December 2, 2016

Israeli air strike in Syria - no surprise

Israeli Air Force F-16

During the night of 29-30 November. Israeli Air Force aircraft conducted strikes against targets near Damascus, Syria. The target locations were identified in various media as a weapons storage area of the elite 4th Armor Division (a regime protection unit) and a convoy on the Beirut-Damascus highway. The specific targets in both cases were reported to be weapons destined for Hizballah in Lebanon.

The Israelis have for years conducted these types of operations when what they call "advanced weapons" are about to be transported from Syria to Lebanon's Biqa' Valley, where they become part of Hizballah's arsenal.

"Advanced weapons" to the Israelis include, but are not limited to, air defense weapons and surface-to-surface missiles (SSM). Although it is impossible to prevent the transfer of man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) to terrorist groups, the movement of larger, radar-guided air defense missile systems is easier to detect. The same applies to SSM launchers.

Some of these weapons come from Syrian stocks, but most were en route Lebanon from none other than the Islamic Republic of Iran - yes, Iran, the world's primary state sponsor of terrorism. After the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Syria's weapons were used against its own people. Since then, most of Hizballah's weapons have originated in Iran.

The Iranians make no secret of the fact that they support Hizballah with money, weapons and training. They routinely fly Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) Boeing 747 cargo aircraft or charter aircraft of IRGC-affiliated airlines laden with arms from Iran to the Damascus International Airport.

I know this from personal experience as the Air Attaché at the American embassy in Damascus - anyone could watch weapons crates from IRIAF aircraft being loaded onto trucks bearing the Hizballah emblem at the civilian cargo terminal at the airport.

One such flight took place on December 1 - here is an air traffic control plot of the IRIAF 747 freighter on its way to Syria.



Once the weapons, supplies and Hizballah fighters returning from training in Iran were loaded onto the Hizballah vehicles, the convoy would make the 35 mile trip to the Lebanese border (see map).


This Israeli strike was based on intelligence information that Hizballah was being provided the "Buk" air defense missile system. The Buk missile system is a family of self-propelled, medium-range surface-to-air missile systems designed to shoot down cruise missiles, aircraft and drones.

There are variants known in the West as the SA-11 and SA-17* - the exact variant believed to be in this shipment is unknown, but either version would represent a significant upgrade in Hizballah's ability to counter Israeli air operations. This crossed an Israeli "red line" and triggered the attack.

I suspect that if the Iranians, Syrians and Hizballah attempt this again, the Israelis will react the same way.

_________
* A Russian SA-17 was used to down Malaysian Flight MH17 over Ukraine in July 2014.



November 22, 2016

Possible Secretary of Defense nominee Jim Mattis - finally, a wartime consigliere

President-elect Trump and General James Mattis, U.S. Marine Corps (Ret) 

President-elect Trump may soon nominate James "Mad Dog" Mattis to be the next Secretary of Defense. Mattis is a 66-year old retired U.S. Marine Corps general who has served multiple combat tours - including the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq - in a variety of command positions, including the 7th Marine Regiment, the 1st Marine Division, Marine Corps Combat Development Command, U.S. Joint Forces Command and finally the United States Central Command.

General Mattis retired in May 2013. Current law requires that there be a seven-year window between military service and assuming duties as the Secretary of Defense. It is possible for Congress to waive that requirement - it was last done in 1950 for General of the Army George Marshall.

General Mattis has a stellar reputation in the U.S. defense community, often being cited as one of the premier military leaders and thinkers of his generation. As evidenced by his plain and often colorful remarks about the nature of warfare and the role of the armed forces in national policy, he may be a controversial selection to some of those on the Democratic side of the aisle.

If nominated by Mr. Trump and confirmed by the Senate - as I expect to happen - he will be a stark contrast to current Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. Secretary Carter has gotten high marks for his management of the Department of Defense and the armed forces, but he has been unable to convince President Obama to make needed policy changes in the conduct of the wars in Afghanistan and against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Mr. Carter was named to his current position after the Administration forced out Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in late 2014. I wrote an article then, The new Secretary of Defense - we need a "wartime consigliere."

In that piece, I said, "What we need, to paraphrase Michael Corleone in the movie The Godfather, is a wartime consigliere. The Secretary of Defense is not merely an administrator, but an active participant in the command and control of military operations. Since the passage of the Goldwater–Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, the military chain of command goes directly from the President/Commander in Chief to the Secretary of Defense to the combatant commander."

I still think that we need a wartime consigliere. We need a wartime leader to guide the President in the redirection of the war in Afghanistan, the defeat of ISIS, and to direct and oversee the rebuilding of the American military after eight years of atrophy.

Secretary Carter, from all accounts, has been a successful bureaucrat and manager. He has served with distinction in a variety of positions in the Department of Defense, as well as experienced in academia and consulting.

However, Mr. Carter is not a wartime consigliere. If nominated and confirmed, General Mattis will be.




