November 29, 2011

Pakistan - part of the problem, not the solution

U.S. Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopter

The recent attack on two Pakistani border posts by NATO (read: American) combat aircraft and the political fallout it has generated highlights the fragile relationship between the United States and Pakistan. This incident comes at a time when the earlier damage to the relationship caused by the American special operations forces raid that killed Usamah bin Ladin was beginning to fade.

As expected, there are conflicting reports about exactly what happened. NATO and Afghan forces claim that artillery was fired at them from the vicinity of the two Pakistani border posts. The Pakistanis, of course, deny this claim. One senior Pakistani officer went so far to make the ludicrous claim that this may have been a deliberate attack on the part of NATO.

I have to assume that there was artillery fire from the Pakistani side of the border. The question is who conducted the fire - was it Pakistani troops or members of the Taliban using Pakistani territory as a safe haven, knowing that NATO and Afghan forces cannot legally follow them or attack them in Pakistan? The Americans responded, as they should have, with overwhelming firepower.

The thought that it may have been Pakistani artillery is not out of the question - the Pakistani army and intelligence services are full of Taliban (and al-Qa'idah) sympathizers. More likely, though, the fire was from Afghan Taliban fighters operating right under the nose of the Pakistani troops who have rarely intervened to prevent the Afghan Taliban from using Pakistani territory. Note that the Pakistanis have taken action against the Pakistani Taliban, but often ignore at best - and support at worst - the Afghan Taliban.

The relationship between the United States and Pakistan can hardly be called an alliance. Much of that is due to the fact that Pakistan is hardly a viable country. It is yet another country cobbled together in the waning days of the British Empire. It has disparate ethnic groups that have not truly reconciled themselves into being a nation. One of these groups is the Pushtuns, the same group that comprises the largest ethnic group across the border - an artificial construct diving the Pushtuns - in Afghanistan.

I have always wondered about Pakistan and other countries in the region whose borders were drawn by failed European colonialists, where the loyalties of many of the tribal and ethnic groups lie. Are the Pushtuns of Pakistan more loyal to the government in Islamabad or to their blood relatives on either side of an imaginary line drawn by a foreign power? Will the Pushtuns of Afghanistan take up arms against the Pushtuns in Pakistan based on orders issued by a multi-ethnic government in Kabul?

The Pakistanis have retaliated for the incident by demanding that the CIA leave a Pakistani air base in Baluchistan from which the controversial - and highly effective - Predator armed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operation is conducted. I am not sure that will really happen. If you look at the targets killed by the UAVs, the program benefits Pakistan more than the United States. Since the attacks are launched from Pakistani soil against targets also on Pakistani soil, the targets must be approved by the Pakistani intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate. Therefore, all of the militants killed by American UAV-launched missiles are actually those that the Pakistanis want dead, almost exclusively Pakistani Taliban members. It is the militants that appear on both the Pakistani and American lists that are targeted. Why would the ISI halt an operation that furthers its interests at almost no cost to them?

The targets who are missing from the UAV program targets are the al-Qa'idah and Afghan Taliban militants that the United States wants dead - but the Pakistanis may not. The ISI is manned by officers who were responsible for the creation of the Taliban and by officers who were at least sympathetic to Usamah bin Ladin. There are some analysts (me included) who believe that the ISI was also protecting bin Ladin, necessitating the unilateral American special operations raid on the bin Ladin compound in Abbottabad, a city full of retired Pakistani military and intelligence officers and home to the country's military academy. Most of the analysts I speak with believe that the Pakistanis are either complicit or incompetent in the bin Ladin case. I am not sure which is more palatable.

Pakistan has tried, with some success, to manipulate the United States because it believes that the Americans need Pakistan to prosecute the war on al-Qa'idah. That may have been the case in 2001, but much less so today. This is where I take exception with the Obama Administration's policy on the war on Afghanistan, as I did with the Bush Administration as well. The war in Afghanistan was launched to attack and destroy al-Qa'idah. That objective, as far as Afghanistan is concerned, was met that same year. The remnants of al-Qa'idah fled to Pakistan, and later Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Somalia. Operations against al-Qa'idah in Pakistan were impossible - after all, the Pakistanis or elements in the Pakistani military and intelligence services were providing support to al-Qa'idah.

