August 31, 2011

Syria - the chances for change

Syrian Army Vehicle 907735

After the fall of the Mu'amar al-Qadhafi regime in Libya, much of the world's attention has turned to the ongoing crisis in Syria. The situation in Syria is not quite the same as in Libya - in Syria there is no coherent and organized opposition that has the wherewithal to overthrow the regime of President Bashar al-Asad.

There is, however, a history of resistance in Syria going back to the founding of the county - Syria was created in the aftermath of World War One and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire that had ruled the area for centuries. Based on the secret Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France, the French assumed control of the area that is now the countries of Lebanon and Syria. Despite the efforts of Prince Faysal, close ally of Colonel T.E. Lawrence (more commonly known as Lawrence of Arabia), to gain acceptance of and support for an independent kingdom in the former Ottoman lands, the British departed Syria in favor of the French. Faysal had led the Arab Revolt which made major contributions to the British in their defeat of the Ottoman Turks.

The French were given a formal mandate by the League of Nations in 1920. Faysal declared an independent Arab kingdom at the same time and refused to acknowledge the French Mandate. The Christians in what is now Lebanon rejected Faysal's announcement and declared an independent Lebanon. In response to Faysal's actions, the French began to move troops from Beirut towards Damascus. Faysal left the country and moved to Baghdad where the British enthroned him as the monarch of the newly created Kingdom of Iraq.

A weak Syrian army engaged the French as they approached Damascus. The French easily defeated the Syrians at Maysalun, a pass about 10 miles west of the city. The Battle of Maysalun was only the beginning of a series of uprisings against the French. It took the French three years to impose full control over the country.

In 1925, the Druze in southern Syria rebelled against the French occupation. The rebellion spread throughout the country. The French managed to maintain some semblance of control until 1936 when the two sides signed an agreement creating a Syrian republic. French forces remained until 1946.

There were coups against Syrian governments in 1949, 1951, 1954, 1961 and 1963. The 1963 coup brought the current ruling party, the Ba'th Party, to power. In 1970, Hafiz al-Asad, father of the current president, lead a "Corrective Movement" that continued Ba'th Party rule but under his control. His son Bashar assumed power on his father's death in 2000 after the Syrian parliament changed the constitution to allow the 33-year old to become president - the Syrian constitution previously required the president to be at least 40 years of age. The revolt in 1925 and the subsequent coups were organized and mostly led by military officers. Today's demonstrations are not led by military officers and are not centrally organized.

There have been challenges by Islamic groups against the government, beginning in 1979 and culminating in the 1982 uprising in Hamah. Hamah is now the venue of some of the most violent repression of the current protests. When the Muslim Brotherhood stood up against the Ba'ath Party in February 1982, then-President Hafiz al-Asad dispatched his brother General Rifa't al-Asad and his feared Defense Companies to quell the city. He did just that.

In what has become known in the region as "the Hamah rules," the Syrian soldiers issued an ultimatum for the Brotherhood to surrender. When the Islamists refused to comply, the soldiers laid waste to the city, killing as many as 25,000 citizens, and incurring 1000 dead among the troops. It was one of the most brutal repressions by a country of its own citizens in modern Arab history.

Although the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood has survived, it has not been a threat to the government. When I was assigned to the American Embassy in Damascus, I would occasionally hear gunfire in the city. Several times, I approached the area of the shooting and in most cases the story was the same. Members of the Brotherhood had been discovered and had barricaded themselves in a building. Police and security officers explained to me that the Islamists never give up, so usually the authorities burned the structure with the members inside.

Since the advent of the rule of the Asads - Hafiz the father and Bashar the son - their internal security agencies, and there are many of them, have thoroughly neutralized any credible, organized opposition to the regime. Given the regime's total lack of hesitation to use military force against its own citizens and its past history in places such as Hamah in 1982, I must admit that I am surprised that the Syrian people have been willing to participate in these demonstrations and protests.

I fear that no matter how large the demonstrations become, it will fail in front of Syrian guns. Change in Syria, like Iraq and Libya before it, will require some external force. In Iraq, it was the American-led invasion of 2003. In Libya, it was NATO air support to a fairly organized opposition movement in a much more homogeneous society.

What form will potential external support take? An invasion is not going to happen. President Barack Obama has taken military action off the table. How about a NATO air campaign to protect Syrian citizens as was done in Libya? If Obama is serious that there will be no American military action, it cannot happen. NATO's weaknesses were laid bare in the Libya operation. Perhaps Turkey, a member of NATO, will allow use of its air bases, but unless there is U.S. military involvement, it will fail.

Again, I favor the removal of the al-Asad/Ba'th regime in Syria. I am just not sure it can happen without some outside help...and I don' see it coming anytime soon.

