February 23, 2010

"But I only support the charitable branch of Hamas...."

...or Hizballah - fill in the name of your favorite terrorist organization.

There are arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court over whether it is legal to provide money or other material support to specific subgroups of organizations that have been designated as terrorists by the American government. Although the specific case before the court involves the Kurdish Workers Party, known more commonly as the PKK, the issue applies to Hamas and Hizballah as well. Both Islamic organizations have branches that build schools, operate hospitals and provide public services - in addition to militias that kill Israelis.

There is a problem with providing money or support to the charitable branches of terrorist organizations. It's the same fiction when the U.S. government provides "non-lethal" support to a liberation or opposition group. For example, at one time, we provided this so-called non-lethal support to Iraqi opposition groups (that later was changed to include lethal support).

Here is how it works. The United States gives a particular group a sum of money with the proviso that the money can only be used to buy non-lethal items. That group then uses money from other sources to buy their weapons, and uses the money from the United States to buy other supplies. If the United States had not provided the non-lethal aid, the group would have had to spend the other money on the non-lethal supplies. It is pure fiction - money is a fungible commodity. To later claim that "no American money was used to buy weapons" is ludicrous.

The same holds true for terrorist organizations. If you give money to Hamas or Hizballah for their charitable work or public service programs, the money they would have spent on those programs is freed up to buy weapons or finance terrorist operations. Again, money is a fungible commodity and it is fiction to believe that you can support only a part of a terrorist organization.

U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan has it exactly right - her brief contends that any support the given to a terrorist group allows the group to put more of its own resources into violent activities.

Sending money to any branch of a terrorist organization is supporting a terrorist organization. It is that simple.

February 20, 2010

Iran developing a nuclear weapon? I am shocked, shocked...

According to a report just issued by the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency, there is "extensive evidence of past or current undisclosed activities” by Iran’s military to develop a nuclear warhead.

In the words of Claude Rains in the movie Casablanca, I am shocked, shocked!

Finally, the IAEA has said what it has refused to say for years. This comes just after the naming of a new director general for the agency. Yukiya Amano, from Japan, replaced Egyptian Muhammad al-Barada'i in November 2009 - a refreshing change. Al-Barada'i seemed to be unable to find nuclear weapons programs anywhere, especially in the Middle East.

The new report concludes that Iran has been working continuously on a weapons programs for years, despite a U.S. intelligence community National Intelligence Estimate published in 2007 that assessed that Iran had stopped work on its program in 2003. Most sane observors and analysts have rejected that report - in fact, both candidates in the 2008 Presidential race stated they believed that Iran was working on a nuclear weapon.

Even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has seen the light, but the Administration continues to downplay the threat from Iran. Officials say there is no concrete evidence that Iran has renewed its program. This is not a court of law and we do not need the rules of evidence for intelligence analysis. Intelligence analysis is by its nature attempting to figure out what someone else is doing with only pieces of information.

According to the IAEA, not only is Iran enriching uranium, it is testing methods to detonate a nuclear device and researching a warhead design small enough to fit their ballistic missiles. That should be of real concern to the American intelligence community.

Former Iranian President Akbar Hasemi Rafsanjani called the IAEA report politically motivated and influenced by Western governments. It was hardly the American government pushing the IAEA - the U.S administration seems to be bending over backward to avoid stating that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon. Why? Easy - if they admit it, then they have to do something about it.

President Obama has yet to unequivocally state, as his predecessor did, that the United States will not permit Iran to have a nuclear weapon. It is becoming quite clear that he has no intention of preventing them from doing so. Mr. President, now that even the usually feckless IAEA has gone on record that the Iranian program is likely a weapons program, what do you intend to do?

I am afraid I already know the answer, and in this case, I will not be shocked....

February 18, 2010

Three Afghan Taliban leaders captured - a shift in the ISI?

The recent arrests of three senior Afghan Taliban leaders in Pakistan may just signal an important shift in the Pakistani intelligence service's willingness to engage the Taliban. The three include the Afghan Taliban military operations chief, second only to Mullah Omar himself, and two provincial Taliban leaders.

