January 13, 2019

Trump threatens Turkey's economy if it attacks Kurds

I was asked on Twitter by a prominent Kurdish journalist about President Trump's tweet (above) concerning Syria, Turkey, and the Kurds. It is difficult to answer complex issues via Twitter's 280 characters, so here is an expanded version.

I believe the President’s earlier announcement of a withdrawal of American forces from Syria was a blunder. Another U.S. premature withdrawal is wrong. I cite the 2011 Obama withdrawal from Iraq that led to the creation of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Abandoning our Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) allies, a military force made up of several groups, but primarily the Kurdish People's Protection Units (known by the Kurdish initials YPG) is even worse.

That said, I liked the President’s words.

This tweet is more of the President’s realization that he was hasty - and wrong - in accepting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's word on anything. Hopefully, he now understands that Turkey has neither the intent nor the capability to defeat ISIS in Syria. It’s not about ISIS for the self-styled new "sultan" of what he delusionally believes is a new Ottoman Empire.

Defeating ISIS in Syria will have to be done by the U.S.-led coalition, with the YPG providing ground forces for the effort. The President may want to pull out American forces, but it isn’t as easy as he thinks. The SDF is much more effective with U.S. troops on the ground directly coordinating the effort against ISIS.

Pullout of U.S. forces will thus be slower than Trump wants. I am encouraged that the President now appears committed to the defeat of ISIS before we leave. It is important to note that he realizes ISIS represents an ideology and may re-surge. His pledge to address that is welcome.

I hope Trump is listening to his advisers, most of whom (including those of us who served with the Kurds) want him to ensure Turkish President Erdogan does not mount an incursion against the YPG.

I like his threats that Turkey will pay a price for its unhelpful and unnecessary military operations in northern Syria. It is about time a U.S. president called out the Turks for the unhelpful positions.

To those who wring their hands that President Trump is threatening a NATO ally, I respond that Turkey has not been any kind of ally since 2003. Recall the perfidy involved with the canceled approval for the already-begun deployment of the U.S. Army 4th Infantry Division into northern Iraq via Turkey. After deploying the entire division to Turkey, the Turkish government reneged on the authorization for the troops to move towards northern Iraq. The entire division had to be redeployed to Saudi Arabia at great expense, and great risk to the coalition plan of attack.

A 20 mile safe zone? That seems a bit excessive. How about a no-go/fly zone along the border from the Euphrates River to the Iraqi border? American airpower should be able to enforce that. Turkey's military is impressive on paper, but I doubt they want to challenge the U.S.

Bottom line
Turkey is not in the fight against ISIS, it never has been. I have been all along the Syrian-Turkish border, on both sides. I still wonder how all the thousands of ISIS fighters were able to cross what is a seriously controlled border. You hate to think there was collusion....

Turkey, and its new self-styled "sultan" Erdogan, wants to use the anti-ISIS fight as a fig leaf to attack the Syrian Kurd YPG. If they do, I hope the President makes them pay a price.

Bey Erdogan, do you want to be a NATO ally? Then act like it.

January 5, 2019

Turkey now wants U.S. support to defeat ISIS?

Turkish troops on the Syrian border

Since President Trump's rather surprising decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, there has been concern about the continuation of the fight against the remnants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). While ISIS fighters have been pushed almost completely out of Syria, there is a stubborn remaining pocket southeast of the city of Dayr al-Zawr.

Trump's announcement came as the forces of the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF) seized the city of Hajin, the last remaining sizable city still under ISIS control, after three months of bloody fighting, attacks and counterattacks.

The bulk of the SDF is made up of Syrian Kurds belonging to the People's Protection Units, known by its Kurdish initials YPG. The SDF/YPG has done the lion's share of the ground combat against ISIS in northern Syria, with extensive air, artillery, logistics, and advisory support from the U.S.-led coalition. The YPG's continued participation in the fight against ISIS is critical.

In formulating his withdrawal decision, President Trump spoke with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Reportedly during that conversation, Trump asked Erdoğan, "If we withdraw our soldiers, can you clean up ISIS?” Erdoğan replied that Turkish forces were up to the task. Evidently, Trump took Erdoğan at his word.

