March 30, 2012

Syria agrees to ceasefire - don't hold your breath

According to pronouncements from the United Nations and Syrian media, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad has agreed to a ceasefire between his armed forces and the opposition, supposedly paving the way for some form of negotiations between the two sides. This alleged ceasefire is part of a deal arranged by none other than former United Nations Secretary General and now chief envoy Kofi Annan, whose past accomplishments at this sort of thing are pretty much nonexistent.

The agreement between Annan and al-Asad, announced on March 27 by Annan, includes six points supposedly endorsed by the Syrian president. Annan claims that the agreement includes an "immediate" ceasefire, access for humanitarian organizations to the areas affected by the violence, negotiations that will lead to a multiparty democracy, release of political prisoners and access to Syria by foreign media.

Does this sound familiar? It should. In November, the Syrian regime reached an agreement with the Arab League by which it would withdraw its armed forces from the cities and start political reforms. Al-Asad's acquiescence to the Arab League was in reaction to a threat by the organization to suspend Syria from its ranks. It was basically ignored by the regime; artillery attacks on the restless cities of Homs, Hamah and Idlib continued as al-Asad announced his acceptance of the plan.

In February of this year, the government continued to attempt to deflect world condemnation of the regime's violent repression of its citizens - it staged a sham* referendum asking the Syrian people if they wanted a new constitution. As with most elections and referendums in Syria, it passed overwhelmingly. The new constitution sounds good, but it appears that the regime is paying about as much attention to the new one as it did to the old one.

Al-Asad learned well from both his father and his Iranian allies. From his father he learned to rule Syria with an iron fist. In 1982, Hafiz al-Asad deployed the much-feared sarayat al-difa' (The Defense Companies), a regime protection unit of the Syrian army under command of his brother Rifa't, to put down an eerily similar Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hamah, the scene of much of the violence over the last year.

Rifa't's ruthless destruction of a good portion of the city center and the killing of as many as 25,000 citizens is regarded as "The Hamah Rules" - how the al-Asad's handle dissension. (See Syria: The invasion of Hamah for more.) We are seeing those rules being applied today. The Syrian army's regime protection units - in particular the Republican Guard and the 4th Armor Division - are repeating the events of 1982 across the country, having killed over 9000 citizens thus far.

From the Iranians, he learned how to deal with the feckless West. Agree to talks, and do nothing. Just as the Iranians have delayed any effective sanctions (although this may be changing) by agreeing to talk, then refusing to talk, then agreeing to talk, etc., Bashar al-Asad agreed with the Arab League last year and with Kofi Annan now to buy time and space. He has no intention of opening up Syria to a multi-party democracy, releasing political prisoners, allowing foreign media into the country, or stopping the repression of any dissent.

Bashar al-Asad will not give up power. If Kofi Annan thinks he will, he is either naive or delusional. All Mr. Annan has done is provided the Syrian president with a way to stave off sterner action against Syria by the West. Do not look for the Syrian army to return to garrison anytime soon.

* I love using the word "sham" when talking about Syria. It is a play on words - الشام (ash sham) is the Arabic word for Damascus (and formerly for the area that is now Syria). It is also the name of a car jointly produced by a Syrian-Iranian consortium. See my earlier article on the car, What's in a name? - the Syrian-Iranian car company.

March 20, 2012

Libyan militia desecrates WWII cemetery in Benghazi

The recent desecration of a World War II cemetery in Benghazi, Libya by what appears to be members of an Islamist militia underscores the difficulty in reconciling East and West in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. It also serves as a warning to other Arab countries what can happen when you remove the sitting government, be it good or bad.

The video is pretty self explanatory. I have listened to it a few times - my Libyan dialect is not as good as my Syrian/Lebanese, but I'll share with you some interesting excerpts.

Mostly they are just egging each other on, yelling things like "Break them, they're Crusaders* and dogs," "God is great," and "Let's start with that cross (the cenotaph)" interspersed with profanity.

At about time code 1:00, one militiaman dislodges a headstone inscribed with the Magen David, the Shield of David (often called the Star of David), indicating the grave of a fallen soldier who was a Jew. The speaker remarks that this is "the grave of a Crusader." Everyone else appears to be focused on the large cross and knocking it down. Then the speaker realizes the grave is marked with the Shield of David and says, "Look at the flag on the front of it, this one was one of the Israeli battalion, it's Hebrew." Note that Israel was not yet a country when this soldier was killed.

The militiamen then turn their attention to the large cross. The speaker tells the man on the ladder to break off the sides of the cross. Others shout break it, God is great, etc. with more profanity. At some point, they appear to give up on knocking down the cross, one remarking that "it isn't breaking."

The video has made its way to other Arab countries. I received an email from a friend in Syria, a supporter of the regime of Bashar al-Asad. He is a physician who believes in secular government and although not a fan of the ruling Ba'th Party, believes it is better to maintain the current government than risk a takeover by the Islamist al-ikhwan al-muslimin (the Muslim Brotherhood).

The text of his email:

That is what we don't have in Syria; that is what they are trying to do to my country. But I think that we Syrians have more open minds than to let something like that happen here. What we are seeing in Damascus now are people from Afghanistan, Libya, Lebanon and Africa - it's not normal. We don't want what happened there (Benghazi) to happen in our country and I think the people will fight to keep our beautiful Damascus - Muslim, Christian and Syrian Jews.