These are significant blows to the Taliban and may indicate a new willingness on the part of the Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate to actually take on the Taliban. It is important to note that the Taliban was created largely through the efforts of the ISI recruiting Islamist Afghan refugees in Pakistan in the late 1990's. Almost all of the Taliban are Pushtuns, which not coincidentally is the the major ethnic group that makes up the ISI. The arrests in Pakistan also highlight the fact that the Taliban's senior leadership must use Pakistan as a safe haven - evidently it is too dangerous to remain in Afghanistan. There are reports that other Taliban leaders departed Afghanistan for Pakistan when an impending offensive in Helmand province (the current Operation Moshtarak) was announced. I guess it was that or use women and children as human shields....

Another factor that comes into play here, and I am willing to bet that this factor was engineered by American intelligence officers working with the Pakistanis. The arrests were initially kept secret - this makes sense. When you capture a senior leader, you want to exploit whatever he knows before his organization realizes that their operations have been compromised. As soon as the Taliban realized that 'Abd al-Ghani Baradar was in Pakistani and American custody, they would have taken immediate steps to cancel any pending or imminent operations, change communications methods and move out of locations of which he was aware. Holding him incognito as long as possible preserved the value and extended the longevity of any information extracted during interrogation.

After a few weeks, the arrest was widely publicized in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the rest of the world. In part, this has an psychological effect on the entire Taliban - that's good. I suspect the CIA officers working with the ISI wanted this made public also to prevent an "escape" of the detainees. The ISI has many members that are sympathetic to both the Taliban and al-Qa'idah, most of them are of the same ethnic group, and maybe even of the same tribal groupings. I am reminded of the "imminent surrenders" of both Mullah Omar and 'Usamah bin Ladin in 2001 - then all of sudden, they "escape." What happens/happened? Money changes hands, tribal loyalties come into play, etc - and they escape.

Pakistan has become a key battlefield in the war against al-Qa'idah and the Taliban. CIA drone-launched missiles have taken a real toll on the al-Qa'idah leadership over the last two years - these attacks have been stepped up under President Barack Obama. These three arrests are significant in that they target the Afghan Taliban leadership, not that of al-Qa'idah. This will no doubt have an effect on the war in Afghanistan by taking senior Taliban leaders out of the picture.

Hopefully, these arrests indicate that the Pakistanis now realize that the Taliban are a threat to them as well as to Afghanistan - and that can only help in our efforts to kill any al-Qa'idah left in Pakistan. That's where we need to focus - al-Qa'idah is not in Afghanistan. They've moved - so kill the ones left in Pakistan, then move on to Yemen....

February 17, 2010

Obama to "engage" Syria - why not?

Photo: US Embassy - Damascus, Syria

President Barack Obama has nominated a career diplomat to be the U.S. ambassador to Syria, a post that has been vacant for five years. The Bush Administration withdrew the ambassador after the 2005 Syrian-engineered murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in Beirut.

Obama's spokesman stated that the appointment was "President Obama's commitment to use engagement to advance U.S. interests by improving communication with the Syrian government and people. [The] ambassador will engage the Syrian government on how we can enhance relations, while addressing areas of ongoing concern."

At first blush, Obama's critics - I am generally in that camp, as his Middle East policies thus far have been abject failures - will jump on the words "engagement" and "engage" since these are the exact words used to describe his attempts to influence the actions of Iran. Of course, we now how that has worked out so far. The Iranians have not changed their policies in the slightest - they continue to enrich uranium in defiance of virtually the entire world in what has become a fairly transparent effort to develop nuclear weapons.

Syria and Iran are, and have been for decades, close allies - they have a mutual defense pact and are the sponsors of Lebanese Hizballah. Without Syrian cooperation, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force would have problems providing the money, weapons and training that allow Hizballah to remain the most potent political force in Lebanon. Hizballah provides Tehran with leverage with the Israelis - a not-so-transparent proxy force to cause problems for Tel Aviv virtually anytime the Iranians wish.

Without doubt, Iran is the world's largest state supporter of terrorism - it has been on the U.S. State Department list since 1984. Their clients read like a who's who of that particular ilk - Hizballah (which they created in 1982), Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Muqtada al-Sadr's jaysh al-mahdi (with American blood on its hands) to name but a few.

Syria is a close second, being on the State Department list since 1979. Not only is the regime of Bashar al-Asad a sponsor of terrorist organizations, it continues to meddle in the internal affairs of Lebanon, and has developed an arsenal of chemical weapons and the North Korean-designed and/or provided ballistic missiles with which to deliver them.

