March 4, 2015

The battle for Tikrit - a harbinger of things to come?

Iraqi artillery shelling ISIS positions

Recent news reports claim that "Iraqi forces" have entered portions of the city and environs of Tikrit and are in the process of clearing the city - the Iraqis say they will be in full control in a few days. Tikrit has been occupied by the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) since the organization's fighter swept out of Syria, seized Mosul and began a march down the Tigris River valley on the way to Baghdad.

Tikrit is well-known as the home city of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Husayn - a mostly Sunni city about 80 miles north of Baghdad. It is also the location of a major air base and military training center, as well as many of the few oilfields in the Sunni area of Iraq. Retaking the city with a population of about 275,000 people is an important test of the reconstituted Iraqi army and security forces.

This will be the third major attempt (some analysts claim that this might actually be the sixth) to recapture the city from ISIS since its fall in 2014 - the earlier attempts were dismal failures as the Iraqi army was just not up to the task. To be fair, they were thrown into the fray much too soon after the army's collapse in Mosul. ISIS fighters were much more committed and fought the attackers to a standstill each time.

I believe the current military operation - named "Here I am, Messenger of God" - to retake Tikrit is a precursor, a rehearsal of sorts, for the impending and absolutely necessary campaign to eject ISIS forces from Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. Not only is Mosul a huge city of two million people, it is a major economic and psychological symbol for both ISIS and the Iraqi government. Reasserting Iraqi governmental control over Mosul is essential to a national recovery from the specter of the impotence of the government in Baghdad and the abject failure of the Iraqi armed forces.

The current assault on Tikrit may be different than previous attempts, and have a better chance of success. The primary reason is not comforting, but it cannot be ignored - it is the deep involvement of the Iranians on a variety of levels.

The "Iraqi forces" that are engaged in the assault on Tikrit are in reality a mix of Iraqi army forces, Iraqi Shi'a militias sponsored by Iran, supported by a small number of members of the capable Qods Force, the special operations arm of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The commander of the Qods Force, Major General Qasim Soleimani, is himself on the scene and providing "support" - according to the Iraqi media.

General Soleimani has years of experience fighting in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. It is commonly accepted that he is actually giving the orders, albeit via an Iraqi commander, as he has in previous battles in Iraq against ISIS involving the Qods Force and Iraqi Shi'a militias. One indication that the Iranians are involved in this planning and execution of this battle is the unique tactic of using armored bulldozers to build berms to protect advancing forces every evening - classic Iranian military doctrine.

According to U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, fully two-thirds of the force seeking to retake Tikrit are Iranian-based Shi'ite militia fighters, outnumbering by twice the number of Iraqi army troops. They are supported by airpower - not from the U.S.-led coalition, but what the Iraqi media calls "Iraqi jets." While this is technically correct, it is misleading.

In July of 2014, Iran gave the Iraqi Air Force seven Sukhoi Su-25 (NATO: FROGFOOT) ground attack fighter aircraft. Despite the claim that they were delivered from Russia (complete with the theatrics of an aerial delivery of some antiquated unserviceable aircraft), that fiction was quickly and easily disproved. The flag on the tail may now be Iraqi, but the aircraft - and pilots - are Iranian. (See my earlier article, Is Iran delivering fighter aircraft to the Iraqi Air Force?)

The Iraqis have marshaled an estimated 30,000 troops to retake Tikrit. The number of ISIS fighters defending Tikrit is estimated to be about 13,000 - although accurate numbers are difficult to obtain. While that sounds like a lot of troops to attack the city, conventional wisdom is that, all things being equal, the attacking force should be three times the number of the defenders. That can be mitigated with force multipliers, such as airpower, artillery, intelligence and surveillance capabilities, etc. It remains to be seen if the operation to retake Tikrit will be successful. If it is, it will give the Iraqi army a much-need boost in confidence.

We cannot overlook the increasing level of Iranian influence in Iraqi affairs, as we see in this major military operation. I must admit to being surprised at General Dempsey's reaction, saying, "If it is a path that ties [Iraq and Iran] more closely together economically or even politically, as long as the Iraqi government remains committed to inclusivity of all the various groups inside the country, then I think Iranian influence will be positive." Perhaps this conciliatory message - uncharacteristic of the general - is part of the Administration's attempt to move forward on a the Iranian nuclear deal. I hope not.

If this operation is successful, it may become the blueprint for the expected attempt to retake Mosul later this year. That will be a much larger, complicated operation. It is doubtful that the Iraqis - even with Iranian assistance - will be able to do this without American/coalition force multipliers. They would be foolish to try, despite the bravado of some of the Shi'a militia commanders who claim they neither want nor need American assistance.

