July 22, 2016

Iraqis plan to retake Mosul without the Kurds?

"We won’t let Peshmerga take part in Mosul’s liberation"
                                                      --- Iraqi defense minister

A few weeks after the Iraqi recapture of the city of al-Fallujah from fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Iraqis continue the rhetoric that the liberation of Mosul (al-Mawsil) is currently underway, and that the city will be under Iraqi government control by the end of this year.

The claim that the liberation is underway is technically true - the United States is adding up to a thousand more troops in staging areas south of the city to provide not only intelligence, communications, and logistics, but fire support as well. U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps long range artillery and rocket launchers are providing accurate fires to support Iraqi security forces preparing the battlefield for the eventual assault on Mosul.

That said, I remain skeptical that the Iraqi security forces - that includes the Iraqi armed forces, special police units, and the Kurdish peshmerga - will be able to secure the liberation of Mosul by the end of the year. These security forces have usually been augmented by the Popular Mobilization Units (sometimes referred to as the Popular Mobilization Forces), which are in reality Iranian-supported, trained and at times even led Shi'a militias.

Of the forces available to Baghdad, the Kurdish peshmerga are considered the most capable fighters, despite constantly being under-equipped and poorly supported by the government. The peshmerga have demonstrated their ability to fight ISIS, especially in the northern part of Iraq where they have legally established a Kurdish autonomous region, the Kurdistan Region. Mosul borders this autonomous region - the front lines between the ISIS-controlled area and the government-controlled area are manned by the Kurds.

In an interview today while on a visit to Washington, Iraqi Defense Minister Khalid al-'Ubaydi (commonly rendered in the press as al-Obeidi) made the surprising pronouncement that the peshmerga fighters will not only be proscribed from entering the city of Mosul, they will not participate at all in the liberation effort.

Not using what are arguably the best fighters in the Iraqi security forces, who would be operating on or near their home turf, is puzzling. Perhaps when he returns to Baghdad, the Iraqi general staff will enlighten the minister - who is not a professional military officer - on the reality of mounting this large offensive without the peshmerga.

The security situation in the environs of Baghdad also play a role in Iraqi military planning. The successful, albeit slow, recapture of the city if al-Fallujah to the west of Baghdad was portrayed as necessary to increase security in the capital. It was thought that many of the deadly bombings in Baghdad were staged from al-Fallujah. The fallacy of that assumption was exposed when a suicide bombing only a week later killed almost 300 residents in Karradah, an upscale Shi'a neighborhood. An additional 51 people have been killed since then, despite ISIS's removal from all of al-Anbar province.

The Iraqis not only have to continue planning and preparations for the Mosul campaign, they must provide security for the residents of Baghdad. They will be hard pressed to do both if they do not use some of their best fighters in the assault on Mosul.

I suspect that al-'Ubaydi will be forced to reconsider what was an ill-advised comment.

July 16, 2016

Kerry - Lavrov talks in Moscow on Syria - why the secrecy?

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and American Secretary of State John Kerry met in Moscow to try and salvage the all-but-dead Syrian "cessation of hostilities" agreement. The talks revolved around a rather ambitious American proposal that was probably - and not unexpectedly - rejected out of hand by the Russians.

The American proposal, about eight pages long, can be read here (PDF file), and consists of two documents:

- Approach for Practical Russian-American Cooperation against Daesh and Jabhat al Nusra and Strengthening the Cessation of Hostilities
- Terms of Reference for the Joint Implementation Group

In a nutshell, the U.S. proposed that the Syrian Air Force be prohibited from conducting offensive sorties in "designated areas." Designated areas will be established by the Russian and American officers at a joint center in Amman, Jordan. These are basically anywhere ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusrah and the anti-regime opposition are located.

The proposal effectively grounds the Syrian Air Force except for humanitarian and emergency flights. ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusrah - as well as a few other specifically designated "terrorist" groups - will be targeted and attacked by U.S.-led coalition or Russian aircraft, after coordination, targeting, weaponeering, etc. at the joint center. The proposal mentioned the possibility of "integrated missions" between the Russians and the U.S-led coalition.

Thus, the anti-regime rebels will not come under attack, at least from the air, sort of declaring a "no-fly zone lite." This would be a tough sell - the Syrian Air Force has been almost exclusively bombing these non-terrorist targets despite the in-name-only "cessation of hostilities." Not to be outdone, the overwhelming majority of Russian Air Force strikes have targeted these rebel groups as well - some of these groups have been supported by covert American programs.

I should note that many American senior military officers and State Department personnel were against much of the intelligence and technical capability sharing aspects of the proposed arrangement with the Russians. Their arguments held little sway with either Secretary of Defense Ash Carter of Secretary Kerry - they wanted a deal. Some would say they wanted a deal just to say they have a deal.

After the meeting in Moscow, Secretary Kerry announced only that a tentative deal had been reached, but refused to discuss the exact terms. Since Mr. Kerry has an abysmal track record in negotiating with the Russians - the Syrian chemical weapons deal and Russian input to the Iran nuclear deal spring to mind - I will let you read his rather convoluted words.

