June 30, 2009

Syria threatens to take Golan from Israel

The Golan Heights from the Syrian side

Anyone with a modicum of experience in the Middle East knows the most important issue to the Syrians is the return of the Golan Heights. The 460 square mile area between Israel, Syria and Lebanon has been occupied by Israel since it was seized during the Six Day War in 1967.

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Click for larger view (in new window)

In October 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, Syrian forces attempted to retake the Golan in a surprise attack. Although initially promising, the Israelis quickly regrouped, mobilized their reserves and pushed the Syrians back. Not only did the Israelis regain all the lost ground, they pushed to within 20 miles - artillery range - of the Syrian capital of Damascus. A United Nations agreement ended the war, and Israeli forces withdrew to the pre-war lines, still in possession of the Heights.

Since there has been a Middle East peace process, Syria's primary demand has been the return of the Golan Heights. It makes sense - no matter how you define the geography of the region or what map you use, the Golan is undeniably Syrian territory. Of course the Syrians want it back. Just last week, President Bashar al-Asad said unambiguously that without the return of the Golan Heights there will be no agreement with the Israelis.

Successive Israeli governments, despite a large vocal minority that is in fundamental disagreement, understand that the price of peace includes the return of the Golan Heights to Syria. Many Israelis - the ones who want to keep the Golan - cite the "strategic military" value of the Heights. While that was true in the 1960's and 1970's, technology has overshadowed the geography. Syria does not need the Golan Heignts to rain fire down on Israel - it possesses short and medium-range missiles that can hit almost any spot in Israel with high explosives, and many areas with chemical weapons.

Israeli intelligence collection facility - Golan Heights

That said, there is an advantage to holding the high ground of the Golan. Israel has installed a huge electronic and visual intelligence collection facility on the highest hill on the Golan - Har Avital to the Israelis, or Tal Abu Nada to the Syrians.

Another aspect of Israeli control of the Golan, one that is usually overlooked by those who misinterpret motives in the region, goes beyond intelligence and security - it has to do with water resources. The Golan Heights is the venue of the headwaters of the Jordan River, one of Israel's main sources of water. When we in the west talk about the Middle East, we think of oil. If you live in the Middle East, you are more concerned about water. Because of the area's excellent agricultural characteristics, the Israelis have invested tens of millions of dollars in the infrastructure of the Golan Heights. They will naturally be reluctant to desert that investment.

There is a price Syria must pay. To secure Israeli agreement to return the Golan, Syria would have to agree to stop allowing Iran to use Syrian airspace and Damascus International Airport as its main supply route for Hizballah in Lebanon, as well as allowing Damascus to be the home of many Palestinian "liberation" groups.

In what has become routine, Syrian officials declared themselves frustrated with the lack of progress in the peace process and threatened to take the Golan Heights back from Israel by force.

That's the rhetoric, but not the reality. The Syrian military has been in a state of decline for the last decade. Their armed forces are in a state of atrophy, while the Israel Defense Forces have constantly modernized and upgraded their capabilities. The qualitative chasm between the two, or any combination of Arab militaries, continues to grow. The chances of the Syrian army taking the Golan by force are minuscule.

Southern Syria

Granted, the bulk of the Syrian army is deployed on the two major attack routes from Israel - through Lebanon or over the Golan Heights. Still, there is no way the Syrians could again surprise the Israelis, nor mount the force required to take the Heights by force.

Syria taking the Golan Heights by force? It is an empty threat.

Personal footnote: If you are nterested in an excellent realistic account of life in the Golan Heights, you might want to rent the movie The Syrian Bride.

June 27, 2009

Iran - maybe the problem wasn't Bush

Mahmoud Ahmadinejadمحمود احمدی نژاد
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama often criticized George Bush's foreign policy toward many countries, including Iran, as "aggressive" or "cowboy."

Almost immediately after taking office, the new President began an outreach program to various countries and entities in the Muslim world. He has made approaches to Iran, Syria, the non-existent "moderate elements" of the Taliban, and even Hamas. No one can accuse Obama of being aggressive or acting like a cowboy.

Let's look at at the recent post-election protests in Iran and Obama's better-late-than-never condemnation of the regime's brutal crackdown on the demonstrators. After President Obama stated that he was "appalled and outraged," Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad responded by accusing Obama of behaving just like George Bush. That had to hurt - being compared to an aggressive cowboy. That may have hurt more than the fact that American diplomats and attaches will not be hosting their Iranian counterparts for July 4th festivities.

Here is a translation of Ahmadinejad's remarks:

"Mr. Obama made a mistake to say those things ... our question is why he fell into this trap and said things that previously Bush used to say. Do you want to speak with this tone? If that is your stance then what is left to talk about? ... I hope you avoid interfering in Iran's affairs and express your regret in a way that the Iranian nation is informed of it."