ISIS is a formidable foe, and they have had over eight months to construct their defenses in Tikrit and Mosul. It the Iraqi forces cannot retake Tikrit, if they fail again this time, the outlook for a successful attack on Mosul anytime soon is grim.

February 28, 2015

Arab children "playing ISIS" - the sickness spreads

This YouTube video is taken from a live broadcast on Egyptian satellite television network Capital Broadcast Center. The title of the video is "Arab Muslim Children Playing the ISIS Game." The station is using the Arabic acronym for ISIS, da'ish - al-dawlah al-islamiyah fi al-'iraq wal-sham.

In the video, a young boy, speaking standard Arabic with an Egyptian accent, passes sentence on the two "accused." Once he declares "our decision" the other children pretend to behead their "accused" playmates.

This type of sickness is not limited to Egypt.

This photograph is a Facebook post of Syrian children. My translation of this post:

"What are you doing?"

"We are playing, sir, the 'martyr game'."

The brutality of ISIS has permeated even the games that Arab children play. They have been exposed to some of the most depraved behavior in recent history. They have become desensitized and have accepted it as the new normal. We will be dealing with the repercussions of this in the Arab world for generations.

This has to stop.

February 27, 2015

The Iran deal - it doesn't get any worse than this....

Secretary of State John Kerry with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif

The proposed nuclear agreement with Iran, most of which the Obama Administration is keeping secret, seems to be giving Iran virtually everything it has wanted for the last decade. To many observers, it appears that the United States (as well as its negotiating partners) have abandoned any hope of containing Iran's quest to acquire a nuclear weapons capability.

Nuclear weapons are an integral part of Iran's plan to have a long-range ballistic missile force carrying nuclear warheads. The mullahs mean to make the Islamic Republic the pre-eminent military, political and economic power in the region. With this agreement, they are much closer to that goal.

Iran has won - and make no mistake, they have won by a huge margin. They did this simply by refusing to comply with a series of United Nations Security Council resolutions and agreeing only to a never-ending series of talks. In the end, the nations that make up the P5+1* acquiesced not only by granting Iran the right to enrich uranium, but also by granting immediate relief from the crippling sanctions which took years to impact the Iranian economy (although it was the sharp decline in the price of oil that has really crippled it).

It gets worse. After a specified time period (the length of which has not yet been determined), all restrictions on Iran's nuclear program will be lifted. Hasn't the Obama Administration learned its lesson about specific dates in the future? I am referring to this Administration's declarations advising al-Qa'idah and the Taliban exactly when American forces would be withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan.

I am not sure who is at fault here - President Obama or the clueless John Kerry. I suspect it is a combination of both. The President wants to reach an agreement with Iran at almost any cost - he desperately needs a foreign policy success. Secretary of State Kerry does not seem to realize just how much damage he is doing to any effort to restrain the Iranians in their plans to acquire nuclear weapons.

Before the emails start about calling Kerry "clueless," remember it was Kerry who told us that we are much safer today, a direct contradiction of testimony only one day later by the Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper. I have known General Clapper for over 40 years, several of which I worked for him - I'll take his word over Secretary Kerry's. Okay, we'll settle for Kerry being "out of touch." The Secretary has also failed to mention documents seized in the bin Ladin raid that indicate a cooperative relationship between Iran and al-Qa'idah.

Why are we so anxious to reach such a lopsided agreement with a government that is clearly acting in a manner inimical to American interests in the region and worldwide? This is a government that sponsors terrorism; funds, trains and arms Hizballah and Hamas; provides special operations forces (the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force) to fight alongside the Bashar al-Asad regime in Syria; funds, trains and controls Shi'a militias in Iraq; and incites anti-government uprisings in Yemen, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Now we find documents tying them to al-Qa'idah.

Perhaps, as I said three months ago, we should just call it quits and walk away from the talks. Tell the Iranians they are not going to have a nuclear weapon, and that the sanctions are going to get tougher until Iran abides by its international agreements. See that article, Iranian nuclear talks - maybe time to walk away?

This proposed agreement is not good for the United States. We don't need to cave in to the Iranians so that Barack Obama can claim, finally, a foreign policy success. It is anything but that.
* The P5+1 are the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council - Russia, China, United Kingdom, France and the United States - plus Germany.

February 11, 2015

Bob Simon, CBS and me...

Here is my story with Bob Simon (Chapter 11 of my book). 