I really wish President Trump had followed the advice of, well, virtually everybody. I have been quite vocal in my writings and on-air interviews that I regard taking the word of the president of an unreliable NATO ally a huge mistake - I think I used the words "serious blunder."

Why do I say that? Let's look a the map.

I have drawn a red circle around the last remaining ISIS pocket, the al-Sha'afah pocket - in the middle Euphrates Valley east of the river. The larger pocket to the west is in the area of Syria controlled by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad, with his Russian, Iranian, and Lebanese Hizballah supporters, without whom he would have been removed from power years ago. That pocket is mainly desert and of no real strategic or tactical consequence.

It is ludicrous to think that the Turks are willing and capable of "cleaning up ISIS" in Syria. The closest Turkish troops to the al-Sha'afah pocket are at least 275 kilometers/170 miles away.

The only way for Turkish ground forces - tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery, troop transports, supply trucks - plus a huge logistics tail, is to traverse that distance through territory controlled and inhabited by Syrian Kurds, as well as a significant number of Assyrians.

Can the Turks pull this off? Short answer: No.

Longer answer: To accomplish what they claim they are willing to do - "clean up ISIS" - they will need a lot of support. Who is going to provide that support? The Turks have requested that the United States provide air strikes, logistics, and transportation.

Not only are the Turks not capable of the logistics of this operation, they have to solve the problem of traversing what will undoubtedly be hostile territory. It might be that the Turks are asking for so much assistance that it would require the deployment of additional American troops to Syria, rather than reducing the number.

What the Turks are really asking is for the United States to arrange safe passage for Turkish forces through the areas controlled by the YPG, the very people the Turkish president has branded as terrorists, nothing more than an extension of the terrorist group PKK. The PKK, a Kurdish separatist movement in southeastern Turkey, has been fighting an insurgency against the Turkish government for decades.

I do not think the United States will be able to - nor should it - attempt to arrange safe passage with a group that Erdoğan has vowed to eliminate militarily. The YPG will not trust the Turks (I don't either). Exacerbating the issue is the increased wariness on the part of the Kurds as to what American intentions are in Syria, and what commitment the United States is willing to make. If I were the Kurds, I would refuse.

The existing coalition is perfectly capable of removing ISIS from Syrian territory. Two things are required for that to happen. First, the U.S.-led coalition must remain intact. In other words, American forces must continue the fight in Syria.

Second, the Turks need to stop threatening an incursion into northern Syria to attack the YPG. If the YPG believes the Turks are going to attack, they will stop operations against ISIS in the al-Sha'afah pocket and redeploy back to their homes to defend their territory and families. The fight against ISIS will stagnate. ISIS has in the past taken advantage of previous Turkish tantrums to launch counterattacks.

The Turks continue to be difficult "allies." They threaten and make preparations to move troops into northern Syria, extending from the 'Afrin area (venue of a previous unhelpful and unnecessary Turkish incursion) east to the Iraqi border, an area mostly inhabited by Kurds.

Then they make a commitment to President Trump to finish the removal of ISIS from Syria - an objective I do not believe they are capable of attaining. To do that, they now ask for American assistance, including negotiating with the very group they want to destroy.

I don't trust Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He has been a consistent obstacle in the ongoing fight against ISIS. He knows his forces are not going to reach the middle Euphrates Valley to fight ISIS - that was never the plan. Erdoğan wants to eliminate the YPG, and he wants us to help him do it.

This entire charade is not a Turkish commitment to "finish ISIS," it's a plan to attack the Kurds in Syria.

January 1, 2019

Miniseries Review: "Fauda" (Netflix 2017- )

We just finished watching the first two seasons of the Israeli-produced mini-series Fauda. Fauda (or more properly fawda) is the Arabic word for chaos, which is used by the Israeli military special operations team as a distress call.