Even more troubling are recent indications that Syria is in the initial stages of a nuclear weapons program of its own. In 2007, the Israelis bombed a nuclear reactor, most likely provided by North Korea. The facility was an exact copy of the North Korean reactor at Yongbyon, the birthplace of Pyongyang's nuclear program. North Korea also reportedly has provided Damascus with the technology to manufacture maraging steel. Maraging steel is used almost exclusively in the production of ballistic missile or isotope separation centrifuges. See my earlier article, North Korea resumes military assistance to Syria.

Does this sound like a nation that we want to "engage" and improve relations?

Well, surprisingly, yes.

Hear me out. Syria, despite its abysmal policies, is a key player in the Middle East. It is a critical piece of the Middle East peace process, which is currently all but dead. Yes, part of the blame for that is the Obama Administration's heavy-handed treatment of Israel, believing that they could force the Israelis back to the negotiations. However, without a Syria-Israel agreement on a resolution of the decades-old issue, there will not be, there cannot be, a lasting Middle East peace. There is an old adage we Middle East specialists learned long ago, "No war without Egypt, no peace without Syria."

If - and that is a huge word here - the United States, and right now that is the Obama Administration, can bring Syria and Israel into some form of negotiations, that would be an immense first step towards a solution. The two parties have to be serious when they come to the table, and therein lies the problem. There will be preconditions. Even if they say there are no preconditions, there are preconditions.

First and foremost for Syria is the return of the Golan Heights. Without that going in, there is no need to even meet. No Syrian president would survive any agreement that does not include the outright return of Syrian territory. Could that be nuanced to allay Israeli security concerns? Possibly - Syria might allow the presence of an early warning station on the heights.

Tal Abu Nada / Har Avital

Israel's signals intelligence site and observation facility atop Tal Abu Nada (or Har Avital as the Israelis call it) provides Israel with a capability to monitor Syrian troop movements toward the border. Man it with American contractors, have American and Russian technicians jointly run it, remote the sensors - come up with some out-of-the-box proposal, whatever. The bottom line, however, is that the territory must revert to Syrian sovereignty and control.

There may even be negotiated demilitarized areas. The Israelis will also likely demand that Syria commit not to alter the water flows on the Golan Heights - the area is home to the headwaters of the Jordan River, a critical lifeline for Israel.

The Israelis will also have other demands. One of the key requirements they will demand of Syria is that Damascus cease allowing Iran to use its airspace, airports and roads to resupply Hizballah in Lebanon. Virtually all of Iran's support to the terrorist organization flows through Syria, most of it through Damascus International Airport.

Is this difficult? Of course. Is it possible? Maybe, but the first step just might be to get an American ambassador back in to the U.S. Embassy in Damascus and at least start talking to President Asad. If - again that huge word - we can convince Damascus to restart talks with Israel and in the process break the Tehran-Damascus axis, it's worth the risk. Perhaps Asad can be convinced with the right incentives. Solving the Syria-Israel issue will go a long way to resolving many of the other issues in the region.

We have an embassy in Damascus, we might as well have an ambassador. While we may not be able to talk to the Iranians, you can talk to the Syrians.

February 15, 2010

Chinese support for sanctions? What about the Russians?

In light of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's February 11th announcement that his country is now a "nuclear nation" - which he has claimed before - there has been a renewed call for sanctions from the Obama Administration. The two actions are telling - Iran was supposed to have delivered "a punch" to the West on the 31st anniversary of the Iranian revolution, and it appears that the U.S. administration has finally woken up to the fact that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has long talked about new United Nations sanctions against Iran, all to no avail. The sticking point has been securing the cooperation of United Nations Security Council permanent members - with veto power - Russia and China. The other three members, the United States, United Kingdom and France, have been on board for some time.

There have been claims from the Russians that they do support sanctions, especially as Iran continues to thumb its nose at the world over demands that it halt its uranium enrichment program. On the other hand, the Chinese have been consistent in their position that diplomacy needs to be given more time before the imposition of another - there have been three thus far - round of sanctions. There does not appear to be any change in the Chinese position.

A closer look at the claimed Russian support reveals some positive spin on the part of the administration, particularly Mrs. Clinton. Although Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov makes the right noises about sanctions, the Russians still have an active contract to complete the Bushehr nuclear reactor. Granted, that reactor falls under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards, but the fact that a nation - Russia - still willing to provide assistance to a country that is under sanction for a uranium enrichment program - Iran - should be troubling.