The chances for change in Syria? Slim.

August 24, 2011

Libya: Finally, but what now?

Given the recent fall of the Bab al-'Aziziyah compound, the Tripoli stronghold of Libyan leader Mu'amar al-Qadhafi, it is apparent that the regime has collapsed. Of course, much of the credit goes to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, more commonly known as NATO, and its principal power, the United States.

My friend and colleague retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters, whose opinion I respect, gives President Barack Obama a B+. Karl Rove, who I do not know but whose opinion I also respect, gives the President a B-. I must respectfully disagree with both. I think I have more experience dealing with Qadhafi's Libya then either Ralph or Karl (and certainly more than this President) - I give Mr. Obama a D at best.

Why the low grade?

Simple - this operation took six months. Most of the blame for that rests with the President and NATO. This should have been over in three weeks. Instead of six months of continuous bloodshed, there could have been a short, albeit bloody, conflict which in the long run would have resulted in less casualties on both sides.

I have a close friend and mentor - a retired and highly-decorated Air Force colonel who is a true hero in his own right - who will accuse me of "Obama bashing." I guess that is true. Had the President exercised the leadership inherent in the office of President of the United States - often referred to by the Administration as "leader of the free world" - less people would have died in the fighting in the North African nation. I guess my question is, "Do you favor actions that result in less deaths or not?"

I really abhor the President's self-described theory of "leading from behind." Never in over three decades of military service and as a military operations analyst have I ever heard of such an oxymoronic concept. There is a reason for that: it does not exist. You cannot lead from behind. The basic leadership tenet of second lieutenants in all American (and other) services has always been "Follow me," as opposed to "Go ahead, I'm in charge back here...."

Here's how this should have played out. The United States should have continued to lead the operation, not ceding control to France and the United Kingdom. This operation should have happened whether or not the United Nations authorized the action. We should not be hampered in doing what is right by the collective reasoning of a group that does not share our values or interests.

American aircraft led the initial strikes, as they should have. However, after initial successful sorties, the President - for whatever reason - decided to take a back seat to NATO and only play a supporting role. That sounds great, but in reality, the only forces in NATO capable of sustained military operations are those of the United States. Although the Obama Administration would have you believe otherwise, NATO could not have executed this campaign without American support. Put more bluntly, besides American command and control, reconnaissance, refueling, intelligence, surveillance, precision guided munitions, airlift, etc., NATO did a great job. Those of us who have had the misfortune to work with NATO during our military careers refer to the organization as "Not After Two O'clock."

After the initial strikes, we should have introduced the weapons systems that could have changed the course of the battle. The U.S. Air Force has developed at great cost the AC-130 Spectre gunship and the A-10 Thunderbolt II (although most of us call it "the Warthog") to deal with these types of targets. Application of these devastating weapons platforms would have essentially shredded the Libyan army in short order and brought the situation to a quicker close. Shorter battle, less casualties (on both sides).

But no, we had to pull the much more capable American weapons platforms out in favor of the more politically correct but far less capable NATO systems. Dedicated aircrews to be sure, but not equal to state-of-the-art American aircraft flown by combat-experienced pilots.

Bottom line: it took longer. "Leading from behind" always will.

The paradox: the Arab (and at time Muslim) nations of the Middle East and North Africa view this as an American intervention no matter what spin the Obama Administration puts on it. That was a good thing. For the first time in decades, we had popular regional support for our policy, yet we chose to squander that away by invoking NATO cover. Incredulous. The Arabs and Muslims know that although this operation had a NATO fig leaf, it was due to American military power that it succeeded. This was a highly popular operation - in this instance, we should have taken the credit.

So here we are. The Qadhafi regime will fall, if it has not already. Now what? As I watched the coverage of the fighting on the various networks, it was clear that many of the fighters are not just Muslims, but Islamic. Does that mean that we can expect an Islamist group to emerge as the power broker in Libya? I don't know, but I did hear many religious chants as the Qadhafi regime fell.

Will the Muslim Brotherhood make a play for the new Libya? Have the younger Libyans adopted Western technology and social mores, or will they revert to tribal control?

I fear that the Libyan rebel leaders are adept enough at international politics to convince our current gullible American diplomats (led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) that they are on the path to a Jeffersonian democracy. Given my experience in the region, I have to say that I doubt it.

I hope that Qadhafi is found soon and brought to justice. Unfortunately, he may be able to escape Tripoli and start an insurgency. It may take some time before he is tracked down and pulled out of a hole like Saddam Husayn in Iraq in 2003.

In any case, there will be a new government in Libya. That's a good thing. We don't seem to have much influence because we were "leading from behind." That's a bad thing.

