July 30, 2012

Syria - the battle for Aleppo

Aleppo, Syria - حلب، سوريا

Aleppo is critical for the opposition, but not so much for the regime. The real battle will be for Damascus.

The battle for Aleppo, which started a few weeks ago, has now been joined in earnest. The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad has committed armor, artillery, attack aircraft and helicopter gunships to the fight, wreaking devastation on one of the world's oldest and continuously-inhabited cities.

Aleppo is by far the most important confrontation between the regime and opposition since the uprising began 16 months ago. The outcome will have a profound effect on the future of the rebellion. The battle for Aleppo has much greater ramifications for the opposition than the regime. If the regime is successful in crushing the opposition in Aleppo - which it appears intent on doing regardless of the damage to one of the world's most important historical cities - it may deal a fatal blow to the Free Syrian Army.

Bashar al-Asad, like his father Hafiz before him, has spent almost his entire time in power developing a network of supporters throughout the Ba'th Party and Syrian government (some would argue that it is one and the same), including the Syrian armed forces. While the Syrian military may be no match for the Israelis or the Turks, they are certainly capable of employing overwhelming force against ill-equipped and poorly trained volunteer fighters. The regime soldiers and airmen also seem willing to kill their own people for Bashar al-Asad. Say what you will, al-Asad has proven himself to be a capable politician, able to engender a level of support that is surprising.

I believe that al-Asad has decided that he must crush the opposition in Aleppo. He could have made a similar decision months ago when the main venue for the uprising was in the central cities of Homs and Hamah. At that time, the president likely believed that the opposition was going to be a short-lived phenomenon and did not warrant the level of military force we are now observing in Aleppo.

As the fighting spread to the northern area, closer to the al-Asad family home near Latakia and an opposition-supporting Turkey, it appears that the president determined that the situation required stronger military action. In the recent past, we have seen the commitment of additional army units, backed by armor, artillery and combat aviation.

As I watched the footage of the coverage of the fighting in Aleppo, I noted that the Syrian military units are equipped with T-72 tanks. The T-72 is used by the best units in the Syrian military, those being the trusted and what we call the "regime protection units," such as the Republican Guard and the 4th Armor Division. The officers in these units are mostly of the same 'Alawite sect as the president and are beholden to the regime for their livelihood. Now that the country is in a virtual civil war, these officers have cast their futures with the president. When the al-Asad regime falls, these officers will have to answer for their actions.

Can the regime survive a military setback in Aleppo? Does pulling out and allowing the opposition to control the city mean the end of the regime? Unfortunately not. While a loss for the opposition could sufficiently weaken it to the point where they are no longer effective, a loss for the regime will not have the same effect. While Aleppo is important from a psychological standpoint, it is not Damascus.

Damascus has been, is and will continue to be the center of gravity for whoever rules Syria. A look at the deployment of the Syrian armed forces underscores the relative geopolitical importance of Damascus versus Aleppo. The vast majority of Syria's military forces are arrayed south and south west of Damascus. Why? That's where Syria believes its major foreign threat to be - Israel. The Syrian army is deployed in an arc mostly south and to the west of the capital to defend Damascus against an Israeli thrust over the Golan Heights up the major established road network. It is the same roads used for centuries - it includes the road used by Saint Paul on the famed "road to Damascus."

The Syrian military is also deployed to the southwest of the city to protect the centuries-old attack routes through Lebanon's south Biqa' Valley, followed by a pivot to the east and an attack through the passes to Damascus. It has been used by countless attackers since antiquity up to the French at the Battle of Maysalun in 1920.

The major combat elements of the Syrian Air Force and Syrian missile forces are deployed in the south of the country at bases and positions that would facilitate defense from an attack by the Israelis, or to facilitate an attack on the Israelis. There is almost no military power arrayed in the north of Syria, in the area of Aleppo. Most of Syria's training bases and military industry is in the north, but as far as real military power, almost none.

The battle of Aleppo will be a harbinger of things to come. If the opposition is defeated by overwhelming military force, which it might be since the Bashar al-Asad regime seems to have no reticence about turning its military - the armed forces built to fight the superior Israel Defense Forces - on its civilian population, it may well portend the end of the uprising. The opposition cannot afford to lose in Aleppo - for them it is do or die.

On the other hand, the al-Asad regime can sustain a setback and regroup its vastly superior military might to fight another day. The two sides have adopted interesting rhetoric: the opposition is calling Aleppo the "grave of the regime" while the regime is touting the Saddam terminology of the "mother of all battles."*

Of course, that is Aleppo. The real battle will be for Damascus.

