December 9, 2014

The Feinstein Report - a lame duck attack on the CIA?

Note to my readers: This differs from my usual analysis and ventures into political commentary. The subject matter is germane to the Middle East but involves U.S. politics. If you are not interested in my opinion on domestic politics, now is the time to hit the "BACK" button.

Outgoing Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)
"There may never be the right time to release this report. The instability we see today will not be resolved in months or years, but this report is too important to shelve indefinitely."

Yes and no, Senator. Your first statement was correct, your second was not.

The report that you believe needed to be released today is the work of the staffers of only the Democratic members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI). That fact alone calls into question the credibility of the report.

I have downloaded the 500+ page redacted executive summary (download it here) of the $40 million 6000+ page report based on over six million pages of data. I will read it, as I consider it part of my role as a CNN military analyst to do so, but it seems to me that when one political party selects what is in the report, it cannot be unbiased.

One thing that struck me from the outset was Senator Feinstein's description of the major findings in the executive summary. Of the 20 findings, not one was positive. For a period of time, I was an Air Force intelligence officer - an Arabic-speaking case officer - assigned to the CIA Directorate of Operations (DO). The DO was considered the combat arm of the intelligence community - when I was there, you did not run an operation for over five years without positive results. No results, no operation.

So what we have is a partisan report. The staffers, probably none of whom have ever served as professional intelligence officers, did not bother to interview any of the interrogators or analysts who were involved in the program they sought to evaluate.

I must confess that I am disappointed in the SSCI staff. That staff was - 15 years ago - a truly bipartisan committee with professional non-partisan staffers.* That means that the staff worked for the committee, not individual members. That is no longer the case - staffers are hired by, and are loyal to, individual members. That is what I call partisan, not professional. Unfortunately, some media outlets merely have accepted the report as the gospel.

Many will point to the remarks of Senator John McCain. I have nothing but respect for the former Navy pilot and prisoner of war, but I do disagree with his assessment of the efficacy of torture. His torturers were there to inflict pain to acquire information for propaganda purposees, while a professional intelligence service can be effective in extracting useful intelligence information - the Germans in World War II were quite skilled at it.

The timing of this is suspect. When questioned by CNN's Wolf Blitzer about the possibility that the release of this report might place American troops or diplomats abroad in danger, she said that if people were killed because of the release of the report, she would "feel badly" about it. I will let the readers determine their own reaction to that.

I am sorry to have to say this, but I have come to the conclusion that the release of this report just weeks before the senator loses her position as chair of the SSCI is nothing more than a lame-duck attack on the CIA. I am not sure why the senator chose to take this action, but I am not buying Vice President Joe Biden "transparency makes us stronger" kumbaya drivel.

I view this as nothing more than a blatant attempt by this Administration (who I believe pressured Senator Feinstein to do this - she is usually much smarter than this) to embarrass former President Bush and to strike out at the Republican Party, the party that the American body politic believes needs to be in control of the Senate and House of Representatives.

This report contributes nothing to the debate - it merely opens an old wound at a time when we need to confront external threats to the country, not revive an old internal, partisan battle.

This was not the right time - perhaps, as the Senator says, there may never be a "right time" to release this.


* Disclosure: My wife was a professional (not partisan) staffer on the SSCI.

December 7, 2014

The likely fall of Syria's Dayr al-Zawr air base - another slaughter on the horizon?

ISIS self-proclaimed capital at al-Raqqah and the contested Dayr al-Zawr air base

Numerous media and the information (read: propaganda) office of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are reporting the imminent fall of Dayr al-Zawr air base. The loss of this air base would be a significant blow to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad.

As evident on the map above, Dayr al-Zawr is the key military installation in eastern Syria, even more key since the fall of al-Raqqah and the garrison of the 17th Division earlier this year. Al-Raqqah is the current, temporary self proclaimed capital of the Islamic State - re-establishing the caliphate in Baghdad remains the ultimate goal of the Islamist organization.

Since late 2011 and continuing until now, elements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have made repeated attempts to take Dayr al-Zawr air base, with varying degrees of success. While they were somewhat successful in taking ground near the base, attacking the base with mortars and artillery - even hitting aircraft on the tarmac - they were never able to breach the defenses and seize the facility.

Some history is in order. For years, the base has been low on the priority list of the Syrian armed forces. It is located in the center of Syria, far removed from the main areas of concern to Damascus - mostly focused on its neighbors Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

Most of the Syrian defense budget was spent on defenses in the southwestern and western part of the country - the expected avenues of attack from what it perceives as its principal threat, Israel. That perception was reinforced by the December 7 Israeli air attacks on two areas near Damascus.

In the mid-1970s when Syria began to fill the al-Asad Dam on the Euphrates River near Tabaqah (east of al-Raqqah), Iraq threatened military action against Syria because of the reduced flow of water. In the few months of increased fighter patrols and a few incursions by both sides, the base was an important facility. Additional - and more capable - fighter aircraft were moved temporarily to Dayr al-Zawr to confront Iraqi fighters. At that time, both sides were flying the Russian-built MiG-21.

After the al-Asad dam crisis abated and for the next four and a half decades, the base returned to its secondary priority status. It was mostly used as a civilian airport for those Syrians who did not want to make the six hour drive from Damascus. I have driven from Damascus to Dayr al-Zawr (and beyond) on numerous occasions - it is a long drive through the desert; beautiful, but long.