Here is the Wikipedia description: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fauda

We would recommend it for those interested in the chaotic (pun intended) situation in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, administered by the Palestinian Authority. The antagonists are the Israel military versus the Palestinian Islamist group HAMAS (an acronym for al-harakat al-muqawamat al-islamiyah, the Islamic Resistance Movement), in season one, and in season two, HAMAS and a nascent ISIS cell.

Most of the action takes place in and around the city of Nablus. I recognized many of the locations from trips to the West Bank - I have often used the checkpoint at Qalqiliyah shown repeatedly in the show. It is the best route from Israel proper to Nablus.

In addition to our general recommendation, we would especially recommend the series for Arabic linguists. The two languages spoken by the characters are, of course, Hebrew and Arabic. The Hebrew dialog is dubbed (quite well) into English, so when you hear English spoken, remember that it is actually in Hebrew.

The Arabic is subtitled. The subtitles are accurate, but are more interpretation than a direct translation. If you are going to try to understand the Arabic dialog, one caveat: it is West Bank accented Palestinian Arabic. It took our Syrian-tuned ears a few episodes to adapt to the dialect.

For the Arabic linguist geeks among you, I would describe it as Levantine Arabic with the Egyptian use of the letter shin attached to the verb for the negative. It makes for some interesting sounds, For example, in one scene, a Palestinian woman is being taken away by the team, screaming “I didn’t do anything.” In the local dialect, it becomes, ma ‘amalt-shi shi. Yeah, I know, too far down in the weeds….

Anyway, watch it. Season 3 will be shown in 2019.

POSTSCRIPT: I am told by a linguistics scholar that the dialect spoken in Nablus is actually called Southern Levantine Arabic.

Movie Review: "The Angel" (Netflix - 2018)

The (mostly) true story of Ashraf Marwan, who was Egyptian President Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasr's son-in-law and special adviser, and confidant to his successor Anwar al-Sadat - while simultaneously the Israeli intelligence service Mossad's most precious asset of the 20th century. More on Marwan: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashraf_Marwan.

I think it is very well done, and if you are an Arabic speaker, you will appreciate the Egyptian dialect spoken throughout, even though none of the actors are Egyptian. They include a Palestinian-American, a Tunisian-Dutchman, Palestinian-Israeli, an Iraqi-Israeli Jew, among others.

In 1973, Egyptian and Syrian forces launched an attack on Israel on the holy day of Yom Kippur, setting off what would turn into a weeks-long war. Though most of Israel was caught off guard by the attack, the Mossad had received a tip about what was to come. That tip came from Ashraf Marwan, a well-connected Egyptian national. Through access to Egypt’s top officials, Marwan had access to sensitive information — which he provided to Israel for several years, earning the code name “Angel.”

One minor (and I mean really minor) nit – in one scene set in 1973, an older version of the Egyptian flag appears in the President’s office. The flag design was changed in 1972.

The flag on the left is that of the United Arab Republic (UAR), the union between Syria and Egypt - Syria still uses this flag today. The UAR ended in 1961 with the Syrian coup that ushered in the Ba’ath Party. In 1972, Egypt replaced the two green stars with the Hawk of Quraysh (middle image), and in 1984, replaced the hawk with the Eagle of Salah al-Din (Saladin).

Watch it. It's available on Netflix, in fact, it is a Netflix Original.

December 17, 2018

Miniseries Review: "The Last Post" (Amazon Prime - 2017)

I just watched this BBC mini-series. Amazon Prime calls it one of their original productions, watch here.

I am recommending it to those of you who follow events in the Middle East - others might find it too much of a niche offering. If you follow events in the region, it makes perfect sense. Although it deals with the British experience in Aden (‘Adan) in the mid-1960’s, it is directly applicable to the situation the United States finds itself in today in several areas.

"The Last Post" follows a unit of the Royal Military Police and their families in Aden in 1965. Newlyweds Captain Joe Martin and his wife Honor arrive into the mix and must adapt to their new environment and their new lives together. Throughout the community, relationships are tested as the women struggle against what is expected of them as British Army wives and their own preferences. At work, the army unit fights a growing local insurgency and faces constant threats from hand grenades and snipers.