November 19, 2016

Is Mike Pompeo the best choice to lead the CIA?

President-elect Donald Trump has nominated Kansas Congressman Mike Pompeo (right) to become the next Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Is he the best choice for this key position?

The CIA is more than an intelligence collection, analysis and production agency, although that is its primary role. In addition to managing the National Clandestine Service's intelligence operations, it is the lead organization of the United States government authorized to conduct covert operations.

Covert operations are among the most sensitive operations of the country. According to Executive Order 12333 issued by President Ronald Reagan, covert action is defined as special activities, both political and military, that the US Government could legally deny. These include assistance to groups attempting regime change in countries hostile to the United States - Syria comes to mind. The agency also conducts lethal operations ("targeted killing") against designated terrorist leaders - Anwar al-Awlaki is an example.

Directing and leading the CIA is a demanding job requiring experience and expertise in foreign policy, military operations and intelligence collection. Has the Agency always been led by directors with such credentials? Obviously not - usually the directors have had one, maybe two of these skill sets, but it is difficult to find someone with all three.

Unfortunately, at times, the director's sole "qualification" was being a political favorite of the president.

First, let me say that Congressman Pompeo has an outstanding record. He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy (West Point), served as an armored cavalry officer in the U.S. Army, earned a law degree from Harvard University, practiced law for a short period of time, and started or managed several successful businesses in the energy and aviation industries.

As a member of the House of Representatives since being elected in 2010, he has served on the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (including the subcommittee on the CIA), and the Committee on Energy and Commerce. He also was a member of the House Select Committee on the Events Surrounding the 2012 Terrorist Attack in Benghazi.

Based on public records, I don't see any intelligence or foreign policy experience during his time in the military, as a lawyer or private industry. Although he has served on the House committee that oversees the intelligence community, that in and of itself does not translate to intelligence experience.

The Congressman's military experience as a armored cavalry officer will serve him well, but his experience with military intelligence was probably limited to receiving tactical or operational level intelligence reports from the military intelligence company assigned to his armored cavalry regiment. As a captain, his exposure was at a fairly low level and likely at the Secret level - in other words, no access to highly classified material or special access programs.

President-elect Trump, as with previous presidents, should have the Cabinet members, advisers and agency chiefs that he believes will provide him the best advice and leadership. He obviously has faith and trust in Congressman Pompeo to serve as his CIA director.

That said, I cannot help thinking that there are more qualified individuals from the armed forces and Defense Department, the intelligence community or the foreign policy ranks that have more applicable experience to lead this vital organization.

I do, however, wish Congressman Pompeo the best in his new position.

___________________
Disclosure: During my career as a U.S. Air Force intelligence officer, I had several assignments to the CIA.




November 14, 2016

The fall of Kabul - 15 years later

Kabul under Northern Alliance attack - November 2001

On November 14, 2001, the Afghan capital city of Kabul fell to the U.S.-supported Northern Alliance after a short but intense battle. The Northern Alliance was supported primarily by U.S. airpower controlled by American special operations troops and paramilitary officers of the CIA.

Fifteen years later, what have we accomplished?

Let's remember why the United States invaded Afghanistan. Following the al-Qa'idah attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, the Taliban government of Afghanistan was given the opportunity to respond to a request (actually, it was a demand) to turn over al-Qa'idah leader Usamah bin Ladin to American authorities for trial.

The Taliban, citing the tribal code known as pashtunwali, refused, claiming that bin Ladin had been granted sanctuary in Afghanistan and turning him over to a foreign power would be a violation of their honor.

In response, President George Bush authorized the invasion of Afghanistan, pursuant to the Authorization for Use of Military Force (Public Law 107-40) passed by the Congress on September 14, 2001 - the President signed it into law four days later. The law authorized the President to employ the armed forces of the United States against those responsible for the attacks of September 11, 2001, as well as any entity who harbored said persons or groups.

By refusing to turn over Usamah bin Ladin to the United States, the Taliban met the criteria of the authorization. On October 7, 2001, American forces began the campaign known as Operation Enduring Freedom by dropping bombs and firing cruise missiles against Taliban military and communications facilities, as well as al-Qa'idah training camps in the areas of Kabul, Kandahar, and Herat.

It was the beginning of the longest war in American history.

On November 14, the capital fell. The Taliban was forced from power, and al-Qa'idah fell back towards the Pakistan border.

In the battle of Tora Bora - December 6 to December 17 - the United States relied on local Afghan allies, including the Northern Alliance, to arrange the "modalities" of bin Ladin's capture or surrender. I remember wondering who made that fateful, ill-advised decision - you cannot outsource your fighting. There were additional American troops available, but the U.S. military commander did not commit them to the fight. Big mistake.

The result was predictable. Whether tribal loyalties came into play, or money changed hands, or some other deal was struck, Usamah bin Ladin escaped across the border into the Pashtun-controlled tribal area of Pakistan. This event should have been a warning about any long term commitment to the Afghans.