For whatever reason, the United States embarked on a nation-building exercise in Afghanistan which of necessity included military operations against the Taliban. Until that time, the Taliban had never been a threat to the United States. At some point, America was engaged in a war against a group that had not threatened the United States in a country that has no national security interest to the United States. The enemy - al-Qa'idah - had mostly fled to Pakistan.

At best, Pakistan made virtually no effort to take on the al-Qa'idah Organization (tanzim al-qa'idah). At worst, the Pakistani military and intelligence establishments either actively or passively supported the terrorist group. The group's leader was found living in a compound virtually in the Pakistani government's backyard almost 10 years later.

Bottom line for me: the United States should no longer be engaged in military operations in Afghanistan. Our mission there should have ended with the removal of the Taliban government and the flight of the al-Qa'idah vermin to Pakistan. Our attention should then have shifted to Pakistan. Our attempts to ally with Pakistan have failed - we are doing their bidding in their war against the Pakistani Taliban while they continue to support the Afghan Taliban and any remaining elements of al-Qa'idah.

The Pakistanis are not part of the solution - they are part of the problem.

November 27, 2011

Syria - nearing the brink of civil war?

The situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, almost to the point that many observers are warning that the country is destined for a civil war. The divisions in the country go far beyond the political differences that have existed in Syria since the country was created after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War One. When there are significant defections from the Syrian armed forces and attacks on Syrian military installations, there is the potential for the breakdown of civil authority and the descent into a civil war between two defined groups, or a complete breakdown and the evolution of anarchy. In Syria, I suspect it will be the former.

For those of us who have lived in the country and observed it first hand, it comes as no surprise that the government and various segments of the population are so far apart. When I was assigned to the American Embassy as the air attache, it was evident that there were huge divisions between the rulers and the ruled, the exploiters and the exploited, those on the inside and the rest of the country.

In an academic paradigm, the divisions are moot points. In the reality of the current situation on the streets of Syria's cities, the divisions take on serious meanings. The willingness of an oppressed population to demonstrate against - and confront - a government that shows no remorse in using troops backed by armor and artillery only tells me that the country is indeed headed for a civil war.

One thing is clear to me: President Bashar al-Asad will not step down. No combination of western, United Nations or the imminent Arab League sanctions will convince him that a voluntary abdication is a viable course of action. If Bashar is to be removed from power, it will be after much more bloodshed and civil strife in the country. Should Bashar al-Asad be removed, it will also be the death knell for the position of his corrupt 'Alawi clans.

More important than the removal of the 'Alawi clans from power, the downfall of Bashar al-Asad will also spell the end of secular socialist Ba'th Party. The Ba'th Party has been in power for over four decades, and while almost universally regarded as nothing more than "'Alawi, Inc." or "The al-Asad Corporation," it does maintain a stance against rising Islamic fundamentalism in the country. That one fact is key to the support the al-Asad regime enjoys among a significant portion of the Sunni and Christian Arab members of the population. Many Syrians fear that the demise of the al-Asad family and the Ba'th Party will lead to an Islamic fundamentalist government in Syria. These Syrians prefer "the devil you know" to the specter of an Islamic republic.

Thus far, nothing has altered the behavior of the al-Asad regime. Sanctions imposed by the United States and European nations have had little effect. That is not surprising since Syria has been somewhat of a pariah nation for decades. The threat of Arab League sanctions carries a bit more weight, but in the end, Syria is no stranger to being estranged from its Arab brethren. In one of the longest and bloodiest wars in modern history, the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, Syria alone among the Arab countries sided with Persian Iran against Arab Iraq.

While virtually all Arab states were materially, financially or morally supporting Iraq, Syria provided access to its airbases for Iranian aircraft conducting attacks against targets in Iraq. Given the fact that Syria's major trading partners are countries in the European Union and its major export to those countries is oil, I doubt the threat of sanctions from the Arab League will have any real impact on the al-Asad regime. Yes, it acts concerned about the opinions of the Arab League, but in the end will stand alone against its Arab brethren. It really has no choice.

It may be the refusal of the al-Asad regime to deal with the international community that eventually leads to its demise. Every week there are reports of new defections from the Syrian armed forces to the Free Syrian Army (logo left*), the major in-country opposition group. These former Syrian military personnel have the weapons and training to create real problems for the regime.

During the initial period of the uprising, the majority of the demonstrators were civilians across the country - there was no coherent, organized opposition. Now we have the Free Syrian Army appealing to soldiers to defect to the opposition, with some effect. Outside the country, the Syrian National Council (SNC) is the leading opposition group. According to most analysts of things Syrian - including me - the SNC is basically the Muslim Brotherhood.

