July 25, 2007

In dealing with Iran, what is Israel's strategy?

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In dealing with Iran, what is Israel's strategy?
Francona: 'Make a deal with Damascus' is easier said than done

By Lt. Col. Rick Francona
Military analyst - MSNBC

Over the past few months, there have been reports of contacts between Syrian and Israeli officials via third parties. Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert confirmed that he has made overtures to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to restart the talks between the two countries that have been stalled since 2000.

What’s the Israeli strategy here? Is Olmert concerned about another war in Lebanon? Does he believe that Syria might be contemplating an attack on Israel? Possibly, but the most likely explanation for the approaches to al-Assad is Israel’s belief that the primary threat to the Jewish state is Syria’s key ally in the region – Iran.

Israel’s concern with Iran goes beyond than the suspected Iranian nuclear weapons program. Although Israeli leaders consider Iran armed with nuclear weapons as an “existential threat” to the country, they are also concerned with Iran’s continued support for some of Israel’s worst enemies – Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza. That support comes in the form of money, weapons and training - and it comes through Damascus. The flow of arms and money has been almost nonstop since it began in 1982 when members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps entered Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley and created Hezbollah. According to Lebanese army officers, both Syria and Iran are ignoring United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 that ended last summer’s war between Israel and Hezbollah. The resolution prohibits any party from importing weapons into Lebanon without the approval of the Lebanese government.

The Lebanese government is powerless to stop the flow of weapons destined for Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad - the Lebanese Army is having trouble subduing one Palestinian refugee camp. The Syrians could stop the flow of arms, but why would they? Damascus has been a close ally of Tehran since Syria backed Iran in the Iran-Iraq War. The two countries now have a formal defense pact and an intelligence sharing agreement.

Simple strategy - difficult execution
Israel’s strategy is simple. Make a deal with Damascus that includes the provision that Syria stop permitting the use of its territory for the transit of Iranian weapons and supplies into Lebanon. Without Iranian support, Hezbollah the political party will survive, but its militia, the “Islamic Resistance,” probably will not. Hamas and Islamic Jihad will be hurt as well, although probably not as severely as Hezbollah which relies almost entirely on Iranian largesse.

But while strategy is simple, the execution is not. “Make a deal with Damascus” is easier said than done. What does Israel have that Syria wants? That’s easy – Israel occupies the Golan Heights, seized from Syria in the Six Day War of 1967 and since 1981 under Israeli administrative control (just short of outright annexation). The return of the Golan is a visceral issue for Syrians. Without of the return of the Golan to Syria, there will be no progress in the peace process - none. The question is not if Israel will need to return the territory; it is how to do it. The Syrians insist that the Israelis guarantee the return of the area before negotiations take place; Israel wants the modality of the return to be part of the talks.

There are serious Israeli concerns about retuning the Golan to Syrian control, and the Israelis want to make sure these concerns are addressed. In the past, there was a worry that the Syrians would once again control the high ground overlooking the Hula Valley of northern Israel. That worry has been overcome by technology – Syria no longer needs the high ground to bombard Israel. It now has missiles capable of delivering chemical warheads to almost any part of Israel from well inside Syria.

Maybe of greater concern to Israel is the loss of its large intelligence gathering station on one of the highest points in the Golan. This station allows electronic and visual monitoring of southern Syria all the way to Damascus. It is Israel’s primary means of detecting any Syrian military moves towards the border area.

Ending Iran’s access to Syria is a good plan on the part of the Israelis, but it does not appear to have worked. When the Syrian president made a speech to the parliament marking the beginning of his second term in which he stated that he wanted “direct and open talks with Israel,” it set off alarm bells in Tehran. If there is one thing that Iran does not want, it is peace between Syria and Israel. The Iranians know full well the implications for their foreign policy.

It only took two days for Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to jump on an airplane and head for Damascus. Ahmadinejad did not only come with words, he brought money, $1 billion with which to buy Iranian or Russian weapons from Iran. The deal also reportedly includes construction of a missile production facility in Syria. It’s a good deal for both countries: Iran retains is access to its proxy armies, and Syria gets an infusion of badly needed cash to buy weapons.

