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January 24, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The question is - will any of those princes attempt to rectify a perceived slight by interfering with the peaceful transition of power to the second generation?
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* See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sudairi_Seven




January 11, 2015

The confluence of Charlie Hebdo, al-Qa'idah and ISIS

Said Kouachi - Cherif Kouachi - Amedy Coulibaly - Hayat Boumeddiene

We are all familiar with the actions that began in France on January 7 in which three Islamist terrorists murdered 17 people, including two police officers, and four citizens who had been taken hostage. The three terrorists, all French-born nationals, were killed in two separate, simultaneous police operations on January 9 following a massive manhunt.

The identities and backgrounds of the three perpetrators have been widely publicized. Two were brothers - Said and Cherif Kouachi, ages 32 and 34, who were trained by the al-Qa'idah affiliated group in Yemen known as al-Qa'idah in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Both received training on small arms and possibly explosives in 2011 under the tutelage of American-born cleric Anwar al-'Awlaqi (before he was killed in an American drone strike).

The third terrorist, Amedy Coulibaly, 32 years old, was radicalized in France and belonged to a cell with the two Kouachi brothers and possibly other radical Islamists known as the "Buttes Chaumont Terror Group" - named for the park at which members of the cell met and conducted physical training.

The details of the actual attacks have been adequately covered by the media. What I want to address are some interesting facts that have emerged during and after the attacks on the Charlie Hedbo offices, the streets of Paris and the kosher supermarket.

According to the available reporting on the training received by the Kouachi brothers, the pair traveled to Oman and were smuggled into the Marib area of Yemen, a known AQAP area. They were there for two weeks - they received enough training to properly handle the types of weapons they later used in the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices.

The two brothers entered the offices with AK-47 assault rifles, a shotgun and an RPG* launcher. These weapons, especially the RPG launcher, are not easily obtainable in France. It will be interesting to know where the weapons originated and how the brothers obtained them. Are there other members of the Buttes Chaumont Terror Group cell that may have assisted with the logistics for the attacks?

The fact that the shooters wore body armor and face masks tells me they planned to survive the initial attack, probably to prolong the event as long as possible for the maximum impact. If they were planning to die in that attack, they could have used a suicide vest and killed everyone.

Crashing their car while departing the attack scene may have complicated whatever initial escape plan the brothers had, but after they hijacked another car, they should have had a place to go with money, food, weapons, clothing, another vehicle, etc., rather than resorting to robbing a gas station for food and fuel.

Although the brothers handled the weapons well and were disciplined and ruthless shooters, their post-attack planning was not that professional. The fact that Said Kouachi's identification card was dropped and found later by police in their vehicle indicates the lack of proper planning - they should not have been carrying any identification.

AQAP later claimed to have ordered the attacks, which may or may not be true. In an interview they granted to a reporter during the hostage portion of the event, the Kouachi brothers declared that they were operating on behalf of the al-Qa'idah affiliate.

Contrast the affiliation of the Kouachi brothers with that of fellow Buttes Chaumont Terror Group cell members Amedy Coulibaly and his Islamic-law wife (France does not recognize the religious marriage). These two claim to have an affiliation with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

In a video and again during an interview during the hostage stage of the event, Coulibaly declared his allegiance to the Islamic Caliphate (as ISIS sometimes refers to itself) and Caliph Ibrahim (also known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), the head of ISIS. The fact that Coulibaly arranged for his wife to enter Turkey and make her way to Syria underscores their commitment to ISIS.

This apparent dichotomy in the allegiance of members of the same cell - some loyal to AQAP and others loyal to ISIS - is telling. While we have seen periods of cooperation and alliance between the two Islamist groups - al-Qa'idah in Iraq was the founder of ISIS, after all - neither of the two have resolved their differences in how an Islamic caliphate should be or will be structured and managed.

It appears to me that these four Islamists were able to put aside the ideological issues between the two groups which they represented in order to be able to conduct these attacks - a tactical alliance to achieve a common objective. We should also be careful not to read too much into this mutual assistance arrangement. First, it is not an indication that the two groups are entering an alliance - events in Syria between the two groups bear that out.