The importance of the base has taken on new meaning since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011. Opposition military attacks have taken place all over the country, virtually everywhere except in the heavily defended center of Damascus. Dayr al-Zawr governorate - center of Syria's oil industry - was no exception.

Since the fighting began, rebels sought to seize oilfields and oil processing facilities in the area. The Syrian regime reinforced the military garrisons in the area, including the 17th Division in al-Raqqah and the Dayr al-Zawr air base. There is a large air defense installation adjacent to the air base which houses the additional Syrian forces deployed to the area.

Dayr al-Zawr air base - ISIS has seized al-Jafrah to the east

Looking at imagery, it would appear that ISIS (or the FSA in the past) might have an easy time of moving from al-Jafrah across the highway to the air base. Actually, the army/air defense installation sits on a ridge that commands the entire area, complicating the situation for anyone approaching the air base. While the FSA was able to get as far as the outer defenses, they were always under the guns of the defenders dug in on the high ground.

If ISIS fighters follow their usual tactics, the group will lay siege to the air base and the adjacent air defense facility. When either the FSA or ISIS has cut off Syrian forces in the past, the Syrian Air Force attempted to drop ammunition and supplies by helicopter. However, because Dayr al-Zawr is remote and not near other Syrian air bases, this option may not be viable. The Syrians, as they did in al-Raqqah, will likely be forced to surrender.

Syrian soldiers being executed by ISIS after the fall of al-Raqqah 

In the past - in both Iraq and Syria - surrendering to ISIS has proven to be nothing but the prelude to a bloodbath. When Iraqi military units collapsed and many soldiers were taken prisoner, most of them were killed in gruesome displays of cruelty - that continues to happen in the Euphrates Valley in Iraq.

When the Syrian 17th Division garrisons were taken in al-Raqqah, ISIS went on a killing rampage, beheading scores of Syrian troops and simply machine-gunning others. Given that background, the Syrians may choose to fight to the last man.

If the military installations in Dayr al-Zawr fall to ISIS, I suspect there will be another slaughter, all captured on video and posted on social media.

December 3, 2014

The new Secretary of Defense - we need a "wartime consigliere"

Outgoing Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and his likely successor Ashton Carter

Last week, CNN called and alerted me that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was about to announce his resignation, and that I should be ready to offer my analysis of the impact of Hagel's upcoming departure.

I subsequently made three appearances on both CNN and CNN International to provide my thoughts. My assessment, which turned out to be correct, was that Secretary Hagel was forced out by a small group of President Obama's advisers. There is some history germane to the Hagel firing as well as his relationship to the other members of the national security team.

Mr. Hagel had been brought to the Secretary of Defense position after his two predecessors wrote books soon after they had retired that contained some unflattering reviews of the President's and his advisers' conduct of foreign policy. It was thought that Hagel would be a noncontroversial team player who would merely follow the President's orders - as formulated by the White House insiders, including Valerie Jarrett and Susan Rice - without any pushback.

For the initial part of Secretary Hagel's tenure at the Pentagon, they were correct. He executed the Administration's policies - flawed policies in many analysts' opinions - in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 2013, when the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Asad crossed an Obama "red line" by using chemical weapons on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus, Hagel was confronted by the senior military leadership over the abysmal decision of the President to not act on his threats to punish the Syrians with U.S. military action.

That failure to maintain American credibility has emboldened those around the world who now believe they can act with impunity without engendering an American reaction - Vladimir Putin and the Russians come to mind. It appeared that American military action was permanently "off the table."

That changed when fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) moved into northern Iraq from northeastern Syria and almost without resistance seized Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. The President was convinced to act to try and remedy the Administration-caused debacle in both Iraq and Syria, probably by the same advisers that developed the failed policies that got us into this situation.

It was the Obama Administration's failure to reach an agreement with the Iraqis in 2011 to allow a residual force of American troops to remain in the country that created the conditions that led to the ultimate collapse of the Iraqi Army. See my earlier article, Iraq's second largest city falls to Islamists - fault of the United States?

Likewise, it was the refusal of the Administration in 2012 to provide money, weapons and training to the secular Free Syrian Army (FSA), creating a vacuum gladly filled by al-Qa'idah in Iraq, which joined with other Islamists in Syria to form ISIS.

Those two ill-advised actions - running for the door in Iraq, and refusing to assist the FSA when they needed support and had a good chance of success in removing the al-Asad regime - created the conditions under which ISIS has become a major threat to the region, and the United States and its allies.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey has recently been quite vocal in his public statements, including a commitment to recommend to the President to re-introduce American ground combat forces into Iraq if the general felt the situation warranted it. That was almost a challenge to President Obama's White House advisers, or as they have been called, the "chairborne rangers."

Secretary Hagel tried walking a fine line between the President and the military leadership. I suspect that posture was viewed at the White House as an act of disloyalty on the part of the Secretary. Secretary Hagel is a decorated and twice-wounded Vietnam combat veteran - I doubt he knows how to be disloyal.

Secretary Hagel departs at a time when the military leadership at the Department of Defense is at odds with the White House and National Security Council over their inept handling of the fight against ISIS - including micromanagement of the air campaign - the future role of American forces in Afghanistan, and continued cutting of the military budget.

The question is what happens next? According to media reports, the President will nominate former Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter to replace Hagel.

The choice of successor is critical to the future conduct of American foreign policy - we are fighting two wars (more correctly, one war on two fronts), Iran has successfully out-maneuvered this Administration and will likely become a nuclear-armed state, the Russians have designs on portions (or all) of Ukraine, and the Chinese are rapidly expanding their military capabilities.

