June 27, 2017

Syria - Would Bashar al-Asad use chemical weapons again?

Sha'yrat air base, Syria - damage from April 6 U.S. missile strike

Last night, the White House released a statement indicating that the Syrians may be making preparations for another chemical weapons attack, specifically an air attack from Sha’yrat air base, the same base from which the April 4 chemical weapons attack in Khan Shaykhun (Idlib province) was launched.


Since the United States has demonstrated its willingness to strike Syrian military targets in retaliation for chemical weapons usage, why would Syrian President Bashar al-Asad risk another American military attack?

Looking at Syria’s military situation, it does not make sense to use chemical weapons.

First, in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Syrian Army is doing well, consistently taking territory from ISIS south of al-Raqqah and south of Palmyra. These two axes are part of a thrust into ISIS-held territory to reach the besieged city of Dayr al-Zawr on the Euphrates River.

The city and adjacent air base have been surrounded and under siege by ISIS for over two years. This effort is complemented by an operation mounted mostly by Iranian-supported militias moving northeast along the Iraqi border towards the Euphrates and Dayr al-Zawr.

Of course, the term “Syrian Army” includes heavy Russian air support and advice, Iranian military and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps units, Lebanese Hizballah, and Iraqi Shi'a militias. Without this foreign support, the Syrian military would like not constitute a viable military force.

That leaves the fighting against the various opposition groups – the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the al-Qa’idah-affiliated Islamist organizations. These include Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Ahrar al-Sham, both designated as terrorist groups. Mainly present in Idlib, the Syrians are not having great success against these groups, despite constant air, missile and rocket strikes on the groups.

In the southern province of al-Qunaytirah, the Syrian military is also having a difficult time in fighting another FSA group as well as an ISIS-affiliated group.

Assuming Bashar al-Asad orders a chemical weapons strike, what would be the target?

The Syrians are not going to use chemical weapons in al-Qunaytirah along the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights – the risk of Israeli reaction is too great.

There is no need to use chemical weapons against ISIS since those operations are going well.

Then there is Idlib province, home the Islamists, FSA and many opposition refugees who have been relocated to the province vie ceasefire arrangements in cities the Syrian regime has besieged in the past.

In my opinion, Syria’s chemical weapons are militarily insignificant. A few weapons dropped on cities in Idlib will not affect the situation on the ground. It will cause mass murder, cause panic among the local population, draw international condemnation – and almost certainly an American military response. Why do it? Frustration and spite? Possibly.

Bashar al-Asad has been emboldened by seemingly increasing political and military support from his two key backers – Russia and Iran – but it is hard to believe he would resort to using chemical weapons again.

I would hope that the Russians are giving him counsel on what a mistake this would be.



June 25, 2017

Saudi Arabia - King Salman names his son as crown prince

Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud

There was a subtle but major shakeup in the diwan (royal court) of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia last week that garnered little press coverage. Saudi King Salman bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud replaced the existing crown prince with his son Muhammad bin Salman.

Before your eyes glaze over, let me explain why this is a significant development by a key ally in an critical part of the world.

In addition to the event itself, the timing is important - it follows a rather significant shift in U.S. foreign policy by the Trump Administration.

President Donald Trump has starkly (and in my opinion wisely) reversed the Obama Administration's policy of virtual acquiescence to Iran for almost eight years, despite the fact that Iran has demonstrated repeatedly that it has no interest in better relations with the United States.


King 'Abd al-'Aziz and FDR

Former President Barack Obama courted Tehran for eight years at the expense of good relations with our Gulf Arab allies - Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have had a close relationship since 1945 when King 'Abd al-'Aziz met with President Franklin Roosevelt onboard the USS Quincy in the Great Bitter Lake segment of the Suez Canal.

Thanks to the previous administration's myopic focus on Iran and former Secretary of State John Kerry's abysmal negotiating skills, Iran was able to secure an extremely favorable deal on its nuclear program. The Iranian negotiations were ably led by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, an American-educated, skilled diplomat that repeatedly bested Secretary Kerry.


John Kerry / Mohammad Javad Zarif

Iranian negotiators were also able to convince Mr. Kerry to agree to an alteration of the text of an existing United Nations Security Council resolution prohibiting Iran from developing and testing ballistic missiles.

These missiles will be the primary delivery system when, not if, Iran acquires a nuclear weapon. See my article on the ballistic missile fiasco, Iran's ballistic missile program - more fallout from the "Kerry Collapse".*

This - Iran's ascendance in the Middle East region - is why the American-Saudi relationship is so important.

A short overview of the Saudi succession system might be useful.

In 1932, 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud founded the kingdom that still bears his family's name. The king, more often referred to as Ibn Sa'ud, ruled Saudi Arabia as an absolute monarchy until his death in 1953.

Following his death, the throne passed to his son Sa'ud without incident. The five successive kings after Sa'ud have been chosen by a council of the royal family from among the sons of Ibn Sa'ud - succession in Saudi Arabia was not from father to son, but from brother to brother. Ibn Saud had 45 sons, 36 of whom survived to adulthood. Of these, six have acceded to the throne.

