January 17, 2018

Syria - the coming showdown between the United States and Turkey

Most people's eyes now glaze over when Syria is mentioned. It is confusing - just look at the above map. It is confusing even to those of us who have devoted years or decades of our lives trying to understand the various factors that constantly influence the situation. With forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) removed from most of the country, the battles have again changed.

The fight against ISIS was a unifying force. All parties involved in Syria, be it the Syrian government (with its Russian, Iranian, Hizballah,and other Shi'a militia supporters), the Kurds, the Turks, the various groups that comprise what is now called the "Syrian opposition" (the Free Syrian Army, independent rebels, as well as several jihadist groups, including al-Qa'idah affiliated groups) had a common enemy.

With the virtual defeat of ISIS - it has lost almost all of the territory it controlled in the country, including its self-proclaimed capital of al-Raqqah - the commonality of ISIS as an enemy disappeared. The various factions in the country, as well as their sponsors, are now refocusing their efforts on each other. That means there is a greater risk of confrontation between the major players - Russia, Turkey, and the United States.

The Russians, supporting the Syrian regime and allies, is focused on the annihilation of the Syrian opposition, now mainly concentrated in the Idlib governorate. The situation in northern Syria continues to deteriorate as the Syrian Army, supported by its Russian and Iranian allies, continues its vicious assault on Hamah, Idlib and Aleppo governorates.

The Syrian alliance, I'll call it, is attacking the eastern portion of the rebel-held area (red arrows) – soon they will have created two small pockets which they then will reduce. In the past, they would negotiate a ceasefire and allow the fighters to depart, usually to be relocated to Idlib governorate. I wonder if they will continue that trend, allowing fighters to move west. Pretty soon, they will have no where to go as the Syrians continue to create more pockets.

The air base at Abu al-Duhur is one of the objectives of the regime advance, mainly to use a a forward staging base to complement the Russian air assets from Humaymim air base on the coast. The major objective in this area, however, is the main highway that runs from Damascus-Homs-Hamah to Aleppo (blue line). It is a good road, but as you can see, in this area it is controlled by opposition forces.

To maintain a supply line to its forces in Aleppo, the Syrians have been using a small desert road (yellow line) out to the east. It is a rough road through sparsely populated areas and is subject to being cut by both rebel and ISIS forces. There is an ongoing fight against the small ISIS pocket (grey) to keep that road open.

I have driven both routes – given the viability of the eastern alternative, the Syrians really need to secure that main highway.

They are starting to move up that highway from Hamah. In the red circle are a few small cities that are being destroyed by daily heavy Russian airstrikes. Al-Lataminah has been hit the hardest, as it is one of the first towns that will need to be taken. Note also Khan Shaykhun, site of the chemical attack that prompted the US missile attack on al-Sha'ayrat air base last year.

I don’t see a good end here for the opposition forces. They are not united – they tolerate each other and occasionally work together, especially the jihadist groups. They do not have the wherewithal to withstand the force that is being applied against them. With Russian airpower and rocket artillery, and Iranian-Hizballah-various militias providing the ground forces to supplement what is left of the Syrian army, it is only a matter of time before they will be defeated.

Turkish troops are also now present in Idlib governorate. While they claim they are there to support the Russian-declared “de-escalation zones,” they are there to contain the Kurds in ‘Afrin canton. The Turks have warned of an impending offensive into the enclave – the canton is almost completely surrounded by Turkish forces. Turkish artillery has already conducted preparatory fires near the region's administrative center, the city of 'Afrin. The main assault could happen virtually any time - all it requires is the order from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Erdoğan has called for the surrender of the "terrorists" in 'Afrin. He is referring to Syrian-resident Kurds who are members of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military arm the People's Protection Units (YPG). The Turks believe the YPG is nothing more than an extension of the PKK, a separatist organization composed of Turkish-resident Kurds who have been conducting a guerrilla war against the Turks since 1984. The PKK has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, NATO and the European Union (EU).*

This will not sit well with the United States – of course, the two NATO allies have been at odds for several years over the American support (airstrikes, artillery support, equipment, training and advice) to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), made up mostly of those same YPG Kurds the Turks are threatening. A Turkish military operation aimed at the very group that provided the bulk of the ground forces of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS will only exacerbate the tense relations between Washington and Ankara.