I fear that the President is looking for a manager that his staff can manipulate - that is what they thought they were getting when they nominated former Senator Hagel. What we need is a leader who can take the advice of his military leadership - they are the professionals at conducting successful military operations - and go to the President and convince him of the measures necessary to execute effective foreign policy. The new Secretary must be able to marginalize the amateurs currently making policy.

What we need, to paraphrase Michael Corleone in the movie The Godfather, is a wartime consigliere. The Secretary of Defense is not merely an administrator, but an active participant in the command and control of military operations. Since the passage of the Goldwater–Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, the military chain of command goes directly from the President/Commander in Chief to the Secretary of Defense to the combatant commander.

For example, orders in the war against ISIS flow from President Obama to Secretary Hagel to General Austin (commander of the U.S. Central Command). Note the absence of the Vice President, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the military service chiefs. The Chairman provides advice to the President and Secretary of Defense, and the service chiefs provide combat-ready forces to the combatant commanders.

Mr. Carter, from all accounts, is a highly-qualified bureaucrat - he has served with distinction in a variety of positions in the Department of Defense - as well as experienced in academia and consulting.

However, is he a wartime consigliere? We will soon see.

December 2, 2014

"The unwanted ally" - Iran conducts airstrikes against ISIS

Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force F-4E with four AGM-65 Maverick anti-tank missiles

According to an anonymous Obama Administration official, aircraft of the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) have conducted airstrikes against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) targets in Iraq. This means that ISIS is being attacked by the air forces of three distinct entities: the U.S.-led coalition, the Syrian Air Force and now the IRIAF.

While that might sound like a good thing - more attacks on the enemy should be a welcome situation - it creates a dangerous situation. Many members of the coalition, primarily the United States, have no diplomatic relations let alone military contacts with Iran or Syria. Iran and Syria are close allies, in fact they have had a mutual defense treaty in place for decades.

In Syria, coalition and Syrian aircraft are already operating in close proximity to each other. As an example, over the past week, there have been American and Syrian airstrikes on ISIS's self-proclaimed capital city of al-Raqqah in north central Syria. Al-Raqqah is also close to the flight routes to and from the embattled city of Kobani (also called 'Ayn al-'Arab) on the Turkish border.

Al-Raqqah and Kobani ('Ayn al-'Arab)

It is hard to believe that there is no coordination or some contact between the coalition and the Syrian defense ministry. You simply cannot have armed, high-performance military aircraft operating in close proximity to each other without some coordination. Things happen very quickly at the speeds at which these aircraft operate, all flown by young, aggressive pilots.

There are a variety of American intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft operating around the clock over Iraq with the capability to monitor all air activity over both countries (and beyond). These assets will detect any potential threat to American or coalition aircraft, and direct a reaction if necessary. The potential for a misunderstanding and a combat engagement is high.

I suspect that because of political realities, there is a level of coordination between the Syrian and Iraqi ministries of defense. The Iraqi government of former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was a close ally of the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Asad.

That alliance undoubtedly continues under new Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi. The alliance goes further - both Syria and Iraq are close allies of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Some observers have lamented the de facto establishment of "Shi'a Crescent" extending from Beirut via Damascus and Baghdad to Tehran.

Enter the Iranian Air Force. Iranian forces in Iraq are nothing new - they have had troops operating in a variety of roles in Iraq since the fall of Mosul to ISIS earlier this year. Iran deployed members of its capable Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) special operations unit, the Qods Force.

Although the official Iranian government line is that while there are Iranian "advisers" in Iraq, there are no combat troops - somewhat akin to the Obama Administration fiction that there are no American forces in Iraq in a combat role. However, on Arabic and Persian language social media, there are numerous postings that detail Iranian forces' operations in both Iraq and Syria.


Granted, the Iranian airstrikes have targeted ISIS positions about 20 miles from the Iranian border inside Iraq. After the fall of Mosul, ISIS forces advanced rapidly down the Tigris Valley to the Ba'qubah area and then headed up the Diyala Valley towards the strategic dam at Jalula', as well as moving west towards the Iraqi Kurdish Autonomous Region capital of Irbil.

After some initial difficulties, the Kurdish peshmerga fighters were able to blunt the ISIS offensive. The Kurds, with Iraqi Army and coalition air support, were able to retake the strategic Mosul dam and are now pushing back in the Jalula' area. The Iranian airstrikes were in support of that operation.

The Kurds have a good relationship with the Iranians - they have done so for years, often as a counterbalance to the hostile Saddam regime. After all, Saddam used chemical weapons on the Iraqi Kurd population in the city of Halabjah in 1988 to test the newly developed Sarin nerve agent. When I worked with the Kurds in northern Iraq in 1995-1996, we often ran into IRGC Qods Force teams doing pretty much the same things that we were doing....

Just what does the coordination between the Syrians, Iranians and the coalition entail? Since the middleman in all this is most likely the Iraqi military intelligence service, I suspect that not only are details of air operations being shared, but whether we like it or not, our intelligence on ISIS is finding its way to planners at tactical air operations centers in Syria and Iran as well. Hopefully, we are getting some of their intelligence in return - I have no doubt that the Syrians and Iranians have useful, actionable intelligence on ISIS.

