December 29, 2011

Iranian Navy versus the U.S. Fifth Fleet?

Sea lanes in the Strait of Hormuz

Iran has threatened to close the Straits of Hormuz if the West carries out its plans to impose more stringent sanctions on Iran, specifically on its central bank. While the western nations stopped short of the threat of an outright embargo on Iranian oil exports, tough sanctions on the central bank will have almost the same effect. If Iran cannot process payments for its oil, it can't export it.

The Obama Administration has been reluctant to sanction Iran's central bank, sometimes called Bank Markazi (Persian for "central bank"), claiming that it could cause a dramatic increase in the price of oil and disrupt the global economy. Possibly, but it appears that given the response from Tehran, it is the type of sanction that might actually force Iran to comply with international demands to halt its uranium enrichment program. It is widely accepted that the program is nothing more than a precursor to the development of a nuclear weapon, despite Iran's claims that it is merely building a nuclear energy capability.

The previous four United Nations sanctions protocols have not had the desired effect. Iran's immediate reaction and threats to halt the flow of one-sixth of the world's oil (a third of the oil that moves on the water) indicates how effective sanctions on Bank Markazi might be. President Obama has said recently that despite his misgivings, he will sign a sanctions bill.

If the President is serious about preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, this is a good first serious step - and a welcome one. I credit Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta for what appears to be an infusion of spine in dealing with the Iranians.

Panetta's words are pretty clear: "The United States does not want Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. That's a red line for us and that's a red line, obviously, for the Israelis. If we have to do it we will deal with it. ... If they proceed and we get intelligence that they are proceeding with developing a nuclear weapon then we will take whatever steps necessary to stop it. There are no options off the table. ... A nuclear weapon in Iran is unacceptable."

Iran also responded with military demonstration in the Persian Gulf in the guise of an exercise named Velayet-90. The exercise, currently underway, is being conducted in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, the bodies of water on either side of the Strait of Hormuz.  The timing and venue are not a coincidence. It is meant to send a message to the West that Iran can close the world's major oil choke point if it wishes. Habibollah Sayyari, commander of the Iranian navy (and I use the term loosely), claimed that closing the strait "will be easier than drinking a glass of water."

That's the message Iranian leaders hope to send - that they can close the strait at will. They are saying it, and maybe even a few of them believe it, but there are some serious issues they may want to consider.

Although the sea lanes through the Strait of Hormuz transit the territorial waters of both Iran and Oman, the strait falls under the legal protocol of "transit passage" as codified by the United Nations and is thus open to ships of all nations. Basically, it is an international waterway.

The free flow of oil from the Persian Gulf is a vital U.S. national interest - this is not an area for missteps. It has been our stated policy for decades to guarantee that flow, using military force if necessary. In the past, the United States has gone so far as to re-flag Kuwaiti tankers to allow the U.S. Navy to escort the ships through the Strait during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.

In response to the latest Iranian threat, a spokesperson for the U.S. Fifth Fleet made this statement: "Anyone who threatens to disrupt freedom of navigation in an international strait is clearly outside the community of nations; any disruption will not be tolerated." That's a polite way of saying to the Iranians, "If the Iranian Navy tries to close the Strait of Hormuz, the United States Navy will reopen it."

U.S. Navy Carrier Strike Group

The Iranian navy would be no match for the firepower of the U.S. Fifth Fleet. The Fifth Fleet, the maritime component of the U.S. Central Command, commands ships on rotation from the Pacific (Seventh) Fleet or the Atlantic (Second Fleet). The fleet normally consists of a carrier strike group, an expeditionary strike group, and a variety of support assets. That translates to about 20 surface combatants and submarines, with 15,000 personnel (including a U.S. Marine expeditionary unit) and almost 100 combat aircraft. If the Iranians are serious about this, the Navy has another 10 carrier strike groups and 11 expeditionary strike groups from which to draw augmentation.

The Fifth Fleet will not operate alone. Since Iran's threatened action also impacts the Gulf Arab nations, they will likely allow basing of U.S. Air Force combat aircraft at their many excellent air bases. While the participation of our Arab allies is uncertain, they will open their facilities to maintain the flow of oil.

Iranian challenges to the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf are not new. In 1988, the last year of the eight-year long Iran-Iraq War, there was a series of escalating events between the Iranians and Americans. When the U.S. agreed to escort Kuwaiti tankers in the Gulf, IRGC sailors laid mines in the shipping lanes, one of which damaged a U.S. Navy frigate.

In retaliation, the Navy destroyed an Iranian oil platform used for surveillance of U.S. operations. That caused the Iranian navy to attempt a surface engagement with the U.S. flotilla. In the battle that followed, two Iranian surface combatants and half a dozen speedboats were sunk and many other units and facilities damaged. The action was a stinging defeat for the Iranians.

If the Iranians are serious about provoking an armed confrontation with the United States, they must know what will happen to them. They have had a front row seat for decades of American combat operations in the Gulf, starting with our support of our Arab allies in the 1980s, the defense of Saudi Arabia and liberation of Kuwait in 1990 and 1991 (Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm), the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 (Operation Enduring Freedom), and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (Operation Iraqi Freedom).

If there is a confrontation, it will not be a localized maritime confrontation in the Strait of Hormuz. American aircraft and cruise missiles (air, sea and submarine launched) will strike targets all over the country to neutralize the air defense system, establish air dominance over the country, and disrupt the regime's command and control systems. Air and naval assets will begin the elimination of the Iranian navy inventory. The Iranian navy possesses Chinese surface to surface missiles that are both ship and land launched - these are of concern, but in the end, they will be destroyed.

