November 17, 2019

Caring (or not) for our veterans - a national disgrace

A sampling of veterans support organizations

"To care for him care who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan." 



That is the motto of the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (more commonly just called "the VA"). The phrase is taken from President Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address, delivered on the steps of the Capitol on March 4, 1865.

Here is the full context of the closing remarks of the address: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

We just celebrated Veterans Day - a tribute to the men and women who have worn the uniform of America's armed forces. Unfortunately, I think we as a nation have failed in living up to President Lincoln's advice, at least as it applies to how we treat those "who shall have borne the battle." Warfare has changed since the President's address - today's battlefields encompass land, sea, air, and probably space in the not too distant future. In fact the term battlefield is giving way to the more modern term "battlespace."

Today's battlespace, while far more lethal, is also served by tremendous advances in combat medicine, coupled with increased capabilities in medical evacuation from the field to a treatment facility. The chances of surviving battle wounds have gone up exponentially - surgical care in combat hospitals and care in the subsequent evacuation chain back to the United States has advanced to such a degree that 98 percent making it there alive will go on to survive their wounds.

That is a great statistic, but places an additional burden on the Department of Defense medical system and the Veterans Administration, in other words, the continuing care required while wounded troops are still in the military medical system, and the long-term care required after discharge from the armed forces. As medical care and the costs of caring for combat disabled veterans increase, budgets need to be refocused to maintain an acceptable standard of living.

Are we doing that? That's and easy answer - it's a resounding NO.

How do we know that it's an easy negative response? The mere fact that we as a nation, as a society find it necessary to create the veterans support organizations to provide things DOD and the VA should be providing is a national disgrace. All of these organizations are trying to address real needs of our men and women who have "borne the battle" - they deserve our gratitude, as do the tens of millions of Americans who contribute to provide what our government should be providing already.

Here's an example - The Freedom Alliance requests donations for the purchase of customized tracked wheel chairs to provide mobility for veterans who had suffered amputations or paralysis. These chairs cost an average of $15,000 - they are not provided by either DOD or the VA. They are all provided by donations.

Personally, as a veteran, or more importantly, as an American, I find it unacceptable and a disgrace that we do not provide the funds for these types of medical devices, that we don't cover the costs of retrofitting homes to allow our combat disabled veterans to live in a decent manner. The fact that these well-meaning organizations find it necessary to exist is insulting to the service of our wounded.

We as a country need to take a harder look at how we spend our tax dollars. Instead of the political parties arguing over whether or nor to extend free medical care to illegal aliens, or wasting money on the ridiculous pet-pork-projects of our elected representatives, we start meeting our obligations to our veterans as President Lincoln admonished us.

Put these charities out of business - in a good way. Make them redundant.





October 28, 2019

QUOTED: After the killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi - what are the repercussions for ISIS?

The late Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

I was quoted in the London-based Arabic-language online newspaper Sharq Wa Gharb (East and West) on the death of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The article, "After the killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi - what are the repercussions for ISIS?" (in Arabic) can be accessed here.

Translation:

Retired US Air Force Intelligence officer Rick Francona says it is important for the United States to carry out these types of operations against terrorist leaders.

Francona, a former officer with the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency, added that it sends a message that “we will devote time and resources to locate them, and we will take the risk to either bring them to justice, or in this case, bring justice to them.”

He points out, however, that this is not the end of ISIS. Since the loss of the territorial caliphate, ISIS has reverted to a more of a insurgent organization. They are on the ascent in many areas, especially in Iraq.

Francona says there will be an heir to succeed al-Baghdadi, and the organization will continue, stressing that US efforts against it will continue as well.


For the purists, here is the original Arabic:




October 26, 2019

Erdoğan demands the United States extradite Syrian Kurdish leader to Turkey


In what can only be described as delusional arrogance, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan asked the United States to extradite Syrian Kurdish leader Mazlum Abdi to Turkey, claiming the commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is a terrorist wanted by Turkey and the subject of an Interpol red notice.

Someone might want to tell the self-styled sultan just what an an Interpol red notice is. It is merely a request from the issuing country for assistance from other countries to find a wanted person - it is not an arrest warrant. According to the Department of Justice manual, red notices do not meet our probable cause standard. No country is legally obligated detain somebody based on a red notice - each member determines what legal status to give a red notice. I hope President Trump gives this red notice the respect it deserves - none.

The SDF is composed a variety of Syrian groups unified in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - the majority of SDF fighters are members of the People's Protection Units, more commonly known by the Kurdish initials YPG.

The Turks believe the YPG is nothing more than an extension of the Turkish Kurd separatist - and designated terrorist - organization. There is debate on whether or not that is true - personally, I believe there are PKK sympathizers in the YPG, but not actual PKK members.

That was not always the case. In past years, former Syrian President Hafiz al-Asad, father of the current president, allowed the PKK to establish safe havens inside Syria along the Turkish border. Hafiz's motive was not about supporting the PKK, but serving his own interests.

As the Turks built and filled the then-largest dam in the world on the Euphrates River, it reduced the flow of water into Syria. Hafiz allowed the PKK to lauch cross-border raids into Turkey to pressure Ankara into a higher rate of water flow.

It worked, and using the PKK to pressure Turkey on other issues became a foreign policy tool for Damascus. That said, I cannot find any evidence of an attack inside Turkey mounted by the Syrian Kurdish YPG. Their fight is not against the anti-Kurd government in Ankara, but against the anti-Kurd government in Damascus.

Ironically, the YPG is now working with that very Syrian government to resist the unnecessary and unjustified Turkish incursion into northeastern Syria, the Kurdish area of Syria.

Now Erdoğan wants the United States to extradite its ally, the leader that led the fight against ISIS, to Turkey, who arguably has blood on its hands for its unwillingness to staunch the flow of jihadist fighters flowing through Turkey from Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East into Syria and Iraq. It was not until ISIS mounted attacks in Turkey that Erdoğan took any action against the terrorist group.

It gets better - when the Turks decided they were going to engage ISIS, or at least claimed that they were going to engage ISIS in Syria, what we saw then is what we are seeing now. The Turks, in two military incursions into northern Syria, proceeded to fight the Kurds, which, of course, they identified as terrorists. Despite our admonitions that the SDF/YPG were allies in the fight against the actual enemy, the Turks insisted on attacking the YPG.

For my earlier thoughts on the recent American and Turkish actions in northern Syria, see:
- Trump, Turkey, and the Kurds - a study in perfidy
- Syria and Turkey - the NATO realities

Yesterday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu demanded that American officials refuse to meet with General Abdi. "Our allies' dialogue with a terrorist wanted with a red notice is unacceptable."

Two comments about Çavuşoğlu's tone-deaf remarks. First, I will risk the pun and label the Turkish claims as "trumped up charges."