At this point, the American military mission in Afghanistan was essentially complete, only partially accomplished, but complete. Al-Qa'idah no longer had a base of training and operations in Afghanistan, but they merely changed venues. They initially moved to Pakistan - who has been virtually no help - then to Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, North Africa, and even to Syria where they were the predecessor of the so-called and self-proclaimed Islamic State.

It was not until 2011 that justice was finally delivered to Usamah bin Ladin, then living in relative safety in Pakistan. Yet, for ten years preceding that raid, American forces were involved in a civil war in Afghanistan. Even after the killing of bin Ladin, American forces remain in Afghanistan. After 15 years, we have lost almost 2400 troops killed and over 20,000 wounded. Although the cost is pegged at over $700 billion, the actual costs when long-term medical and disability bills are included is much higher.

What have we accomplished in Afghanistan since the Battle of Tora Bora that justifies the blood and treasure? It depends on who you ask, but since this is my article, I'll answer.

What was the mission? Get al-Qa'idah and bin Ladin - once that was accomplished, the effort should have focused on the remnants of al-Qa'idah, not propping up the Karzai government, what most of us knew was going to a futile effort at creating a representative form of government. We are not very good at this.

So now we have been there for 15 years, and have accomplished what? The Afghan military is incapable of quelling the violence, the Taliban is on the ascent, and we insist that our "advise and assist" mission is still viable.

Solution? I guess we first need to define the goals. If it is to defeat the Taliban, say so and deploy enough troops to get it done (I am not advocating that). If it is an inclusive political settlement, get that process moving.

What we are doing now is not working.

Not much. Why not? Because have never really defined a mission beyond 2001. Why are we there? To defeat and expel al-Qa'idah from the country? That was accomplished years ago. To defeat the Taliban? The Taliban does not pose a threat to the United States.

Naysayers will counter that the Taliban will allow al-Qa'idah to return and re-establish training bases, and later mount operations against the United States and/or its allies. I think we have demonstrated that we are capable of devastating the country - again - if the Taliban is stupid enough to allow that to happen.

In simple terms, tell the Taliban - or whichever corrupt warlord eventually seizes power in arguably the most corrupt country on the planet - that if al-Qa'idah comes back to Afghanistan, so does American military power.

And we won’t be coming to nation-build….



October 30, 2016

The coming assault on al-Raqqah - a political minefield

Al-Raqqah, Syria (click for larger view)

According to the senior U.S. commander leading the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an attack on the group's main stronghold in the Syrian city of al-Raqqah may start soon.

The timing, according to U.S. Army Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, is being driven by planning and potential execution of terror attacks against Western targets emanating from the ISIS "capital" and main operations center. The general did not name a specific threat or target.

The announcement comes just weeks after the kickoff of the Iraqi offensive to recapture the city of al-Mawsil (Mosul) from ISIS, who seized the city from Iraqi forces in June 2014. That offensive will possibly take months - the lead Iraqi forces have just reached the city limits.

The original U.S.-led coalition plan - developed jointly with the Iraqi military - was to have Iraqi forces first surround Mosul, then press the attack and eradicate ISIS in Iraq. In my opinion, the Iraqis launched the attack prematurely, since there are still pockets of ISIS control outside of Mosul. For my analysis on the Iraqi plan, see my earlier article, The Iraqi operation to retake Mosul - are they ready?

The current operation against Mosul in Iraq has been expected for some time - Iraqi officials have claimed that the city will be back under Iraqi government control by the end of this year. I hope they are right, but I think they may be overly optimistic.

Likewise, it is no secret that at some point, ISIS must also be removed from its main operations center in al-Raqqah, Syria. One only need look at a situation map of the fighting in Syria to see that ISIS is being pushed back toward al-Raqqah.

The group is under pressure from U.S.-led air operations, the very effective Syrian Kurdish forces (the YPG), the U.S.-supported and advised Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF, a joint Syrian Arab and Syrian Kurd armed group), and recently the Turkish supported (air, armor and artillery) Free Syrian Army (FSA) operating northeast of Aleppo. To be fair, there is the infrequent Russian air operation against ISIS, but only in support of Syrian Army operations.

The Turkish-supported FSA operation in northern Syria, called Operation Euphrates Shield, has sealed off the remaining section of the Syrian-Turkish border from ISIS access. The rest of the Syrian-Turkish border is controlled by the YPG, much to Ankara's displeasure. The Euphrates Shield forces have been effective in pushing ISIS south and east, but the FSA fighters are still almost 100 miles from al-Raqqah.

That distance becomes important as the U.S.-led coalition begins planning on just how the fight against ISIS in Syria will be executed. This is a political minefield, not just for the coalition, but for all of the different interested parties in Syria. I find it interesting that the senior American commander is talking about the attack on al-Raqqah, yet represents a country who refuses to commit its ground troops to the fight. That, however, is a topic for another day.