Ahmadinejad has been successful in preventing Syria from straying and causing a foreign policy crisis for Iran – so far.

July 19, 2007

General Wayne Downing (1940-2007)

General Wayne Downing
General Wayne Downing
United States Army (Retired)
Officer, Warrior, Leader, Gentleman and Friend

The general died at home on July 17, and so closes a chapter in American special operations. Most of us will never fully know of his contributions - most of his victories were won in the dark in lonely, far away places doing things that the public does not want to know about.

Wayne Downing, more than most, exemplified John F. Kennedy’s exhortation that we should ask not what our country can do for us, but what we can do for our country. The general served for over three decades as one of the country’s most decorated officers in a field that at times was not appreciated by the senior echelons in the military – Special Forces. Not only did he practice the craft, he set the standards and went on to lead the nation’s Special Operations Command.

You don’t need me to tell you about the general’s contributions – it’s easy enough to type his name into a Google search and read about one of America’s heroes. Instead, let me add a few personal thoughts.

For the last four and a half years, General Downing and I were military analysts at NBC News and MSNBC. It was an honor to appear on the same set with him. We did not always agree, but he always respected my opinions and analyses, a welcome attitude given the differences in our retired military ranks. I was always amused at his wry half-smile as I launched into an analysis that I knew he did not agree with, that sort of “I’ll listen, Rick, but I’m not buying it” look. And yet, he never “pulled rank.”

Someone, a fellow retired Air Force officer, asked what it was like to work with General Downing. I responded with a parody of the MasterCard commercial: “New tie $35; frou-frou coffee at the MSNBC.COM-missary (yes, they actually call it that) $2.75; a day spent with a legend of contemporary American military service - priceless!

What struck me most was his unwavering willingness to serve the country. After a long and distinguished career in the Army, he agreed to serve again after September 11, this time at the White House, before coming to NBC News. When I last saw him, he was still traveling and talking to our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I shall miss him. Farewell, sir.

PS - Colonel Jack Jacobs, my colleague at MSNBC, wrote an excellent piece on the general. Read it at

July 18, 2007

Pakistan’s safe haven may need surge operation

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Pakistan’s safe haven may need surge operation
Francona: A window of opportunity is present to move against al-Qaida’s leadership

By Lt. Col. Rick Francona
Military analyst - MSNBC

According to a new draft intelligence report, al-Qaida has reconstituted itself over the last few years in the mountainous tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan. This comes as no real surprise, given the September 2006 agreement between the tribal chiefs in the region and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. Musharraf agreed to withdraw his military forces from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and in return the tribal chiefs committed to prevent “militants" from operating in the region or conducting cross-border operations into Afghanistan.

Musharraf has lived up to his part; the tribal chiefs have not. Al-Qaida and its Pakistani sympathizers have had free rein in the area, creating a safe haven virtually outside Pakistani jurisdiction. They have established training camps for an international cadre (including Britons of Pakistani descent involved in last year’s lethal attacks in London), and supported Taliban raids into Afghanistan.

Let’s assume the intelligence draft is accurate — it may or may not be. I spent almost three decades in the intelligence community and can attest that many drafts barely resemble the finished product. According to the draft, al-Qaida is “considerably operationally stronger than a year ago," has “regrouped to an extent not seen since 2001," and has created “the most robust training program since 2001…." I don’t think there is any doubt that al-Qaida is stronger today than a year ago, nor is there any question that al-Qaida has reconstituted itself in the barely sovereign area of Pakistan. The real issue is the fact that the Pakistani government has been either unwilling or unable to do anything about it.

That may have changed in the last week. Musharraf’s firm handling of the Red Mosque standoff in Islamabad has caused an outcry among the fundamentalist Muslims in the country, especially in the tribal areas. Several of the tribal chiefs have declared the September 2006 deal with Islamabad over. There has been an outbreak of attacks against government targets, including two attempts on Musharraf’s life just this month. In response, Pakistani troops have moved into the border area.