Second, the Turks really need to think about the term "our allies." If they want to remain NATO allies, they need to start acting like NATO allies. They haven't done that since before 2003. Their recent actions take them closer to the Russians than to NATO and Europe. Of course, that may be what Erdoğan has in mind - re-establish the Ottoman Empire, focusing on Asia.

This is the National Oath map that is displayed in Erdoğan's office - looks fairly obvious to me.



Today, highly-regarded Swiss jurist Carla del Ponte stated that Turkey’s intervention in northern Syria had broken international law. Del Ponte is a former Swiss attorney general who prosecuted war crimes in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia, and a former member of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria.

Del Ponte: "For Erdogan to be able to invade Syrian territory to destroy the Kurds is unbelievable. An investigation should be opened into him and he should be charged with war crimes."

Here's a thought: why doesn't Switzerland - Ambassador del Ponte surely has influence - issue an Interpol red notice on Turkey's Ottoman-revivalist President Erdoğan? We can detain him next month pursuant to the red notice request and extradite him to Switzerland for trial.




October 23, 2019

Movie Review: "Sand Storm" (Netflix - 2016)



Although not a geopolitical film, I found this Israeli production about a Bedouin family living in southern Israel interesting. It provides a glimpse of a relatively unknown part of Israeli society. Unlike the other "Israeli Arabs," these people are not of Palestinian heritage, nor do they speak like it.

I will admit that the dialect was fairly difficult to understand, and not at all similar to the Arabic spoken in other parts of Israel or the Palestinian Authority. The subtitling takes a lot of liberties - interpreting rather than translating. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but at times the text would have been better if it had stayed truer to the actual words.

The plot revolves around the second marriage of a hapless man and the effect of that marriage on his first wife and their four daughters. The main interactions occur between the father (Suliman), his first wife (Jalila) and their eldest daughter Layla. The two actresses playing these two women, Ruba Blal and Lamis Ammar, do an excellent job portraying their characters as they both deal with their separate issues. The changing relationship between the two is worth watching.

Jalila has to accept the fact that her husband is taking another wife (Alakel) - and treating the younger woman much better. Layla is rebelling against her upcoming arranged marriage to a man she does not know, while beginning a flirtatious relationship with a fellow university student.

For a rather surprising glimpse into the difference of the treatment afforded the two wives - first wife Jalila versus second wife Alakel - watch the five minutes at time code 1:02 to 1:07. Normally when a Muslim takes a second (or third or fourth) wife, the treatment of the wives is supposed to be generally equal.

Although the first wife will retain a senior position, the accommodations are usually similar. Here we see Jalila's four daughters living in austere conditions (some would say squalor) while right next door, second wife Alakel enjoys modern appliances, furniture, and a fully-stocked kitchen.

Pay attention as well to the general living conditions in the small village. It looks a lot like similar villages in the Arab Middle East - dusty, strewn with trash, animals wandering unsupervised, poor roads, etc. What is surprising is that this village is in Israel. Perhaps Tel Aviv's largesse has yet to reach here.

Strong acting by the two female leads, and a peek into a generally ignored segment of society - watch it.

Netflix subscribers, click here for the link to the movie.




October 15, 2019

Syria and Turkey - the NATO realities

Turkish troops in northern Syria - unnecessary and  unhelpful

The situation in northern Syria is in complete disarray, and changing by the hour. If you could take a snapshot of what is going on, it would have all the makings of confusing international geopolitical suspense movie.

Just a few days ago, the United States and its in-name-only NATO ally Turkey had arrived at an uneasy status quo in which military forces of the two countries were conducting combined patrols along the Syrian-Turkish border. The patrols were in essence a confidence-building measure by which the U.S.-allied, trained, and equipped Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) attempted to convince the Turks that they were not a terrorist organization, and that they posed no territorial (or other) threat to Turkey. The Turks were gathering intelligence on the best attack axes.

The SDF is composed of mostly Syrian Kurds from the militia known as the People's Protection Unit - known more commonly by the Kurdish initials YPG - along with some Arab, Assyrian/Syriac, Armenian, and other militias. Turkish press accounts aside, these fighters were the key ground combat unit that removed the scourge of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from its territorial holdings in the country.

Why was this a problem? We have a U.S.-led coalition conducting an effective air campaign in support of an indigenous - Syrians all - on the ground. The SDF did the bulk of the fighting against ISIS, at the cost of over 10,000 killed in the fighting. This combination of forces required the presence of less that 1,000 American troops on the ground in Syria.

This was an effective use of American air power and special operations forces to leverage local militias - this is right out of the textbook taught at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg.

The problem, as far as the Turks are concerned, was the training and equipping of the SDF, or more specifically the YPG, by the United States and its allies - including key NATO allies the United Kingdom and France. Turkey believes that the SDF is an illegitimate organization.

To the Turks, the YPG is nothing more than extension of the Turkish Kurd separatist party known as the Kurdish Workers' Party, or by the Kurdish initials PKK. The PKK has been designated as a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States, European Union (EU), and Japan. The United States and the EU may have made the designation as a favor to their NATO ally.

As the U.S.-led coalition and the SDF successfully pushed ISIS out of city after city, the Turks were sidelined. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan insisted that the liberation of ISIS's capital city of al-Raqqah had to be done by Turkish troops. The only problem was that the YPG was not about to let the anti-Kurd Turks access to their areas of northern Syria. When Turkish troops pushed into northern Syria near the city of Manbij, the Kurds fought them to a standstill - they were stuck in place over 100 miles from al-Raqqah.

The SDF was ready to make the assault on al-Raqqah, a city that was crying out for relief from ISIS atrocities. It would have taken the Turks months to get there, having had to fight their way through the U.S.-allied SDF/YPG.

I remember saying at the time that the Turks were going to be a problem after ISIS was defeated. For the Turks, it was not, and is not, about ISIS. It's about the Kurds, specifically the Kurds in neighboring Syria. What better time that during a civil war in Syria to mount a cross border operation and destroy what is perceived to be a threat?

True to form, as soon as the ISIS threat abated, the Turks renewed their threats of a military incursion to "clear the area of terrorists." It was only a matter of time. The presence of a handful of American special operations forces on the border was not going to stop them.


Map and annotations: IHS Markit and the New York Times

President Trump, to my chagrin, was not forceful enough to convince Erdoğan that this was unnecessary and unhelpful, especially since ISIS remained a threat in parts of Syria and Iraq. For some time, Erdoğan had been moving Turkey more toward being an Islamic state rather than the secular republic envisioned and established decades earlier by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Atatürk would hardly recognize what Erdoğan has wrought.

I am not sure if it was by accident, or if someone in the Erdoğan government (I would call it an Islamist regime, but they are technically still a NATO ally) actually understands the reality of NATO politics. Would the United States side with the SDF/YPG against a NATO ally? We all know the answer to that - it's a resounding no.

