January 21, 2016

Iran frees five detained Americans - the good, the bad and the ugly

Three of five Americans released: Amir Hekmati - Jason Rezaian - Saeed Abedini

Now that the initial euphoria of the release of five Americans from Iran is beginning to fade, the magnitude of just what the United States had to give the Iranians to secure their return is beginning to sink in.

For the five American families, who are justifiably rejoicing as their loved ones return home, no price was too high. For the country, however, it may be a different story.

The good
Obviously, everyone is happy that the five have been released. Everyone believes that they were detained as political pawns by the Iranian regime, regardless of the drivel put out by the Islamic Republic's tightly-controlled press.

This image shows how the four released Americans are being portrayed in Iranian social media. Note the description of the four as spies.

The Iranians contend that only four prisoners were part of the trade; the fifth, a student, was released as "act of goodwill." Of course, there was no reason to detain the student in the first place - he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. (See my comments below for some thoughts on this.)

That's the good; the only good - we got back five Americans who were in reality hostages.

The bad
In order to secure the release of these unjustly detained and imprisoned Americans, the Obama Administration agreed to release seven men who had either been indicted or convicted of actual crimes in actual courts of law - yes, unlike in Iran, due process in a legitimate criminal justice system.

These seven men were accused and/or convicted of crimes against the United States, primarily violations of the sanctions imposed by the United States on Iran for its refusal to adhere to international agreements. All seven were working in support of Iran's illicit nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. Of the seven, six hold American citizenship in addition to being Iranian citizens; the seventh is an Iranian national.

Not only did the Administration pardon seven indicted or convicted felons and agreed to deliver them to an airfield in Switzerland to exchange them for the four (which turned out to be five) Americans, but the US government dismissed charges against 14 other Iranians resident in Iran who were under indictment in the United States. Most of those were accused of sanctions violations, although there are unconfirmed reports that some of them were involved in terrorist activities.

Additionally, the Administration agreed to release $400 million of Iranian funds frozen in the United States since 1981. However, with accrued interest - you can't make this up - it totals $1.3 billion.

Who is making these deals? None other than Secretary of State John Kerry, the same John Kerry that caved to virtually every Iranian demand that resulted in the unverifiable nuclear deal with Tehran.

The ugly
Six of the seven felons pardoned by the Administration are American citizens and thus can remain in the United States to resume their efforts on behalf of the Islamic Republic - including procurement of materials and technology for the illicit nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

It appears that this eventuality is closer to reality than originally thought. The agreement called for an exchange of prisoners/hostages in Switzerland, but none of the seven pardoned felons chose to board the flight for eventual repatriation to Iran. I know, it is hard to believe that none of them wanted to return to the paradise that is the Islamic Republic....

Yes, I said nuclear - if anyone believes that the Iranians are not covertly seeking a nuclear weapons capability, either alone or in concert with other pariah nations (North Korea comes to mind), they are deluding themselves. It is a capability the Iranians believe will give them strategic parity with Israel and its nuclear arsenal.

Although the Iranians and the Americans insist that the negotiations for the nuclear deal and the prisoner exchange were independent but parallel, no one believes there is no linkage between the two. The freed Americans were not permitted to leave Iran until the International Atomic Energy Agency certified Iran as being in compliance with the nuclear agreement.

One thing that this deal has not resolved is the status of former FBI agent Bob Levinson, missing since he went to Kish Island in 2007. The circumstances of his disappearance have yet to be determined, but I find it hard to believe that the Iranians are not aware of what happened to a former FBI agent visiting Iran.

In addition to the $1.3 billion gained from the prisoner exchange, Iran stands to reap a windfall of over $100 billion once the country is certified as in compliance with the nuclear agreement. Given the virtual capitulation of Secretary Kerry, the certification was a foregone conclusion whether or not Iran actually lived up to its commitments.

Bottom line
Let's compare how this worked out. The United States pardoned seven of Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile materiel and technology procurement agents in American custody. The Americans also paid Iran $1.3 billion in cash. All seven Iranian agents chose to remain in the United States, possibly to resume their efforts on behalf of the Islamic Republic.

Further, the United States dismissed felony charges against another 14 Iranians resident in Iran, thus vacating the Interpol red notices (basically an international arrest warrant) preventing their international travel - they are now free to resume their nefarious activities on behalf of the Iranian regime.

On top of that, being in compliance with the ill-advised nuclear deal, European Union sanctions have been lifted, over $100 billion dollars will find their way to Tehran, and Iranian oil will again be on international markets, complicating a market currently experiencing an oil glut.

For all of that, Iran released five virtual hostages whose only crimes appears to be being Americans present in Iran.

It seems to me that the Iranians got the better of both deals with the United States.

Why any American, even an Iranian-American, would go to Iran under the regime of the ayatollahs is beyond me. I have received several invitations from Iranian media outlets to visit the country - it usually coincides with the annual reporting on Iraq's chemical weapons usage in 1988 while I was in Baghdad.

Given my declared (and now public knowledge) background as an intelligence officer, and revelations - thank you New York Times - of my role in the US provision of intelligence information to the Iraqi military intelligence service in the last year of the Iran-Iraq War, I might be a candidate for a stay at Evin prison.

When I heard that the fifth American to be released as a so-called gesture of good will was a young student, my first thought was, what possessed an American with what appears to be international and regional experience to visit a Shi'a theocracy - sorry, an Islamic Republic? Sometimes you cannot protect people from their own stupidity.

If any more Americans travel to Iran under this current regime, they should be on notice that they are on their own - we will no longer make these lopsided deals to save them from their preventable misfortune.

January 13, 2016

Iranian detention of US Navy patrol boats and crews - what happened?

Screen capture from Iranian television showing US Navy sailors being detained

Iran released 10 US Navy sailors and their two CB-90 riverine command boats (RCB, a Swedish-designed fast patrol boat) after they strayed into Iranian territorial waters in the Persian Gulf near Farsi Island.

