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?

April 21, 2016

Truce in Syria collapses as pro-regime forces move on Aleppo

It was a noble effort to staunch the bloodshed in Syria - by some estimates the war has claimed over 450,000 lives - but the truce was doomed from the start. The terms of the "cessation of hostilities," as it was officially titled, were too vague, too open to interpretation, and did not apply to several of the major combatant groups. Ceasefires only work when all parties agree to stop fighting - clearly not the case here.

The agreement, brokered by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, specifically excluded the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the al-Qa'idah affliliated Jabhat al-Nusrah ("the Victory Front"), and "other terrorist groups" designated by the United Nations. That list of other terrorist groups was never clarified - hence the problem.

That last clause was a major factor in the failure of the truce. In several CNN interviews, I identified it as a huge loophole that the Russians and Syrians were prepared to exploit - and exploit it they did.

The term "terrorists" has always been used by the government of President Bashar al-Asad to describe any armed group that opposes it - the Russians adopted a similar definition. Thus, anyone not on the regime side was considered outside the scope of the agreement and thus subject to continued military action. The Russians and Syrians continued air operations against virtually everyone.

When the Lavrov-Kerry agreement was announced, I wrote: "I am afraid we have set up a long-term stalemate where hundreds of Syrians will continue to die while Russia and Syria diplomatically fend off accusations that they are violating the ceasefire - they will continue to strike any target they wish regardless of American and Western objections. They have done it before, and they will do it again. Well played, Messrs. Putin and Lavrov." (Read the entire article, Syria: Cessation of hostilities - was John Kerry outplayed?)

The truce was conceived to provide an opportunity to reach a political solution to the five-year old conflict between the Syrian government and the myriad opposition groups seeking to overthrow al-Asad's Ba'ath Party regime. Despite the ceasefire agreement, the fighting continued. The Russians followed up the agreement with an announcement by President Vladimir Putin that he had ordered most of Russian forces to withdraw from Syria.

What actually happened was not a withdrawal, but merely a rotation of forces - the Russian expeditionary force in northern Syria is as potent as ever, but with different types of aircraft. Rather than a large number of fighter-bombers, the force is now composed of mostly attack aircraft and helicopter gunships. When the Syrian Army liberated the city of Palmyra from ISIS, Russian air assets were heavily involved - and controlled by Russian special forces soldiers embedded with the Syrian forces.

While several rounds of talks did take place in Geneva, for the most part the two sides were talking past each other. The opposition groups' primary demand was that any agreement include the removal of Bashar al-Asad from office. Syrian government officials insisted that the continuation of Bashar as president was a non-negotiable condition in any agreement. Neither side was willing to move away from those diametrically-opposed positions. Despite the maneuverings of John Kerry, neither side was open to compromise.

On April 18, the committee representing the opposition groups announced a "postponement" of the talks in Geneva, pointing to the lack of progress in the talks and the continued military buildup and operations in the Aleppo area. Not only is the Syrian Army moving more forces to the area, there are deployments of Lebanese Hizballah units, as well as forces from the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and now the regular Iranian Army, and not to be overlooked, Russian advisers and artillery troops.

It is likely that without the foreign forces, the Syrian Army would be hard pressed to retake the city. Without retaking Aleppo, the regime cannot reassert control over the country.

The day after the announcement by the opposition groups that they were leaving the talks, Syrian Air Force fighter-bombers struck the produce market in the rebel-held city of Kafr Anbal, followed immediately by an attack on the produce market in Ma'arat al-Nu'aman, just five miles distant. The death toll approached one hundred.

Two markets hit one after the other just five miles apart - that appears to be deliberate targeting of civilians to me. A high-casualty attack on two cities, each with the reputation of being "poster children" for the rebellion, coming just one day after the opposition pulls out of the talks - a coincidence? Hardly.

It is a harbinger of things to come. The Syrian regime, with its Russian and Iranian supporters, will continue to kill thousands of Syrians. The introduction of Russian forces into Syria last year saved the Syrian Army from having to cede a large portion of northern Syria to the rebels. The impact of virtually indiscriminate bombing by the Russian Air Force allowed the Syrians to retake most of the ground they had lost in Idlib province, move back towards Aleppo and begin an encirclement of the city.