President Obama has said, correctly, that no apology is forthcoming.

Iran is a country whose regime is the world's premier state sponsor of terrorism - they are the principal sponsors of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and of Hizballah in Lebanon. In Iraq, well over a hundred American troops have been killed by Iranian-supplied explosive devices. The country is almost certainly attempting to develop nuclear weapons and the missiles with which to deliver them. Its president has called for the destruction of the state of Israel, and in the last two weeks the regime has revealed itself to have almost no respect for human rights and political dissent.

I would guess that given Ahmadinejad's retort, President Obama's hopes of engaging the Iranian regime has been dealt a severe blow. Let's review - Bush's aggressive cowboy policy did not work, and thus far Obama's kinder and gentler outreach approach has not worked.

President, Obama, did you ever think that the problem with Iran might not be former President George Bush's policy? Perhaps the problem just might be the Iranian regime?

As I have suggested in the past, PLEASE hire a competent Middle East advisor, then listen to him.

June 26, 2009

The Kurds make a play for Kirkuk

Earlier this week, the Kurdistan Regional Government of the autonomous Kurdish area of northern Iraq, passed a new constitution. That's fine, but there is language in the document that is likely to bring a long-simmering issue to a boil. That issue is the status of the city and governorate of Kirkuk. The Kurds have maintained for years that Kirkuk is their capital.

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As shown on the map, the Kurdish autonomous region (red), established in accordance with the Iraqi constitution of 2005, includes the governorates of Dahuk, Arbil and al-Sulaymaniyah. In addition to its claims on Kirkuk (green), the Kurds also have eyes on the adjoining governorates of Diyala and Ninawa', both with sizable Kurdish populations. Any attempt to incorporate Ninawa' and its capital city of al-Mawsil (Mosul) will also cause an uproar.

After the removal of Saddam Husayn, the Kurds moved back into Kirkuk. Many Kurds had been expelled in the Ba'th Party "Arabization" program of the 1980's in which non-Arab ethnic groups were moved to other parts of the country. A number of Kurds were forcibly moved to the deserts of southern Iraq, and Arab families were moved in to their homes in an attempt to transform Kirkuk from a multi-ethnic city into an Arab city.

After the fall of the Ba'th and Saddam Husayn , the Kurds wanted their homes (and city) back. As part of that effort, former Kurdish residences have been forcibly reclaimed, raising complaints of ethnic cleansing.

It sounds simple, but it is not.

Kirkuk is Iraq's fifth largest city, home to about 750,000 residents. It is an amalgam of the various ethnic groups that comprise Iraq - Kurds (the majority), Turkomans (a close second), Arabs, Assyrians and Armenians. The oilfields around Kirkuk hold about 20 percent of Iraq's proved oil reserves.

The Turkomans claim that they number over two million in Iraq (700,000 in Kirkuk governorate alone), making them about seven percent of the population and the third largest ethnic group in Iraq after the Arabs and Kurds. Turkomans are descendants of the Turkic-speaking Oguz tribes from Central Asia. They inhabit a swath of Iraq from the Syria-Turkish border area southeast to the Iranian border east of Baghdad, a buffer zone between the Arabs in the south and the Kurds in the north. Some of the residences reclaimed by returning Kurds have displaced Turkomans as well as Arabs.

Turkey has threatened to come to the defense of their "countrymen" in Kirkuk, hinting at a military incursion into northern Iraq. Incursions by the Turks into northern Iraq are nothing new. When I served in northern Iraq in 1995 and 1996, there was usually a Turkish armored brigade garrisoned south of Zakhu, ostensibly to prevent fighters of the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) from using northern Iraq as a safe haven.

The new Kurdish regional constitution will be placed before the voters next month - its passage is an absolute certainty. That's when the Kirkuk issue will come to a boil.

Mish'al and Obama - talking past each other?

Click for Al-Jazeerah video - in Arabic(Caption: Khalid Mish'al - head of the Hamas movement political office)
Click on image for Al-Jazeerah video (Arabic)

Khalid Mish'al, the head of the Hamas movement political office, welcomed what he called "new language" from President Obama about the Palestinian situation in general and Hamas in particular.

Speaking in Damascus, where he is based, Mish'al cited Obama's remarks as "the first step on the correct path towards direct dialogue with no conditions," and that the "hand of Hamas is extended to the Obama administration." He further said that he welcomed the positive changes in the position of the American government.

Mish'al was referring to Obama's Cairo address to the Muslim world in which he suggested that Hamas had a role to play in a future Palestinian state. Obama also laid down some conditions that Mish'al seems to overlook in his remarks. Obama insists that Hamas must end violence (some label it terrorism), recognize past agreements between the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority, and most importantly, recognize Israel's right to exist.