As in Iraq, all parties are committed to the destruction and/or eradication of ISIS. However, in Iraq, all of the parties are more or less allied in that fight. There are differences between the United States and the Iranian-backed Shi'a militias to be sure, but they are nonetheless of common purpose.

In Syria, there are at least five anti-ISIS factions, some of which are engaged in combat operations against each other. Let's take a look at the sides in this multifaceted conflict.

* First, there is the Syrian government and its allies. The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad is supported politically by Russia, Iran, Lebanon and Iraq. Military support is provided by the Russian armed forces, primarily through airpower, as well as ground forces from the Iranian Army and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Lebanese Hizballah, Iraqi Shi'a militias, and a group of Afghan Shi'a fighters.

These allies effectively double the size of what remains of the Syrian Army. The Syrian military has been severely crippled by losses and defections to the point that without this external assistance, it would cease to be a viable force.

* Second, we have the FSA, now supported by the Turkish military. One might question Turkey's motives in its participation in Operation Euphrates Shield. Although the stated reason is to fight ISIS - and they are doing that - many believe it is to ensure that the Syrian Kurds do not create some form of autonomous region in northern Syria as they have in Iraq, or worst case, attempt to merge the Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish areas into one political entity.

Turkey's prime minister has made the claim that the Turkish Army will mount the attack on al-Raqqah, rather than allow the Syrian Kurds to do it. The problem with that: the Turks and FSA are 100 miles from al-Raqqah, while the Kurds are only 35 miles from the city.

* The third faction is the Kurdish militia called the YPG - arguably the most effective fighters arrayed against ISIS. As noted, Turkey is upset over American support for the YPG. The Turks regard the Kurdish militia as an extension of the Kurdish Workers' Party (more commonly known by its Kurdish initials, PKK), which has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union, and NATO.

Given the proximity of YPG forces to al-Raqqah, LTG Townsend has stated that they will be involved in the military operation, with the added caveat that he wants only Arab forces to enter and retake the city itself. This is similar to the effort in Mosul, where Iraqi Arabs are supposed to be the only units to actually enter the city, with the Kurds outside to provide support. I don't think it will work in either Mosul or al-Raqqah - the Kurds represent a much-needed military capability.

* Fourth, there is the U.S.-supported SDF. These forces are a combination of Syrian Kurds and Syrian Arabs who are committed to fighting ISIS. They are funded and equipped by the United States, and have American special operations forces embedded to "advise and assist." These units have been effective in conducting operations against ISIS in eastern and northeastern Syria, with dedicated U.S.-led coalition air support. They will likely be a key part of any assault on al-Raqqah.

* Fifth, there are anti-regime Islamist groups not affiliated with the FSA or SDF. These include, among others, the former al-Qa'idah affiliated group Jabhat al-Nusrah (the Victory Front) now calling itself Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS, the Levant Conquest Front).

The relationships of these factions vary between temporary tactical alliances to outright hostilities. While they are all anti-ISIS, they are not united in their efforts. As I said, Syria is a political minefield with no one entity in charge or coordinating the overall situation in the country.

The situation in Syria is confusing and chaotic - it will decrease the effectiveness of any military operation against ISIS in al-Raqqah. Although ISIS will be defeated, the political minefield that is Syria will remain.



October 26, 2016

Erdoğan and Mosul - symptom of a larger problem?

"National Oath" map - 1920

During an address explaining why Turkey must be involved in the Iraqi military operation to retake the city of Mosul from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan set off alarm bells by displaying a 1920 map of Turkey based on what was then called the misak-i milli ("national oath").

On the "National oath" map, the 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 be the new borders of their new country.

President Erdoğan has argued for several months that Turkish troops must participate in the Iraqi military operation against ISIS in Mosul, based on Turkey's historic ties to that city, as well as the city of Kirkuk, also included in the "national oath" area. Both Mosul and Kirkuk have large Turkmen populations.

Although the Turks claim that the two cities are majority "Turkmen," thus validating their claims to the cities or at least to have a say in their future status. However, over the years, Iraq has successfully "Arabized" the cities over the years to alter the demographics -- they are now Arab cities.

To further complicate matters, the Kurds have also laid claim to Kirkuk and have tried to "Kurdize" the city by expelling Arab citizens. During the rapid ISIS advance into northern Iraq in 2014, Kurdish peshmerga took control of Kirkuk to prevent it from falling to the group. I suspect they will be extremely reluctant to relinquish their claim to the city, claiming it now as a part of the Kurdish Autonomous Region.

The term "Turkmen" itself is illustrative of the issue. After the war, most of the non-Turkish area of Ottoman Empire was divided up into the modern nations of Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine (Israel), and the borders with Greece and Bulgaria were adjusted. The British - victors in the war against the Ottomans - coined the term to differentiate the ethnic Turks in what was to become northern Iraq from the population of what was to become modern Turkey. The Turks still bristle at the imposed terminology.