At the same time, the Syrians pushed east in Homs province, retaking the strategic - and culturally significant - city of Palmyra. It was a major victory for the Syrians - both real and symbolic - and a major defeat for ISIS. The Syrians appeared to be poised to advance further east towards the oil center of Dayr al-Zawr and relieve the besieged Syrian military garrison at and adjacent to Dayr al-Zawr air base. Things finally seemed to be going the Syrians' way - thanks to the Russian air umbrella.

However, with the collapse of the talks in Geneva, the Syrians have a tougher task. The focus for the next round of fighting will necessarily be Aleppo. Given the amount of military power being deployed by the Syrians and allies, I believe it is only a matter of time before Russian air strikes and artillery fire create the conditions by which the Syrian and Iranian ground troops encircle the city and eventually starve it into submission. We've seen this tactic work before.

It appears that the quagmire and bloodletting will continue unabated. Casualties will climb on both sides, but the majority of the dead and wounded will continue to be noncombatant civilians caught in the crossfire - most caused by the regime and its allies. Neither the Syrians, Iranian nor even the Russians are concerned about "collateral damage."

The eventual winners? Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

April 10, 2016

B-52 deployment to the Middle East - let's drop the term "carpet bombing"

USAF B-52 bombers arriving at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar

The first U.S. Air Force B-52 heavy bombers deployed to the Persian Gulf to participate in Operation Inherent Resolve have arrived at Al Udeid (al-'Udayd) Air Base, located just a few miles outside Qatar's capital city of Doha. The huge jets from the 2nd Bomb Wing at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, represent the first operational BUFF* deployment to the Middle East since the Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm) in 1991.

For the record, this deployment does not represent an increase of U.S. forces in the region - the B-1 bombers now present in theater are being rotated back to the United States for maintenance and system upgrades. The B-1 Lancer** is credited for critical air support to Syrian Kurdish fighters in their successful defense of the border city of Kobani in 2014.

Al Udeid Air Base is home to the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing - the base sits about 900 air miles from the Iraqi city of Mosul (al-Mawsil), and about 1000 air miles from the Syrian city of al-Raqqah - both easy prey for the B-52. The two cities are the primary centers of gravity for the self-proclaimed Islamic State, more commonly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

At some point in the near future, the fight against ISIS will be waged in and around those two cities. In Iraq for sure and probably in Syria as well, American airpower - including bombers such as the B-52 - will play a key and integral role in those battles.

That role needs clarification.

Many people associate the B-52 with the term "carpet bombing." Carpet bombing is a Vietnam-era term meaning wide-scale - some would say indiscriminate - bombing of areas suspected to be enemy troop concentrations or areas in which they have sought refuge. To be sure, the B-52 was used in Vietnam to bomb large areas where we believed either Vietcong or North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops were present.

Much of that bombing was based on sketchy intelligence. By way of disclosure, I was involved in the collection of tactical intelligence on NVA troop locations - the threshold to select targets was not high.

That targeting paradigm changed with the development and deployment of precision-guided munitions (PGM). Granted, during Operation Desert Storm, we did what some might consider carpet bombing, although with great restrictions.

What we see in the photograph above from Operation Desert Storm is as close as we have come to carpet bombing since the end of the Vietnam War.

This is more accurately called "saturation bombing" against massed Iraqi troops in the deserts of Kuwait and southern Iraq in 1991. The targets were exclusively military and located far from civilian areas. Based on our interrogations of Iraqi prisoners of war (in which I participated) following B-52 strikes, the saturation bombing was very effective against entrenched Iraqi troops.

However, most of the American aircraft dropping ordnance on Iraqi cities and areas in which civilians might be present carried PGMs - bombs and missiles designed to be guided to their targets to maximize the effectiveness of the military objectives while at the same time minimizing collateral damage (military-speak for civilian casualties).

American use of PGMs as the routine method of delivery has changed the face of aerial attack - airpower is now almost required to be accurate and sterile.

Today's employment of the B-52 was systemically defined during the 2001 American invasion of Afghanistan in the aftermath of the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.

In conjunction with U.S. Air Force tactical air control parties (TACP) or U.S. Army Special Forces teams on the ground, the B-52 provided a tremendous firepower advantage - accurate airpower on demand guided by American forces with eyeballs on the target.

The B-52 massive gravity bomb (also known as "dumb bomb") carrier of Vietnam has been transformed into a huge flying magazine. The aircraft was modified to carry PGMs and drop weapons one at a time rather than the "bombs away" emptying of the bomb bays - the weapons are now guided primarily by Global Positioning System (GPS) guidance modules. The B-52 remains a key asset in modern air support operations.