Second, we should not assess that since they were not members of larger al-Qa'idah or ISIS groups that there are not many more Islamists terrorists already in place in France and other European countries. The nature of cells may have precluded them from knowing of others of similar bent. We have already seen threats from ISIS that these attacks are but the first wave - it would be unwise not to assume that there are more sleeper cells in the country.

If this is the first wave of attacks, they may not be limited to France or even Europe. Although there are much fewer American Islamists who have returned from the battlefields of the Middle East, it only takes one or two who are willing to die.

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Note: The French transliterate Arabic names mush differently than the English-speaking countries. In the transliteration system used by the U.S. and UK governments, the names of the two brothers and the wanted woman would be rendered as Sa'id al-Kawashi, Sharif al-Kawashi and Hayat Bumaydin. Amedy Coulibali is a Senegalese name.

* Later determined to be an anti-tank missile launcher similar to the M72 LAW.



January 10, 2015

ISIS official photo report on public amputations

WARNING - GRAPHIC IMAGES

ISIS press release

I realize this is graphic - even I get queasy looking at these images, but I think it is important to see just what we are dealing with when it comes to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, although they refer to themselves as "The Islamic State.")

This is part of a press release from the so-called Islamic State's information office for the province of al-Barakah - what the rest of the world calls al-Hasakah province in northeast Syria. It details the barbaric amputations of two individuals for aggravated robbery. Each man had his right hand and left foot chopped off in public. In this part of the world, cutting off the right hand creates lasting difficulties as the left hand is regarded as unclean.

My translation of the press release:

Photo Report - Aggravated Robbery - Ending the banditry of two criminals

By order of the Shar'iyah Court, justice was carried out by cutting off the hands and feet of two evildoers in the presence of a group of Muslims.

The two convicts were found guilty of the crime of blocking a road and robbing Muslims by impersonating soldiers of the Islamic State.

The two convicts expressed acceptance of the judgement of Allah on them, and as such were provided medical care following the execution of the sentences, including surgery and measures to prevent complications from the injuries.




I really don't think any comments are needed - the text and photographs speak for themselves.

That said, I disagree with the Obama Administration's belief that these subhumans can be "managed" or "contained." We need to hunt them down and kill them - nothing else will stop this madness.

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Note: Thanks to Jenan Moussa for bringing this to my attention.




January 5, 2015

ISIS press release: "The Day of Punishment"

Title image of ISIS press release - "The Day of Punishment"

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - it calls itself "The Islamic State" - has established provinces loosely based on the provinces of the areas in Syria and Iraq over which it now exercises control.

As ISIS seizes new territory, it establishes the trappings of governance - Islamic courts, taxes, charities, vehicle registration, school curriculum, social services - and just recently banks and issuance of currency. It also establishes an active information office to document and publicize its activities.

This is not surprising since much of the leadership of ISIS is composed of former members of the Ba'ath Party. Between ISIS's former Iraqi military officers and these party functionaries, it understands both military operations and governance.



This particular press release originates in the information office of the Salah al-Din province in Iraq (see map). The province is located north of Baghdad in the Tigris Valley - the area in which ISIS has made remarkable progress not only in seizing, but holding despite the U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and repeated failed assaults by the Iraqi armed forces.

The press release is entitled "The Day of Punishment." It is a chronicle of the execution of eight Iraqis found guilty of betraying the Islamic State (the verb of committing apostasy appears numerous times in the Arabic text). The original Arabic-language press release can be accessed here (as of this writing - it may be taken down as social media object to its publication.)

I would caution that these press releases must be read with a bit of skepticism - ISIS has mounted an effective propaganda campaign to shape its message to the world, primarily the Muslim world, be it in the Middle East, South Asia, Africa, Europe or even North America.

These images are the most pertinent from the original press release. The prisoners are all accused of repenting to ISIS and then becoming apostates working for (collaborating with) the "Safavi government" - a derogatory slang term for the perceived pro-Iranian Iraqi government.

Although the press release does not specifically state, it appears this was an Iraqi government military/intelligence operation that was discovered - this is the price intelligence assets pay when captured.



A police colonel accused of "repenting" to ISIS but working for the "Safavi" government.