Erdoğan is not only concerned with the Iraqi military campaign in Mosul - I am sure his military advisers and intelligence service have briefed him on the reality that the Iraqi forces, with U.S.-led coalition support, will eventually retake Mosul. Although the final cost in resources and human life is not yet known, the outcome is not in doubt - the Iraqis will prevail.

What Erdoğan wants is a say in what happens in northern Iraq after ISIS is expelled. In other words, the Turkish president wants to ensure that the Kurds are kept in check. He is concerned about increased Kurdish influence in Iraq based on their contributions to the Iraqi military effort against ISIS - the Kurds are undoubtedly the most effective arrow in the Iraqi quiver.

Further, Erdoğan wants to head off any thoughts of a unified Kurdish entity in what is now northern Iraq and northern Syria, called Rojava by the Syria-based Kurds. After ISIS is expelled from Iraq and Syria, as they will be, the Kurds are going to want a reassessment of their status in both Iraq and Syria. Turkey wants to make sure that status is agreeable to Ankara, agreeable to Erdoğan.

That said, I believe it Erdoğan wants more than just having a say in the future of northern Iraq and northern Syria. The use of the 1920 "national oath" map at his presentation was not accidental - it was there for a reason.

Turkish demands for a role in northern Iraq, and its military actions in northern Syria are complemented by a series of Turkish air provocations against fellow NATO ally Greece. On at least two occasions, Turkish Air Force F-16's have penetrated Greek airspace, drawing reactions from the Hellenic Air Force. One incursion is possibly a navigational error in an area of meandering borders, but two distinct incursions in the same area raises the "deliberate" flag.

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.

There was a subsequent agreement to the Treaty of Lausanne that dealt specifically with the city of Mosul. The Ankara Pact (1926), based on a commission report of the League of Nations, stated that Mosul should remain part of Iraq. The pact was ratified by Iraq, Turkey and the United Kingdom.

One cannot help but think of the actions of a recalcitrant Germany in the 1930's, bristling at the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. The treaty imposed what the Germans considered to be egregious conditions and sought to to subvert them clandestinely, eventually leading to the birth of a movement that led to the creation of the National Socialist (Nazi) party.

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 and the Ankara Pact.

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. His attempts to convince Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi to include Turkish troops in the operation to recapture Mosul is a tactical maneuver to stem Kurdish nationalism. Erdoğan considers increased Kurdish influence in Iraq or greater autonomy to be a threat to Turkish national interests.

What we should be concerned about is Erdoğan's long-term, strategic vision of Turkey. Are his display of the "national oath" map, decision to provide military support to the Free Syrian Army in northern Syria, Turkish air attacks on Kurdish forces in Syria, Turkish Air Force seemingly deliberate incursions into Greek airspace, and not-so-subtle encouragement of Turkish nationalists to challenge the terms of the Treaty of Lausanne and the Ankara Pact 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.



October 19, 2016

Syrian and Egyptian intelligence chiefs meet in Cairo - a smart play by Putin


In a surprise visit, the director of Syria's National Security Bureau, 'Ali Mamluk, traveled to Cairo to meet with his Egyptian counterpart, Director of General Intelligence Khalid Fawzi. The two met in the Egyptian capital on October 16 during a visit which lasted only a few hours.

Mamluk is a key member of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad's inner circle, and is under European Union sanctions for his alleged actions against Syrian citizens during the protests that led to the civil war.

Of note, the visit also coincided with a joint Russian-Egyptian military exercise involving paratroopers from both countries.


The author and General al-Sisi (2013)

The Russians have been seeking increased influence in Egypt since the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood affiliated government of Muhammad al-Mursi in 2013 by the current president of Egypt, former chief of the Egyptian armed forces General 'Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi.

Both Syria and Egypt are involved in military operations against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - Egypt in the Sinai Peninsula, and Syria in the north and eastern part of that country. The common enemy was the ostensible, and plausible, reason for the two senior officials to meet.

Egypt is nominally involved in the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, although it has limited its military actions to its own territory and a small operation in Libya. After ISIS killed 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in February 2015, the Egyptian Air Force conducted airstrikes on ISIS targets in Darnah, killing 64 members of the group.

Syrian official media reported that the two intelligence officers "agreed on coordinating stances politically between Syria and Egypt, and boosting coordination for combating terrorism hitting both countries." That is diplo-speak for Syria's claim that Cairo supports the government of Bashar al-Asad.

Mamluk and Fawzi were probably the two best interlocutors for this meeting. Both have enough stature to represent their respective countries/regimes, with an understanding of realpolitik to be able to discuss issues with candor despite awkward situations.

The Syrians chose to publicize the meeting of the two officers in a bid to portray Egyptian President al-Sisi as a supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad. The topic was raised at the meeting - the Syrians want all the support they can muster for the continuation of the al-Asad regime in any future Russian-backed political settlement of the civil war in Syria.