Yes, that is the same al-ikhwan al-muslimin that has gained the upper hand in Tunisia and Egypt, will likely be the key power broker in Libya, and is on the rise in Morocco and Algeria. North Africa is becoming a victory story for the Brotherhood, which comes as no surprise - many of the Islamists captured or killed fighting for al-Qa'idah throughout the Middle East and South Asia are from the area stretching from Morocco to Egypt.

Note also that the SNC is based in Turkey. The current Turkish government is headed by an Islamist prime minister (Recep Tayyip Erdoğan) and cabinet, much to the chagrin of the generally secular Turks. The Turkish government has been the primary supporter of the SNC. Since the SNC is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, this alliance should come as no surprise, but I get the impression that not many people are connecting those dots.

Will the Turks assist the Free Syrian Army and/or the Syrian National Council with money and equipment (diplo-speak for weapons)? If the situation gets worse, I think they will. The Turks are already providing a moral and political support. However, if they move to the next level, they need to be prepared for the Syrians to renew their material and safe haven support to the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). In the past, when the Turks reduced the flow of the Euphrates River to the legal minimum, that action shut down many of the electrical generating turbines at the Tabaqah dam. The Syrians would then allow the PKK to launch cross border raids into southern Turkey.

The rise of the Free Syrian Army increases the probability of a civil war. The defectors from the Syrian army not only have access to weapons, they have inside knowledge of the regime's armed forces. That inside knowledge contributed to the group's successful ambush of a group of Syrian air force pilots on the the Homs-Palmyra road last week. The group claims that they killed eight "elite" pilots from the airbase at Tiyas; I assume they were assigned to the 819th squadron that flies the Su-24 (NATO: FENCER) fighter bomber. There is nothing else at Tiyas that could be construed as elite.

Given the refusal of the al-Asad regime to act like part of the international community of nations, and the ride of opposition groups both inside and outside the country, it appears that a civil war is almost becoming inevitable. The upside is the removal of the al-Asad regime and the Ba'th Party. The downside is the bloodshed and probable rise of the Muslim Brotherhood.

It's a tough call - which is better? A secular Syria allied with Iran under the Ba'th Party and President Bashar al-Asad, or Syria dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood? I guess it depends on who you ask.

* In the image of the Free Syrian Army and in the image at the top of this article, the flag (on which the logo is based) is not the current Syrian flag, although it does comprise the common Arab (and Muslim) colors of red, white, black and green. The flag dates back to 1932 and is unofficially called the "flag of independence" because it was the flag in use when Syria achieved independence from the French Mandate on April 17, 1946. It was used until 1958, making it the longest used flag in Syrian history. It is considered a symbol of protest against the Ba'th Party and the al-Asad regime.

November 18, 2011

The IAEA's useless condemnation of Iran

The Economist magazine cover from May 4, 2006 seems to have been right on the money. Given the world reaction to the recent report by the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), that Iran was in fact embarking on the development of nuclear warheads for its ballistic missiles, it would appear that Iran's nuclear ambitions are indeed unstoppable.

That possibility was highlighted at the Thursday (November 17) IAEA meeting in Vienna. The world's representatives to the agency met to determine the next moves following the release of the report on the Iranian program. Predictably, the agency was unable to come up with anything more meaningful than what the media has described as "sharp criticism" of Iran and drafting of a resolution.

The draft resolution contains words that will no doubt set back Iran's efforts (for those who do not know me, I am being sarcastic), expressing "deep and increasing concern about the unresolved issues" and "urges Iran to agree to new negotiations without preconditions." There is no mention of sanctions or penalties - a concession to Russia and China - and defers any further discussions on the program until March 2012. Meaningless.

Call me skeptical, but I don't see this resolution having any adverse impact whatsoever on Iran's nuclear program. In fact, the opposite is likely true. The Iranians have just been given a free pass for at least the next four months. In those four months, Iranian engineers and physicists will continue to enrich uranium far above levels required for the generation of nuclear energy, continue to research and develop ballistic missile warhead technology and continue to laugh at the impotence of the West.

Of course, that means laughing at the impotence of the Obama Administration whose "engagement" policy towards Iran has allowed Iran's program to continue virtually unabated for years. An Administration spokesman tried to spin this failure by saying, "We are confident that there’s going to be a strong message coming out of the board of governors, and a unified message." I am not convinced that a "strong and unified message" will have any effect on Iran other than affirming their perception - a correct perception in my opinion - that they have again gained time while again outmaneuvering the West.