It will get even more tense. The U.S. has announced that it is training a force of 30,000 troops to control the Kurdish area of northeastern Syria, including controlling the Turkish border. The United States believes that, given Turkey's history of failing to control its own border with Syria and being the major conduit for thousands of foreign fighters into Syria to join ISIS, the SDF would be a better partner to prevent those same ISIS fighters from crossing back into Turkey to return to their countries of origin and continue the fight.

The Turks are wary of any Kurdish force on the border – they regard the Syrian Kurds, including the SDF, to be nothing more than an extension of the PKK terrorist group. In 2016, they inserted a sizable force into northern Syria to prevent a contiguous Kurdish area running from the Iraq-Iran border in the east to the Syrian-Turkish border in the west. They claimed they were supporting the Free Syrian Army's efforts to liberate al-Raqqah. They never got closer than 80 miles to al-Raqqah, and mostly obstructed the American-supported SDF with a series of harassing attacks.

The problem for the United States is the logistics of training, equipping, and maintaining a sizable force in Syria. To do so requires the ability to access the area. Given geography and political realities, that means access to eastern Syria via Iraq. That requires a continued presence in Iraq, not guaranteed after the virtual defeat of ISIS as a territorial force in the country.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has major influence in both Baghdad and Damascus. I can envision a scenario in which the Iranians pressure Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-‘Abadi to thank the Americans for their assistance in the fight against ISIS, and ask them to leave. If he does that, how will the U.S.-led coalition continue to maintain its support to the Kurds in Syria?

President Erdoğan needs to focus on the big picture here and not continue to be blinded by his hatred of the Kurds.

* There are unresolved legal issues within the EU concerning the designation of the PKK as a terrorist group. The United Kingdom lists the PKK as a "Proscribed Group" rather than a terrorist group. Many believe that the U.S. and NATO designation was a political move to support NATO ally Turkey.

January 13, 2018

Is there a fix to the flawed Iran nuclear deal?

Perpetrators of the JCPOA - April 2015

On January 12, President Donald Trump issued a statement about his planned actions to address what he believes (correctly) is a flawed agreement with Iran concerning its nuclear program. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was concluded in 2015 between Iran on one side and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council*, Germany, and the European Union on the other.

U.S. law requires the President to certify every 90 days that Iran is in compliance with the accord. In October 2017, President Trump refused to certify Iran as being in compliance, triggering a 60-day window for Congress to decide if it wished to re-impose sanctions on Iran.

Essentially, the President punted the ball - not certifying Iran's compliance, but remaining as part of the deal. It is close to "having your cake and eating it too" - the President "fires a shot across the bow" of the JCPOA without actually having to kill it.

There is a second factor to be considered here. The law also requires that every 120 days the President waive existing U.S. sanctions on Iran. That waiver of sanctions is the key part of the agreement, the glue that holds it all together. The thing that brought the Iranians to their knees and thus to the bargaining table were crippling U.S. sanctions, particularly lack of access to the American banking system and use of the U.S. dollar.

Nations who wanted to do business with Iran were afraid of secondary U.S. sanctions, the oft-repeated threat being, "You can do business with Iran or you can do business with the United States, but not both." It was an easy call for most - do business with the world's largest economy, or do business with Iran. To put that in perspective, using 2014 figures, the U.S. GDP was $17.4 trillion, Iran's was $425 billion (or 80 percent of the U.S. defense budget).

While the refusal to certify Iran in compliance with the JCPOA is certainly a serious step, failure to waive U.S. sanctions will essentially collapse the agreement. As I have said numerous times since the JCPOA was adopted, "The [JCPOA] was about sanctions relief and greed. Russia, China and Europe want to sell stuff to Iran, and Iran wants to buy it." If the rest of the world won't do business with Iran, Tehran has no incentive to stay in the agreement.

You can read the official Statement by the President on the Iran Nuclear Deal - I will address what I believe are the key points.

According to the statement, the President will continue to waive U.S. sanctions for 120 days, but if there are not binding fixes to the JCPOA, he will not do so in the future.

Iranian Foreign Minister (and principal negotiator) Javad Zarif, stated that the agreement "cannot be renegotiated in any way," and that Tehran "will not accept any changes in this agreement now or in the future, nor allow it to be linked to any other issue."

President Trump was equally clear in his statement: "I have not yet withdrawn the United States from the Iran nuclear deal. Instead, I have outlined two possible paths forward: either fix the deal’s disastrous flaws, or the United States will withdraw. ... Today, I am waiving the application of certain nuclear sanctions, but only in order to secure our European allies’ agreement to fix the terrible flaws of the Iran nuclear deal. This is a last chance. In the absence of such an agreement, the United States will not again waive sanctions in order to stay in the Iran nuclear deal. And if at any time I judge that such an agreement is not within reach, I will withdraw from the deal immediately."