While we believe we have an obligation to protect the YPG - protect them not only from Turkish troops, but against the marauding, undisciplined, bloodthirsty former al-Qaidah and Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels now used as proxies by Ankara.

The NATO alliance is almost sacrosanct among the members. Sacrosanct, it appears, except to its sole majority Muslim and Asian member. Turkey may think it's a European country, but it would be the only one that thinks that, given Erdoğan's AKP party moves toward Islamism.

Why is Turkey so important to the United States that it balks at defending the Kurds? A look at the map of the region should be enough.



Turkey is not only the bridge between Asia/East and Europe/West, it also sits astride the Bosporus and Dardanelles, the two narrow waterways that control access between the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea. In practical terms, it is the only sea route from the Russia Navy's ice-free port at Sebastopol (in what many call "occupied Crimea") and the best route to the Russian-leased Syrian port of Tartus.

Unhindered access to the Turkish straits and a route to Tartus (the red line on the map) is strategically and tactically important to Russia. So, Russian intervention in Crimea and Syria within just a few years of each other - coincidence?

So, now the unintended consequences of Turkey's ill-advised incursion into Syria will visit us.

As mentioned, the lead elements of the Turkish assault into northern Syria - after the air and artillery strikes - were not even minimally-disciplined Turkish troops, but former al-Qa'idah, FSA, and other Islamists. These undisciplined thugs ran amok, executing any Kurdish officials they encountered, ransacked homes, and caused unnecessary civilian casualties.

Faced with no U.S.-led coalition support, the SDF, or probably more correctly, the YPG made a deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, yes, the same Bashar al-Asad who on several occasions had ordered the use of chemical weapons on Syrian citizens.

The Kurds, still Syrians, were now faced with a Turkish onslaught with no hope of support from the U.S.-led coalition with whom they had battled ISIS. They requested the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) move forward to fight the Turkish incursion.

What choice did they have? For Kurds in Syria, in Iraq, in Turkey, in Iran - as they say, there are no friends but the mountains. They believed, probably correctly, that they were now on their own.

So now we have the Syrian army entering the fight on the side of, and at the request of, the SDF. What we may see are the national forces of two countries - Turkey and Syria - fighting each other, escalating the fighting from an army on one side and militias on the other, to a battle between two states.

Unfortunately, the way this has unfolded with Turkish President Erdoğan's unnecessary and unhelpful actions against the U.S.-allied SDF, many observers are now siding with the murderous Syrian regime against a NATO ally.

Some history for those who "have not read history and are doomed to repeat it."

- Our involvement with the Kurds in Iraq in 1975 at the behest of the Shah of Iran was about Iran, not them.
- Our involvement with the mujahidin in the 1980s in Afghanistan was about the Soviet Union, not them.
- Our involvement with the Iraqis in 1988 was about Iran, not them.

And as realpolitik goes, our involvement with the SDF/YPG was about ISIS, not them.

Bottom line, whether we like it or not, our relationship with the Kurds was a tactical alliance to defeat ISIS. The NATO/U.S. alliance with Turkey is a strategic alliance about the Russians.

Despite American issues with Turkey's acquisition of the S-400 air defense system from Russia, Ankara's removal from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, its support of Islamist movements, and Erdoğan unwise incursion into Syria, the strategic NATO relationship supercedes any tactical relationship with the YPG.

Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper have been dispatched to Turkey to discuss the situation. This is an easy one. President Erdoğan, adhere to an immediate ceasefire, let's start a dialogue, and the sanctions on Turkey's economy will continue until that happens.

Yes, Turkey is a strategic partner which NATO needs, but we need to extract a price for this ill-advised course of action. Erdoğan, not our friend, needs to recognize he isn't the new Sultan.



October 9, 2019

Trump, Turkey, and the Kurds - a study in perfidy


The long-threatened Turkish invasion of northern Syria has finally begun. I am in total disagreement with the decision of President Donald Trump to basically give Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a green light to mount an attack on what have become some of America's best allies in the region - the Syrian Kurds.

I spent a fair amount of time working with the Iraqi Kurds in the mid-1990s. Even then, the perceived betrayal of the Kurds in 1975 as part of the fallout of the Shah’s signing of the Treaty of Algiers was still a sore point with the Kurds. It appears that we are repeating the same treatment with the Syrian Kurds, this time at the behest of the Turks.

For some time now, probably since the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), I have not regarded Turkey as an ally. While they are part of NATO, it seems to me they are not really our allies. Ignore the platitudes and lip service that flows out of the Department of Defense and the U.S. Central Command - the Turks are not a close ally, they have been and continue to be a major part of the problem.

The impending crises - and there will be several because of this irresponsible invasion - will be a direct result of Erdoğan's foolhardy decision to invade, and Trump's unfathomable acquiescence. Certainly our access to Turkey's Incirlik Air Base is not that critical.

I hate to say this, but when the fighting between Turkish troops and the YPG starts, I am rooting for the Kurds. The Turks haven't fared well in their previous incursions into Syria: Operation Olive Branch in the Afrin area, and Operation Euphrates Freedom to the northeast of Aleppo.

In both of these operations, the Turks claimed to be fighting ISIS, when in reality they were attacking the Kurdish People Protection Units, known by the Kurdish initials YPG. The Turks, of course claim the YPG is nothing more than an extension of the designated terrorist group, the Turkey-based Kurdish Workers' Party, known more commonly by the Kurdish initials PKK. Now they are using this faulty rationale as the excuse to invade northern Syria.

A few of my predictions:

- the Kurds will stop offensive operations against the remaining ISIS pockets in the country and redeploy to fight the Turks
- the Kurds will move their forces from guarding the tens of thousands of ISIS fighters and their families, and redeploy to fight the Turks
- ISIS will get a breather from Syrian Democratic Forces attacks and regroup
- the Syrian regime will start operations to re-establish its sovereignty over the Kurdish-controlled areas
- the PKK may step up their attacks inside Turkey
- the United Nations will make noise but basically do nothing

If the Turks are looking for a fight, they may just find a tough one in northeastern Syria. I cannot believe that President Trump is going to sit by and watch a blood bath ensue in Syria. This whole situation is unnecessary and unhelpful. The responsibility for whatever happens rests with Presidents Erdoğan and Trump.




October 6, 2019

The "Israeli Carry" and the new season of Fauda

Israeli actor Lior Raz portraying commando Doron Kavillio and "the Israeli carry"

As we fans of the Netflix series Fauda await the release of the third season of the excellent Israeli nail-biter drama series, I thought I would offer a few thoughts of something I noted in the production. For my review of this series, see Miniseries Review: "Fauda" (Netflix 2017- ).