August 21, 2011

"Who is the Deadliest Warrior" Episode

The "Who is the Deadliest Warrior?" episode in which I appear is now available on the Spike TV website at:

August 13, 2011

Rick Francona on Spike TV's "Who is the Deadliest Warrior?"

Rick Francona appears as a subject matter expert about Saddam Husayn, the Iraqi Republican Guard Forces Command and the Iraqi military in next week's episode of Spike TV's "Who is the Deadliest Warrior?" The episode airs on wednesday, August 17 at 10pm (but check local listings). He also translates for a former Iraqi general....

The show pits Saddam Husayn and his Republican Guard against Cambodian psychopathic ruler Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge guerrilla fighters.

Watch the first 15 minutes of the show here:

August 12, 2011

Taliban Tactics and American Ambiguity

Last weekend's crash of a U.S. Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter as the result of Taliban RPG hit in which 30 American troops were killed was a tactical victory for the Taliban. The television news bulletin with the headline "30 US Troops Die in Afghan Chopper Crash" is the goal of these operations. The Taliban know they are not going to defeat the American-led coalition on the battlefield. They are not seeking a military victory, they simply want the foreign forces to leave, giving them a political victory. The question is how to get them to leave?

Any student of history would draw the conclusions that Americans can be swayed by what political-military scholars call a "significant emotional event." These events do not have to be military or political losses, they may even be victories, but they must galvanize American public opinion against the current course of action. The headline in the photo just might be another significant emotional event.

Some examples of significant emotional events and the fallout:

- 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam. On January 31, 1968, the Vietnamese New Year (in Vietnamese, Tết Nguyên Đán, hence the name Tet), the Viet Cong launched coordinated strikes on military bases and command centers throughout South Vietnam, hoping to spark an uprising that would topple the American-backed government and force the American troops to leave.

The military campaign was a disaster for the Viet Cong. After achieving initial surprise, American forces counterattacked and in essence destroyed the Viet Cong as a fighting force. After Tet, the only effective military force opposing the Americans were the regulars of the North Vietnamese army.

Despite the offensive being a loss for the Viet Cong and a military victory for the United States, the perception in the United States was that the war was not winnable nor worth the expenditure of blood and treasure. Although American involvement (including mine) continued until 1973, the Tet offensive changed American public opinion toward the war. While American troops won the battles in Vietnam, the American public lost the war at home.

- 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut. On 23, 1983 during the civil war in Lebanon, a truck bomb struck a building at Beirut International Airport used to house U.S. Marines. The Marines were in Lebanon as part of a UN-mandated force positioned there in the aftermath of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon aimed at the destruction of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The attack left 241 American troops dead; 58 French paratroopers were killed in a near-simultaneous separate attack. The attack was the event that led to the eventual withdrawal of American (and French) forces from Lebanon.

- 1993 "Blackhawk Down" in Mogadishu. On October 3 and 4, 1993, Task Force Ranger, consisting of diverse elements of the U.S. Special Operations community, conducted a raid into Mogadishu to arrest known collaborators of warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. During the operation, two U.S. Army UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters were shot down by RPGs, stranding a group of survivors in the city overnight. In the overnight fighting, 19 American troops were killed and 73 wounded.

Although the task force in the end achieved its objectives in capturing the targets, the political fallout and objections to the mishandling of the military situation by President Clinton caused the eventual U.S. withdrawal from Somalia.

The effect of the downed Chinook in Afghanistan

The loss of 30 American troops, the largest single daily loss in the almost 10-year old Afghan war, may constitute a significant emotional event. The crash comes at a critical time for U.S. policy in Afghanistan. The Obama Administration, for whatever misguided reason, is wedded to a specific timeline for withdrawal of American troops from the country. This follows a surge of forces to take on the Taliban in their traditional strongholds.

It is a mixed message. The United States, because it is trying to do more with less troops, will necessarily have to change its counterinsurgency strategy to one of counterterrorism. That will likely mean more of the type of raids that led to these high casualties. This coincides with more and more American's becoming weary of a war that seems to have no defined mission.

Why are we fighting the Taliban? Why are we supporting the Karzai government? Wasn't the reason for the invasion in 2001 to remove and defeat al-Qa'idah? Aren't they gone? Why aren't we hunting and killing al-Qa'idah where they are instead of nation building in Afghanistan?

Good questions all. I am still waiting for the answers. Somehow I doubt they will be forthcoming from the President focused on his re-election campaign in Iowa or on vacation in Martha's Vineyard. Perhaps the loss of these fine Americans will be the significant emotional event that causes the American people to demand those answers.