The Egyptian media opted to not report the meeting. I suspect that originally the meeting was supposed to be kept in confidence. Mamluk traveled to and from the meeting in a Syrian Air Force TU-134 jet painted in SyrianAir (the flag carrier airline of Syria) colors*.

Egypt is in a tough position, and is trying to walk a fine line between Russia and Saudi Arabia. The Egyptian president has received a lot of backing and support from Saudi Arabia, but earlier this month, Egypt was one of only four countries who voted for a Russian-sponsored United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria.** This vote came after Russia had vetoed a Saudi-supported French resolution aimed at halting the Russian and Syrian bombing of Aleppo. Saudi Arabia retaliated by halting the shipment of subsidized oil products to Egypt.

Egypt has recently strengthened its relationship with the Russian Federation. Much of that was due to the Obama Administration's decision to halt planned deliveries of additional AH-64 Apache helicopter gunships and spare parts following the removal of Mursi.

Vladimir Putin, sensing an opening, dispatched his Minister of Defense to Cairo and offered the Egyptians a lucrative arms package. The Egyptians, in need of weapons to continue fighting Islamists on the Libyan border and in the Sinai Peninsula, accepted. For the first time in decades, thanks to the American short-sighted knee-jerk reaction, Russia has regained a foothold in its former client state.

'Ali Mamluk's visit to Cairo undoubtedly was approved - and possibly instigated - by the Russians. Putin's main objective in Syria is the survival of the regime of Bashar al-Asad, preferably through a diplomatic/political solution, but by force of (Russian) arms if required. Egypt is a key player in the region - its public support for the al-Asad government plays right into Putin's plans.

Well played, Mr. Putin, well played.


_______________

* I have flown on this same aircraft (YK-AYB) in 1994 as the guest of then Minister of Foreign Affairs Faruq Shara' and Ambassador to the U.S. Walid Mu'alim (now the foreign minister).

** Arabic linguist humor: After the Security Council voted down the Russian draft, the United Kingdom ambassador scolded his Russian counterpart, "This text...it's a sham, just as Russia’s hollow commitment to a political process in Syria is a sham." Al-Sham (pronounced A-SHAM) is the Arabic word for Damascus, Syria or the Levant, depending on context. See also, What's in a name? - the Syrian-Iranian car company.



October 16, 2016

The Iraqi operation to retake Mosul - are they ready?

Iraqi Army troops moving towards Mosul

The "liberation" (as the Iraqis are calling it) of Mosul from the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has been anticipated for some time. Iraqi politicians, including Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi, have promised to return the city to Baghdad's control by the end of the year. I have said in the past that although they may be able to start the operation before the end of the year, I am not sure they will be able to complete the operation by then.

This could be a long, difficult, and bloody battle. ISIS has controlled Mosul since they overran the city in June 2014. They have had well over two years to prepare for what they know is their last major stand in Iraq.

Based on what we have seen in other cities held by ISIS and retaken by Iraqi forces, ISIS has developed a series of tunnels to allow the group to move men and weapons to where they are needed, as well as placed minefields, improvised explosive devices (IED) and other obstacles, mapped out ambush sites, and prepare scores of vehicle-borne IED's with suicide drivers willing to confront attacking Iraqi forces. They will likely force civilians to be human shields as they have in other battles. ISIS has claimed that its fighters will fight to the death to defend the city. I believe them - ISIS fighters rarely surrender.

If and when ISIS is defeated in Mosul, it will only be a matter of time before it is completely eradicated or ejected from Iraq. I believe that given the forces arrayed against ISIS, and the resources dedicated to this operation, the Iraqis will ultimately be successful in retaking Mosul. The question is how much will it cost, in terms of time, resources, city infrastructure, and most importantly, human life.


Map by Thomas van Linge (@arabthomness)

I hope they are not starting this operation on a political timetable - this is a major operation for the Iraqis. There is still a large pocket of ISIS fighters in Hawija (southwest of Kirkuk). This presence poses a threat to Iraqi supply lines as well as creating the potential for ISIS guerrilla attacks against Kurdish and Sunni areas at a time when the Iraqis need to be focused squarely on the Mosul operation. If it was me "advising and assisting" the Iraqis, I would tell them to eliminate that pocket before launching the operation into Mosul.

I would also advise that they more completely isolate Mosul, specifically interrupting the ISIS main line of communication (LOC) from the city to the west towards the ISIS controlled area of Syria and to the ISIS capital of al-Raqqah. According to several Iraqi commanders who have spoken on this, cutting that supply line will fall to the Shi'a and Yazidi militias, probably centered on Tal 'Afar.​ This is even more important than eliminating the Hawija pocket.

One senior Iraqi Army officer indicated that they may leave an escape route for the ISIS fighter to flee to Syria, referring to the western LOC. Allowing ISIS any route out is a bad idea - in all of the recent fights between Iraqi forces and ISIS, ISIS has effectively exploited weaknesses in Iraqi attempts to cordon the group. Now is not the time to give ISIS any opportunity to regroup after the fall of Mosul.