I believe this new season's operations area may shift from the Nablus area of the West Bank to the Gaza Strip. I am sure it will be excellent, but am somewhat disappointed as I find the Gazan dialect more difficult than the more familiar (to me) south Levantine Arabic spoken on the West Bank.

Some years ago, while serving as an operations officer in the U.S. intelligence community, I was sent to a defensive training course that involved, among other things, an intensive personal weapons course. The first thing I learned is that I didn't know as much as I thought about handling weapons, specifically semiautomatic pistols.

That changed - the instructors, probably among the best in the world, were relentless in forcing me to acquire these critical weapons skills. I still remember being knocked to the ground by them if I did not drop to at least my knees before reloading my weapon...I digress. It all paid off later in the field.

Most of the time in the training, which ranged from concealable pistols to machine guns to anti-tank weapons, was spent with a personal sidearm - it became an extension of my arm. I was trained on the Browning Hi-Power and Beretta 92FS, and later the Glock 19 (all chambered in the 9mm round). I still have a Glock 19, but if I had to chose my favorite weapon, I'd likely go with the tried-and-true Browning. It just feels right in my hand.

For those of us who have had weapons training - and I don't mean the NRA safety course most states require to obtain a concealed carry permit/handgun license (depending on state) - we noticed the skills exhibited by some of the Israelis in the Fauda series, particularly by the leading actor Lior Raz. Raz should be good at this - he served as a commando in the elite undercover counter-terrorism unit known as Sayeret Duvdevan. I isolated on video one instance of Raz using what we refer to as "the Israeli carry." You can watch it in Season 2, Episode 3, timecode 19:20.

Before I show you the video, allow me to explain just what this means. Most U.S. government organizations' protocol is to carry a sidearm with the weapon loaded, round in the chamber, hammer (if present) back, and safety on. This is sometimes referred to as having the weapon in Condition One. If the weapon is needed, all that is required is to disengage the safety and pull the trigger. It is fast, and requires the use of only one hand. In a high-stress situation, the fewer steps you need to do to bring the weapon into action is better. Milliseconds may count.

That said, carrying a weapon in this configuration can be unnerving. The Israelis believe that it is too dangerous for most situations, and use what is called weapons Condition Three, or in the common parlance, the Israeli Carry (although they did not develop it). In this condition, the weapon has a loaded magazine, but there is no round in the chamber, and the safety is off. If the weapon is needed, you charge the weapon (rack the slide to load a round in the chamber) while removing it from the holster; the safety is not in play. It is theoretically a bit slower, and does require the use of two hands.

In my training, our primary instructor told us, "You are not a professional masters at arms, like Navy SEALs, Army Special Forces soldiers, or Rangers. Hopefully you will never need to use your weapon - it is there only for your self-defense, not part of your operating skill set." He recommended we consider the safer Israeli Carry as our normal protocol.

He went on to explain that in a high-adrenaline situation, your motor skills become impaired. As I learned later, drawing a weapon in a situation where you may have to actually use it is a high-adrenaline situation. Removing a small safety can be considered a fine motor skill and under stress, difficult. Racking a slide, however, is a gross motor skill and probably easier to accomplish. It made sense to me - I adopted the Israeli Carry, and still use it to this day.

Now, I want you to watch how a professional master at arms brings a weapon into action (some call it "into battery"). Remember, Lior Raz was an Israeli commando who did this for a living. He withdraws the weapon, charges it and fires it in almost the blink of an eye. It is hard to imagine doing this any faster. I slowed it down to 1/8 speed - it is still almost impossible to detect the racking of the slide.





October 2, 2019

Miniseries Review: "The Spy" (Netflix - 2019)


Eli Cohen was arguably one of Israel's best, if not the best, intelligence assets in its relatively short history. This new miniseries certainly highlights his value as an Israeli agent who penetrated the highest levels of the Syrian government. The producers attempted - with a modicum of success - to tell Cohen's story.

Most people are aware of the basic facts of this case: Eli Cohen, an Egyptian-born son of Syrian Jews from Aleppo, immigrated to Israel, where he twice applied to work for the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service. While working as an accountant, he was finally offered employment with Mossad in 1959. Cohen's assignment was to penetrate the Syrian political and military establishments.

The Israelis developed a legend (that's the technical term for a cover story) using the name Kamil Amin Thabit. The legend had Cohen/Thabit move to Argentina, where he posed as a businessman. He made it known that he was anxious to "return" to Syria. He soon befriended military attaché Colonel Amin al-Hafiz at the Syrian embassy in Buenos Aires.

In 1962, Cohen made the move to Damascus, where his extravagant spending and parties gained him popularity among the wealthy and influential in the country. As luck would have it, Colonel al-Hafiz returned to Damascus, after which he participated in the 1963 Ba'th Party coup and later became the president of Syria.

You would think as an intelligence operation, it doesn't get any better than that. Actually, it does - later in the operation, Cohen became a senior adviser to the Syrian minister of defense. This gave him access to particularly sensitive military information. In the series, Cohen was named deputy minister of defense - just one of the theatrical licenses taken.

In the end, Cohen was captured and executed. I won't spoil the how and why for those who have not seen the miniseries.

My comments. I enjoyed the history, but not the theatrical license the producers took to tell it. The ridiculous story of the Israeli farmer on the border and the cameo appearance by a 7-year old Usamah bin Ladin are two such examples. They were both contrived and unnecessary - the actual story is compelling enough.

I have always been interested in the Eli Cohen story, on a professional and personal level. Professionally, I had hope to see more of the tradecraft used by Cohen - his communications systems, secret travel to/from Israel, use of dead drops if any. There were instances in the series where Cohen took photographs of classified Syrian military documents. How did he get the photographs back to the Mossad? Gathering information is sometimes the easy part, it's the getting it to headquarters that's hard.

On a personal level, when I was assigned as the Air Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, I visited what we called the "Eli Cohen apartment" in the Abu Rumanah section of the city. In fact, the embassy leased the apartment as part of the housing pool. It was fascinating to stand there on the balcony that looks over what was the Ministry of Defense compound in Cohen's time.

As for history, we often visited Marjah Square, the site of Cohen's public execution. By the time I was there in the 1990s, public hangings had been moved to the much larger 'Abbasiyin Square. As with Cohen, the bodies of those executed were allowed to hang for hours, ostensibly as a deterrent.

It is an interesting story. I'd recommend it with the caveat that there is more sensationalism than needed. This is a real-life drama that would have stood on its own. That said, I think Sacha Baron Cohen gave a good performance. It is available on Netflix.




August 18, 2019

Turkish security zone in Syria - not so fast, Sultan Erdoğan

U.S. and Turkish forces joint patrol in Syria (U.S. Army)

Note: This is a follow-up to my earlier article, Erdoğan threatens to invade Syria - this time he just might.