As as aside, there is a large British Commonwealth cemetery in Damascus with graves of 1077 soldiers from both world wars. The Commonwealth Countries hold a somber ceremony at the cemetery on Remembrance Day (November 11). I have attended these as a representative of the U.S. Air Force - quite moving.

The Libyan government (or what passes for it) has pledged to find and punish those responsible for this outrage, and to restore the cemetery to its original condition. I hope they mean it, since it was the airmen of the United Kingdom and at least one of the Commonwealth countries - Canada - and their NATO allies that liberated them from the regime of Mu'amar al-Qadhafi. Otherwise, they will appear to be a nation of ingrates.

We'll see.

* The actual word is صليبي - salibi, or "of the cross." It is commonly used as a derogatory term for Western troops, which they regard as Christian.

March 19, 2012

Semantics, politics and Iran's nuclear weapons program

In the aftermath of the rhetoric delivered by U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the recent American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) convention and during Netanyahu's visit to Washington, the American and Israeli intelligence agencies are "semanticizing" and politicizing their assessments of Iran's nuclear program so that their two governments appear to be on the same page. It will be interesting to see if the new pronouncements force Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to adjust her previous remarks that are not exactly in line with these positions.

I just love it when government spokespersons attempt to tell you one thing when they mean something else. According to an American intelligence official, there is little disagreement between the Israeli Mossad and the U.S. intelligence community. You would not have known that had you been paying attention to the exchanges of words between Israeli and American military leaders during the recent spate of the Americans' visits to Israel.

Israeli leaders talked about the imminent threat from Tehran while the Americans spouted their "time and space" view - that we still have time for sanctions to work before the Iranians can assemble a nuclear weapon. Sanctions may have hurt the average Iranian citizen, but they have not slowed the nuclear program at all. It was this difference of opinion on the Iranian nuclear weapons program that caused Israel to advocate quick action against Iran while the United States pressured the Israelis to delay any military strikes.

The U.S. intelligence officials exact words were, "[Mossad] does not disagree with the U.S. on the weapons program...there is not a lot of dispute between the U.S. and Israeli intelligence communities on the facts." How is that for a ringing endorsement? "Does not disagree" and "not a lot of dispute" - having worked in the intelligence community for almost three decades, that sounds to me like there are significant differences between the Israeli and American positions. Use of the double negative (twice) is a giveaway.

It also sounds to me that the Israelis, for whatever reason, have decided to alter their public stance on the Iranian nuclear weapons program. I suspect the reason is pressure from the Obama Administration. I'd like to know what was promised to the Israelis to change their position - increased aid, weapons - like bigger bunker-buster bombs - intelligence, etc.? I'd also like to know if the Israelis are simply mouthing what they think their American sponsors want to hear, or do they really believe this fantasy?

Both nations now state that there is not enough proof to determine whether Iran is building a nuclear bomb. Secretary Clinton remarked shortly before the Netanyahu visit that Tehran has not decided to produce weapons. Again, having done this for a long time, there is no way one would make that remark if it were based on actual intelligence. Information that specific would have to have been derived from an extremely sensitive intelligence source - one would hope Secretary Clinton knows this and would not compromise sources. After all, that is how you get your agents killed. The fact that she is talking about it means it is an assessment, a guess or just wishful thinking. Remember, it was her intelligence bureau (albeit during the Bush Administration) that authored the now-discredited 2003 National Intelligence Assessment that Iran was not working on nuclear weapons. State Department analysts are notorious for being apologists for the Iranians.

Secretary Clinton has made some other, slightly different remarks that she may have to walk back. If what I suspect is true - that the Obama Administration has pressured Israel into accepting its dubious version of reality - her recent declaration that the United States is committed to prevent Iran from not only developing a nuclear weapon but also developing the capability to develop a nuclear weapon may not stand. I hope she means exactly what she said and we don't hear a State Department spokesperson later tell us "what the Secretary really meant" is something different.

In the past, the American intelligence community sought to distinguish between having the capability to develop nuclear weapons and actually building nuclear weapons. The former was deemed to be acceptable, while the latter was not. Mrs. Clinton's statements indicate that there is no longer such a distinction between the two according to the Obama Administration - both are unacceptable. Yet it appears the United States is pressuring Israel to make that exact distinction. So which is it, Mrs. Clinton? What is the American position?

It would appear, as I have stated before (see Netanyahu and Obama at AIPAC - a leader and a reader), I believe the overarching consideration for the American position - actually the Obama Administration position - is based on how it affects this November's presidential election.

Could the current - and convenient - American intelligence assessment that Iran is developing the capability to produce a nuclear weapon but has not actually made the decision to build a nuclear weapon be based on politics rather than on reality? When Secretary Clinton made the claim that the United States regarded the development of a nuclear weapons capability as the same as actually developing a nuclear weapon, she was reflecting reality. The Israelis have said as much - they regard the "haven't made the decision" argument as "semantic and secondary." For what it is worth, I agree with Mrs. Clinton's claim and the Israeli view.

Israeli intelligence analysts believe that once the decision is made, it may be as long as two years before Iran has a deliverable warhead for its ballistic missiles. Their concern is that Iran is moving its research, development and production facilities into hardened bunkers. At some point, Israel may not be able to launch an effective military operation against Iran's nuclear facilities.