As long as there were sons of Ibn Sa'ud to fill the position of king, succession was not an issue. Many of us "Saudi watchers" were concerned about succession after all of the sons of Ibn Sa'ud had died - what then? Was there a viable succession plan that transcended the generational divide from a son of Ibn Sa'ud to a grandson?

That question was partially answered in January 2015. When King 'Abdullah (2005-2015) died at age 90, his half-brother Salman bin 'Abd al-'Aziz acceded to the throne - again with no controversy. At that time - and as was expected - the new King Salman named his younger half-brother Muqrin as the new crown prince. At age 69, Muqrin was the youngest surviving son of of the kingdom's founder.

King Salman then surprised everyone by removing former King 'Abdullah's son Muta'ib from the recently created position of deputy crown prince and naming his full nephew Muhammad bin Nayif as the new deputy crown prince and Minister of the Interior (a powerful position somewhat akin to the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security). The position of deputy crown prince was created to gradually legitimize the generational transition to the next generation of the House of Sa'ud.

Here is where this gets complicated, conspiratorial, political, and in my opinion, masterful. Muhammad bin Nayif is the son of Salman's full brother Nayif - Nayif is one of the so-called "Sudayri Seven." The seven full brothers are the sons of who many believe to be Ibn Sa'ud's favorite wife, Husah bint Ahmad al-Sudayri.

The seven brothers for years were a close-knit group who wielded great power in the running of the kingdom. Two of the brothers have become kings (Fahd and Salman) and the others have held key ministerial and provincial governor's posts. Over the years, I have worked with four of the seven - all impressive men.

King Salman made other appointments in January 2015 as well, including naming his son Muhammad bin Salman as Minister of Defense and Aviation (MODA), one of the most powerful portfolios in the kingdom. With these moves, members of the al-Sudayri clan were once again the preeminent power brokers in the country.

It gets better. Just three months later, April 2015, King Salman removed his brother Muqrin from the position of crown prince, and elevated Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayif to that position. More importantly, the king named his son - MODA chief Muhammad bin Salman - as the new deputy crown prince.

Fast forward to June 2017. In another surprise move, and again in my opinion masterful, King Salman summarily removed Muhammad bin Nayif from his positions of crown prince and Minister of the Interior. King Salman at the same time elevated his son Muhammad bin Salman from deputy crown prince to crown prince.

I call these moves masterful because once the former crown prince - Muhammad bin Nayif - succeeded to the throne, he would be free to name anyone he wished to the position of crown prince, thus thwarting the obvious ambition of King Salman to have his son Muhammad bin Salman to sit on the Saudi throne.

Given the fact that Muhammad bin Nayif would likely have acceded to the throne in his 60's, he may have ruled for over 20 years - a lot can change in 20 years, especially who might succeed him. Muhammad bin Salman, now only 31 and the new crown prince, may rule for as long as 50 years.

Again, ever the masterful politician, King Salman named the son of the now deposed Crown Prince/Minister of Defense Muhammad bin Nayif as the new Minister of the Interior. This "consolation prize" in essence bought Muhammad bin Nayif's acquiescence and silence.

Assuming that what King Salman has put in place survives, he has single-handedly determined the succession of the Saudi throne from the first to the second generation of the sons of Ibn Sa'ud.

Further, he has further strengthened the position of the descendants - he and his son included - of who many believe was Ibn Sa'ud's favorite wife, Husah bint al-Sudayri. They now control the throne, the successor to the throne, the Ministry of the Interior, and the Ministry of Defense and Aviation. These are the key positions in the kingdom.

The king also appointed another of his sons, Prince Khalid (age 29), to be the kingdom's new ambassador to the United States, easily the most important position in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The sons of King Salman (bin Salman) will be the key determinants of Saudi Arabia's future.

Well played, Your Highness, well played.

_______________________
NOTES:

For more detailed background, see two of my earlier articles:

- Saudi Arabia - the resurgence of the al-Sudayri clan

- New Saudi ambassador the United States - another al-Sudayri in a power position

* I am sure this will spark another caustic retort from the former British Ambassador to the United States (and obvious Kerry supporter). Bring it, Sir Pete.





June 18, 2017

U.S. downing of Syrian Air Force aircraft - why are the Syrians attacking the SDF?

Syrian Air Force SU-22M3 at Dumayr Air Base

In the mid-afternoon hours of June 18, a U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet fighter jet shot down a Syrian Air Force Sukhoi SU-22 (NATO: FITTER) fighter-bomber after it conducted an airstrike on positions of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Front SDF) about 25 miles southwest of al-Raqqah. According to the Syrian Ministry of Defense, the pilot is missing.

This represents the first time the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has shot down a Syrian Air Force aircraft. The U.S. destroyed numerous Syrian aircraft on the ground with a Tomahawk cruise missile strike at Sha'yrat air base in April just days following a chemical attack on the city of Khan Shaykhun.

I believe that when the investigations are complete, we will find that today's shoot down was the result of a miscalculation or a series of errors. There is no reason for the Syrian armed forces, in this case the Syrian Air Force, to engage in military operations against the SDF, especially in the area south of al-Raqqah. In this instance, both sides - the Syrians and the SDF - are fighting a common enemy: ISIS.

There has been a tacit understanding between the SDF and government forces to cooperate in the fight against ISIS. Unlike the opposition Free Syrian Army, the SDF is not engaged in a fight to remove the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad.