So, exactly what does the President want changed? What would it take to keep the United States from essentially abrogating the JCPOA?

Mr. Trump wants Congress to draft legislation that addresses several issues.

-- It must demand that Iran allow immediate inspections at all sites requested by international inspectors. To me, this is a key issue. I have argued that it is impossible to certify that Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA when it refuses to allow access to its military facilities.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the accord calls for inspections of any suspect facility, but the United Nations' watchdog organization has not asked for access. Their reason? Iran will say no and possibly give the United States a reason to withdraw. Hardly valid, in my opinion. (See my earlier article on this, IAEA access to Iranian military sites - nuclear deal breaker?)

-- It must address the JCPOA's expiration dates (the so-called sunset clauses) for various activities, in essence, legalizing an Iranian nuclear program after 10 years. The President wants the provision of the agreement to be permanent, thus denying Iran future access to the fissile material they would need to produce a nuclear weapon.

-- It must state that long-range missile and nuclear weapons programs are inseparable, and that Iran’s continues research, development and testing of ballistic missiles must stop or face additional sanctions. This would merely re-instate a prohibition that then-Secretary of State John Kerry capitulated on - at Russian request - as a sweetener for the Iranians.

I am not sure if agreeing to a change in the status quo on ballistic missile development was advisable or even necessary - Foreign Minister Zarif was able to outmaneuver Kerry on virtually every issue, getting a great deal for Iran. We see how the Iranians have taken advantage of Kerry's lapse. (See my thoughts on this, Iran's ballistic missile program - more fallout from the "Kerry Collapse")

In my assessment, there is nothing wrong with AN agreement with the Iranians on their nuclear program - there is plenty wrong with THIS agreement. Although I would like to see all of he changes Mr. Trump wants, I don't think it is possible.

Of the three issues - inspections, sunset clauses, and ballistic missiles - I think the only one that has a chance of success is expanded inspections, the "anytime, anywhere" mantra promised by President Barack Obama and Secretary Kerry (that was the first thing Kerry capitulated on).

Without the ability to inspect all of Iran's suspect facilities, it is impossible for the IAEA to accurately certify that Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA. Put me in the category of those who believe that Iran maintains a nuclear weapons research and development program. As long as their military facilities remain off limits, we cannot rely on the JCPOA.

Forget help from the Europeans and Chinese in the attempt to redefine the execution of the JCPOA. They are in this not to address Iran's nuclear ambitions - they don't care, they regard this as an American (and Israeli) problem. To them, it's solely economic.

We are about to come to a strategic crossroad.

Does the United States take the hard line and attempt to change the toothless JCPOA currently enforced by a spineless IAEA, or continue the status quo whereby Iran continues to overtly develop nuclear-warhead capable ballistic missiles and, in my mind, covertly develop a nuclear weapons capability (as I would)?

Much of this depends on Iran's actions/reactions. At this point in time, for better or worse, the United States is the big kid on the block. Donald Trump is the President - does Tehran really want to go down this path?

* China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and United States

January 5, 2018

Syrian rebels attack Russian air base - a wake up call

Damaged Russian Air Force Su-24 fighter-bombers

On December 31, 2017, Syrian rebels attacked, probably with mortars, a Syrian air base used by the Russian expeditionary force in that country, damaging several aircraft and killing two troops assigned to the base. The Russians delayed announcing the attack until days after - surprisingly, the rebels did not publicize their success. The Russian press released details to refute a report that seven aircraft had been destroyed.

The Syrian air base is a dual-use military installation and civilian airport, known as both Humaymim* Air Base and Basil al-Asad International Airport. There are no scheduled commercial flights to the airport, and the occasional civilian aircraft which use the facility are SyrianAir (the national airline) flights that have been diverted from Damascus International Airport when there is a security concern.

Top dot is Humaymim Air Base (note proximity to al-Qardahah)
Lower dot is Syrian-Russian naval facility at Tartus

Prior to the arrival of the Russians in September 2015, Humaymim Air Base was a rather sleepy base used by the Syrian Air Force's 618th Maritime Warfare Squadron, operating a mix of older Soviet/Russian Mi-14 (NATO: HAZE), Ka-25 (NATO: HORMONE) and Ka-27 (NATO: HELIX) antisubmarine warfare helicopters. It is also the closest airfield to the al-Asad family home in al-Qardahah, a short helicopter flight to the north of the air base (see map).