I like to think that I had a part in keeping him alive.

 A loss for us all. 

If you cannot read these scans, go to

President Obama's draft Authorization for Use of Military Force - my comments

Today, President Barack Obama sent a draft Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) resolution to the Congress, accompanied by a letter explaining why he wants such a resolution. You can read the complete text of the letter and the text of the draft on the White House website.

The letter and draft AUMF provide some insights into the President's view of the current situation facing the United States and his plans to address the threat posed by the group calling itself the Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The government refers to them as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL - they are the same entity.

I am concerned with the language in both the letter and the draft AUMF. I believe the President needs an AUMF to legally and properly prosecute military operations against ISIS, but I am concerned that the President is more concerned with placing arbitrary limits on his ability to adequately defeat the threat posed by the Islamist group.

Let's take a look some text in the letter.


I have directed a comprehensive and sustained strategy to degrade and defeat ISIL. As part of this strategy, U.S. military forces are conducting a systematic campaign of airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq and Syria. Although existing statutes provide me with the authority I need to take these actions, I have repeatedly expressed my commitment to working with the Congress to pass a bipartisan authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) against ISIL.
End quote

Comment: As a military analyst, I remain convinced and concerned that there is no "comprehensive and sustained strategy to degrade and defeat ISIL." The U.S.-led coalition air campaign is, to be kind, anemic at best and "just going through the motions" at worst.

It is obvious to any cogent observer that the current American/coalition strategy is not working. Despite some moderate slowdown of ISIS's operations in Iraq and Syria (including the outright defeat of ISIS at Kobani), the group continues to mount offensive operations and attract record numbers of recruits, estimated to be over 20,000 in the last few months, the same months when the group carried out its most brutal and heinous acts. Even with complete U.S.-led coalition control of the air, ISIS has rebuffed most of the Iraqi army and security force attacks, and has even moved on the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

While I disagree with the President's assertion that he has the authority to continue military operations, I applaud his inclusion of Congress in this effort. Congress declares war - an AUMF is about as close as we get this days - and the Executive branch prosecutes it. Let's get Congress on record as to who supports addressing this real threat and who chooses to shirk their constitutional responsibilities.

My Administration's draft AUMF would not authorize long‑term, large-scale ground combat operations like those our Nation conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan. Local forces, rather than U.S. military forces, should be deployed to conduct such operations. The authorization I propose would provide the flexibility to conduct ground combat operations in other, more limited circumstances, such as rescue operations involving U.S. or coalition personnel or the use of special operations forces to take military action against ISIL leadership. It would also authorize the use of U.S. forces in situations where ground combat operations are not expected or intended, such as intelligence collection and sharing, missions to enable kinetic strikes, or the provision of operational planning and other forms of advice and assistance to partner forces.
End quote

Comment: Always with the swipe at the Bush Administration - grow up. This whole paragraph is a litany of things the inner circle at the Obama White House wants the Congress to proscribe so they have cover when they do not take appropriate, required military actions that do not adhere to their political narrative. This language tries again to commit American forces to combat operations and not call them combat operations.

This is ludicrous. If the Congress authorizes the use of military force, it authorizes the President to use the force the Commander in Chief (hopefully listening to his his senior military advisers, not his political insiders) deems necessary. It is foolish to limit what operations the President can order - the military needs the flexibility to act and react to changing situations, exploit opportunities and be effective without adhering to politically defined arbitrary restrictions.

If the President honestly believes that "local forces" are going to be effective in Iraq and Syria, I would beg to differ. While there is a chance that Iraqi forces (and I include the Iraqi Kurds in that mix) supported by U.S.-led coalition airpower, increased training and special forces operations, might be able to turn back ISIS in Iraq, Syria is a different matter.

The "moderate" Free Syrian Army is not capable of defeating either ISIS or the Syrian armed forces. Regional powers (read: Saudi Arabia and Turkey) are not going to introduce ground forces without American boots on the ground - it is delusional to think otherwise.

If ISIS is in fact the "grave threat" the President claims (his words), at some point, we are going to have to address it ourselves. Mr President, you cannot outsource the security of the United States.

Now some comments on the draft AUMF resolution itself.

Whereas President Obama has made clear that in this campaign it is more effective to use our unique capabilities in support of partners on the ground instead of large-scale deployments of U.S. ground forces ... The authority granted in subsection (a) does not authorize the use of the United States Armed Forces in enduring offensive ground combat operations.
End quote

Comment: Well, the President has made it clear that he wants it to be more effective to use unique American capabilities, but there is no evidence that I have seen that makes his wishes the truth. Again, if there is a significant threat to American interests, then the use of American troops to address that threat should always be an option. Likewise, the ambiguous term "enduring offensive ground combat operations" is meaningless.

