February 16, 2019

The indictment of former Air Force intelligence specialist Monica Elfriede Witt

The "Wanted by the FBI" circular for Witt

The recent indictment of a former U.S. Air Force intelligence specialist and counterintelligence agent raises serious questions beyond the information released in the the court filings. If you have time, read the indictment here. I have, and will try to clarify much of the legalese and intelligence community phraseology, while omitting the boilerplate miscellany.

Here is my review of the facts as we know them from the actual text of the indictment, from reading "between the lines" of the indictment based on my similar military background and training, and other publicly available information.

Monica Witt enlisted in the Air Force in August of 1997, and served on active duty for over ten years until March of 2008. After enlistment and basic training, she attended the Defense Language Institute (DLI) in Monterey, California, from February 1998 to April 1999. At DLI, she was trained as a Persian Farsi linguist. For those not familiar with Middle East languages, Persian Farsi is the language spoken in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Between the summer of 1999 and the end of 2003, Witt deployed overseas as an aircrew member on board the U.S. Air Force RC-135 Rivet Joint reconnaissance platform. Given her language specialty, it is not hard to figure out what "overseas locations" mentioned in the indictment means.

In late 2003, Witt left the cryptologic linguist specialty and became a special agent for the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI). In addition to its criminal investigative mission, AFOSI is the Air Force organization charged with counterintelligence operations.

These are sensitive missions - Witt's fluency in Farsi would be a useful tool in determining Iran's intelligence operations against the U.S. Department of Defense. After separating from the Air Force in 2008, she continued to work as an AFOSI special agent until August 2010 as a contractor with Booz Allen Hamilton.

Here is where it gets a little murky. There is nothing that tells us what happened between Witt's termination of her contract in 2010 until she makes a trip to Iran in January 2012 to attend a conference sponsored by an organization with ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). During this trip, she appeared in a video, admitted to being a U.S. military veteran, and made anti-American statements. (FLAG)

Upon her return to the United States, Witt was approached by the FBI and warned that based on her military experience and training, she was a prime target for recruitment by Iranian intelligence services. As you would suspect, Witt claimed she would never reveal classified information to the Iranians.

Witt continued an association with at least one Iranian official with ties to an Iranian intelligence agency - I suspect this is a reference to the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS). During one of the exchanges in October 2012, when complemented on her U.S. Air Force training, she replied that she was happy to be able to use her skills for "good rather than evil." (FLAG)

In June 2013, Witt traveled to Kabul, Afghanistan, where she confided in a former colleague that she had gone to the Iranian embassy there and "told all," and mentioned that she might become another Edward Snowden. (FLAG)

Despite all these flags - and there are others, there appears to be no attempt to stop Witt from divulging classified information to Iranian intelligence services. Of course, by now, it is too late. In August 2013, she goes to Dubai, and then to Iran where she defects.

Once in Iran, Witt becomes an eager asset for the Iranian intelligence services. Not only does she tell them what she knows about U.S. signals intelligence (SIGINT) operations and capabilities against Iran, she offers the names of her fellow AFOSI special agents conducting operations against the Islamic Republic.

It gets worse - she participates in cyber operations against these American officers, and helps develop target packages against them, providing "spotting and assessing" insights and personal details. Having conducted human intelligence operations, these details and insights are invaluable.

How much damage can a former U.S. Air Force Technical Sergeant (that is the rank associated with the pay grade of E-6) do? From her participation in SIGINT operations, she has no doubt told the Iranians not that we are conducting SIGINT collection operations against them - they know that - but what our successes and capabilities are, and maybe more importantly, what problems and challenges the U.S. government is facing in those operations. It is extremely helpful when you know which of your communications are secure, and which are vulnerable.

From Witt's participation in AFOSI counterintelligence operations, she will have identified any U.S. or allied operatives of whom she was aware. This is where lives are at stake - the Iranians execute people on mere suspicion. While the identity of U.S. Air Force counterintelligence agents is harmful, it is the assets they run who face mortal danger.

With Witt in Iran and working with the Iranian intelligence services, it is unlikely that she will face justice in the United States. If she is foolish enough to leave Iran, she might be arrested in a country that has an extradition treaty with the United States, but her previous statements indicate she is aware of that danger. Failing a change of government in Iran - we can always hope - she may never see the inside of an American court or prison.

There is no doubt that there is an internal investigation in the U.S. counterintelligence community - as there should be. This woman, a trained SIGINT specialist and counterintelligence special agent, travels to Iran, participates in an anti-American conference sponsored by the most ruthless of the Iranian intelligence services, and despite warnings from the FBI, continues to communicate with Iranian intelligence operatives for over a year, and no one can make a case to detain her, or at least prevent her from traveling to Iran?

Why did it take six years from her initial cooperation with Iranian intelligence services in 2012, her defection in 2013, and her continuing work since 2014 against the United States to file an indictment in 2018 and try to bring her to justice?

Someone has some explaining to do.

January 24, 2019

Interview on Israeli I24 NEWS "Perspectives"

My interview on the Israeli television network I24 NEWS this morning with anchor Tracy Alexander (who asked good questions) on remarks made by the Russian ambassador to Israel. We talked about ISIS, Turkey, Israel, and Syria.

Alternatively, watch on YouTube.

January 13, 2019

Trump threatens Turkey's economy if it attacks Kurds

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

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

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

That said, I liked the President’s words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 5, 2019

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

Turkish troops on the Syrian border

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 1, 2019

Miniseries Review: "Fauda" (Netflix 2017- )

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 17, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ve seen how that has worked out….

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

December 16, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 13, 2018

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

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

The opening paragraphs of that earlier article:

In an unnecessary and unhelpful turn of events, a series of armed confrontations has broken out in several locations along the Syrian-Turkish border. The combatants, unfortunately, are both U.S. allies.

Turkish forces have mounted a series of artillery attacks and air strikes on a variety of Kurdish targets along virtually the entire Syrian-Turkish border, claiming that they are attacking members of the outlawed and designated terrorist organization Kurdistan Workers' Party, known more commonly by its Kurdish initials PKK.

The problem - most of the targets are not PKK targets, they are actually elements of the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units, more commonly called the YPG. The YPG is an integral part of a U.S.-backed force, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF was created, trained and equipped to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). They are the "boots on the ground" support by coalition air power, artillery, special forces, and logistics.

The Turks are acting like petulant children, unfortunately, petulant children with artillery and F-16 fighter bombers. (Francona 2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unhelpful and unnecessary.

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

December 9, 2018

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

Arabic media coverage of Ambassador Jeffrey's statement

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

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

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

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

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

James Jeffrey - American special envoy for Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, the Kurds are left standing alone.

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