My cynical assessment is that the Obama Administration wants to prevent an Israeli military strike on Iran in general, but to prevent it at all costs before the November election. A regional conflict and resultant soaring oil prices will not be helpful for the President's re-election campaign. Until then, the United States will work closely with Israel and pressure the Israeli leadership to wait. It remains to be seen what American policy will be after the election - that, of course, depends on who wins.

It is sad when semantics and politics intrude into intelligence and the effective conduct of foreign policy. If you think it hasn't, you're not paying attention.

March 17, 2012

Try an American soldier in an Afghan court - seriously?

Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, U.S. Army

I was contacted yesterday (March 16) by Canadian radio station Newstalk 1010 in Toronto - I have done interviews for them in the past. They wanted to talk to me about the case of Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, the U.S. Army soldier assigned to the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team (2nd Infantry Division) in Afghanistan accused of the murder of 16 Afghan civilians.

When the booking producer called, he asked if I was available to talk about the Sergeant Bales case. I initially replied that I had no special knowledge of the case and that it appeared to be pretty straightforward. The sergeant did it, he confessed, was on his way to Fort Leavenworth where he will be tried by court-martial. That's how we do things in the American military.

The producer said the two show hosts were interested in my thoughts on why the U.S. does not agree to transferring the soldier to Afghan custody for trial in the Afghan justice system under Islamic law. Since the crimes were committed in Afghanistan against Afghan nationals, why doesn't the accused face trial there?

After my scoff at the concept of "Afghan justice," I explained the concept of Status of Forces agreements, usually called SOFAs, that define how these matters are handled in each country where the United States has forces deployed. I asked him if the Canadian forces would allow one of their soldiers to be tried in an Afghan court. He conceded that I had a point and scheduled the interview.

I think the interview went well, although I did not listen to the discussion prior to my segment. I understand that the Canadians are more liberal, some would say even naive, about these things. While it sounds all "kumbaya" to want soldiers accused of crimes to be tried by the host nation, turning over an American (or Canadian or other NATO nation) soldier to a country that has no functioning government is not sound policy. How many young men and women would serve in the armed forces if they were subject to what would become arbitrary arrest, trial and punishment by any third world country in which they happen to be fighting?

In this case, the hosts are being a bit hypocritical. In December 2008, a Canadian officer was accused of murdering an Afghan detainee. He was tried by court-martial in Canada. If the Canadians don't turn their soldiers over to the Afghans, why would they expect us to do otherwise?

For those who are not aware of SOFAs, here are the current rules in effect in Afghanistan, agreed to by both governments:

U.S. military personnel are to be accorded "a status equivalent to that accorded to the administrative and technical staff" of the U.S. Embassy under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961. Thus, U.S. military and DOD civilian personnel are immune from criminal prosecution by Afghan authorities. Further, they are immune from civil and administrative jurisdiction except with respect to acts performed outside the course of their duties. The Government of Afghanistan explicitly authorized the U.S. government to exercise criminal jurisdiction over U.S. personnel, and the Government of Afghanistan is not permitted to surrender U.S. personnel to the custody of another State, international tribunal, or any other entity without consent of the U.S. government.

The immunity clauses are fairly standard, although they vary by country. In other countries, such as Europe and Japan where we have longstanding troop presence, the SOFAs also address tax liability, drivers licenses, ownership of property, importation of personal goods, employment of family members, etc. There are cases in which American military personnel have been tried for criminal violations of local laws. This is especially true in Japan where members of the Marine Corps and Air Force have been tried and imprisoned in Japan. There are also American servicemembers serving sentences in South Korean and German jails.

The hosts also asked about the soldier's defense. Sergeant Bales is being represented by a high-profile and high-priced attorney - I am not sure who is footing the bill. It is pretty apparent that there will be a mitigating circumstances defense - Sergeant Bales has been wounded twice, having lost part of his foot in Iraq and suffering a head injury. He also witnessed a comrade having his leg blown off the day before the incident.

You can listen to my remarks on the Newstalk 1010 website at

Go to the Podcasts section and either download the podcast or listen on the site. The countdown time code for my segment is from 28:10 to 23:50.

March 16, 2012

Planning considerations for military intervention in Syria

U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle of the 391st Fighter Squadron (366th Fighter Wing)

There has been a lot of talk about possible military intervention in Syria. Several U.S. Senators and Representatives have called for the imposition of a no-fly zone and offensive operations to protect civilians from the Syrian armed forces, similar to military operations in Libya a year ago. Over 8,000 civilians and defected soldiers are believed to have been killed by Syrian troops and the government-sponsored militia known as the shabihah.

For the purposes of this article, I will not debate the merits of whether or not the United States, NATO or some other combination of countries and their armed forces should intervene. As most of my readers are aware, I lived in Syria for several years while assigned to the American embassy in Damascus. I am troubled by the footage I see in the media.

Let's assume that the decision has been made to declare a no-fly zone and protect Syrian civilians from the military and security forces of Bashar al-Asad's regime. Let's also assume that the United States will take a leading role and not try to pass this off to its allies in the puzzling "lead from behind" strategy of the Libyan operation.

Some considerations.

First, let's disabuse ourselves of the notion that this can be accomplished with naval aviation. Even if we amassed several U.S. Navy carriers and some from our allies, there will not be enough offensive air power to accomplish the mission. Syria has a much more sophisticated air force and air defense system than that of Libya. Taking it down will require more force than can be launched from the decks of aircraft carriers. Carrier-based aircraft will be part of the mix, or course, as well as air and sea launched missiles, but not the major players.