The SDF represents a coalition of mostly Syrian Kurds Peoples' Protection Units (known by their Kurdish abbreviation YPG), Arabs and even Syriac Christians, all allied in the fight to remove ISIS from Syria.

For a more complete analysis of this cooperation, please see my article: An alliance between the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian government?

Red arrows: Syrian and SDF axes of attack on ISIS

The action today occurred in the village of Ja'din, located in the area where the forces of ISIS, SDF and the Syrian government converge. The SDF and government are moving east almost on parallel tracks. The SDF is moving to completely surround and isolate ISIS units south of al-Raqqah and the Euphrates River in support of the main SDF force that is currently assaulting the city proper.

Concurrently, and literally side by side with the SDF advance into ISIS-held territory, the Syrian Army and its allies are attacking east in an attempt to reach the besieged city of Dayr al-Zawr. The city and its adjacent air base have been under ISIS siege for over two years, relying on helicopter resupply for all necessities. Only massive amounts of Russian airpower has kept ISIS at bay. There is a second Syrian army effort attacking east towards Dayr al-Zawr from the city of Palmyra.

The Syrian government is happy to let the SDF undertake the difficult task of securing al-Raqqah from ISIS while they focus on reclaiming Dayr al-Zawr. What happened today directly threatens that tacit cooperative arrangement. It is not clear what sparked the regime attack on SDF units in Ja'din, but it resulted in not only ground combat, but the first aerial combat between American and Syrian pilots.

CNN's Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr reported that the Russians and the Americans have been in discussions to lessen tensions and re-establish the "de-escalation" protocol between the Syrians and the SDF that appeared to be working.

Hopefully, the two will be able to re-focus the fighting where it belongs - against ISIS. After ISIS is deprived of its territory in Syria, the parties can then work on the political solution for the country.

Distractions like that of today only serve to delay the removal of ISIS from Syria.



June 8, 2017

An alliance between the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian government?

Linkup of  Syrian regime and SDF forces west of al-Raqqah

After weeks of fighting, elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Syrian army coalition have successfully seized a large swath of territory from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the area east of Aleppo and west of al-Raqqah (see above map). The two military forces have met up with each other after the SDF attacked from the east and the regime attacked from the west on the southern bank of Lake al-Asad.

This comes at the same time that the SDF has begun the battle for the self-proclaimed ISIS capital city of al-Raqqah. The SDF is supported by air strikes and artillery fires by elements of the U.S.-led coalition.

I expect the battle for al-Raqqah to be difficult and slow, despite reports that many ISIS fighters have left the al-Raqqah and moved their operations nearer to the city of Dayr al-Zawr in what ISIS calls wilayat al-furat (Euphrates province).

The city and air base at Dayr al-Zawr are an ISIS-besieged Syrian government enclave under constant attack. It is only through a large number of Russian and Syrian air force airstrikes that the air base and city have not fallen to ISIS.

Al-Raqqah will fall to the SDF - the joint Kurdish-Arab alliance has proven itself to be an effective military force, seizing almost all of ISIS-held territory in northern Syria. The primary fighters in the SDF are the Kurds of the People's Protection Units (Kurdish: Yekîneyên Parastina Gel‎, or YPG).

The U.S. decision to arm the YPG has caused a rift with NATO ally Turkey, who regards the YPG as nothing more than an extension of the Kurdish separatist organization - and designated terrorist group - known as the PKK.

The U.S. decision was based on the situation on the ground. Turkey supported a Free Syrian Army (FSA) incursion into an ISIS-controlled area of the Kurdish region east of the Euphrates River. It was envisioned by the Turks that this force would eventually fight its way through the ISIS-controlled, regime-controlled, and yes, even the Kurdish-controlled areas all the way to al-Raqqah. Their mistake was refusing to cooperate with the YPG-dominated SDF, preferring to fight them rather than work with them.

After the Turkish-supported FSA wrested control of the ISIS stronghold of al-Bab, the rebels turned their sights on the Kurdish-controlled city of Manbij. Rather than divert assets from the main fight against ISIS to defend Manbij against the Turkish-supported FSA, the Kurds and regime entered into a cooperative agreement whereby the Syrian army with Russian observers, and the SDF with American observers, exercised joint control over the area.

This rather clever maneuver effectively halted the Turkish-FSA advance almost 100 miles from al-Raqqah and contained them in a pocket from which they have been unable to move forward. (See numeral 1 on the map below.)

On the other hand, the SDF has already fought its way to the gates of al-Raqqah and is beginning to enter the city. See my earlier article, SYRIA: Has Turkey been marginalized and the Americans thrust into the fight?

This tactical agreement in Manbij between the Russian-backed Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad and the U.S.-backed SDF may be a template for the future of Syria, or at least another step toward whatever political solution is found. For more on that, see Russian and American cooperation in Syria - a policy change?

As on other battlefields in Syria, now that the two attacking forces have met west of al-Raqqah, what happens next?


Military situation in Syria  - click on image for larger view

In this particular situation, I expect that the regime and SDF will again attempt to cooperate. They both need to fight ISIS, not each other. The SDF wants to remove ISIS from al-Raqqah and the remainder of northern Syria, and the Syrian government wants to continue the push beyond al-Raqqah towards the besieged enclave at Dayr al-Zawr.