Another Western spokesman, obviously using the Obama Administration's talking points, hailed the IAEA "strong and unified message" as "setting the stage for a possible showdown in the spring if IAEA investigators find that Iran is continuing to violate its nuclear treaty obligations." Is he serious? Does anyone with a modicum of thought processes believe that Iran is not going to continue its nuclear weapons development program in contravention of its treaty obligations?

Meanwhile, the Israelis continue to wrestle with the possibility - some would say probability - of the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran. I have been to Israel several times in the last few years. On a trip in 2006 in the aftermath of the war with Hizballah ostensibly to talk about that operation, in almost every instance my talks with Israeli political, military and intelligence officials focused on the "existential threat" posed by Tehran's quest for nuclear weapons.

Another trip in 2009 to ostensibly review the military operations in the Gaza Strip in late 2008 and early 2009 also focused on Iran's nuclear program. Israel was understandably disappointed with the results of Thursday's meeting which gives Iran a free hand to continue its weapons program with no consequences until the spring.

Since the Israelis have not been shy in sharing their analysis that while they can deter any or all of the Arab countries from launching an attack on the Jewish state but that the Islamic Republic of Iran cannot be deterred, the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities increases in direct proportion to the Western world's refusal to address the issue.

The IAEA's decision to "sharply criticize" Iran and impose no penalties led U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to caution Israel against taking military action against Iran, urging more time for diplomacy at this point. The interesting point of this advise to the Israelis is his use of "at this point." Are we to believe that if the Obama Administration continues to fail to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon then Israel will get a green light to do what no one else seems willing to do?

I had great hopes when the United Nations named Yukiya Amano as the new Director General of the IAEA, replacing Egyptian Muhammad al-Barada'i. I was encouraged when the IAEA released its report that Iran was - surprise, surprise - developing a nuclear warhead for its ballistic missiles.

I am now disappointed that nothing new appears to be on the horizon. Iran is developing nuclear weapons - we all know it, but no one is willing to do anything about it. There is no sense of urgency - it will be March before we as an international body hear of this again. The IAEA's condemnation, its "sharp criticism," is meaningless.

November 16, 2011

Russia Today - Crosstalk: "Getting Syrious"

I appeared as part of a panel discussion on November 15's edition of Crosstalk on the Russia Today television channel. Watch it on YouTube!

November 14, 2011

Iran - IAEA report forces candidates' hands

Now that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has released its long-awaited report on the Iranian nuclear program, there is an official document - other than Israeli and American intelligence assessments - that Iran is in fact developing a nuclear weapon. More alarmingly, according to the report, the Iranians are close to having the ability to field a nuclear weapon much sooner than thought. In contrast to the now widely discounted U.S. National Intelligence Estimate of 2007, the IAEA reports that the Iranians have been working on a nuclear weapons capability continuously since at least 2003.

This should come as no surprise to anyone, except maybe the few holdouts at State Department that cannot fathom that the Iranians are actually determined to build a nuclear weapon. Why is that? It's hard to quantify, but in my dealings with foreign service officers, and in a few instances, intelligence analysts in the department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, there was a tendency to always give the Iranians the benefit of the doubt.

I attribute this to the fact that many of the officers had served in Iran prior to the fall of the Shah in 1979, and virtually all of them regarded their postings in Iran as a positive experience. Those good feelings about pre-revolutionary Iran have often clouded their judgments and assessments when it comes to the current Islamic Republic of Iran.

Hopefully the publication of a report that even the most dovish members of the Obama Administration will find hard to dispute - most of them are big supporters of the United Nations - we can get past the previous argument over whether or not the objective of the Iranian nuclear program was the development of nuclear weapons. It is. The Iranian regime's ludicrous claims that the purpose of the program is the development of an electrical generation capability has been refuted, not that many serious analysts ever bought such drivel.

Now that it would appear that everyone is now on the same page, we need to deal with it. Well, the current administration and any potential Republican nominee that will challenge Barack Obama for the Presidency in 2012 will have to deal with it. Unfortunately, I suspect that there will be stark contrasts between the incumbent president and the Republican challenger.