Regardless of Mish'al's words, Hamas and the United States are not that close to direct talks. In the past, Hamas has repeatedly refused to accept the same conditions laid out by the President. Despite his desire for dialogue without conditions, Mish'al stated that any talks would be predicated on the sovereignty of Palestinian land and withdrawal of Israeli forces. That sounds like conditions to me.

Mish'al is a smart, seasoned politician. As such, the rhetoric does not match the reality. I suspect that his remarks are part of a strategy to coax the American administration away from the President's conditions. Mish'al appears to have assessed that President Obama's willingness to engage the regimes in Iran and Syria - Hamas's main sponsors - might transfer into a willingness to engage Hamas as well. Now that post-election violence in Iran has dampened Obama's efforts to engage Tehran, Mish'al might believe that Obama is looking for another forum for advancing his agenda in the region.

Hopefully, President Obama will stick to his guns and refuse to take Mish'al's bait. While in the end we may have to deal with Hamas - after all, they did win the election, and would easily win again if there were to be an election today - Obama needs to insist that he get something in return. Renunciation of violence and recognition of Israel would be a good start.

Until all Palestinian leaders, be they Hamas, PLO, Islamic Jihad, the Palestinian Authority, etc., recognize Israel's right to exist, there can be no peace process. Until that happens, Obama and Mish'al will only talk past each other, not to each other - and that's the way it should be.

June 25, 2009

Israelis give Palestinian forces more control

In a partial bid to revive the near-dead Palestinian track of the Middle East peace process, Israeli forces have ceded greater control over four key areas of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority security forces. These areas are Qalqiliyah, Bethlehem (Bayt Laham), Jericho (Ariha) and Ramallah. This will be the first time Palestinian forces will operate completely without Israeli oversight.

This will be a test of two things: can the Palestinian security force maintain order on their own in the larger cities, and will those forces be able to prevent terrorist attacks into Israel proper or Israeli settlements on the West Bank? If they cannot do either of these things, the Israelis will not countenance the establishment of a Palestinian state with any kind of sovereignty.

To put his into some context, let's take a look at one of these four cities - Qalqiliyah. I was recently in Israel and the West Bank, and had the opportunity to visit the areas on both sides of the anti-terrorist barrier in and around Qalqiliyah - these are photos from that trip.

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1 - Israeli control point on the anti-terrorist barrier
2 - Israeli checkpoint before entrance to Qalqiliyah
3 - Palestinian checkpoint at road junction
4 - Palestinian checkpoint at entrance to Qalqiliyah
5 - Israeli army barracks

As you can see, Qalqiliyah sits on the de facto border between Israel proper and the Israeli-occupied and West Bank. The blue line is the anti-terrorism barrier, comprised of a combination of fence and wall. It separates almost the entire West Bank from Israel proper and the Israeli settlements on the West Bank.

The city of Qalqiliyah is considered an "A" area, where the Palestinians exercise control and exclude Israeli civilians from entry. "B" areas are jointly controlled by the Israelis and Palestinians, but generally closed to Israeli civilians, and "C" areas are exclusively Israeli. The Israeli army can operate in all areas, but refrain as much as possible from entering "A" areas.

In this picture, the Israeli army barracks (5) is at the top of the hill, with the antennas and water tank. The Israeli control point (1) is seen above and to the left of the white vehicle. The picture was taken from in front of the Palestinian checkpoint (3).

This is the Palestinian check point facility (3) at the road junction. With this new arrangement, the Israelis will remove their checkpoint (2) on the road after the Palestinian checkpoint (3) and before the Palestinian checkpoint (4) at the entrance to the city.

Israeli forces will still mount patrols (above) on the West Bank. This patrol is approaching the Palestinian facility (3) at the road junction.

This is a good first step. If the Palestinian Authority can prove that they are up to the task, especially in preventing terrorist attacks against Israelis, there may be hope for continued progress toward the establishment of a Palestinian state. Most of the problems in the region hinge on that one issue.

June 24, 2009

Return of an American ambassador to Syria

My business card while assigned to the US Embassy in Damascus

President Barack Obama has opted to return our diplomatic presence in Syria to the ambassadorial level for the first time since 2005. At that time, we withdrew our ambassador as a sign of displeasure with the Syrian government over their alleged complicity in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in Beirut. "Complicity" is the polite term - anyone familiar with Lebanese and Syrian politics knows the Syrians either ordered the killing or did it themselves (I believe the latter is true).