A secret intelligence informant who provided locations for coalition bombing.


A police captain who later returned to collaborate with the "Safavi" government.


Preparing for the "execution."


The actual murder, or as they call it, the execution.

While we view these murders with disgust, these press releases are a powerful recruiting tool. ISIS has attained the reputation of practicing the most pure form of Islam - reminiscent of the 7th Century. Radicalized youth, disenfranchised youth, young men from all over the world who feel they have no future in their societies are drawn to this extreme form of Islam.

ISIS publishes these press releases for several reasons. Among them is an appeal to disaffected youth - potential recruits - around the world, and the chilling, frightening effect it has on potential adversaries.

ISIS has thought this out.





January 3, 2015

Saudi King 'Abdullah's illness highlights looming succession issue*

King 'Abdullah bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud

Saudi Arabia's King 'Abdullah bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud* has been hospitalized to treat a lung infection and reportedly is using tracheal intubation to assist in his breathing. The monarch is 90 years of age and in declining health. The issue of succession always arises when a Saudi king takes ill.

The term "king" has not been accurate since the title was officially changed in 1986 to Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques (خادم الحرمين الشريفين - khadam al-haramayn al-sharifayn), a declaration that the Saudi head of state is also entrusted with the protection of the two holiest sites in Islam - the mosques in Mecca and Medina. For the sake of convention, I will use the commonly accepted western term of king.

In March of 2014, King 'Abdullah appointed his half-brother Prince Muqrin bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud** as the kingdom's deputy crown prince, a new position. Muqrin will be second in line for the Saudi throne after 'Abdullah's death. 'Abdullah will be succeeded by another half-brother, Crown Prince Salman.

Crown Prince Salman is now 79. I think it safe to assume that it will not be long before King 'Abdullah passes and Prince Salman ascends to the throne. At that point, Prince Muqrin will become the crown prince. Muqrin, at age 69, is the third youngest son of the founder of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud. More to the point, he is the youngest surviving son.

Muqrin is a former captain in the Royal Saudi Air Force - an F-15 pilot - and was recently the chief of the Saudi General Intelligence Directorate (the "mukhabarat"). During his tenure at GID, Saudi Arabia defeated an al-Qa'idah insurgency and drove the militants out of the Kingdom (most went to Yemen). The prince is hawkish on Iran and has encouraged the United States to take a harder line with Iran and the Shi'a state's ambition to develop a nuclear weapons capability.

When the kingdom was founded in 1932, King 'Abd al-'Aziz established the succession to be among his sons, from brother to brother, not from father to son. Normally the oldest surviving son was the first choice, but not always. When kings have died, the surviving sons of King 'Abd al-'Aziz have gathered and selected the new king by consensus.

This system has been in place since the death of King 'Abd al-'Aziz in 1953. With 37 sons that reached adulthood (there were 45 total), there did not seem to be any urgency to provide for further succession. However, since the youngest of the surviving sons, Prince Muqran, is now 69 years old, the family will need to come to terms with selecting a monarch from the next generation - that may cause divisions in the family. There are already rivalries among the various groups based on their different mothers - 'Abd al-'Aziz had 22 wives.

Given the close relationship between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia over the past 70 years - although somewhat strained during the Obama years - it is in America's national interest that there continue to be smooth transitions of power in Riyadh.

The Saudi leadership and the Obama administration have differing thoughts on the issues of Iran, Syria and Egypt, although they have joined the U.S.-led coalition in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). To that end, Saudi fighter aircraft have participated in airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria. The Saudis are understandably concerned about ISIS - the group has vowed to overthrow the Saudi monarchy, and Saudi Arabia is a major recruiting ground for the Islamist group.

To address the succession issue, in 2006 King 'Abdullah created the Allegiance Council, comprised of 35 princes charged with determining, in consultation with the king, the line of succession. With the selection of Muqrin as the deputy crown prince, they have exhausted the supply of brothers, the first generation sons of 'Abd al-'Aziz. When Muqrin dies, the real issue will surface - who in the second generation becomes the king?

