January 8, 2013

President Obama's new leadership picks and the Middle East

President Barack Obama has made three controversial selections to be part of his leadership team as we begin the last four years of the Obama presidency. These are arguably three of the most important positions in the government and will play a key role in our policies and operations in the Middle East.

The selections are former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry as Secretary of State, and Deputy National Security Advisor for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. I will start with Kerry's nomination, then Hagel's and wrap up with Brennan's, in order of severity of the choice.

John Kerry - Secretary of State
Nominally, the Secretary of State is the senior cabinet official and is considered a key player in the formulation of foreign policy. In this Administration, as we have seen with current Secretary Hillary Clinton, the policy is made at the White House and simply executed by the State Department. That must be the explanation for the abysmal state of relations with virtually every nation in the Middle East, be they Arab, Israeli, Iranian and possibly even Turkish.

From the moment the Obama Administration took office in January 2009, our policies in the Middle East have done nothing but make a bad situation worse. It began with the disastrous "reset" button embarrassing misstep with the Russian Foreign Minister and went downhill from there.

Although there are many in the media who believe John Kerry has vast foreign policy experience, he is generally regarded as a lightweight by both American and foreign policy analysts. That said, it really will make no difference. President Obama will continue his flawed policies in the region; John Kerry will merely be the well-dressed and polished mouthpiece.

For my assessment of President Obama's Middle East policies during his first four years, see my earlier article, Obama and the Middle East - the first four years.

Chuck Hagel - Secretary of Defense
The nomination of Chuck Hagel to be the Secretary of Defense is more problematic; the Defense Secretary is in the chain of command for the execution of military operations. Many people are not aware of the chain of command - it runs from the President as Commander in Chief to the Secretary of Defense, to the combatant commander, which in the case of the Middle East, is commander of the U.S. Central Command, currently U.S. Marine Corps General General James Mattis. Note the absence of the Vice President and the Joint Chiefs of Staff from the chain of command.

Many are touting Hagel's selection as a reach across the aisle, choosing a Republican to serve a Democratic president. Given Hagel's voting record, his consistent endorsement of Democratic candidates, a weak record of support for Israel and lack of resolve on Iran, he is hardly an across-the-aisle pick. Hagel's support of downsizing what he calls a "bloated" Department of Defense is troubling as threats in the region are increasing, not decreasing. Hagel may be a smart guy, but he is a neophyte - just like his future boss - in the Middle East.

That said, orders for military operations originate at the White House, for better or worse. It is no secret that I think this Administration is clueless on effective military operations. Again, see the article I mentioned above.

I assume that the Senate will not violate the professional courtesy afforded to fellow Senators and that both Hagel and Kerry will be confirmed. Again, they will only carry out the ill-advised policies of the President.

John Brennan - Director of the Central Intelligence Agency
Here is where I have a real problem with these selections. The Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, while nominally subordinate to the Director of National Intelligence, is the President's spymaster and covert operations chief. The Director can cause real damage and should possess mature judgement. Thus far, I have not seen that from John Brennan - in fact, I think the opposite is true.

Supporters will claim that Brennan's years as an analyst and one tour as a chief of station in a declared position - meaning he was known to the host country as a CIA officer - qualify him for the position. Normally, that would be a positive, but Brennan's public faux pas make me think twice.

There has been a lot of media research into some of Brennan's nonsensical positions. I myself wrote an article in May 2010, Brennan wants to "build up moderate elements" of Hizballah? Some excerpted points I made then:

John Brennan proposes that the United States "build up moderate elements" within Hizballah. Yes, Hizballah, the same Iranian-created and backed Lebanese jihadist militia designated by the U.S. State Department as a foreign terrorist organization, the same Hizballah responsible for the murders of 241 U.S. Marines in Beriut in 1983. The list of Hizballah attacks is long and lethal. Yet, Brennan hopes to "diminish the influence of hard-liners" in the organization. John - they're all hardliners - that's why they are members of Hizballah.

Why does this guy still have a job? This proposal comes on the heels of Brennan's ridiculous media appearance in which he described our counterterrorism efforts as "we're not lucky, we're good" in the aftermath of the failure of a bomb to detonate in New York City's Times Square. A terrorist who was trained in Pakistan constructed a car bomb here, drove it to Times Square and tried to detonate it - the only reason there are not hundreds of dead and maimed Americans is that the bomb failed to properly explode - it has nothing to do with our obviously flawed homeland security system. More on that at Holder and Brennan - the "no-clue two".

Brennan's other misfires are quite well known in intelligence circles. Here are some examples:

- April, 2008: Brennan tells the New York Times that a government official must stop "Iran-bashing." If confirmed as the CIA Director, Iran will be one of the top targets for both espionage and covert action. The Iranians are bent on acquiring a nuclear weapons capability and are the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism. Don't want to speak ill of the one of the most dangerous regime's on the planet, John?