Note: When Mr. Kerry refers to the "two serious problems," he is referring to two issues addressed at the meeting - Syrian Air Force bombing operations and how to deal with the al-Qa'idah affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusrah (The Victory Front). Note the lack of the mention of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Secretary Kerry: "We agreed to steps that, if implemented in good faith, can address two serious problems that I just described about the cessation of hostilities. It is possible to help restore the cessation of hostilities, significantly reduce violence and help create the space for a genuine political transition.

"However, the concrete steps that we have agreed on are not going to be laid out in public in some long list because we want them to work and because they need more work in order to work. I want to emphasize, though, that they are not based on trust, but on specific steps that needed to be taken by both sides.

"So we’re not here promising the world. Not here tonight to suggest that overnight things are going to change. [The deal] has the opportunity to change the playing field significantly. Let the proof be in the pudding, not our words."

I take all that Kerry-speak to mean the proposal was rejected by the Russians and the resulting "concrete steps" are so far removed from the original terms that it would be embarrassing to compare the two. Just like with the Iran deal, we'll have to wait for the Russians to tell us just how well they outplayed John Kerry - again.

The Russians are skilled negotiators, and President Vladimir Putin has been relentless in pursuing what he believes are his national security interests in Syria. Paramount of those interests is continued Russian access to the joint Russian-Syrian naval facility at the Syrian port of Tartus, and now likely continued access to Syrian air bases. Integral to achieving those national security goals is a friendly, if not pliable, government in Damascus. The current president of Syria, Bashar al-Asad, is both.

Knowing that the continued fight against al-Qa'idah and its affiliated groups throughout the region is a key tenet of the Obama Administration's policy, the Russians have offered to coordinate air operations against Jabhat al-Nusrah. While that sounds like a good idea, and no doubt will get Kerry's attention, the terrorist group is focused on the removal of the al-Asad regime.

Joint American-Russian attacks on the group actually plays right into Putin's hand - hurting Jabhat al-Nusrah directly supports Russia's goal to prop up the al-Asad regime. Keeping Bashar in power is key.

I find it troubling that the Russians are privy to an American-Russian agreement, but the American people are not.

Why the secrecy, Mr. Kerry? Is what you agreed to that bad?

July 11, 2016

U.S. to deploy 560 more troops to Iraq - further down that slippery slope?

During a visit to Baghdad, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced that the United States will deploy an additional 560 troops to Iraq to assist in the fight against the self-declared Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

That will bring the number of American forces in Iraq to almost 6000, far higher than the Pentagon-cited figure of 4,647 - the Defense Department does not include personnel on temporary assignments in the official count.

The stated reason for the additional troops is to assist Iraqi forces as they prepare for the eventual campaign to retake the city of Mosul. Mosul is Iraq's second largest city - it has been under ISIS control since it fell to the group in June of 2014. One of the tasks assigned to the new troops will be the rehabilitation and reconstruction of facilities at the large al-Qayyarah air base - the base was recaptured from ISIS on July 9.

The base will be a key staging area for Iraqi forces as they mount the attack on Mosul. The base is about 40 miles south of Mosul and west of the Tigris River. This assault was successful in crossing the river and reclaiming territory from ISIS west of the Tigris Valley, further reducing the amount of Iraqi territory in the country under the group's control.

The air base, formerly known as al-Qayyarah West, is a large facility with long runways capable of handling heavy transport aircraft, as well as scores of helicopters. The base provides an excellent base from which to launch attack sorties against ISIS positions in Mosul. Additionally, Iraqi or American long-range artillery or rocket launchers will complement the existing American firebase located at Makhmur on the east bank of the Tigris.

The recapture of the air base is an important step, one of the many needed before the operation to liberate Mosul can start. The liberation of Mosul is necessary to defeat ISIS and eject them from Iraqi territory - it is the group's major holding in the country. Mosul and the Syrian city of al-Raqqah, which ISIS claims as its capital city, are major centers of gravity for the group.

The loss of Mosul will effectively end their claims on Iraq. Only then can the government in Baghdad begin the rebuilding of the country as a viable, united political entity.

Preparing for a campaign to retake Mosul has been a long and slow process. The Iraqis have thus far expelled ISIS from Tikrit and Bayji (and now al-Qayyarah) in the Tigris Valley, as well as ridding the entire al-Anbar province by successful - if not devastating - operations in al-Ramadi, al-Hit and recently al-Fallujah.

It was hoped that the removal of ISIS from al-Anbar would reduce the number of ISIS bombing attacks in and around Baghdad - July was a month of a series of high-profile bombings in the city. Unfortunately, ISIS used its lingering presence in Diyala province (east and southeast of Baghdad) to launch the most devastating truck bombing in the upscale Shi'a neighborhood of Karradah on July 4. That attack, in which almost 300 people died, was the worst single attack since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Although the recapture of Mosul is arguably the key to the eventual defeat of ISIS in Iraq, the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi has another concern - the security of Baghdad. As long as ISIS is able to mount devastating bombings in and around the capital, the residents will demand that he focus on their immediate security rather than the eventual recapture of Mosul. Should al-'Abadi decide to allocate security resources - army, militia or police - to Diyala to deal with the ISIS threat emanating from that province, it will delay the Mosul operation.