Farsi Island is located in the middle of the Persian Gulf and is used exclusively by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Navy as an intelligence and surveillance facility. The IRGC is extremely sensitive to anyone approaching the island - the screen capture above is indicative of that sensitivity.

There are a host of questions raised by this incident. First, what were the exact circumstances of the intrusion into Iranian territorial waters? According to the Department of Defense, the two boats were transiting from Kuwait to Bahrain (headquarters of the US Fifth Fleet).

I accept that claim at face value - if the Navy was probing the Iranian defenses on Farsi Island or were conducting reconnaissance of the IRGC facilities there, they certainly would have used different and more capable assets than two undermanned patrol boats (they can carry a crew of up to 20 sailors).

The Iranians claim that at least one of the RCBs suffered "mechanical problems in their navigation system" and the crews acted "unprofessionally" before being detained. The US concurred that there was a mechanical problem with one of the boats. I am not sure what the Iranians mean by "unprofessional" - I assume they needed some excuse for their unnecessary treatment and humiliation of the American sailors. The Iranians certainly did nothing to render assistance to a vessel in distress - detaining the crew and boats was a provocation.

Why would the IRGC Navy want to provoke an incident with the US Navy? I think it has much more to do with internal Iranian politics than the ever-present tensions in the waters of the Persian Gulf. Even the aggressive IRGC does not really want to get into an armed confrontation with the US Navy - especially at a time when the Iranians are trying to finalize the deal on their nuclear program that will be an economic godsend for the Islamic Republic.

That said, the IRGC represents the hardliners in the country, conservatives that do not want an agreement with the West that curbs their efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. Anyone that believes the IRGC and other hardliners do not eventually want to acquire a nuclear weapons capability is wishing against hope. Their program is perfectly sized for weapons development and much too modest for meaningful energy generation - coupled with their relentless research and development of medium and long range ballistic missiles.

There is tension between the hardliners and the "moderates" (an interesting term to use when describing leaders of the world's major state sponsor of terrorism). Over the past few years, the moderates have held sway, as it appears they did in the resolution of this incident. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif - primary architect of the nuclear deal - defused this incident by claiming that the Americans apologized and arranged for orders to be issued to the IRGC to release the two vessels and their crews.

The IRGC statement: "The U.S. Marines [sic], who entered Iran's territorial waters yesterday, were released because it has become clear that their entry was not intentional and after they apologized for the move."

Both Vice President Joe Biden and the State Department spokesman denied that there was an apology. While it may be true that Biden or Secretary of State John Kerry did not apologize, there was probably some form of regret given to the Iranians, likely from the senior officer or noncommissioned officer among the 10 who were detained. If making a statement was all that was needed to insure the safety of the crews and it admitted no wrongdoing, why not apologize and put this behind us? The senior officer's primary duty is the safety of his personnel.

UPDATE: Shortly after I wrote that last paragraph, the Iranians released a video in which the senior US Navy officer being detained by the Iranians did offer an apology while not admitting any wrongdoing.

Now that the boats, and more importantly, the 10 sailors, are back in American custody, the real questions will have to be answered? Here are mine:

- Why were the ships transiting so close to Farsi Island? The distance between the island and the western littoral of the Persian Gulf at that point is in excess of 50 miles (see above map). These are river/coastal patrol boats, not fleet combat units.

- If the two boats were transiting close to Farsi Island (for whatever reason), Iranian sensitivity about the IRGC facility is well-known. Why were the ships not part of more potent formation, or why was there no accompanying aerial assets in the area? Why were the boats so lightly manned?

- Once one of the RCBs experienced a mechanical problem, what was the exact sequence of events? Was it possible to stop and avoid entering Iranian waters while awaiting assistance from other US or allied assets in the area?

- Once approached by the IRGC gunboats, did US authorities contact the Iranians to explain the problem, request assistance and/or prepare to protect the American sailors? What are the standard operating procedures when US Navy vessels are confronted by the unpredictable, aggressive IRGC?

Something went wrong yesterday in the Persian Gulf, mistakes were certainly made - putting 10 US sailors and two armed patrol boats at risk. Once the sailors are debriefed, perhaps the Navy will tell us what happened and who will be held accountable.

January 12, 2016

ISIS attack in Istanbul - two targets in one

Sultanahmet Square from the Blue Mosque looking to Haghia Sofia (my photo - 2011)

According to Turkish authorities, a Syrian member of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) detonated a suicide bomb in a park between two of Istanbul's major tourist attractions - the Haghia Sofia and the Blue Mosque (officially the Sultan Ahmet mosque). Many Americans have been to this park while visiting arguably two of the most visited sites in the world - over 24 million people toured them in 2014.

I took the picture above across the park in 2011 - the explosion occurred on the left of the frame, behind where the white truck is parked. This BBC map shows the locations of the three venues.

Ten people were killed in the blast, including nine Germans - 15 other people (nationalities unknown) were injured. The tenth fatality was a Peruvian tourist. Germans make up the largest group of tourists to visit these sites - over five million per year, or about 20 percent of the total.

ISIS's targeting of a major tourism venue in Istanbul was not coincidental. Tourism is one of the easiest sources of revenue to disrupt - one need only look at the tremendous losses incurred by Egypt and Tunisia in the wake of sectarian violence. Turkey has suffered as well, with 2015 revenues estimated to be about $30 billion, down almost 15 percent over previous years.

Although there have been previous ISIS attacks in Turkey, those targets have been aimed at either Turkish or Kurdish targets. This attack on a clearly tourist venue marks a shift in ISIS's focus in Turkey.

Turkey is a priority target for ISIS - in the past, the Turks were not as strident in closing their often porous border with Syria, resulting in thousands of fighters transiting Turkey into Syria, including many from Western Europe. With the Turks reacting to Western pressure to more tightly control their borders, the flow of foreign fighters - necessary to replenish ISIS's substantial manpower losses - has been stemmed, but not stopped.