If the Congress is going to in effect declare war, why ask for limitations on the Executive branch's authority or capability to wage said war? It almost appears that the President is looking for an excuse to not exercise his authority to the fullest and have a convenient scapegoat if and when the situation worsens.

This authorization for the use of military force shall terminate three years after the date of the enactment of this joint resolution, unless reauthorized.
End quote

Hasn't this Administration learned that telegraphing date certain deadlines is a bad idea? When it told the Iraqis that we were leaving in 2011, al-Qa'idah in Iraq merely waited until that date, reconstituted itself and later became what is now known as ISIS.

Am I saying that the announcement that the United States would fully withdraw all of its forces from Iraq by the end of 2011 - which it did - led to the creation of the ISIS, the creation of the crisis in which we find ourselves today? Yes, I am saying just that.

The AUMF as written is not what we need - hopefully the Congress will turn it into that document. If we are going to take the fight to ISIS, then give the President the means to take the fight to ISIS - no holds barred, and hold him accountable for that fight.

February 10, 2015

The UAE Air Force returns to the skies over Syria

UAE Air Force F-16 Desert Falcons

One of the key Arab allies in the U.S.-led coalition formed to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is the United Arab Emirates (UAE). UAE Air Force (UAEAF) F-16 "Desert Falcons" were among the first aircraft involved in the coalition airstrikes on Syria beginning in September 2014. The UAEAF flies one of the later versions of the venerable fourth-generation Lockheed Martin (originally General Dynamics) F-16.

On December 24, a Royal Jordanian Air Force (RJAF) F-16 crashed during an airstrike on a target in al-Raqqah, Syria, the self-proclaimed capital of ISIS's "Islamic State." The pilot was captured almost immediately, and was later brutally murdered. (See Downing of a Jordanian fighter aircraft and ISIS capture of the pilot, and The death of Lieutenant Mu'az al-Kasasbah - some thoughts.)

After the loss of the aircraft and the capture of the pilot, the Arab members of the coalition, including the UAE, ceased flight operations over Syria, leaving only the United States to conduct airstrikes in the country. UAE military officials complained that U.S. Air Force combat search and rescue (CSAR) forces were based in Kuwait, too far from the potential shootdown areas to be of use.

After the murder of the Jordanian pilot, Lieutenant Mu'az al-Kasasbah, the Jordanians reversed their moratorium on participation in coalition airstrikes and resumed operations against ISIS at an increased level. The U.S. Air Force repositioned its CSAR assets to a base in northern Iraq, and the UAE announced the deployment of a squadron of F-16 fighters to a Jordanian air base and the resumption of airstrikes in Syria. It was a welcome decision - both the RJAF and UAEAF are professional organizations.

Some background on the UAEAF.

I served as the acting Defense Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi, UAE in the early 1990s - a short detour on my way to my real position as the Air Attaché at the American Embassy in Damascus, Syria. While in Abu Dhabi, I had several meetings with the UAE Minister of Defense, Shaykh Muhammad bin Rashid Al Maktum ("call me Shaykh Mo"). He is now the Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, the constitutional monarch of Dubai, and still the Minister of Defense.

At the time when I was meeting with "Shaykh Mo," many defense contractors from a variety of nations - particularly the United States, United Kingdom and France - were trying to sell weapons to the Emirates. The weapons ran the gamut from fighter aircraft, main battle tanks, surface to air missiles, frigates, coastal defense systems, reconnaissance platforms - you name it, there was someone there trying to sell it to the Emirates armed forces. The recent successes of many of the systems in Operation Desert Storm was a key selling point.

In one of our meetings, the shaykh/minister mentioned that he was besieged with sales representatives and security assistance officers (that is military-speak for an officer who is theoretically advising on security needs, but is in reality an arms salesman for his country's defense contractors). I suggested he determine potential threats to the Emirates, formulate a defense strategy, then buy the weapons and systems that supported that strategy. At the time, he had hired a consultant to help him develop that strategy - I told him he didn't need a consultant.

The shaykh was intrigued by what I thought was a pretty simple analysis. He asked if I could come back and discuss this further - of course, I agreed. We met over dinner and began a rather informal assessment of the country's needs. I pointed at the map on the wall in his official dining room at the Ministry of Defense and asked who he needed to defend the UAE against. Of course, the obvious and really only threat was, and remains, Iran.

