June 26, 2018

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


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

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

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

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

Here is an image of the first page*:



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

TOP SECRET//SI//ORCON//REL TO USA, FVEY/FISA

Translation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



June 4, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salute.

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Here is the article in its entirety.

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

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

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

My Syrian driver's license

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

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




May 25, 2018

Memorial Day 2018

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

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

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

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



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



May 6, 2018

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Now to the video.

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

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

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

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

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

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




The Iranian nuclear deal - fix it or nix it


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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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



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


April 10, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

----------------------------

T O P   S E C R E T

Date: 8 April 2018

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

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

Subject: Chemical Attack on Duma

Mr. President,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Суровикин Сергей Владимирович


-------------------------

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



March 20, 2018

What are Erdoğan's intentions after the fall of 'Afrin?

Turkish and allied Syrian rebel forces (green) enter 'Afrin

Syrian rebel forces, supported by Turkish armed forces, have entered 'Afrin, the principal city in the Kurdish canton of the same name. The objective of the two-month long Turkish-led operation, ironically named Olive Branch, is allegedly to protect Turkey from what it labels as Syrian Kurdish "terrorists" of the People's Protection Units (YPG).

The Turks claim that the YPG is nothing more than an extension of the Turkey-based Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). The PKK has been designated as a terrorist group by numerous countries and international organizations, including the United States, Turkey, and NATO. I suspect the U.S. and NATO designations were a nod to Turkey's membership in the military alliance.

The United States does not regard the YPG as a terrorist organization, but rather as a key ally in the fight against the jihadi terrorist group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - the Kurds function as the major "boots on the ground" component of the U.S.-led coalition.

Unfortunately, the Turks have lost sight of the mission and created a major problem in the almost-complete war against ISIS in Syria. Rather than support the coalition efforts to defeat ISIS, the Turks have chosen to mount a military operation against one of the key fighting units.

As was to be expected, elements of the YPG which were engaged in combat operations against ISIS in eastern Syria have redeployed to confront the Turks in the northwestern part of Syria. Ground operations against ISIS have come to a complete standstill as the YPG moves to defend fellow Kurds. Who can blame them?

Yes, that's right. A NATO ally (Turkey) is attacking the ally (YPG) of another NATO ally (United States). Hard to believe, but thanks to short-sighted, Islamist, nationalist Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, that's where we are. Where are we going?

One only needs to listen to the self-styled new Ottoman sultan. As far back as October 2016, he has appeared in front of what most of us Middle East analysts call the National Oath (misak-i milli) map of 1920.


"National Oath" map - 1920

Note the borders - the city of 'Afrin is well within the Turkish borders portrayed on the map. In fact, the aspirational borders of Turkey include portions of what is now Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Syria, Iraq, Armenia and Azerbaijan. All of this territory was part of the Ottoman Empire prior to its defeat in World War I. The map designates what the Turks believed should have been the new borders of their new republic.

The Turks will secure 'Afrin in short order. The Kurdish forces which had been defending the city have left, rather than watch the city be reduced to rubble with thousands of civilian casualties. The next city in Erdoğan's sights is Manbij, to the east of 'Afrin, but still on the west bank of the Euphrates.



A move on Manbij will present a problem for the NATO alliance. It will put Turkish forces, or at least Turkish-backed Syrian rebel forces, in direct contact with both Kurdish YPG units and American troops located in the city. The Turks claim to have reached an agreement with the United States whereby Kurdish forces will withdraw, and turn the city over to a joint American-Turkish force. I have not seen that in outlets other than Turkish media.

I hope there is some solution that does not involve handing Syrian Kurdish territory over to the Turks. Of course, the Turks could solve the entire issue by simply stopping this unnecessary and unhelpful diversion from the main mission - fighting ISIS.

I doubt that will happen. Erdoğan has threatened to continue the Olive Branch operation east to the Iraqi border, and recently stated that his forces may even enter the Kurdish area of Iraq. I think he might be getting ahead of himself. He is the president of Turkey, not the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.

That said, it is interesting that Erdoğan keeps using the term "Ottoman" in much of his rhetoric - for decades the Turks have avoided the term, claiming that atrocities such as the Armenian, Assyrian and Greek genocides were not done by Turks, but the Ottomans. It appears now that is a distinction without a difference. His displays of the 1920 "national oath" map are not accidental - it is there for a reason.

At the same time, Erdoğan does not assuage the apprehensions of his neighbors when he openly encourages his young population to question the Treaty of Lausanne (1923) which effectively defined Turkey's borders with its neighbors. These are the borders that define the Middle East as we know it today. As part of that treaty, Turkey relinquished claims to the remainder of the Ottoman Empire, effectively ending the border conflicts that continued for several years after World War I.

A segment of the Turkish population, encouraged by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), are echoing a similar refrain, bristling at the terms - imposed or agreed to, depending on where you stand - of the Treaty of Lausanne.