No matter who is chosen from the hundreds of men that make up the second generation - the grandsons of founder King 'Abd al-'Aziz - there will be a power struggle in Riyadh. Hopefully, it can be resolved without lasting damage to the monarchy and threatening the stability of the Kingdom.

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* This article is an update of a piece I wrote in March 2014: Saudi Arabia succession issue - it's coming....)

** Note the difference in the transliterations of the Arabic al- and Al. In the name 'Abd al-'Aziz, al- is the Arabic definite article "the." The word Al in Al Sa'ud is Arabic for "house of" or "family."





December 29, 2014

Ending the war in Afghanistan - Iraq redux?

End of American combat operations in Afghanistan - Kabul, December 28, 2014?

In a ceremony in Kabul yesterday, the United States announced that it has formally ended its combat mission in Afghanistan and had turned over security of the country to the Afghan armed forces and security services. There will still be American troops in Afghanistan - 10,000 of them along with 4,000 troops from other NATO nations - to train, advise and assist the Afghans in their continuing fight against the Taliban and remnants of al-Qa'idah.

In his remarks on the occasion, President Barack Obama included these words:

"Thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, our combat mission in Afghanistan is ending, and the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion. We are safer, and our nation is more secure, because of their service. At the same time, our courageous military and diplomatic personnel in Afghanistan--along with our NATO allies and coalition partners--have helped the Afghan people reclaim their communities, take the lead for their own security, hold historic elections and complete the first democratic transfer of power in their country's history."


I appreciate the President's words of thanks to our military personnel. Despite six years of amateurish leadership at best and willful neglect at worst, American armed forces have performed well. That said, I have to ask in what universe the President believes that the Afghan people have reclaimed their communities, are capable of taking the lead for their own security and have established a democratic government? Does he really believe that the United States is safer and more secure?

Let me address some of my concerns over what will likely be a premature withdrawal of American combat power from Afghanistan. Let me begin with the President's own eerily familiar words in an eerily similar situation:

"We’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people...we are ending these wars in a way that will make America stronger and the world more secure." - December 14, 2011

Just like the now-obvious mistake the President made by precipitously withdrawing American forces from Iraq in 2011, it appears that we are conducting American foreign policy on an artificial, politics-driven schedule.

"...our combat mission in Afghanistan is ending, and the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion."

There are two independent clauses in that sentence; neither of which are accurate. Our combat role is not over. Just last month, the President secretly - secretly because it does not fit the political narrative - authorized American forces (ground and air) to continue combat operations into 2015 against the Taliban, al-Qa'idah and other insurgent groups. That authorization is a patent admission that the Afghans are not ready to "take the lead for their own security."

The President is not ending the war, he is walking away from it, on his predetermined schedule just as he did three years ago in Iraq. The war continues - if it had come to an end, there would be no need to authorize continued American combat operations.

"We are safer, and our nation is more secure...."

It seems to me that the events of the past year belie that thought. We are not safer - according to the President's own Director of National Intelligence, al-Qa'idah and its affiliate organizations are on the rise across the Middle East, Africa and South Asia.

One only need to look at the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to understand that the threat is increasing, not decreasing. If ISIS was not a threat, the President would not have deployed squadrons of fighter and bomber aircraft to the region and begun airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.

If ISIS was not a threat, President Obama would not have deployed over 3,000 "trainers" to Iraq. (See my article on the deployment of 1,000 soldiers of a Brigade Combat Team of the elite 82nd Airborne Division - not exactly "trainers" - Iraq and Syria-clarity and confusion (Part One)-ADDENDUM.)

I suspect that in a few years, we will be having the same conversation about Afghanistan that we are having today about Iraq. The war in Afghanistan is not over, our combat role is not over - the only thing that is over is the ceremony.

It was just political theater.





December 28, 2014

Iraq and Syria - clarity and confusion (Part Two)

Jahbat al-Nusrah (al-Qa'idah in Syria) fighters in Syria

This is Part Two of a two part article. See Part One and the Addendum, which deals with the comparatively clear situation in Iraq. This part deals with the confusion in Syria.

Syria

The situation in Syria makes Iraq look like the model of clarity - there are myriad cooperating, competing and conflicting interests simultaneously at play in the country. These various interests make a solution to the political turmoil and civil war much more difficult, if even possible.