This is good news. Hopefully Musharraf will order his forces into the region in earnest and root out not only the Pakistani militants that are causing him problems, but also the al-Qaida members as well. As long as al-Qaida has a safe haven in Pakistan, there will be no resolution to al-Qaida’s threat to the United States and the West. As long as the Taliban has a safe haven in Pakistan, there will be no resolution to the ongoing violence in neighboring Afghanistan.

Should Musharraf make the decision to root out al-Qaida from the tribal areas, the United States should not only offer verbal encouragement (as we have) but offer tangible support as well. That tangible support should include intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance, airstrikes as needed, and if required to eliminate al-Qaida for good, U.S. ground forces moving in from Afghanistan.
There is no substitute for American troops to ensure the job gets done right. We learned that lesson during the fighting in Tora Bora in December 2001. It was American miscalculation of the reliability of our Northern Alliance allies in the fight at Tora Bora that allowed al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden and his entourage to escape into Pakistan. Remember the pledge from the Northern Alliance that bin Laden’s capture/surrender was a foregone conclusion, the only issue was how it was to be handled? There were insufficient American troops on the ground, we had halted the devastating airstrikes on the area awaiting the handover, and lo and behold, something happened — I don’t know what, tribal loyalties, money changing hands, whatever — but bin Laden slipped away into Pakistan. The al-Qaida threat should have been eliminated right then, but that camel has slipped its hobble.

If the intelligence estimate is true, al-Qaida still presents a clear and present danger to the United States. We may now have a short window of opportunity to move against al-Qaida’s leadership, bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri, once and for all. This time, let’s not miss.

© 2007 MSNBC Interactive

July 9, 2007

Italian resolve on Iran – who knew?

Italian resolve in the Middle East – now that would be a welcome change, given their track record in Iraq and Afghanistan.

AFP PhotoOn his recent visit to Israel, Italian Premier Romano Prodi declared that Iran must be prevented from acquiring a nuclear weapon. That puts him in company with U.S. President George Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with that definitive of a statement. It seems to acknowledge that the European effort to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue by diplomacy will probably fail. The question is what is he - or more properly, Italy -
prepared to do about it? I doubt we will see Italian fighter-bombers in Iranian airspace anytime soon.

Italy has been a reluctant ally, barely an ally in the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq. In both venues, it is widely acknowledged that Italy has paid ransoms to kidnappers of Italian journalists and aid workers – a bad precedent. The release of one of these ransomed reporters was badly botched when an Italian military intelligence officer was killed trying to run past American checkpoints on the way to Baghdad airport. Of course, an Italian investigation found the Americans at fault. The reporter, Giuliana Gregna, claimed that the Americans wanted to "silence her." You're probably a good journalist, but please, you don't rise to that level of importance. Your ransom and release was likely responsible for the kidnapping of Italian journalists in Afghanistan - hey, Italy pays!

Italy’s commitment to the war on terrorism has been called into question earlier this year as they put on trial officers of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency suspected of rendition operations against Italian citizens. Oh, yeah, “rendition” is a fancy word for snatching someone off the street. I am having a hard time feeling sympathy for a well-documented Al-Qa’idah operative hiding in liberal Europe being grabbed by U.S. intelligence officers. I am not a fan, however, of turning them over to the Egyptians as the Italians have accused and I suspect are correct. From my experience, the Jordanians have a better human rights record and get better results in these cases.

Prodi’s remarks, welcome remarks, came as the result of a visit to Israel. I was recently in Israel, so I am sure he was exposed to an even greater level of constant verbal bombardment about the Iranian threat. All Israeli officials speak from the same talking points, and the talking points now revolve around Iran’s nuclear program, which is consistently labeled as the “existential” threat to Israel. Granted, if the Iranians do acquire nuclear weapons and can mate them to a medium range ballistic missile, they could cripple Israel in one strike.