I have been critical of the President's misguided efforts to engage (his word) the Iranians, even more so in light of the brutal repression taking place in the aftermath of the June 12 presidential elections. I do not think it is wise to talk to a government that is still supporting Shi'a militias in Iraq and has been responsible for the death of over 100 American troops in Iraq, not to mention shooting its own citizens in the streets for protesting an election. While Syria has some indirect responsibility for American deaths in Lebanon, the main culprits in virtually every operation that has caused American casualties has been the Iranians.

So, why send an ambassador to Syria? What's wrong with the current arrangement? The Syrians have an ambassador in Washington, and we have a chargé d’affaires in Damascus. It provides representation and a venue to observe and report (some people call that intelligence gathering) what is happening on the ground in a critically important country in the Middle East peace process, while demonstrating our concern over the activities of the Bashar al-Asad government.

One word answer: Iran. This is all about iran's ascendancy in the region and its close ties with Syria. Iran has very few friends anywhere in the world, and only Syria in the region. Damascus and Tehran have a formal mutual defense treaty, close economic relations, intelligence sharing and a host of military/technical cooperation efforts. They also produce the Sham autimobile - yes, that's the real name. See my earlier article, What's in a name? - the Syrian-Iranian car company.

The State Department claims that the decision has nothing to do with the post-election turmoil in Iran. I hope it does - the problems in Iran may present an opportunity for American foreign policy. We should be looking for any way to break Damascus away from Tehran.

Syria is key to the peace process, but as long as they remain allied with Iran, there will be no solution. Syria's key demand for peace with Israel is the return of the Golan Heights - that is a non-negotiable condition. Israel will return the Golan - despite rhetoric to the contrary - in return for a deal with Damascus. Israel will not enter into an agreement with Damascus unless Syria agrees to stop allowing Iran to use its airspace and territory to fund, equip and train Hizballah in Lebanon, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip.

Break the tries between Damascus and Tehran, and peace all of a sudden becomes a possibility. Absent that, we continue on in this morass. The presence of an ambassador as opposed to a chargé might lend more weight to our efforts and demonstrate to Asad that he may get a better deal with us than by continuing on in his relationship with Iran.

I have been taken to task by a mentor and friend who believes I am being too harsh on Obama's plans to engage the Iranians. While I think the reinstatement of the ambassadorial post in Damascus is a good move, I remain convinced that we need to marginalize the Iranians while expanding our relationship with the Syrians.

Send an ambassador - but send one that knows what he/she is doing.

Click here for my photos of Syria.

June 21, 2009

Obama's words and Iran's demonstrators

As news coverage of the post-election violence in Iran continues, there are calls for the Obama administration to adopt some stronger language in support of the protesters. Up until a few days ago, President Obama shied away from anything more than being "concerned," claiming that the Iranian regime will use any excuse to blame the situation on the West in general, and the United States in particular.

I have often criticized the President's naivete on things Middle East - and here again he falls into the same trap of viewing events in the region through Western eyes. The Iranians have already blamed the United States and the United Kingdom for much of the violence in Iran - no one takes this seriously, especially not the Iranians. President Obama's citing the CIA-engineered coup of 1953 is a weak attempt to justify not taking a stand in support of young people demanding things we take for granted - freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and fair elections.

In the last few days, Obama has moved from "concerned" to "appalled and outraged," and has called into question the legitimacy of the presidential election. Questioning the legitimacy of the elections is fine, but using the fact that there were no international observers present in Iran is a bit arrogant. Was Obama's election to the American presidency less legitimate because we did not have international - to Obama that means United Nations - observers present?

Being appalled and outraged has not changed the behavior of the Iranian government. Obama claims that he does not want to give the Iranian regime any rhetorical ammunition to further crack down on the protesters by offering them encouragement and moral support. In the eyes of the Iranian leadership, that is tantamount to tacit approval of their actions.

It gets better. The President still appears willing to "engage" the autocratic regime of Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Hoseyni Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. At what point does the President cut his losses and admit that these are not the kind of people we should be "engaging," at least not with words?

One easy way for Obama to demonstrate his displeasure would be to publicly rescind the authorization for American diplomats overseas to invite their Iranian counterparts to upcoming July 4 receptions and events. These are usually some of the more important events on the diplomatic calendar, and reversing the authorization will send the right message (unlike his current statements). I initially thought the authorization was a good idea - I have served in U.S. embassies in the Middle East and found my Iranian counterparts quite willing to discuss regional politics and issues - all useful insights. See my earlier article, Iranian diplomats at July 4 parties - why not?

I have changed my mind - I'll answer my own question, "why not?" Since the June 12 elections, the Iranian regime has brutally suppressed any dissent in the country. People have been killed for simply demanding that they be allowed to protest what they believe was a rigged election. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Basiji militias have vowed to crack down even harder on the demonstrators, labeling them "terrorists" - something the IRGC knows about. A senior jurist states that Iranian courts will deal with those arrested during the street protests "in an exemplary manner to teach them a lesson."