While the UAE may have minor issues with its Arab neighbors - Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Oman - the chances of actually going to war were pretty slim. However, there were major issues with the non-Arab Iranians across the Gulf - including sovereignty claims over a series of islands in the oil-rich areas of the southern Gulf.

I pointed out that given the geography of the UAE and the relations with its Arab neighbors, a ground war was unlikely or impractical. If there was to be a conflict with Iran, it would likely be an air and naval engagement. My recommendation was that the shaykh pursue the creation of a world-class air force and a credible navy, with less emphasis on his land forces.

When the contractors hawking tanks and armored personnel carriers heard of my advice, complaints were lodged with the ambassador and the Army colonel who headed the U.S. Security Assistance Office. The fact that I was right was of no consequence. It was "suggested" that I cease my security assistance advice to the shaykh and stick to being the Defense Attaché. I thought I was, but it seems I was interfering in potential multi-billion dollar contracts.

In any case, the shaykh either took my advice or figured it out for himself and embarked on the creation of one of the best air forces in the Arab world. The backbone of the service are 79 F-16E/F Block 60 fighters (three squadrons) with an additional 25 on order. The pilots are well-trained and routinely exercise with their American counterparts in both the United States and the UAE.

The UAEAF is a potent military force capable of delivering a wide range of precision-guided munitions in virtually all conditions, day or night. It is good to see them back in the skies of Syria taking the fight to ISIS.

February 7, 2015

The death of Lieutenant Mu'az al-Kasasbah - some thoughts

By now, virtually everyone with even a passing interest in the Middle East has at least heard of the brutal immolation of Royal Jordanian Air Force (RJAF) pilot 1st Lieutenant Mu'az al-Kasasbah at the hands of the self-described Islamic State (more commonly called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS). Al-Kasasbah's F-16 fighter jet crashed in Syria on December 24, 2014 - there are indications that he was murdered as early as January 3 of this year.

News commentators, political pundits and military analysts (including me) have offered our thoughts on the murder - why did they do it, what did it accomplish, was it a smart propaganda tool for ISIS, will it increase ISIS recruitment, did it violate the tenets of Islam, etc.

Here are a few initial thoughts and conclusions.

Let's address the gruesome murder of Lt al-Kasasbah. I watched the video (I believe it is part of my professional obligation) and cannot remember feeling this much revulsion at the death of another human, a fellow airman and officer - and I survived an improvised explosive device (IED) attack which resulted in a scene of sickening carnage.

By way of disclosure, I served as an adviser to the Jordan Armed Forces - my colleagues included several RJAF officers - I feel a sense of kinship with my Jordanian brothers in arms. I make a living analyzing events and either writing about them or talking about them on the air, but it is hard to find the words to describe the feelings this video generated.

The video - obviously almost professionally produced - placed Lt al-Kasasbah in scenes designed to replicate areas subjected to coalition airstrikes. In fact, the man who lit the accelerant which ignited the fire that killed the pilot was identified in the Arabic caption of the video as the leader of a unit who had been bombed by coalition aircraft.

The fact that ISIS chose to make this point is telling. There are many analysts in the media, academia and what I will call "militaria" (we retired officers who analyze wars and combat operations) have been critical of the U.S.-led air operation against ISIS which began in August 2014. Granted, it is hard to accurately assess the effects of the air campaign against ISIS, but overall the evaluation has not been favorable.

Based on U.S. Air Force standards, the campaign is, to be kind, anemic - the sortie counts are mere fractions of the amount we analysts believe is required to deal a decisive blow to ISIS. Although in Iraq the airstrikes may have blunted ISIS's momentum as it advanced down the Tigris River valley towards Baghdad and stopped the group's moves towards the Kurdish area, the terrorist organization still manages to hold territory and launch new attacks - the oil-rich city of Kirkuk is now in their sights.

That said, American and allied fighter and bomber aircraft have dealt a blow to ISIS. I would be remiss if I did not distinguish between coalition air operations over Iraq and those over Syria. While there are many nations who have committed aircraft to military operations over Iraq, very few have agreed to allow their pilots to operate over Syria.

Only the United States and a handful of Arab countries - Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar - agreed to attack targets in Syria. This arrangement may stem from the Iraqi government's unwillingness to have aircraft of countries who are supporting the removal of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad, a government supported by the Shi'a-dominated government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi, operate in its skies. When it comes to the United States, the Iraqis have no choice - they need American airpower.