Also, the Turkish government last year opted to allow the United States and other coalition countries to use its air bases located just north of Syria - including the large NATO facility at Incirlik - reducing the flight times from takeoff to target to mere minutes rather than a few hours. The airstrikes have taken a toll on ISIS - they are attempting to punish Turkey for aligning with the U.S.-lead coalition.

With this attack in Istanbul, ISIS is not only striking at Turkey, but at the West. I doubt that the suicide bomber knew that he would be killing Germans - I assume he was simply attacking westerners - Europeans and Americans. In its own twisted manner, ISIS's selection of a tourism venue hit both Turkey and the West.

Turkish leaders claim that this attack only strengthens the country's resolve. I hope that is true, even though they will pay an economic price.

January 10, 2016

After Ramadi - the long road to Mosul

Iraqi armor moving through what is left of al-Ramadi, Iraq

Now that the Iraqi security forces have retaken the city of al-Ramadi (Ramadi) from the fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Iraqi leadership has set its sights on the liberation of al-Mawsil (Mosul), the country's second largest city. Mosul has been in ISIS hands since the group seized the city in June of 2014 - with almost no resistance from a large Iraqi Army force in the city that collapsed in the presence of the ISIS fighters.

The battle to retake Mosul from entrenched, motivated ISIS fighters who have had 18 months thus far to prepare their defenses will not be easy. Although Iraqi senior military officers assert that they will recapture Mosul by the end of 2016, I have doubts that the Iraqi forces will be in a position to launch an attack that soon.

Before the Iraqis move north for a battle to retake Mosul, they first must consolidate their control over al-Anbar province. That means retaking the city of al-Fallujah (Fallujah), just over 35 miles west of Baghdad, and securing the strategic dam and city of Hadithah, 90 miles west of Ramadi. Almost immediately after ISIS began its retreat from Ramadi, the group launched an attack on Hadithah - the area is now contested. This underscores ISIS's continuing ability to mount offensive operations despite recent setbacks.

Before we talk about the challenges the Iraqis will face in mounting an operation to retake Mosul, let's look at some factors that worked in their favor in the battle for Ramadi.

The Iraqi Army has undergone a fundamental transformation since the virtual collapse of their forces in 2014. The American-provided training has refocused the Iraqi military from counterterrorism and asymmetric warfare to more conventional force-on-force fighting. Rather than treating ISIS as a group of terrorists, the new Iraqi model is to deal with them as an opposing army. Although ISIS uses terrorist tactics - suicide bombers and vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices in large numbers - they have been integrated rather effectively into conventional military operations to take and hold territory.

To complement the new operational focus, the Shi'a-dominated Iraqi government under Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi has moved beyond the short-sighted policies of the Nuri al-Maliki administration, at least in the retaking of Ramadi. Unlike the earlier battles in Tikrit and Bayji, the Iraqis did not rely on the Iranian-backed - and I suspect Iranian-led - Iraqi Shi'a militias to do the bulk of the front-line fighting. In Ramadi, the Iraqi Army's elite units and the independent Iraqi Counterterrorism Service were supported by Sunni tribesmen from the local area. Keeping the Shi'a militias out of the fiercely passionate Sunni heartland was wise.

This proved to be a winning combination - accommodation of the Sunni tribes is absolutely necessary for the political future of the country. If Iraq is to survive as a country in its current form, the disparate factions have to have a say in the governance of the country, despite pressure from Tehran to marginalize the Sunni Arabs and Kurds.

The fight for Ramadi is not over, but the Iraqis seem to be on the cusp of securing the area. The remaining pockets of resistance will be cleared, albeit slowly because of the hundreds of explosive devices left behind by the retreating ISIS fighters. With the inclusion of the local Sunni tribes in the operation, the Iraqis have an excellent chance of retaining control of the city.

That inclusion will be critical as the Iraqi forces turn their attention to the rest of al-Anbar province, specifically the key cities of Fallujah and Hadithah. Fallujah will likely be the next target for the Iraqis - the city sits on the Euphrates River just 40 miles west of Baghdad (Baghdad is on the Tigris River, not the Euphrates.)

Once al-Anbar is secured, or deemed secure enough that Ramadi and Fallujah are firmly under Iraqi control, the Iraqis will have to begin the effort to move north and recapture Mosul from ISIS. Mosul is ten times the size of Ramadi and 250 miles north of Baghdad on the Tigris River.

Retaking Mosul will require a huge logistics effort - virtually all of the military materiel will have to be moved up the Tigris Valley to an area south of the ISIS-controlled area. The Iraqis will then have to fight their way to Mosul and then begin the slow, painstaking operation to clear ISIS from a city they will have had over two years to prepare to defend. ISIS knew at some point they would have to fight to keep Iraq's second largest city.

This will take much longer than the Iraqis think it will. However, there are things that will make it easier - thanks mostly to the Kurds. The recent operations by the Kurdish peshmerga forces to retake the city of Sinjar and pressure Tal'afar will strain ISIS's supply lines between its facilities in Syria and Mosul.

Additionally, in Syria the newly-formed Syrian Defense Force - a loose alliance of Syrian Kurds and Sunni Arabs - has seized control of the Tishrin Dam on the Euphrates River east of Aleppo, again straining ISIS supply lines to the Turkish border.

Things may have turned around in Iraq - Ramadi is a good first step after rocky starts in Tikrit and Bayji. It will be a long, hard fight, but there is a reasonable chance that the Iraqi Army, Counterterrorism Service and the Kurdish peshmerga will prevail in time.

After the Iraqis re-establish control over their territory, then the fight to eradicate ISIS must turn to Syria - a much more difficult and confusing problem.

December 1, 2015

U.S. to deploy "specialized expeditionary targeting force" to combat ISIS - mission creep?

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, appearing before the House Armed Services Committee today, announced that the United States will soon deploy what he called a "specialized expeditionary targeting force" to fight the so-called Islamic State, or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

According to Secretary Carter, this special operations force will "conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence, and capture ISIS leaders." Given the description of the force, it will likely consist of soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines from the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) element assigned to the the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM).