The Defense Intelligence Agency and the Office of Naval Intelligence have been collecting intelligence for three decades to support this exact operation - it is the key concern of the Fifth Fleet. This was always a threat posed by the Islamic Republic. The U.S. Navy has been planning, training and preparing for this for a long time - after all, this is why we have a navy. I am sure the plans are being updated as I write this.

There is a final consideration. If the Iranians mean to do this - and I don't think Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is that insane - they may just precipitate the very action they are trying to avert. Whether they carry out the threat or not will be Khamenei's decision. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may have some input, but something with ramifications this extensive will be made by the Supreme Leader himself.

Iran's threats to close the Strait of Hormuz are in direct response to the U.S./Western threat of sanctions that will seriously hurt Tehran's nuclear weapons development program. If they are willing to trigger an armed confrontation with the United States, what is to stop the United States from attacking the nuclear facilities as well?

A confrontation between the United States and Iran has been brewing since the Islamic Revolution of 1978-1979. If we are once again going to send young Americans into harm's way, this time in Iran, we should break all of Ahmadinejad's toys.

December 27, 2011

Betrayals - Obama and the withdrawal from Iraq

As President Barack Obama promised, all American forces withdrew from Iraq prior to the end of December 2011. That fulfilled the letter of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) negotiated between Baghdad and Washington in 2008. The Iraqi prime minister at the time was Nuri al-Maliki, who remains in that position.

When the deal was struck, then-President George Bush and Prime Minister al-Maliki envisioned that the security situation at the end of 2011 would dictate whether the agreement would be modified to retain a number of American forces in country. Then-Secretary of Defense Bob Gates estimated that "tens of thousands" of troops would likely be necessary to maintain security, even after the end of 2011.

As late as fall of 2011, Iraqi and American leaders were discussing how to keep a small number of American troops in Iraq after the December 31 deadline. Military leaders of both countries realized that although the Iraqi military and security forces have improved markedly since 2008, they were not capable of maintaining adequate security throughout the country. Even Democrat Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was in favor of a continued troop presence after the end of this year.

It was the political leadership of both countries that failed the Iraqi people. Granted, the issue that precluded the signing of a modification of the SOFA - immunity for American forces in the country - is an important one and a key factor in virtually all of our similar agreements worldwide. Negotiators on both sides were of the opinion that some accommodation could be reached to allow some American troops to remain to lessen the chance of a spike in violence as the bulk of U.S. forces departed Iraq.

In its rush to get out of Iraq regardless of the security realities on the ground, the Obama Administration pulled the plug on the negotiations and played the "deer in the headlights" card - blaming the Iraqis and claiming that it could do nothing to break the impasse. What the Administration did was run for the exit and abandon the Iraqi people to a new round of sectarian violence - exactly what many Middle East specialists, including this one, predicted.

Of course, there were internal Iraqi politics involved. The Sadrists under namesake Muqtada al-Sadr, toeing the Iranian line, refused to accept any American presence. Iranian influence over the future of U.S. troop presence in Iraq? Yes, Iran, the same nation President Obama has decided to deal with through "outreach?" I guess after the success of his outreach policy in dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue - oh, wait, Iran is on the verge of developing a nuclear weapon. It is plain to see how that effort is working.

Betrayal of the American electorate
What the Administration did flies in face of campaign/transition-team promises - it is a betrayal of the trust placed in the President by the American electorate. Here are the words from the Obama-Biden transition team - it makes interesting reading: (my highlights)

The Obama-Biden Plan

Barack Obama and Joe Biden will responsibly end the war in Iraq so that we can renew our military strength, dedicate more resources to the fight against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and invest in our economy at home. The Obama-Biden plan will help us succeed in Iraq by transitioning to Iraqi control of their country.

Judgment You Can Trust

In 2002, Obama had the judgment and courage to speak out against going to war, and to warn of "an occupation of undetermined length, with undetermined costs, and undetermined consequences." He and Joe Biden are fully committed to ending the war in Iraq. *

A Responsible, Phased Withdrawal

Barack Obama and Joe Biden believe we must be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in. Immediately upon taking office, Obama will give his Secretary of Defense and military commanders a new mission in Iraq: ending the war. The removal of our troops will be responsible and phased, directed by military commanders on the ground and done in consultation with the Iraqi government. Military experts believe we can safely redeploy combat brigades from Iraq at a pace of 1 to 2 brigades a month -- which would remove all of them in 16 months. That would be the summer of 2010 -- more than 7 years after the war began.
Under the Obama-Biden plan, a residual force will remain in Iraq and in the region to conduct targeted counter-terrorism missions against al Qaeda in Iraq and protect American diplomatic and civilian personnel. They will not build permanent bases in Iraq, but will continue efforts to train and support the Iraqi security forces as long as Iraqi leaders move toward political reconciliation and away from sectarianism.

Encouraging Political Accommodation

Barack Obama and Joe Biden believe that the U.S. must apply pressure on the Iraqi government to work toward real political accommodation. There is no military solution to Iraq’s political differences. Now is the time to press Iraq’s leaders to take responsibility for their future and to invest their oil revenues in their own reconstruction.
Obama and Biden's plan will help create lasting stability in Iraq. A phased withdrawal will encourage Iraqis to take the lead in securing their own country and making political compromises, while the responsible pace of redeployment called for by the Obama-Biden plan offers more than enough time for Iraqi leaders to get their own house in order. As our forces redeploy, Obama and Biden will make sure we engage representatives from all levels of Iraqi society -- in and out of government -- to forge compromises on oil revenue sharing, the equitable provision of services, federalism, the status of disputed territories, new elections, aid to displaced Iraqis, and the reform of Iraqi security forces.

