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.