Now you ask, does Iran have the ability to make a nuclear weapon and make it into a deliverable warhead? A name: A.Q. Khan. The Iranians need to manufacture the fissile material for a weapon – the design plans for a weapon and warhead were supplied by the so-called “rogue” Pakistani scientist. I say "so-called" and "rogue" because I am not so sure there was not some government complicity in the transfer of technology from Pakistan to other Muslim/Islamic countries, much of which occurred before Pakistani President Musharraf’s “conversion” to American ally after September 11, 2001.

The test of Italy’s new-found resolve will come after Prodi returns to Rome. It’s easy to make a public relations speech while visiting the leaders of another country, but more difficult to translate that into foreign policy back home. This is especially true when Italian troops are in Lebanon as part of the international force overseing the farce that is United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, ostensibly preventing the resupply of Hizballah, which we all know continues unabated via Syria.

I remain to be convinced

Turkish Invasion of Northern Iraq?

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Turkish Invasion of Northern Iraq?
Francona: A complication we don’t need

By Lt. Col. Rick Francona
Military analyst - MSNBC

Over 140,000 Turkish troops – almost the same number of American troops in Iraq – are massing on Turkey’s border with Iraq and preparing for possible intervention against Kurdish guerillas of the Kurdish Workers party (PKK). This comes at a time when the United States does not need the additional problem of a NATO ally invading a seemingly pacified area of Iraq.

Turkish military intervention in northern Iraq is nothing new; it has been happening since at least 1984. I remember when I was in northern Iraq in the mid-1990’s, there was a constant Turkish military and intelligence presence in the country, including an armored brigade, camped along the major route between the two countries. Although the Turks were operating in their own interests to control the cross border operations of the PKK, we welcomed Ankara’s willingness to place troops in or near Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

America’s relationship with Turkey has declined markedly since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. After an initial commitment to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, the Turks reversed themselves and refused to permit the U.S. Army Fourth Mechanized Infantry Division to move into northern Iraq from Turkey.

The invasion plan called for the Fourth Division – the Army’s heaviest and most modern armored force – to transit the Kurdish-controlled area of northern Iraq and attack through what is now known as the “Sunni triangle” toward Baghdad, forcing the Iraqis to split their defenses between the Fourth attacking from the north and the main U.S. Army and Marine Corps force attacking from the south. Not only was the Fourth Division unable to attack from the north, it had to return to the Turkish coast, re-board transport ships and sail around the Arabian Peninsula to Kuwait, offload and follow the main American force to Baghdad.

The inability of the Americans to move combat forces into the Sunni heartland before the fall of Baghdad allowed an escape route for members of the regime who quickly formed the insurgency in this area.

Turkey’s policy reversal, coming after much of the division had already landed and was in the process of traversing southern Turkey, caused a major rift in relations between the two NATO allies. American air forces temporarily withdrew from Incirlik Air Base near Adana and conducted operations from bases in more cooperative new NATO allies Romania and Bulgaria. The message to Turkey: “If you want to be treated like an ally, you have to act like an ally.” Although the rift has somewhat healed, distrust lingers.

The threat of a major Turkish invasion into Iraq follows smaller cross-border raids by Turkish artillery and special operations units. The Turks accuse the Iraqis of not doing enough to deny the PKK guerrillas safe haven just inside Iraq along the mountainous border area.

Iraq’s minister of foreign affairs, Hoshyar Zebari, himself an Iraqi Kurd and former representative of the Kurdish Democratic Party, acknowledged that "Turkey's fears are legitimate but such things can be discussed - the perfect solution is the withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the borders."

Hoshyar, you and I go back a few years, so here’s the reality - the Turks are not going to withdraw their forces from the border until there is a satisfactory resolution to the situation. They almost certainly believe that the “perfect solution” is the removal of the PKK from northern Iraq. I have been critical of the Turks since the 2003 policy reversal as I believe it contributed to the rise of the Iraqi insurgency, but this time I have to go with Ankara.

Unless the Iraqis take immediate action to close the border to the PKK and prevent these cross border operations into Turkish territory, what choice do the Turks have? The Turks view Iraq’s president, deputy prime minister for national security and the foreign minister – all Kurds – as being unwilling or unable to stop the PKK’s lethal attacks being launched from Iraqi territory.