In response to persistent Turkish demands for the establishment of a security zone inside northern Syria, the United States and the Turks have begun the development of the framework for such a zone. It appears that the U.S. side has pared down some of the more ridiculous, unrealistic, unnecessary, and unhelpful Turkish demands and will attempt to prevent Turkish autonomous military action against the Syrian Kurds.

It is important to remember the major participants here. The Syrian Kurds of the People's Protection Units (known by their Kurdish initials YPG) provided the bulk of the ground forces in the U.S.-led coalition-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

It was the SDF who, with massive coalition air support, liberated most of northern Syria from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The Turks provided only minimal support, and in most cases, were impediments to SDF operations, at times even attacking YPG forces engaged in combat operations against ISIS.

The Turks believe the YPG to be nothing more than an extension of the outlawed Turkish Kurdish Workers' Party (known as the PKK). The United States considers, and has designated, the PKK a terrorist group.* It does not, however, recognize Turkey's claims that the YPG is part of the PKK.

The American efforts are aimed at preventing a Turkish military incursion into northern Syria to eliminate the YPG. I doubt the Turks have the capability to achieve that goal - they have proven to be able to kill a lot of Kurds, but not capable of achieving much lasting military effect. Their two previous incursions have proven to create more problems than they solved.

If the Turkish army mounts a wholesale offensive against the SDF/YPG, it will soon find itself drawn further into Syria and engaged in the exact type of fighting at which the Kurds excel. More importantly, they will be attacking a U.S. ally - there are American forces embedded with the SDF who will be placed at risk.

The plan is - probably purposely - ambiguous. It allows Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to appeal to his base with strong talk about attacking "terrorists" in northern Syria, and allows the United States to keep faith with its Syrian Kurdish allies.

It also has the added, and important, benefit of preventing greater political differences between Ankara and Washington. The two countries are already at odds over Turkey's recent purchase of the Russian S-400 (NATO: SA-21 Growler) air defense system, and the resultant U.S. expulsion of Turkey from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.



According to documents allegedly leaked from the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey's demand for and exclusive security zone to protect the country against Syrian Kurdish "terrorists" is now being referred to as a "peace corridor" to facilitate the return of Syrian refugees.

The Turks had wanted an approximately 20-mile deep zone inside Syria to be exclusively patrolled by the Turkish army for the entire length of the 250 miles east of the Euphrates River to the Iraqi border.

The U.S. response proposes a three-mile corridor to be jointly patrolled by Turkish and American troops. A further five-mile zone will be patrolled only by U.S. forces. A joint command center will be established in Sanliurfa, Turkey (see map).

Oh, it gets better - the Russians have declared that the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad must agree to whatever arrangement the Turks and Americans reach. Of course, that's not going to happen - Syrian agreement would merely legitimize Turkish and American presence in Syria.

It appears to me that the United States is continuing the talks, dragging out the timeline while preventing a Turkish incursion that would be disastrous for the region as well as wider international relations. In any case, the likelihood that Erdoğan is going to control a 20 mile strip of northern Syria is diminishing - and that's a good thing.

He should concentrate on once again being a NATO ally....

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* Some critics of this designation believe it was done as a concession to NATO ally Turkey.




August 4, 2019

Erdoğan threatens to invade Syria - this time he just might


"Ankara will not continue to tolerate the US-backed YPG terror group’s harassment in the region" – Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

It appears that Turkey's (or more correctly, Erdoğan's) long-threatened invasion of northern Syria may actually happen - there are reports this afternoon of Turkish shelling along the border. This self-styled new Ottoman sultan - true to form - couches attacking the Syrian Kurds as a counterterrorist operation.

The Syrian Kurds the Turkish president is threatening to attack are the People's Protection Units (known more commonly by the Kurdish initials YPG), the major fighting force on the ground against fighters of the Islamic State in Iraqi and Syria (ISIS) in Syria. While the Turks did in fact engage some ISIS forces, most of their efforts were misguided, aimed at the YPG and not the actual enemy.

The Turkish government of President Erdoğan regards the Syrian YPG as nothing more than a branch of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party, known as the PKK. The PKK has been designated by the United States and NATO as a terrorist organization, many believe in a gesture to NATO "ally" Turkey.

The United States and its other allies do believe the YPG to be part of the YPG. No matter how many of Erdoğan’s sycophants claim otherwise - and as soon as I write this, they will come out of the proverbial woodwork - the YPG is not the PKK.

As far as I know, the YPG has never attacked targets inside Turkey. The PKK certainly has, and has used northern Syria as a base of operations, but this predates the civil war that began in 2011. Support for the PKK has long been an periodic foreign policy tool of the Syrian regime of both the late President Hafiz al-Asad and the current president, his son Bashar.

Following the territorial defeat of ISIS in Syria, mostly at the hands of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the majority of which is made up of YPG fighters, Erdoğan made the decision to take advantage of the situation and demand that there be a security zone along the Turkish border extending into Syria by as much as 30 kilometers (18 miles).

Erdoğan even launched several barely successful military incursions into Syria as the first step. Since it didn't go so well for the Turks, they want the U.S. to agree to the establishment of the zone and force the YPG to comply.

Negotiations have gone nowhere, and the Turks continue making threats to invade. While his army has the capability with armor, artillery and air support to push the YPG militias – basically a light infantry force – back away from the border, the YPG is likely to fight.

We don't need this confrontation - there are still issues with the remnants of ISIS in northern Syria that need to be addressed, not the least of which is the thousands of ISIS prisoners. The ISIS prisoners not only include the fighters, but their wives and children. Many of these are from foreign countries, including the United States and Europe.

So now we have a NATO ally, albeit a problematic one (need I say F-35 and S-400?) threatening to attack another U.S. ally. As has been since almost the beginning of the civil war, and with very few exceptions, the Turks have been decidedly unhelpful – and ineffective - in the fight against ISIS.

One has to keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of ISIS fighters that come from outside Iraq and Syria arrived in Syria via Turkey. Having spent a lot of time on both sides of that border, I can say that crossing into Syria from Turkey is not done alone or without help.

This potential invasion is not only unhelpful, but totally unnecessary. The YPG is not a threat to Turkey. I suspect Erdoğan has read the polls in Turkey – his AKP party is in disarray and was rebuked in the latest local elections.

What’s the solution? Start a military operation against what Erdoğan claims to be a terrorist threat to Turkey. It might sell in Anatolia, maybe even in Trakya, but certainly not here.

Unhelpful and unnecessary.




August 3, 2019

Movie Review: "The Red Sea Diving Resort" (Netflix - 2019)


There has been a flood of publicity over the release of The Red Sea Diving Resort, a film about Operation Brothers, a Mossad operation conducted from 1979 to 1983 in which thousands of Ethiopian Jews were clandestinely transported from refugee camps in Sudan to Israel.