After the capture of Lt al-Kasasbah, the Arab countries suspended operations, leaving only the United States to conduct airstrikes in Syria, including a large number of sorties aimed at stopping ISIS from overrunning the Syrian-Kurdish town of Kobani on the Turkish border. At least that part of the operation has met with some success - ISIS has been forced to withdraw after suffering heavy losses to American airpower.

One of the objections voiced by the Arab members of the coalition, particularly the United Arab Emirates (UAE), was the long distance of combat search and rescue (CSAR) forces from the target areas. Some analysts believe that had there been CSAR assets staged closer to Syria, there may have been a chance to rescue Lt al-Kasasbah. In reaction to this criticism, the U.S. has moved its CSAR forces into northern Iraq. At the same time, the UAE has deployed an F-16 squadron to a Jordanian air base to cut the flight time to targets in Syria from hours to minutes.

When I think about the brutal method used to murder Lt al-Kasasbah, I believe that ISIS is being battered by the coalition air campaign and is frustrated because there is very little they can do about it. Although it is hard to gauge the effectiveness of the air campaign, it seems to be hurting them.

Another factor of frustration is ISIS's realization too late - almost certainly after they killed the pilot in early January - that they missed an opportunity of having an extremely valuable hostage in their custody. They grossly underestimated the power and influence of the al-Kasasbah family and tribe in Jordan, and the lengths to which the Jordanian monarchy was prepared to go to secure his release.

While I do not think ISIS cared in the least about convicted suicide bomber Sijadah al-Rishawi or al-Qa'idah in Iraq member Ziyad Karbuli, it clearly missed an opportunity to extract concessions from the Jordanian government, publicly embarrass King 'Abdullah and drive a wedge between those in Jordan who did not believe ISIS posed a threat to the kingdom and those who supported the king's affiliation with the coalition.

ISIS miscalculated the regional and international response to the brutal murder of Lt Mu'az al-Kasasbah. It appears that all ISIS has done is galvanized the Jordanian people to support their king in his stepped up participation in airstrikes against ISIS in Syria and brought at least one of the other Arab allies, the UAE, back into the fray.

ISIS has responded by burning alive at least three Iraqis in the western Iraqi governorate of al-Anbar. I think they may have miscalculated again. People who were undecided on how to deal with these brutal psychopaths are beginning to realize that there is only one way to deal with them - hunt them down and kill them.

January 29, 2015

Jordan to exchange suicide bomber for its pilot - professional opinion and personal comment

Sajidah al-Rishawi and 1st Lt Mu'az al-Kasasbah

Jordan has agreed to release a convicted suicide bomber to the group calling itself the Islamic State or Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in exchange for the release of a Royal Jordanian Air Force (RJAF) pilot who was captured by ISIS in Syria after his jet went down during a bombing mission near the self-proclaimed ISIS capital of al-Raqqah. That exchange was supposed to take place on the Turkish-Syrian border before sunset on January 29.

That deadline passed as the Jordanians asked for proof that 1st Lt Mu'az al-Kasasbah is still alive. See my earlier article on the December 24, 2014 on the downing of the Jordanian F-16, Downing of a Jordanian fighter aircraft and ISIS capture of the pilot.

Jordan's agreement is a stark reversal of Jordan’s normally hardline refusal to negotiate with terrorists, and could set a precedent for future concessions to terrorist organizations. I understand the position of Jordanian King 'Abdullah II - the Kasabah family is large and influential in the kingdom. The Kasasbahs have been long-time supporters of the Hashemite dynasty that has ruled the country since its founding in the aftermath of World War One.

Before we cast stones at Jordan's seeming acquiescence to ISIS, we should remember that just last year, the United States made a deal with the Taliban in which it released five senior Taliban officials from the detention center in Guantanamo in exchange for U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who many believe deserted his post in Afghanistan. See my article on this from June, The Bowe Bergdahl exchange - a mixed blessing.

As I said, I understand King 'Abdullah's position - I can only imagine the pressure he is under from not only the Kasasbah family, but from popular demonstrations in the kingdom against Jordanian involvement in the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS.

While many in the kingdom - those demonstrating for sure - believe that this is not Jordan's fight, most rational thinkers understand that Jordan is probably next on the agenda for ISIS. ISIS fighters have already skirmished with Jordanian army units on the border with Iraq.

A major question is what will Jordan's role be in the coalition after this issue is resolved, one way or the other? If Jordan withdraws from active participation in the coalition - its stance since the loss of the F-16 and capture of Lt. al-Kasasbah - will they still allow coalition access to Jordanian air bases, a key to effective air operations against ISIS in Syria?

