory is at hand. As long as our joint forces limit weaponry to conventional munitions, we can kill our enemies with virtual impunity.

As always, the forces of the Russian Federation stand with our Syrian comrades. Please do not hesitate to seek our advice and counsel on future military operations.

Суровикин Сергей Владимирович


Translation: Mr. President, what were you thinking? Thanks to your stupidity, I now have a mess to clean up. This is probably going to cause an American military strike on Syria, placing my forces in a possible confrontation with American forces - something neither the Americans or us wants. Everything was on track in our military defeat of the opposition - the Americans were even making noises about leaving Syria, yet now they are planning an attack. In the future, consult with me before issuing anything but routine orders. Thanks a lot.