These are the Iranian officials the President wants to engage. As I said before when he advocated approaching "moderate" members of the Taliban - news flash: there aren't any! - the President is trying to talk to people we should be trying to kill. See my earlier article, Obama's outreach to the Taliban - a victory for the terrorists.

I hope that the President now realizes that his attempts to have any meaningful dialogue with the Iranian regime will be futile, and not well-received by many Americans, especially those who have lost loved ones serving in Iraq whose deaths can be attributed to the IRGC. The regime, as with most autocratic regimes be they theocratic, dictatorial or monarchic, will seek to perpetuate itself at all costs. Khamenei intends to keep Ahmadinejad in the presidency, they intend to develop nuclear weapons and continue their quest for hegemony in the Persian Gulf and Middle East. They will continue on that path, whether or not President Obama "engages" them.

Memo to President Obama: hire a Middle East advisor and then listen to him. Engaging the Iranians will be regarded as tacit approval of their actions. You look like a suitor with hat in hand. Call them out for what they are - repressive state sponsors of terrorism who have no intention of living within diplomatic norms, no matter how you try and spin it.

We do not need a change in American policy, we need a change in the Iranian regime. That's change I can believe in.

June 19, 2009

A good sign in Pakistan - we hope

Finally, some potentially good news coming out of Pakistan. While everyone's focus has been on the post-election violence in Iran, Pakistani troops continued their operations against the Pakistani Taliban in the Swat Valley to the point where they claim they have achieved their objectives. Now the army is poised to move against the Taliban along the mountainous border with Afghanistan.

According to the Pakistani minister of defense - granted, not always the most reliable source - Pakistani troops are wrapping up their operations in the Swat Valley and will be withdrawn in the next few days. The valley is less than 75 miles from the capital of Islamabad, the closest approach of Taliban forces thus far. There are mixed reports as to just how successful the operation in Swat has been, but given the proximity of the area to Islamabad, Pakistani forces will no doubt return if there is a Taliban resurgence.

If what the defense minister claims is true, that is good news, but it gets better. As part of the same announcement, he said that the army is now preparing for a major offensive in South Waziristan, the stronghold of the Pakistani Taliban and hideouts of the remnants of al-Qa'idah. It is suspected that Usamah bin Ladin may be in this area as well, although most of his fighters are leaving the area. See my earlier article, Al-Qa'idah on the run - again.

This is what the United States has been encouraging the Pakistanis to do for years. If the Pakistanis will not agree to cross-border operations by American troops in Afghanistan, Islamabad should move Pakistani troops into that area and deal with the Pushtun tribes who have been providing safe haven and refuge to Taliban and al-Qa'idah fighters. Perhaps it took the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in late 2007 and the recent approach of the Taliban to within 75 miles of Islamabad to wake up the Pakistani government. The man responsible for Bhutto's assassination, Beitullah Mehsud, is in South Waziristan.

The Pakistani government has always been reluctant to exercise its authority in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the Afghanistan border - South Waziristan is one of these areas. The area is almost totally under control of the Pakistani Taliban and is home to the ferociously-independent Pushtun tribes. Every time the Pakistan army has gone into these areas, they have taken significant casualties and almost have always failed to achieve their objectives.

Perhaps this time will be different - I hope so. Swat Valley was a wake-up call. Let's hope the leadership is paying attention.

June 17, 2009

The Awakening - IAEA and the real "axis of evil"

Muhammad al-Barada'i*, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency on Monday told North Korea to end its nuclear confrontation with the West, urged Iran to agree to President Obama's offer of direct talks, and asked that Syria cooperate with an IAEA investigation into that country's nuclear efforts. He even stated outright that Iran is on the path to developing nuclear weapons.

I guess it is better late than never. I was going to write, "Al-Barada'i, who never found a nuclear program in the Middle East he didn't like...." In the interest of accuracy, I have changed that to merely, "Al-Barada'i, who never found a nuclear program in the Middle East...." Now he discovers that Iran and Syria may actually be proliferation threats. However, it goes much further than he alleges.

The real axis of evil

Al-Barada'i has hit on what many Middle East analysts, myself included, have believed to be the real axis of evil - Iran, Syria and North Korea. See my earlier article for MSNBC, The real axis of evil.

These are three of the countries that bear the most watching. North Korea already has detonated a nuclear device, Iran is enriching the fissile material needed for one, and Syria was caught trying to covertly construct a nuclear reactor out in its barren deserts. What is important is that all three countries are cooperating with each other in their quests for nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles to deliver them.