Right now, ISIS is the enemy. In the future, Syria and Iran will probably be. Let's rid the world of the scourge of ISIS, then worry about the others. So, Iran may be an "unwanted ally," but it helps achieve our objective.

November 17, 2014

ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusrah alliance - a wrench in Obama's plan?

The flags of ISIS (left) and Jabhat al-Nusrah (right)

Media reports of an alliance between the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - which calls itself the Islamic State or the Caliphate - and the al-Qa'idah affiliate in Syria known as Jabhat al-Nusrah (the Victory Front), could derail the Obama Administration's strategy to "degrade, and ultimately destroy" the organization.

The Obama strategy has been to use American and coalition airpower to support a ground force - which does not include U.S. troops - in the fight against ISIS. In Iraq, that has a possibility of success, after all, there is a standing Iraqi army, supplemented by the Kurdish forces known as the peshmerga ("those who confront death"). The Iraqi army had been trained and equipped by the United States and some of our European allies, at great expense to the American taxpayer.

Many analysts were surprised, even shocked, when that U.S.-trained Iraqi army collapsed in the face of the ISIS advance on the northern Iraqi city of Mosul (al-mawsil, Iraq's second largest city). The Iraqi forces, who outnumbered and outgunned the attacking ISIS fighters, should have been able to easily stop and defeat the approaching Islamist forces.

Instead, the Iraqi ranks broke, the soldiers removed their uniforms, and abandoned much of their state-of-the-art American-made equipment. That equipment is now in the hands of ISIS, and being used by them - many of the ISIS fighters are former Iraqi army soldiers and capable of using the weapons and materiel.

Following the departure - premature in my opinion - of American troops in 2011, there were no Americans on the ground to monitor the status of the Iraqi army. Neither Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki nor President Barack Obama engaged in serious attempts to work out an agreement by which American forces could remain in Iraq.

Prime Minister al-Maliki was being pressured by his Iranian sponsors to force the Americans out, and President Obama was anxious to end the American involvement in the country, regardless of the security situation. The Iraqi army devolved from a fairly competent albeit nascent fighting force to a corrupt, undisciplined and hollow organization controlling (and stealing) vast amounts of national treasure. For a detailed description of what happened to the Iraqi military, see my June 24 article, Where is the Iraqi Army?

After taking Mosul, ISIS began a well-planned and well-executed military campaign in northern and western Iraq, moving down the Tigris Valley and expanding its holdings in the Euphrates Valley. This prompted an American response - the formation of a coalition and the commencement of air operations against ISIS targets in both Iraq and Syria.

The stated Obama foreign policy goal is to "degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL" (the government term for ISIS)*. The strategy to achieve that goal is to continue the air operations in both countries, complemented by ground operations. It is the ground operations that are the difficult part of the strategy. The Iraqi army must be re-organized into an effective fighting force - no small task.

The initial American assessments of just how bad the Iraqi army has become were worse than anyone had imagined. It was this realization that drove President Obama's decision to double the American troop presence in Iraq, and expand their operations from Baghdad and Irbil (in the Kurdish autonomous region) to training and adviser missions in embattled al-Anbar province.

That piece of the plan addresses Iraq, and given time and appropriate American commitment, at least has a chance of being successful. If it is not successful, that raises the possibility of the re-introduction of American combat units to address the threat posed by ISIS. That is an argument for another day.

The effort in Syria is much more problematic. The country is involved in a civil war that has raged since early 2011. Over 200,000 Syrians have been killed, hundreds of thousands more wounded, and millions have been displaced to refugee camps in Syria or in the neighboring countries.

The Obama plan for Syria is to vet, train and equip "moderate Syrian opposition" forces to fight ISIS. "Moderate opposition forces" generally means the association of groups that comprise the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The FSA is made up of a large number of Syrian military personnel who have defected and taken up arms against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad.

Here is where it gets complicated. ISIS is fighting in Syria to establish its so-called caliphate, the Islamic State. To accomplish this, they have been fighting virtually everyone in the country. That includes not only the Syrian regime, but also the FSA; the Syrian Kurds who occupy enclaves near Aleppo, along the Syrian border with Turkey and the areas of northeast Syria adjacent to Iraq; and Jabhat al-Nusrah.

There are other groups in Syria as well, and many have overlapping loyalties, most of them temporary and tactical. In short, it is a confusing mess. There are a few analysts who try to keep track of what is happening with the multiple groups in Syria, but things change daily based on the situation and the many moving parts.

That said, there is a major change that might be problematic for the Obama strategy. According to multiple media sources, Jabhat al-Nusrah and ISIS have agreed to a temporary alliance to fight the Syrian regime and any U.S./coalition forces in Syria. Both of these organizations now consider the FSA as part of the U.S.-led coalition.

With their combined forces and capabilities, ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusrah pose a real threat to the FSA. In the area around Aleppo where the FSA controlled large swaths of territory, attacks by the Syrian armed forces, ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusrah are taking a toll as the FSA appears to be under attack from all sides.

It is a smart strategy for ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusrah - make alliances with those who share a common enemy, or as we Middle East players recite the local adage, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." When ISIS joins with Jabhat al-Nusrah to fight the FSA, who has suffered from heavy attacks by the al-Asad regime in the Aleppo area, the FSA's chance of survival decreases dramatically. Several FSA units have been routed - they abandoned to ISIS/Jabhat al-Nusrah the new gem in the FSA arsenal - the U.S.-made highly effective TOW antitank guided missile system.

If ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusrah are successful in their campaign against the FSA, the Obama strategy, which is already in trouble, might actually strengthen ISIS instead of degrading it. According to public announcements from the Administration, it will take about a year to vet and train a few thousand FSA fighters - that is just too few, too late. With the new ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusrah alliance, the FSA may not survive that long.

Here is a key point. The FSA is focused on removing the regime of Bashar al-Asad from power, not the defeat of ISIS. The Obama Administration wants them to fight, well, actually to "degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL." These are two distinctly different objectives. If I was the FSA, I would say whatever the Obama Administration wants to hear, accept the money, weapons and training ostensibly to fight ISIS, and then go after the Syrian regime. Anyone who understands the Middle East knows that is exactly what will happen.

ISIS murdering Syrian air force captives - November 2014

The next few weeks will tell. It might be time to recognize the ISIS-Jabhat al-Nusrah alliance and go after both groups. Given the brutal murders of American Peter (also known as 'Abd al-Rahman) Kassig and 20 Syrian air force captives (photo above), they are cut from the same cloth and should be dealt with accordingly. Hopefully, we will hear no more talk of "managing ISIS" from the Administration.

This alleged alliance between ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusrah is a concern. The two groups have significant combat power and could conceivably pose a threat to the viability of the FSA, Obama's chosen proxy in Syria. The FSA is being currently battered by the Syrian army and air force - their stronghold of Aleppo is almost completely surrounded by regime troops. Even if they are successful in holding out against the Syrian forces, now they must contend with the combined power of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusrah.

For ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusrah, this tactical alliance is the smart move. It's what I would do in their shoes. It neutralizes the American proxy threat (the FSA) and removes an impediment to the establishment of a caliphate in the region.

* The debate over the terms ISIS versus ISIL revolves around the translation of the Arabic name for Damascus, Syria and the Levant. See my detailed explanation at ISIS versus ISIL - what's in a name?

November 14, 2014

Iranian nuclear talks - maybe time to walk away?

The only thing spinning faster than Iran's almost 20,000 centrifuges is the rhetoric coming from both sides of the issue.

According to the Iranians, 90 percent of the issues have been resolved. The American negotiator, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, says "there has been impressive progress on issues that originally seemed intractable. We have cleared up misunderstandings and held exhaustive discussions on every element of a possible text."

Amazing - you would think that with those statements from the two participants who matter the most, we are on the verge of a groundbreaking agreement that will end Iran's quest for nuclear weapons and that the economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic are about to be lifted.

You would be wrong.

The talks are nowhere - all the years of "negotiating" (if it can be called that) - have yielded almost nothing positive for anyone but Iran. While the P5+1 (the five permanent member nations of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) have been attempting to convince Iran to abandon its drive to acquire a nuclear weapons capability, Iran has been aggressively enriching uranium and building a reactor that can produce plutonium. We're talking while they are pursuing two separate efforts to acquire the fissile material required to produce nuclear weapons.

Time is and has been on Iran's side. In all of the years of talks on this issue, the Iranians have not agreed to much, and those conditions they they do accept, they violate. It is their strategy - keep the talks going while they develop the materials needed for a weapon. Each and every time the talks are about to collapse and the threats of additional sanctions loom on the horizon, Iran agrees to more talks, or agrees to talk about having more talks.

That is what is happening yet again. There are 10 days remaining until the next deadline, another deadline in an series of deadlines. In November 2013, the P5+1 and Iran reached an interim deal - at that point Iran agreed to reduce some of its enrichment activity in return for the easing of some of the economic sanctions. The parties agreed to continue the process for one year, with a new deadline of November 24, 2014. There was a strange mechanism of allowing "negotiations" until July 20, 2014, followed by four months of drafting the agreement.

As most Middle East analysts predicted, the negotiating period and drafting period have almost expired, and there is no deal in sight. Faced with the November 24 deadline, there are calls for yet another extension. Yes, the P5+1 will agree to talk, and the Iranians will continue to expand their inventory of fissile material. However, it gets better. Some of the parties are proposing that during the new extension period, there be additional sanctions relief for the Iranian economy, which is in a recession.

This is insanity. It rewards Iran's refusal to make any serious concessions in its enrichment activity. The Iranians have learned over the years that their intransigence is usually met with P5+1 concessions. It is the same cycle over and over.

Perhaps it is time to tell the Iranians that the time for talking is over, that additional tougher economic sanctions are a virtual certainty in the wake of the Republican gains in the recent U.S. elections, and that under no circumstances will the Islamic Republic be allowed to develop the capability to build a nuclear weapon.

President Obama needs to stick to his original position that no deal is better than a bad deal. Here are the conditions, what is your answer: yes or no? A "no" response means the imposition of crippling sanctions we have been promising for years.

If that doesn't work, nothing has been taken off the table. Iranian leaders only need look to the west and south - there is a lot of American airpower in the region dealing with ISIS, based in countries that are not favorable to the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.

If that sounds like a threat, so be it.

November 4, 2014

Voting - Syrian style

Syrian President Bashar al-Asad and wife Asma' casting their ballots

Today is election day in the United States, the day we Americans elect who will govern the country. It is a right most of us take for granted, and too few of us actually exercise. For those of us who have served abroad in countries that do not have this right, it is disappointing to watch the low turnout numbers.

Let me contrast our right to vote with an anecdote about voting in Syria.