The Mosul operation will be a large-scale undertaking. Retaking cities like al-Ramadi and al-Fallujah were much smaller operations, and took much longer than expected. Mosul is going to require virtually all of the combat power Iraq has and then some.

The "then some" will be the assets committed by the U.S.-led coalition - airpower, artillery and rocket fire support, intelligence, logistics, communications, command and control, engineer support, as well the placement of U.S. military officers in Iraqi combat battalions.

It is those capabilities that Secretary Carter cited in his remarks: "These additional U.S. forces will bring unique capabilities to the campaign and provide critical enabler support to Iraqi forces at a key moment in the fight."

The increased American support will be necessary for the Iraqis to recapture Mosul. As we have seen in recent military operations, there is great reliance on American airpower, intelligence, fire support, etc. Since Mosul will be a much larger, more complex operation, there will likely be calls for an even higher level of support.

The Administration's decision to deploy additional troops to Iraq reflects the realization that Iraqi forces as they stand today are not capable of conducting that operation, and certainly not on the timetable promised by Prime Minister al-'Abadi - he has pledged to retake Mosul before the end of the year.

To those of us who served in Vietnam, the gradual escalation of American troop presence in Iraq over the last two years reminds us of how a small advisory mission grew into a large-scale military operation lasting over a decade and costing over 58,000 American troops.

The words "mission creep" come to mind. It is not only the troop presence in Iraq that concerns many observers - it is the continuing build up of forces in the region that directly conduct operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

It is critical that ISIS be defeated - and key to that defeat is the retaking of Mosul. Should the Iraqis prove incapable of doing that with the current levels of American support, will we continue to escalate our troop presence? Are we in danger of sliding further down that slippery slope? Are we going to reach the point when we see the re-introduction of American combat formations into Iraq?

We haven't even started talking about ejecting ISIS from Syria yet.

July 8, 2016

The battle after Fallujah - an Iraqi strategy shift?

Iraqi Army officers and dead ISIS fighters in al-Fallujah, al-Anbar province

After a month of intense fighting between fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and a mixture of Iraqi security forces supported by Iranian-backed Shi'a militias and U.S.-led airpower, the city of Fullajah (al-Fallujah, الفلوجة‎‎) is now back under Iraqi government control. The city had been occupied by ISIS since January 2014 - Fallujah was the first major Iraqi city to fall to the group.

As with previous Iraqi military operations aimed at retaking cities from ISIS - Ramadi, Tikrit, Bayji, etc. - it took much longer than predicted and has reduced substantial sections of the city to little more than rubble. The areas not devastated by airstrikes, bombing, artillery and street-to-street fighting is riddled with booby traps and mines. It will be weeks, possibly months before the city is inhabitable by its former residents.

The liberation of Fallujah came against the backdrop of a series of high-profile bombings in and around the city of Baghdad. The government of Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi was criticized for allocating resources to the fighting in Fallujah at the perceived expense of security in Baghdad. Al-'Abadi maintained that the operations in Fallujah would increase public safety in Baghdad since he believed that many of the bombings in the capital were planned in and staged from Fallujah.

Almost immediately after the initial government claims of victory in Fallujah, Iraqi military leaders declared that they are planning a military operation to retake Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. Mosul has been in ISIS hands since they seized it from a hollow, weakened Iraqi Army in June of 2014. That statement was echoed by a few American senior officers currently "advising and assisting" Iraqi forces.

The proposed timeline - Mosul back under government control by the end of this year - in my opinion is exceedingly optimistic. The Iraqi Army has still not regained its competence since its humiliating defeat in Mosul in 2014.

The Iraqi Army collapsed not because ISIS was such a superior military force, but because Iraqi forces had atrophied due to the devastating policies of former Prime Minster Nuri al-Maliki following the complete - and I believe premature - withdrawal of American troops from the country at the end of 2011.

The withdrawal was the result of the failure of the United States to secure an updated status of forces agreement that would allow the continued presence of a limited number of American troops in the country to assist with the training and development of Iraqi security forces. In my opinion, the Obama Administration was so anxious to leave Iraq that it ignored the still tenuous security situation in the country.

On July 3, in retaliation for the Iraqi government's successful retaking of Fallujah, ISIS detonated two truck bombs in Baghdad, one in the upscale Shi'a neighborhood of Karradah and one in the less affluent Sha'ab neighborhood. The death toll from the bombings has reached almost 300. The blasts - the deadliest since the 2003 invasion - have caused anger and fear in the city.