- February, 2010: Brennan defends the Obama Administration's decision to treat the so-called "underwear bomber" 'Umar Faruq 'Abd al-Mutalab as a criminal rather than a terrorist. This guy should be in an orange jumpsuit at Guantanamo, not lawyered up in a federal jail. He went so far as to accuse critics of the decision as "serving the goals of al-Qa'idah." John, that's almost as preposterous as it is insulting.

- September, 2010: a known Hamas operative was given an escorted tour of the National Counterterrorism Center. This could not have happened without Brennan's approval. I am sure all of you know that Hamas is a terrorist organization, but the proposed Director of the CIA does not care?

- May, 2012: After the U.S. and allied intelligence services penetrate an al-Qa'idah cell and disrupt an attack on the United States, Brennan is responsible for a leak about the operation that basically sells out an intelligence asset and ends our access to critical intelligence, all for some good publicity for the Obama White House. This sets a bad precedent for protecting our intelligence sources in any case, but from the future director of the CIA?

There's more. He supports trying Guantanamo detainees in federal court, and had a role in the release of Pan Am 103 killer 'Abd al-Basit al-Maghrahi, to name a few.

We've had some lousy CIA directors in the past, but confirming John Brennan to the post would cross new thresholds of irresponsibility.

My bottom line: I am not happy about any of these nominations. I can live with Kerry and Hagel because they are merely executing (bad) policies from the White House. I fear for our intelligence community if John Brennan is allowed to do even more damage that he already has.

January 6, 2013

Obama and the Middle East - the first four years

The "fiscal cliff" debate is now behind us ( الحمد لله ) and we are about to begin the second term of the Obama Presidency. Looking at the various crises in the Middle East, it would appear that the President has inherited a mess. Unfortunately, most of it is a mess of his own making - the days of blaming the previous president are over.

Let's take a look at how the Administration has done in the past four years. I have omitted Israel from this article - that deserves a separate accounting. If you are looking for good news, there is little to be had here.

President-Elect Obama began the transition to his Administration with the commitment to close the detention facility at Guantanamo, Cuba, to end the war in Iraq and begin the "responsible" end to the war in Afghanistan. So let's start with these three promises.

The detention facility is still open with no foreseeable end to its operation. If you believe the Administration's rhetoric, the mere existence of the facility generates anti-American hatred in the Middle East and is a recruiting tool for Islamist groups.

The President would prefer to transfer the prisoners to federal facilities and try them in federal court. Obama wrote that the "prosecution of terrorists in Federal court is a powerful tool in our efforts to protect the nation and must be among the options available to us." I doubt most rational people believe that any potential terrorists are deterred by the threat of having a court-appointed lawyer make a circus of the American justice system while he enjoys much better treatment than he would get at Guantanamo.

That said, if the President is correct, he has failed in one of his key promises. I'll score that an F.

The President vowed to end the war. What he really meant was he vowed to end the American commitment to the Iraqis. He quit, he walked away, despite a provision in the status of forces agreement to keep American forces there if the security situation warranted. No analyst (except any who are fans of the Obama kool-aid) was of the opinion that conditions in the country pointed to a stable future without an American troop presence.

Soon after all American forces were withdrawn in 2011, violence exploded and thousands of Iraqis were killed as the various sects and tribes rekindle old animosities. The Shi'a-dominated government of pro-Iranian prime minister Nuri al-Maliki seemed to start take its marching orders from Tehran. The Iraqis began allowing Iranian aircraft to overfly Iraq in an effort to resupply Syrian dictator Bashar al-Asad.

Walking away - that gets him an F from me, but probably an A- from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Announcing a withdrawal schedule is a recipe for disaster. You have told the enemy how long they have to wait before they will have the opportunity to operate without the threat of American military might being brought to bear.

Combine that with low-balling your commanders' requests for resources while opening secret talks with the Taliban - this is not leadership worthy of an American president. Mr. Obama is turning Afghanistan into another Iraqi "solution." We're quitting and going home, saying to President Karzai (arguably one of the most corrupt leaders on the planet), "You're on your own, Hamid."

I'll score that a D- for now, but suspect that in the end, it will be an F.

Having failed on all three of his campaign commitments, how did the President do in some of the other trouble spots in the region?

I have been fairly vocal about my thoughts on President Obama's policy on Iran. After four years, the President has been able to secure an Iranian commitment to agree to talk about having talks about its nuclear program. During this four years, the President has made repeated attempts to open a dialogue with people who have repeatedly demonstrated that they do not wish to talk to him.