In the early to mid-1990s, I served as the air attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus. As with any embassy tour, you develop friendships among the local population. Since both my wife and I could speak Arabic, it was fairly easy for us to meet people. One of the couples that we met were a doctor and his wife - great people. We will call them Samir and Layla Fulani.

One night we were invited to dinner at the Fulanis' - it happened to be election day in Syria. Samir was a bit late getting home from the state-run hospital where he worked. After his initial greetings to Layla and the children, he sat down and we began a conversation. I asked him if he had voted in the election during the day. He laughed, shaking his head, saying the Arabic equivalent of "what a joke."

I asked him what he meant - although I was under no illusion that the Syrian regime of Hafiz al-Asad (father of the current president) was going to conduct free and fair elections. Samir recounted his "voting" experience.

The doctor had arrived at the hospital that morning at the usual time. As he was walking across the lobby to his office, the hospital director called out to Samir and asked him to come into his office. In the office were two Ba'th Party officials. I asked Samir how he knew they were party officials. He smiled at me and said, "Oh, you just know."

The officials welcomed Samir and asked him if he planned to vote that day. He responded that he was planning to stop by on his way home from work and cast his ballot. One of the officials gave the typical Levantine click of the tongue and remarked that since the doctor was so busy and of course a loyal supporter of the Ba'th Party, that he had taken the liberty of filling out Samir's ballot for him.

Before I continue, I want to stress that Samir and I were good friends, so we often "tweaked" each other a bit. So, I asked him how the official had voted? He just nodded and gave me the "I'll get you later" smile. I then asked how he let them get away with such obvious voter intimidation and voter fraud. He asked me, "My brother Rick, how long have you lived here?"

I replied, "Long enough to know the answer."

That's how the Syrian president is elected and re-elected. Normally in the past, it was a referendum - do you want Hafiz al-Asad, or later, Bashar al-Asad to be the President of the Syrian Arab Republic? Yes or no. In the last election, the system was changed to allow multiple candidates. Who but an approved patsy is going to run against a brutal dictator?

The joke in Damascus - and you have to laugh sometimes to get by in these countries - was that after the election/referendum, an aide ran into the president's office and reported that the president had won 99.7 percent of the vote - what more could he want? The president replied, "The names of the .3...."

No matter how many hiccups there are today, and there will be some, at least we get to cast a real vote. Please exercise that right - many of us served in some faraway places to guarantee that you continue to have that right.

October 29, 2014

Iraqi peshmerga troops cross Turkey to Kobani - why, and will it matter?

The initial cadre of Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters headed for the northern Syrian town of Kobani arrived in Turkey early Wednesday (October 29). The group of 80 men flew from an Iraqi air base outside Irbil to a Turkish air base near the city of Saniurfa, about 30 miles north of Kobani - they brought with them just light weapons. The fighters were loaded onto buses and headed south toward the Syrian border, with a Turkish military escort.

At the same time, a convoy of 70 Iraqi peshmerga fighters and vehicles - heavy trucks, armored vehicles and a variety of SUVs - departed Irbil and made its way into Turkey at the Habur border crossing*, adjacent to the Iraqi city of Zakhu.

The Iraqi Kurd convoy (see top photos) is transporting the remainder of the peshmerga force with heavy weapons - artillery and mortars - which will be of great use in the fighting against members of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The Syrian Kurds, who are not as experienced or well-equipped as their Iraqi cousins, have been outmanned and outgunned in the battle for Kobani which has been raging for weeks now.

As many as 200,000 Syrian Kurds have fled the ISIS assault on Kobani and the surrounding area. It was only the introduction of U.S.-lead coalition airpower that has provided enough firepower to allow the Kurdish fighters of the People's Protection Units (abbreviated as YPG in Kurdish) to stave off what appeared to be an inevitable defeat.

The peshmerga convoy must traverse 375 road miles to bring the additional troops and the greater firepower from Irbil to Kobani (see maps) - it is 125 miles from Irbil to the border crossing at Habur/Zakhu, and then another 250 miles to Kobani, Syria.

I traveled these roads years ago - they were in good condition, used for years by the the Turkish Army in its military campaign against its own Kurds and the Kurdish Workers' Party, known by its Kurdish abbreviation, the PKK. The PKK has been designated to be a terrorist organization by the U.S. Department of State.

There are several extraordinary things going on here. Having followed events in these countries for almost four decades, some of it is surprising and beyond what I thought I would ever see. The Turks allowing an armed Kurdish force, be they Iraqi, Syrian or Turkish Kurds is almost mind boggling. The conflict between the Turks and the Kurds resident in Turkey has been going on for 30 years. The separatist PKK mounted an armed insurgency, killing tens of thousands of Turkish citizens - and used northern Syria as a base of operations.

To complicate things, the former Syrian president, Hafiz al-Asad - father of the current ruler - allowed the PKK to use Syrian territory when he wanted to try to pressure Ankara to settle border or water rights issues. The Turks regard the YPG as linked to the PKK and as having cooperated with them in their cross-border operations into Turkey. You can be sure that the Turks are paying close attention to how many of which weapons are entering Turkey and then being introduced into Syria. They will probably want an accounting when this is all over.

So why are the Turks being so cooperative all of a sudden?

Up until now, the Turks have paid only lip-service to supporting the coalition. The coalition can only use Turkish air bases for humanitarian operations, not to launch the airstrikes required to blunt ISIS's offensives in eastern Syria and western Iraq.