Much of the anger has been directed at the prime minister - his claims that removing ISIS from Fallujah would make Baghdad safer now ring hollow. The two suicide bombers mounted their attacks from Diyala province, located to the east and northeast of Baghdad, not from Fallujah in al-Anbar province to the west. Again, the residents have called on the government to provide security for the city.

Iraqi political leaders and military planners are now reassessing their strategy. Given the continued presence of ISIS fighters in Diyala province and the group's demonstrated capability to mount large-scale attacks in central Baghdad, Iraqi leaders may now opt to completely clear Diyala province of ISIS prior to moving its forces north for the eventual assault on Mosul. The residents of Baghdad are more concerned about their own security than an artificial timeline to retake Mosul.

ISIS has taken a page from the manual of asymmetric warfare - they have been successful in creating a "significant emotional event" that has caused the Iraqi government to reassess its strategy. If the leadership in Baghdad postpones its plans to mount an attack on ISIS in Mosul and instead focuses its immediate attention on the ISIS presence in Diyala, that gives ISIS more time to develop its defenses for what it knows will be the definitive battle in the country.

It is merely a delaying tactic, to be sure. The Iraqis, with support from the U.S.-led coalition and Iranian-supported Shi'a militias, will eventually marshal the forces and resources necessary to retake Mosul. However, it does appear that ISIS has forced Baghdad to reassess its strategy.

May 18, 2016

Iraq - Goals of the ISIS bombing campaign

Over the past few months, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of bombings in and around Baghdad - it has become almost a daily occurrence. The bombs include improvised explosive devices, car bombs and suicide vests.

As was to be expected, the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has claimed responsibility for the all of the bombings. The attacks have killed over 200 hundred Iraqis, virtually all of them Shi'a Arabs - avowed enemies of the Sunni extremists of ISIS.

The bombing campaign represents a shift in tactics for the group and follows a series of battlefield losses for ISIS. As the Iraqi Security Forces (the catch-all term for the Army, national police, special units and Shi'a militias) regroup after dismal showings following the collapse of the units defending Mosul in 2014, they are beginning to retake territory from ISIS.

Much of that success is due to increased effectiveness of U.S.-led coalition airpower and effective targeting of ISIS leaders and facilities based on more accurate intelligence. This reflects the increased presence of American troops on the ground and development of better intelligence sources.

As the more effective military operations take their toll on ISIS, the group has fallen back, giving up territory in al-Anbar province and the Euphrates River valley. Their supply and communications lines used to move forces and resources between Iraq and Syria have been cut.

At the same time, Iraqi forces - this time with not only American airpower, but direct fire support from U.S. Marine field artillery and rocket launcher systems - have pushed north up the Tigris River valley. These forces are shaping the battlefield for the inevitable assault to re-assert Iraqi government control over Mosul and the northern parts of the country now occupied by ISIS.

According to U.S. officials, ISIS is no longer attempting to seize more territory in Iraq, or Syria for that matter. I agree with that assessment - the group is consolidating its defense of Mosul and limiting its offensive operations to re-establishing its lines of communications. This, however, is a losing strategy - they must find a way to stop the Iraqi forces' momentum at a time when U.S. and coalition support to the Iraqis is on the rise.

After almost two years, the now-constant air strikes - finally, the increased operations tempo I have been calling for - are taking a toll. Unless ISIS changes its strategy, it is only a matter of time before the resources available to the Iraqi government isolates and destroys it.

Hence, ISIS's renewed relentless bombing campaign. The number of attacks and the breadth of the areas being struck reminds us that the organization is still capable of inflicting large numbers of casualties, especially against relatively undefended targets. The targets ISIS has selected for this campaign certainly meet that description - markets, sporting event venues and any areas where large numbers of people gather.

ISIS has several goals in this bombing campaign. The ultimate goal, of course, it to create so much mayhem and resulting public outcry against the government of Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi that the Iraqis reassess their military operations aimed at retaking Mosul. Taking a page from the basic guerrilla handbook, they are attempting to create "significant emotional events" - events that so traumatize the body politic that the people will demand the government change its tactics.

It has a small change of success, depending on how effective the bombing campaign becomes. The Iraqi people - more accurately, the Shi'a population of Baghdad and its environs who are the focus of the bombings - are already criticizing the government's seeming impotence to stop the attacks, and demanding increased security measures to protect them.

The government is vulnerable to this tactic, and ISIS is smart to exploit this vulnerability, The Iraqi government has finite resources in the security forces. These forces are spread thin trying to fight ISIS in the Euphrates valley and moving up the Tigris valley while at the same time providing security in the capital. The Shi'a population in and around Baghdad is more concerned with its own security than the eventual liberation of the Sunni areas around Mosul.

ISIS has forced the Iraqi government into a situation in which it has two choices: continue the military operations against ISIS and risk alienating the Shi'a population - its political power base in Baghdad, or pull forces back from the various combat fronts to provide better security in the capital, which in essence cedes territory to the terrorist group. Unfortunately, the Iraqis cannot do both.

May 4, 2016

OPINION - Obama press secretary Josh Earnest insults American killed in combat

This is a personal opinion piece.