I was the Air Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus in the early to mid 1990's. In addition to what I would call "normal" attaché duties, I also was responsible for arranging diplomatic clearances for all U.S. military aircraft either visiting or overflying Syria.

Surprisingly, there were quite a few U.S. Air Force aircraft that visited Syria, either carrying the Secretary of State or Congressional delegations - which I believed were merely shopping trips to the al-Hamidiyah souk, one of the best Oriental carpet and gold markets in the world.

On several occasions, we at the embassy were tasked to support meetings between the Secretary of State and then-President of Syria Hafiz al-Asad in al-Qardahah. Since I had to make all the arrangements for the Secretary's U.S. Air Force aircraft, Humaymim Air Base - and the surrounding area - became very familiar to me. We would scout out the local area for places to place the crews, and of course, observe any Syrian armed forces facilities in the area.

The Russians have deployed dozens of combat aircraft - attack jets, attack helicopters, fighters and fighter-bombers to the air base. Being almost a world-class air force, they also deployed base defense assets - including state-of-the-art surface-to-air missile systems and antiaircraft weapons. While the radars associated with the S-300 (NATO: SA-10 GRUMBLE) and S-400 (NATO: SA-21 GROWLER) air defense systems are very capable against air threats, they are not effective against low-tech insurgent attacks.

The air base at Humaymim was the perfect target for what the Russians have labeled an attack by a "mobile militant subversive group." The target was the source of much of the suffering among the Syrian opposition - and their supporters.

The Russians claimed that they deployed to Syria to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but in reality, the vast majority of their air strikes, estimated as high as 85 percent, targeted Syrian rebel forces. Specifically, the Russians - as did their Syrian proteges - targeted hospitals, schools, bakeries and markets. The real objective, which they have achieved, was to keep the regime of Bashar al-Asad in power. (See my condemnation of President Obama and then-Secretary of State John Kerry for their refusal to address these war crimes, Russian Air Force targeting hospitals - war crimes, Mr. Kerry?)

There are so many back roads on that coastal area between Jablah to the south of the base, Humaymim (for which the base is named) to the west, and Bustan al-Bashah to the north - it is the bane of force protection officers.

Force protection became a key mission for American troops after the June 25, 1996 Khobar Towers attack on a U.S. Air Force barracks in Saudi Arabia. The Russians have experienced similar attacks during their time in Afghanistan. It is a very difficult mission - most of the time, troops are trying to protect themselves in the middle of what can be assumed to be hostile territory.

Theses attacks do not have to be decisive - they are meant to send a message that what are deemed to be secure facilities are vulnerable to attack. Two Russian servicemen died in this particular attack. There was also materiel damage - any attack on Humaymim was likely to damage aircraft.

The Russians moved into a small Syrian air base and deployed a large number of fighter, fighter-bomber, attack, reconnaissance, airborne command and control, and refueling aircraft. This is a huge footprint, bringing all the elements of modern airpower to just one location. The aircraft are parked almost wingtip to wingtip on taxiways and parking pads, not in revetments to protect aircraft and limit damage in just such an attack.

The Russians thought that using Humaymim, located on Syria's northwest coast, in the heart of the 'Alawi heartland - home to the sect to which the Syrian president and all key members of the government belong, not to mention relatively far from the fighting - would be safe from attack.

Think again.

This attack sends a message to the Russians that their intervention and continued presence in Syria will not be without risk. The Russians have no intention of leaving. Russian President Vladimir Putin has secured a 49-year renewable lease from Syrian President Bashar al-Asad for both the Humaymim Air Base and a naval facility about 30 miles south in the port of Tartus. These agreements represent the first Russian permanent military deployments since the fall of the Soviet Union.

These moves by Putin are not limited to Syria - he has secured basing rights in Egypt and Libya. In addition, Putin has arranged Russian bomber access to Iranian air bases for operations in Syria.

The Russian sense of invulnerability in Syria has just been challenged. They have lost aircraft and soldiers in the past, but an attack on their base of operations in Humaymim is different.

I suspect the Russians are in Syria to stay. This is the price they have to pay, and I see no indication they are not willing to do so.

*Normally rendered incorrectly in various media as Khmeimim or Hmeimim. According to the official U.S. government BGN transliteration system, حميميم is properly rendered as Humaymim.