Let's take a quick look at President Obama and his plans to prevent the Islamic Republic from acquiring a nuclear weapon. In 2008, Presidential candidate Obama stated, "It is unacceptable for Iran to possess a nuclear weapon, it would be a game changer." He further said that diplomacy and sanctions were preferable to military action, as if we needed reminding of that. Of course, this is the same Barack Obama, then a Senator, that complained that earlier sanctions on Iraq were ineffective. Candidate Obama also said, “It’s sufficient to say I would not take military action off the table and that I will never hesitate to use our military force in order to protect the homeland and the United States’ interests.”

However, since Obama has been President, he has walked that back. One of Obama's chief supporters, Harvard University law professor and former Special Advisor for the United States Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Elizabeth Warren hailed the President’s “nuanced response” with “no chest-thumping...that could backfire.”

It appears that we have gone from "unacceptable" to "nuanced response." The President just last week cited the United Nations sanctions protocol as having had an "enormous bite." That claim flies in the face of the reports that Iran is within a year of developing a nuclear weapon.

The President also claimed that Russian and Chinese leaders are united with him to ensure Iran does not develop the weapons capability. Again, that claim flies in the face of reality - both the Russians and Chinese have been very vocal in their objections to any increased sanctions on Iran. In fact, both countries are suppliers of technology and weapons to the Islamic Republic.

Unfortunately, the Iranians have assessed that there is almost no possibility that President Obama would consider the military option and thus have no intention of halting or slowing their weapons development program. They also have assessed that their close relationships with China and Russia will impede the imposition of any increased sanctions in the United Nations.

On the Republican challengers, there is not unanimity of opinion of how to handle the Iranian nuclear weapons issue. For example, Ron Paul believes that the best course of action is to "offer friendship." I won't touch that one.

Most of the Republicans are more in line with former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. His words: "If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon...if you elect me as the next president, they will not have a nuclear weapon."

Neither President Obama nor virtually any of the Republican candidates want the Iranians to acquire a nuclear weapons capability - that is not the point. The point is how that position is portrayed to the Iranians. A "nuanced response" with "no chest-thumping" probably isn't going to have much effect in Tehran. One need only look at how effective the Administration's engagement policy has worked for the past 35 months.

What we need is both of the final candidates for President - the incumbent Barack Obama on the Democratic side and whoever emerges as the Republican challenger to unequivocally state, "We will not permit the Islamic Republic of Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon." Too nuanced?

November 5, 2011

Iran, the IAEA and Israel - convergence coming?

There is a convergence of events looming in the Middle East over the next few weeks, events which could have a profound impact on the area for years to come. These events are the upcoming International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran's nuclear weapons program, the Iranian reaction to that report, the Israeli reaction to that report, and to a lesser extent the Obama Administration reaction to that report.

According to numerous sources who claim to have seen parts of the report, the IAEA is planning to "reveal" that Iran has been working clandestinely to develop a nuclear weapons capability, citing evidence that Iran has made models of a nuclear warhead. This comes to no surprise to anyone who has been following the progress of the Iranian "peaceful nuclear energy" program for the past decade or more.

The question on the minds of most Middle East analysts is, "What took so long?" The easy answers are that there was not concrete evidence, or that former IAEA chief Muhammad al-Barada'i did not want to find that Iran had an illicit weapons program. There is probably some truth to both, but given the size of Iran's program and its unwillingness to live up to agreements it had made was enough for me. The program is much too small to develop a nuclear power generation capability, but just the right size for nuclear weapons production.

IAEA documents reportedly show that Iran is working on a nuclear warhead that can be mounted on a ballistic missile. This makes sense - Iran has a large arsenal of ballistic missiles complemented by an aggressive missile development program which draws heavily on technology imported from North Korea. It is important to note that Islamic Republic is the only country to develop a 2,000-km (1,100 nautical miles or 1,250 statute miles) missile without first having a nuclear weapons capability. Absent a nuclear warhead, Iran's medium-range missiles remain militarily ineffective, although capable of creating terror and confusion.

The United States, United Kingdom and France are urging the IAEA to report all of its information, while Russia and China are calling for the report to be postponed or totally discarded. That comes as no surprise. There has always been this split between the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. It remains to be seen if the two apologists for Iran - sorry, that should read: It remains to be seen if Iran's technology and weapons suppliers will attempt to veto the report. The intransigence of these two major business partners of Iran is the reason that there is no crippling sanctions protocol in place against the Islamic Republic.