Syria and Iran have a defense treaty and are joined at the hip in supporting Hizballah in Lebanon, as well as Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza. Iran needs access to Syrian facilities for these purposes, both Syria and North Korea need money, and both Syria and Iran benefit from North Korean nuclear and missile technology.

From my experience exploiting a North Korean artillery piece captured by the Iraqis from the Iranians in 1988, North Korea builds quality military hardware. Its hardware is in the inventory of both Iran and Syria.

This is a North Korean KOKSAN 170mm self-propelled gun howitzer, in 1988 the longest-ranged artillery piece in the world. It was supplied to Iran by North Korea and captured by Iraqi forces on the al-Faw peninsula in 1988. I led a U.S. intelligence exploitation team to the al-Suwayrah artillery depot located about an hour south of Baghdad where we had full access to it. According to the U.S. Army guys, it is well designed and well built (what do I know about artillery?). The metallurgy was equally impressive.

Syria and North Korea apparently were able to thwart United Nations sanction by moving an entire nuclear reactor from North Korea to the middle of the Syrian desert - before it was bombed by the Israelis in September 2007. So much for the effectiveness of these sanctions. See my earlier article, The Israeli air strike in Syria - what the target wasn’t....

At least the IAEA is now looking at Syria a bit harder since there was more uranium recently discovered at the bombed site. As usual, the Syrians have come up with some implausible explanation, claiming it as only "one particle or two particles." See my earlier article, Syrian Uranium Mythology.

Thus far, neither the UN nor the IAEA have even slowed down the nuclear efforts of these three countries. Only military action by Israel slowed down the Syrians in 2007, just as they slowed the nuclear program in Iraq in 1981.

At some point, someone is going to have to address the nuclear capabilities and aspirations of all three countries. UN resolutions and American speeches are not going to do it.

* I am using the approved US government transliteration system for what is normally rendered as ElBaradei.

June 16, 2009

Second thoughts on the Iranian elections

Normally when someone says "second thoughts," it normally means they are reversing their position on something. I am not necessarily changing my prediction as to the outcome of the election violence in Iran, but would like to offer some more thoughts on what is happening.

I don't know - and anyone who tells you he or she does is lying - the actual outcome of the vote in Iran; we may never know. The official tally is that incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad received twice as many votes as his main challenger Mir Hossein Musavi. There certainly has been popular refusal to believe that - leading to massive demonstrations not seen since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979.

That said, if you look at all the polls taken before the election - and granted, polling in Iran is not as reliable as in the West - the reported outcome is surprisingly in line with the poll results. The numbers of people demonstrating for Musavi in the streets of Tehran is not necessarily indicative of the number of votes cast for him throughout the country.

It will be interesting to watch this play out over the next few days. The key to what is happening is the reliability of the security services. There are many services, from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Basij militias, the local security committees, the national intelligence services, the police, and even the regular armed forces (probably the least supportive of the regime). If the security forces remain loyal to the regime and actively (and violently) suppress the demonstrations, what we are witnessing is Prague in 1968 as opposed to Timişoara in 1989.

It will be interesting also to listen to the rhetoric of the Obama administration. I was disappointed to hear the President's comment that he was pleased that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was concerned enough about the demonstrations to ask the Iranian Council of Guardians to conduct an investigation.

The Council of Guardians is going to tell Khamenei what he wants to hear. Why? Because the Iranian constitution states that the 12-member council is to be composed of six Islamic jurists appointed by the Supreme Leader and six other Islamic jurists elected by the Majlis (Assembly) from a list nominated by the chief of the Supreme Court, who is conveniently appointed by, you guessed it - the Supreme Leader. In political science circles, we call this a "self-licking ice cream cone."

Thinking that this is a satisfactory response to alleged election fraud is symptomatic of the naivete at the White House. President Obama vowed to continue his "tough diplomacy" towards Iran. This is tough diplomacy? We're glad you are going to have your rubber-stamp virtually self-appointed council look into the matter?

Where are the President's Iran advisors? I note with relief that Dennis Ross has been named to the National Security Council to take charge of the Iran portfolio. Dennis knows his way around the region and hopefully will prevent these inane remarks in the future.

Right now, the fate of Iran rests with the security services. If they remain loyal to the government, as I suspect they will, Khamenei and Ahmadinejad will feel validated. They will portray this as a mandate to continue their policies, almost all of which are inimical to our interests.

Is Tehran the Prague of 1968 or the Bucharest of 1989? While I hope for 1989, I fear it is 1968.

June 13, 2009

Thoughts on the Iranian Elections

Iran's recent presidential election received much more hype in the news than was really warranted. The two candidates, incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mir Hossein Musavi, were not that far apart on their positions, despite the "moderate" label that some analysts had attached to Musavi.