That’s the theatrical story that carries the underlying theme – the end of empire, dealing with local nationalism and confronting “liberation” movements. It also deals with military relationships between officers (and their families), noncommissioned officers, and enlisted troops. It offers insight into the British Army, still one of the finest military forces in the world. The series did not fully explain the command relationships between the various military units, but, it is entertainment, not a documentary. An added predictable touch is meddling from an American journalist.

On 30 November 1967, British forces withdrew and the independent People's Republic of South Yemen was proclaimed. It lasted until 1990 when South Yemen and North Yemen (Yemen Arab Republic) merged to form the Republic of Yemen.

We’ve seen how that has worked out….

I want to give a shout out to the performances by Stephen Campbell Moore as Lieutenant Ed Laithwaite (I see some of me in his character), and Jessica Raine and Essie Davis for, well, being Jessica Raine and Essie Davis.

December 16, 2018

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir visits Syria - on a Russian Air Force jet

Syrian President Bashar al-Asad and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir
at Damascus International Airport

With his arrival at Damascus International Airport today, Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir ('Umar al-Bashir - عمر حسن أحمد البشير - becomes the first Arab leader to visit Syria since the outbreak of the civil war in March 2011.

It is interesting that al-Bashir is the first Arab leader to visit - the Sudanese president is under indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC); warrants have been issued for his arrest. The charges include genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in Darfur. The charges are opposed by the African Union, the League of Arab States, the Non-Aligned Movement, and the governments of Russia and China.

The irony of the visit by an indicted war criminal was not lost on some observers. Hillel Neuer, Executive Director of United Nations Watch quipped, "Always nice when a president wanted for genocide visits with a president committing genocide. Sudan sits on the UN committee overseeing human rights [nongovernmental organizations]; Syria holds leadership position on UN decolonization committee that fights 'subjugation of peoples.'"

I draw your attention to the photograph (above) of the two presidents at the airport. Note the color pattern on the jet used to transport al-Bashir from Khartoum to Damascus - it is the official livery of the BBC России (Russian Air Force), as noted on the tail of the aircraft.

The Russians dispatched this TU-154M (RA-85155) VIP transport aircraft from Moscow to Khartoum (via the Russian air base at Humaymim, south of the Syrian port city of Latakia) to pick up al-Bashir, fly him to Damascus, wait for him to have his meetings with Syrian officials, including President Bashar al-Asad, then return him to Khartoum.

This fits in with Russian President Vladimir Putin's attempts to increase Russian influence in the Middle East and Africa. Putin and al-Bashir have met on at least two occasions in the last year to discuss continued and increased cooperation. Russia is the major supplier of arms to the Khartoum government. On both of those occasions, like today, Putin sent a Russian Air Force jet to ensure al-Bashir's safety while traveling out of Sudan, keeping him out of reach of the ICC.

The visit of an indicted war criminal does raise the question: Will Bashar al-Asad be held accountable for his war crimes?

On a lighter note, let's not feel sorry for the Russian pilots and crew tasked with this long VIP transportation mission. The weather in Moscow today was 5 degrees Fahrenheit and snowing. Damascus was party cloudy and 60 degrees, while Khartoum was sunny and 90 degrees.

December 13, 2018

Turkey and the fight against ISIS - whose side are you on? I ask again...

The above is a screen capture of an article I wrote and posted on this website in April 2017, titled "Turkey and the fight against ISIS - whose side are you on?" Not much has seemed to change with Turkey, our supposed NATO ally - and member of the coalition formed to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Turkey's unhelpful and unnecessary actions in northern Syria continue unabated.

The opening paragraphs of that earlier article:

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. (Francona 2017)

In recent days, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has announced that Turkish forces are about to begin an operation in northern Syria east of the Euphrates to eliminate elements of the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units, known by the Kurdish abbreviation YPG, located along the Turkish border.