For this mission to be successful, it requires land-based aviation. Not to be dismissive of carrier-based aviation, but the numbers of sorties required and the lack of stealth assets in the Navy call for more capability than a few carrier decks can support.

In contrast to carriers which can operate anywhere there are international waters, land-based aviation requires access to foreign air bases. That requires diplomacy to acquire basing rights in countries close to Syria. The most obvious venue from which to launch air operations into Syria is Turkey.

Possible air ingress routes into Syria

Turkey is a member of NATO and is home to a U.S. Air Force wing at Incirlik Air Base. There are no aircraft permanently assigned, but the infrastructure is all in place to handle deployed aircraft. The U.S. Air Force and NATO exercise this capability frequently. Incirlik is located less than 100 miles from the Syrian border, just over 100 miles to the scene of Syrian army assaults on civilians in Idlib, and about 175 miles from Homs, scene of repeated regime assaults on civilians. There are other air bases in Turkey from which aircraft could operate over Syria.

Should more air bases be required to augment Turkish air bases and whatever carriers are dedicated to the operation (virtually none were used in the Libyan operation), Saudi Arabia is an option. Saudi bases are approximately 600 miles from Syria, and about 750 miles to the southern cities which have been home to opposition activities against the government. Note that the flight route from Saudi Arabia to Syria overflies Iraq. Iraq has virtually no air defenses, so theoretically, U.S. and NATO aircraft could operate there with impunity, using Saudi airspace for air refueling.

Use of Iraqi airspace - which would not be with Iraqi permission - raises a series of issues. First, Iraq has become an ally of both Syria and Iran, to the point of allowing Iranian resupply flights en route to Syria to overfly Iraq. This is a more direct route than the traditional flight route through Turkish airspace and circumvents possible Turkish inspection of the flights. Although the United States has asked Iraq to either halt the flights or demand inspections, Iraq has refused, claiming that the flights only carry humanitarian aid. I guess we can trust the Iranians on that....

There is a possibility that Iran will attempt to defend Iraqi airspace if requested to do so by Baghdad. In addition to wanting to expand its relations with Iraq into the military arena, Iran also has a mutual defense treaty with Syria. Will Iran feel compelled to respond to a U.S.-NATO attack on its allies in Damascus? Will it do that by defending Iraqi airspace?

Another option is to secure permission from American-ally Jordan to transit Jordanian airspace from Saudi Arabia to targets in Syria. I am of the opinion that the use of Jordan's air bases is not a viable option. Use of Jordan's airspace makes the journey from Tabuk air base in northern Saudi Arabia to Syria's southern cities less than 300 miles.

The use of Jordanian airspace is more of a question than the use of Saudi airfields. Saudi Arabia is exasperated with the situation in Syria. It, along with all of the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), have closed their embassies in Damascus. Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies are wary not only of Iran's nuclear weapons program, but also its alliance with Syria. A likely outcome of intervention in Syria is the removal of the al-Asad regime and the Ba'th Party, thus a break in the Syria-Iran alliance, a move that would not be unwelcome in Riyadh.

Once the decision is made to impose a no-fly zone and mount operations to protect Syrian civilians, as in Libya, we will need to begin with the destruction or suppression of Syrian air defenses. There has been a lot of press reporting about a "formidable" air defense system. I would assess the system as large, but not necessarily formidable.

In the past, American forces have faced these supposed formidable air defenses replete with Russian radars and surface-to-air missiles. While the quality of much of Syria's equipment is questionable, they have a lot of it, and as we say often when dealing with huge numbers of usually reliable Russian weapons, "quantity has a quality all its own."

Syria's air defenses are not unlike those we faced in Iraq. There is a national air defense system that is centralized and integrated not only with a variety of surface-to-air missiles, but with air force fighter aircraft as well. In addition, there are thousands of mobile air defense missiles and antiaircraft artillery pieces attached to Syrian Army units throughout the country. On my road trips as a military attache in Syria, I was constantly impressed with the number of air defense weapons all across Syria.

That said, Israeli aircraft have had great success in neutralizing Syria's air defenses through a combination of excellent airmanship and state-of-the-art electronic warfare. There is no reason to believe that U.S. - and to some extent NATO - aircraft will not be able to operate effectively against Syrian air defenses.

There is history for that assessment. As recently as 2007, Israeli jets bombed the al-Kibar nuclear reactor in northeastern Syria, conducting the raid virtually undetected until the bombs impacted on the targets. Israeli jets have on several occasions conducted low level overflights of Bashar al-Asad's summer palace in Latakia in northern Syria, again undetected until the jet roar was heard in the hallways.

Once Syria's air defenses have been degraded to an acceptable level and the air force has either been marginalized, destroyed or deterred, then the pilots can go about the business of protecting Syrian civilians from the Syrian army and shabihah militia. With luck, as in Libya, it will lead to the fall of the as-Asad regime. It would be a good outcome - civilians will be protected, the autocratic Ba'th Party regime of Bashar al-Asad will be gone and hopefully the alliance with Iran will be over. One can only hope that without its tether to Iran, Lebanese Hizballah will collapse as well.