Turkish leaders have stated conditions that must be met before they fully participate in the coalition: they want a commitment that the coalition will support the removal of the current Syrian regime, the imposition of a no-fly zone over Syria and establishment of a security buffer zone inside Syria along the Turkish border. Thus far, the coalition has not agreed to those conditions.

The Turks have been soundly criticized in world public opinion for their lack of support to the coalition and their seeming willingness to sit within sight of the slaughter in Kobani and do nothing. The decision to allow the Iraqi Kurds to transit Turkey to reinforce the Syrian Kurds in Kobani is nothing more than a compromise - it makes Turkey look good without having to really do anything other than continue to sit an watch.

If the reports we are reading in the media are accurate, there will now be an additional 150 Kurds in Kobani fighting the ISIS assault. Granted, the Iraqi Kurds are bringing some better firepower in the form of artillery and mortars - indirect fire weapons that can accurately place rounds on ISIS targets. There are also reports of a group of 50 Free Syrian Army (FSA) having arrived in Kobani to assist in the fight against ISIS. The FSA is the "moderate" opposition fighters the United States hopes will be "boots on the ground" to confront ISIS and to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Asad.

Are 200 more fighters going to turn the tide against ISIS?

It depends - what do the 200 bring to the table? There is increased firepower, and most likely skilled artillery soldiers to make it effective. One can hope that in that group of Iraqi peshmerga there are a few that have received training from the American "advisers" on how to properly coordinate airstrikes and close air support. The airstrikes by American B-1 bombers appear to be the key reason the city has not fallen to ISIS.

Both sides have blood and resources invested in winning the battle of Kobani. For the Syrian Kurds, it is their home. For the Iraqi Kurds, it is the commitment to defend their fellow Kurds, their cousins if you will.

On the opposite side, ISIS wants to consolidate their gains in this part of Syria, particularly on the Syrian border. They have lost hundreds of fighters and do not want to face another defeat - it would represent the beginning of the end of the blitzkrieg between the Turkish border and Baghdad. In Iraq, the Iraqi Army with Shi'a militia support has retaken a key area southwest of Baghdad. Another defeat - such as a loss in Kobani - would deal a serious blow to ISIS's momentum.

That said, will the 200 additional fighters make a difference in the battle? Hard to say. With constant American airstrikes and now Kurdish artillery, it is certainly more of an equal fight. I am now more optimistic, but the realist in me believes it could still go either way.

* In the 1990's, I used this crossing numerous times while assigned to the CIA to work with the Kurds in northern Iraq.

The author and Kurdish peshmerga fighter in northern Iraq - 1995

October 27, 2014

Messrs Obama, Kerry, Hagel - send the Apaches to Egypt already!

It was supposed to be part of the solution, part of the reconciliation effort between the governments of Egypt and the United States. Relations between the two countries - once close allies - had been strained since the 2013 ouster of the elected President of Egypt, Muslim Brotherhood member Muhammad Mursi.

On July 3, 2013, following a series of massive protests - at one point comprising almost 30 percent of the Egyptian population - Minister of Defense General 'Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi removed President Mursi from power, appointed an interim government, suspended the constitution, and called for new presidential and parliamentary elections.

The author with then-Minister of Defense General 'Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi (September 2013)

For all practical purposes, and in the U.S. government's view, this was a military coup d'etat. The new Egyptian leadership disagreed - I had this conversation with General al-Sisi in Cairo soon after he had removed Mursi. He explained that he was merely "executing the will of the Egyptian people."

I asked if he had mobilized units of the Egyptian Army and deployed them at key positions around Cairo and other major cities around the country. He allowed that he had, but claimed that it was not a coup as he did not assume power, but instead had asked the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to act as the interim authority pending new elections.

I knew where he was going with this line of explanation. American law is very specific in how we react as a nation to military takeovers. I said that I understood his concern that the United States government would label this a coup and be forced to react. His fears were well placed.

The United States, citing the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, immediately cut off all aid to Egypt, including the annual $1.5 billion in military assistance. Although President Barack Obama had the authority to waive the requirements of the law, he chose not to do so and applied sanctions on the interim Egyptian government.

The results were immediate. The Egyptian armed forces, charged with keeping the peace in the face of the expected Muslim Brotherhood violence - aimed mainly at the mostly defenseless Coptic Christians - found themselves without access to needed military hardware and spare parts.

The United States still maintains those sanctions on Egypt. The Egyptian military has had to ground many of its Apache helicopters and F-16 fighter-bombers when they are sorely needed to fight a growing Muslim Brotherhood insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula.

By April 2014, it was obvious to the United States that the Egyptians needed the additional 10 Apache helicopters that were on order, as well as the spare parts and maintenance assistance to address the Sinai situation. Egypt had ordered the 10 helicopters in 2010 to augment the 35 aircraft which have been in the Egyptian Air Force inventory since 2003.

On April 22, 2014 the Department of Defense announced that the U.S. government has vacated it suspension of the delivery of helicopters. The mood in Cairo was one of relief, that the helicopters would soon be on their way and the relationship between the two militaries was on the mend. When asked about the delivery, Secretary of State John Kerry said the deliveries would "take place without further delay."

However, the helicopters have yet to be delivered. This despite the assurances by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel just last month that the deliveries were forthcoming. The decision to release the helicopters does not affect the ban on other weapons systems on order - F-16 fighter jets, M1A1 main battle tank kits for local production, and Harpoon anti-ship missiles.