That said, we no longer "carpet bomb." It would be useful if that phrase was erased from the lexicon of the current presidential campaign - it does a gross disservice to the men and women who place themselves in harm's way every day in the fight against ISIS. This includes flying the B-52 Stratofortress, the aircraft almost instinctively identified with the outdated phrase.

Despite its age and the fact that we now have more capable bombers in the inventory, the U.S. Air Force B-52 remains an iconic symbol of American military power, or as we said in my day, "when you care enough to send the very best."

* BUFF is military slang for the B-52 Stratofortress. In polite company, the acronym expands to Big Ugly Fat Fellow. Those who have ever worn an Air Force uniform know the actual terminology.

** Lancer is the official name of the B-1, but the bomber is more commonly known in Air Force circles as "the Bone" - the letter B and the word 1 - "B ONE."

March 28, 2016

The fall of Palmyra - ISIS on the run?

The historic archaeological-treasure city of Palmyra fell to the Syrian Army on March 27 (Easter Sunday in the West). Palmyra had been under the control of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) since the terrorist group seized the city in May of 2015 - the seizure of Palmyra was part of a larger military campaign in which ISIS made huge territorial gains as it advanced on the major Syrian cities of Hamah and Homs.

The retaking of Palmyra is the latest in a series of successful Syrian Army operations in the provinces of Homs, Hamah, Idlib and Aleppo. These are the very same areas that last summer the Syrian Army was forced to cede to anti-regime rebels - and in some instances, to jabhat al-nusrah (The Victory Front), the al-Qa'idah affiliate in Syria.

The Syrian regime's change of fortune is directly attributable to intervention of Russian Air Force fighters and fighter bombers operating from Humaymim Air Base in northwestern Syria, long range bombers operating from bases in Russia, as well as cruise missiles launched from Russian Navy ships in the Caspian Sea. That intervention began in September 2015 with the deployment of Russian combat aircraft to Syria, and has continued virtually unabated ever since.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the deployment of combat aircraft to Syria, he claimed that his pilots were tasked with attacking terrorism targets - specifically ISIS targets. In reality, 85 to 90 percent of the strikes flown by the Russians targeted anti-regime rebels - the obvious goal of these strikes was to ensure the survival of the failing regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad. The rebels bearing the brunt of the Russian air strikes included groups receiving support - money, weapons and training - from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

In the recent operation to retake the city of Palmyra, the combined airpower of the Russian and Syrian air forces was the key factor in the success of the Syrian Army. ISIS has no air force and minimal air defense capabilities to use against Russian and Syrian fighters and helicopters. The two air forces were able to easily isolate the ISIS fighters in Palmyra from their logistics support about 120 miles to the north in ISIS's self-proclaimed capital city of al-Raqqah.

In the battle for Palmyra, the Syrian Army acquitted itself fairly well, given its mediocre performance over the last year. The army did suffer what many Western countries would consider an unacceptable level of casualties. ISIS can be a formidable enemy, especially when attacking lightly defended towns in rural Syria and Iraq, but when confronted with a real army supported by effective air power, it is at a severe disadvantage. There are reports of Russian tactical air controllers on the ground with the Syrians.

On one hand, ISIS's loss of Palmyra to the Syrian Army is symbolic. It is another defeat - likely the most serious ISIS defeat thus far. They have been defeated now in Kobani and Palmyra in Syria, as well as Tikrit, Bayji and al-Ramadi in Iraq. ISIS leaders have to be concerned how this series of defeats might affect recruiting. Considering the high numbers of casualties the group suffers in its military operations, continued recruitment of new fighters is critical to its survival.

On the other hand, the defeat in Palmyra is operationally significant - the city is a major logistics hub and the gateway to al-Raqqah. Recapture of the city will allow Syrian military forces to push east towards the ISIS-encircled city of Dayr al-Zawr, about 120 miles away. There is a besieged Syrian Army garrison there at an air base. The garrison has survived only by continuous airdrops of food and ammunition.

The fall of Palmyra is not the end of the war against ISIS in Syria, although it may be a critical first step. Given the attempts by the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq to isolate the city of Mosul from the capital of al-Raqqah - by air strikes and ground operations by Kurdish peshmerga forces - ISIS may find itself divided into enclaves with no lines of communications between them.