It goes further. While the world is concerned about Iran's nuclear program, Russia has no intentions to stop selling advanced air defense systems to the Islamic Republic. The Russians believe that the sale of the S-300 missile system is not prohibited by the current sanctions protocols. Russian Security Council Deputy Secretary Vladimir Nazarov clarified that the sale of the S-300 "is not restricted by any international sanctions, because these are merely defensive weapons." Deliveries are to begain soon. (See my earlier, New sanctions on Iran? The Clinton spin....)

The Russian angle is interesting. Secretary Clinton would have you believe that she and Lavrov have some sort of special relationship that will further the aims of the international community when it comes to Iran. The reality appears to me to be far removed from that. Remember Mrs. Clinton's much-publicized "reset button" debacle with Lavrov - incompetence beyond belief. (See my earlier article on another forum, Does the State Department have any competent Russian linguists?)

The China situation is even more problematic, and confusing. Vice President Joe Biden said during his Sunday talk show propaganda sessions that the United States expects to gain China’s support for sanctions on Iran. His words - “We have the support of everyone from Russia to Europe. And I believe we’ll get the support of China to continue to impose sanctions on Iran to isolate them, to make clear that in fact they cannot move forward.”

Why would Biden say that? There has been no indication that Beijing has moderated its position. Mrs. Clinton has just visited Saudi Arabia, hoping to get Saudi assurances that they would offer oil supplies to China to convince them to support the American position. No such luck - our closest Arab ally has balked at taking a stance that would help convince the Chinese to go along with sanctions.

So, Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Clinton want us to believe that they will be able to bring China to the sanctions table. Meanwhile, the Russians continue work on the Bushehr reactor and are committed to delivering advanced weaponry to Iran.

Biden and Clinton can't even deliver the Russians, let alone the Chinese.

February 12, 2010

Al-Qa'idah in federal court or military commissions?

For the most part, I try to provide analysis on this forum about events in or about the Middle East. On occasion, I will venture into the realm of opinion or editorializing when I feel strongly about a particular issue, but always in the context of the Middle East. Like everyone, I have opinions on the entire range of issues, but on this forum, I mainly focus on the Middle East.

The issue of trying al-Qa'idah terrorists in federal/civilian court trials or by military commissions straddles that definition. It deals with American jurisprudence and the disposition of hundreds of al-Qa'idah detainees in U.S. custody, most held at the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It also deals with some of the most hardened Islamic radicals captured on battlefields and other venues in the Middle East - it is hard to separate the two.

Almost all of these detainees - their exact status is still in limbo, thanks to semantic ambiguities of the Justice Department - are enemy combatants. Enemy combatants have normally been tried by military courts, military tribunals, military commissions, or whatever term was in vogue, at the time going back to the Civil War. The Military Commission Act of 2006 provides for that today, following a Supreme Court ruling. It affords detainees the right to challenge their detention by U.S. forces or authorities - basically it answers the Supreme Court's ruling that you cannot indefinitely detain people without recourse.

Given that ruling, at some point in time we have to address holding these al-Qa'idah thugs. I will be impolitic here and go on record as saying that I was against moving these detainees to Guantanamo in the first place. I would have interrogated them thoroughly (make your own determination on what that means) and left them in graves in Afghanistan. These vile creatures - by their own admission - planned and supported the slaughter of over 3,000 innocent people, mostly Americans, on September 11, 2001.

What I see now is the current administration wanting to put on a show on the world stage, to showcase American justice. Why? A band of thugs murders 3,000 people in an act of war - remember the 'Usamah bin Ladin fatwa of 1996 declaring war on us - and we are supposed to respond with a criminal prosecution? Call me cynical, but I do not think Attorney General Eric Holder nor President Barack Obama really means to try these killers - they are more intent on putting the previous administration on trial.

For whatever reason, Obama and Holder believe that embarrassing former President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney will improve America's standing in the world. While that might play well on the upper west side of Manhattan, it has no real effect in the real world. Does anyone really think that the people who want to kill us will have their minds changed by the fact that we have a federal trial in New York as opposed to a military commission in Gitmo? Or that someone on the fence will say, "Wow, they tried our brothers in civilian court before they executed them - maybe they really are the good guys." As my niece says, PAHLEEZE.

