January 17, 2018

Syria - the coming showdown between the United States and Turkey

Most people's eyes now glaze over when Syria is mentioned. It is confusing - just look at the above map. It is confusing even to those of us who have devoted years or decades of our lives trying to understand the various factors that constantly influence the situation. With forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) removed from most of the country, the battles have again changed.

The fight against ISIS was a unifying force. All parties involved in Syria, be it the Syrian government (with its Russian, Iranian, Hizballah,and other Shi'a militia supporters), the Kurds, the Turks, the various groups that comprise what is now called the "Syrian opposition" (the Free Syrian Army, independent rebels, as well as several jihadist groups, including al-Qa'idah affiliated groups) had a common enemy.

With the virtual defeat of ISIS - it has lost almost all of the territory it controlled in the country, including its self-proclaimed capital of al-Raqqah - the commonality of ISIS as an enemy disappeared. The various factions in the country, as well as their sponsors, are now refocusing their efforts on each other. That means there is a greater risk of confrontation between the major players - Russia, Turkey, and the United States.

The Russians, supporting the Syrian regime and allies, is focused on the annihilation of the Syrian opposition, now mainly concentrated in the Idlib governorate. The situation in northern Syria continues to deteriorate as the Syrian Army, supported by its Russian and Iranian allies, continues its vicious assault on Hamah, Idlib and Aleppo governorates.

The Syrian alliance, I'll call it, is attacking the eastern portion of the rebel-held area (red arrows) – soon they will have created two small pockets which they then will reduce. In the past, they would negotiate a ceasefire and allow the fighters to depart, usually to be relocated to Idlib governorate. I wonder if they will continue that trend, allowing fighters to move west. Pretty soon, they will have no where to go as the Syrians continue to create more pockets.

The air base at Abu al-Duhur is one of the objectives of the regime advance, mainly to use a a forward staging base to complement the Russian air assets from Humaymim air base on the coast. The major objective in this area, however, is the main highway that runs from Damascus-Homs-Hamah to Aleppo (blue line). It is a good road, but as you can see, in this area it is controlled by opposition forces.

To maintain a supply line to its forces in Aleppo, the Syrians have been using a small desert road (yellow line) out to the east. It is a rough road through sparsely populated areas and is subject to being cut by both rebel and ISIS forces. There is an ongoing fight against the small ISIS pocket (grey) to keep that road open.

I have driven both routes – given the viability of the eastern alternative, the Syrians really need to secure that main highway.

They are starting to move up that highway from Hamah. In the red circle are a few small cities that are being destroyed by daily heavy Russian airstrikes. Al-Lataminah has been hit the hardest, as it is one of the first towns that will need to be taken. Note also Khan Shaykhun, site of the chemical attack that prompted the US missile attack on al-Sha'ayrat air base last year.

I don’t see a good end here for the opposition forces. They are not united – they tolerate each other and occasionally work together, especially the jihadist groups. They do not have the wherewithal to withstand the force that is being applied against them. With Russian airpower and rocket artillery, and Iranian-Hizballah-various militias providing the ground forces to supplement what is left of the Syrian army, it is only a matter of time before they will be defeated.

Turkish troops are also now present in Idlib governorate. While they claim they are there to support the Russian-declared “de-escalation zones,” they are there to contain the Kurds in ‘Afrin canton. The Turks have warned of an impending offensive into the enclave – the canton is almost completely surrounded by Turkish forces. Turkish artillery has already conducted preparatory fires near the region's administrative center, the city of 'Afrin. The main assault could happen virtually any time - all it requires is the order from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Erdoğan has called for the surrender of the "terrorists" in 'Afrin. He is referring to Syrian-resident Kurds who are members of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military arm the People's Protection Units (YPG). The Turks believe the YPG is nothing more than an extension of the PKK, a separatist organization composed of Turkish-resident Kurds who have been conducting a guerrilla war against the Turks since 1984. The PKK has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, NATO and the European Union (EU).*

This will not sit well with the United States – of course, the two NATO allies have been at odds for several years over the American support (airstrikes, artillery support, equipment, training and advice) to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), made up mostly of those same YPG Kurds the Turks are threatening. A Turkish military operation aimed at the very group that provided the bulk of the ground forces of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS will only exacerbate the tense relations between Washington and Ankara.

It will get even more tense. The U.S. has announced that it is training a force of 30,000 troops to control the Kurdish area of northeastern Syria, including controlling the Turkish border. The United States believes that, given Turkey's history of failing to control its own border with Syria and being the major conduit for thousands of foreign fighters into Syria to join ISIS, the SDF would be a better partner to prevent those same ISIS fighters from crossing back into Turkey to return to their countries of origin and continue the fight.

The Turks are wary of any Kurdish force on the border – they regard the Syrian Kurds, including the SDF, to be nothing more than an extension of the PKK terrorist group. In 2016, they inserted a sizable force into northern Syria to prevent a contiguous Kurdish area running from the Iraq-Iran border in the east to the Syrian-Turkish border in the west. They claimed they were supporting the Free Syrian Army's efforts to liberate al-Raqqah. They never got closer than 80 miles to al-Raqqah, and mostly obstructed the American-supported SDF with a series of harassing attacks.

The problem for the United States is the logistics of training, equipping, and maintaining a sizable force in Syria. To do so requires the ability to access the area. Given geography and political realities, that means access to eastern Syria via Iraq. That requires a continued presence in Iraq, not guaranteed after the virtual defeat of ISIS as a territorial force in the country.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has major influence in both Baghdad and Damascus. I can envision a scenario in which the Iranians pressure Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-‘Abadi to thank the Americans for their assistance in the fight against ISIS, and ask them to leave. If he does that, how will the U.S.-led coalition continue to maintain its support to the Kurds in Syria?