Erdoğan used words that indicate the operation will consist mainly of artillery, rocket and air strikes, rather than a ground incursion. He also referred to the YPG as nothing more than an extension of the Turkish Kurdish separatist group Kurdistan Workers Party, known by its Kurdish initials PKK. The PKK has been designated by the UN, U.S., and NATO as a terrorist organization.

The YPG is the Kurdish element of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF, or QSD in some media). Although there are also Arab, Assyrian, and Turkmen fighters in the SDF, the primary fighters are the Syrian Kurds. They are relentless, and arguably the most effective ground units in the fight against ISIS.

Unfortunately, the Turkish president is not that concerned with ISIS, he would rather conduct operations against American-supported forces. Unhelpful and unnecessary - I keep using those words, because that is exactly what it is.

To complicate things, the U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement Ambassador James Jeffrey said inter alia that American support to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the mainly Syrian Kurdish force acting as the U.S.-lead anti-ISIS coalition's boots on the ground, is "temporary and tactical." See my article, American envoy: US Support to Syrian Kurds is "temporary". It was music to Erdoğan's ears.

Of course, the United States is attempting to reach an agreement with the Turks to not take the pressure off ISIS, and more importantly, begin military strikes in areas in which there may be American troops working with the SDF. There are at least 2000 U.S. forces on the ground in Syria - I suspect the number is higher, but it is hard to get specific numbers from the Pentagon.

Here is the Pentagon's response to the Turkish threat. Department of Defense spokesman: "Unilateral military action into northeast Syria by any party, particularly as U.S. personnel may be present or in the vicinity, is of grave concern. We would find any such actions unacceptable."

Wow - that ought to send the Turks scurrying. How about a more forceful response? Like this:

If you want to be a NATO ally, you need to act like a NATO ally. You need to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Fighting ISIS - you are, after all, a member of the anti-ISIS coalition - is the main focus. Eliminating the remaining pocket in Syria along the Euphrates River near the Iraqi border is the priority, not your perceived and frankly, unwarranted, attempts to force the Syrian Kurds away from the border between you and Syria.

Here's what is going to happen if you continue down this reckless path. Once you start attacking SDF/YPG elements near the border, the YPG elements currently taking the fight to ISIS in the city of Hajin - which is about to fall after months of bloody fighting - will stop operations against ISIS and redeploy to the border area to defend their homes and families. This should come as no surprise to you - it happened in April 2017 when you did the same thing.

In essence, what you are planning not only potentially puts American, French, and British troops on the ground in Syria at risk, it aids and abets ISIS by relieving the pressure on them in the Dayr al-Zawr area. They terror group may be able to regroup and hold or even retake all of Hajin.

Unhelpful and unnecessary.

It again begs the question - whose side are you on?

December 9, 2018

American envoy: US Support to Syrian Kurds is "temporary"

Arabic media coverage of Ambassador Jeffrey's statement

In a recent press conference after a Turkish-U.S. working group meeting on Syria in Ankara, U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey said the Manbij roadmap requires a series of additional steps, and that American support to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the mainly Syrian Kurdish force acting as the U.S.-lead anti-ISIS coalition's boots on the ground, is "temporary and tactical."

I understand that the ambassador was speaking in Turkey to a group of reporters composed mainly of Turkish journalists, but this either borders on "tell 'em what they want to hear" or is a slap in the face of the Syrians Kurds who have proven to be among the most effective forces fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), making a much more significant contribution than the Turks the ambassador appears to be trying to appease.

I have made no secret about my disappointment in the actions of our nominal NATO ally Turkey when it comes to the fight against ISIS. There are analysts who believe that Turkey at best turned a blind eye to the undeniable virtually unabated flow across the border with Syria of thousands of Middle Eastern, North African, and European believers that became ISIS fighters.

Others are not so kind, accusing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of supporting the terrorist group in return for a tacit agreement not to attack Turkish interests. I have no doubts about the former, but remain hopefully unsure of the latter.