According to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Marine Corps General Joe Dunford, the Iraqi forces are ready for the operation in Mosul. All that is necessary is a political decision on the part of Prime Minister al-'Abadi, which could come at any moment. I hope the general is right, but why did President Obama order another 1,100 U.S. troops to Iraq, remarking yet again that the Americans are not "ground forces," but there to provide only "training and assistance, logistical support."

Here is an example of the United States not providing ground forces. This is Comanche Battery, 1-320 Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, currently deployed to a fire base south of Mosul.




Iraqi forces will include the Army, Air Force, Special Police and Counter-terrorism units, along with the Kurdish peshmerga and the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). The PMU include Shi'a militias, as well as some Sunni, Christian, and Yazidi militias. Although Iraqi Air Force and Iraqi Army Aviation aircraft will participate, the bulk of air support will be provided by the US-led coalition (mostly U.S. Air Force).

The Iraqis must put an "Iraqi face" on this effort, that it is all Iraqis working together to liberate Mosul regardless of ethnicity or religious group. This will be critical after the city is cleared of ISIS.

As the Iraqis continue to push ISIS back into Syria (as well as out of the remaining areas under its control in the western Euphrates Valley), the real challenge will be reconstituting Iraq as a coherent nation. That means working with the Sunnis and Kurds to determine the future of the north - what areas now controlled by the Kurds might be included in the Kurdish autonomous region. For example, Kirkuk was taken from ISIS by the Kurds - I see no indication they are willing to give it up. It has always been the Kurds' contention that Kirkuk is a Kurdish city - Baghdad does not agree.

The Iraqis must remove ISIS from Iraq - retaking Mosul is the key. Can the army that lost Mosul to ISIS in 2014 take it back from ISIS in 2016? They have to.



October 12, 2016

Houthi attack on USS Mason - an Iranian challenge? - ADDENDUM


Two days ago (October 10), I wrote an article on a missile attack by the Yemeni Houthis on the USS Mason operating in the Red Sea in international waters. I have included that article in its entirety below.

Today, that same destroyer was targeted again from Houthi territory in Yemen. The warship fired defensive missiles in response. The ship was not hit or damaged.

This is what happens when the United States does not respond immediately and decisively to attacks on American ships in international waters. If we fail to respond again to this provocation, we can expect them to continue, not only here but in other places as well.

If it appears obvious that this Administration will not act to defend its own ships and sailors, other groups - for example, the Iranian IRGC, primary sponsors and supporters of the Houthis - will feel emboldened to also challenge American ships.

Let me try this with smaller words:

Memo for the President - At least four lethal missiles have been fired at a U.S. Navy destroyer operating in the Red Sea on your orders. This is a challenge not only to the United States, but to the right of any vessel to operate in international waters.

If you do not take immediate and decisive action, this will continue and escalate. If that happens, one of these missiles may hit an American ship, causing casualties and possibly the loss of ship itself.

Take action now, before this gets out of control.





____________
OCTOBER 10, 2017


Houthi attack on USS Mason - an Iranian challenge?

USS Mason (DDG-87)

The headline from the Red Sea is pretty straight forward - two missiles were fired at a U.S. Navy destroyer while the warship was sailing in international waters off the coast off Yemen. The missiles were fired from a coastal area of the country under the control of the Houthis, a Shi'a rebel group sponsored by Iran.

Fortunately, the missiles did not hit their intended target. According to the Navy, the ship did not sustain any damage nor were any of the crew injured, although the missile impacted close enough to the vessel to trigger on board countermeasures.

The vessel targeted in the attack was the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Mason (DDG-87), traveling in company with another Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, the USS Nitze (DDG-94), and Afloat Forward Staging Base (AFSB) USS Ponce (AFSB(I)-15).

The three ships were ordered to the Red Sea near the strategic Bab al-Mandab strait in the wake of a Houthi missile attack on the United Arab Emirates logistic vessel HSV Swift on October 1 in this same area.

The Swift was not so lucky - it was struck by a missile and caught fire. The vessel was formerly under charter to the U.S. Navy, but was sold to the UAE National Marine Dredging Company and was operating under charter to transport humanitarian aid to Yemen and evacuate wounded civilians from the country.


United Arab Emirate High Speed Logistics Vessel (HSV) Swift after missile strike

The missiles used in both attacks are believed to be either a Chinese-built C-802 anti-ship missiles (NATO: CSS-N-8 Saccade) or an Iranian reverse-engineered copy called the Noor. While not technologically advanced, the missiles' simple design is easy to maintain, easy to operate, and can be very effective.

As I said, what happened is fairly straight forward, but why would the Houthis open fire on a U.S. Navy warship?