President Erdoğan needs to focus on the big picture here and not continue to be blinded by his hatred of the Kurds.

* There are unresolved legal issues within the EU concerning the designation of the PKK as a terrorist group. The United Kingdom lists the PKK as a "Proscribed Group" rather than a terrorist group. Many believe that the U.S. and NATO designation was a political move to support NATO ally Turkey.

January 13, 2018

Is there a fix to the flawed Iran nuclear deal?

Perpetrators of the JCPOA - April 2015

On January 12, President Donald Trump issued a statement about his planned actions to address what he believes (correctly) is a flawed agreement with Iran concerning its nuclear program. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was concluded in 2015 between Iran on one side and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council*, Germany, and the European Union on the other.

U.S. law requires the President to certify every 90 days that Iran is in compliance with the accord. In October 2017, President Trump refused to certify Iran as being in compliance, triggering a 60-day window for Congress to decide if it wished to re-impose sanctions on Iran.

Essentially, the President punted the ball - not certifying Iran's compliance, but remaining as part of the deal. It is close to "having your cake and eating it too" - the President "fires a shot across the bow" of the JCPOA without actually having to kill it.

There is a second factor to be considered here. The law also requires that every 120 days the President waive existing U.S. sanctions on Iran. That waiver of sanctions is the key part of the agreement, the glue that holds it all together. The thing that brought the Iranians to their knees and thus to the bargaining table were crippling U.S. sanctions, particularly lack of access to the American banking system and use of the U.S. dollar.

Nations who wanted to do business with Iran were afraid of secondary U.S. sanctions, the oft-repeated threat being, "You can do business with Iran or you can do business with the United States, but not both." It was an easy call for most - do business with the world's largest economy, or do business with Iran. To put that in perspective, using 2014 figures, the U.S. GDP was $17.4 trillion, Iran's was $425 billion (or 80 percent of the U.S. defense budget).

While the refusal to certify Iran in compliance with the JCPOA is certainly a serious step, failure to waive U.S. sanctions will essentially collapse the agreement. As I have said numerous times since the JCPOA was adopted, "The [JCPOA] was about sanctions relief and greed. Russia, China and Europe want to sell stuff to Iran, and Iran wants to buy it." If the rest of the world won't do business with Iran, Tehran has no incentive to stay in the agreement.

You can read the official Statement by the President on the Iran Nuclear Deal - I will address what I believe are the key points.

According to the statement, the President will continue to waive U.S. sanctions for 120 days, but if there are not binding fixes to the JCPOA, he will not do so in the future.

Iranian Foreign Minister (and principal negotiator) Javad Zarif, stated that the agreement "cannot be renegotiated in any way," and that Tehran "will not accept any changes in this agreement now or in the future, nor allow it to be linked to any other issue."

President Trump was equally clear in his statement: "I have not yet withdrawn the United States from the Iran nuclear deal. Instead, I have outlined two possible paths forward: either fix the deal’s disastrous flaws, or the United States will withdraw. ... Today, I am waiving the application of certain nuclear sanctions, but only in order to secure our European allies’ agreement to fix the terrible flaws of the Iran nuclear deal. This is a last chance. In the absence of such an agreement, the United States will not again waive sanctions in order to stay in the Iran nuclear deal. And if at any time I judge that such an agreement is not within reach, I will withdraw from the deal immediately."

So, exactly what does the President want changed? What would it take to keep the United States from essentially abrogating the JCPOA?

Mr. Trump wants Congress to draft legislation that addresses several issues.

-- It must demand that Iran allow immediate inspections at all sites requested by international inspectors. To me, this is a key issue. I have argued that it is impossible to certify that Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA when it refuses to allow access to its military facilities.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the accord calls for inspections of any suspect facility, but the United Nations' watchdog organization has not asked for access. Their reason? Iran will say no and possibly give the United States a reason to withdraw. Hardly valid, in my opinion. (See my earlier article on this, IAEA access to Iranian military sites - nuclear deal breaker?)

-- It must address the JCPOA's expiration dates (the so-called sunset clauses) for various activities, in essence, legalizing an Iranian nuclear program after 10 years. The President wants the provision of the agreement to be permanent, thus denying Iran future access to the fissile material they would need to produce a nuclear weapon.

-- It must state that long-range missile and nuclear weapons programs are inseparable, and that Iran’s continues research, development and testing of ballistic missiles must stop or face additional sanctions. This would merely re-instate a prohibition that then-Secretary of State John Kerry capitulated on - at Russian request - as a sweetener for the Iranians.

I am not sure if agreeing to a change in the status quo on ballistic missile development was advisable or even necessary - Foreign Minister Zarif was able to outmaneuver Kerry on virtually every issue, getting a great deal for Iran. We see how the Iranians have taken advantage of Kerry's lapse. (See my thoughts on this, Iran's ballistic missile program - more fallout from the "Kerry Collapse")

In my assessment, there is nothing wrong with AN agreement with the Iranians on their nuclear program - there is plenty wrong with THIS agreement. Although I would like to see all of he changes Mr. Trump wants, I don't think it is possible.

Of the three issues - inspections, sunset clauses, and ballistic missiles - I think the only one that has a chance of success is expanded inspections, the "anytime, anywhere" mantra promised by President Barack Obama and Secretary Kerry (that was the first thing Kerry capitulated on).

Without the ability to inspect all of Iran's suspect facilities, it is impossible for the IAEA to accurately certify that Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA. Put me in the category of those who believe that Iran maintains a nuclear weapons research and development program. As long as their military facilities remain off limits, we cannot rely on the JCPOA.