My interpretation (not a translation) of a report* published in an Arabic-language media outlet widely read in the Kurdish area of Syria:

James Jeffrey - American special envoy for Syria

Washington will soon take some additional steps to guarantee the implementation of the roadmap for Manbij, which will ensure the removal of SDF personnel from Manbij, including their presence on the local council, and as local military officials in the city. Manbij will become the model for peaceful solutions throughout Syria. Regarding [our] cooperation with the SDF, it will be temporary and tactical.

For those not familiar with Manbij, some context based on my assessment of the continuing unhelpful and unnecessary actions by the Turks since Erdoğan ordered Turkish troops to move into northern Syria in August 2016, ostensibly to fight ISIS.

While they did take the fight to ISIS, the Turks also began a series of engagements with the newly formed SDF, comprised mainly of Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units, or YPG in Kurdish. The Turks believe that the YPG is nothing more than a Syria-based extension of the outlawed Turkish-based Kurdish Workers' Party, known more commonly by its Kurdish initials PKK. The United States, NATO and the European Union have designated the PKK a terrorist organization, possibly in deference to Turkey's status as a NATO member.

The operation was technically a success - the Turks and their Free Syrian Army allies did clear the area northeast of Aleppo of ISIS, but they also started a long and deadly battle against the Syrian Kurds.

We all understand that the Turks have an ongoing armed confrontation in Turkey against the PKK. Those same Turks seem to have forgotten that the focus of the anti-ISIS coalition - the fighting in Iraq and Syria - is to eliminate ISIS, not the Kurds. Perhaps they did not forget - some will argue that the main focus of the operation was to open a front against the YPG, the Kurdish contingent of the SDF. The map shows the situation in 2017.

Erdoğan publicly claimed that Operation Euphrates Shield was the precursor to the eventual coalition assault on ISIS's self-proclaimed capital in the Syrian city of al-Raqqah, an assault that he said must be led by Turkish troops.

This claim was ludicrous - since his forces had begun military operations against the SDF, arguably the most effective ground units in the fight against ISIS - the Kurds were not going to allow Turkish forces to traverse over 100 miles of territory under their control, territory they had taken at great cost from ISIS. In his typical petulant style, Erdoğan ordered a series of border attacks along the length of the Syrian-Turkish border. Again, more unhelpful distractions from a nominal NATO ally.

For a more detailed analysis of Operation Euphrates Shield, see my article, Turkey and the fight against ISIS - whose side are you on?

Turkish forces eventually fought their way to the city of Manbij - not by taking it from ISIS, but from the allied SDF. It was only the direct intervention of American special operations units and Russian military police that the inter-coalition fighting was halted. It was a necessary step to refocus the fight on ISIS; many SDF units stopped operations against ISIS and returned to the Manbij are to resist the Turks, again, a distraction no one needed.

Manbij remains on the edge of the Turkish and SDF lines. The United States has had to divert time and resources to assuage the Turks' anger at being marginalized in a pocket and basically taken out of the fight against ISIS. The Manbij "roadmap" is an attempt to give the Turks a voice as to what happens in northern Syria. The two countries now run joint patrols outside the city. It is useless and serves no purpose but to allow the Turks to believe they are part of the coalition on the ground in Syria.

The U.S.-led coalition perpetuates this myth. Here is a tweet from Combined Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTFOIR), and my response. Their use of the hashtag #DefeatIsis is insulting to those actually in the fight.

Back to Ambassador Jeffrey's statement. It was the last sentence that got my attention and raised my concerns. He said that our cooperation with the SDF will be "temporary and tactical."

These are words the Turks, undoubtedly the intended audience, wanted to hear. Unfortunately, this is a zero-sum game. If you side with the Turks about the future of northern Syria, you do so at the expense of the Kurds. The Kurds have been, if not the best ally in northern Syria in the fight against ISIS, then among the top contenders. It has been the Kurdish-majority SDF that has taken the most casualties in the fighting on the ground. They are dedicated, courageous, and relentless fighters. The ambassador's words must have cut deep.