Given its proximity to Dayr al-Zawr, the SDF is in good position to assist in a relief operation for Dayr al-Zawr as well. At a minimum, they can allow Syrian government passage through SDF-controlled territory on the way to Dayr al-Zawr.

I am going to make a prediction here - my track record on predictions about Syria is fairly good (but not perfect). As I said, al-Raqqah will fall to the SDF. It will be neither easy nor quick, but it will happen. The residents of al-Raqqah, who will suffer in the fighting, eventually will be liberated.

I disagree with the Turkish and FSA position that the citizens of al-Raqqah will not welcome the SDF liberation of their city. What little information that comes out of the city indicates to me that the residents are so oppressed under ISIS rule that they would welcome virtually anyone who can free them from the radical Islamists.

That said, there is valid concern about the Kurds exercising governance over a traditionally Arab city. There have been reports that the SDF is considering allowing the city to be governed by the Syrian government, meaning of course the Bashar al-Asad regime. I believe and hope this is what will happen. I do not think the SDF is interested in governing reclaimed territories outside of the traditionally Kurdish area.

If an agreement between the SDF and the Syrian government is reached, it may set up a template for the future of Syria. We all know that at some point there will be a political solution to the situation in Syria. We also know that it will be the military situation that shapes that political solution. The military situation in northeastern Syria may provide a glimpse of just how that might coalesce.

After al-Raqqah, both the SDF and government will focus their attention on the Euphrates Valley, the city of Dayr al-Zawr and eliminating ISIS from Syria. This is an operation that is in the interests of both the SDF and the Syrian regime. The two have proven that they can cooperate when it is in their best interests. I have already cited the Manbij situation.

There are also Syrian government enclaves in the city of al-Qamishli, located on the Turkish border, and the city of al-Hasakah, located about 40 miles south of al-Qamishli. (See numeral 2 on the map above.) Both cities are surrounded by the SDF, yet there are virtually no hostilities between the two groups.

There are good reasons for an alliance between the SDF/YPG and the Syrian government. The Kurds are not advocating the removal of Bashar al-Asad. They would like to form an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria similar to that enjoyed by Iraq's Kurds. On the other side of the equation, the Syrian government could use the military support of the SDF in ridding Syria of ISIS.

An agreement between the SDF/YPG and the government does not solve the entire Syrian crisis, does not solve the civil war, but it could be a start.



May 27, 2017

Syrian regime gains in southeastern Syria - another blow to the opposition


The May 18 U.S. Air Force air strike on a group of Syrian Army and Iranian-backed Iraqi militia forces in southeastern Syria has drawn attention to a normally overlooked part of the Syrian civil war and the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The attack took place on a section of the Damascus-Baghdad highway, or Syrian Highway 2, that traverses large desert areas where the countries of Syria, Iraq, and Jordan meet - commonly referred to as al-muthalath - the triangle.

To help understand what is happening in southeast Syria, some background explanation might help. For the purposes of our discussion, the key geopolitical feature is the line on the map the constitutes the border between Syria and Iraq, and the major border crossing. On the Syria side, it is the al-Tanf border crossing, and on the Iraqi side the al-Walid border crossing.



In the past, the highway was a major transportation hub with hundreds of tractor-trailers crossing in both directions daily. As the Syrian civil war dragged on, the commercial traffic flow decreased, but the highway remained an important transfer route for the rotation of Iraqi Shi'a militias in and out of Syria.

Sayyidat Zaynab shrine on southern outskirts of Damascus (my photos)

The Iraqi militias deployed to Syria at the request of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad's Iranian allies, initially to protect Shi'a shrines and holy places in Syria - like the shrine of Sayyidat Zaynab. Zaynab was the granddaughter of Muhammad, the daughter of Imam ‘Ali (first [Shi'a] imam and fourth [Sunni] caliph) and sister of Imam Husayn.

That role has since expanded to actual combat operations under the command of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), without whose support - along with the IRGC proxy Lebanese Hizballah and Russian airpower - the Syrian Army would have collapsed years ago.

With the changing situation in southern Syria, what was once firmly under the control of the regime changed. Opposition rebels, part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), are now in control of the area in southeastern Syria in which the road lies.

The Iranians would like to be able to use the Baghdad Highway to rotate the Iraqi Shi'a militias again. They are in the process of moving forces to the area in preparation for an offensive to re-establish regime control over the highway.

It is this movement that puts the pro-regime forces in proximity with FSA units being trained by U.S. and UK forces in the al-Tanf area. The May 18 airstrikes were in response to what appears to be a probing action on the part of the militias. After failing to heed warning low altitude flyovers by U.S. aircraft, the units were engaged by the aircraft. Several vehicles were destroyed.

The halt in the regime attack by Syrian Army forces and the militias on the FSA units in the area was only temporary. The regime has much more firepower than the FSA. The U.S.-led coalition is not tasked with providing air support to anti-regime rebels, and I do not envision a scenario in which that changes.