Forget help from the Europeans and Chinese in the attempt to redefine the execution of the JCPOA. They are in this not to address Iran's nuclear ambitions - they don't care, they regard this as an American (and Israeli) problem. To them, it's solely economic.

We are about to come to a strategic crossroad.

Does the United States take the hard line and attempt to change the toothless JCPOA currently enforced by a spineless IAEA, or continue the status quo whereby Iran continues to overtly develop nuclear-warhead capable ballistic missiles and, in my mind, covertly develop a nuclear weapons capability (as I would)?

Much of this depends on Iran's actions/reactions. At this point in time, for better or worse, the United States is the big kid on the block. Donald Trump is the President - does Tehran really want to go down this path?

* China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and United States

January 5, 2018

Syrian rebels attack Russian air base - a wake up call

Damaged Russian Air Force Su-24 fighter-bombers

On December 31, 2017, Syrian rebels attacked, probably with mortars, a Syrian air base used by the Russian expeditionary force in that country, damaging several aircraft and killing two troops assigned to the base. The Russians delayed announcing the attack until days after - surprisingly, the rebels did not publicize their success. The Russian press released details to refute a report that seven aircraft had been destroyed.

The Syrian air base is a dual-use military installation and civilian airport, known as both Humaymim* Air Base and Basil al-Asad International Airport. There are no scheduled commercial flights to the airport, and the occasional civilian aircraft which use the facility are SyrianAir (the national airline) flights that have been diverted from Damascus International Airport when there is a security concern.

Top dot is Humaymim Air Base (note proximity to al-Qardahah)
Lower dot is Syrian-Russian naval facility at Tartus

Prior to the arrival of the Russians in September 2015, Humaymim Air Base was a rather sleepy base used by the Syrian Air Force's 618th Maritime Warfare Squadron, operating a mix of older Soviet/Russian Mi-14 (NATO: HAZE), Ka-25 (NATO: HORMONE) and Ka-27 (NATO: HELIX) antisubmarine warfare helicopters. It is also the closest airfield to the al-Asad family home in al-Qardahah, a short helicopter flight to the north of the air base (see map).

I was the Air Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus in the early to mid 1990's. In addition to what I would call "normal" attaché duties, I also was responsible for arranging diplomatic clearances for all U.S. military aircraft either visiting or overflying Syria.

Surprisingly, there were quite a few U.S. Air Force aircraft that visited Syria, either carrying the Secretary of State or Congressional delegations - which I believed were merely shopping trips to the al-Hamidiyah souk, one of the best Oriental carpet and gold markets in the world.

On several occasions, we at the embassy were tasked to support meetings between the Secretary of State and then-President of Syria Hafiz al-Asad in al-Qardahah. Since I had to make all the arrangements for the Secretary's U.S. Air Force aircraft, Humaymim Air Base - and the surrounding area - became very familiar to me. We would scout out the local area for places to place the crews, and of course, observe any Syrian armed forces facilities in the area.

The Russians have deployed dozens of combat aircraft - attack jets, attack helicopters, fighters and fighter-bombers to the air base. Being almost a world-class air force, they also deployed base defense assets - including state-of-the-art surface-to-air missile systems and antiaircraft weapons. While the radars associated with the S-300 (NATO: SA-10 GRUMBLE) and S-400 (NATO: SA-21 GROWLER) air defense systems are very capable against air threats, they are not effective against low-tech insurgent attacks.

The air base at Humaymim was the perfect target for what the Russians have labeled an attack by a "mobile militant subversive group." The target was the source of much of the suffering among the Syrian opposition - and their supporters.

The Russians claimed that they deployed to Syria to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but in reality, the vast majority of their air strikes, estimated as high as 85 percent, targeted Syrian rebel forces. Specifically, the Russians - as did their Syrian proteges - targeted hospitals, schools, bakeries and markets. The real objective, which they have achieved, was to keep the regime of Bashar al-Asad in power. (See my condemnation of President Obama and then-Secretary of State John Kerry for their refusal to address these war crimes, Russian Air Force targeting hospitals - war crimes, Mr. Kerry?)

There are so many back roads on that coastal area between Jablah to the south of the base, Humaymim (for which the base is named) to the west, and Bustan al-Bashah to the north - it is the bane of force protection officers.

Force protection became a key mission for American troops after the June 25, 1996 Khobar Towers attack on a U.S. Air Force barracks in Saudi Arabia. The Russians have experienced similar attacks during their time in Afghanistan. It is a very difficult mission - most of the time, troops are trying to protect themselves in the middle of what can be assumed to be hostile territory.

Theses attacks do not have to be decisive - they are meant to send a message that what are deemed to be secure facilities are vulnerable to attack. Two Russian servicemen died in this particular attack. There was also materiel damage - any attack on Humaymim was likely to damage aircraft.

The Russians moved into a small Syrian air base and deployed a large number of fighter, fighter-bomber, attack, reconnaissance, airborne command and control, and refueling aircraft. This is a huge footprint, bringing all the elements of modern airpower to just one location. The aircraft are parked almost wingtip to wingtip on taxiways and parking pads, not in revetments to protect aircraft and limit damage in just such an attack.

The Russians thought that using Humaymim, located on Syria's northwest coast, in the heart of the 'Alawi heartland - home to the sect to which the Syrian president and all key members of the government belong, not to mention relatively far from the fighting - would be safe from attack.

Think again.

This attack sends a message to the Russians that their intervention and continued presence in Syria will not be without risk. The Russians have no intention of leaving. Russian President Vladimir Putin has secured a 49-year renewable lease from Syrian President Bashar al-Asad for both the Humaymim Air Base and a naval facility about 30 miles south in the port of Tartus. These agreements represent the first Russian permanent military deployments since the fall of the Soviet Union.