It is a great story, one that needs to be told. Unfortunately, this attempt to tell that story falls short.

In the late 1970's, the Israeli intelligence service was secretly moving Ethiopian Jews from Sudan to Israel via a circuitous route, usually by air through European cities. Because of the visibility of the flights and increased Sudanese security, Mossad leadership halted the operation, believing that it posed too great of a risk to both the refugees and its officers.

A group of Mossad officers came up with a plan to resurrect the effort to bring the Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Having planned and executed intelligence operations during my career, I regard the Israeli plan as truly outside-the-box thinking.

The officers, through off-shore shell accounts, purchased a defunct diving resort on Sudan's Red Sea coast. The plan was to move the Ethiopian refugees from the camps in Sudan to the resort, where Israeli Navy commandos would use inflatable boats to move them to an Israeli-owned, ostensibly commercial, trawler for transport back to the port of Eilat via the Gulf of Aqabah.

Excellent tradecraft and the courage of the Mossad operatives resulted in over 3000 Ethiopians being taken to safety by the time the operation ended in 1983.

A word to my fellow Arabic linguists. The Sudanese dialect of Arabic is unique and difficult, but the quality of the language in the movie, with a few exceptions, was mediocre at best.

Again, a great story. The movie version seems contrived, uneven, and focused more on the personal issues of the Israeli officers rather than the plight of the Ethiopians they were there to rescue.

Watch it because it is a compelling story, and forgive the shoddy production.





ADDENDUM - Did the Iraqi Air Force revert to the Saddam-era roundel?


As you can see, the Iraqi Air Force responded to my inquiry - they have been using the legacy roundel again since March 2019.

_______________________________

Top: C-130J-30 transport aircraft / Bottom: King Air 350ER reconnaissance platform

In the above photographs, taken from the Iraqi Air Force Twitter page, it appears that the Iraqis have decided to re-apply the old traditional roundel* on at least some of it military aircraft.

The Iraqi roundel used from 1931 to the end of 2003 is a green triangle with a stylized Arabic letter jim in red, with the required dot that is part of the letter in white, representing the Arabic word jaysh, or army.

The Iraqis discontinued use of this particular insignia in 2003 when the Iraqi Air Force ceased to exist following the American invasion. It was felt that the roundel had become identified with former Iraqi dictator Saddam Husayn.



The "new" Iraqi Air Force recommenced operations in 2004. It adopted this new roundel at that time - it is still in use today.

I was surprised to see the former green triangle insignia on these two aircraft. The C-130J-30 photo was posted on the Iraqi Air Force Twitter page today; the King Air 350ER photo was posted on July 31.

The green triangle "roundel" is not actually associated with Saddam Husayn, but I needed a catchy title, and most people do make the connection. The insignia has been in use from 1931, when the air force was established as the Royal Iraqi Air Force.

At that time, the Kingdom of Iraq was still a League of Nations mandate (which it became in 1920), administered by the United Kingdom until Iraqi independence in 1932.

The first batch of five Iraqi pilots received their aviation training at RAF Cranwell, returning to Iraq on April 22, 1931. This is recognized as the official date of the founding of the Iraqi Air Force.

Here is a photo of an Iraqi Air Force Hawker Audax reconnaissance aircraft, circa 1932. Note the green triangle insignia on the wings and fuselage.


Iraqi Hawker Audax ("Nisr")

The green triangle "roundel" has been a part of the Iraqi Air Force's 88-year history. Slightly different versions have been used on other pieces of military equipment.

When I was assigned as a liaison officer to the Iraqi armed forces Directorate General of Military Intelligence in 1988, they provided me with a duffel bag with this logo. Arabic speakers will easily recognize the Arabic letter jim (for jaysh, or army).

Since the roundel/insignia is clearly not associated with Saddam Husayn or the Ba'ath Party, and was used on Iraqi military aircraft since before the country's independence from the United Kingdom, no one should be offended or alarmed by its use.

That said, I would expect the Iraqis to announce the re-adoption of the roundel, the national insignia. There is nothing to be ashamed of here - it is a legacy going back over 80 years.


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* A roundel is national insignia used on military aircraft, generally circular in shape and usually comprising concentric rings of different colors. Here is the roundel used on U.S. military aircraft. There are also subdued monochromatic variations for low-visibility.




August 2, 2019

Did the Iraqi Air Force revert to the Saddam-era roundel?

Top: C-130J-30 transport aircraft / Bottom: King Air 350ER reconnaissance platform

In the above photographs, taken from the Iraqi Air Force Twitter page, it appears that the Iraqis have decided to re-apply the old traditional roundel* on at least some of it military aircraft.

The Iraqi roundel used from 1931 to the end of 2003 is a green triangle with a stylized Arabic letter jim in red, with the required dot that is part of the letter in white, representing the Arabic word jaysh, or army.

The Iraqis discontinued use of this particular insignia in 2003 when the Iraqi Air Force ceased to exist following the American invasion. It was felt that the roundel had become identified with former Iraqi dictator Saddam Husayn.



The "new" Iraqi Air Force recommenced operations in 2004. It adopted this new roundel at that time - it is still in use today.

I was surprised to see the former green triangle insignia on these two aircraft. The C-130J-30 photo was posted on the Iraqi Air Force Twitter page today; the King Air 350ER photo was posted on July 31.

The green triangle "roundel" is not actually associated with Saddam Husayn, but I needed a catchy title, and most people do make the connection. The insignia has been in use from 1931, when the air force was established as the Royal Iraqi Air Force.

At that time, the Kingdom of Iraq was still a League of Nations mandate (which it became in 1920), administered by the United Kingdom until Iraqi independence in 1932.

The first batch of five Iraqi pilots received their aviation training at RAF Cranwell, returning to Iraq on April 22, 1931. This is recognized as the official date of the founding of the Iraqi Air Force.

Here is a photo of an Iraqi Air Force Hawker Audax reconnaissance aircraft, circa 1932. Note the green triangle insignia on the wings and fuselage.


Iraqi Hawker Audax ("Nisr")

The green triangle "roundel" has been a part of the Iraqi Air Force's 88-year history. Slightly different versions have been used on other pieces of military equipment.

When I was assigned as a liaison officer to the Iraqi armed forces Directorate General of Military Intelligence in 1988, they provided me with a duffel bag with this logo. Arabic speakers will easily recognize the Arabic letter jim (for jaysh, or army).

Since the roundel/insignia is clearly not associated with Saddam Husayn or the Ba'ath Party, and was used on Iraqi military aircraft since before the country's independence from the United Kingdom, no one should be offended or alarmed by its use.

That said, I would expect the Iraqis to announce the re-adoption of the roundel, the national insignia. There is nothing to be ashamed of here - it is a legacy going back over 80 years.