Surging Diplomacy

Barack Obama and Joe Biden will launch an aggressive diplomatic effort to reach a comprehensive compact on the stability of Iraq and the region. This effort will include all of Iraq’s neighbors -- including Iran and Syria, as suggested by the bi-partisan Iraq Study Group Report. This compact will aim to secure Iraq’s borders; keep neighboring countries from meddling inside Iraq; isolate al Qaeda; support reconciliation among Iraq’s sectarian groups; and provide financial support for Iraq’s reconstruction and development.

Preventing Humanitarian Crisis

Barack Obama and Joe Biden believe that America has both a moral obligation and a responsibility for security that demands we confront Iraq’s humanitarian crisis -- more than five million Iraqis are refugees or are displaced inside their own country. Obama and Biden will form an international working group to address this crisis. They will provide at least $2 billion to expand services to Iraqi refugees in neighboring countries, and ensure that Iraqis inside their own country can find sanctuary. Obama and Biden will also work with Iraqi authorities and the international community to hold accountable the perpetrators of potential war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. They will reserve the right to intervene militarily, with our international partners, to suppress potential genocidal violence within Iraq.

The Status-of-Forces Agreement

Obama and Biden believe it is vital that a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) be reached so our troops have the legal protections and immunities they need. Any SOFA should be subject to Congressional review to ensure it has bipartisan support here at home.
* This fails to mention that then-Senator Joe Biden voted for the Iraq War resolution in 2002. He was for it before he was against it, I guess. If we were relying on Biden's votes on Iraq policy, Saddam Husayn would still be in Kuwait.

At the top of the transition team page - - there is a quote from then President-Elect Obama, "Today we begin in earnest the work of making sure that the world we leave our children is just a little bit better than the one we inhabit today."

How about the world he has just left for Iraqi children?

Betrayal of America's armed forces
The United States deployed hundreds of thousands of its sons and daughters to remove Saddam Husayn and the Ba'th Party. They did that, quite effectively, in a matter of weeks. Granted, the execution of the war after Coalition Provisional Authority chief Jerry Bremer disbanded the Iraqi armed forces was abysmal and led to a prolonged insurgency that took thousands of lives unnecessarily. However, by 2007 and 2008, the "Anbar Awakening" and the troop surge had tamped the violence down and the country was beginning to function.

Then, two things happened - one was bad, the other was catastrophic. In 2008, the United States and Iraq signed the SOFA agreement that scheduled American troop withdrawals from the cities by June 2009, and from the country at the end of 2011. A key military principle is not telling the enemy your plans and timetable.

When the Obama Administration walked away from talks with the Iraqis, it pounded the final nail in the coffin for Iraqi security. The date certain timetables simply told the still-alive but badly hurt al-Qa'idah in Iraq (AQI) - as well as the Sadrists under Muqtada al-Sadr - to regain relevance in Iraq, simply wait out the Americans. Lull them into a false sense of security, let them leave, then make your move.

Just days after the last American troops left the country, AQI set off a series of bombs, primarily targeting Shi'a facilities. AQI and other Sunni insurgents are putting the Shi'a-dominated Iraqi government of Nuri al-Maliki on notice that they will not accept heavy-handed treatment by the Shi'a majority in the country (60 percent of Iraq is Shi'a). The group referred to itself as the Ministry of War in the Islamic State of Iraq. It hopes to reignite the civil war it started in 2006.

For this, we suffered 4,400 dead and 32,000 wounded? The failure to reach an agreement by which American forces remain to assist Iraqi forces in maintaining security is a disgrace - it betrays the memory of our fallen and wounded. Handing things over to the Iraqis prematurely is reminiscent of the Administration's ludicrous concept of "leading from behind."

Betrayal of the Iraqi people
Not only have we betrayed the memory of our fallen, we have betrayed the trust of the Iraqi people who depended on the presence of American forces to keep a lid on sectarian violence. Iraqis, both Sunnis and Shi'a (not to mention the Kurds) are bewildered that the Americans just packed up and left.

Iraqis tend to be the most xenophobic of the Arabs. Most of the population wanted American troops to leave the country, but realized that those troops were the key to the uneasy stability in the country. They were correct, as we have seen.

American troop presence also kept a rein on the Shi'a government of Nuri al-Maliki. No sooner had the troops departed then al-Maliki began a series of political moves designed to consolidate his power. The Sunni vice president has been accused by the prime minister of operating death squads, al-Maliki has told the Sunnis he will not accept a proposal for a Sunni autonomous regime (although it is allowed under the Iraqi constitution), and threatened Shi'a political rivals with loss of powerful positions.

Who is going to stop him? Maybe we can ask him to cease and desist. That tactic worked well in securing the return of a top secret American drone from Iran - oh, wait, that failed.

Betrayal of the Mujahidin-e Khalq (MEK)
There is one more group being betrayed that we should not overlook. The MEK is a group of Iranians who have been in Iraq for decades. During the Saddam era, they conducted operations at the behest of the Iraqi dictator, mostly against Iranian regime targets. They are believed to have been involved on an attack on American diplomats, for which they were labeled as a terrorist organization by the State Department.