I was offended and insulted by statements made by President Obama's press secretary Josh Earnest concerning the death of U.S. Navy SEAL Charles Keating IV. Petty Officer Keating died in combat in Iraq on May 3 - he was one of a group of SEALs assisting Kurdish peshmerga troops in their defense of an Assyrian Christian town north of Mosul against an assault by more than a hundred fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The SEALs were in the area as part of their mission to "advise and assist" Iraqi security forces in their fight against ISIS. According to the Obama Administration, the deployment of members of the U.S. armed forces to "advise and assist" does not constitute a combat mission, despite the fact that the units being provided advice and assistance are engaged in combat operations, and much of that assistance comes in the form of direct control of U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy airstrikes.

The Administration can spin that as it likes, but anyone with a modicum of common sense realizes that this is nothing more than political drivel to fit a narrative that American troops are not involved in combat operations. It fails the common sense test.

You can listen to Earnest's pitiful attempts to parse the difference between "combat" and "combat mission" in this video clip. I wonder if he actually believes his own words - then again, how would he know the difference? He, nor virtually anyone else on the White House staff, has ever worn a uniform.

"What I am trying to do though is to be as precise as possible with you and the American public about what exactly our Commander in Chief has asked our service members to do. Secretary Carter earlier today described this death as a combat death – that’s accurate. This is an individual who was not in a combat mission but he was in a dangerous place…and his position came under attack. He was armed, trained and prepared to defend himself. Unfortunately, he was killed…and he was killed in combat, but that was not part of his mission. His mission was specifically to offer advice and assistance to those Iraqi forces fighting for their own country."

Mr. Earnest, I realize your job is to spin reality into a form that fits a narrative dictated by your political masters at the White House, but the more you speak the less believable the words are. I suppose you have a tight definition that somehow explains that our pilots - of all services - flying over Iraq and Syria, many of them dropping ordnance on ISIS personnel and positions - are not "in a combat mission." How do you spin delivering ordnance as an "advise and assist" mission.

Additionally, on the day the Petty Officer Keating was killed, you began the daily press briefing with a detailed litany of the President's scheduled visit to Flint, Michigan, adding your remarks on the the death of an American sailor killed in action in Iraq only when specifically asked by members of the press. Your canned remarks appeared to be an afterthought. One has to wonder if you would have mentioned it at all had you not been prodded by a reporter.

“I can tell you the president has been briefed on this incident, and everyone here at the White House, including the First Family, extends our condolences to the family of the service member that was killed today in northern Iraq. This individual was the third U.S. service member killed in action since the beginning of Operation Inherent Resolve, and this service member’s death reminds us of the risks our brave men and women in uniform face every single day."

Rings hollow, doesn't it?

ADDENDUM: In memoriam.

May 3, 2016

Iraq - Muqtada al-Sadr flexes his political muscles

Al-Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr
Caption on right: Yes, yes to Iraq / Lower caption: Love of country comes from faith

In a demonstration of his political power, radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr engineered a huge demonstration on Saturday, April 30 inside Baghdad's heavily fortified and defended "Green Zone" (officially the International Zone).

Thousands of al-Sadr's followers moved blast walls and fences, pushed their way into the zone and entered several of the government buildings that constitute the seat of power of the Iraqi government. The zone is also the home of the huge American embassy as well as other foreign missions.

The ease by which the demonstrators entered the facility is telling. Iraqi security forces are perfectly capable of defending the zone and repelling the demonstrators, but there was little resistance from the guard force. Many of the demonstrators remarked that they were treated fairly by the soldiers and police as long as they did not pose a threat. Reportedly, the general in charge of security personally welcomed al-Sadr to the restricted area. Why was there no armed confrontation?

I suspect there was almost no violence because Muqtada al-Sadr and the demonstrators are demanding the same thing Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi has been advocating for months - the end of the rampant corruption and cronyism that permeates virtually every level of the Iraqi government.

The nonviolent demonstrations are a departure from al-Sadr's past. The cleric has a long history of violent confrontations with the Iraqi government, and his Iranian-trained and supplied jaysh al-mahdi (JAM, or Army of the Mahdi) was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American troops between 2004 and 2007. It was only the American "surge" of 2007-2008 that saw the demise of the JAM - al-Sadr assessed, correctly, that his thugs were no match for the newly-deployed U.S. Army combat battalions tasked with securing Baghdad. Al-Sadr fled to Iran.

The cleric remained in Iran for over three years, returning to Iraq in early 2011. Ostensibly, al-Sadr was in Qom to continue his Islamic studies and attain the title of ayatollah; he had been a hawjat al-islam prior. I suspect this claim was only for his followers, since he has not attained the title of either mujtahid (one authorized to issue fatwas, or religious rulings) or ayatollah. His return to the Shi'a holy city of al-Najaf, site of the martyrdom of the first Shi'a imam 'Ali (son in law and cousin of the prophet Muhammad), was greeted with almost uncontrollable revelry in the streets.

Why is this 42-year old such an influential figure in Iraqi politics?