If - and that's a big "if" - it is determined that the introduction of ground forces are required to properly coordinate the airstrikes or work with the Syrian opposition (primarily the Free Syrian Army), these should be small, special operations teams only. We do not need to put more American troops on the ground in the Middle East unless there are real American interests at stake, and we are prepared to actually fight to win a war and not devolve into a nation-building effort.

The bottom line: Syria is not Libya, but American and NATO forces have the capability to impose a no-fly zone and protect Syrian civilians. The unknown is how much it will cost in terms of blood and treasure. After all, there will be casualties on both sides and there will be civilian deaths - it is inevitable in this environment. Does this Administration have the political will to do this? We cannot "lead from behind" on this one.

March 14, 2012

Israeli leaders depart without spy Pollard - good!

Israeli press keeping spy Jonathan Pollard's case in the public eye

As happens virtually every time there is a high-level meeting between American and Israeli leaders, the Israelis have again shamelessly asked for the release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard. This latest request came at last week's annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the largest pro-Israeli lobby in the United States. By way of disclosure, as a military analyst for a major American news network, I have been a guest on an AIPAC-funded trip to Israel.

President Barack Obama was asked by both Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in separate meetings to release Pollard. Earlier documented requests for Pollard's release by Israeli prime ministers and presidents to American presidents include:
- 1995 Yitzhak Rabin to Bill Clinton
- 1998 Benjamin Netanyahu to Bill Clinton
- 2005 Ariel Sharon to George Bush
- 2008 Ehud Olmert to Geoge Bush
- 2010 Benjamin Netanyahu to Barack Obama
- 2011 Benjamin Netanyahu to Barack Obama

Since the Israeli press is quoting Pollard's wife as saying that her husband was "devastated" that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to Israel without him, obviously President Obama stuck to his guns and refused to pardon Pollard. I am going to draw on my previous articles* to respond to the latest Israeli request.

The Israelis approach each new American Administration hoping that at some point there will be a president so naive as to agree to the release. Once a new president asks his intelligence chiefs for their assessment of the Pollard case, he quickly realizes that Pollard should rot in prison. After hearing the extent of his betrayal, most presidents probably wonder why he is allowed to be incarcerated in a rather cushy situation under medium security at the Butner Federal Correction Institution (FCI Butner) in North Carolina.

FCI Butner is located near the Research Triangle area of Durham, Raleigh, and Chapel Hill, and more resembles a campus than a prison. Notables who are incarcerated at the same facility include Bernie Madoff and Sheik Abdel-Rahman (the "blind sheik"). There are reports that Madoff and Pollard have struck up a friendship.

According to comments on Internet forums by former inmates, if you have to be in prison, Butner is the place to be. It is described as having a good Federal Prison Industries program, in case Pollard wants to build office furniture when he relocates to Tel Aviv. The prison is also non-smoking, so we don't have to worry about Jonathan being subjected to the dangers of second-hand smoke, although that might be a problem when he moves to Israel where many people still smoke.

Butner also has excellent physical fitness facilities, including an outdoor track, although by the photos of Pollard I have seen it does not look like he has been using them. Perhaps he'll want to get in shape for the beach in Netanya in 2015. Perhaps he's improved his job prospects with some education. This is from a prison life forum: "My man describes Butner like 'dorm life.' He's had great educational opportunities there. He's already received his bachelors degree and he's well on his way to getting his MBA."

As it has for the last three years, the Obama Administration should stay out of the Pollard issue. Jonathan Pollard may be regarded as a national hero in Israel, but to most American military and intelligence officials, he is traitor who sold out his country with little regard for the long-term consequences of his actions.

The full extent of the damage done by Pollard's treachery has never been made public. Much of it is still unknown since the only source of what Pollard gave to his Israeli handlers is Pollard himself. The Israeli government has never provided a complete list of what Pollard stole and provided to them, nor have they provided information on what they did with the stolen intelligence documents.

That might be a good point for President Obama to bring up the next time an Israeli leader asks for Pollard's release. Until the Israelis are forthcoming on the extent of Pollard's treachery, he can continue to be "devastated in Butner." If it was up to me, he'd be bolted into a concrete box at the Supermax penitentiary in Florence, Colorado.

Apologists for Pollard claim that spying for Israel is "not really spying" since Israel is an ally of the United States. One has to consider that blanket statement that Israel is an ally of the United States with some reticence. Israel used the information provided by Pollard as "trade material" with the Russians - during the height of the Cold War - in return for the release of Jews detained in Russia. That is hardly the action of an ally of the United States.

There is speculation that American agents, people the U.S. intelligence agencies had recruited to collect information for us at great risk, were uncovered and executed because of the information the Israelis provided to the Russians. If that is the case, Pollard should have been executed instead of being sentenced to life in prison.

There is a group of Pollard supporters who want the confessed felon released. They have a website - Justice for Jonathan Pollard - which is full of misleading information and comparisons to others who have been sentenced for the same crime. Although they claim that Pollard has been sentenced more harshly than others, they don't mention that others in the same class as Pollard - CIA officer Adrich Ames and FBI agent Robert Hanssen - were also sentenced to life in prison. My response to those given lesser sentences - the judges in those cases got it wrong; the judge in the Pollard case (as well as with Ames and Hanssen) got it exactly right.

There are also members of Congress who would have Pollard on his way to Israel. After President Obama's meetings with Peres and Netanyahu, Gary Ackerman, Barney Frank and Bob Turner called on the President to release Pollard. All them represent heavily Jewish districts and are simply playing politics with American national security.