Musavi is not really a moderate, he is merely slightly less radical than Ahmadinejad. He did rally a lot of people to turn out and vote - many of his supporters were hoping that his election would result in the end to the so-called "morality police" and a less strict interpretation of Islamic social rules.

The apparent re-election of Ahmadinejad has triggered demonstrations by Musavi's followers against what they believe was a rigged election. I have no way of knowing if the election was rigged, but the overwhelming reported results would indicate that Ahmadinejad probably did win, although maybe not by the huge margins claimed in the official tally.

The election of the president in Iran is not the same as the election of the president in the United States. The American president is the commander in chief of the armed forces and the head of government. Ultimately, all government agencies in the executive branch - which includes the intelligence services and police - fall under the authority of the president. In Iran, the president does not have these powers. He can sign treaties, appoint officials and manage some domestic affairs, but the real power in Iran is vested in the "Leader of the Revolution" (more commonly called the Supreme Leader), Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The Supreme Leader has almost absolute authority - he can dismiss the president, overrule legislation, commands the armed forces and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and controls the intelligence and security services. Although he theoretically is supervised by the Assembly of Experts, this body of elected clerics has never even spoken against the Supreme Leader.

The demonstrations will continue for a short period of time. While Musavi and the demonstrators want the Supreme Leader to reject the elections and call for a new vote, it is not likely to happen. Khamenei wants Ahmadinejad in the presidency, and that's the way it will be.

Trying to predict what happens in Iran is difficult. I, and many other analysts, have been predicting the demise of the Islamic Republic for years. For the past 15 years, I have been saying, "Within five years, the Iranian people will have had enough of the mullahs and get rid of them."

At some point, I believe that will happen. I just don't think this election will be the catalyst.

Al-Qa'idah on the run - again

Although I despise leaks of information derived from U.S. signals intelligence (SIGINT), there was reason to smile this week. According to intercepts of terrorist "chatter," al-Qa'idah operatives in Pakistan have been ordered to leave Pakistan and move to the remote and lawless areas of Yemen and Somalia. The Pakistani government's efforts to take on the Taliban (al-Qa'idah allies) in the Swat Valley and even into the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are coming too close to al-Qa'idah's hideouts.

The order makes sense. For al-Qa'idah to survive, it must be in a permissive environment. The FATA provided just such an atmosphere. The Pakistani government, by law, does not exercise complete sovereignty in the area. The Pushtun tribes, allied with al-Qa'idah since its creation in 1988, have provided protection in Pakistan. Many of these Pushtuns are former mujahidin that fought alongside the Arabs against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Al-Qa'idah has not had much success since it awakened the United States with its attacks of September 11, 2001. It operations against the United States prior to 2001 - the first attack on the Workd Trade Center in 1993 and the attacks on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 - were met with half-hearted and ineffectual responses. September 11 changed all that.

Although the United States armed forces and intelligence services have not captured or killed Usamah bin Ladin, they have severely crippled tanzim al-qa'idah - "The Base Organization." It has been removed from Afghanistan, although the Afghan Taliban remains a threat there. Its attempt to take on the United States in Iraq has been defeated - the remnants of the group, including Iraqis who have joined the organization, are being hunted down by Iraqi security forces.

From Iraq, the group attempted to regroup in Saudi Arabia and began attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure and foreign workers. The Saudi royal family, content to just watch events in the region as long as their interests were not threatened, went after al-Qa'idah in the kingdom with a vengeance and efficiency that only autocratic governments can. After about a year of devastating losses, the surviving al-Qa'idah members were told to move to Yemen.

Now we see al-Qa'idah departing Pakistan. About the only places left for them to operate safely are Somalia and Yemen. Somalia is basically a non-state, and despite the Yemeni government's protestations that it is a U.S. ally in the war on terrorism, it does not control a good portion of the country. The areas that the government does control are not much better - it is one of the most corrupt regimes on the planet.

What of Usamah bin Ladin? Most analysts believe he has been in Pakistan since late 2001 after his escape from Tora Bora - conveniently arranged by his Pushtun allies and their centuries old traditions of payoffs and perfidy. Will he also move to the more permissive atmosphere of Yemen or Somalia?

We hope he moves - maybe we can hunt him down and kill him there. In any case, his organization is in shambles and he is forced to hide in remote areas. Not exactly the caliphate he envisioned.


A few words about the SIGINT leaks. This is damaging to our ability to fight the war on terrorism. Whatever communications systems were used to transmit the orders - be they email, telephone, cell phones, texting, satellite phones, shortwave radio - have certainly been changed or terminated. The beauty of SIGINT is that the party being intercepted does not know the information has been compromised - unless someone leaks the information. Usually it is a Congressman or staffer wanting to show off how much access to secrets they have. They do not realize the damage done.