In Iraq, there is one enemy - the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - and several parties all focused on defeating that enemy. In Syria, however, there is a multifaceted war that has created a situation which borders on anarchy. To simplify some of the confusion, in essence there is a three-way war being fought. The major antagonists are the Syrian regime, ISIS and the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Some background is in order. A civil war erupted in Syria in March of 2011 as groups of young Syrians began to demand reforms of the Bashar al-Asad regime, following the example of their brothers and sisters in Tunisia and Egypt who were participating what the media dubbed as the "Arab Spring."

The al-Asad regime responded by ordering the Syrian armed forces to brutally crush the demonstrations. The resulting death and destruction caused revulsion among many in the ranks of the military - massive defections followed. Many of the defected officers and soldiers established the FSA.

In 2012, when the FSA failed to secure adequate assistance from Western or Arab nations, the group formerly known as al-Qa'idah in Iraq (AQI) sent fighters from Iraq to Syria to fill the power vacuum, creating an al-Qa'idah affiliate in Syria known as jabhat al-nusrah - tanzim al-qa'idah fi bilad al-sham (The Victory Front - Al-Qaidah in the land of Syria).

While nominally there to assist the FSA in the removal of Bashar al-Asad, Jabhat al-Nusrah began to fight the FSA as well - its goal was to set up an Islamic state - and seize territory, taking advantage of the lack of authority in many parts of the country. In 2013, the group merged with AQI and created the larger organization known as ISIS. ISIS rejected its ties to al-Qa'idah leadership, claiming instead that it had established the new caliphate.

The declaration of the creation of a caliphate caused Jabhat al-Nusrah to split from ISIS - to this day it maintains its status as the "authorized" al-Qa'idah element in Syria. In late 2014, ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusrah entered into a tactical alliance to fight both the al-Asad regime and the FSA - the future of that alliance is unknown.

The presence of Jabhat al-Nusrah in Syria and the emergence of ISIS created a three-way (and at times a four-way) war in the country. In addition, there are a host of unaffiliated armed groups who sometimes ally with the FSA and at other times act independently. These include local Islamist and secular groups, as well as the Syrian Kurds.

The Kurds are a special case. They have at times supported the al-Asad regime and other times opposed it, but are now locked in a major confrontation with ISIS along the Turkish border. The media has closely covered the intense fighting in the city of Kobani (Arabic: 'Ayn al-'Arab) between ISIS and the local Kurdish militia supported by coalition (almost exclusively American) airstrikes. American support of the Kurds is more about ISIS than supporting the Kurds.

It appears that the United States is attempting to support the removal of the al-Asad regime at the same time attempting to defeat ISIS. The attacks on ISIS began in response to ISIS successes in Iraq after its seizure of Mosul in June of this year - the U.S. led coalition is treating ISIS as one target set (correctly, in my opinion). The United States is trying to accomplish two separate and distinct foreign policy goals - either one of the goals is achievable, however, achieving both presents major challenges.

In its attempt to support the overthrow of Bashar al-Asad, the United States is providing money, weapons and training to the FSA. The recently introduced and much feared American TOW antitank missile has already taken a toll on Syrian Army armored vehicles.

The FSA has made no secret that its focus is and will remain the removal of the Bashar al-Asad government, but has been pragmatic enough to accept the materiel support from the west under the guise of being the Obama Administration's "boots on the ground" in the fight against ISIS. Although they are the sole designated recipients of the TOW missiles, these missiles have shown up in the hands of Jabhat al-Nusrah. There are numerous videos posted on social media of Jabhat al-Nusrah fighters using the weapons to devastating effect.

ISIS is being attacked by some members of the U.S.-led coalition - other coalition members have restricted their pilots to only operating in Iraq. The air situation has been complicated by the December 24 downing (cause as yet unknown) of a Royal Jordanian Air Force F-16 near the ISIS stronghold of al-Raqqah, and the continuing air operations of the Syrian Air Force, often in the same areas. While there is no coordination or cooperation between the coalition and Syrian forces, the coalition does notify the Syrians of impending air activity.