Although American special operators have been active for some time in Iraq - and have conducted occasional raids into ISIS-controlled portions of Syria - that is not part of this new deployment. The troops already in Iraq were deployed in a "train, advise and assist" role - this new force will be organized into a combat unit and tasked with unilateral operations.

The Secretary (rightly) believes that this type of operation will create a "virtuous cycle of better intelligence, which generates more targets, more raids and more momentum." Some momentum to start combating ISIS on the ground would be welcome.

Although Secretary Carter was quick to point out that the force will operate at the invitation of the Iraqi government, focus on defending Iraq's borders and building the Iraqi Security Forces' capabilities, he also allowed that the new force will be authorized to conduct unilateral operations into Syria.

Although I support and applaud the Secretary's announcement today, it is not all good news. Let's take a look at the meaning behind the words.

The fact that the United States must deploy additional special forces into Iraq to defend Iraq's border and build the capabilities of the Iraqi forces is a patent admission that the Iraqi Army, security and police units are incapable of fulfilling their most basic missions.

There remains something fundamentally wrong with the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi - it cannot or will not organize a force capable of defending the country, despite over a year of retraining at great expense to American taxpayers. Perhaps the Obama Administration has concluded that if we are going to accomplish the President's stated goal of "degrading and ultimately defeating" ISIS, we will have to do it ourselves rather than what I call "outsourcing" it to the Iraqis.

This deployment also signals the realization that ISIS is not contained, neither in Iraq and Syria, nor elsewhere in the region. Despite Secretary Carter's pronouncement that we are shrinking their "footprint" in Iraq and Syria and "gaining momentum," he stated that ISIS has "metastasized" to other countries. ISIS has declared "provinces" in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sinai (Egypt), Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, etc.

When questioned further, the Secretary admitted that almost all of the areas in which ISIS has lost territory has been as a result of Kurdish ground operations and American airpower. The lone area in which Iraqi (Arab) forces have regained any territory was in Tikrit, which is largely in ruins. One only needs to look at the Iraqi Army's operations in Bayji and now in al-Ramadi to realize that they remain an incapable force.

There is no way to spin this deployment as anything but putting U.S. "boots on the ground." These troops are not trainers or advisers, these are special operations personnel tasked with direct action.

There is also no way to spin this as anything other than deploying American forces in a ground combat role. This indicates to me that the Administration is beginning to realize that its anemic-at-best, lip-service-at-worst air campaign has largely been ineffective.

That air campaign, also addressed by Secretary Carter, is now focusing on ISIS's financial sources, primarily the group's illicit oil sales to a variety of willing buyers, among them the Syrian regime and a host of Turkish black market brokers.

Before we attribute the focus on this new target set to the Administration, consider that intensified Russian and French airstrikes on a variety of ISIS targets, including ISIS's fleet of oil tankers, actually goaded us into action. The Russian and French airstrikes - unhampered by the overly-restrictive American rules of engagement - came as the result of ISIS's downing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai and the ISIS attacks in Paris.

I hope today's announcement heralds a realization in Washington that if ISIS is truly a threat to the United States and is to be destroyed - and it must be destroyed, not "contained" - it is incumbent on us to use all the elements of national power to accomplish that task. We cannot rely on others to do our fighting for us - we have tried that in the past and it does not work.

It would appear that no other country is willing to commit forces on the ground to completely eliminate ISIS in both Syria and Iraq. Those in the fight on the ground now - the Iraqi security forces, the Kurdish peshmerga, and the newly-organized and untested Syrian Defense Force - are not capable of accomplishing that goal.

The conundrum we face: those who are willing are not capable; those who are capable are not willing.

At some point, destroying ISIS may require a more robust commitment of American forces not only in the air, but on the ground. It is time to address the problem head-on rather than this incremental escalation that we seem to be doing.

This is becoming symptomatic of mission creep.

November 18, 2015

REDUX: Is it time to reassess our policy (assuming we have one) in Syria?

I wrote this in September - given the recent remarks by President Obama and the fact the Secretary of State John Kerry is possibly on the verge of making a deal with the Russians, it might be worth another read.


US Air Force B-1 bomber strike on Kobani, Syria earlier this year

It has become painfully obvious that the United States' policy toward Syria - and the entire Middle East for that matter - is not working. The Islamic State, or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), still controls vast swaths of territory in both Syria and Iraq, despite over a year of an American-led air campaign.

The Syrian civil war which has claimed over 250,000 lives still rages on multiple fronts with no end in sight. The much-touted American program to train moderate Syrian rebels to fight ISIS has produced less than 10 fighters currently in the fight - most of the initial cadre were killed, captured or defected to Islamist groups in Syria. Millions of dollars were wasted in what can only be described as incompetent execution of a flawed plan.

While I want to focus on Syria in this article, I should mention that the situation in Iraq is not much better. The Iraqi Army, despite over a year of renewed American and European forces' training efforts, is virtually useless. No matter the rhetoric emanating from the Iraqis in Baghdad, the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, or the political mouthpieces in Washington, the Iraqi military is incapable of mounting effective operations, even with the Iranian-trained and led Shi'a militias. I recall the claims last year that the Iraqi Army was about to mount a campaign to regain control of Mosul - they can't even retake the city of al-Ramadi, a mere 65 miles west of Baghdad.

Then again, how would we know what is actually happening? No one trusts the statements from either the State or Defense departments. Why should they? As I wrote last month, "someone is cooking the intelligence to make it fit into the narrative dictated by the White House and the political leadership at the Pentagon." (See the entire article, Is your government lying to you about the war against ISIS?

It has been an American policy objective that Syrian President Bashar al-Asad must either step down or be removed from power - that has been the policy since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011. Yet, in 2012, when the secular rebel group known as the Free Syria Army (FSA) requested assistance from the United States and our European allies, we offered only token amounts of non-lethal aid. It was a combination of this short-sighted position in Syria and the premature withdrawal from Iraq in late 2011 that led to the genesis and rapid expansion of ISIS. By 2014, the situation was ripe for ISIS to move from Syria and seize control of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city.