Muqtada al-Sadr is a sayyid. Sayyid is the Arabic word for mister, or sir. However, in Shi'a Islam it denotes a person who is a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatimah and Imam 'Ali. Sayyids are entitled to wear the black turban.

The Shi'a believe that leadership of the faithful should have been restricted to the prophet's bloodline, and al-Sadr clearly qualifies. His family lineage is traceable back to the sixth iman, Ja'afar al-Sadiq, and the seventh imam, Musa al-Khadhim. The shrine of the seventh imam is located in the northwest section of Baghdad, appropriately named al-Khadhimiyah. While Westerners sometimes dismiss the cache of direct lineage to the prophet, Iraqis do not. Coincidentally, the annual remembrance ceremony for the seventh imam is this week.

Muqtada al-Sadr is arguably now the key power broker in Iraq. When he called his followers back from the demonstration in the Green Zone, he issued an ultimatum to Prime Minister al-'Abadi that the Iraqi leader has until Friday (May 6) to effect changes in the Iraqi cabinet, replacing corrupt politicians with qualified technocrats. If that deadline is not met, the demonstrations will resume. Al-Sadr has further threatened to bring down the al-'Abadi government and force early Parliamentary elections - elections he can greatly influence.

Al-'Abadi should take Muqtada al-Sadr seriously. The firebrand cleric has proven that he can mobilize thousands of disciplined demonstrators and create problems for the Iraqi government - at a time when the government needs to devote its time and energy to the ongoing fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Of note, Muqtada al-Sadr flew to Iran this morning - is he there to get his marching orders? I guess we will find out when al-'Abadi does not meet the Friday deadline.

April 30, 2016

Syria: The impending fall of Aleppo

The city of Aleppo will fall in the near future - the anti-regime rebels in the remaining contested areas of the city will not be able to hold out much longer.

The graphic (left) epitomizes the pessimism that pervades the rebel-controlled areas of the city.

It is titled "Aleppo is burning - under the auspices of international organizations." It is a direct criticism that the United Nations is doing nothing to stop the relentless air strikes being conducted by both the Syrian and Russian air forces.

The targets, according to the graphic, are civil defense (fire and rescue) services, hospitals, schools, markets and bakeries. The complaints are accurate - over the last two weeks, Syrian and Russian fighter-bombers have conducted a coordinated campaign against these target sets across northern Syria, particularly in Aleppo and Idlib governorates, areas in which the bulk of the anti-regime rebels are located.

The increased air attacks are being conducted in conjunction with increased pro-regime ground forces operations in these same areas - the troops are Syrian armed forces supported by units of both the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and now the regular Iranian Army, as well fighters from Lebanese Hizballah. Russian advisers are also on the ground with these forces, coordinating air attacks and artillery fires to great effect.

The timing of the renewed focus on Aleppo is somewhat surprising. Rather than press the attack on retreating forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) following the regime victory in the strategic city of Palmyra, most of the regime forces were re-tasked for an assault on Aleppo. Militarily, it does make sense - the regime needs to secure the Aleppo area and close off the ISIS resupply lines from Turkey that lie to the northeast of Aleppo.

The situation in Aleppo has changed dramatically since September 2015 - it was then that Russian forces entered the fight, while at the same time increased numbers of IRGC and Hizballah units were deployed to Syria. It was the liberal (some would say indiscriminate) application of Russian airpower to support the revitalized Syrian government operations on the ground, allowing the regime to virtually erase all of the recent gains of the anti-regime rebels.

Prior to the Russian intervention, Syrian forces were on the defensive, retreating south from Aleppo and much of Idlib governorate. Soon after Russian aircraft began providing direct air support, the rebels were pushed back into enclaves in and north of the city of Aleppo. It is those enclaves that are now under renewed - and increased - air attacks. The recent attack on the Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in the Sukkari district of Aleppo is symptomatic of the stepped-up air campaign.

The cessation of hostilities, by all accounts, has collapsed. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are trying to revive the ceasefire, but it is doubtful that it will be any more effective than the previous failed agreement. In any case, the renewed ceasefire will exclude Aleppo - that is basically giving Bashar al-Asad the green light to press the attack and take the city.

It really does not matter if a new cessation of hostilities is enacted. Many observers, including me, believe any ceasefire is merely a ruse on the part of the Syrians (and Russians) to continue military operations, taking advantage of a loophole in the agreement that permits attacks on "terrorist" groups - specifically, but not limited to the al-Qa'idah affiliate in Syria known as Jabhat al-Nusrah (The Victory Front) and ISIS. The Syrian regime labels anyone in the opposition as terrorists, making them valid targets.

A look at the map above clearly shows the dire situation facing the opposition fighters in Aleppo. The regime has been able to pressure them from the west, south and east. It is obvious what the regime and its allies are attempting to do - continue the push on these same three axes and cut off the enclave, then pivot to the north and retake the entire city.