After the fall of Saddam Husayn, they agreed to lay down their arms and remain at Camp Ashraf under U.S. protection. When American troops withdrew from the cities, they abandoned Camp Ashraf to the Iraqis, who immediately attacked the now defenseless group.

Caving to Iranian pressure, the Iraqis told the MEK they must leave Camp Ashraf and Iraq. The U.S. brokered a deal whereby they will move to an abandoned American military base temporarily pending resettlement. However, they cannot come to the United States as long as they remain on the terrorism list.

The group was instrumental in providing critical intelligence on the Iranian nuclear program. For that, they are abandoned and betrayed by the Obama Administration. The President can fix this with the stroke of a pen. I am waiting for him to do the right thing.

Bottom line
The premature withdrawal from Iraq based on political expedience ostensibly fulfills a campaign commitment by the President - ostensibly because the actual promise was to "responsibly end the war in Iraq." What Mr. Obama has done is to make a run for the exit, regardless of the death and chaos we leave behind.

Rhetoric and speeches to the contrary, this will come back to haunt us. Although the President is too young to remember another war, Biden should - can he spell F-A-L-L-O-F-S-A-I-G-O-N?

Unless the President realizes that his actions should go beyond the next election and corrects his Iraq policy, they constitute betrayals on a variety of levels.

December 24, 2011

Syria on the brink of a civil war

Syrian television images of a car used in one of two suicide bombings
 in Damascus targeting military and civilian intelligence facilities

The headlines are virtually the same every day - more Syrian civilians are killed by the military and security forces loyal to President Bashar al-Asad and more soldiers defect to the opposition. Of course, the regime has recently upped the ante, adding jet fighters and helicopter gunships to the fight. The death toll is over 5,000 civilians, while the regime claims that over 2,000 of its troops and security personnel have been killed as well.

The Syrian government agreed to allow a team of Arab League observers into the country; the advance element arrived in the last few days. The team is headed by a Sudanese general with blood on his hands from the genocide in Darfur, leading to questions of the credibility of the observer mission. The team will theoretically monitor an agreement between Syria and the Arab League by which the Syrian military will withdraw from the cities.

As the observers began to arrive, recent headlines change things even more, and not in a good way. Two suicide bombers detonated car bombs near military and civilian intelligence facilities in the Kafr Susa section of Damascus. The death toll is at least 40 and will likely be higher as cleanup continues. Suicide bombing has not really been a part of the Syrian opposition arsenal. The location of the attacks, in an upscale section of Damascus, brings what amounts to a civil war home to Syria's capital city. Residents who felt insulated from the violence occurring in other cities around Syria are now faced with the possibility of escalating violence in their own backyard.

Of course, the Syrian government has reiterated its dubious claims that the violence and protests are the work of "terrorists backed by foreign powers trying to topple the state." I am not sure which foreign power the Syrians mean, thought when they make these claims it is normally directed against Israel and the United States. When I served as the air attache to the American Embassy in the early/mid-1990s, every Syrian function to which I was invited included a diatribe against Israel and U.S. foreign policy. It got tiresome.

Israelis I have spoken to about this issue are adamant that the violence is not the work of the Israeli intelligence services. Israel, along with many moderate Syrians and the few remaining Christians and Jews in the country, is concerned that the removal of the al-Asad regime will usher in an Islamist government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood - with good reason. The primary groups attempting to force Bashar al-Asad to step down is the Syrian National Council which is controlled by the Syrian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Israel believes that even with al-Asad in power, Syria can be deterred from a confrontation with Israel, despite its alliance with Iran, who conversely cannot be deterred. In any case, Israel can deal with al-Asad; an Islamist state might pose a greater threat.

Perhaps the "foreign powers" the Syrians mean are the Turks. The Syrian National Council is headquartered in Istanbul and supported by the Islamic party that dominates the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) has espoused Islamic ideals in Turkey - such as proposing to allow women to wear the hijab (headscarf) in government offices, and curtailing the rights of women in what has been a secular Turkey. It stands to reason that the Erdogan government would support an organization that hopes to convert secular Ba'th Syria to a more Islamic government and society.

The Syrian government's claims notwithstanding, there is no doubt that the country is devolving into civil war. The battle lines are still fluid, but in general you find the moderate Sunnis, many of the Christians, the Druze and the minority 'Alawis supporting the regime of Bashar al-Asad. Make no mistake - most of these constituencies differ politically with the al-Asad regime, but sometimes it is the better to keep the devil you know. The only thing these groups have in common is that the fear that a post al-Asad government will be dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, threatening the secular society that the Ba'th Party has built over the last almost five decades.

On the other side, the opposition includes many Syrians who want to end the rule of the Ba'th Party and the 'Alawi minority. Unfortunately, they have been subjugated to the Islamic-leaning factions,including the Muslim Brotherhood. The level of violence in the country rivals that of the attack on Hamah in 1982. Although many more people were killed in that massacre, the present confrontation is much more widespread and has the additional element of attracting deserters from the armed forces. This is the closest Syria has been to civil war since its founding.

The world has been vocal in its condemnation of the Syrian regime for its brutal repression of its citizens, while the United Nations has been largely silent. It would appear that the UN is wary of creating the conditions for military intervention as was done in Libya earlier this year.