The AH-64 Apache bases - Abu Hamad and Wadi al-Jandali

Egypt's Apaches are flown by the Air Force's 550th Air Brigade (the "Dragons"), with the 51st Squadron "Vipers" operating out of Wadi al-Jandali air base (east of Cairo) and the 52nd Squadron "Eagles" based at Abu Hamad air base (north of Cairo). It is a short flight to the Sinai.

The continuing violence in the Sinai was underscored last Friday (October 24) by a coordinated attack on an Army checkpoint on which 31 soldiers were killed - it was the Army's largest one-day loss of military life in decades. Egyptian authorities believe the attacks were inspired and carried out by the Muslim Brotherhood in retaliation for the coup that removed President Mursi from power in 2013.

President Obama, Secretary Kerry and Secretary Hagel - live up to your word. Give the Egyptians the tools they need to fight the Muslim Brotherhood - deliver the helicopters already.

October 26, 2014

Baghdad and its two supporting coalitions

The members of the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are not the only foreign countries supporting Iraq. As evidenced by the Facebook post above, both the Russian Federation and the Islamic Republic of Iran are participating, and have opened up a joint operations center in Baghdad. This is a parallel, separate operations center from the two American-Iraqi joint operations centers (one in Baghdad and one in the Kurdish regional capital of Irbil).

Iranian and Russian presence in Iraq is nothing new. The Russians are in the process of delivering a variety of weapons to the Iraqi armed forces - these include fighter jets, attack helicopters, mobile air defense systems, artillery pieces and rocket launchers. Those sales packages, of course, come with the requisite trainers and advisers.

The Russian-Iraqi military relationship goes back decades - Moscow was the primary supplier of Iraqi weapons from 1958 until the removal of the Saddam Husayn regime in 2003. The current Iraqi inventory is a mixture of American and European - both East and West - equipment.

The deployment of Russian officers as advisers in this joint Iraqi-Iranian-Russian operations center is a new development. For the Russians, it is an attempt to once again be relevant in Iraq, part of Russian President Vladimir Putin's effort to once again be relevant in the overall Middle East.

The Iranians have been a key player in Iraqi politics since the fall of the Ba'th Party and Saddam Husayn. Almost immediately after the Americans removed Saddam, the Iranians attempted to become the major power broker in the Persian Gulf region - with some success.

Iran has been able to create what many analysts call the "Shi'a Crescent" - a band of influence that extends from Beirut through Damascus and Baghdad to Tehran. Iraq has been transformed from an anti-Iran, anti-Syria country to a close ally of both of its neighbors.

Iranian special forces, members of the elite Qods Force, have been in both Syria and Iraq for months fighting ISIS, as well in Syria for years fighting the "moderate" anti-regime rebels. In fact, had Iran not come to the assistance of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad in 2012 by deploying its forces and those of its Lebanese proxy Hizballah, the Syrian regime may well have fallen.

Note the Facebook post on the Iran Military page above - it makes no secret that Iranian forces are in the fight against ISIS. The page highlights the success of the Iranians in retaking the Jurf al-Sakhar area (see map below) from ISIS.

The Jurf al-Sakhar area is located about 25 miles south-southwest of Baghdad in a Sunni-populated area. On the Euphrates River, it is part of the ISIS campaign to seize as much of the Euphrates Valley as possible, putting them in an excellent position to threaten Baghdad and the strategically essential Baghdad International Airport.

Pushing ISIS out of this area is a good thing, and it appears that the Iranians did a good job. I do need to point out that this area was the focus of the very first American airstrikes in Iraq after President Barack Obama authorized U.S. military action in August. One wonders if there was U.S. or coalition air support, or perhaps Iraqi Army Aviation assistance, for this operation.

Iran's stance on the U.S.-led coalition was predictable. Media coverage of a recent meeting between new Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-'Ibadi and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (photo) provided some interesting dialogue.

Khamenei: "We have no trust and confidence in the honesty of those making these remarks (against ISIS) and believe that the issue of ISIS and terrorism should be resolved by regional countries. The present circumstances in the region, including in Iraq, are the outcome of irresponsible policies adopted by transregional powers and certain regional countries in Syria. We believe that the Iraqi nation and government, particularly the country’s youths, are capable of overcoming terrorists and establishing security and there is no need for the presence of foreigners."

I particularly like the hypocrisy of his claim that there is no need for the presence of foreigners in Iraq at the same time as his troops celebrate a victory, as well as announce the formation of a joint Russian-Iranian-Iraqi operations center in Baghdad. I can understand where he might in some tangential way believe that Iranians are not foreigners in Iraq, but then there are the Russians....

So now we have the U.S.-led coalition consisting of Americans, Europeans and Arabs - including the Iraqis, and a parallel coalition of Iranians, Russians and the Iraqis. One has to assume that the Iraqis, the only common denominator in the two, will be coordinating between the two groups.

Normally, having this many military forces in close proximity to each other with different command structures would be dangerous. However, since no one has significant "boots on the ground" except the Iraqis and the Iranians, and the fact that the Iranians*, Iraqis and Russians are not flying combat aircraft, it may work.

What a way to run a war.

* Although the Iranian military is not flying its combat aircraft in Iraq, it is almost certain that Iranian pilots are flying the Iraqi Air Force Sukhoi SU-25 fighters provided by the Islamic Republic. Iraqi pilots have not had experience in that aircraft since 1991, and anyone that has SU-25 experience is either long out of date or no longer serving in the now Shi'a-dominated Iraqi Air Force.