In my professional opinion, Jordan is making a mistake in changing its position in dealing with ISIS. That said, I understand why they are willing to do so, although they may regret it later. I was also against the U.S. (read President Obama) decision to release five senior Taliban leaders in exchange for a likely deserter.

Now to my personal comments. I realize that I am supposed to be a Middle East analyst, and a military analyst - I am paid for my professional opinions. However, I am going to diverge here for a few minutes and talk about my personal opinion - please bear with me.

In the mid-1990s, I was an adviser to the Jordan Armed Forces. While many of the details of that assignment remain classified, suffice it to say that I gained a healthy respect for my colleagues in the storied "Arab Legion" (the Jordanian Army) and the RJAF. They are professionals with whom I am proud to have served.

The suicide bomber the Jordanians have agreed to release is Sajidah al-Rishawi. She is originally an Iraqi and was recruited to become a suicide bomber by a Jordanian national who was the head of al-Qa'idah in Iraq (AQI), Abu Musa'ib al-Zarqawi. As we all know, AQI is the forerunner of ISIS. The couple was assigned to detonate explosive vests at the Raddison Hotel in Amman, Jordan. While attempting to do just that on November 9, 2005, her vest failed. Her accomplice/husband pushed her aside and detonated his vest - Sajidah survived.

The attack on the Radisson - where I have spent many nights - was part of a coordinated attack on three Amman hotels frequented by foreigners and wealthy Jordanians. The other attacks took place at the Grand Hyatt and the Days Inn.

It is the attack at the Grand Hyatt - where I have also stayed - that is germane. A suicide bomber named Rawad Jasim Muhammad 'Abid, operating in collaboration with Sajidah al-Rishawi and her husband, detonated his explosive vest, killed seven hotel employees and Syrian-American movie producer Moustapha Akkad (Mustafa al-'Aqad), along with his 34 year-old daughter, Rima.

Moustapha Akkad was born in Aleppo, Syria and emigrated to the United States with his family. He ended up as a Hollywood filmmaker, producing "The Message" and "Lion of the Desert," both starring Anthony Quinn and Irene Pappas. His younger brother Usamah - known to those of us who know him as Sam - ended up as an instructor of the Arabic language at the Defense Language Institute (DLI), located at the Presidio of Monterey, California. I was among Sam's many Arabic language students there and later got to know Sam much better when I served on the faculty of the Arabic department at DLI in the late 1970s.

In 2005, I called Sam and offered my condolences, but what really can you say? We have had numerous conversations since then on the current state of affairs in the region. Until today Sajidah al-Rishawi, one member of the conspiracy that ended with Sam's brother's death, was in custody and sentenced by a Jordanian military court to death by hanging and remained on death row.

I get the Jordanian government's decision to exchange her for their pilot. I almost understand (but still disagree with) the Obama Administration's agreement to release five senior Taliban officials for a likely deserter.

I get it, but I don't like it - it's personal.

January 27, 2015

Syrian regime recruits Sunni tribes - a page from the American playbook

Dayr al-Zawr

Dayr al-Zawr is a key city on the Euphrates River between the city of al-Raqqah - self-claimed capital of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, or "The Islamic State" as they prefer*) and the internationally-recognized border with Iraq. The city has been contested between the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad and Syrian rebel forces, most notably the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Control of parts of the city have vacillated between the two sides since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011. Much of the city's interesting and architecturally significant infrastructure has been destroyed, including several iconic bridges over the Euphrates River. Overall, the fighting has been a stalemate with neither side achieving full control of the area which sits at the heart of the critical Syrian oil industry - most of Syria's oil is located in the fields surrounding the city.

Dayr al-Zawr air base

Key facilities in Dayr al-Zawr are the air base (which doubles as the city's now-closed civil airport) and an adjacent air defense center. These two military facilities have been targets of the Syrian rebels for years. The base was on the verge of collapse late last year as ISIS joined the fight to take the base. See my article, The likely fall of Syria's Dayr al-Zawr air base - another slaughter on the horizon?

I suspect that given ISIS's brutal treatment of captured Syrian and Iraqi troops, the Syrian armed forces have put up a valiant defense of the base, pouring in reinforcements by air from garrisons further to the west. Control of the base is critical to the resupply and reinforcement effort. Should the situation worsen, an air evacuation may be the only way out for the Syrian soldiers defending the base.