We should not dismiss Erdoğan's words as mere rhetoric. He has shown himself to be a capable - if distasteful - political force with a vision for Turkey's future. We should be concerned about Erdoğan's long-term, strategic vision of Turkey. Are his displays of the "national oath" map, decision to provide military support to the Free Syrian Army in northern Syria (Operation Euphrates Shield), and the launching of Operation Olive Branch aimed at destroying the most effective anti-ISIS force in Syria, as well as his not-so-subtle encouragement of Turkish nationalists to challenge the terms of the Treaty of Lausanne a harbinger of things to come?

Are the Turks intent on at some point reclaiming what they consider to be Turkish territory "stolen" from them almost a century ago? I hope not, but I would not put it past Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

___________

Personal anecdote: When I was the Air Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, I had virtually no contact with the Syrian military. One exception was the monthly attaché dinner at the Syrian Officers Club to welcome new attachés and bid farewell to those about to depart.

Departing attachés were presented a small inlaid wooden box, a Syrian specialty. On the top of the box was a medallion with a map of Syria.

The map included a part of Turkey known as the sanjak of Alexandretta, an area ceded to Turkey by the French mandatory authorities in 1936. The Syrians have never recognized that agreement and believe the territory to be still part of Syria.

At every presentation, the two Turkish military attachés (one seen with me in the photo) would stand at attention and march from the room in protest of the inclusion of what they considered to be Turkish territory on a map of Syria.

I always admired my Turkish colleagues. I hope they are not part of the anti-YPG cabal.




March 9, 2018

Iraq's chemical weapons - shoddy journalism and me


Every two or three years, without fail, some aspiring journalist will write an article containing research into Iraq's use of nerve agents against Iranian troops in a series of offensives during the last year of the Iran-Iraq War. There is no question that the Iraqis not only used chemical weapons on Iranian troops, but also against Iraqi Kurds in March of 1988. We learned later that the attack on Halajah was actually a test of Iraqi-developed Sarin gas.

Inevitably, my name comes up in the ensuing article. Yes, I was a particpant in the U.S. intelligence support to Iraq in 1987 and 1988 - I was a liaison officer to the Iraqi Directorate of Military Intelligence in Baghdad. No, we did not assist Iraqis in their development of chemical weapons, in fact their use of the weapons almost ended our support for Saddam Husayn.

Here is the latest attempt at castigating American support for the Iraqis against the Iranians during the latter years of the eight-year long war. An article titled "US Continues Massive Military Build Up - America's 'inward turn' is in fact an invention of the mainstream media" by Shane Quinn, appeared on March 8 issue on the website of the rabidly anti-American Global Research, published by the Canadian-based Centre for Research on Globalization.

The opening salvo in the article:

Less than a year into his second term as president, Barack Obama addressed the nation by saying “for nearly seven decades the United States has been the anchor of global security”. Among his first words, Obama highlighted Syria and “where we go from here… against the repressive regime of Bashar al-Assad”.

Obama accused (without a shred of evidence) the Assad government of having “gassed to death over a thousand people”, lamenting “the terrible nature of chemical weapons” which are “a crime against humanity”. Obama neglected to mention how, 25 years before, American policies made possible the most destructive gas attack of the post-World War II period – Saddam Hussein‘s assault on the Kurds of Halabja, northern Iraq, which killed at least 5,000 people.

In March 1988, Halabja – just nine miles from Iran’s border – was targeted by the US-sponsored Iraqi army, due to the city being under the control of the Tehran-allied Kurdish guerrillas. The Reagan administration was heavily supporting Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). Iranian nationalists had previously overthrown the US-backed dictatorship of the Shah in 1979, which was at the root of the ensuing war between the neighbors.

The Americans knew as early as 1983 that the Iraqi despot was utilizing chemical and biological warfare upon Iran. It went on for years. Rick Francona, a retired US Air Force colonel, said later that
“the Iraqis never told us that they intended to use nerve gas. They didn’t have to. We already knew."

Despite this knowledge, the US continued providing significant military aid to the Iraqi dictatorship.

So every two or three years, I have to rebut this incorrect characterization and misquote.

Here are the two previous rebuttals. I tire of this....

Foreign Policy Article - Corrections and Clarifications (August 2013)

Misquoted again - Iran, Iraq, chemical weapons and me (June 2015)

This time it is particularly egregious - I would have happily provided accurate information if asked. I am not hard to find - a Google search will yield my complete contact information.

At the end of his article, Shane Quinn claims to have obtained an "honors journalism" degree. It does not mention the school that awarded the degree, but I suggest he apply for a refund.



February 25, 2018

Ceasefire in Syria's East Ghutah was never going to happen

Caption: Russian occupation aircraft bombing cities and towns in the East Ghutah

The United Nations Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2401 demanding a 30-day "cessation of hostilities...to allow safe, unimpeded and sustained access each week for the humanitarian convoys of the United Nations and their implementing partners to all requested areas and populations — particularly the 5.6 million people in 1,244 communities in acute need and the 2.9 million in hard-to-reach and besieged locations, subject to standard United Nations security assessments." It also demanded that the United Nations and its partners be allowed "to carry out safe, unconditional medical evacuations, based on medical need and urgency."

