January 15, 2020

Middle East oil pumping stations and military air bases

Tiyas Air Base, also known as T-4, located east of Hims, Syria© Google Earth

Over the last year, there have been a series of confrontations between the Israelis on one side, and the Iranians and their Syrian allies on the other, at an airbase in western Syria. The air base is located between the Syrian cities of Hims (Homs) and Tadmur (Palmyra). The base has been identified as both Tiyas, and as T-4, depending on the media outlet doing the reporting.

In the above image, the Arabic descriptions give both names. Which is correct? Actually, both are.

The name Tiyas comes from the name of the closest village. It is customary in the Syrian Air Force to name bases and installations for the nearest city, town, or village. However, the base is not just close to the village of Tiyas, it is also close to the location of an oil pumping station in Tiyas designated as T-4. The T-4 designator goes back to the early days of oil exploration and transport in Iraq as far back as the 1930s.

This map shows the oil pipelines used to move oil from the Kirkuk oilfields in Iraq to Mediterranean ports - Haifa, (now in Israel but then in British-mandated Palestine) and Tarablus al-Sham (Tripoli, in French-mandated Lebanon).

The K-prefix indicates pumping stations on the Kirkuk pipeline, which transported the oil from Kirkuk to a station near the city of al-Hadithah. At Hadithah, the oil was routed into the Tripoli triple pipeline or the Haifa double pipeline. Pumping stations on the Tripoli pipeline are designated with a T prefix, while the Haifa pipeline stations are designated with an H prefix.

Not only were the pipelines accessible by the series of roads paralleling the lines, the Iraq Petroleum Company constructed private airstrips to move men, supplies, parts, etc. between stations and facilities. Many of the airstrips still exist in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan. Many of them were converted into civil airports, some into military air bases, and some into shared civil/military facilities. K-1, K-3, T-3, T-4, H-2, H-3, H-5 all were/are major air bases. The current T-4 air base is about four miles west of the original Iraq Petroleum Company airstrip.

Tiyas was the location of the fourth pumping station on the al-Hadithah-Tripoli pipeline. There are three such stations in Syria, all in use today. T-2 is located just inside the Syrian border near the city of Albu Kamal, the site of a large Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) base populated by both IRGC personnel as well as Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi'a militia groups.

The station at T-3 is now the shared military air base and civilian airport in the city of Tadmur (also known as Palmyra, site of ancient Aramean, Arabic, and Roman ruins).

The air base at T-4 is used by not only the Syrian Air Force, but by Russian forces in Syria, and elements of the IRGC. Having been there a few times, I can vouch for the description as being "in the middle of nowhere."

Note: Given the political situation following the 1948 creation of Israel, and later political turmoil in both Syria and Lebanon, the Iraqis constructed an alternate pipeline from al-Hadithah to Faysh Khabur on the Turkish border, then west to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. It is still in use today.

January 5, 2020

Fallout from the killing of Qods Force commander Qasem Soleimani

Iran-backed militia members outside US Embassy in Baghdad
Note red boxes contain names of Kata'ib al-Imam 'Ali (left) and Kata'ib Hizballah (right)

These are my responses to an interview request from Eurasia Diary. I will post a link to the actual article once it is published.

Q. Colonel Francona, attacks organized by radical Shi’a groups on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad protesting U.S. airstrikes against Iran-backed militia Kata’ib Hizballah on the last day of 2019. As a result, the U.S. Secretary of Defense ordered the deployment of additional troops to the region. An American drone strike killed Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force commander Qasem Soleimani. Do you think that such actions could ignite a war between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran, in Iraq, or elsewhere in the region?

A. I have no doubt there will be reactions, both by Iraqi Shi’a groups/militias, and possibly even the Iranians directly. While in the past, we have seen the Iranians conducting their operations in the region via their Iraqi, Lebanese, even Afghan and Pakistani proxies, the U.S. killing of Qasem Soleimani may cause a direct Iranian response on an American target. I suspect it will be against an American target in the region, possibly the Persian Gulf.

A quick word on the killing of Soleimani. There has been speculation in some media that the intelligence used to support the decision to kill Soleimani and Kata’ib Hizballah leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was not as definitive as portrayed by U.S. Administration officials.

My response is that there has been sufficient cause for years to eliminate Soleimani. It was Soleimani who was behind proxy Iraqi Shi’a militias which caused the death of over 600 American troops, and the wounding of hundreds more. That alone, to me, is enough reason to kill him. Killing al-Muhandis? A bonus.

It appears that Iran’s initial response, other than the almost elevation of Soleimani to sainthood in the Shi’a- controlled media in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, has been a non-binding resolution in the Iraqi majlis an-nuwab (Council of Representatives, or Parliament) to expel “foreign” forces from the country.

Note that this was what we in the United States would call a “party line” vote – the Shi’a representatives, to no one’s surprise, overwhelming followed Tehran’s urging to demand the removal of coalition – but aimed at the United States – forces from the country. I suspect this was for domestic consumption and an attempt by Shi’a lawmakers to appease their masters in Tehran.