"We're not the Libyans"

In response to any potential military operations against it, such as a no-fly zone to prevent the continued use of fighter aircraft and attack helicopters against demonstrators, Syria has broadcast a series of military videos on both Syrian and Russian television. Supporters of the regime have posted the videos on the internet, including Facebook and You Tube. The videos are well-made and showcase a wide range of Syrian military hardware in live fire exercises. From my attache days, the level of information released in these videos is astounding to me. The Syrians are extremely sensitive about releasing any information on their military capabilities.

Here are television broadcasts of Syrian combined arms live fire exercises:

Why the sudden release of Syrian military videos? Simple - the Syrians are telling the world that intervention in Libya is one thing; intervention in Syria would be quite another. They have a point - the logistics involved in mounting a no-fly-zone in Syria would be challenging, especially with no more American forces in neighboring Iraq. Using Israeli bases is out of question. Turkey, a NATO ally, would be key to any successful operation, but I don't see that happening at this time. Carrier-based aviation will not be adequate.

Unless there is sufficient international pressure, be it diplomatic, economic or in the last resort, military, it does not appear that Bashar al-Asad is going to relinquish power. He has already demonstrated that he is willing to kill large numbers of his own citizens to maintain his regime.

Change from inside Syria will be difficult, but many Syrians seem willing to take the risk. The country is either in, or soon will be, a civil war. The question we need to be addressing: do we assist the opposition and by doing so possibly helping usher in an Islamic government?

December 15, 2011

Syrian Air Force video analysis

A friend sent this to me, knowing that I served as the Air Attache to the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, Syria from late 1992 to early 1995.

When I was the air attache, the Syrians basically ignored me - relations between the United States and Syria were awful, despite the temporary and politically expedient alliance during Desert Storm in 1991. My only official contacts with the Syrian military were the occasional "hail and farewell" dinners at the Officers Club for departing and arriving military attaches, and the graduation ceremonies from the four Syrian military academies - the Naval Academy at Latakia, the Military Academy at Homs, the Women's Military College in Damascus, and the Air Force Academy at Rasm al-'Abud air base about 25 miles from Aleppo.

When I watched the video of a formation Sukhoi-24 (NATO: FENCER) aircraft, I immediately started looking for familiar landmarks. As I watched, I thought the large city resembled what I remembered of Syria's second-largest city, Aleppo, located in northern Syria close to the Turkish border. There was something eerily familiar about the airfield as the formation passed over it, like I had been there before. As it turns out, I actually had been there. When the aircraft kept on flying, I realized it was a fly-by.

So, for those of you who want to play imagery interpreter for a few minutes...

Open Google Earth and the You Tube video - we'll use both.

What we are looking at is a fly-by by three SU-24's at the Syrian Air Force Academy at Rasm al-'Abud air base - the formation flies over the parking apron from west to east.

The video opens with the formation north of Aleppo. At 0:18, the aircraft is north of Aleppo airport, also known as Nayrab air base. You can see the runways under the aircraft in the video, and closer the Shaykh Najar industrial area. I put the formation at about 36 24N 37 17E.

The aircraft then fly due west about 25 miles to Rasm al-'Abud. Pull up the air base on Google Earth at coordinates 36 11 10N 37 34 30E.

On the video at 2:43, there is a Yak-40 (NATO: CODLING) parked on the apron, on Google Earth at 36 11 04.70N 36 34 14.00E. When we attaches were transported to Rasm al-'Abud for academy graduations, it was on a Yak-40, and we parked at that spot. Note the pattern of the apron and trees, and compare it to the Google Earth imagery. You can see the white circle painted on the tarmac on both, at 36 11 05.04N 36 34 19.63E. There is a reviewing stand under the area where the vehicles are parked. It is not easily visible from the air, but having been there twice, I recognize it.

At 2:52, you can see two Quonset hut looking buildings. They are visible on Google Earth at 36 10 44.25N 37 35 41.75E. After that, the jets head east over Dayr al-Hafir and then out over the desert, likely to the south. I assume they were headed home to Tiyas air base (at 34 31 30N 37 37 40E, which gives new meaning to "the middle of nowhere").

As an aside, here is a photo of two MiG-23 (NATO: FLOGGER) fighter aircraft in shelters and one on a hardstand at the east end of the runway at Rasm al-'Abud. (There is a photo icon on the Google Earth imagery.)

I did not know they had fighters at Rasm al-'Abud in addition to the L-39 Albatross and MBB-223 Flamingo trainers. From personal experience, I can tell you that taking these photos, or any photos for that matter, near a Syrian air base is an extremely dangerous activity.

I was surprised that someone has posted this video taken by a Syrian pilot. My experience with the Syrian armed forces is that they are one of the most paranoid and security-conscious militaries in the world. What I would have given for access to this type of information in the early 1990's....

December 14, 2011

Just when you think the Saudis have learned....

Beheading in Saudi Arabia

Over the last almost four decades, I have tried to give the Saudis the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their attempts to throw off the bonds of ultra-conservative Islam and embrace some semblance of modernity in what we Middle East specialists like to (somewhat derisively) call "the Magic Kingdom." I have served in Saudi Arabia many times in a variety of positions, including being a liaison officer to the Saudi armed forces and as General Norman Schwarzkopf's Arabic-language interpreter during Desert Shield/Desert Storm. Try as I might to see the Saudi positions on some of their ways, they do not make it easy.