_________________

* A roundel is national insignia used on military aircraft, generally circular in shape and usually comprising concentric rings of different colors. Here is the roundel used on U.S. military aircraft. There are also subdued monochromatic variations for low-visibility.




July 16, 2019

Turkey, Erdoğan, the S-400 and the F-35

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan - is anyone else tiring of him?

I was asked a few questions about the Turks and the delivery of the Russian S-400 (NATO: SA-21) air defense system. My replies.

Q. The US Senate starts to discuss sanctions on Turkey, but Trump doesn't want such a move. How do you think is it possible that we can see the US impose sanctions on Turkey for this issue?

A. There are bipartisan demands in Congress for sanctions on Turkey for purchasing the Russian S-400 air defense system. The President is hoping that he can walk a fine line between economic sanctions on Turkey and just removing Turkey from the F-35 program. I am not sure he will be able to do that - there is US law that would require sanctions. He may be legally able to waive the sanctions, but he will be taking a political risk among his Republican supporters.

In any event, Turkey has to be removed from the F-35 program. That means the jets Turkey has already purchased and are located on a US Air Force base in Arizona will not be delivered to Turkey. The Turkish Air Force pilots there for training have already been restricted from access to the aircraft and its systems.

I do not believe the United States is willing to have the world's most advanced fifth-generation stealth aircraft be delivered to a country that is operating a near-state-of-the-art Russian air defense system. The risk to sensitive technology ending up in Moscow is much too high.


Q. If the US imposes sanctions, what can be the response of Turkey (within the cooperation with China (SCO))?

A. It appears that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made a conscious decision to pivot to the east - that includes better relations with what I would consider our (U.S.) adversaries and potential enemies: Russia, China, Iran, and even Pakistan. If he thinks he will be able to continue this eastern foreign policy reorientation and at the same time maintain a good relationship with the United States, I believe he is miscalculating.

The NATO alliance is important to the United States and our European allies - Turkey included, at least for now. If Erdoğan wants to remain a NATO ally, he needs to start acting like one again. Procuring an air defense system from our principal antagonist is not the act of an ally. There will be a price.


Q. Turkey invested in the F-35 project, does the US have the right to reject the sale within international law?

A. The reality of this is that the F-35 program is American technology and in the end the United States will determine where that technology is allowed to be exported. The parts of the program in Turkey will be moved to another location. They lose the business and the aircraft capabilities.



July 14, 2019

Some thoughts on Bastille Day


Many Americans are not very familiar with an alliance that was in a large way responsible for the successful conduct of the Revolutionary War.

After the American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain in 1776, very few - well, no - other countries were willing to recognize the United States, let alone provide assistance in its fight against the world's premier military power. The thought that a rag-tag group of rebellious farmers could hold their own against well-trained, well-equipped, and well-led British forces was laughable.

For its own reasons, France recognized the United States in 1778 - the two countries signed a treaty which, among other provisions, promised the new country French military support in case of attack by British forces indefinitely into the future. A French fleet arrived in the United States in 1780.

French troops were present in the fight against the British until the final battle at Yorktown in 1781. If you have not walked the battlefield there, I highly recommend it - the area is well-marked and nicely interpreted. The positions of the French forces were perfectly placed to counter the British under the command of Lord Cornwallis.

I often speak about the French alliance, facetiously remarking that if it were not for the French forces at Yorktown in 1781 - both naval and army - under the command of Comte de Rochambeau, we would all be speaking English. Facetious, yes, but when no one else would help the newly formed United States, the French stepped up and sent a fleet and troops. We may owe our freedom and independence to them.

We Americans have repaid the debt, some say several times over. On July 4, 1917 - during the intense fighting that was World War I - a U.S. Army infantry battalion marched to the tomb of the Marquis de Lafayette. The French aristocrat had led American troops in the fight against the British during the Revolutionary War - it was Lafayette's troops that fought a blocking action against British forces until other American and French forces could position themselves for the final battle at Yorktown.

At the tomb, the battalion commander, Colonel Charles Stanton, uttered the now famous words that signify the bond between the two countries, "Lafayette, nous voilà" (Lafayette, we are here).

On a much less significant, but personal note. I will never forget standing in a church in rural France – not a fancy cathedral, not a tourist spot, nothing architecturally significant, just a village church. I would not have paid much attention until I spotted a well-maintained corner with a small American flag and a plaque.

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

After 241 years, the alliance remains - American and French troops continue to serve side by side around the world.

Bon 14 juillet!



July 12, 2019

Turkey receives Russian S-400 air defense system - a symptom of "Erdoğan disease"

Russian Air Force AN-124 at Murted Air Base, Turkey

On Friday, July 12, two Russian Air Force AN-124 (NATO: Condor) heavy lift aircraft delivered initial components of the S-400 Triumph (NATO: SA-21 Growler) air defense system to Murted air base on the outskirts of Ankara, Turkey. Turkey's purchase of the Russian system is the latest in a series of issues between members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Turkey, a key member of the transatlantic alliance, is also, at least currently, a member of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. The F-35 is a fifth generation stealth fighter produced by Lockheed Martin and in service with at least 10 air and naval forces around the world. Turkey is a Level 3 participant in the program, having ordered 30 of possibly 120 aircraft. The initial four aircraft have been delivered to the Turkish Air Force at the F-35 pilot training facility at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona. Turkish Air Force maintenance personnel are also being trained at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.

The Turks have been warned that acquisition of the S-400 from Russia will halt their acquisition of the F-35 and terminate their participation in the distributed manufacturing program. The U.S. Air Force has stopped pilot training for Turkish pilots, and restricted access to the aircraft and training materials. Congress has passed legislation prohibiting the transfer of the Turkish jets in Arizona to Turkey pending the resolution of the S-400 issue.

The United States has been clear. The words of Acting Secretary of Defense to his counterpart, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar: “If Turkey procures the S-400, our two countries must develop a plan to discontinue Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program. While we seek to maintain our valued relationship, Turkey will not receive the F-35 if Turkey takes delivery of the S-400.”

This was reinforced by Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord: “Turkey still has the option to change course. If Turkey does not accept delivery of the S-400, we will enable Turkey to return to normal F-35 program activities. Turkey is a close NATO ally and our military-to-military relationship is strong.”

As of today, I would say that the issue has been settled. It seems that Erdoğan either does not think the American Administration is serious about removing Turkey from the F-35 program, or he has made a calculation that his relationship with the United States and NATO is not that important to his country's future.

I do not think the Trump Administration is bluffing. It is inconceivable that the United States would allow the same country that is operating a Russian near state-of-the-art air defense system to operate the world's most advanced aircraft, replete with sensitive avionics and reduced radar cross section technology.