While spurning his advances, the Iranians have unceasingly carried on its aggressive uranium enrichment program and what many of the world's analysts believe is a nuclear weapons program (again, except those intelligence analysts who favor the Obama kool-aid).

However, you say, we have imposed the strictest sanctions on Iran ever. True, all over the objections of the President. For his inability to recognize Iran's successful efforts to play him for time, he gets an F here as well.

Where do I start? Libya is the birthplace of the Obama "leading from behind" strategy." In all of my years in the military, I never once heard of this strategy. I never heard of it because there is no such thing. There was so much that could have been gained by engaging the Libyan opposition early on, giving us a position from which we might have been able to influence future events in the country. If we had been able to temper the rise of Islamism in the eastern part of the country, the debacle of Benghazi may not have happened. Benghazi and the loss of four talented Americans should haunt this administration for years. D-

The Obama Administration's lackluster support for the Syrian opposition will result in another potential Islamist-dominated state in which we have no influence. There will be change in Syria - do we want to stand by and watch as the Islamists gain the upper hand? Or do we want to engage the opposition leadership and attempt to mitigate the role of the Islamists? I suspect what we are seeing is either more "leadership from behind" or even worse, the head-in-the-sand strategy. D-

I will have to give the President good marks here. As we saw the shift of al-Qa'idah operations out of Iraq and Saudi Arabia and into Yemen, the Obama Administration quickly deployed military and CIA assets to the region and began supporting the Yemeni government and armed forces in their operations against al-Qa'idah. This has included missile strikes from drones and other launch platforms. As I have always said, the way to deal with these committed true believers is to hunt them down and kill them. It appears we are doing just that. I give this performance a solid A.

I was tempted to give the Administration a pass on Egypt. It happened fairly quickly and the outcome was not clear. Most of us are unhappy that the Egyptian electorate - those that voted - elected a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government, but the situation is far from resolved. That said, we need to hold President Mursi's feet to fire - demand protection for minorities, especially the Coptic Christians, better protection for women, and adherence to international treaties and obligations.

Key to our continued support to the Egyptian armed forces should be predicated on the new leadership's behavior. As I said, I was willing to give the President a pass on Egypt - then I learned that President Obama plans to send 20 F-16 fighter jets tot he country, paid for by American taxpayers with no requirements placed on Mursi to act responsibly. It send the wrong message. Here, I have to go with D-.

Overall, I will give the President and his Administration a solid D-.

This isn't Chicago - this is the big leagues. While you might be the master of the leftist elite, in the Middle East you are regarded as weak and ineffective. If you'd like to turn it around, call my office - I'm easy to find.

January 2, 2013

Syrian Air Force losses in 2012

Syrian Air Force Mi-17 shot down over northern Syria

According to Syrian opposition sources with a generally reliable record, the Syrian Air Force suffered 144 aircraft losses in 2012. Here is the breakdown of the numbers:

Total:  144

Helicopters:  83
Combat aircraft: 63

Shot down:  106
Destroyed on the ground:  38

By governorate:
Idlib:  46
Damascus:  32
Aleppo: 27
Dayr al-Zawr:  24
Hamah:  6
Homs:  5
Dara':  2
Latakia:  1
Al-Raqqah:  1

By month:
March:  1
June:  3
July:  8
August:  30
September: 15
October:  16
November:  30
December:  41

My comments:

The primary anti-aircraft weapons available to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) are anti-aircraft guns that they have captured from the Syrian military, primarily the 12.7mm and 14.5mm AAA guns, but also 23mm and 57mm guns. Lately, they have acquired shoulder launched surface-to-air missiles (SA-7/18/24) that have been used effectively.

Soon after the initial losses, there was an immediate change in Syrian Air Force tactics. The pilots began flying higher, faster and using decoy flares to protect against the heat-seeking missiles.

The "combat aircraft" figure includes fighters and the L-39ZA trainer/light attack aircraft. The losses among the L-39 have been high, and the FSA has been able to down several MiG-23 fighters.

I believe all of the helicopters shot down or destroyed were Mi-8/17 (HIP) general purpose helicopters, many used as assault platforms mounted with S-5 55mm and S-8 80mm rocket launchers, machine guns, and as a platform to drop the homemade "barrel bomb" that terrifies the population. (See my article, The Syrian "barrel bomb" - a terror weapon.)

Although the Syrian Air Force has operated the Mi-25 (HIND) gunship, there have been no documented losses in the civil war. If publicly available estimates are correct that the Syrian Air Force possessed about 100 operational Mi-8/17 helicopters, and 83 have been destroyed, that is a major loss.

The Syrian Air Force's complete domination of the skies is one of the major advantages enjoyed by the regime. In almost every instance where senior FSA commanders are interviewed, they state that the major obstacle they face is devastating airpower. If they are not able to mitigate regime airpower, they may not be able to win the fight.