These moves by Putin are not limited to Syria - he has secured basing rights in Egypt and Libya. In addition, Putin has arranged Russian bomber access to Iranian air bases for operations in Syria.

The Russian sense of invulnerability in Syria has just been challenged. They have lost aircraft and soldiers in the past, but an attack on their base of operations in Humaymim is different.

I suspect the Russians are in Syria to stay. This is the price they have to pay, and I see no indication they are not willing to do so.

*Normally rendered incorrectly in various media as Khmeimim or Hmeimim. According to the official U.S. government BGN transliteration system, حميميم is properly rendered as Humaymim.

December 27, 2017

Want to be a martyr? Reserve here!

Post on Hay'at al-Tahrir al-Sham website

The al-Qa'idah affiliated hay'at tahrir al-sham (هيئة تحرير الشام‎) - translated as "Organization for the Liberation of the Levant" and known by the initials HTS - is very active in Syria, particularly in Idlib governorate.

As the threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) diminishes - the group has lost control of virtually of the territory it controlled from 2014 to 2017 - there is more attention being given to other jihadist groups operating in Syria.

HTS was formed in January 2017 via a merger of several Salafist groups, including what used to be called jabhat al-nusrah (the Victory Front), the original al-Qa'idah organization dispatched to Syria by al-Qa'idah in Iraq (AQI) in 2012 when it saw an opportunity to take advantage of the rapidly deteriorating situation in Syria. The group later joined with AQI to create the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The union was short lived, and al-Nusrah became independent from ISIS and remained affiliated with al-Qa'idah.

The success of the multi-faceted fight against ISIS has made it more difficult to attract recruits to join the various jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria, to the point that the groups are now increasing advertising on the internet. The image above is one such posting.

A translation of the above mage:

Reserve your role in martyrdom (suicide) operations
- improvised explosive devices (has come to mean vehicle-borne IED)
- red gangs/bands
- behind enemy lines

[Telegram] at @aldogma

While most Westerners may find this type of posting almost laughable, it is deadly serious, and unfortunately effective. The fact that it was posted in Arabic indicates that the target audience is Arab youths.

December 16, 2017

Iranian weapons in Yemen - is anyone surprised?

Wreckage of an Iranian-made Qiam missile recovered in Saudi Arabia

At Defense Intelligence Agency headquarters in Washington, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley displayed the remnants of an Iranian-manufactured short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) that was fired by al-Houthi rebels in Yemen at the international airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on November 4. The missile was successfully intercepted by a Patriot missile fired by Saudi air defense forces.

Along with the wreckage of the Qiam SRBM, Haley showed reporters additional Iranian-made weaponry captured from the al-Houthi group, including a guided antitank missile and an armed drone. This is a clear violation of United Nations Security Council resolution 2231* which bars Iran from the “supply, sale, or transfer of arms or related materiel from Iran.”

The fact that Iran is supplying the Houthis in Yemen with the three things required for a successful insurgency - money, weapons and training - should come as no surprise to anyone who reads even the slightest news accounts from the Middle East. Iran has been using its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force for decades to provide the wherewithal to conduct insurgencies and terrorism virtually around the world.

The IRGC's operations have extended from Argentina, Cuba and Venezuela in this hemisphere to the former Yugoslavia, North Africa, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia - well, virtually everywhere in the Middle East. This includes support to non-state actors as well, with Hizballah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza being prime examples.

Yemen is no exception to Iran's foreign policy and IRGC operations. Iran takes special interest in failed states and states in which there is a significant Shi'a population - both of these factors are present in Yemen. The Shi'a comprise about 45 percent of the population of Yemen, and make up the vast majority of members of the al-Houthi (formally known as
ansar allah, "supporters of God") rebel group.

We see the same interest being paid to other states with significant or majority Shi'a populations. Of course, we have seen the massive support - men and materiel - being provided to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad, as well as the government of Iraq. I already mentioned the support provided by IRGC-created Lebanese Resistance, more commonly known as Hizballah. Those three countries, along with Iran itself, comprise the "Shi'a Crescent" extending from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus to Beirut.

This land bridge will develop further - the IRGC just sent an initial overland convoy from Iran through Iraq, crossing the border into Syria at the newly-retaken Tal Ba'adi border crossing. According to Iraqi military officials - currently and nominally our allies - the convoy consisted of IRGC troops Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi'a militia fighters. Interesting side note: the Iraqi border crossings along the central Syrian border are controlled by these Popular Mobilization Unit militias, not regular Iraqi forces.

Other areas of Iranian meddling include Bahrain and the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. Bahrain, venue of the headquarters of the U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet, is a majority Shi'a country ruled by a Sunni royal family. The Iranians have fomented demonstrations, including violent confrontations, against the government, demanding a greater role for the Shi'a population. A pipeline explosion last month was labeled an Iranian terrorist act by the Bahraini security services. Eventually, Iran would like to see the current government replaced with a pro-Iran (read: Shi'a) regime, and the expulsion of the Fifth Fleet from the Persian Gulf.

In Saudi Arabia, Iran's chief rival for regional influence, Iran often foments trouble among the the minority Shi'a population. The Shi'a in the kingdom are thought to be only about 10 to 15 percent of the overall population, and are concentrated in the Eastern Province. This province is the largest in Saudi Arabia and home to much of the kingdom's oil facilities. When relations between the two countries deteriorate, Iranian-inspired/directed trouble in the province is expected.

The Iranians regard themselves as the leaders, sponsors and protectors of all things Shi'a. They have successfully made themselves a force to be reckoned with in the Persian Gulf and the larger Middle East. It should come as no surprise to see Iranian IRGC members, including the Qods Force, and Iranian weapons in areas where a Shi'a presence can be exploited.