Anyone who believes that the Iranian nuclear research and development program is not aimed at the acquisition of a nuclear weapon is either in a state of denial or has misread the Iranian regime. Those in a state of denial - and that includes part of the U.S. intelligence community - would rather not address the uncomfortable truth that a nuclear-armed Iran is not the same as other nuclear states, be it Pakistan, India or Israel. These other states, for the most part, have rational governmental structures in place to oversee their nuclear arsenals.

I am not certain you can say the same for the theocracy in Iran. While most states have acquired nuclear weapons for deterrence, no one is certain that is the rationale for the Iranians. They may or may not have the intention of actually using a nuclear weapon, but are we willing to live with that uncertainty? I guess the real question is are the Israelis, who have much more at risk, willing to live with that uncertainty?

As you would expect, the Iranians claim the IAEA report is a fabrication resulting from pressure on the agency from the United States and its allies. While there might be some truth in that, it does not change the facts that point toward a clandestine weapons program. If the report clearly accuses Iran of having a nuclear weapons program, it should pave the way for real sanctions on the country. The Iranian president recently conceded that the sanctions protocols in place are having some effect, but for anything short of a military strike to end the Iranian program, much more stringent sanctions will be required, or as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton once promised, "crippling" sanctions. We are not there by a long shot.

As long as there is the potential for Iran to develop a nuclear arms capability, Israel will remain the most concerned nation. I have spent quite a bit of time in Israel talking to a variety of Israelis, both government (military and intelligence) and civilians. They believe, and are not bashful to explain it, that a nuclear-armed Iran will constitute an "existential threat" to the Jewish state. They claim that three nuclear warheads could virtually annihilate the heart of Israel and kill a good portion of the world's Jews in one strike. There may not be enough of the country left to retaliate.

Israeli intelligence officials have told me that they assess that Israel has enough military power to deter any of its neighbors from attacking. They do not believe that Iran, on the other hand, despite Israel's "strategic capabilities" - that's diplo-intel-speak for nuclear weapons - Iran will not deterred. Many of them believe that if Iran develops nuclear weapons, there is a strong possibility that they will use them.

The Israelis are concerned that although most countries view Iran's quest for nuclear weapons as a world problem, many nations are hoping for an Israeli solution. Here again, an "Israeli solution" is diplo-intel-speak for an Israeli military strike, be it from the air, sea or a combination of both. While the United States and European countries declare that a nuclear-armed Iran is "unacceptable," Israel is the country that will bear the brunt of any misjudgment on the part of the mullahs in Tehran.

Is an Israeli military option on the table? Certainly, but this week's revelations that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is lobbying the Knesset for support for a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities has a strange feel to it. If the Israelis are talking about it, they probably aren't going to do it anytime soon. It's when they are not talking about it that we might expect them to act. Does Israel have the capability to attack the Iranian facilities? It is hard to say. On paper, yes, but there are so many things that would have to come off perfectly; there is almost no room for error.

A look at the map will tell you that Israeli aircraft will be in hostile airspace almost the entire way to and from the targets. I, and others, have written about how the Israelis might do this. Who knows, the Saudis - who have no wish to see arch-rival Iran with a nuclear weapon - might just green light Israeli aircraft through their airspace. Remember the well-known Middle East adage, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." Even Israeli President Shimon Peres, not a hawk by any stretch of the imagination, declared, "What needs to be done must be done and there is a long list of options." For a man like Peres to utter those words is chilling to me.

On the American side, President Barack Obama says Iran’s nuclear program "continues to pose a threat...." Do you think? He further threatened that Iran would suffer the "toughest possible" sanctions. That's the same rhetoric we have heard for years. One of Obama's national security advisors (where do they find these people?) added that the United States is focused on is a diplomatic strategy which ... "increases the pressure on the Iranians, through financial pressure, through economic sanctions, through diplomatic isolation."

I would be crass and ask, "Great, so how is that working so far?" I think we all know the answer to that. The next few weeks may prove critical to the future of the Middle East, and whether we like it or not, our national interests are at stake. If the IAEA rises to the task and unambiguously states that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, we need to be ready to take effective actions to preclude that from happening. More "engagement" may not be the right answer...."

November 3, 2011

حبر على ورق - Syria's agreement with the Arab League

Syrian tank in Homs

حبر على ورق (hibr 'ala waraq) is a common Arabic phrase that translates literally to "ink on paper." It is normally used to refer to and demean a worthless piece of paper, much like the agreement signed just two days ago (November 2) between the Syrian government of Bashar al-Asad and the Arab League. The agreement did not last two days - on November 3, Syrian army tanks and armored personnel carriers opened fire on protesters in the city of Homs, killing at least 20 people.