It was not until 2014 that the Obama Administration recognized the serious threat posed by the group now calling itself "The Islamic State" - deployment of U.S. military trainers to Iraq began, soon followed by commencement of airstrikes on ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria. In President Barack Obama's own words: “Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, [ISIS] through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy.” Sounds good, but....

To say that the US-led coalition air campaign has been anemic would be kind. The overly restrictive rules of engagement (ROE) and the fear of causing any collateral damage has hamstrung what passes for the air operation. Sorties rates are dismally low, and pilots often return to base without employing any of their weapons, again citing the ROE and a convoluted target approval process that takes hours instead of seconds or minutes. For some insight into these self-imposed limitations, see my article from March of this year, Why is American airpower not stopping ISIS?.

Because of the lack of American political commitment to the air campaign against ISIS, the Islamist group has made significant gains in Syria, losing basically only one battle, that being for the Kurdish city of Kobani, which was saved only through an uncharacteristic display of American airpower. Combined with successful ground operations by several of the Syrian rebel groups, especially a coalition of Islamist groups, the Syrian army has been pushed out of much of the northern part of the country and has come under attack in the south and in the suburbs of Damascus.

The situation is beginning to look much like mid-2012 when the al-Asad regime appeared to be on the verge of defeat. It was only intervention then by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Lebanese Hizballah that the Syrian military was able to regroup and stave off defeat.

Now that the al-Asad regime is again on the ropes, a new savior appears - none other than Russian President Vladimir Putin. Why the Russians? It was not our failure to effectively take on ISIS as Putin may want the world to believe, but the specter of the collapse of the Syrian regime that convinced him to take action. The fall of Bashar al-Asad may threaten what Putin believes is a vital Russian national interest - continued Russian access to the Middle East and the Mediterranean.

Since the mid-1970's, the United States has effectively pushed the Russians out of the region - with the exception of Syria. The Russians have maintained a small presence at a joint Russian-Syrian naval facility in the port city of Tartus and for a time a presence at a desert air base in central Syria. When the decision was made to move combat aircraft to Syria, I expected the Russians to again use the air base at Tiyas. However, recent ISIS gains have put that area at risk.

In the last few weeks, dozens of Russian transport flights have landed at Humaymim air base, located just south of the port city of Latakia on Syria's Mediterranean coast. This area is also the home of the 'Alawis, the sect of which Bashar al-Asad is a member. For more on the Russians in Syria, see Russian intervention in Syria - what is the endgame?

As of today, there are over two squadrons of Russian Air Force fighter, fighter-bomber and attack aircraft at the air base, as well as helicopter gunships. An anonymous American official confirmed the presence of 12 Sukhoi SU-24 (NATO: FENCER) fighter-bombers and 12 Sukhoi SU-25 (NATO: FROGFOOT) attack aircraft - see image.

Here is a short but good quality video of a Russian Ilyushin IL-78 (NATO: MIDAS) aerial refueling aircraft with four SU-24 fighter-bombers deploying to Humaymim air base a few miles south of Latakia. For my readers who do not speak Arabic, the speaker in the video explains that these are Russian aircraft heading west over the north rural area of Homs governorate - that puts them on a course for the air base at Humaymim.

Now that the Russians have deployed a small, but fairly potent expeditionary force to Syria, one has to ask, what are President Putin's intentions? Is he going to use his aircraft against ISIS in conjunction with the Syrian Air Force and the U.S.-led coalition? Is he also going to order his pilots to attack those rebel forces (some of which are supported by the United States) attempting to remove Bashar al-Asad from power? Or both? I believe he will publicly do the former and covertly do the latter.

Keeping Bashar in power meets Putin's goal of assuring continued Russian access to the area, while degrading ISIS serves his interest in combating Islamist fighters, many of which have come to Syria from Russia, most notably from Chechnya. Killing them now in Syria is preferable to fighting them later in Russia.

How does the current situation affect American policy? Perhaps it is time to recognize the reality that removing Bashar al-Asad from power - a good idea in 2011, 2012 and 2013 when we could have and should have supported it - may not be feasible now. Too much has changed since that policy goal was articulated, but it has been the rise and expansion of ISIS that has emerged as the major threat to American interests - ISIS far eclipses the threat posed by the al-Asad regime. Syria might be considered a regional threat because of its close ties to Iran and Hizballah - Syria is the conduit for Iran to continue to fund, train and equip the Lebanese Shi'a militia - but ISIS is now a far greater threat to the United States.

There is a common enemy for all parties involved - it is a strange match up indeed. The United States, Europe (including Turkey), Syria, Iraq, Iran, the Gulf Arabs, the Kurds and Hizballah are all fighting ISIS in Syria and/or Iraq. Now we have the deployment of Russian combat forces into Syria. While the elimination of ISIS is a desirable outcome, the presence of so many different military forces operating high-performance aircraft armed with sophisticated weapons in close proximity to each other without close coordination creates the potential for unintended confrontation. Confrontations between jet fighter aircraft tend to be quick and lethal, over in seconds.

The informal coordination (or more correctly, notification) channels that now exist are inadequate. Of course, the Pentagon claims that we do not coordinate coalition air operations with the Syrian Air Force (and now the Russians). While technically true, we do coordinate with the Iraqi armed forces - is anyone naive enough to believe that the Iraqis are not communicating with the Syrians while taking on a common enemy? It would be irresponsible to send American pilots into Syrian skies without some notification to the Syrians to not interfere.