In some areas of central Syria, there appears to be if not cooperation between ISIS(with Jabhat al-Nusrah) and the FSA, at least a willingness to allow the other group to have freedom of operation. Jabhat al-Nusrah just recently was able to seize two key Syrian army garrisons near the city of Ma'arat al-Nu'aman, allowing the al-Qa'idah group to control a large section of the main highway linking the two major cities of Damascus and Aleppo. The group has also set up operations at a Syrian air base that the FSA had seized early last year. ISIS is currently engaged in a major assault of a Syrian airbase in Dayr al-Zawr on the Euphrates River - a target the FSA has been trying to seize for at least two years.

For its part, the Syrian regime is being supported by Iran and Iraq. There are fighters from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force, Iran's client/proxy Lebanese Hizballah, as well as Iraqi Shi'a militias currently fighting in Syria. If it was not for the introduction of Iranian special forces and Hizballah fighters in 2012, the Syrian regime may have fallen to the FSA.

Additional support is being provided by Russia with almost daily flights by Syrian Air Force IL-76 transports or Russian charter aircraft delivering weapons and supplies to the Syrian military. Russia continues to maintain and overhaul Syrian military equipment in Russia, and has committed to deliver a more capable jet trainer - the Yak-130 - with an excellent counterinsurgency capbility. (See my earlier article, Russia to deliver military trainer/attack aircraft to Syria.)

The takeaway

The situation in Iraq is relatively clear. ISIS is the enemy and everyone else, whether cooperating or not, is focused on the defeat of the Islamist group. The strategy is to use coalition airpower to stop ISIS's advance and hold it at bay while coalition advisers re-train and re-equip the Iraqi armed forces, who will then launch a counteroffensive and either destroy ISIS or force it to withdraw to Syria. If the Iraqis are up to the task, the strategy has a chance of success. If not, members of the coalition (read: the United States) will have to deploy combat forces to defeat ISIS.

The situation in Syria is chaos.



December 24, 2014

Downing of a Jordanian fighter aircraft and ISIS capture of the pilot

Caption: Urgent / Jordanian 1st lieutenant pilot Ma'az after
his aircraft was downed by an infrared [guided] missile

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claims to have downed a Royal Jordanian Air Force F-16 with an infrared guided missile (sarukh harari) today. The aircraft was conducting airstrikes on targets 11 kilometers east of the self-proclaimed ISIS capital city of al-Raqqah. ISIS has published photographs of the pilot being taken into custody - one is shown above. Arabic language media has identified the pilot as 27-year old 1st Lieutenant Ma'az Safi Yusif al-Kasasbah.

The RJAF has acknowledged the loss of the aircraft and the capture of the pilot, and is holding ISIS responsible for the safety of the pilot. The family of the flier has also confirmed that the pictures posted by ISIS on social media indeed show Ma'az al-Kasasbah, and that he is a pilot in the Jordanian air force. It is not clear if the aircraft was shot down or was lost due to a problem with the aircraft.

ISIS is in possession of hundreds of Russian-made and Chinese-made shoulder-fired infrared-guided missiles that the Islamist group has seized from both Syrian and Iraqi army units, as well as the Free Syrian Army. The missiles are capable of downing low-flying aircraft, including fighter aircraft. The Syrian air force has lost numerous helicopters and fixed wing aircraft to such missiles. The F-16 - which is flown by several countries who are members of the coalition, including the U.S. Air Force - is equipped with heat flares to defeat these systems, but they are not foolproof.

Today's loss of an aircraft - whether a shootdown or not - highlights the danger coalition pilots face every day, especially over Syria and near the ISIS stronghold of al-Raqqah. This danger is complicated by the fact that the Syrian Air Force is also conducting airstrikes in and around al-Raqqah. ISIS has concentrated much of its air defense weaponry near al-Raqqah. The risk of such events cannot be ignored.

ISIS now has a trophy - a coalition pilot, in this case an Arab and a Muslim. This creates a serious situation for the coalition, especially the Jordanians. The question is whether ISIS will use the pilot for potential leverage against the Hashemite Kingdom, or murder him in a grisly manner and publish the event on social media. ISIS has beheaded at least three Americans and several other nationalities in the recent past. An indication of how he might be treated is the description in Arabic, al-tiyar al-urduni al-murtad - "the apostate Jordanian pilot." Under Islamic law, apostasy is punishable by death.