In any case, Pollard's sentence of life imprisonment is in reality a misnomer. Because of the laws in existence at the time of his sentencing, he will be paroled after serving 30 years. That means he will be free on November 21, 2015, unless he is pardoned by the new president in 2013. Since Pollard has renounced his United States citizenship and is now solely an Israeli citizen, he will be deported to Israel when he is released from prison. He will be welcomed there with open arms - he is regarded as a national hero.

The Israelis do Pollard no favors by continually asking for his release. Every time they bring it up, it only reminds Americans of Pollard's treachery and betrayal of this country. It only strengthens Americans' resolve to keep him behind bars as long as legally possible.

Pollard is a traitor who sold out his country for money. He worked in the intelligence community (I won't insult my former colleagues by calling him an intelligence officer) and knew the rules. It doesn't matter that he spied for an "ally" - the information he gave far exceeded the scope of our intelligence relationship with Israel.

If you'd like to tell Jonathan Pollard what you think of him, write him at:

Jonathan Pollard #09185-016
FCI Butner Medium I
P.O. Box 1000
Butner, NC 27509

I have. Funny, no response....

* - Release a traitor in exchange for a settlement freeze? (September 2010)
- Israelis ask for release of Jonathan Pollard - again (January 2008).

March 7, 2012

Video analysis: Syrian Air Force delivers materiel to Hamah Air Base

This YouTube video indicates just how serious the regime of Bashar al-Asad views the uprising in the central part of Syria.

By way of background, I was a U.S. Air Force intelligence officer specializing in the Middle East for over 25 years. I speak Arabic, and served as the air attache to the American embassy in Damascus, Syria in the early and mid 1990s. I have spent a good deal of my career observing the Syrian armed forces, especially focused on the Syrian Arab Air Force and Air Defense Force. I consider myself fairly well informed on the Syrian military.

The video is titled in Arabic: "Hamah military airport and the arrival of the military vehicles to carry...."

The venue in the video is indeed Hamah Air Base, located about two miles southwest of the city center. The airfield is only slightly visible from the roads in the vicinity because of the rolling hills in the area. The videographer found one of the few spots from which it is possible to observe air base operations - I am familiar with that location.

The narrator states the date (numerous times) as March 2, 2012, and describes himself as part of the Free Syrian Army. The Free Syrian Army is an opposition group composed of defectors from the Syrian armed forces. He misidentifies the aircraft in the video as as "a civilian aircraft at a military airport in Hamah."

The Syrian Arab Air Force operates four IL-76 (NATO: CANDID) jet transport aircraft. Although they are painted in Syria Air (the national civil air carrier) livery and at times fly international charters to generate income, they belong to the air force's 29th Brigade based on the military side of Damascus International Airport.

According to the narrator, the aircraft delivered armored vehicles and ammunition for use by the "shabihah" (the government-sponsored militia responsible for much of the violence) so they can operate day and night against the citizens of Hamah and its environs.

Please note that Hamah is the nearest military air base with good road access to the areas where there have been violent protests - Homs, Al Rastan and Idlib, as well as Hamah itself.

It is highly unusual for the Syrians to use their IL-76 aircraft for these deliveries. The normal method for the Syrians to move this type of materiel is by trucks/heavy equipment transporters. It is hard to drive anywhere on Syria's roads without seeing numerous military convoys moving equipment and supplies around the country.

The fact they chose to fly materiel to Hamah indicates either a road security concern or a real sense of urgency to get the equipment there.

March 6, 2012

Netanyahu and Obama at AIPAC - a leader and a reader

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama

The recent American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) convention was an opportunity to hear senior elected Israeli and American officials speak on behalf of their countries. Representing Israel were President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and representing the United States was President Barack Obama. In Israel, the president is the head of state, but it is the prime minister who is the head of government and wields the real power. Thus, it was the remarks of Prime Minister Netanyahu that drew the most attention, as did those of President Obama.

The main topic of both the Israeli prime minister and the American president was predictably Iran and its quest for nuclear weapons. Both spoke about their countries' assessment of the Iranian nuclear program and actions they believe are required to prevent the Islamic Republic from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. The Israelis have no doubt that the Iranians are developing a nuclear weapon; the U.S. intelligence community has surprisingly not yet made that determination.

It is important to dissect the words "nuclear weapons capability." In the past, the American intelligence community sought to distinguish between having the capability to develop nuclear weapons and actually building them. The former was deemed to be acceptable, while the latter was not. If one can believe Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's words, the Administration no longer makes that differential. Mrs. Clinton said that the Obama Administration is committed to prevent Iran from not only developing a nuclear weapon but the capability to develop a nuclear weapon. I hope she means exactly that and we don't hear a State Department spokesperson later tell us "what the Secretary really meant" is something different.

Although President Obama spoke on Monday, and Prime Minister Netanyahu on Tuesday, let me address the Prime Minister's remarks first.

Benjamin Netanyahu with the author - Jerusalem 2006

I was not particularly surprised by anything Netanyahu had to say - I have been hearing the same message from him since I discussed this with him prior to him becoming prime minister. His words as leader of the opposition carried the same message - a nuclear armed Iran constitutes an existential threat to the state of Israel and Israel will not put itself in the position of being faced with that threat. Israeli leaders often invoke the memory of the Holocaust and its resultant legacy - "never again."