According to the the agreement, the Syrian government was to withdraw troops from urban areas, halt armed operations against civilian populations, release political prisoners, and start "dialogue" with opposition groups within two weeks. It also required the government to allow journalists, human rights groups and Arab League representatives into the country. There has been no international press coverage of the protests in Syria - or the government reaction - since they began earlier this year.

I would not put too much stock in the fact that the Syrian government, or regime, if you prefer, under the leadership (or dictatorship) of President Bashar al-Asad reached an agreement with the Arab League. In my opinion, having lived in Syria for several years and following events in the country for decades, Bashar al-Asad has no intention of adhering to any agreement that he makes. If the Syrian government agrees to anything, it is only to buy time to continue repression of any perceived threat to the continuation of the Ba'th Party regime that has ruled the country since 1963. Any agreement signed by Bashar al-Asad will be merely hibr 'ala waraq.

The protesters have laid down some markers of their own - the most important, of course, being the demand that the president step down. They have made clear that not only do the want Bashar out, they also want the end of the Ba'th Party. One need only look at the flags in the anti-regime demonstrations.

For comparison purposes, look at the current flag of Syria, first adopted when Syria and Egypt merged to create the United Arab Republic in 1958. It was used until the union was dissolved in 1961, and re-introduced by the Ba'th Party in 1980.

Pro-regime demonstrators with current Syrian flag

Below is the flag carried by many of the protesters. Note that the colors are the same, but used in different places. Red, white, black and green are common Arab and Muslim colors.

Syrian protesters with pre-union flag

This flag dates back to 1932 and is unofficially called the "flag of independence" because it was the flag in use when Syria achieved independence from the French Mandate on April 17, 1946. It was used until 1958, making it the longest used flag in Syrian history.

The protesters are not fooled by Bashar's alleged acceptance of agreements. It will be interesting to see what happens on Friday, the Muslim holy day.

November 2, 2011

Upgraded weapons in the Gaza Strip

The Palestinian group Islamic Jihad (actually, the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine) recently released a video of a multiple rocket launcher mounted on the back of a small pickup truck. The clip showed five rockets being fired from the launcher - if true, that would be the first instance of this type of launcher being used to fire rockets from the Gaza Strip into Israel. The group claims that the weapon system was brought to Gaza from Libya. The Egyptians have stopped the smuggling of some weapons from Libya destined for the Gaza Strip, but it appears that some weapons have made it through. If the Palestinians were able to move rocket launchers of this size, they may also have smuggled shoulder-launched air defense missiles - the Libyans had thousands of them and they are now unaccounted for.

The rocket launcher seen in the video fires the Grad 122mm rocket, a 1950's vintage weapon with a range of 25 miles. They have been in the Gaza Strip since least 2008 - HAMAS has fired them at Israeli cities, but previously using a makeshift ground launcher. What we see now is a ten-tube launcher which I assume to be one rack of the four that normally comprise the standard Russian-designed (but produced in many countries) 40-tube BM-21 launcher.

On October 29, Islamic Jihad fired eight of these rockets towards Ashdod, Gan Yavne, and near Beersheva. One Israeli was killed in the attacks, and significant property damage was inflicted in Ashdod. Press reports carry claims of responsibility from both Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade (the military arm of Fatah); the video carries the logo of Islamic Jihad.

The attacks on Saturday have prompted the Israelis to order all schools within 25 miles of Gaza to close pending cessation of this round of violence. Israeli schools have been dealing with Palestinian rockets attacks since the Israelis withdrew from Gaza in 2005. The city of Sderot, just a few kilometers from the Gaza Strip, has been hit almost daily since then. To cope with the attacks, the city has constructed shelters over some school buildings and and installed steel awnings over others, as seen in these photographs (I took these in Sderot in 2009).

The Israeli air force has conducted air raids in retaliation for the recent rocket attacks, killing several Islamic Jihad fighters and at least one member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. If the rocket attacks continue and HAMAS cannot rein in Islamic Jihad and the al-Aqsa Martyr's Brigade, there is a chance that the recently-brokered deal in which Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was released from five years of captivity in exchange for over 1000 Palestinian prisoners, will fall through. To date, less than half of the prisoners have been released.

At some point, Israel may renege on that lop-sided deal. Who would blame them?