* The phrase um ma'arik (mother of battles) has been translated to "mother of all battles." It is a fairly common Arabic language construct that has been sensationalized in the press.

July 25, 2012

Syrian air attacks on Aleppo

This video was taken by members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Aleppo (Arabic: Halab), Syria's largest city located in the north of the country.

BBC has reported it as MiG fighters, the FSA calls it a "warplane of MiG design" (ta'irah harbiyah bisamam al-migh). My gisted interpretation of the Arabic in the clip:

"He's attacking...look, look...a warplane of MiG design, 24/7/2012...God is great...24/7/2012, a warplane is bombing neighborhoods of the city of Aleppo...."

The aircraft is actually an L-39ZA Czech-built trainer with a light attack capability. The ZA variant, of which Syria has several squadrons, can carry a 23mm twin-barrelled cannon in a conformal under-fuselage pod, as well as four pylons for air-to-ground bombs and air-to-air missiles. It is an effective counterinsurgency platform in a low-threat environment, hence its appearance in the skies over Aleppo.

Syrian Air Force L-39 tail number 2090 (courtesy Luftwaffe A.S)

Given Syria's admission that it possesses chemical and possibly biological weapons - which was no secret - and reports that Syrian President Bashar al-Asad has actually considered their use, the appearance of counterinsurgency aircraft is of concern. The aircraft can carry two 500 kilogram (1,100 pounds) bombs, one of the chemical weapon delivery methods in the Syrian inventory.

The Syrian L-39ZA squadrons are based in the Aleppo area, with the primary mission of advanced pilot training. The two bases, Rasn al-'Abud and Jirah, are only minutes by air from Aleppo. The chemical weapons are produced in the Aleppo area, but the known Syrian stockpiles are further south, west of Homs and near the airbase at Dumayr. Moving bombs over Syria's fairly good roads from either of these locations would be easy and take only a few hours.

Obviously, Bashar has supporters not only in the Syrian army, but also in the Syrian air force. They also show no reticence in attacking their own people - the aircraft does appear to be firing at the beginning of the clip (at 0:03/0:04 seconds).

If someone (read: US and NATO) is looking for a reason for a no-fly zone, here it is.

July 23, 2012

Syria's potential use of chemical weapons?

Syrian chemical warfare facilities

Two months ago, I wrote an article about Syria's chemical weapons (Syria's chemical weapons and the uprising) in which I said, "Syria has not admitted that it possesses chemical weapons, but it is hardly a secret. It is believed to have the largest stockpile of undeclared chemical weapons in the world, including the most lethal chemical warfare agent ever developed, the persistent nerve agent VX."

Today, a spokesman for the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Jihad Maqdisi, appeared to make the first admission that Syria does indeed possess chemical and possibly biological weapons. It is a stunning admission, but Muqdisi is young and inexperienced. Watch for the Syrian government to "clarify" his remarks. No matter, as I said earlier, Syria's chemical weapons capabilities are hardly a secret.

Maqdisi's other comments have received wide coverage in the media, but with conflicting headlines. The Associated Press reports, "Syria says will use chemical weapons if attacked," while Agence France Press reports, "Syria vows not to use chemical weapons." Both are technically correct and technically incorrect. These headlines show the difference in how various new services report information, and are symptomatic of the sad state of journalism today.

Maqdisi said, in English, "No chemical or biological weapons will ever be used, and I repeat, will never be used, during the crisis in Syria no matter what the developments inside Syria. All of these types of weapons are in storage and under security and the direct supervision of the Syrian armed forces and will never be used unless Syria is exposed to external aggression."

That sounds all well and good, but keep in mind that the Syrian regime has constantly referred to the opposition as terrorist and foreign extremists, thus opening the door to the use of such weapons.

Would the regime of Bashar al-Asad use chemical weapons on Syrian territory against its own people? Hard to say, but who could have imagined Syrian army artillery batteries on Jabal Qasiyun overlooking Damascus shelling sections of the world's longest continually-inhabited city?

Bashar al-Asad has proven to the world that he will not depart the scene peacefully, that he will have to removed with force. The Syrian opposition is prepared to do just that. If desperate enough to kill almost 20,000 of his own people, Bashar may be desperate enough to order his forces to respond with his arsenal of chemical weapons - he also possesses the means to deliver the weapons.

Thanks to Mr. Maqdisi's comments, I expect to see declarations by the Israelis and possibly the United States that they have readied special operations forces to secure Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles not only to prevent their use, but equally as important, to prevent them from falling into the hands of terrorist groups, of which there is no shortage of in Syria. In particular, Israel is concerned that the weapons may end up in the arsenal of Hizballah, the Iranian-sponsored Lebanese terrorist group.