The Iraqi majlis should be careful what they wish for. There is little support in the United States for continued American presence in Iraq. Most Americans understand the need to continue the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but are weary of the actions of the Iranians in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, etc.

I have even heard what I believe is a short-sighted claim that since we (the United States) no longer are dependent on any foreign oil or gas, we should not be putting our troops at risk in the Middle East.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the calls for the removal of American and coalition forces becomes actual legislation in Iraq – I don’t think it will but let’s examine that possibility. Are the Iraqis – even with their Iranian masters’ support – capable of defeating the remaining ISIS presence in the country? A look at Iraqi operations would tell you it’s not likely. The Iraqis still rely heavily on U.S. intelligence and airstrikes to take the fight to ISIS.

In the unlikely event there is actual legislation to expel U.S. forces, it will be 2011 all over again.

Q. About 2011, you have repeatedly said that it was major mistake for the U.S. to leave Iraq in 2011, in essence leaving it to Iran. Do you still believe this?

A. I do. I had to laugh when I read the comments of one of the Shi’a legislators today – it may have even been the prime minister, who is essentially an Iranian puppet. He said (and this is my interpretation of his remarks in Arabic) that there were no foreign forces in Iraq from 2011 to 2014, and that they did just fine.

Seriously? Let’s remember what actually happened. With no residual U.S. troops in the country (thanks to the decision of President Obama to not push for a new Status of Forces Agreement), the Shi’a proved themselves incapable of resisting the bribery, graft, and corruption that effectively hollowed out the Iraqi Army, a once-proud army that collapsed in the face of an inferior ISIS force.

Are the Iranians going to be able to replicate the capabilities of the anti-ISIS coalition? I doubt it – the Iranians are not in Iraq for the Iraqis, they are in it for the Iranians. As the self-appointed guardians and leaders of all things Shi’a, the Iranians believe they are destined to be the key power broker in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and as much of Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and even Azerbaijan as they can.

Q. After the killing of Soleimani, what are the next steps likely to be taken by Washington in Iraq?

A. Good question. I hope that after the initial anger wears off, cooler heads will prevail and the two sides can continue to work towards the elimination of ISIS, and the eventual development of Iraq as secular republic.

Do I think those things will happen? Yes and no. On one hand, the Iraqis will realize that to defeat ISIS completely, they need U.S. support.

On the other hand, the killing of Soleimani was a serious and visceral blow to the pro-Iranian groups – the Shi’a proxies if you will – which rely on Tehran for leadership and funding, by what they believe is “the Great Satan” in Iranian parlance. They regard this as just the latest attack on the Islamic Republic by the United States.

We’ve been tap-dancing around a major confrontation between the United States and Iran since 1979. This event may bring the animosity between the two governments to a head. If there is a lethal Iranian attack on an American facility, I think we have to assume that there will be an American response – I believe there will have to be. Anyone who is watching the region cannot help but notice the buildup of American military capabilities. The Iranians should be very circumspect in their next moves.

One last comment – unless something changes in Iraq, it will continue to be a failed state. The government and its institutions do not serve the interests of the Iraqi people. I think the Iraqi people are beginning to realize that they are in effect a vassal state of Iran. The recent spate of protests against Iranian influence indicate that awakening.

December 6, 2019

The power vacuum in Iraq was exploited by the Iranians - US Intelligence Officer - Exclusive to Eurasia Diary

Iraq at the present time is one of the important countries in the Middle East is subjected much attention at the scene of international politics, due to collapse of the government as results of mass protests, rallies, bloody clashes between them and security forces, also foreign countries strive for extending their influence in the country. Iraq has now covered difficult situation and deadlock need strong and capable government to resettle political, economic and social problems.

Eurasia Diary's highlight interview with retired intelligence officer Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona who was involved in several missions in Iraq and the Persian Gulf during the Saddam period.

Rick Francona is an author, commentator and media military analyst. He is a retired United States Air Force intelligence officer with experience in the Middle East, including tours of duty with the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency.

Q. Prime Minister of Iraq, Abdul-Mahdu has resigned, now caretaker government is going to be formed, and mass protests continue in Baghdad and other cities of the country. From your viewpoint, could current situation in Iraq lead country to deep and unsolved long-term destabilization?

I think the country is already in a “deep and unresolved long-term destabilization,” and it’s not a new phenomenon. The country has been unstable since the removal of Saddam Husayn – it was his brutal authoritarian rule and rather skillful manipulation of the various constituencies that kept the country together. Once he was no longer in the picture, the internal pressures have taken their toll.

A lot is made of the obvious Sunni Arab, Shi’a Arab, and Kurdish competition for resources and political power. The power vacuum created by the removal of Saddam was exploited by the Iranians to a large extent, and to a lesser degree by the Turks hoping to gain more influence in the north with the Turkmen minority and to continue to contain the Kurds.