With the presence of Russian fighters, fighter bombers and attack aircraft in Syria ostensibly to fight ISIS, now might be the time for a more formal coordination/notification protocol. Since it is likely impossible politically to coordinate with the Syrian Air Force - they drop crude barrel bombs on their own civilian populations - we should establish a coordination mechanism with the Russian expeditionary force in Syria. The Russians can work with the Syrians. If it is not true coordination of air operations against ISIS, at least we should be able to deconflict the operations of the various parties. We do not need an armed confrontation between an American pilot and a Syrian or Russian pilot at 600 miles per hour 20,000 feet over northern Syria.

On the ground, we should also reassess how we are going to take on ISIS in Syria. Obviously, the 10 U.S.-trained rebels are not going to make a difference. Despite any assurances or deals we have made with the Turks in return for access to their air bases just north of Syria, we need to better support the Kurds, they are the only effective fighting force now engaging ISIS on the ground.

This is a ready-made solution requiring a bit of spine, something seemingly in short supply in Washington. Provide better weapons and materiel to the Kurds in Syria. With U.S.-led coalition and Russian airpower supporting the Kurds on the ground, this could take the fight to ISIS effectively.

Let's destroy (not defeat, but utterly destroy) ISIS, then we can worry about the dictator in Damascus. Eliminate the threats one at a time - ISIS first, Bashar second. It has a chance to succeed, whereas our current policy is an abject failure.

November 17, 2015

CNN Opinon - How to defeat ISIS

(Click on image for whole article)

I am one of the contributors to this compilation written by CNN analysts and commentators. Read the entire article by clicking on the image above.

Lt. Col. Rick Francona: U.S. needs eyes on targets

What the U.S.-led coalition is doing currently to achieve President Barack Obama's stated objective to "degrade and ultimately defeat" ISIS is not working. The original plan to use American and allied air power to support Iraqi military and Kurdish peshmerga troops in Iraq, and a cadre of U.S.-trained Syrian rebels in Syria has failed.

How can the U.S. and allies turn things around?

First, they must recognize that ISIS is no longer confined to operations in Iraq and Syria. It has become a regional -- and, after the attacks in Paris -- international threat.

But while we need to take the fight to ISIS wherever they are -- the American airstrike in Libya that killed the local ISIS leader is a start -- the main effort must focus on ISIS's key facilities in Iraq and Syria, including the self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa.

Thus far, the U.S.-led coalition air campaign has been anemic at best -- many of the armed sorties return to base with unexpended ordnance. Coalition pilots are hamstrung by over-restrictive rules of engagement and an unrealistic belief in Washington that air strikes can be conducted with nearly zero collateral damage.

An effective air campaign requires some U.S. troops on the ground, American eyes on targets. The targets presented by ISIS are difficult to detect, isolate and validate inside of the cumbersome U.S. decision cycle -- the time required for a pilot to receive authorization to strike a target.

I have recommended that we use American troops on the ground -- a few special operators (Army or Air Force) embedded with our Arab or Kurdish allies -- to control the airstrikes. I call this the "Afghan model" -- similar in concept to using U.S. special operations personnel embedded with Afghan Northern Alliance fighters to effectively target al Qaeda and Taliban formations, facilities and fighters. It worked there, it could work in Iraq and Syria.

If we are committed to conducting an air campaign, we need to do it right. We spent years perfecting the tools and tactics to employ precision-guided munitions effectively from the sky -- let's use the whole team: pilots in the air and combat controllers on the ground. Then let them do their jobs without micromanagement from Washington.

Lt. Col. Rick Francona is a retired U.S. Air Force intelligence officer and Middle East specialist who served in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. He is currently a CNN military analyst.

October 27, 2015

Pentagon proposes American "boots on the ground" in Syria and Iraq

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter (DOD photo)

In a somewhat surprising turn of events, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the United States will begin "direct action on the ground" against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) forces in both Iraq and Syria. The choice of words is interesting, avoiding use of the terms anathema to the Obama Administration: "combat" and "boots on the ground."

The Secretary's alliterative declaration that American forces will focus on "the three R's: Raqqah, Ramadi and raids" - is a patent admission of what most of us military and national security policy analysts have been saying for months - current U.S. policy in the fight against ISIS is not working.

The U.S.-led coalition air campaign is anemic at best - a majority of the armed sorties return to base with unexpended ordnance. The coalition pilots are hamstrung by over-restrictive rules of engagement and an unrealistic belief that air strikes can be conducted with nearly zero collateral damage. "Collateral damage" is the politically-correct term for civilian casualties.

That said, I applaud the Secretary's remarks. It appears that he now realizes that even an aggressive air campaign would have difficulty being effective without some American boots on the ground. The nature of the targets presented by ISIS are difficult to detect, isolate and validate inside of the cumbersome decision cycle - the time required for a pilot to receive authorization - to strike a target.

Use of manned armed reconnaissance and drones is drastically less effective without having trained U.S. Air Force combat controllers (called joint terminal attack controllers) or U.S. Army Special Forces teams on the ground to identify and either laser designate or electronically register GPS coordinates for the attacking aircraft.

I have recommended that we use American eyes on the ground - a few troops embedded with our Arab or Kurdish allies - to guide the airstrikes. I call this the "Afghan model" - similar in concept to using U.S. special operations personnel embedded with Afghan Northern Alliance fighters to effectively target al-Qa'idah and Taliban formations, facilities and fighters. It worked there, it could work in both Iraq and Syria. For more details on this model, I refer you an article I wrote a year ago: Airpower versus ISIS - try the Afghan model.

I further applaud the Secretary's selection of al-Raqqah and al-Ramadi as the two geographic areas of interest, especially al-Raqqah. We cannot address ISIS as two target sets, one being Iraq and the other Syria. We need to attack ISIS for what it is - one group spanning two existing countries. Of the two cities, al-Raqqah - ISIS's self-declared temporary capital city - should be the primary focus, with al-Ramadi a close second.

Before the Iraqis can mount the long-awaited and much-delayed assault on Mosul, Iraq's second largest city which fell to ISIS almost 15 months ago, they will need to secure al-Anbar province, of which al-Ramadi is the capital city. ISIS's forces in al-Anbar are only about 65 miles from Baghdad. Thus far, the Iraqis have not demonstrated the skills necessary to retake al-Ramadi, let alone Mosul. For that reason, we should concentrate of degrading ISIS in al-Raqqah first.