August 6, 2011

Syria: The invasion of Hamah

Syrian T-55 tanks in downtown Hamah

It is a scene reminiscent of television footage of Iraqi tanks rolling into Kuwait City in August 1990. Unfortunately, the scenes captured in this amateur video broadcast on the Sham (Damascus) News Network are of Syrian tanks assaulting the Syrian city of Hamah.

Hamah is being invaded. It is being invaded by the Syrian army. As his father did to Hamah in 1982 in which over 25,000 residents were slaughtered, President Bashar al-Asad has unleashed the full range of military weaponry on the city's mostly unarmed citizens. This is not a police or internal security operation, this is a full-fledged military assault, complete with artillery, armor, helicopter gunships and mechanized infantry, and in some case, air strikes.

I am surprised that this is taking place in Hamah. The 1982 destruction of the city resulted in the phenomenon known throughout the region as the "Hamah Rules," the knowledge that the Syrian Ba'thist regime will use overwhelming military force against its own citizens to maintain itself in power. The people of Hamah knew full well the likely response from the regime if they dared to rise up again. Still, they chose to do just that.

Hamah - click for larger image I have been to Hamah numerous times - it was (and hopefully still is) a beautiful city. Its 17 huge water wheels (nawriyah - see above photo) on the 'Asi (Orontes) River that runs through the city produce a unique sound that defines Hamah. Ironically, the name of the river means "rebel" in Arabic. It was a pleasant place to stop when traveling from Damascus to northern Syria - much nicer than the industrial complex of Homs, another city that has suffered at the hands of the Asad regime.

I am also surprised at the conduct of the Syrian army. It is a conscript army, made of of ordinary Syrians. Although the senior ranks of the officer corps are dominated by members of the Asad's 'Alawi minority, the junior officers and enlisted are primarily Sunni Arabs.

The fact that the troops show no remorse in putting down the protests in Hamah leads me to believe that the units participating in the operation are drawn from the Republican Guard or other regime protection units, specifically the 4th Armored Division based near the palace in Damascus. These units are made up of vetted, loyal Ba'thists, officered by true believers, have the best equipment, and have everything to lose if the regime is overthrown.

I contrast what is happening in Syria and the muted world reaction to it with the reaction almost six months ago when a similar situation erupted in Libya. The world not only condemned the threats made by Libyan leader Mu'amar al-Qadhafi but convinced NATO (initially led by the United States) to intervene militarily. I submit we have much greater national interests at stake in Syria, yet there is nothing but rhetoric emanating from Washington and European capitals.

Meanwhile, the people of Hamah are on their own.

August 1, 2011

Al-Hariri indictments - Lebanon to arrest Hizbllah members???

The United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon has officially released the names of four Lebanese men indicted in the 2005 murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. Although their names have been leaked in the past, the official release of the names starts a clock requiring the Lebanese government to take the four into custody.

Don't hold your breath for a "perp walk" in at the Ministry of Justice in downtown Beirut. Leaders of the Lebanese government as well as Hizballah - to which the four belong - have stated that they will not be arrested. Hizballah leader Sayid Hasan Nasrallah boasted that Lebanese authorities would not dare arrest any members of his group.

Nasrallah simply said that the four accused will not be able to be located. He's right, of course. When the most powerful political party and strongest militia in the country want to protect four of its thugs and henchmen, the ineffective Lebanese police, internal security and military will never take them into custody.

Hizballah's adversarial stance has caused numerous crises for the weak Lebanese government. Now that Hizballah holds 16 of 30 cabinets positions, Nasrallah's words probably ring true. He claims that the accusations were engineered in the West to bring down the Hizballah-dominated government.

One of the four men is fairly well-known in terrorist circles. Mustafa Amin Badr al-Din (rendered by the UN as Mustafa Amine Badreddine) is the brother-in-law of the legendary late Hizballah military commander 'Imad Mughniyah, one of the world's most notorious mass murderers. Mughniyah was killed by a car bomb in Damascus, Syria in 2008. Although there has been no official acknowledgement, it was almost certainly the work of the Israeli Mossad.

The tribunal also named Salim Jamil 'Ayash (Salim Jamil Ayyash), Husayn Hasan 'Unaysi (Hussein Hassan Oneissi) and Asad Hasan Sabra (Assad Hassan Sabra). International arrest warrants were issued for the suspects on July 8. In theory, according to international law, the Lebanese government is responsible for arresting the indictees; Beirut has until August 11 to respond. Given the fractious nature of the Lebanese government and the strength of Hizballah, it is almost certain not to happen.

This is reminiscent of the war crimes indictments levied after the war in the former Yugoslavia. It took foreign forces, nominally NATO, but mostly American, to finally make arrests in those cases. If there are to be arrests in this case, they certainly will not be made by the current Lebanese government.

It will be years, if ever, before any of the four indicted persons see a courtroom.