The fall of Aleppo will cripple much of the rebel activity in the northern part of Syria - it will also have significant psychological impact on both sides. The retaking of Aleppo will be a major morale booster for the regime, and a major blow to the opposition. It will be a hard fight - both sides realize the importance of controlling Syria's largest city.

With the regime in control of the capital of Damascus and Aleppo, the perception will grow that the forces supporting Bashar al-Asad are on the path to defeating the opposition. It is analogous to controlling both Washington, DC and New York City.

I see no good options for the opposition in Aleppo - their military situation is untenable. With the Russian Air Force bringing effective airpower to the fight, and the Syrian Army refocusing its efforts on the rebels in Aleppo rather than on ISIS to the north of Palmyra, it is too much force for the opposition to withstand.

The coming battle might not be a rout, but it is only a matter of time until an army with the resources of a state, willing allies on the ground (Iran and Hizballah) and a committed air force (the Russians) capable of massing a large number of sorties in a concentrated area, wear down any resistance.

What does this impending defeat mean for U.S. interests? Cynically, it clears the way for all parties to concentrate their efforts against ISIS. Thus far, the U.S. coalition has limited its operations to attacks on ISIS and occasionally al-Qa'idah elements in the country.

Ironically, coalition operations have indirectly assisted the Syrian regime by relieving pressure on the government from ISIS, allowing the Syrians and their allies to focus their efforts on the rebels. The bulk of American support in Syria has been to anti-ISIS groups, not anti-regime groups. While there has been some support to anti-regime groups, it has been too little to make a difference.

It does not appear that the U.S.-led coalition is willing to provide protection or support for the rebels in Aleppo. They are on their own, facing the Syrian Army and Air Force, the Russian Air Force, Iranian IRGC and Army troops and Hizballah fighters.

How long will it take? Hard to say exactly, but time is running out.

April 25, 2016

President Obama orders 250 more American troops to Syria - what's the plan?

President Obama has ordered the phased deployment of an additional 250 U.S. troops to Syria to intensify the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It is expected that most of these troops will be special forces, primarily U.S. Army Special Forces and U.S. Air Force Combat Controllers.

The Army soldiers will be used to advise and assist the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in their fight against ISIS with training, intelligence, logistics, medical help, etc. This is a core mission of the Green Berets - forming coherent fighting units among the local population. Rather than having to introduce large numbers of American troops into an area, the concept is that the locals will do the bulk of the fighting, with American guidance and assistance.

The Air Force combat controllers will serve as what used to be called forward air controllers, now called tactical air control parties (TACP). This puts American eyes on the ground in direct contact with coalition aircraft - primarily U.S. Air Force fighter and bomber aircraft - flying overhead.

These "battlefield airmen" have the capability to designate targets on the ground via laser or GPS coordinates, and to feed targeting data directly into the guidance systems on weapons carried on board the aircraft. It is a proven tactic we have perfected over the years, devastating and accurate - no one does this better than us.

The recent deployment of the venerable B-52 to the Middle East - flying sorties from an air base in Qatar - fits into this operation. The B-52 has been transformed from a wide area saturation bomber (sometime inaccurately described as "carpet bombing") to a precision guided munitions carrier, capable of releasing one GPS-guided weapon at a time from its huge bomb bay. (See my article on this, B-52 deployment to the Middle East - let's drop the term "carpet bombing")

Let's address the "elephant in the room." The President's order expands the U.S. military presence on the ground in Syria - continued deployment of advisers reminds those of us who served in Vietnam how we got there. The words used in the description of the additional troops - "non-combat troops" deployed in phases - are troubling.

First, to label these troops headed for Syria as non-combat is not only ludicrous, but insults the courage and commitment of the men being sent into harm's way. They will be on the ground fighting arguably the most ruthless enemy we have faced in half a century.

As for phasing troops incrementally into the fight, that too smacks of Vietnam. Last month, after a U.S. Marine was killed in Iraq, I wrote:

So, we have the incremental expansion of the size and scope of our military presence in Iraq. I fear we are sliding down a slippery slope with no clear mission or plan. If ISIS is indeed a threat to American national security, then let's address it. Stop the half-hearted measures and make the tough decisions. Forget the "boots on the ground" myth - that die is cast, that lie is past.

Make up your mind, Mr. President - are we in this fight or not? If we are, go big. If we are not, go home.
Read the entire article, More U.S. ground troops to Iraq - further down that slippery slope?

There is a plan, but I am not sure our political leadership is fully committed to its implementation. Over the last few years - since ISIS demonstrated that it is a threat rather than an aberration - the Obama Administration has gradually realized that the threat must be addressed.

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are wont to decree that "there is no military solution" to the situation in Iraq and Syria, yet they keep sending more troops into the region. While the ultimate solution to the problems may not be strictly military, it will be military action that leads the parties to that illusive political solution. Diplomacy only works when there is military force backing it up.

The new leadership at the Department of Defense - Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Marine Corps General Joe Dunsford - seem to have gotten the ear of the President.