As for the third "R" - raids, this has been a successful tactic in Afghanistan against al-Qa'idah and the Taliban. Whether that translates to success in Iraq and Syria remains to be seen, and is not without risk or cost. According to the Secretary, "We won't hold back from supporting capable partners in opportunistic attacks against [ISIS], or conducting such missions directly whether by strikes from the air or direct action on the ground." I read "capable partners" to mean increased cooperation with the Kurds.

It was on one of these raids that Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler, a highly-decorated soldier of the U.S. Army's 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (more commonly just called "Delta"), was killed in action. He was the first American to be killed in action in Iraq since the withdrawal of American troops in 2011. Based on the videos of the raid I watched, I consider this an American direct action, not as the Secretary called it, "a continuation of our advise-and-assist mission."

If the United States adopts the "three R's" policy as the Secretary proposes, we should be prepared for additional casualties on all sides - increased losses for ISIS, but at the cost of higher numbers of civilian casualties, and unfortunately, the potential for American military losses. The Administration will have to convince the American public that the increased risk to our troops is worth the gain.

The situation has changed since the withdrawal of all American forces from Iraq in 2011. While it is difficult politically to re-deploy American troops back into harm's way in the Middle East - boots on the ground this time - the threat from ISIS requires it.

If we are going to conduct an air campaign, we need to do it right. We spent years perfecting the tools and tactics to employ precision-guided munitions effectively from the sky - use the whole team: pilots in the air and combat controllers on the ground.

October 20, 2015

The proxy war between the United States and Russia heats up

A new East-West proxy war has been heating up in Syria over the last three weeks, heralded by the deployment of more than three squadrons of Russian combat aircraft to an air base south of Syria's main port city of Latakia. The Russians wasted no time in commencing air operations against ground targets in the country.

Despite the Kremlin's insistence that the purpose of its air campaign is to fight the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), the vast majority of its attacks have targeted rebels attempting to overthrow the regime of President Bashar al-Asad. Bashar, as was his father, the notorious president/dictator Hafiz al-Asad who ruled the country ruthlessly for three decades, is a client of the Russians.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is committed to the survival of the Syrian regime. The Russians have been incrementally pushed out of the Middle East since the Egyptians severed military ties with the Soviet Union in the mid-1970s. The only Russian military presence in the Middle East two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 has been limited to Syria.

Although the Russians maintained a small cadre of military advisors at a few Syrian bases, Putin is most concerned about the joint Syrian-Russian naval facility at the port of Tartus. His support for the Syrian regime is focused on continued access to this strategic base - it is Russia's sole foreign naval base.

Red dots indicate the Russian-used air base near Jablah
and the joint Syrian-Russian naval facility at Tartus

The naval facility at Tartus is located just 35 miles south of the Humaymim Air Base, formerly a sleepy naval helicopter base and small civilian airport used by the al-Asad family. The base is only five miles from the al-Asad familial home in al-Qardahah, and is now an expanding Russian joint operations base.

The Russians are flying daily combat sorties from the air base, striking targets mostly in the area northwest of Hamah and southwest of Aleppo (red box on map below) - some targets are as close as 20 miles from Humaymim.

This area in Idlib and Hamah provinces has been the venue of heavy fighting between the Syrian regime on one side and a loose alliance of moderate and Islamic rebel groups on the other. Some of the rebel groups being attacked by Russian pilots have been supplied with U.S.-manufactured TOW anti-tank missiles. Over the last few months, these missiles have taken a heavy toll on Syria's tanks and armored personnel carriers.

On the other side, the U.S. coalition continues its air strikes - by both manned and unmanned aircraft - against ISIS and elements of al-Qa'idah. An American armed drone (either a Predator or a Reaper) recently killed the leader of the al-Qa'idah element known as the Khorosan Group, a reputedly effective terrorist group located in the area west of Aleppo. The Khorosan Group has been accused of planning attacks on the United States - it was the perceived threat from this group that drove the timing of the initial American airstrikes in Syria last fall.

The city of Aleppo is about to become the venue of a new proxy war between the Russians and the Americans.

As the Syrian regime regains its momentum against the rebels under the umbrella of Russian airpower, the contradictory interests of the United States and the Russian Federation are about to collide. Although both countries are conducting bombing operations in Syria and have a common target in ISIS, their positions on the survival of the government of Bashar al-Asad are diametrically opposed.

The Russians and their allies are in Syria to support the al-Asad government. To that end, forces are converging on Aleppo, once Syria's largest city. Much of Aleppo, including several UNESCO World Heritage Sites, has been destroyed in the fighting, in some cases erasing thousands of years of history.

Forces moving into the Aleppo area to augment the re-energized Syrian Army and its associated loyalist militias (called the "shabihah" or ghosts in Arabic) include: additional Hizballah units from Lebanon (Hizballah websites report "two brigades" including armor, engineers and intelligence*), more Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force troops, other "elite" Iranian forces and interestingly, but not surprisingly, Iraqi Shi'a militias.

These additional non-Syrian forces will be under the leadership of well-known - and revered in Iranian, Syrian, Iraqi and Lebanese circles - Major General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force. The Iranian government has now acknowledged Iranian forces' involvement in the fighting in Syria. Just last week, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani publicly issued condolences over the death of a senior IRGC commander in the fighting near Aleppo.

Things appear to be growing more serious on the American side as well. Over the last few days, the U.S. Air Force has deployed at least 12 A-10 "Warthog" attack fighters (above photo) to Incirclik Air Base on southern Turkey, less than 100 miles from targets in Syria - that is just minutes in a fighter jet.