If Baghdad cannot or will not stop it, the Turkish army will. That said, 140,000 Turkish troops pouring over the border into Iraq is a complication neither the Iraqis, Turks nor the Americans need.

July 5, 2007

Two decades later – it’s still about Iran

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Two decades later – it’s still about Iran
Francona: The winner will be the power broker in the Persian Gulf

By Lt. Col. Rick Francona
Military analyst - MSNBC

It comes as no surprise that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force, the elite special operations unit, was involved in the January attack in Karbala that killed five American soldiers. The newer and somewhat surprising detail in the recent revelation by the American command in Baghdad is the direct participation of Lebanese Hezbollah operatives in Iraq. One of these fighters, Ali Musa Daqduq, was captured by American forces in March near Basrah.

According to Daqduq, he was sent to Iran in 2005 by the Qods Force to train Iraqis. This makes good sense. Daqduq, being Lebanese, speaks Arabic. Qods Force officers, being Iranian, speak Persian. Although many IRGC officers, especially those who have worked with Hezbollah members in Lebanon or trained them in Iran, speak Arabic, having a native speaker with on-the-ground experience fighting the Israelis in Lebanon is a hard set of credentials to top.

This recent revelation comes on the heels of Iran’s continuing provision of lethal weaponry to Shia militias, particularly the “explosively formed penetrator” that has killed over 100 American troops. This willingness to support terrorist operations in Iraq fits with Tehran’s longstanding support of the Syrian regime, Lebanese Hezbollah, Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Chechen rebels and Bosnian Muslims – and underscores the importance of Iran for future American policy in the Middle East and Persian Gulf.

We are fighting a proxy war in Iraq, a war between the United States and Iran. The winner will be the power broker in the Persian Gulf, source of much of the world’s oil. The success or failure of American policy in Iraq will determine how much influence we have with the Arab oil producers, especially Saudi Arabia with the world’s largest proved oil reserves, as well as traditional allies Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain (homeport of the U.S. Fifth Fleet) and the United Arab Emirates.

This showdown between the United States and Iran will reach an important crossroads in September, when our self-imposed review of the current “surge” operation takes place. It is important that we not lose sight of the consequences of declaring defeat and limiting American forces to fighting al-Qaida in Iraq.

Yes, destroying al-Qaida is an important goal, but not the only goal. We are beginning to see some success in that arena, thanks to changes in our tactics and new alliances with some of the Sunni tribal shaykhs in al-Anbar province. While the tribes at first either supported or turned a blind eye to al-Qaida out of a sense of fear of the new-found power of the majority Shia population – they dominate the military and security forces – the shaykhs have realized that al-Qaida’s plans and dreams for the future of Iraq are not compatible with their own. Al-Qaida wants to establish an Islamic state; the shaykhs prefer their traditional form of tribal rule. Once al-Qaida showed its true colors by establishing Islamic courts and meting out Sharia justice, the shaykhs turned on them. American and Iraqi forces are cooperating with the tribes in this effort, arming them when necessary. Between the tribal militias, the Iraqi military and police and American combat forces, the eradication of al-Qaida in Iraq just might be accomplished.

That said, we cannot take our eyes off the ball. There are other key objectives in Iraq, the most important of which is to ensure that Iran does not emerge as the principle power broker in the region. Not only have the neighboring Arab countries been concerned about Iranian power and aggressiveness – not to mention its arsenal of ballistic missile and potential nuclear weapons capability – the United States has long been concerned about Iran as well.

Much of American policy in the region since we were thrust into superpower status following World War II has been about Iran, either seeking influence or containing it, or both. A new book (in which I am castigated) details our relationship with Saddam Hussein in the late 1980’s. The United States provided intelligence information to the Iraqi armed forces at the same time the Iraqis were using “special ammunition” - chemical weapons – on Iranian troops and their own Kurdish population. However, the relationship was not about supporting the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, it was about containing the Islamic revolution of the ayatollahs in Iran.

We contained Iran then - let’s hope we can do it now.

© 2007 MSNBC Interactive