The real winners here had been the Iranians and their influence over the Shi’a majority. However, they have overplayed their hand – not only are the Sunnis resentful of the Iranian influence in the government, now even the Shi’a parties are resentful of Tehran’s attempts to control events in Iraq.

That is what is driving the current demonstrations and protests.

Q. According to numerous news, majority in mass protests against Iran-backed government belong to Shia sector. We have not seen yet that Sunnis and Kurd join demonstrations. Is it mean that there is big hostility among Iraqi Shias to Iran?

Yes, surprisingly so. The Iranians believe themselves to be the guardians, and by extension, the leaders of all the Shi’a, regardless of location. We see this in their attempts to extend their influence not only in Shi’a-majority Iraq, but also in Bahrain, Syria (conveniently considering the ‘Alawis to be Shi’a), Lebanon, Yemen, the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, and even Azerbaijan.

The Iraqis have grown to resent Tehran’s heavy-handed approach to Iraq. The Iranians are attempting to use not only Iraq, but Lebanon and Syria in their efforts to control the “Shi’a Crescent” – controlling the area from Tehran to Beirut. One could say they have done a fair job in acquiring influence to do just that. Now we see pushback in both Iraq and Lebanon. It remains to be seen how effective the Iranians will be in retaining its influence.

Q. Some media outlets claim that Iraqi security forces spoke Farsi, while they were violently dispersing protests. Is there any evidence that reveal Iran intervention in bloody crushing of protests were struggling overthrow of its backed government?

I have seen the reports. I am sure the Iranians are playing a role, but I am not sure if they are actually involved in the violent repression of the Iraqis. If that was proven to be true, I think it would hurt Iran’s efforts to regain its level of influence. Iranian Qods Force commander Qasem Soleimani is ruthless, but not stupid.

Q. Could we think that Iraq is now unfolded to the area of political battle between Iran and United States?

The political battle between Iran and the United States will go on regardless of what happens in Iraq. While Iraq is important to the United States in the continuing fight against the Islamic State/ISIS, the differences between Washington and Tehran are much larger than what happens in Iraq.

Q. What kind of government in future could find magic formula to prevent tensions, resolve social and economic problems, and ensure safety in Iraq?

Ah, the million-dollar question. I can envision a government that could do all that, but so I believe it will happen? I hope so, but I remain skeptical. There will not be a resolution until the Shi’a are willing to allow the Sunnis to participate in a meaningful way. Since the removal of Saddam Husayn and the rise of Iranian (again, guardians and leaders of all things Shi’a) influence, the Shi’a have used the power of their majority at the ballot box to run roughshod over the Sunnis. Only when that changes will there be a chance of a resolution.

Interviewed by Abdullayev Yunis. Read the original here.

November 20, 2019

Movie Review: "Escape from Zahrain" (Paramount,1962)

Escape from Zahrain is a 1962 American action film directed by Ronald Neame. It starred Yul Brynner, Sal Mineo, Jack Warden, Madlyn Rhue and Anthony Caruso. The film is based on the 1960 novel Appointment in Zahrain by Michael Barrett.

I remember watching this movie shortly after it was released, and it was oddly interesting. Around that time, I had been given a book by my grandfather to read - it piqued my interest in the Middle East, and the movie just added to my fascination with the area. The book was With Lawrence in Arabia by Lowell Thomas.

Okay, it was a B movie, never intended to be a major motion picture - but it clicked with audiences. Of course, names like Yul Brynner and Sal Mineo were sure to attract viewers, but in 1962, the Middle East was hardly a venue of interest. The Arabs, mostly stereotyped as oil-rich desert sheikhs, were normally portrayed as backward, uneducated, and corrupt, driving expensive vehicles and basically squandering the wealth available to them.

This movie, produced in 1961 and released in 1962, was different. Although it takes place in the oil-rich fictional state of Zahrain - which could be construed as many of the Gulf Arab countries - it was the first movie to address the conflict between the autocratic or monarchical rulers of the oil-rich states and the people who believe that the wealth actually belonged to the people of those states. The film was ahead of its time.

As far as the cinematography goes, and I am not an expert, it has its weaknesses. The Jack Warden character adds nothing to the film, and the cameo appearance of James Mason actually detracted from the story. However, with stars like Yul Brynner and Sal Mineo, you know it will be well-acted. Madlyn Rhue did a nice job on the Arab/Muslim female angle. To those of us who have served in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula, the scenery of the Bakersfield (California) desert works pretty well.

I can't not remark on the Arabic language aspects of the movie. Most of the minimal Arabic dialogue was by native Arabic speakers using Modern Standard Arabic. The non-Arab actors' efforts were mediocre at best. That is not a criticism of the movie, just my observation as an Arabist.

Unfortunately, the movie is not free, but is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video for $3.99. Pay the four bucks and watch - it's 92 minutes of how the world should have viewed the Middle East (specifically the Arabian peninsula) 57 years ago. If more people had seen it, it may have prevented a lot of misunderstandings about oil wealth.

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.


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.