In addition, the Syrian military seems to have taken a page from the American playbook of 2006-2007 in neighboring Iraq - the "Anbar Awakening." They approached the shaykhs of the local Sunni tribes in or near the areas controlled by ISIS and asked them if the Islamic state being created by ISIS is the form of government under which they wish to live. Of course, in these tribal areas in eastern Syria, the tribes are powerful and the shaykhs are not wont to lose that power to ISIS and live under what is arguably the most repressive form of Islam on the planet.

As it did in Iraq, the appeal resonates with the tribal leaders. As a result, some of the tribes have allied with the Syrian army and the locally formed National Defense Forces (NDF), which is a militia mostly composed of Ba'ath Party members. These militia are often referred to as shabihah** - "ghosts" or "phantoms" - by the rebels.

According to Syrian media, the combined forces of the Syrian armed forces, the NDF militias and the tribal units have been able to stop the ISIS advance on the base. Further reporting on January 27 claims that they have secured the entire perimeter of the base and pushed ISIS forces back at least one kilometer.

Failure to seize the air base has been a major setback for all of the opposition groups, be they the Free Syrian Army or ISIS. While on the map, it appears to be a flat area that should be easily overrun, in reality, the air base and adjacent air defense facility sit atop a plateau overlooking the city and the Euphrates River. The ridge is fairly steep - I remember standing in the city and being surprised at just how high and steep the approaches to the military bases were.

The stalemate continues in the east with neither side able to make lasting headway. Either ISIS or the FSA attack the military facilities, enjoy some temporary success, then are pushed back by reinforced Syrian troops. The bloodletting goes on unabated.
* In Arabic, it is الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام, or al-dawlat al-islamiyah fil-'iraq wal-sham. That translates to "the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (Syria or the Levant)." Much of the Arabic-language media uses an acronym comprising the first letters of the Arabic words - داعش, or da'ish, to describe the group, as have some official government spokespersons. The group punishes people for using the perceived derogatory term.

** In the trivia department, it is derived from the same root word used to describe American stealth aircraft.

January 24, 2015

Naming of new Saudi deputy crown prince - future crisis averted?

محمد بن نايف بن عبد العزيز آل سعود‎
Muhammad bin Nayif bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud
Deputy Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

In what can be described as uncharted seas for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the new king, King Salman bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud has named a deputy crown prince from the second generation - a grandson of the founder of the kingdom, King 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud. (This should be read in conjunction with an article I wrote earlier this month: Saudi King 'Abdullah's illness highlights looming succession issue.)

Saudi royal watchers are all waiting to see if and how the new line of succession will proceed - peacefully or will there be a power struggle among the other grandsons of 'Abd al-'Aziz? No one knows, of course, but there are enough issues to wonder if there will be acceptance of King Salman's appointment of a son of his full brother Nayif to be second in line for the throne.

Both Salman and Nayif are two of the seven sons of King 'Abd al-'Aziz and his eighth wife Hassa bint Ahmad al-Sudayri. These seven brothers - known as "the Sudayri Seven"* - have been key power brokers in the kingdom for decades. The new deputy crown prince's father was himself the crown prince for a short period of time until his death in 2012, at which time Salman assumed that position.

In addition to formally appointing his half-brother Muqrin as crown prince and naming his nephew Muhammad bin Nayif as the new deputy crown prince, King Salman appears to be reasserting the power of the Sudayri Seven - he immediately named his son Muhammad bin Salman Al Sa'ud as the minister of defense and aviation, as well as head of the royal court.

Although the new crown prince is the ex officio head of the powerful Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG), King Salman has ensured that a direct descendant of a full Sudayri brother controls the Saudi armed forces and the powerful Ministry of the Interior (MOI). The MOI is responsible for internal security in the kingdom - Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayif will retain that portfolio.

The new deputy crown prince has the qualifications to lead the kingdom when his time comes. Besides being part of the Sudayri clan, he was educated in American universities and trained by both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Britain's Scotland Yard. As Minister of the Interior, he has a reputation for close cooperation with U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

His qualifications are not the issue - it will be the acceptance of his selection by the rest of the Al Sa'ud, the House of Sa'ud. The current crown prince, Muqrin bin 'Abd al-'Aziz, will likely have no resistance from the family since he is a rightful heir in the first generation after 'Abd al-'Aziz.

The Allegiance Council set up by King 'Abdullah in 2006 to address the succession issue once there are no more sons of 'Abd al-'Aziz, has no doubt come up with an as yet undisclosed plan to ensure the survival of the House of Sa'ud. That said, there are hundreds of princes in that second generation who probably feel that they have as much right as anyone else to the throne.

The question is - will any of those princes attempt to rectify a perceived slight by interfering with the peaceful transition of power to the second generation?
* See