You can read the text of the United Nations summary here (the actual text is not available yet). As you read this, I want to remind you of the Arabic idiom bas hibr 'ala waraq (mere ink on paper).

Immediately following the vote, however, at least three of the affected parties announced their self-declared exceptions to the resolution. The three affected parties are, as usual, the Russians, Iranians, and Syrians - in other words, the perpetrators of the slaughter that has killed well over 500 people in the space of a few days through relentless air, rocket, and artillery strikes on the besieged enclave east of Damascus.

As we have seen in virtually every attempt - all of which have failed - at a ceasefire, truce, cessation of hostilities, de-escalation, etc. - these three allies have declared that the agreement does not cover groups they label as terrorists.

To these parties, that label applies to anyone not fighting for the regime. Specifically, this time, Moscow, Tehran and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad stated that “parts of the suburbs of Damascus, which are held by the terrorists, are not covered by the ceasefire and clean-up [operations] will continue there.”


Those who the Russian, Iranians, and Syrians believe to be terrorists

Let's drill down on the phrase "clean-up" operations.

With the territorial defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - there are only small pockets remaining in Syria - the common enemy for the Syrians, Iranians, Hizballahis, various Iranian-led Shi'a militias, and even the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) no longer exists. More importantly, it frees up thousands of Syrian troops formerly used in the push to retake central Syria and the besieged city of Dayr al-Zawr to be redeployed for the next major assault.

That assault, the elimination of the rebel-held eastern Ghutah, has begun.



When I was assigned as the air attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, I lived about five miles west of the East Ghutah in the Western Villas section of the al-Mizzih district of the city (at the blue dot on the above map). Around the city is a greenbelt of trees and small towns - very pleasant, clean, safe, nice - called the Ghutah. There is a western Ghutah as well - both were preferred places to either live or have a weekend place outside the city.

Since the Iranian intervention in 2012 which allowed Bashar al-Asad to survive the first major challenge, and the Russian intervention in 2015 which kept him in power again as Syrian forces were being pushed south toward Damascus, the East Ghutah has held on, but has been under brutal siege.

The Syrian regime tactic has been, and remains, to impose a siege, hammer the infrastructure by air and artillery - including deliberate targeting of hospitals, markets/commercial bakeries, and schools - until the residents agree to a truce. In the past, the rebels would be allowed to leave, usually bused to Idlib.

I don't think that is going to happen - the situation has changed since the virtual/imminent/territorial (pick a word) defeat of ISIS. The Syrians have recommitted the bulk of their forces to start mopping up any pockets of resistance - the East Ghutah will be the first.

The Syrians have assigned the task to the Tiger Forces, an elite armored/mechanized force under the command of Brigadier General Suhayl al-Hasan - a very capable field commander who was the key leader in the fight against ISIS. He is brutal and efficient - his public statements echo that. He has become a folk here to the regime supporters.

The Tiger Forces listed their objectives, which basically are to regain complete control of the M5 highway - the main line of communication north to the rest of the Syrian forces, stop rebel mortar and rocket attacks on Damascus, secure the East Ghutah, and then move on to the Yarmuk rebel and ISIS pockets (southwest of East Ghutah).

With the resources no longer needed to fight ISIS, General al-Hasan now has overwhelming firepower, massive amounts of airpower from the Russian Air Force operating out of Humaymin air base near Latakia, as well as all the artillery organic to the regime-protection elements firing from the mountains just northwest of the city.

In General al-Hasan's own words:

"We won’t allow anyone to interfere with the battle’s issues. Any attempt to impose a ceasefire and open passageways to exit the militants from the western side of eastern Ghutah is not allowed at all. The battle is ongoing and will stay that way until the end of the last militant standing in eastern Ghutah. For every round from your weapons and for every drop of blood from a martyr or wounded in Damascus, our response will be firing so many rounds that you will know the righteousness of God and know that no one has ever tried to injure al-Sham to make her cry and succeeded. Long live you, and Syria al-Asad."

Here is a propaganda video from the Tiger Force media office lionizing (no pun intended) General al-Hasan.


Here is a report of Syrian military operations from the day after the ceasefire went into effect - you be the judge.


Given the commitment of units such as the Tiger Forces, the overwhelming force at its disposal, the unwavering support of the Russians and Iranians, and the willingness to ignore and exploit the United Nations resolution, it is only a matter of time before the Syrian regime regains control of the area.

The downside is the huge numbers of civilian casualties (hundreds per day now - it will get worse) and the destruction of almost all the infrastructure in the area.

How long with this go on? The area is about 100 square kilometers - they could hold out for maybe weeks, but it is going to be ugly. Take a look at the destruction in the cities of Mosul, al-Raqqah. Aleppo, etc - this will be worse.

Here are my thoughts on the ongoing, and unfortunately future, carnage in the East Ghutah, on CNN International a few days ago.