Captured Arab military personnel - both Syrian and Iraqi - have been summarily murdered, often beheaded and the videos of the murders posted online. Given the location of the pilot's capture - deep in the heart of ISIS's territory, the chances of a successful rescue are extremely small. The next move is up to ISIS.

The Jordanians are a small country and will rally around their pilot and his family. In that vein, there have been at least seven Arabic-language Facebook community pages set up in solidarity with the captured pilot with more than 25,000 followers.

(Personal note: In the 1980's, I served as an adviser to the Jordanian Armed Forces. Some of the officers I worked with were RJAF pilots - fine officers. I have always felt a kinship with the Jordanian military and remain in touch with several of them. I am joining the "We are all Ma'az al-Kasasbah" community page.)



December 23, 2014

Iraq and Syria - clarity and confusion (Part One) - ADDENDUM

Soldiers of the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division

In the original article, I said:

If the Iraqis are not able to defend the ['Ayn al-Asad] base, the Obama Administration will be forced into a tough decision - do we pull out of al-Anbar province and leave the Iraqis to fend for themselves - which means almost certain defeat - or do we make a stand and deploy American combat units to the area - the dreaded "boots on the ground?" Given the abysmal condition of the Iraqi armed forces, it may just come to that.

Typically releasing news on a Friday afternoon that it would prefer not get too much notice, the Obama Administration announced that 1,300 additional American troops will be deployed to Iraq after the Christmas holiday season. Of that number, 1,000 are members of the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team (BCT).

Let's take a closer look at the inclusion of members of the division's 3rd BCT in this deployment. The forces currently deployed to Iraq are mostly special operations forces, whose expertise includes training of foreign forces to defend against insurgencies - the actual vernacular is "foreign internal defense." This is a core mission of the U.S. Army Special Forces (the "Green Berets") - they excel at it.

The stated mission of the American troops deployed earlier this year was to "train and advise" Iraqi security forces and Kurdish peshmerga units. The wording was meant to exclude the use of American forces in a combat role. That was later changed to a "ground" combat role as it became obvious that American pilots (from all services) were operating in a combat role.

The mission of the additional troops who have been alerted for deployment has been described as "train, advise and assist." It is the "and assist" that stands out. The paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division are not trainers or advisers, although they are likely qualified to do so - these are some of the best combat troops in the U.S. armed forces. I suspect they are being deployed to fight.

What does this tell us? It tells us that the Iraqi security forces - Army and police units - are incapable of defending the country. The situation is worse than originally thought. The initial cadre of 300 trainers and advisers is about to far exceed 3,000 - a ten-fold increase in less than six months. Let's not forget the fact that the 3,000 figure only includes troops in Iraq, and does not count the over 15,000 based in neighboring countries supporting those in Iraq or conducting the scores of combat air sorties every day.

Time is running out for the Iraqis and President Obama's options are diminishing. As ISIS continues its relentless attacks and Iraqi forces continue to fail, it may come down to committing American combat troops to the fight. This deployment may be the first step.


December 22, 2014

Iraq and Syria - clarity and confusion (Part One)

CNN's Brooke Baldwin and Jim Sciutto*

There are two different wars ongoing in the Middle East, although nominally both of them are targeting the same enemy - the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria - ISIS, also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or the Islamic State, or the Islamic Caliphate.

In a perfect military world, this would be one war being waged on two fronts, with coordinated operations and attacks aimed at defeating the single enemy across the entire theater of operations.

What we have in reality is one war against ISIS inside Iraq and another war against ISIS inside Syria - the former is rather straight forward while the other is almost hopelessly chaotic.

Iraq

Looking at Iraq, we have a war on ISIS conducted by the Iraqi armed forces and the Kurdish peshmerga ("those who confront death") supported by a U.S.-led coalition which includes Arab and non-Arab states, as well as Iranian special forces and fighter pilots, with some Russian advisory support. Although it might sound complicated, it seems to work as long as the Iranians and Russians realize they are minor players in this action and remain in the background.