The same thing just happened in North Korea. News reports of intercepted communications revealing military orders and intentions have certainly ended that source of intelligence for the future. Short sighted and dangerous.

June 12, 2009

Detainee abuse photos - what is wrong with these people?

Nancy Pelosi - Barney Frank - Jerry Nadler

As has been reported for the last week or so, there are a group of Democrats in Congress that support the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) request for release of additional photographs showing detainee abuse at the Abu Ghurayb prison in Iraq.

The leaders of the pack are the three cowards illustrated above - yes, cowards. They are not principled enough to stand up to their extreme left wing supporters. Their latest tactic to get the photos out is to remove a Senate provision in the supplemental funding bill for the war that specifically prohibits the release of the photos.

I am at a loss as to why this small group wants these photos made public. Anyone who has served in the Middle East or the larger Muslim world knows what the immediate effect will be. The photos will once again inflame those extremists who do not like America, the West, Christians, "Crusaders" - whatever they define us as. It will rekindle the hatred that we saw after the initial batch of photos came out in 2004, along with renewed attacks on not only American troops, but American interests in the region as well.

A majority of the public (and of the U.S. Senate) does not want these photos made public. President Obama has also stated that he does not want them released. Earlier, the President - courageously - blocked the release of these same photos, ordering his administration to appeal a federal judge's ruling in favor of the ACLU request for the release of the photos. The matter will eventually end up in the Supreme Court unless the President issues an executive order classifying the photos.

Based on my years of experience in the intelligence community dealing with classified information, I doubt these photos meet the strict regulatory requirements to be classified as national security information - however, the President's authority to classify them will likely prevail in any litigation.

The arguments that the people have a right to know about the extent of abuse, that there is really nothing new in the photos, etc. are all meaningless. What matters is the damage that will be caused, the increased danger to our troops already fighting an ideologically driven enemy. This feeds right into their belief system. Young Islamists being trained in the madrasah's in Yemen and Pakistan will have this fed to them as justification for jihad against the Americans.

This is a no-brainer. Pelosi, Frank and Nadler - your actions, if successful, will place American troops at increased risk. Since I can't find any evidence that any of you have worn the uniform of my country, I could try to explain this to you from the perspective of one who has. But why would you listen to me? You certainly are not listening to the military commanders whose troops will bear the brunt of your cowardice - Generals Dave Petraeus and Ray Odierno.

Bottom line: This is dangerous. There will be increased attacks on our troops. More men and women in our armed forces will die.

What is wrong with you people?

June 2, 2009

Iranian diplomats at July 4 parties - why not?

The U.S. State Department sent a cable to its embassies around the world authorizing American diplomats and attaches to invite their Iranian counterparts to July 4th celebrations. The Independence Day event is usually one of the highlights of an American Embassy's social calendar.

Normally, invitations to embassy and other diplomatic missions' social events are restricted to representatives of nations with whom we have diplomatic relations. We do not have diplomatic relations with Iran, and diplomats and attaches from Iran are not invited to American functions. They have not been invited since we broke relations with Iran after Iranian students seized the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held U.S. diplomats and attaches hostage for 444 days.

US Embassy - Damascus

U.S. Embassy - Damascus, Syria
(my office was just behind the steel wall)

The restrictions also determine what military attaches can wear. When I was the air attache to the American Embassy in Damascus (click for pictures), Syria in the early 1990's, our office would routinely receive instructions from the Defense Department on what we were to wear to receptions and functions.

For example, the Chinese embassy (located across the street from ours) hosted a cocktail party on their national day. We were instructed to attend, but to not wear our uniforms. Normally on a national day reception, we would wear our formal dress uniforms as a sign of respect. Showing up in a civilian suit sent a message. I was surprised that the Chinese defense attache, a brigadier general, called me aside and asked why I was not in uniform.

People do pay attention to these details, pay attention to the subtle message. Likewise, an invitation to an Iranian diplomat or attache will also be noted.

In Syria, we were instructed to avoid the military attaches of North Korea and Iran. Of course, we ran into them routinely at functions hosted by our Syrian hosts or other embassies. The Syrian military attache office - our contact with the Syrian government - took great delight in seating us American attaches between the North Koreans and Iranians at their functions. It was okay - we gave as good as we got....

The reversal of longstanding State Department policy is no doubt part of the Obama administration's attempt to reach out to Iran. I will not address the the wisdom of that overall policy here, but on the local level, the diplomatic functions where American diplomats and attaches can meet their Iranian counterparts, it is welcome.

It is important that U.S. government representatives can meet and talk to their Iranian counterparts. In many instances, there is valuable, useful, actionable information to be gained. If we cannot talk to the "bad guys," how do we intend to beat them?