Regime forces, supported by Syrian and Russian airpower, will eventually overwhelm the lightly-equipped rebel forces. If the objective of the U.S. and UK-trained FSA units was to mount an attack on ISIS towards the northeast and the city of Al-Bukamal (green arrow), it is doubtful the operation can or will proceed.

The regime has already begun an operation (lower two red arrows) to section the FSA pocket and besiege it - this is the normal Russian tactic we have seen the Syrians employ successfully in other areas of the country. They are also continuing their attack on the Baghdad highway, which if successful, will section the FSA pocket into thirds.

The FSA units will defend themselves, but in the end, will have to either exfiltrate the area to other FSA-controlled areas, or surrender. Reportedly, the U.S. and UK trainers have been ordered to move back into Jordan or Iraq. This is the problem with not thoroughly assessing American policy on the ground in Syria, combined with a change in U.S. Administrations.

The Obama Administration reluctantly provided limited support to the FSA to fight the regime. The Trump Administration is not committed to the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, and is focused on the fight against ISIS. I have repeatedly warned that the anti-regime FSA effort to remove the al-Asad regime is no longer tenable.

With the introduction of first the Iranians (the IRGC, Army, Lebanese Hizballah, and Shi'a militias from Iraq and Afghanistan) in 2012, followed by the Russian expeditionary deployment in 2015, Bashar al-Asad now has little to fear.

I urged the oppsition to seek the best political deal possible in Astana. (For more on al-Asad's situation, see my earlier article: Syrian political talks in Astana - why Bashar al-Asad has little to fear).

It appears inevitable that the Syrian regime, backed by its sponsors, will secure the Baghdad road to the Iraqi border and force the FSA units to leave or surrender. In the past, the two sides have been able to arrange safe passage for the rebels to another FSA enclave - perhaps that will happen here.

The fight will then turn to ISIS-controlled al-Raqqah and the Euphrates valley. At that point, we may see coordinated action between the regime and the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF), a Kurdish-Arab joint group fighting ISIS.

The regime is backed by the Russians, and the SDF by the United States. Neither of the two groups are committed to the destruction of the other. That leaves one group out in the cold - the FSA.

What does this all mean for the future of Syria? My next article will deal with the potential resolution to the six year old civil war.



May 26, 2017

Memorial Day - 2017

Note: I wrote this in 2007 while a military analyst at NBC News. The situation has changed a bit, but I think the sentiment still is true today. Let us not forget that there are still American forces in harm's way.

In the last year, several of our elite fighting men have paid the ultimate price in Iraq, Syria, and Somalia in the brutal war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al-Qa'idah.


'On behalf of a grateful nation'
Do not forget our fallen men and women
COMMENTARY
By Lt. Col. Rick Francona, U.S. Air Force (Retired)
Military analyst - NBC News


Lt. Gen. Ed Soriano, left, presents Jessica Hebert, sister of Spc. Justin Hebert who was killed in Kirkuk, Iraq, with an American flag during his military funeral (AP Photo/The Herald, Meggan Booker). Ed and I served together during and after Desert Storm - this must have been his toughest duty.

Memorial Day weekend – most people associate that with the start of the "summer driving season" or a chance to buy appliances on sale. The constant news coverage of still high gasoline prices tends to overshadow the real meaning of the holiday. It is not about driving or shopping – it is about remembering the men and women or our armed forces who died while in service to the country. It is important that we not forget that – after more than a decade, we are still at war and we still lose some our finest young men and women every week.

Yes, we are still at war. No one knows this more than the families of those who have fallen on battlefields far from home with names most of us cannot pronounce. Unlike most of the wars America has fought in the past, we are fighting with an all volunteer force – there has been no draft since 1973. Every one of the fallen volunteered to serve this country, and deserve a moment of remembrance. Less than one-half of one percent of Americans serve in uniform (in World War II, it was over 12 percent) at any one time.

In the draft era, a much higher percent of the population entered the service, creating a large pool of veterans. Veterans understand the unique demands of military service, the separation from loved ones, the dangers of combat. With far fewer veterans or a veteran in the family, community and government, it is easy to lose sight of the demands military service requires of our men and women in uniform – and to forget too quickly those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

Sometimes one could get the feeling that foreign countries – especially those that have been liberated by American forces in the past – pay more tribute to our fallen troops than we do. I will never forget standing in a church in rural France – not a fancy cathedral, not a tourist spot, nothing architecturally significant, just a small village church. I would not have paid much attention until I spotted a well-maintained corner with a small American flag and a plaque.

I walked over and read the simple but powerful words in French and English, "In gratitude to the United States of America and in remembrance of her 56,681 sons that now and forever sleep in French soil." A elderly parishioner sitting in a pew nearby saw me reading the inscription and asked if I was an American. I said that I was – she slowly rose, nodded at the memorial and said, "You are welcome in France."*

Over the years, well over 1.3 million American troops have died in military service. Each fallen warrior is afforded a military funeral - military funerals symbolize respect for the fallen and their families.

Anyone who has attended a military funeral will never forget it – the American flag draped on the coffin, an honor guard in full dress uniform, the crack of seven rifles firing three volleys as Taps is played on the bugle, the snap of the flag as it is folded into the familiar triangle of blue, the reverence of fellow warriors.

Before his final salute, the officer in charge presents that folded flag to, in most cases, a young widow. He makes that presentation "on behalf of a grateful nation."