This is an obvious challenge to any member of the Saudi-led coalition currently conducting airstrikes on Houthi targets in Yemen. The Houthis have warned these nations to avoid Yemeni waters. The United States is a member of the coalition, providing intelligence, logistics and aerial refueling.

The Houthis may not have been aware of the nationality of the warship, although it would be patently irresponsible to launch a missile at a ship ostensibly in international waters without positive identification.

It may go further - this may be an indirect challenge to the U.S. Navy by the Iranians, the primary supporters of the Houthis. The Iranian advisers working with the Houthis are members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which views the American Fifth Fleet as its primary adversary in the region.

Over the past few months, there have been numerous provocations in the Persian Gulf by IRGC crews in armed fast boats harassing U.S. Navy warships. Coincidentally, at least one of these incidents involved the USS Nitze and the USS Mason.

The attack also occurred the day after Saudi aircraft bombed a funeral in Sana, killing more than 100. The Houthis may have been seeking retaliation for what they believe was a deliberate attack. The IRGC issued a statement that the rebel group would avenge the bombing, calling it "a U.S., Saudi, Israeli joint conspiracy."

The question now - how does the United States react to what many believe constitutes an act of war?

The Administration must react decisively. Not doing so will only embolden the Houthis to continue to fire on American warships in the Red Sea, and embolden the Iranians to continue their escalating provocations in the Persian Gulf.

The Iranians have already assessed this Administration as unwilling to challenge Tehran. Failing to act will only validate that assessment.

The reaction needs to be stronger than a diplomatic protest from Secretary of State John Kerry - he is already regarded as weak by the Iranians.

This reaction needs to come via the Department of Defense.




October 10, 2016

Houthi attack on USS Mason - an Iranian challenge?

USS Mason (DDG-87)

The headline from the Red Sea is pretty straight forward - two missiles were fired at a U.S. Navy destroyer while the warship was sailing in international waters off the coast off Yemen. The missiles were fired from a coastal area of the country under the control of the Houthis, a Shi'a rebel group sponsored by Iran.

Fortunately, the missiles did not hit their intended target. According to the Navy, the ship did not sustain any damage nor were any of the crew injured, although the missile impacted close enough to the vessel to trigger on board countermeasures.

The vessel targeted in the attack was the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Mason (DDG-87), traveling in company with another Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, the USS Nitze (DDG-94), and Afloat Forward Staging Base (AFSB) USS Ponce (AFSB(I)-15).

The three ships were ordered to the Red Sea near the strategic Bab al-Mandab strait in the wake of a Houthi missile attack on the United Arab Emirates logistic vessel HSV Swift on October 1 in this same area.

The Swift was not so lucky - it was struck by a missile and caught fire. The vessel was formerly under charter to the U.S. Navy, but was sold to the UAE National Marine Dredging Company and was operating under charter to transport humanitarian aid to Yemen and evacuate wounded civilians from the country.


United Arab Emirate High Speed Logistics Vessel (HSV) Swift after missile strike

The missiles used in both attacks are believed to be either a Chinese-built C-802 anti-ship missiles (NATO: CSS-N-8 Saccade) or an Iranian reverse-engineered copy called the Noor. While not technologically advanced, the missiles' simple design is easy to maintain, easy to operate, and can be very effective.

As I said, what happened is fairly straight forward, but why would the Houthis open fire on a U.S. Navy warship?

This is an obvious challenge to any member of the Saudi-led coalition currently conducting airstrikes on Houthi targets in Yemen. The Houthis have warned these nations to avoid Yemeni waters. The United States is a member of the coalition, providing intelligence, logistics and aerial refueling.

The Houthis may not have been aware of the nationality of the warship, although it would be patently irresponsible to launch a missile at a ship ostensibly in international waters without positive identification.

It may go further - this may be an indirect challenge to the U.S. Navy by the Iranians, the primary supporters of the Houthis. The Iranian advisers working with the Houthis are members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which views the American Fifth Fleet as its primary adversary in the region.

Over the past few months, there have been numerous provocations in the Persian Gulf by IRGC crews in armed fast boats harassing U.S. Navy warships. Coincidentally, at least one of these incidents involved the USS Nitze and the USS Mason.

The attack also occurred the day after Saudi aircraft bombed a funeral in Sana, killing more than 100. The Houthis may have been seeking retaliation for what they believe was a deliberate attack. The IRGC issued a statement that the rebel group would avenge the bombing, calling it "a U.S., Saudi, Israeli joint conspiracy."

The question now - how does the United States react to what many believe constitutes an act of war?

The Administration must react decisively. Not doing so will only embolden the Houthis to continue to fire on American warships in the Red Sea, and embolden the Iranians to continue their escalating provocations in the Persian Gulf.

The Iranians have already assessed this Administration as unwilling to challenge Tehran. Failing to act will only validate that assessment.

The reaction needs to be stronger than a diplomatic protest from Secretary of State John Kerry - he is already regarded as weak by the Iranians.

This reaction needs to come via the Department of Defense.