I was also surprised by Maqdisi's inclusion of biological weapons. The 2006 assessment provided to Congress stated that Syria did not have a weaponized biological agent. Perhaps Maqdisi misspoke, or perhaps he let something slip. No matter, the mere fact that an official of the Syrian government is even talking about chemical and biological weapons should raise red flags in the region and around the world.

I wonder how the Russians view these remarks. Are they still standing beside Bashar al-Asad? Do they really want to be seen supporting a leader who may use chemical or biological weapons on his own people? That puts Bashar on the same level of Saddam Husayn, who killed as many as 5,000 of his own citizens with chemical weapons in 1988.

Will Syrian officers, if ordered to do so by their commander in chief, use chemical weapons on their fellow Syrians? The al-Asads, first Hafiz and now his son Bashar, have had over 40 years to consolidate their power base and mold the armed forces into a loyal, regime-protection military. Almost all senior officers have been vetted for their loyalty to the regime and Ba'th Party - everything they have is dependent upon the survival of the regime.

I don't know if the Syrian military officers would follow the orders to use chemical weapons, but I wouldn't bet my family's life on them not.

Syria, the uprising and Mezzeh

Some personal thoughts on recent events in Syria from the perspective of having lived in Damascus for several years.

Over the past few days, there have been clashes in the city of Damascus, specifically in the al-Maydan, Kafr Susah, al-Rukn and al-Mizzih (usually spelled Mezzeh in the media) sections of the city. I am intimately familiar with these areas, especially the last two. The U.S. embassy, where my office was located, is in Abu Rumanah, adjacent to al-Rukn, and we lived in the al-filat al-gharbiyah (West Villas) section of Mezzeh. (See red dot on map above for approximate location of our apartment.)

Mezzeh was a pleasant place to live - numerous ambassadors and attaches lived in the area. We lived across the street from the Cuban ambassador, but we did not have any contact except the occasional buenos dias as we drove out of our respective driveways. The area was safe, especially on our street (Taha Husayn street) - the house on the corner was that of Ahmad Jibril, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), a terrorist organization with American blood on its hands. Between Jibril's guard force and the Syrian guards watching the PFLP-GC guards, the area was notoriously safe.

The main street of Mezzeh is called the autostrade, from the French, home of numerous embassies and United Nations facilities. To get to work, I drove on the autostrade to 'Umayad Square, which is actually a large multi-lane traffic circle referred to by Westerners as "Oh my God circle" because of the Syrian drivers careening into and out of the circle.

It is on these same streets that we now see Syrian army tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers, while the skies over the upscale area are dotted with Mi-8/17 (NATO: HIP) armed assault helicopters.

It is no longer the city that I knew and in a way, loved. Syria was then and is now ruled by a iron-fisted dictatorship. I was there to represent the United States, specifically the Department of Defense and the United States Air Force. There were only perfunctory contacts between the military establishments of the two countries, usually limited to my handling of the military aircraft used for Secretary of State visits and one visit by then-President Bill Clinton. (See my earlier article, The President, the Secret Service and me....)

That said, I made many friends with "normal" Syrians, those not affiliated with the Syrian regime. Most of them were not supporters of the al-Asad government, but had little choice and virtually no input into the running of the country. Are all of them in favor of removing that same dictatorial regime? Surprisingly, no. Many of them fear - rightly so - what will come when (and I think it is safe to say when, not if) the Ba'th Party regime is removed.

There is an abiding fear among many Syrians that the replacement government will likely be dominated by the Islamists, specifically the Muslim Brotherhood. Many of the people I knew and am still in contact with fear their secular existence will come to an end. Those not in the mainstream Sunni sect of Islam - the 'Alawites, Christians, Druze, Jews, Kurds, etc. - fear their freedom of religion will basically evaporate as an Islamic regime is imposed.

I hope that does not happen, but I fear that it is a distinct possibility.

July 5, 2012

Chasing Demons from the Middle East to the Balkans

The Middle East is always unstable, but it’s more volatile now than it has been in years. Syria’s civil war threatens to spill over its borders into Lebanon. Egyptian voters sent the radical Islamist Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi to the presidential palace in Cairo. The Israelis are publicly mulling the option of a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities. Tehran is threatening a massive retaliation against American military bases in the Persian Gulf region. The Turkish navy just recovered the bodies of air force pilots shot down over the Mediterranean by the Syrian government, bringing NATO one step closer to military intervention in the Levant.

Now is as good a time as any to hit up Rick Francona again for his take on all this. Read the article