Some of the Saudi positions are puzzling - for example, the prohibition on women driving in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world with this restriction. For a discussion on that, see my article, "Women driving in Saudi Arabia? I give up." (May 2011)

The women's driving issue, however, pales when compared to the recent beheading of individuals - regardless of gender - for sorcery and witchcraft, sometimes even referred to as "black magic." In 2007, an Egyptian pharmacist was beheaded for sorcery, sparking international outrage. In 2010 when a Lebanese television personality was sentenced to be beheaded for the same crime, the Saudi government caved in to world opinion and stayed the execution; the man remains in prison for the "crime." I discussed this in my earlier article - "Saudi Arabia - What century are we in here?" (April 2010)

Evidently, the Saudis have not changed their position on beheading people convicted of sorcery. In September of this year, a Sudanese man was beheaded in the the city of Medina (al-Madinah al-Munawarah) after being convicted of sorcery. As an aside, Amnesty International claims that the number of executions overall had tripled from 27 in 2010 to 79 thus far in 2011.

It continues. Witch hunting has become institutionalized in Saudi Arabia - the country's religious police now have an Anti-Witchcraft Unit and a sorcery hotline. On December 12, a woman named Aminah bint 'Abd al-Halim bin Salim Nasr was beheaded in the al-Jawf region of northern Saudi Arabia after being convicted of sorcery and witchcraft.

Rape, murder, apostasy, armed robbery and drug trafficking are all punishable by death under Saudi Arabia's strict interpretation of Islamic law. Here is an interesting story/interview by Lebanese television on beheadings and Saudi Arabia's most famous executioner.

As I said before - execution by beheading for witchcraft and sorcery? What century is this?

December 5, 2011

The coming nuclear arms race in the Middle East

The "proliferation spiral" in the Middle East

Given the abdication of American leadership on the Iranian nuclear program for the last decade - both the Bush and Obama Administrations have failed - it appears that Iran will be successful in acquiring a nuclear weapons capability.

Here are the words of Vice President (then Senator) Joe Biden when he was a Presidential candidate in 2008:

“I stand with the many citizens - from the U.S. and around the world - who are concerned at the prospect of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. Nuclear proliferation is a grave concern to international stability, and in the hands of the sponsors of terrorism is entirely unacceptable.

“Iran with the bomb could spark an arms race in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Syria joining in. Given the fault lines - between Sunni and Shi'a, Israelis and Palestinians, Persians and Arabs, Turks and Kurds, fundamentalists and moderates - that's the last thing we need. And it's the last thing Israel needs.

"No President should take any option off the table, including force. But we have time: Iran is years away from having a bomb and a missile to deliver it. We need to use the time wisely."

I would posit that "we" - that would be you and Barack Obama in this case - have not used the time wisely. In the more than three years since you made those statements, Iran has moved steadily towards its goal while all "we" have done is make idle threats of "crippling sanctions." Your Secretary of State's blatantly misleading claims about increased Russian and Chinese support notwithstanding, the sanctions "we" have been able to get through the United Nations Security Council have been ineffective in achieving the objectives. Life is tougher now for the average Iranian, sure, but "we" have not measurably slowed the Iranian nuclear program.

One would have to conclude that despite the rhetoric of the American government, the United States has resigned itself to dealing with a nuclear-armed Iran. That will inevitably lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Iran should be thanking us.


Israel may not so easily accept the existence of Iran with a nuclear arsenal. We'll forgo the discussion on Israel's not-so-secret nuclear weapons. It is a fact the Arabs have learned to live with - most have assessed that the probability of a first-use strike by Israel is too low to quantify. The Iranians? Given the urgency with which they are developing nuclear weapons and the missiles with which to deliver them, the mullahs have not made that same calculation.

I cannot fathom what thought processes, if any, are going through the minds of the Iranian leadership as they rush towards a certain confrontation with the rest of the world. I believe they have correctly assessed that despite the "no options off the table" talk from Washington, there will be no American military action by this Administration and that they have a free hand to continue their efforts.

The confrontation over the program, if there is one, will be with Israel. The United States believes it can deter a nuclear-armed Iran if necessary. Iran poses no missile threat - not yet, at least - to the contiguous United States. The missile track from Iran to CONUS is at least 5,000 nautical miles. While the Iranians may think they might prevail in a fight with its Arab neighbors or even on a good day, Israel, even President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad knows that a nuclear attack on the United States would almost certainly result in a "Biblical, Old Testament-level" response.

The difference between the American and Israeli assessments of Iran is based on the probability that deterrence will work. The Israeli intelligence analysts with whom I have discussed this issue believe that Israel can successfully deter any of its Arab neighbors from using any type of weapon of mass destruction against the Jewish state, knowing that Israel possesses what we called in the military, a "strategic capability" - military/diplo-speak for "nuclear weapons."

Whether or not Israel will tolerate Iran's acquisition of a deliverable nuclear weapons capability is still questionable. We know the Israelis have developed and exercised plans to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. At some point they may want to execute one of those options. However, the likelihood of a successful attack on Iran is not great. It is a long way to the targets - virtually all of it in hostile airspace, which precludes many aerial refueling options, thus the aircraft will be operating at the extreme limits of their combat radii and will be carrying more external fuel tanks and less munitions.

It is a difficult military scenario. Will the Israelis try it? That depends on how they assess Iranian intentions once Tehran has nuclear warheads and missiles to carry them. If they believe the Iranians are apt to launch a first strike, the Israelis will attack. They will not wait to absorb the potential destruction of half of Israel's population.

While Israel's reaction is uncertain, the same cannot be said for the other power brokers in the region. If the Iranians acquire nuclear weapons, it will ignite an arms race in the region. At a minimum, Saudi Arabia, Egypt (as it recovers from the revolution) and Turkey will seek their own "strategic capabilities."