Netanyahu stated that Israel has waited patiently for the international community to address the Iranian nuclear program. Many Israelis feel that the rest of the world sees Iran's nuclear ambitions as an Israeli problem and want Israel to solve it. Mr. Netanyahu believes Iran is an international issue and wants the international community to solve it. Israel has watched the United Nations and the United States try to change Iran's behavior through peaceful means, to no avail. Israel has waited for diplomacy to work, has waited for sanctions to work, but believe that the Jewish state is now running out of time.

The Prime Minister was unequivocal in his resolve - Israel reserves the right to defend itself, and will exercise that right if it believes that is in its national interest and when they believe it is in their national interest. Given their history, it's understandable.

These are the words of a leader.

Now to President Obama's remarks.

Someone listening to the President for the first time would conclude that he stands shoulder to shoulder with the Israelis, that he is willing, in the end, to use American military might to take action against Iran if all other options fail. The listener would also conclude that the United States has pursued a deliberate course of diplomacy, followed by increasing levels of sanctions and at all times has been willing to listen to the Iranians should they decide to accept the wisdom of the leader of the free world and reject a program they have been pursuing almost to the exclusion for all others at great expense for years.

That is what the ever eloquent, polished orator - President Obama - wants you to believe. The man can read a teleprompter. The words were all there, carefully chosen, probably run by a focus group or two, with just enough American bravado to appeal to the average listener here and in Israel. When all is said and done, however, the only audience that matters is the senior Israeli leadership - they are who this song and dance was written for. Mr. Obama must convince Prime Minister Netanyahu and his inner circle that the President is sincere in his proclamation that the United States - in this case the President of the United States - "has his back."

Given the parade of senior American political and military officials that have visited Israel in the recent past telling the Israelis that attacking Iran is a bad idea, the President's words are a bit puzzling. I realize he is asking the Israelis to give his endless and fruitless diplomatic efforts and the heretofore weak sanctions more time to succeed, but does he think they will buy it?

The sanctions are hurting the Iranian people, yes, but there is no indication that the nuclear weapons program has been affected at all. In fact, the program seems to have gained steam as the levels of sanctions increase. It is hard to imagine the Iranian leadership abandoning their number one priority because its people are suffering under sanctions easily blamed on the West (primarily the United States).

You can bet that Iranian political analysts were watching as well. I imagine their assessment of the speech is fairly close to mine. The remarks, although delivered very convincingly, were an attempt to delay any Israeli military action beyond the U.S presidential election in November. Forget American military action prior to that - Mr. Obama believes that another Middle East military campaign will cost him any chance he has for a second term. That's probably a fair judgement given his disastrous handling of the end of the Iraq war and his current conduct of operations in Afghanistan. (For my views on that, see my article: Mr. President, tell me again why we're in Afghanistan?)

The Obama strategy - tell the Israelis (and Americans) what they want to hear and stall any Israeli unilateral strike on Iran until the elections are over. After the elections, revert to the usual Obama Administration shoddy treatment of Israel and maintain the Iranian crisis at a level that does not require anything other than calls for diplomacy and sanctions. At some point, the Iranian program will have progressed beyond the point of no return and an Israeli military operation will no longer be a viable option.

Mr. Obama's eloquence is remarkable - he can work an audience. However, I fear his words are the words of a reader, but not a leader.

I know it, the Israelis know it, and yes, the Iranians know it.

March 1, 2012

U.S. senior officers' remarks on military actions against Iran

U.S. Air Force GBU-57A/B Massive Ordnance Penetrator

Over the last few days, the usually quiet U.S. Air Force chief of staff, General Norton Schwartz, made some surprising - and revealing - remarks about possible American military actions against Iran. The general's remarks come at a time when the senior American military officer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army General Martin Dempsey, appeared to be warning Israel not to take independent military action against Iran.

In a Senate committee meeting, General Dempsey denied that he advised Israel against an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. It's semantics - his words, "A strike at this time would be destabilizing and wouldn’t achieve their long-term objectives. I wouldn’t suggest, sitting here today, that we’ve persuaded them that our view is the correct view and that they are acting in an ill-advised fashion."

When the senior officer of the armed forces of the United States of America tells someone that their actions are "ill-advised" and will not "achieve your long-term objectives," he is advising them against taking action.

General Dempsey also revealed that he discussed the Obama Administration's concept - which I assume comes from the politicized and overly cautious U.S. intelligence community - of "the issue of time," which is part and parcel of the White House construct of "time and space" when describing the Iranian nuclear weapons program.

Oh, there I go again, calling it a nuclear weapons program. The White House and intelligence community call it only the "Iranian nuclear program." The only people who fail to admit that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon are the usual apologists for Iran at the State Department.

The "time and space" analysis posits that the Iranians are far from the actual development of a nuclear weapon. It also draws a distinction between having the capability to develop a nuclear weapon and the actual construction of a device. In a rather startling statement for this Administration, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seemed to claim that the Administration regards the capability to develop a weapon as the same as possessing a weapon (see my earlier article, Secretary Clinton, where are the "crippling" sanctions on Iran?). As to how accurate the time argument is remains to be seen, but this is one in which we need to err on the side of caution rather than giving the benefit of the doubt to the Islamic fundamentalist regime in Tehran.