Here is what the Turks heard: When this anti-ISIS fight is over, we are going to repair the current rift between Washington and Ankara - the NATO alliance is critical to both of us, and despite what the Syrian Kurds have done for us in the fight against ISIS, you are the more important ally. In the end, you will have most of what you want in northern Syria. Just wait a while longer while we clean up the remaining ISIS pocket in the Euphrates Valley, then you can deal with the Kurds with minimal U.S. interference.

Here is what the Kurds heard: When this is all over, we have to act in what are our larger national interests. We both want to defeat ISIS, but once that it done, we will again focus on the major American national security threats in the region - Russia and Iran. For that, we need Turkey more than we need you. We will try to help where we can, but our interests do not include you.

Again, the Kurds are left standing alone.

* Although the ambassador made his remarks in English, those remarks were translated into Arabic and reported. The translation is not exact - my interpretation of the translation is what people in the Kurdish area of Syria are reading.

November 30, 2018

President George H.W. Bush (1924-2018) - my one interaction

The author at an air base in Kuwait - 1991

I was saddened to hear of the passing of President George H.W. Bush tonight. I have always regarded him as a key leader in a time of questionable leadership from both parties in Washington. His conduct of the Persian Gulf War of 1990-1991 was one of the better chapters of post-World War II American history. A clear mission, a well-resourced military to execute it, and the confidence in his generals to get the job done. I was proud to be a part of it.

I only met President Bush one time. In the fall of 1990, he requested from U.S. Central Command's General Norman Schwarzkopf a briefing on a plan to liberate Kuwait. Prior to this, the mission of the American force deployed to the Persian Gulf was the defense of key ally Saudi Arabia. Now the goal posts had been shifted to eject Iraqi forces from what they regarded as part of Iraq.

I was part of the briefing team sent to Washington to brief the senior military leaders on the plan. As we prepared to leave Riyadh for Washington, General Schwarzkopf admonished the four team members that we were going to Washington to present his proposal and his analysis, and that none of us were to offer our own opinions. Actually, his tone was a bit more strident, but I will just let it go at that.

This is an except from Chapter 5 of my book, Ally to Adversary-An Eyewitness Account of Iraq's Fall from Grace (Naval Institute Press, 1991). You can pick up a used copy on Amazon for $2.00.

5. Washington

We waited in the briefing room while Secretary of State James Baker, National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, his deputy Bob Gates, White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, and Vice President Dan Quayle gathered and traded good-natured jibes.

After a few minutes, President Bush strode in purposely and asked Cheney, “What have you got for me?”

Cheney explained that General Powell had brought a briefing team from CENTCOM headquarters in Riyadh representing General Schwarzkopf. Bush nodded at Powell and walked over to the team standing in the rear of the crowded room.

Powell introduced us to the president and told him that I would begin the briefing with the intelligence picture. My portion of the briefing was to set the stage for the presentation of the air campaign and ground-battle plans. It was the least controversial presentation and thus should draw the fewest questions.

Easy, I thought. After all, I had successfully briefed a much tougher audience in the tank the day before—the country’s five senior general officers (including the chief of my parent service) made for a much more nerve-wracking experience.

No sooner had I started than an aide came in and whispered something to the president, after which he excused himself for a few minutes. When he returned, he appeared to be a bit distracted and apologized, explaining that he had been on the telephone to French president Mitterand.

As he turned his attention back to the briefing, I described in detail the construction of the Iraqi defensive lines. When I moved on to the next topic, which was Iraqi command and control of forces in the region, Bush stopped me and asked me to repeat the description of the Iraqi defenses.

In the ensuing questions and answers with the president (his questions, my answers), I mentioned that I had been in Iraqi trenches and defensive positions around al-Basrah during the Iran-Iraq War.

Bush looked inquiringly at Cheney and Powell. Cheney shook his head as if to say, “Don’t pursue this, Mr. President.” It appeared that the military cooperation with Iraq that had seemed such a good idea in 1987 and 1988 might come back to haunt us politically.

At the completion of my portion of the briefing, I asked the president if there were any additional questions. He asked about morale of the Iraqi troops in Kuwait. I said that all our indications were that morale was low, but this was based on interrogations of the very few deserters available at that time.