It might not be the end of the war, but it might be the beginning of ISIS's eventual defeat. Then we can focus on saving Syria.


On a personal note, I hope the Syrians (and the Russians) didn't have to destroy the treasures of Palmyra to recapture the city.

I have been there many times - it truly is an amazing place.

March 21, 2016

More U.S. ground troops to Iraq - further down that slippery slope?

Red: US Firebase / Greens: Iraqi Kurds / Grey: ISIS / Yellow: Syrian Kurds
(Click on image for larger view)

A U.S. Marine was killed in Iraq on March 19 during an attack on an American firebase located on the front lines between Iraqi forces and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). That same base was attacked again two days later, prompting headlines like this: "The Pentagon to Expand Secret Military Firebase in Iraq After Marine Killed."

According to American military public affairs officers, the "secret" base is located near the Iraqi city of Makhmur. The base, along with other military garrisons in the area, will play a key role in the preparations for the military campaign to retake Mosul, Iraq's second largest city. Mosul is only about 45 miles from Makhmur, and thus is a primary marshaling and staging area for the campaign to retake Mosul from ISIS.

The Iraqis are pouring large numbers of military units into the area, as well they should. This will be a major campaign, larger than anything the Iraqi Army has undertaken since the (premature) withdrawal of American forces in 2011. The battles for Tikrit, Bayji and al-Ramadi were good rehearsals, but Mosul is a much tougher challenge. It is larger and will involve long lines of communications.

It will take time to amass the required forces to liberate Mosul - ISIS has had two years to build defenses, including mines, booby traps, barriers, as well as pre-surveyed kill zones. I, along with other military analysts, are skeptical that Iraqi forces will be ready for an assault on Mosul this year.

There are several troubling aspects of this recent incident and the Obama Administration's response.

First and foremost, we have the loss of a U.S. Marine - Staff Sergeant Louis F. Cardin, 27, of Temecula, California. I believe it important that I include the name of this young man who was killed in action in the service of our country. I hope the Obama Administration does not dishonor his sacrifice by attempting to describe this as anything other than a combat death.

The Marines are manning what is called Firebase Bell. They are on a firebase exclusively manned by Americans - there are no Iraqi forces present. These troops are manning four 155mm howitzers, providing fire support to Iraqi forces.

The Marines' M777 155mm howitzers are effective and highly accurate weapons, capable of tremendous firepower at ranges up to 25 miles. Given the location of the firebase at the forward edge of Iraqi government control - in this case in the form of the Kurdish peshmerga - it is no wonder that ISIS wants to silence those guns.

That said, I fail to understand how these Marines are considered anything but "boots on the ground." With no Iraqi forces present, how can their mission possibly be construed as "advise and assist?" It can't - they are there to protect other American forces as well as Iraqi troops in the area. What bothers those of us who are old enough to have served in Vietnam is the perceived re-emergence of the "firebase mentality." It failed then, and it will fail now.

More shades of Vietnam - the incremental escalation of the number of American forces on the ground, coupled with the gradual expansion of their role. What began as a few hundred advisers has grown into several thousand troops from all services, including a special forces contingent conducting direct action missions. That is called "mission creep."

It was on one of these direct action missions last year that we lost a U.S. Army Special Forces noncommissioned officer. Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler, 39, of the famed Delta Force was killed - again, the Administration attempted to create the fiction that his was not a combat death. Shameful.

In response to the two attacks, the Pentagon is deploying additional Marines from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) to Firebase Bell, adding to the already almost 4,000 American troops on the ground in Iraq. The numbers can be deceptive, though. They do not include the thousands of American forces spread throughout the region - but not in Iraq - who conduct and support the air campaign, and maintain a robust naval presence in the Persian Gulf.

That naval presence includes the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge, with almost 2000 Marines of the 26th MEU embarked, and the helicopters to deploy them. These are combat troops, not advisers - yes, boots on the ground, despite the Administration's word games to the contrary.

To complicate matters, an Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi'a militia (probably at the instigation of perennial Iraqi troublemaker Muqtada al-Sadr) warned that U.S. Marines would be considered occupation forces, despite the fact that they are fighting ISIS. We had a chance to neutralize Muqtada in 2003 - we should have availed ourselves of that opportunity. I digress.

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.