Saudi Arabia
The former director of Saudi Arabia's intelligence service stated this week that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, then the Kingdom may be forced to as well. Although Prince Turki al-Faysal couched his remarks by first citing the world's failure to convince Israel to abandon its nuclear weapons, then casually adding "as well as Iran," his meaning was perfectly clear - if Iran develops them, we'll buy our own. Saudi Arabia is currently planning to build 16 nuclear reactors to generate electricity. The weapons program would be an easy add-on, although the Kingdom is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Saudi interest in a nuclear weapons capability is not new. In 1987, the Saudis purchased CSS-2 missiles from China; the missiles are designed to carry a nuclear warhead. Although the Saudis did not acquire that capability, they did express interest in a joint research and development program with Pakistan. If the Saudis decide to move ahead with a nuclear weapons capability, they have the requisite infrastructure already in place.

While I deplore the release of classified documents by the Wikileaks crowd, some of the information is interesting. Here is an excerpt from a February 2010 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh to the Secretary of State. (10RIYADH178, SCENESETTER FOR SECRETARY CLINTON'S FEB 15-16 VISIT TO SAUDI ARABIA, classified SECRET NOFORN. Read the entire cable here.)

9. (S/NF) COUNTERING IRAN: We expect that Saudi Arabia will continue to develop its ties with China, in part to counterbalance relations with the West. While the King's preference is to cooperate with the U.S., he has concluded that he needs to proceed with his own strategy to counter Iranian influence in the region, which includes rebuilding Riyadh-Cairo-Damascus coordination, supporting Palestinian reconciliation, supporting the Yemeni government, and expanding relations with non-traditional partners such as Russia, China, and India to create diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran that do not directly depend on U.S. help. The King told General Jones that if Iran succeeded in developing nuclear weapons, everyone in the region would do the same, including Saudi Arabia.

10. (S/NF) The King is convinced that current U.S. engagement efforts with Tehran will not succeed; he is likely to feel grimly vindicated in his view by Ahmadinejad's February 11 boast that having successfully enriched uranium to a level of 20 percent, Iran "is now a nuclear nation." The King told General Jones that Iranian internal turmoil presented an opportunity to weaken the regime -- which he encouraged -- but he also urged that this be done covertly and stressed that public statements in support of the reformers were counterproductive. The King assesses that sanctions could help weaken the government, but only if they are strong and sustained. The King will want you to elaborate on the President's statement that the time for sanctions has come. He will also want to hear our plans for bolstering Gulf defenses vis-a-vis Iran. (The King has invited General Petraeus to his desert camp for discussion on this topic on Tuesday.)

Turkish leaders, watching what is happening in neighboring Iran, are involved in discussions on whether the country should begin a nuclear weapons program. While the ruling Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice and Development Party, or AKP) has attempted to bridge the gap between Iran and the West, Iran does not seem to be interested in a compromise. A Turkish-brokered deal failed last year.

A nuclear-armed Iran would challenge Turkey for dominance in Central Asia at a time when the nation is seeking to re-assert itself as the leader of all the Turkic peoples. There has been a low-level nuclear program in the country for years, including some cooperation with Pakistan. If Turkey is to acquire a nuclear weapons capability, the AKP will have to give the word and allocate the requisite resources.

Turkey's economy is doing remarkably well compared to the rest of Europe, so investing money in an expensive research and development program will meet resistance. When Iran presents the world with a nuclear weapon, the Turks will overcome that resistance and embark on their own program.

Egypt is the leader of the Arab world. If the Iranians successfully acquire a nuclear weapons capability, Egypt will assess that as a direct threat to the Arab World. While Saudi Arabia views Iran as a rival in the Persian Gulf, Egypt views Iran in the larger context of the entire Arab World.

We know, thanks to Wikileaks, the former Mubarak regime's position on a nuclear armed Iran. This is taken from a May 2008 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo (08CAIRO1067, CODEL BAIRD MEETS WITH EGYPTIAN LEADERS ON MARGINS OF WEF, classified CONFIDENTIAL. Read the entire cable here.)

3. (C) Asked about Egypt's reaction if Iran developed nuclear weapons capability, Mubarak said that none will accept a nuclear Iran, "we are all terrified." Mubarak said that when he spoke with former Iranian President Khatami he told him to tell current President Ahmedinejad "not to provoke the Americans" on the nuclear issue so that the U.S. is not forced to strike. Mubarak said that Egypt might be forced to begin its own nuclear weapons program if Iran succeeds in those efforts.

There is a new government in formation in Cairo. What the new government will be, let alone their policy toward Iran and its nuclear weapons program, is undetermined. I suspect even a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government will want to seek an antidote to the poison of a nuclear-armed Shi'a Islamist power in the Persian Gulf.

The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad has its hands full merely maintaining itself in power. Its first serious attempt to acquire nuclear weapons was destroyed by the Israeli Air Force in 2007 when they attacked a North Korean-provided reactor northwest of Day az-Zawr. If the regime survives, they will likely revive their quest for nuclear weapons, but this is not in reaction to the Iranian nuclear program. Iran and Syria are allies; they are signatories of a mutual defense treaty. A Syrian weapon will be in reaction to Israel's nuclear capabilities.

If the Syrian regime survives and decides to pursue a nuclear weapons program, it is a virtual certainty that Israel will attack it.