At some point on this day, let us make sure that we do not forget our fallen men and women, and that we are in fact a grateful nation.

____________________
* France is our oldest ally, a military alliance going back to 1778. For more information, see my article, The Nice attack - standing with our first and oldest ally.



May 13, 2017

Erdoğan - Trump meeting -- here are your talking points, Mr. President

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and U.S. President Donald J. Trump 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is scheduled to visit President Donald Trump at the White House on May 16. The main topic of discussion will be the situation in Syria - primarily the ongoing fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

One of Mr. Erdoğan's reasons for the quick and short trip to Washington is to request President Trump reconsider the American decision to provide more arms to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF is composed of Syrian Arabs and Kurds operating in northern Syria against ISIS - they have been by far the most effective ground force combatting ISIS.

The Kurdish component of the SDF is the People's Protection Units, in Kurdish Yekîneyên Parastina Gel‎ (YPG). The Turks maintain that the YPG is nothing more than the Syrian branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, in Kurdish Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê (PKK).

The PKK has been designated as a terrorist organization by not only Turkey but also the United States, NATO and the European Union. However, the United States does not consider the YPG to be part of the PKK. To the Turks, they are one and the same.

Since August 2016, the Turks have been supporting a major Free Syrian Army (FSA) incursion into northern Syria codenamed Operation Euphrates Shield. Turkish support has included airpower, armor, artillery, reconnaissance, logistics and special forces. Several Turkish troops have been killed by ISIS, including two captured soldiers who were burned alive.

The Turks had hoped that the FSA force would eventually make its way south and east into Syria via al-Bab, Manbij and on to al-Raqqah. Unfortunately, as the FSA force moved into Syria and fought successfully against ISIS, the Turks opted to have the FSA engage in offensive operations against the SDF as well as ISIS, claiming that the SDF's YPG component was part of the PKK.

In an unusual but not unheard of arrangement with the Syrian Army - and their Russian backers (some would say masters) - the SDF allowed the Syrian military to move north into the Manbij area and effectively block the advance of the FSA and their Turkish Army support troops. Russian and U.S. troops monitor the agreement in close proximity to each other.

This map shows the current situation.



Perhaps Turkish intelligence has failed to brief Mr. Erdoğan that the FSA forces he wants to liberate al-Raqqah are effectively blocked by the SDF and Syrians. The FSA force is at least 60 miles away from al-Raqqah, but in reality about 100 road march miles away. They are not in a position to mount an attack on al-Raqqah. In fact, Euphrates Shield forces no longer have a front line with ISIS.

The Turkish decision - I assume Mr. Erdoğan was involved in making the decision - to attack SDF positions while both the FSA and the SDF were fighting ISIS has probably eliminated any chance that there will be cooperation between the two anti-ISIS forces.

To illustrate why this decision was a major blunder, let's look at the Turkish armed forces' proposals for the FSA Operation Euphrates Shield force to mount an assault on al-Raqqah. First, the Turks attack U.S.-backed forces, then demand the United States arrange for them to take the lead in the attack on al-Raqqah.



The Turks have proposed two options. As seen on the map, one option is to have the United States arrange with the SDF - the same force the Turks have been attacking along the entire length of the Syrian border - a safe passage corridor from the Turkish city of Akçakale (opposite the Syrian city of Tal Abyad) south 50 miles to al-Raqqah.

The Turks would have to move the entire FSA force from current positions in the al-Bab area back to Turkey, then east to Akçakale, cross the border into SDF-controlled Syrian territory, and finally move to attack positions near al-Raqqah. These positions have been secured by the SDF at great human cost.

I do not believe the SDF will countenance a Turkish-backed and supported FSA force moving through their territory. The Turks have poisoned those waters by the airstrikes and artillery attacks on SDF units over the last few weeks.

The second option is less challenging politically, but might be logistically impossible. Note the twisted ribbon-like arc to the south of the FSA positions ending near al-Raqqah. The twisted ribbon represents an airborne/heliborne assault.

If - big if - the United States wants to placate an important NATO ally despite its unhelpful actions, it could offer to try and coordinate some FSA participation in the coming attack on al-Raqqah. A small air assault might be the vehicle to do this. However, this would reward the Turks for their petulance.

So, Mr. President - to summarize your talking points:

- Mr. Erdoğan, your FSA supported forces are bottled up near al-Bab, almost 100 miles from al-Raqqah.
- Your air and artillery attacks on SDF forces, which are backed by my forces - including U.S. troops on the ground - have obstructed progress in the fight against ISIS and wasted valuable time.
- The Kurds are now only about three miles from al-Raqqah and pressing the attack.
- Time is of the essence - we believe ISIS is planning attacks on the West, and the people of al-Raqqah deserve relief from ISIS rule.
- Once al-Raqqah falls, there may be a role for the FSA, but I do not see a role for them in the assault.
- Now, let's talk about the future of the Kurds in Syria....

For more detailed coverage of the Turkish experience in northern Syria and Erdoğan's resulting petulance, see my earlier articles: Syria - has Turkey been marginalized and the Americans thrust into the fight? and Turkey and the fight against ISIS - whose side are you on?