He asked if, based on my experience with the Iraqis, it was my opinion that they would fight. Remembering the admonishment from General Schwarzkopf about voicing personal opinions, and the fact that our plans were based on the CENTCOM assumption that the Iraqis would fight if attacked, I hesitated.

General Powell, aware of Schwarzkopf’s proscription on giving our personal opinions, sensed my predicament. In a gesture that I will always appreciate, Powell leaned forward into my line of sight and nodded.

I told the president that based on what I had seen in the defense of Al-Basrah in 1987, the Iraqis would probably not fight hard to defend Kuwait from a coalition attack. However, once we had pressed the attack into Iraq, we should plan for stiff resistance, especially if we approached the major population center of Al-Basrah.

President Bush nodded and thanked me, and I sat down.


It was a pretty heady moment for an Air Force major. The President was gracious and appeared to actually listen to what I had to say.

I will always remember him fondly.

November 28, 2018

Afghanistan is a disaster

I was supposed to be on CNN today, but was pre-empted. This is what I would have said.

Afghanistan is a disaster, one which we partially created. You can blame both the Bush 43 and Obama 44 administrations for getting us where we are. That said, after two years of the Trump 45 Administration, we see no improvement, just more of the same claims of progress, improvement, etc. Yet, no one has claimed "victory."

When the highest ranking officer in the country, US Marine Corps General Joe Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declares in an international forum that the "Taliban are not losing," you have a problem. "Not losing" can mean two things: they're winning, or this is a stalemate.

Up until this summer, I was willing to give the Pentagon the benefit of the doubt about who was winning, but after the debacle in Ghazni that required a substantial intervention with American combat forces, I would say the Taliban now have the upper hand.

Why? Why after 17 years are we still involved in a small war thousands of miles from home, against an inconsequential adversary?

The answer is simple - we left the fight.

There never was much real interest in Afghanistan other than the removal of al-Qa'idah and the killing/capture of Usamah bin Ladin. That required the defeat of the Taliban government (great job by the US military and CIA), but we made the ridiculous "agreement" with the US-allied Northern Alliance at Tora Bora on the Pakistan border where we basically allowed Usamah bin Ladin to escape to Pakistan. After that mistake, there was no real role for a continued US military presence in Afghanistan.

But no, we have to "nation build," hoping that American style democracy would catch on in the country. Naivete on steroids. We tried anyway, to no avail.

In 2014, President Obama told the Taliban what date the US was ending its combat mission in the country and withdrawing the bulk of our forces. (We did the same thing in Iraq.) The message: "We're leaving, its all yours if you are willing to just wait." This is the folly of telling your enemy when you are leaving and going home.

During that misguided calculation, someone realized that we can't abandon the fledgling - and failing - Afghan government to the easily-predicted and totally-expected resurgence of the Taliban.

We spent massive amounts of money creating and training the Afghan army and security forces, but it hasn't worked. After years of training and billions of dollars - not to mention our most precious asset, the continued bloodshed by American troops - it is a dismal failure.

News flash - the Afghans just don't function well in Western-style military formations. Compare that to the Afghan mujahdin we trained in the 1980's, and to the Taliban, created by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) - light guerrilla forces that are very effective.

Over the past year, the Taliban has retaken from the Afghan army much of the territory that American forces originally took from them, often at great cost. I am not sure pouring more American blood and treasure will make a difference. Yet, it gets worse - the deteriorating situation has allowed al-Qai'dah to return to the country, as well an increasing ISIS presence. The country is fast becoming "radical Islamist central."

The Afghan military and security forces are not going to be able to defeat these Islamist forces. Unfortunately, if the defeat of these groups is our policy (and I am not sure that it really is), it will require US (and NATO/other allies, but the bulk of it will be American) combat troops directly engaging them, not by troops tasked with "training and advising" the Afghans. It seems we are averse to actually winning wars anymore, instead opting to seek political objectives or "outcomes."

Now that the Bush and Obama administrations have gotten us here, I'd like to know what the Trump Administration has in mind, because what we're doing now is not working.