Bottom line
An Iranian nuclear weapons capability will trigger research and development programs in several countries in the region. Iran cannot be trusted as a steward of these weapons - several Arab states and the Turks do not trust the mullahs in Tehran and will seek the ultimate deterrent, nuclear weapons of their own.

December 1, 2011

Biden's upcoming visit to Turkey - propping up an Islamist?

Sultan Ahmet Mosque, Istanbul (photo: Rick Francona)

Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to visit Turkey and Greece this week, after a short visit to Iraq. While it is normal for senior Administration officials to visit key allies Turkey and Greece - both countries are NATO allies - I am surprised Biden chose to visit Iraq following the Obama Administration's failure to negotiate the continued presence of American troops in the country past December 31, 2011. That's a matter for a different discussion - see my comments on that foreign policy debacle: Iraq - Obama spins another policy failure into a success? I still have hopes that failure can be salvaged.

Anytime Mr. Biden travels, he is apt to make embarrassing statements - we all remember his remarks on China's one-child policy. The vice president will be in Ankara to meet with Turkish officials about the situation in neighboring Syria, as well as Turkey's continuing fight with the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK, a designated terrorist organization). Mr. Biden will then travel to Istanbul to attend a global entrepreneurship summit aimed at increasing U.S. business ties in the Arab and Muslim world.

We have a preview of what the substance of Biden's remarks in Turkey might be. A few days ago, Biden's national security advisor (if we are looking for a way to save money in the federal government, let's eliminate this useless position) Tony Blinken praised the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

I will give Mr. Blinken the benefit of the doubt here - he seems like a bright guy, educated at Harvard and Columbia with a lot of Washington staff experience, but apparently little familiarity with things Middle Eastern. His statements echo the Administration's continued support of an Islamic government in what once was a staunchly secular Muslim democracy, the poster child for how Islam and democracy might coexist. I am sure he has a Google alert set up for his name, so I'll help him connect the dots.

We do need to support Turkey's fight against PKK terrorism, after all, Turkey supported American military efforts in Afghanistan by sending non-combat troops. However, the relationship between Ankara and Washington has suffered some serious setbacks over the last decade.

In January 2003, after agreeing to allow the U.S. Army 4th Infantry Division (4ID) to deploy into northern Iraq via Turkish territory, the newly elected Islamist government abruptly changed its mind and refused passage. That forced the United States to re-deploy the entire division from Turkey to Kuwait, delaying the 4ID's entry into the fight until mid-April. The delay not only prevented the United States from opening up a second front that would have caused the Iraqis to split their forces defending Baghdad, it possibly added to the number of American battle casualties.

Turkey also sought to create an Iranian-Turkish-Syrian alliance in 2010 after the Mavi Marmara incident. That was coincident with Turkish efforts to play the mediator role in the dispute between Iran and virtually the rest of the world over its nuclear program. Their efforts, while well-intentioned, slowed down the already glacial progress on the imposition of meaningful sanctions on Iran - which has not yet happened.

As Syria's regime has adopted brutal repressive measured against its own population, Turkey has been in the forefront of sanctions against Damascus and has made repeated calls for Syrian President Bashar al-Asad to step down. The Turks have allowed the major Syrian opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Syrian National Council, to set up its headquarters in Istanbul.

A closer look at Turkey's stance against the Ba'th Party regime in Syria might be instructional for Messrs. Biden and Blinken. First, some history might be in order. Prime Minister Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (Turkish: Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, or AKP) was founded in 2001 and elected to power in a landslide in 2002 with over two-thirds of the seats in the Grand National Assembly.

In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 al-Qa'idah attacks on the United States, there was an increase in militant Islam throughout the Muslim world. In Turkey, that translated into growth for the nascent Islamist AKP. In the elections in 2007, the AKP increased its share of the popular vote, and again in 2011 the party was able to maintain the majority position in the government.

For the two gentlemen, please take away from this article that the Turkish government is controlled by an Islamist party, and that the Syrian National Council is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Erdogan is supporting his fellow Islamists in Syria, hoping that the next Syrian government is an Islamist one, much like the one he envisions for Turkey. Turkey is also forging ties with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, as well as with Palestinian Hamas*.

Mr. Blinken's own words demonstrate his regional naivete. "We've been urging the Turks in this constitutional reform process to have an inclusive process that strengthens freedoms of expression, religion and other fundamental rights, including the human rights of minorities...." The Turks I talk to believe they already had strong freedoms of these basic human rights until the ascendancy of Erdogan and the AKP. Turkey under Ergodan and the Islamist AKP is not progressing as far as these rights are concerned, it is regressing.

I just returned from a trip to Turkey. Granted, I spoke to mostly secular and Western-leaning members of the population, but there is a growing sense of unease that the AKP is leading Turkey away from the ideals that led to the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923 based on the secular ideals of Kemal Ataturk. Ataturk's party now finds itself in the minority and the opposition.

My Turkish contacts specifically are opposed to the attempts by the AKP to change many of the secular rules in favor of a more fundamentalist adherence of Islam. For example, current Turkish law prohibits women who work for the government from wearing the başörtüsü, the Muslim headscarf, in government facilities. The party attempted to change this law by granting "personal choice" to women employees. The party also sponsored a change to the country's constitution and the law that bans women from wearing headscarves at universities. While these seem innocuous to us, they are real issues in secular Muslim countries that are trying to balance Islam and modernity.

When Vice President Biden or members of his staff praise the Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, they lend credibility to Erdogan's Islamist agenda. Do we really want to do that?