There are a host of other concerns about using the federal court system. There is the defense's arguable right under our system to have access to a lot of classified information. In the case of Shaykh 'Abd al-Rahman, often called "the blind shaykh," the government was compelled to disclose the true identities of more than 20 intelligence assets. Because of the criminal actions of one of the defense attorneys, much of that information was passed to al-Qa'idah. We in the military call this "shooting yourself in the foot."

I am also concerned that some federal judge - bound by what he or she perceives to be the norms of criminal law - would dismiss many of the charges or throw out much of the government's evidence as "fruit of the poisoned tree" because of the means obtained. Despite Holder's prejudgment that the defendants will be found guilty - which raised legal issues of yet another dimension - there is no guarantee of a conviction.

Then there is the time and money - do we really need this type of kabuki dance going on in lower Manhattan for three years, with the price tag of maybe a billion dollars. You can buy a lot of JDAMs (GPS-guided munitions) for that kind of money. Rather than motion them to death in a court in New York, let's put some American steel on al-Qa'idah targets in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia etc. - but that's just me....

A military tribunal should have the same result as a federal court - executions with no release of classified information with no security/logistics nightmares and no grandstanding.

I was surprised - pleasantly - that most Americans wanted "Christmas bomber" 'Umar Faruq 'Abd al-Mutalab moved to Guantanamo and water-boarded. They get it - Holder and Obama don't.

Hizballah - A Greater Threat To Israel Than Ever

From Basil & Spice Opinion

The Shi’a Islamic fundamentalist group Hizballah has emerged as the key power broker in Lebanon. It has been fully re-armed by its Iranian and Syrian sponsors after its war with Israel in 2006, its militia has been legitimized by the Lebanese government, and the group has veto power over any legislation introduced in the Lebanese parliament.

Hizballah, instead of being marginalized by the 2006 war and the resultant United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, is now a greater threat to Israel than at any time in its 28-year history. UNSCR 1701 required that the Lebanese government prevent the re-arming of Hizballah, and that Beirut deploy the virtually useless Lebanese army to the country's southern border with Israel to keep Hizballah fighters out of the area south of the Litani River. The resolution also expands the mandate of the largely ineffective United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon - "interim" since its creation in 1978. Hizballah is now back in the area in force.

In a December 2009 vote, Lebanon's newly-formed government granted Hizballah the legal right to maintain its militia forces, and the authority to employ those forces against Israel. This action confirmed an existing policy which authorized the army and "the resistance" (the Lebanese idiomatic term for Hizballah) to liberate what Lebanon and Syria label as the Israeli-occupied Shaba' Farms. It is fiction - the Shaba' Farms are part of Syria (Israeli occupied), not part of Lebanon, but it provides a “fig-leaf” to justify Hizballah’s militia.

The major threat to Israel from Hizballah is its replenished rocket inventory. Despite the passage of UNSCR 1701, the Syrians and Iranians have not only completely re-equipped Hizballah to levels in excess of the inventory prior to the war in 2006, but, but have also increased the quality of the group's arsenal. The older short-range rockets have been replaced with longer-range rockets capable of carrying larger warheads. When there are future Hizballah rocket attacks on Israel - and there will be future attacks – the warheads will reach much farther into the Jewish state, this time not only threatening the areas just south of Haifa, but probably Tel Aviv as well.

This new reality, thanks to the ineffectiveness of the United Nations and the duplicity of Syria and Iran, must be taken into consideration by the Israelis. They have to be prepared to defend the northern half of the country should for any reason Hizballah decide to launch rockets at Israel.

Like an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear research facilities, perhaps?

February 8, 2010

Iran to enrich uranium to 20 percent - no surprise

Iran continues its march toward acquisition of a nuclear weapon with its announcement that it will begin enriching its stocks of low-enriched (three to five percent) uranium to a level of 20 percent.

Not surprisingly, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has blamed the decision to enrich the uranium to the higher level on the West. This is typical Ahmadinejad. Iran refused to honor an agreement that it accepted just a few months ago, and now blames the failure of the agreement on the West. Without the agreement, Ahmadinejad claims that Iran has no choice but to enrich the uranium itself.