Yemen - a failed state with a large Shi'a minority - is a prime target for Iran.

* UNSCR 2231 Annex B, paragraph 6b: [All States are to:] Take the necessary measures to prevent, except as decided otherwise by the UN Security Council in advance on a case-by-case basis, the supply, sale, or transfer of arms or related materiel from Iran by their nationals or using their flag vessels or aircraft, and whether or not originating in the territory of Iran, until the date five years after the JCPOA Adoption Day or until the date on which the IAEA submits a report confirming the Broader Conclusion, whichever is earlier.

December 11, 2017

Russia to withdraw troops from Syria? Hardly....

Humaymim air base, Syria - Defense Minister Fahd al-Frayj and President
Bashar al-Asad with Russian counterparts Vladimir Putin and Sergei Shoigu

During a scheduled trip to Egypt to further develop Russia's deepening ties with Cairo, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a short stop at Syria's Humaymim air base to address Russian forces operating from the base. Putin announced the beginning of the withdrawal of "a significant portion" of Russian forces from Syria, claiming that Russia's claimed "counterterrorism" operation has been successfully concluded.

For the complete English text of Putin's remarks and a series of photographs, see the Russian government press release.

Putin also stated that Russia will maintain a permanent presence at Syria's Humaymim air base and the Tartus naval facility. The Russians were able to reach an agreement with the Syrian government of Bashar al-Asad for a renewable 49-year lease on the two facilities. This constitutes Russia's first permanent overseas deployments to the region since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

This is a Russian map of the military situation in Syria in early December. I have placed two red dots to indicate the location of Humaymim air base (south of the port city of Latakia) and the Tartus naval facility further to the south. With Putin's recent agreement with Egyptian President 'Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi on Russian Air Force access to Egpytian air bases, the Russians intend to reassert themselves as a power in the Middle East.

Back to the Russian fiction about the reasons for the their involvement in Syria since September 2015. Although the stated reason for the deployment of Russian air power, naval units, ground troops and special forces was to join the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the underlying reason was to prevent the defeat of the government of Bashar al-Asad.

I believe that Putin does not care who is the leader of Syria, as long as that leader is willing to provide bases for the Russian military and will do Moscow's bidding in the region. For now, that happens to be Bashar al-Asad, so Putin will ensure that al-Asad remains in power.

As ISIS nears the loss of all of its territorial holdings in Syria (as well as in neighboring Iraq), Putin has emerged as one of - if not THE - key power brokers in the country. Not only is he Bashar al-Asad's guarantor, he has hosted several international conferences on the future of Syria.

The participants in these talks have been the Syrian government and representatives of Russia, Iran and Turkey - the United States has almost no role in the discussions that will shape the future of Syria. This is not coincidental, this is Vladimir Putin continuing to outplay the Trump Administration much as he outplayed Barack Obama.

As the last pockets of ISIS resistance in Syria are eliminated, the Syrian government (backed by its now majority Iranian, Hizballah and Iraqi militias force) will begin to reassert its authority over all of the country. This includes the 25 percent of the country under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a largely Kurdish force supported, funded and equipped by the United States. Unlike in neighboring Iraq, the Kurds in Syria have no official standing. Bashar al-Asad has refused to grant any form of autonomy to the Kurds, despite their significant contribution to the defeat of ISIS.

The near-term future in Syria is not hard to predict. The Russians, Iranians and Turks are pulling the strings on which Bashar al-Asad will dance. The Russians will ensure that in the political settlement that will eventually evolve, Bashar will remain in power. The Iranians will emerge as the political power behind the throne, completing the "Shi'a Crescent" extending from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus to Beirut. The Turks will ensure that the Kurds in northern Syria are granted no official recognition or autonomy and will likely maintain forces in Aleppo and Idlib governorates to enforce that goal.

What role will the United States play? I seriously doubt there will be much of one, despite senior U.S. military officials' claims of a continued American presence in Syria. The Syrians (urged and supported by the Russians, Iranians and Turks) will demand the United States withdraw its forces from Syrian territory.

Since there is no longer an ISIS threat, on what grounds can the United States maintain a force presence? Is Washington willing to instigate a confrontation with Turkey and Russia over Syria's Kurds? In any case, how would the United States support military operations there? It is not far-fetched to think that Iraq - with Iranian urging - will ask the United States to leave Iraq as well. See my earlier analysis: American presence in post-ISIS Syria - not likely.

Well played, Mr. Putin, well played.

November 23, 2017

American presence in post-ISIS Syria - not likely

U.S. troops in northern Syria supporting Syrian Democratic Forces

According to media reports, the Trump Administration is exploring options to maintain an American military presence on the ground in northern Syria after the expulsion of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). While I applaud the Administration's commitment to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), this policy is certain to put the United States on a collision course with the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad and his supporters. Those supporters are, not surprisingly, Russia, Iran, and now even Turkey - let's call them the troika.

I believe the United States is being effectively marginalized by the troika. We were late to come to the fight, refusing to assist the Free Syrian Army (FSA) when they asked for Western assistance in 2012. At that time, we military analysts were discussing how much time the al-Asad regime had left, how soon the FSA would be taking the fight to Damascus, and what options were available for the future of a post-Bashar Syria.

At that time, not only was the FSA asking for outside assistance, so too was Bashar al-Asad - the difference is that he actually received it. The initial support came in the form of fighters from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force, and their Lebanese proxy Hizballah. That later expanded to include Shi'a militias from Iran, Iraq and even Afghanistan. It was these outside forces that prevented the removal of Bashar al-Asad.