The "Warthog" attack aircraft augment the U.S. Air Force F-16 fighters and armed drones that have been operating from the Turkish air base since August. However, the Americans have decided not to attack Syrian military or militia targets, Iranian forces, Iraqi Shi'a militias or Lebanese Hizballah fighters on the ground in Syria, limiting their air strikes to ISIS facilities. By doing so, they have ceded control of much of the battle to the Russians.

At some point, senior officials in Washington must realize that the Russians are now players in the region. We are involved in a proxy war again, albeit on a smaller scale than we "Cold Warriors" remember - we chose sides and did virtual but not actual battle with each other. The problem with proxy wars is that you must make sure that the side you chose to support actually represents your position and it worthy of that support.

Is the United States willing to confront Russia? Are we willing to have American pilots confront Russian pilots in the skies over Syria? Are we willing to have American-Russian relations defined by confrontations in the Middle East?

Good questions. The Russians have been clear about their objectives. Have we?

* For my Arabic-speaking readers, watch the video announcing the arrival of additional Hizballah units in Syria.

October 16, 2015

Turkish jets down Russian drone - what happened?

On October 16, Turkish fighter jets shot down an unmanned aerial vehicle almost two miles inside Turkish airspace. The wreckage appears to be that of a Russian ORLAN-10 drone. The exact model of drone is not important - for the purposes of this analysis, let us stipulate that this is a drone used by the Russian forces deployed to Syria.

The bulk of Russian forces in Syria are located at Humaymim Air Base, co-located with Basil al-Asad International Airport in the town of Jablah, on the Mediterranean coast about 10 miles south of Syria's major port at Latakia (see map).

If the ground control station for the Russian drone was located at the air base, its 140 kilometer (just over 85 miles) operating range would allow the Russians to conduct surveillance and reconnaissance missions as far away as the city of Aleppo. The drone went down near the Turkish city of Kilis (see map), almost 180 kilometers (110 miles) from Humaymim.

Most of the Russian airstrikes have been concentrated east of the coastal area, specifically in Idlib and Hamah provinces, in the area approximated by the red box on the map. This area has been the venue of heavy fighting between the Syrian regime on one side and a loose alliance of moderate and Islamic rebel groups on the other.

Some of the rebel groups have been supplied with U.S.-manufactured TOW anti-tank missiles - these missiles have taken a heavy toll on Syria's tanks and armored personnel carriers.* The recent increase in the number of TOW missiles in the hands of the rebels was partly responsible for the near collapse of the Syrian Army in most of Idlib and Hamah provinces.

It was likely these setbacks on the ground and the belief that the U.S.-led coalition was about to declare safe areas and no-fly zones in Syria that convinced the Russian leadership (a euphemism for President Vladimir Putin) that absent additional external support, the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad might fall.

As with most militaries in the world, the Russians use drones to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for both air and ground forces. When the Russians deployed to Syria, they brought drones with them. Although the Russians have access to Syrian and Iranian intelligence on their primary target set - the anti-regime rebel groups - all commanders prefer to have their own collection assets.

Russia's main objective in Syria is to support the regime of Bashar al-Asad. Despite the Kremlin's (another euphemism for Vladimir Putin) repetitious claims that Russian airstrikes are targeting fighters and facilities of the Islamic State (more commonly the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS), most sorties flown by the Russians have attacked non-ISIS rebels in Hamah and Idlib. The Russians have also started hitting targets in Aleppo province as a prelude to a Syrian regime offensive there.

As part of their air operations in Syria, the Russians are flying their drones over Hamah, Idlib and probably Aleppo provinces. As they get further north and east of Humaymim air base, the signals to and from the drones become weaker, as well as being affected by the coastal mountain range that separates the coastal homeland of Bashar al-Asad's 'Alawite sect from the Sunni areas to the east.

These areas are being targeted by Syrian forces - forces supported on the ground by Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard troops, Hizballah fighters and just within the last few days, Cuban special forces soldiers, and in the air by the Russian Air Force.

I believe that for whatever reason, the command data links between the ground station and the drone failed or were blocked by terrain, causing the drone to begin flying out of control. At some point, the drone crossed into Turkey - the Turks claim that two Turkish Air Force F-16 fighters subsequently shot down the drone.

The Turks really had no choice but to shoot down the drone. They claim that they "warned" the drone three times - I assume they made broadcasts on the international emergency frequencies warning anyone operating the drones that the aircraft had violated Turkish air space. The pilots may have made passes in sight of the drone's cameras/sensors, but I suspect the drone was too far from the ground station to relay the images back.

In addition to the sovereignty issue, the Turks would have needed to down the out-of-control drone as a safety issue before it approached any populated areas.

There is nothing sinister here. Drones sometimes go astray as they lose contact with their ground stations - this is much different then what I believe were the two deliberate manned fighter aircraft violations of Turkish air space earlier this month. Those incursions were meant to send a message to the Turks.

The Turks will complain, the Russians - if they ever admit that a Russian-made ORLAN-10 drone in pieces on the ground in Turkey is actually theirs - will apologize, and the carnage in Syria will continue unabated.

* In April 2014 (American arms to Syria? Too little, too late?) I wrote:

Earlier this year, President Obama met with Saudi King 'Abdullah to discuss Syria. After the meeting, the President's deputy national security advisor reiterated the administration's concerns over supplying MANPADS to the rebels, but made no mention of anti-tank weapons. This comes just after the disclosure that the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG) took delivery of almost 16,000 TOW missiles late last year. The SANG is a force of about 100,000 men (organized into eight brigades) separate from the Ministry of Defense and Aviation structure and is a counterbalance to the Royal Saudi Land Forces.

Coincidence? Maybe not.

Let's look at this. That is a huge quantity of TOW missiles for that size force and for the potential threats the Saudis may face in the region. If you combine the armies of Israel, Iran and Iraq, you have a total of about 8,000 tanks. Even if you double that to account for armored fighting vehicles, acquiring 16,000 TOW missiles for the SANG seems a bit high. That does not include the well over 20,000 TOWs in the Saudi Land Forces inventory. Now we have TOW missiles showing up in Syria - it just seems too convenient.