You will remember General Dempsey for his earlier description of Iran as a "rational actor" - General Dempsey was excoriated for that characterization. He defended his description by saying, "We can’t afford to underestimate our potential adversaries by writing them off as irrational." General Dempsey is absolutely right - in their own world, they are extremely rational.

Understanding the Iranian regime is not difficult - they have spelled out what their goals and intentions are. Acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability fits their plans quite handily. They will take whatever actions are necessary to achieve that goal. It is starkly rational.

The Obama Administration, in the form of Secretary Clinton, has said - only recently, it is a campaign season after all - that it will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. Of course, saying it and enforcing it are two different things. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and General Dempsey have both claimed that an American military option remains on the table.

In that vein, it was heartening to hear General Schwartz talk about U.S. Air Force planning and munitions developments. The Air Force chief confirmed that his officers have prepared military options to strike Iran's nuclear facilities. The remarks come just before the scheduled visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Washington.

Press reports claim that some of the American plans include providing aerial refueling for Israeli planes and attacking the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iranian military bases, and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security. The most likely venue for the refueling of Israeli fighter jets - all of which are compatible with U.S. Air Force tankers - is over Iraq. Iraq has no air defenses and no air forces capable of preventing Israeli and American operations over the country.

There are also stories in media - possibly released at this opportune moment - that the U.S. Air Force's new and huge "bunker buster" bombs (see photo) could take out Iran's hardened nuclear facilities. In General Schwartz's words, "You wouldn't want to be in the area."

General Schwartz's comments refer to recent reporting of the development and testing of the GBU-57A/B massive ordnance penetrator (MOP), the latest iteration of Air Force "bunker busters." The GBU-57A/B is a 30,000 pound bomb capable of penetrating up to 60 feet of concrete. Each of the U.S. Air Force's B-2 bombers can carry two of these massive weapons. It would appear that - as you would hope - the Air Force is preparing for possible military operations in Iran. At least we are contemplating action to back up the usually empty rhetoric.

This is why we have an air force.

Secretary Clinton, where are the "crippling" sanctions on Iran?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

For three years now, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been promising "crippling" sanctions on the regime in Iran if it did not open its nuclear facilities to international inspection and halt its uranium enrichment program. I wish she would at least call the Iranian program what it is - an effort to develop a nuclear weapon. Thus far, the sanctions that have been imposed on Iran have not had any real effect on the nuclear program - Tehran has been enriching uranium for years, despite cyber attacks on the centrifuges and assassinations of key nuclear scientists. 

I am not convinced that the sanctions that the Obama Administration is legally obligated to impose will have any effect either. Here's why:

The new sanctions, mandated by Congress in the National Defense Authorization Act, will target any private foreign financial institutions that "knowingly conduct or facilitate any significant financial transaction" with Iran's central bank for any purpose other than the purchase of petroleum or petroleum products.

That's not a typo - other than the purchase of petroleum or petroleum products. In other words, Iran is free to sell its oil and refined products without any penalty. The penalty is only imposed when a bank facilitates the purchase of other Iranian products. Like what - pistachios? Weapons? Iran doesn't sell weapons to its ally Syria or its terrorist group proxies - it just provides them.

Iran makes its money from the export of oil. Iran is the world's fifth largest oil exporter and the second-biggest OPEC producer after Saudi Arabia. If you seriously want to sanction the Iranian regime, you need to limit their ability to sell that oil. Closing off access to the international banking system is an excellent way to do that. We know it will be effective - it was when this level of sanction was proposed that Iran retaliated by threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz. That threat validated the potential effectiveness of the proposed sanction. So why aren't we doing what we know will be effective?

The Administration is trying to have to have it both ways. It wants to appear to be imposing the "crippling" sanctions it has been promising for over three years. In that three years, while the Administration has been taken in by repeated Iranian offers to re-open negotiations that never go anywhere, Iranian physicists and engineers have continued to refine uranium and develop other nuclear weapons components.

The Administration wants to appear tough while not imposing the effective sanctions that will limit Iran's ability to sell its oil. Why? They are concerned that the price of oil will rise to levels that might stymie the weak economic recovery around the world, especially in the United States, as the presidential campaign season gets underway. It's a dangerous balancing act - hope the Iranians do not develop nuclear weapons while you allow them to export as much oil as they wish when it is possible to stop them in their tracks with the sanctions you know will be effective. It's a question of priorities - work to keep Iran from having a nuclear weapon or work to ensure your reelection. Let me guess how that calculation will go....

Some good news, though, from the Secretary. Just this week, she clarified that the Obama Administration is committed to prevent Iran from not only developing a nuclear weapon but the capability to develop a nuclear weapon. It is not merely a semantic difference, it is a clear statement that we will not allow the Iranians to do what previous national intelligence estimates have used as an excuse to not declare Iran's program a nuclear weapons develop program - to develop all the tools and capabilities to build a weapon, but not actually assemble a device. That was semantics from an over-cautious politicized intelligence community.

Of course, Secretary Clinton has made other statements that seem to contradict her supposed tough stance on Iran.

"What we are intending to do is to ratchet up these sanctions as hard and fast as we can, follow what's going on inside Iran, which seems to be a lot of economic pressures that we think does have an impact on decision-making."

Poor syntax aside, if she really means what she says, why are we not imposing the "crippling" sanctions we know will work, the "crippling" sanctions she and the President have been promising for years?