Two years later - September 2014 - when it appeared that the al-Asad regime was in danger of being defeated at the hands of the FSA and a coalition of Islamist groups, the Russians intervened. The Russians claimed they were in Syria to attack ISIS and other Islamic groups, but in reality the Russians came to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Asad. The pattern of their airstrikes from the initial deployment until now bears that out.

The Russians were able to extract 49-year renewable leases for use of the Syrian naval facility at Tartus, and the Syrian naval aviation facility at Humaymim near the port city of Latakia. The Russians are in Syria to stay.

It is important to note that of the foreign forces in Syria, including the Turks in the Kurdish area northeast of Aleppo and now in Idlib governorate, only the Russians and the Iranian-led Shi'a coalition are there at the request and authorization of the Syrian government. Syrian government media constantly decries the "illegitimate and illegal" American military presence in the country.

The Syrian Kurds, who comprise the bulk of the SDF coalition, were hoping that their contributions in the expulsion of ISIS forces from Syria would gain them consideration from the government in Damascus. The Kurds hope to establish an autonomous region in northern Syria - they call it Rojava - analogous to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) autonomous region in northern Iraq.

The Syrian government has been quite clear in their intention to re-establish full government control over the entire area of Syria, including the Kurdish area, specifically rejecting Kurdish proposals for any form of autonomy.

The Kurds, looking east at their cousins in northern Iraq, cannot take comfort in recent Iraqi government moves to reassert federal control over all non-KRG territory which the Kurds had taken from ISIS in support of Iraqi government's efforts to eject ISIS fighters from Iraq. The Baghdad government is now in the process of taking control of all border crossings and international airports in the KRG.

I predict that Iraq, now that virtually all ISIS fighters have been expelled from the country, will bow to Iranian pressure and ask (well, demand) the United States and the coalition it leads to withdraw its forces from the country. It will be very difficult for American forces to remain in the country in the face of that request.

In Syria, it will be even more difficult to maintain an American military presence after the expulsion of ISIS from the country. Despite our desire to support the SDF and the Kurds, with no American/coalition force presence in Iraq the logistics will be almost impossible. Assuming that there will be no U.S. presence in Iraq, the only alternate line of communication would be via Turkey.

The Turks are not going to assist the United States in any way to support the Kurds - in fact, the Turks, a nominal NATO ally, have been obstructionist and generally unhelpful in American/SDF efforts to remove ISIS from Syria. Count them out as far as any assistance goes.

The troika will continue to meet to discuss the future of Syria - of course, that means the continuation of the Bashar al-Asad regime and the roles and interests of the three countries. They are united in their positions that the United States has no role to play in the future of Syria. I see almost no chance of a continued American military presence in Syria.

I fear for the Kurds.

October 27, 2017

Turkish and Iraqi cooperation against the Kurds

Semalka border crossing near Faysh Khabur

Now that the last areas held by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are being retaken, the Iraqi government has expressed its intentions to reassert federal control over all areas not formally recognized as part of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Iraqi forces continue operations against the KRG in areas of northern Iraq that are not technically part of the three provinces that make up the autonomous region.*

The initial move was to eject Kurdish peshmerga forces from the city and province of Kirkuk. Kirkuk had been under Kurdish control since 2014 when the KRG deployed its peshmerga there to defend the city against the ISIS threat. It also moved forces into Ninawa (Niniveh) province to stop further ISIS advances after the city of Mosul fell to the group.

The Iraqis have also notified the KRG leadership that they intend to exercise federal control over the entire Iraqi border, including the KRG borders with Syria, Turkey and Iran.

Semalka border crossing

The first KRG border area to be placed under federal control will be the Semalka border crossing - more commonly referred to as the Faysh Khabur crossing, named for the town closest to the crossing. The crossing is also close to the point at which the borders of Turkey, Iraq and Syria meet.

The timing of this move is interesting. With ISIS's loss of territory, Baghdad now has the resources to reassert control over Iraqi territory that the Kurds have defended since 2014. It is also a month after the Kurds conducted a referendum on declaring an independent Kurdish state, infuriating the Iraqi leadership. I don't think it is a coincidence that Baghdad is also moving to control all oil operations in the country, including those in the KRG.

However, I believe the primary motivator for the "federalization" of the borders is an agreement between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi. Both leaders share a common desire to make sure the Kurds do not achieve greater autonomy. Al-'Abadi is concerned with the Kurds in Iraq, while Erdoğan is concerned with the Kurds in both Iraq and Syria. Having the Iraqi federal government control the only border crossing between the KRG area in Iraq and the Syrian Kurdish area would be beneficial to Erdoğan.

It can get worse. The Semalka border crossing is used by the United States Central Command to ship military equipment to the Syrian Kurds, who make up the majority of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF has played a key role in the ongoing military campaign to remove ISIS from the country.

The American funding, training and equipping of the SDF caused a rift in U.S.-Turkish relations - the Turks regard the Syrian Kurdish YPG party to be nothing more than an extension of the designated terrorist Turkish Kurd separatist group known as the PKK.

I have no doubt that Erdoğan and al-'Abadi are working closely to curb Kurdish desires for greater autonomy. The Syrian Kurds hoped that their contributions in the fight against ISIS would gain them favor with both the United States and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad and lead to some form of autonomy like their cousins in Iraq. Al-Asad has already said that after the removal of ISIS, he intends to reassert regime control over the entire country - no Kurdish self-rule.

When all is said and done, despite their contributions and sacrifices, the Kurds will be no better off than they were before ISIS. In some cases, it will be worse.
* The KRG is composed of Dohuk, Arbil and Sulaymaniyah provinces.

October 15, 2017

The impending fall of al-Raqqah - then what?