While one might think that NATO ally Turkey would allow American intelligence access to the Russian S-400 system, the fact is that the "modified for export" version is delivered without source codes, advanced radar modes, and uses downgraded electronics.

When the Russians, or the United States for that matter, export these advanced systems, it is assumed that much of that technology will end up in foreign hands. We assume that exported U.S. technology will end up in Moscow or Beijing. The Russians will want to exploit the technology for intelligence and countermeasures, and the Chinese will just steal and clone the technology.

The S-400 purchase is just another symptom of what I will call "Erdoğan disease" - the myopic, blundering foreign policy moves that has cost Turkey much of its standing and likely its economy. Erdoğan seems to have pivoted to the east, favoring his burgeoning relationships with Russia and Iran at the expense of what used to be Turkey's attempts to align itself with Europe.

Other manifestations of Erdoğan disease?

When the United States began operations in Syria against the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Turkey, actually Erdoğan himself, was grossly unhelpful. The fact that most foreign ISIS fighters found their way into Syria via Turkey is not lost on the West.

I've spent a lot of time on both sides of the Turkey-Syria border. It is not a border I would attempt to cross clandestinely - it is replete with guard towers, minefields, patrols, etc. Turkish guards have orders to shoot anyone attempting to cross in either direction. Whoever crossed into Syria did so with Turkish help - either officially or unofficially.

As the U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - whose main component is the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (know by their Kurdish initials YPG) - did the lion's share of the ground fighting that eventually dislodged ISIS from controlling territory in Syria, they were attacked by Turkish military forces.

Erdoğan considers the YPG to be just an extension of the designated Turkish Kurd terrorist PKK armed insurgency. The Turkish president insisted that Turkish troops be the forces to liberate the main ISIS stronghold of al-Raqqah, even though his forces were months away and would have had to fight their way though the SDF. The whole concept was so ludicrous that U.S. commanders dismissed it out of hand.

The ill-fated al-Raqqah plan was followed by the Turkish invasion of 'Afrin - claimed to be an anti-terrorism operation, but in realty was just an excuse to attack the YPG in northern Syria and prevent the YPG/Kurds from controlling the Syrian side of the border from the Iraqi border to Idlib province.

Then there is the Turkish presence in Syria's Idlib province, ostensibly to prevent the Syrians - with their Russian and Iranian-backed allies - from eliminating the remaining rebels and Islamists who are bottled up in the province. One might get the impression the Turks are protecting the al-Qa'idah faction and other jihadists. There is probably a reason for that impression....

Decision time is coming for Turkey, for the Turks and for Erdoğan. The three might not be the same thing. Erdoğan is fast losing internal support - the recent elections in Istanbul were a blow to Erdoğan and his AKP party. His popularity, especially in Trakya, has been steadily waning. Cozying up to the Russians and Iranians will not help.

Is there a cure for Erdoğan disease? Turkey and the Turks will have to figure that out.



June 21, 2019

President Trump's decision to call off strikes on Iran - why?

U.S. Navy RQ-4 drone, tracking and video of shootdown

Following the shootdown of a U.S. Navy RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned reconnaissance aircraft over the Gulf of Oman on June 20 by air defense units of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), President Trump ordered - and cancelled - retaliatory missile strikes on Iranian targets.

Although the Iranians claim that the aircraft had violated Iranian airspace, video footage taken from another surveillance aircraft (probably a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon) annotated with geographic coordinates clearly indicates the incident occurred about 20 miles from the Iranian coast, well-beyond the 12 miles recognized as sovereign airspace.

Following the strike, the commander of U.S. Air Forces Central (the USAF component of U.S. Central Command) provided scant details of the incident, reiterating that the aircraft had remained in either international or allied (United Arab Emirates and Sultanate of Oman) airspace at all times, never entering either Iran's recognized or even claimed airspace.

After briefing Congressional leaders of both parties at the White House, the President ordered preparations for strikes on Iranian targets. As these preparations were underway, the President cancelled the strikes.

The President explained via Twitter:

On Monday they shot down an unmanned drone flying in International Waters. We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights when I asked, how many will die. 150 people, sir, was the answer from a General. 10 minutes before the strike I stopped it, not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone. I am in no hurry, our Military is rebuilt, new, and ready to go, by far the best in the world. Sanctions are biting & more added last night. Iran can NEVER have Nuclear Weapons, not against the USA, and not against the WORLD!

Of course, the media/pundit-sphere erupted, mostly along party or factional lines. Hawks decried it as a sign of weakness, Democrats were relieved - Senate Minority Leader Schumer had worried about the President "bumbling" into another war.

A few think-tank analysts thought it was a smart move, while others compared it to former President Obama's failure to enforce his own red line when the Syrian regime used chemical weapons on its own citizens.

What do I think?

Initially, I thought that we would have to respond militarily to the downing of the aircraft or risk being seen as Obama 2.0, talking tough and doing nothing, acquiescing to the Iranians yet again.

The Iranians, like most others in the Middle East, understand and respect power and decisive action. They also recognize and exploit weakness.

However, I agree with the President's cancellation of this particular target set. A military response that kills 150 people - although these would almost certainly be IRGC personnel, not innocent civilians - is, in the President's words, disproportionate. I have no problem with disproportionate retaliatory strikes, but concede the point on the high number of deaths.

Certainly the targeting shop at CENTCOM intelligence can come up with a target set that sends an overwhelming message, a disproportionate message if you will, that the United States will not tolerate further attacks, yet with less risk to personnel.

The unofficial unsanctioned motto of the Air Force is "kill people, break things." In this case, I would opt for the latter, but break a lot of things. If the Iranians continue to attack or escalate, the gloves come off and we remind the mullahs who they are trying to intimidate. Make it known if they kill more Americans, we will redefine "disproportionate."

Should the President have ordered the attack to proceed and U.S. missiles killed over 100 IRGC fighters, it would allow Iran to play the role of victim rather than perpetrator. That Iranian stance might succeed with our JCPOA*-loving European allies who desperately want to continue to peddle their wares to Iran. If we "over react," they may not be willing to re-impose sanctions when Iran openly violates the JCPOA.

I believe they have been violating it from the outset by refusing to make the required possible military dimension declaration, the so-called PMD. In addition, since the International Atomic Energy Agency refuses to compel Iran to open their military sites for inspection - allowed under the JCPOA -they have no way of knowing if Iran is in compliance. I am guessing they are not.

All that said, the shootdown of the aircraft requires a response. Unless the Iranians admit an error - the President gave them an out when he said he was not sure the action was intentional and perhaps it was a general who gave the order to engage the RQ-4 in error - and offer compensation for the loss, there will have to be consequences.

I don't see that happening. So, break things - break lots of expensive things.

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* Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action - the Iran nuclear deal of 2015 from which the United States withdrew in May 2018.