The plan must be - it's just common military sense - to isolate the two cities that represent the centers of gravity for ISIS: al-Raqqah in Syria and Mosul in Iraq. Separate them and take them down, either simultaneously or sequentially. It is apparent that the current thrust of U.S.-led coalition operations is to cut the lines of communication between Mosul and al-Raqqah. The recapture of Sinjar, Iraq and the capture of al-Shadadi in Syria are part of that strategy.

The major problem remains - there is little to no coordination between efforts in Iraq and Syria. The situations are very different and very complicated. Iraq almost makes sense; Syria defies rationality.

The President's decision to deploy another 250 troops to Syria is a good thing, and hopefully enough to start taking back ground from ISIS. That said, it will be a long difficult fight. ISIS will not easily surrender the ground they have taken in either Syria or Iraq - there will be no diplomatic solution to the situation on the ground. As in most of these situations, the ground will be retaken by force of arms.

I hope that realization has taken hold at the White House and the National Security Council. If ISIS to be defeated - I believe the President's words were "degrade and ultimately defeat" - it will require force of arms beyond what has been committed thus far. I have no problem committing the force required to defeat ISIS - we have the requisite military power; all we lack is the political will to do so.

Again, Mr. President - are we here to win, to defeat ISIS? If so, call Ash Carter and order him to get it done. You will say it's not that simple, that I don't understand. Actually, it is that simple, and I do understand.

Go big, or go home.

April 22, 2016

The "Kerry Collapse" continues - U.S. to buy Iranian illicit heavy water

You can't make this up.

In the photo, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif is smiling - he should be. He continues to outplay his American counterpart, Secretary of State John Kerry, who appears next to him with the "I'm not sure what just happened" look on his face. Add Mr. Zarif to the list of people who have outplayed Mr. Kerry.*

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, the United States will purchase 32 tons of "heavy water" (deuterium oxide) from the Islamic Republic of Iran. For those of us who are not nuclear physicists, heavy water is used to produce weapons-grade plutonium. This issue is important because one of the provisions of the Iranian nuclear deal (officially the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA) prohibits Iran from maintaining a stockpile of more than 130 tons of heavy water at any one time.

The JCPOA states that Iran, in cooperation with the six nations who are signatories to the agreement (China, France, Germany, Russia, United Kingdom and United States), will rebuild the Arak heavy water research reactor to support peaceful nuclear research and production needs, but in a manner that minimizes the production of plutonium.

All excess heavy water beyond Iran's needs for the redesigned reactor will be made available for export to the international market, and Iran will not build any additional heavy-water reactors or accumulate heavy water for fifteen years.

The agreement also states that the signatories will "support and facilitate" construction at the Arak complex. I am not sure how that obligates the United States - are we supposed to pay for an build the Iranian nuclear program? The more we discover about this "deal" the worse it looks.

Interesting that since the agreement took effect in January 2016, the Iranians have continued to produce heavy water, bringing them out of compliance with the terms of the JCPOA. In February, they exported enough to bring them back into compliance. So, imagine my surprise when I read that the Iranians still continue to produce heavy water and are now out of compliance again, this time by 32 tons of the material.

To assist the Iranians in getting back into compliance with an international agreement they signed, the Obama Administration will purchase the 32 ton overage from the Iranians. Since when is it the responsibility of the United States to assist the Iranians in meeting their international obligations?

Here is a great quote from David Albright, head of the Institute for Science and International Security: "We shouldn’t be paying them [the Iranians] for something they shouldn't be producing in the first place."

Are President Obama and Secretary Kerry so intent on salvaging what appears to be a bad deal just for the sake of having a deal? If the Iranians cannot adhere to this simple provision, what other provisions are they violating that the ineffectual monitoring protocols have not detected?

It appears to me that the Obama Administration, led by the easily-duped John Kerry, is determined to side with Iran as they violate several parts of the nuclear agreement, either in letter or spirit. Kerry collapsed on virtually every key point in his negotiations (I hate to even call his actions by that word) with his Iranian counterpart. Now Kerry seems to be facilitating every continuing Iranian maneuver to go beyond the provisions of the agreement.

Two other issues in which John Kerry has taken the side of the ayatollahs:

- Kerry refuses to acknowledge that the changing of the wording of the UN resolution on Iranian ballistic missile development from "shall not" to "is called upon not to" has any difference. The Iranians - and their Russian supporters - sure believe there is a difference, and are exploiting it. There has been a series of Iranian missile launches, which I read as permissible now, thanks to a "Kerry collapse." (See my article, Iran's ballistic missile program - more fallout from the "Kerry Collapse")

- Kerry (with Treasury Secretary Jack Lew) is working with the Iranians to allow them access to the U.S. financial system, something the Administration made a commitment not to do. The Iranians are demanding this, and Kerry is on the verge of yet another collapse.

Now with Mr. Kerry working to help the Iranians come into compliance with the nuclear deal which they area actively circumventing, one might ask Kerry, "Are you our Secretary of State, or Iran's?"

* See Syria: Cessation of hostilities - was John Kerry outplayed?