It is only a matter of time before elements of the U.S.-backed and supported Syrian Democratic Front (SDF) complete the liberation of the city of al-Raqqah from the remaining fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). As we have known for sometime, the handwriting is on the wall* for ISIS in its self-declared capital city.

Unfortunately, as with many of these military operations conducted by the Iraqis, the Syrians (with their Russian, Iranian and Hizballah allies) and the SDF, there is great loss of civilian life as ISIS mounts a vigorous defense. ISIS's tactics include the use of large numbers of suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (SVBIED), booby-traps, minefields, and the indiscriminate use of human shields.

To prevent unnecessary loss of innocent life, the tribal elders of the greater al-Raqqah area have brokered an agreement between the SDF on one side and ISIS on the other. There are conflicting reports of the actual terms of the agreement, but in essence, the deal provides for safe passage from the city for ISIS fighters in return for surrender of the city to the SDF and the safety of the local population. It also allows Syrian members of ISIS to safely surrender to the SDF.

The confusion over the agreement revolves around the safe passage for ISIS fighters. Initially, it was believed that the tribal elders' deal only applied to Syrian members of ISIS, specifically excluding foreign members of the group.

This issue is of concern to coalition member France, which believes that some of the foreign ISIS fighters in the city are responsible for the multiple ISIS attacks on France over the past three years. They are opposed to safe passage of these fighters to an area still under ISIS control. The fighters from al-Raqqah have been relocating to the portions of Dayr al-Zawr governorate southeast of al-Raqqah in the Euphrates Valley.

The U.S.-led coalition, known as the Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTFOIR), claims to have had no role in the agreement struck among the tribal leaders, SDF and ISIS. There is precedent for such an agreement - in all cases, ISIS fighters have been afforded safe passage to other ISIS-held areas.

CJTFOIR has in the past opposed such deals, and recently criticized the Syrian regime when it entered into such an agreement that allowed ISIS fighters safe passage to Dayr al-Zawr from positions on both sides of the Syrian-Lebanon border. In this instance, American fighter aircraft kept the ISIS fighters at bay in the desert until an arrangement was reached with the Russians.

It appears that ISIS fighters in al-Raqqah seized the initiative and capitalized on the ambiguity in the wording of the agreement and dispatched some of its foreign fighters towards Dayr al-Zawr using al-Raqqah civilians as human shields. This is happening as the SDF is preparing for what it says will be the final assault on the city. The remaining ISIS pocket is about half a square mile (1.5 square kilometer), or less than 10 percent of the city. It will shortly be under SDF control.

Then the SDF and local government will begin the task of clearing the area of ISIS munitions, booby traps, and isolated holdout fighters, plus dealing with the humanitarian issues that always follow military action.

The battle against ISIS will continue. For some time, we analysts have been predicting the last battle with ISIS as a territorial entity (it will remain an ideological entity for some time to come) will take place somewhere in the Euphrates Valley near the Syrian-Iraqi border, most likely in Syria.

As the time of that final battle draws near, we see the political maneuverings beginning in Syria. However, across the border in Iraq, the political battles are in full swing. Almost immediately after Iraqi forces reduced the ISIS-held Hawayjah pocket southeast of Mosul and southwest of Kirkuk, two events occurred simultaneously - I am not sure if it was also coincidentally or consequently.

The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) held a referendum on independence - which to no one's surprise, passed overwhelmingly. As a result, the Iraqi government retaliated by limiting international flights to/from the KRG area, suspending any oil deals worked out by the KRG, and is seeking to re-open an oil pipeline that bypasses the Kurdish area.

Probably more importantly, however, is Baghdad's demand that Kurdish peshmerga forces begin to withdraw from the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Kirkuk has been under Kurdish control since the ISIS sweep across northern Iraq in 2014.

The city has been a source of friction between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurds. The Kurds regard Kirkuk as a Kurdish city - about half the residents are in fact Kurds - while the Iraqi government considers it an Iraqi/Arab city. This is complicated by the fact that Turkey has a special interest in protecting the Turkmen minority that represents about 20 percent of the population - in the past it has threatened military intervention to prevent Kurdish control of the city.

The Kurds have an emotional tie to the city. During the Saddam Husayn era, Kirkuk was one of several Kurdish cities singled out for "Arabization" (ta'arib) - a process by which Arabs were forcibly brought to the area to supplant Kurdish residents, who were removed to villages in the desert areas of southern Iraq. As the Kurds see it, the Iraqi government - now backed by Iraqi Shi'a militias - is again forcing them to leave. They feel betrayed after their key role in the liberation of northern Iraq from ISIS occupation.

In Syria as in Iraq, the Kurds played a key role in the defeat of ISIS. Like their brethren to the east, the Syrian Kurds are seeking political recognition for their contributions. Turkey is, of course, pushing both Iraqi and Syrian governments to limit Kurdish self rule and autonomy. The Turks in the past lobbied against America's creation of the SDF and then using this force to liberate al-Raqqah.

The Turks insisted that they lead a Free Syrian Army force to re-take al-Raqqah, claiming that the Kurdish-majority SDF would not be welcomed by the predominantly Sunni Muslim Arab city. Since the Turks regard the Syrian Kurdish group that is the key member of the SDF as nothing more than an extension of the PKK, a Turkish Kurd separatist group labeled as a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and European Union - they criticized "using one terrorist group to fight another terrorist group."

The Turks were wrong then, and they're wrong now. The SDF was welcomed with open arms by the population of al-Raqqah, as well as the region's tribal leaders. In a letter to the SDF about the recent agreement between the SDF and ISIS, the leaders remarked, “The execution of such an agreement will reinforce the role of the SDF as a trustworthy national force as it has fought honorably and defended our people with integrity.”