The Iranians claim that they require the higher enriched uranium to fuel its medical research reactor - that patients in Iranian hospitals are at risk of not having needed isotopes. They do need higher enriched uranium for the reactor, but it is hyperbole to claim that patients are at risk - sanctions allow medical needs to be met. The West was willing to agree to Iran shipping its low enriched uranium to Russia for enrichment to 20 percent, then to France to be machined into the fuel rods that will work in the reactor. Iran agreed, then reneged - somehow this is now the West's fault. Clever - play the victim card.

Okay, bottom line analysis here. Iran NEVER had any intention of exporting its uranium. The export proposal was a clever way of legitimizing its requirement for higher enriched uranium. Knowing that the French fuel rods could not be used for anything other than fuel for the research reactor - the rods are specifically made that way - the Iranians had no intention of rendering their stockpile of uranium unsuited for any other purpose.

The Iranians are developing a nuclear weapon - all they really need is enough fissile material for the warheads. They already have the requisite know-how - that is readily available from the likes of Pakistani proliferator A.Q. Khan and the North Koreans. The basic question is how long will it take for Iran to develop a weapon?

The the question becomes, what are we - or anyone - going to do about it? The Israelis regard a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat to the state of Israel. I am of the opinion that if Iran continues down its current path unchecked, as it appears to be doing, the Israelis will feel that they have no choice and launch a risky and difficult military operation. I also am of the opinion that the Israeli military - as capable as it is - may not have the wherewithal to stop the program. An Israeli attack will certainly set off a chain of events in the region that will involve Iran's allies and proxies, notably Syria, Hizballah and possibly Hamas, as well as American forces in the area.

What about the United States? Unfortunately, on the Iran issue, this administration has staked its reputation on its engagement policy. It is willing to talk to Iran while the Iranians have made it perfectly clear that all they are ever going to do is talk, and agree to more talks. Five United Nations resolutions, three sanctions protocols, numerous meetings and empty promises - when is the President going to get it? They are developing a nuclear weapon and they are not going to stop just because he is willing to "engage."

The Iranians are also aware that effective sanctions are not likely, given the failure of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to persuade the Chinese to support the sanctions - she has barely been able to get lukewarm support from the Russians.

The Iranians are winning this one, Mr. President. They have outmaneuvered you at every turn, and show no signs of changing course. While you and Mrs. Clinton talk, they are enriching uranium - now to at least 20 percent purity - and continuing their research and development towards a weapon. Even your intelligence people have woken up and retracted the misguided 2007 analysis that Iran was not working on a weapon.

I hope you have a plan other than sending Secretary of Defense Robert Gates out to make statements like, "No U.S. president has reached out more sincerely, and frankly taken more political risk, in an effort to try to create an opening for engagement for Iran - all these initiatives have been rejected."

Exactly. When is that going to sink in? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result? I fear that this administration will still be trying to "engage" Iran right up to the day Tehran announces its first nuclear weapons test.

Call me cynical.

February 2, 2010

North Korea resumes military assistance to Syria

North Korean-made Scud C missileAccording to reports in a Japanese newspaper citing "Western intelligence sources," North Korea has resumed providing military materials and production assistance to Syria. Military assistance from North Korea was halted after Israel destroyed a North Korean-supplied nuclear reactor at a remote location in northeastern Syria in September 2007.

Syrian and North Korea have a long history of military ties - the relationship goes back at least 35 years. In the mid-1970's, North Korean Air Force pilots were stationed at an air base in southern Syria and routinely flew Syrian Air Force MiG-21 fighter aircraft on operational missions.

In 1990, during a visit of the North Korean president to Syria, a deal was signed for the sale of North Korean "Scud C" (North Korean reverse-engineered Egyptian Scud B) to Damascus. The missiles were delivered by sea and air over the next few years.

In 1993, for example, two huge Russian AN-124 CONDOR transports delivered missiles and transporter-erector-launchers to Damascus International Airport, in plain view for the world to see. I was there and saw it - impressive aircraft. Not only did the North Koreans sell missiles to Syria, they built two missile production and maintenance facilities in northern Syria.

The cooperation between Syria and North Korea did not stop with ballistic missiles and related technology transfer. In 2007, North Korea provided a nuclear reactor - the reactor the Israeli Air Force bombed later that year. Both Syria and North Korea have denied any nuclear cooperation. See my earlier article, The Israeli air strike in Syria - what the target wasn’t....