It is a coalition in name only - the U.S. Air Force (overwhelmingly) and U.S. Navy are carrying the water (as much as 95 percent of the sorties), with limited support from the other members. To those of us who have served in coalitions or NATO before, this is business as usual - the United States is always the "big kid on the block" and provides the lion's share of the resources.

Coalition air forces are striking targets all over the country, sometimes in direct support of Iraqi army or Kurdish peshmerga forces, and at times hitting strategic ISIS targets far from the front lines. They are also striking targets in Syria - at least in the air, ISIS is being treated as a single target set.

There have also been a few independent airstrikes by the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) in Iraq's Diyala province near the Iranian border. These strikes were in support of Kurdish peshmerga forces attempting to oust ISIS from positions near the city of Jalula' and regain control of the important al-Hamrayn dam.

While the U.S. Central Command claims there is no coordination between the American-led coalition and the IRIAF, there is likely coordination via the Iraqi armed forces. It is inconceivable that American tactical air commanders would permit unidentified aircraft to operate in close proximity of U.S. aircraft or U.S. ground forces deployed to the country. The days of unknown/uncleared entities approaching American forces without challenge ended with the 2000 attack on the USS Cole (DDG-67) in Aden harbor.

When ISIS routed the Iraqi Army and seized the second-largest city of Mosul earlier this year, the true state of Iraq's armed forces was laid bare for all to see. After the departure of American forces in 2011, Iraqi forces deteriorated into a corrupt army worthy of a third-world country.

When challenged in Mosul, Iraqi Army units collapsed. ISIS launched a series of attacks down the Tigris River valley coincident with attacks up the Euphrates valley from their strongholds in al-Ramadi and al-Fallujah. Yes, those are the same two cities in al-Anbar province taken by American forces just a decade earlier at great cost - in this context, "cost" means young American lives and blood. (See my earlier article, Where is the Iraqi Army?)

Now we have almost 3,000 American "advisers" in Iraq. Those advisers are in Iraq to train Iraqi Army units - the same units we spent millions of dollars training before the premature American withdrawal in 2011. There is a bright spot, however: President Barack Obama has realized that the re-introduction of American troops is in the best interests of the United States - better late than never.

The strategy in Iraq is simple, and has a chance of working. The coalition is going to re-train and re-equip the Iraqi armed forces, including the Kurdish peshmerga units. It will take time and a commitment from the newly elected Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi to allow merit and competence to determine senior officer appointments, not political connections.

If the coalition advisers can get the Iraqis back into fighting shape and continues to provide adequate air support, there is a chance that ISIS can be defeated in Iraq. That victory is defined as the destruction of ISIS units in Iraq or forcing their withdrawal back to Syria.

Recent actions show mixed results. In some cases, especially in and near the Kurdish areas in the north, ISIS seems to have been halted in its advances; in some areas, they have been pushed back. That is not always the case. For example, the city of Bayji, the location of the largest oil refinery in the country, has changed hands several times. Al-Anbar province in the western part of the country, remains the venue of fierce fighting as ISIS continues to advance in the Euphrates Valley.

A major battle appears to be on the horizon at an Iraqi military training facility at 'Ayn al-Asad air base. ISIS has been steadily moving toward the base for months. Last week, they attacked the base. However, the 200 American special operations troops assigned to the base as trainers engaged the attacking force, called in airstrikes and decimated the attackers. It was a stark reminder that there are American ground forces in harm's way.

ISIS will not give up easily - they will continue to attack the air base. This battle will be the bellwether of the future of the war in Iraq. If the Iraqis are not able to defend the base, the Obama Administration will be forced into a tough decision - do we pull out of al-Anbar province and leave the Iraqis to fend for themselves - which means almost certain defeat - or do we make a stand and deploy American combat units to the area - the dreaded "boots on the ground?"

Given the abysmal condition of the Iraqi armed forces, it may just come to that.


Part Two will deal with the confusion in Syria.


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* Disclosure: I am a paid military analyst for CNN. Brooke and Jim are two of my favorite colleagues at CNN.