May 9, 2017

Russian parade in Syria shows off some of their equipment


"Title: "Military exhibition at Humaymim Air Base" (Video is in Russian)

To celebrate the Allied victory in World War II, the Russian expeditionary force deployed to Humaymim air base, Syria, conducted a military parade (watch above). While the parade itself was pretty mundane, the music performed by a Russian Army band was pretty good, but what interested me was the glimpse at some of the military equipment at the base.

The base parking apron used for the parade looked like a sales brochure for the Sukhoi aircraft company - a display of a SU-24 (FENCER D), SU-25 (FROGFOOT), SU-30 (FLANKER C), SU-34 (FULLBACK), and SU-35 (FLANKER E) combat aircraft.

However, for us military equipment junkies, there was a glimpse of less exciting, but interesting equipment.

Having been the Air Attache at the U.S. Embassy in Syria in the 1990's, I have looked at a lot of this equipment in the past. Surprisingly, much of the Russian electronic equipment at the base is still of that earlier vintage.

Although the Russians have deployed state-of-the-art air defenses and electronic warfare systems to the base, those were not caught by the cameras.

Some things I thought were of interest:



Background: A-50 (MAINSTAY) airborne early warning




Two IL-20 (COOT A) reconnaissance aircraft flanking
an AN-30 (CLANK) cartographic aircraft




TU-154 (CARELESS) – transport "The Ivan Express”



- P-18 (SPOON REST D) early warning radar
- prob ATC radar in radome
- 1L22 Parol IFF dish
- P-18 radar



Same as above, then:

PRV-11 (SIDE NET) and PRV-9 (THIN SKIN) height-finder radars



Note drone and the PRV-9 THIN SKIN



Russian girls enjoying the celebration

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My thanks to CWO3 R. A. Stonerock, U.S. Army (Ret), my colleague in the Defense Attache Office in Damascus for his assistance on the radar identifications. I learned a lot about weapons/equipment from him.




May 8, 2017

Russian military police as monitors in Syrian safe zones? Seriously?

Russian Military Police in Syria

At least two senior Russian Federation government officials have announced the deployment of additional Russian Army military police to monitor and provide security for the "de-escalation zones" as part of a three-party agreement reached by Russia, Turkey and Iran. The agreement took effect on May 6. (See my last article, "De-escalation" zones in Syria - call me skeptical)

Neither the Syrian government, the United States, nor any of the opposition groups are party to the agreement. The Syrian government, not surprisingly, has followed the bidding of its Russian and Iranian masters and has proclaimed support for the pact.

The Russian announcements may be a bit premature at best, or a downright power play at worst. The agreement is somewhat ambiguous - call me conspiratorial, but when the Russians write anything, they make sure there are loopholes - okay, I will be kind, ambiguities - that serve their interests.*

According to the text of the agreement, security zones along the lines of the de-escalation zones are to be established in order to prevent incidents and military confrontations between the combatants. This security includes checkpoints and observation posts, and "administration of the security zones" - all conducted by the forces of the three signatories.

Although the agreement allows for third party forces to be introduced, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mu'alim** has rejected any "international" presence. I take that as a reference to the United Nations or powers not acceptable to the regime of Bashar al-Asad. Why have anyone interfere with the Russians?



So let me see if I have this right. Two key provisions:

- Russia, Turkey and Iran signed an agreement on "de-escalation" zones in Syria, without buy-in from the opposition, the Kurds, or the U.S.-led coalition, but dictate who can and cannot fly or conduct ground operations in specific areas of the country.

- The agreement charges the three powers to deploy their forces to lines around the safe zones, and then establish checkpoints, observation posts and "administer" those zones.

So, in effect, we have the military forces of primarily Russia (with possibly some Iranian and Turkish units) surrounding the areas of the country that remain under opposition control. The Russians then control movement into and out of the opposition areas while monitoring the enemies of the very regime that the Russians are in Syria to protect.

What could possibly go wrong?

When this ceasefire, like those in the past, fails - the Russians will be in perfect position to usher in Syrian and Iranian troops, and begin airstrikes with tactical air control parties already in place. No doubt, the Syrian forces, with their Iranian and Hizballah supporters, are redeploying and resupplying for that day.

That's what could go wrong.

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* For an example of Russian skill at wordsmithing, see my article on Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and former Secretary of State John Kerry, Iran's ballistic missile program - more fallout from the "Kerry Collapse"

** Personal anecdote:

When I was the Air Attache to the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, I met with Dr. al-Mu'alim on several occasions, including an extended conversation on his Syrian Air Force VIP jet flying to and from the air base at Humaymim, now the primary Russian base in Syria. I found him to be a very capable representative of his government - tough and committed, but a pleasant conversant. He graded my Arabic language as A-.



May 6, 2017

"De-escalation" zones in Syria - call me skeptical

Russian military map of "de-escalation" zones in Syria

Today (Saturday, May 6) starts yet another effort to stop some of the carnage in Syria - the establishment of four what the Russians are calling "de-escalation" zones, a variation of no-fly zones.

While we all hope for a diplomatic solution to the six-year-old civil war in the country, this appears to be another in a series of ceasefire agreements, all of which have failed.