The fact that North Korea is resuming its military assistance to Syria is alarming enough, but the details of the new support are even more alarming. North Korea is allegedly helping Syria develop the capability to manufacture maraging steel at a North Korean-designed and built facility in Homs.

Maraging steel is a high-grade alloy with various applications, including golf clubs and high-performance bicycle frames. Although Syria does have one mediocre golf course and quite a few bicycles, I suspect the maraging steel is destined for the alloy's more popular applications - maraging steel is a key component in the manufacture of rocket/missile bodies, missile warheads and gas separation centrifuges. It is critical in the uranium enrichment process.

Missiles, warheads and centrifuges - where else have we seen this? How about in the three nations that I believe comprise the real "axis of evil" - North Korea, Iran and Syria. See my earlier article, The real axis of evil.

As I have explained in earlier articles, intelligence analysts watch for indicators of certain activities, templates of actions that indicate an event of interest or concern. Without revealing any sensitive sources or methods, acquisition of maraging steel is one indicator of a nuclear weapons program.

I hope the revelation that Syria is seeking the capability to produce maraging steel has set off some alarm bells at Langley and the Pentagon. If not, it should.

February 1, 2010

U.S. arms sales and deployments to the Gulf - interesting timing

Patriot battery
The United States has announced the deployment to the Persian Gulf region of warships and air defense systems capable of engaging short and medium range ballistic missiles. Defense Department officials have publicly acknowledged the presence of eight U.S. Army Patriot air defense batteries in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. At the same time, additional U.S. Navy ships equipped with the Aegis Combat System are augmenting existing naval and air units in the Gulf.

These deployments represent a significant increase in the air defense capabilities of the four host countries, as well as that of American forces in the area. In addition, the United States announced a series of multibillion-dollar arms deals with the Gulf Arab states. The UAE is not only buying the Patriot system, but also the new Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD). Others may follow suit, especially if there is no resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue.

The purchases of these American systems by multiple countries in the Gulf, combined with American deployments of identical or compatible systems, creates a formidable defensive umbrella in the region. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has often referred to this "umbrella" over our Gulf allies as it became obvious that the Obama Administration's efforts to "engage" have been an abject failure.

A main concern in the region is Iran's growing inventory of ballistic missiles capable of striking anywhere in the Middle East, including Israel. Iran has had this capability for some time, and Israel has repeatedly warned that it considers a nuclear-armed Iran an "existential" threat to the Jewish state. Iran has also threatened to attack American allies and interests in the region should it be attacked by either Israeli or American military forces.

What is driving the deployment and sales at this time? It would appear that patience with the Iranians has or is running out. The question is, whose patience is running out - Israel, the United States, the United Nations, or the Europeans? Certainly not the Chinese....

If I were an Iranian intelligence officer - I've known some, they're pretty good - I would be concerned about what I was seeing. Part of the intelligence analysis business is a discipline called "indications and warning." There is a list of "indicators" - a template of events that are part of a larger event or significant change in the situation. Once enough indicators are present, a warning is issued.

Increased U.S. Navy deployments to the Persian Gulf are certainly an indicator for the Iranian intelligence services. Deployments of Aegis-equipped warships is likely an even stronger indicator of a change in the situation. Add to that the deployment of eight U.S. Army Patriot batteries to the Arab countries across the Gulf to augment those countries' already capable air and missile defenses, and alarm bells might start ringing. Then the announcements of multibillion dollar arms sales of even more and in at least one case better systems - something has changed to warrant this increase in capability.

The intelligence analysts in Tehran have to determine the significance of the deployments and arms sales, as well as their timing. The United States will claim, of course, that the moves are merely defensive in nature, increasing the pressure on Iran while at the same time demonstrating support for the Gulf Arabs.

If you are an Iranian intelligence officer, you cannot ignore the possibility that these moves are the preliminary steps that lead to military action against Iran. The Israelis would not mount an attack on Iran without notifying the United States, despite the cool relationship between President Obama and Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu. These moves may be in anticipation of an Iranian reaction to that attack.

Something has changed the calculus in Washington. Do we know of an impending Israeli operation? Have the Israelis determined that Iran is too close to developing a nuclear weapon and plan to act? Have the Gulf Arabs expressed concern that Israel might attack and place them at risk of Iranian retaliation?

I know the questions, but not the answers. If I were an Iranian intelligence officer, I would already have issued a warning. Something is up.