That said, Damascus has stated that there will be no autonomy in northern Syria, that the Syrian military will reimpose control over all Syrian territory. The problem with that - this puts the Syrian/Russian/Iranian (and I dare say Turkish) axis on a direct path for a possible confrontation with the U.S.-backed SDF and possibly the anti-ISIS coalition.

- Has the United States made any commitment to the Syrian Kurds after the defeat of ISIS?
- Will the United States mediate on behalf of the Iraqi Kurds over Kirkuk?
- What will be the effect on the relationship between NATO ally Turkey and the United States as Ankara tilts toward its new-found alliance with Tehran and Moscow?

* Forgive the Babylonian metaphor - the handwriting on the wall refers to a mysterious hand that appeared at a feast hosted by Nebuchadnezzars's son Belshazzar in the sixth century BCE. The message: Belshazzar's days are numbered.

October 11, 2017

Designating the IRGC a terrorist organization - it's about time

Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari 

It is expected that President Donald Trump will add Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to the list of designated terrorist organizations later this week. The special operations branch of the IRGC, known as the Qods Force ("Jerusalem Force"), has been so designated since 2007.

The designation of the IRGC as a terrorist organization will come either at the same time or close to the same time that the President declines to certify Iran in compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly called the Iran nuclear deal. Current U.S. law requires the President to certify to Congress every 90 days that Iran is adhering to the requirements of the agreement.

The IRGC was formed shortly after the 1979 Revolution as a counterweight to the Iranian regular armed forces, who were viewed with distrust by the new leadership, wary of the military's previous loyalty to former Shah Reza Pahlavi.

It has since become part of the overall Iranian armed forces structure - some would say the premier organization of the armed forces. They are also responsible for internal security, protecting the revolution and the Islamic Republic system of government (vilayet-e faqih).

The IRGC currently comprises about 125,000 personnel organized into ground, aerospace, and naval forces, plus a 90,000-strong basij paramilitary militia. Its naval force is the primary force tasked with the control of the Persian Gulf, particularly the Strait of Hormuz.

Portions of the transit lanes of the narrow strait are within Iranian territorial waters, but are open to "innocent passage" under international law. IRGC naval units routinely harass U.S. Navy ships transiting the waters to and from the Persian Gulf. The United States Fifth Fleet is headquartered in Manama, Bahrain.

My history with the IRGC goes back to 1982. I was serving as a Middle East operations officer attached to an element of the National Security Agency. We were concerned about the increasing Iranian presence in Lebanon - that presence was facilitated by the Syrian government of Hafiz al-Asad, father of current president Bashar.

It was not long before we discovered that the Iranian operatives in the Levant were members of the IRGC, having set up the IRGC-SL (Syria and Lebanon contingent), one of the founding elements of the special operations unit that later became known as the Qods Force.

This contingent was responsible for the creation of a unified group of Shi'a militias in southern Lebanon and the Biqa' Valley in 1982 - this group eventually came to be known as Hizballah (the Party of God). It was this group that embarked on a series of terrorist acts in the name of "the Resistance" (al-muqawamah). The IRGC and Hizballah kept all of us busy in the 1980s. I continued to be tasked with operations against the IRGC for virtually the remainder of my career.

Some of the actions conducted by the IRGC or its Lebanese proxies that have taken up my time (this is not an inclusive list):

- 1983 / bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks at Beirut International Airport
- 1984 / kidnapping, torture and murder of CIA Beirut station chief William Buckley
- 1987 / mine attack by the IRGC ship Iran Ajr in the Persian Gulf against the reflagged Kuwaiti tanker Bridgeton
- 1988 / mine attack in the Persian Gulf against the USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58). This led to the retaliatory Operation Praying Mantis in which U.S. forces inflicted severe damage on the Iranian Navy and facilities in the Gulf. I was pleased to be asked to be one of the officers who selected the targets for the initial attacks.
- 1988 / kidnapping, torture and murder of U.S. Marine Colonel Rich Higgins, serving in Lebanon with the United Nations
- 1992 / the IRGC began its support for the Palestinian group HAMAS (acronym for the Arabic words Islamic Resistance Movement) after Israeli expulsions to Lebanon
- 1994 / Hizballah, on IRGC orders, bombed the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina building in Buenos Aires
- 1996 / bombing of a U.S. Air Force housing facility at Khobar Towers, Saudi Arabia
- 2006 / the IRGC provided the thousands of missile and rockets used by Hizballah to bombard the Israeli civilian population of northern Israel
- 2011 / Iran was already present in Syria at the outbreak of demonstrations that led to the civil war and came to Bashar al-Asad's assistance
- 2013 / had not IRGC troops and Hizballah fighters, along with other Iranian and Iraqi Shi'a militias intervened, the regime of Bashar al-Asad would have been removed

In addition to the 2007 designation of the Qods Force as a terrorist group, other IRGC officials were also sanctioned. President Trump's expected action will designate the organization as a whole. I have to agree with him. I would hate to have to tell Lieutenant Colonel Robin Higgins, USMC (Retired) - a colleague as we worked these issues, and yes, the widow of Colonel Rich Higgins - that we do not regard these thugs as terrorists.

So now I hear the IRGC commander and his spokesman spout drivel such as, "We are hopeful that the United States does not make this strategic mistake. If they do, Iran’s reaction would be firm, decisive and crushing and the United States should bear all its consequences. If the news is correct about the stupidity of the American government in considering the Revolutionary Guards a terrorist group, then the Revolutionary Guards will consider the American army to be like Islamic State all around the world."

You may not like being called out for the terrorist entity you are, but do you really want to get into an armed confrontation with the United States?

You are terrorists - don't be foolish terrorists.