This one, unfortunately, will likely be no different. There are undoubtedly side deals between the three sponsoring parties - Russia, Turkey and Iran - and many loopholes for the combatants. The losers, or course, are the Syrian people, the opposition forces, and the Kurds.

I have numbered the four zones designated by the three parties on the Russian military map above. Zone 1 consists of most of Idlib and parts of Hamah governorates. Zone 2 is a smaller area occupied by elements of the opposition called the "al-Rastan pocket" located just north of the city of Homs. Zone 3 is the East Ghutah, the suburbs just east of the capital of Damascus, while zone 4 is the opposition-occupied areas in the south in al-Qunaytirah and Dara' governorates.

The agreement specifically exempts what are called "designated terrorist groups" - groups which have been identified as Islamist or former affiliates of al-Qa'idah. The al-Qa'idah affiliate was formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusrah, then later Jaysh Fatah al-Sham, and now as Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).

Because of numerous instances of tactical cooperation between so-called "moderate" groups that comprise the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the designated Islamist groups, they are all intermingled in a complex patchwork throughout the designated de-escalation zones.

Before the first day was over, combat aircraft of the Russian and Syrian air forces dropped a variety of weapons on the delineated de-escalation zone in Hamah - supposedly a no-fly zone. The areas in and around the highly contested city of al-Lataminah were hit with artillery and numerous air strikes, including at least 10 by barrel bombs. According to reliable maps, the opposition fighters in al-Lataminah are not members of HTS or other specifically designated terrorist organizations.

This is exactly what happened in virtually all previous attempted ceasefires. All of the previous agreements included the same provision - the ceasefire did not apply to designated terrorist groups. The Syrians and Russians failed to honor the distinction between the two categories - any group in opposition to the regime of Bashar al-Asad was deemed to be a terrorist organization and targeted as such.

I suspect this lack of distinction between groups opposing the regime will continue. How trustworthy is a regime that uses chemical weapons on its own population?

The United States is not a signatory to the de-escalation agreement, but, according to the State Department, "the United States supports any effort that can genuinely de-escalate the violence in Syria, ensure unhindered humanitarian access, focus energies on the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other terrorists, and create the conditions for a credible political resolution of the conflict." (Read the Department of State statement.)

The U.S. Department of Defense noted that the de-escalation agreement would not affect the U.S.-led air campaign against ISIS. To make that point clear to the Russians, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joe Dunford spoke by telephone with his Russian counterpart. Both officers agreed to continue deconflicting air operations in Syria.

I suspect the Russians are anxious to avoid a confrontation with the United States - Russian President Vladimir Putin believes, rightly in my opinion, that any political solution in Syria will require American support. Putin and President Donald Trump held a lengthy telephone conversation about Syria earlier in the week.

Should the two presidents come to an understanding about resolving the conflict in Syria, each will have to make accommodations with groups the two countries are supporting. The opposition may have to give up its hopes for the removal of the Ba'th Party regime, while the Russians may have to agree to the removal of the party's leader, President Bashar al-Asad.

In any case, there are other problems with the de-escalation agreement. The exact details are not yet known, but I am certain there are side deals between the three signatories, especially between the Russians and Turks.

This de-escalation agreement appears to repair relations between Moscow and Ankara, strained since November 2015 when Turkish Air Force F-16 fighter jets downed a Russian Air Force Su-24 fighter-bomber which the Turks claimed violated Turkish airspace. The pilot was killed by Syrian rebels after parachuting safely to the ground.

The Turks are seeking relevance in northern Syria and hope that the terms of this agreement provide that. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is angry over how Turkey has been marginalized in northern Syria.

No one trusts Erdogan, especially given his recent attacks on the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) while they are engaged in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

For more detailed coverage of the Turkish experience in northern Syria and Erdogan's resulting petulance, see my earlier articles: Syria - has Turkey been marginalized and the Americans thrust into the fight? and Turkey and the fight against ISIS - whose side are you on?

Erdogan hopes to insert Turkish troops into Idlib province, making up for his marginalization in Aleppo province. He will use authority under this agreement to operate in Syria (which technically he now lacks) to continue his attempts to ensure that the Kurdish population on his southern border is not permitted to create an autonomous region similar to the Kurdish Autonomous Region across the border in northern Iraq.

Erdogan further hopes that his participation in this agreement will give him standing to convince the Trump Administration that Turkish troops supporting the FSA should lead the coming assault on the ISIS stronghold of al-Raqqah.

There is a senior delegation made up of Turkish military and intelligence officials headed to Washington for discussions - I suspect their pleas will fall on deaf ears. President Erdogan himself is due to meet with President Trump on May 16 - I expect this issue to be raised.

In addition to Turkey's petulance, it is also a matter of time and distance. The American-backed SDF is on the northern outskirts of the city and is pressing an attack from the west, having recently closed on the city of al-Tabaqah. SDF forces are as close as five miles to al-Raqqah, while the Turkish-supported FSA is at least 50 miles away, bottled up in a pocket bordered by Syrian regime forces and the SDF.

Turkey's attacks on the SDF along the Syrian border have closed any window of opportunity for Erdogan to salvage his role in northern Syria, and rightfully so.

In the meantime, Russian and Syrian aircraft will continue to bomb - albeit at a lower operations tempo - the same targets they have for months.