November 29, 2012

Quoted in an article - Syrian helicopter deliveries

Over the past few weeks, I have been assisting ProPublica in its reporting of Syrian transport aircraft activity. I was quoted in their latest article - here it is in its entirety, my comment in bold.

To Retrieve Attack Helicopters from Russia, Syria Asks Iraq for Help, Documents Show

Syrian attack helicopters (SANA, via Agence France-Presse, Getty Images)
by Michael Grabell, Dafna Linzer, and Jeff Larson, Nov. 29, 2012, 5:17 p.m.

In late October, Syria asked Iraqi authorities to grant air access for a cargo plane transporting refurbished attack helicopters from Russia, according to flight records obtained by ProPublica. With Turkish and European airspace off limits to Syrian arms shipments, the regime of Bashar al-Assad needs Iraq’s air corridor to get the helicopters home, where the government is struggling to suppress an uprising.

Iraq regained control of its airspace from the U.S. military just a year ago and has been under intense diplomatic pressure from the United States to isolate the Syrian regime. Turkey says it has closed its airspace to Syrian flights, and if Iraq did so, Syria would be virtually cut off from transporting military equipment by plane. European Union sanctions have already constricted arms transport by sea and air.

But it is unclear whether Iraq permitted the fly-overs described in the documents. The Syrian cargo plane scheduled to pick up the helicopters did not land or take off from Moscow at the appointed times this month, suggesting that those flights did not happen.

Some of the flight request documents have been posted by hackers associated with the online collective Anonymous and formed the basis of a Time story Thursday. Other documents were obtained separately by ProPublica, which reported Monday that Syria appears to have flown 240 tons of bank notes from Moscow this summer. The authenticity of the documents in either cache could not be independently verified.

But taken together, the documents appear to contain new information. They show that Baghdad has requested several times to inspect other Syrian flights that were going to pass over Iraq from Iran and Russia, something that U.S. officials confirmed to ProPublica.

According to a cargo manifest dated Oct. 30, the helicopter the Syrians were going to pick up is an Mi-25, a Russian-made gunship that experts liken to a cross between an Apache and a Black Hawk helicopter because it can fire from the air and transport troops.

“Mi-25s are very important to the Syrian Air Force effort against the rebels,” said Jeffrey White, former chief of the Middle East intelligence division for the Defense Intelligence Agency and now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It’s a heavily armored military helicopter, which makes it very difficult for the rebels to shoot down.”

Videos have been posted online that appear to show Syrian Mi-25s attacking rebels, and Syria has reportedly been struggling to maintain the helicopters.
Still, the documents leave many questions unanswered. Crucially, it is not known whether the overflights actually happened.

A U.S. diplomatic official told ProPublica that the United States has been working with the Iraqi government to stop such flights. “We have urged them directly to insist that the inspection of those flights occur or deny overflight rights,” the official said. “We have raised this concern and they have taken a couple steps in the right direction — either denying overflight rights if they believe arms are being shipped to Syria or insisting on an inspection.”

But, State Department and Pentagon officials have not provided information on the particular request made in the documents. Iraqi and Russian officials did not respond to questions.

The first two flights were scheduled for Nov. 21 and Nov. 28, but a photographer hired by ProPublica did not observe the cargo plane at the Moscow airport where it was supposed to land and then take off just three hours later. Nor could the flights be confirmed with international tracking services that have recorded the plane’s movements in the past.

Two more flights are scheduled for Dec. 3 and Dec. 6 , according to the records.

The Assad regime has been trying to suppress a popular uprising for almost two years. Tens of thousands of people have reportedly died in the fighting. On Thursday, dispatches described intense clashes on the main road to the Damascus International Airport, and at least one airline was reported to have canceled flights. Most of the Internet in the country was shut down as well.

Russia’s prime minister, Dmitri Medvedev, said this week in an interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro that arms shipments are part of a longstanding contract with the Syrian military to repair equipment for “defense against an external aggression.”

“We must fulfill the obligations connected to our contracts,” Medvedev said, noting that Russia has faced a legal conflict after suspending some arms deliveries to Iran.

Syria has found it increasingly difficult to transport helicopters. In June, a ship carrying three Mi-25 helicopters from Russia to Syria was forced to turn back after the ship’s insurer withdrew coverage in response to sanctions. A month later, a second attempt to deliver the helicopters by sea was aborted.

The newly obtained flight documents show that Syria planned to use its Ilyushin IL-76 cargo plan to pick up helicopters at Ramenskoye Airport, also known as Zhukovsky Airport, near Moscow. The manifest describes the cargo as an “old helicopter after overhaulling [sic].” A second document, sent to the Syrian embassy in Baghdad, identifies the helicopters as Mi-25s.

Officials at Russian Helicopters, which makes the Mi-25, and Ilyushin, which makes the IL-76, said one Mi-25 with its blades removed would fit into an IL-76. Such helicopters have been shipped this way all over the world, they said.

Rick Francona, who was the U.S. air attaché in Damascus in the 1990s, said that using a cargo plane instead of a ship suggested the Assad regime was getting desperate.

“If they’re willing to use an IL-76 to bring one or two helicopters back, that tells me they need these right now,” he said. “Rather than getting it there in 10 days, it gets there in five hours. You can pull it out, reattach the blades and have in the air the next day.”

U.S. officials have expressed particular frustration with Russia over the Syrian conflict, which began in March 2011.

“I think we’ve been very clear, both publicly and privately, how we feel about any country, Russia included, supporting the Assad regime in any way,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Wednesday. “And it doesn’t simply go to the question of military support; it also goes for any kind of economic or political support.”

In June, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Russian aid with Syria’s attack helicopters would escalate the civil war “quite dramatically.” But a week later, a Pentagon spokesman declined to answer whether the Defense Department would try to stop future helicopter shipments.

The records obtained by ProPublica list the Russian 150 Aircraft Repair Plant as the charterer of the flights to pick up the helicopters. The documents show the firm was operating under a contract dated Nov. 27, 2005. The address listed for the charterer is in Kaliningrad, a Russian territory between Poland and Lithuania that contains large Russian military installations.

As with the currency shipments, the flight records show the Syrian cargo plane would take a circuitous route back from Moscow, flying over Azerbaijan and Iran before crossing Iraq.

Iraqi airspace has largely been controlled by the U.S. Air Force since the American-led invasion in 2003. Indeed, the overflight request form used by Syria for the helicopters was created by the U.S. Air Force and still bears the old contact information for the regional air command, which is no longer in charge.

Last year, the United States began transferring air traffic control responsibilities to the Iraq Civil Aviation Authority. The Iraqis assumed control of the last sector, over Baghdad, in October 2011.

November 27, 2012

Syrian opposition ups the ante with SAMs

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) has demonstrated the capability to take air defense to more than just the artillery level. There are videos showing FSA fighters holding the SA-7, captured stocks of SA-16 and SA-24 missiles, but this is the first recorded success against a Syrian Air Force aircraft using a missile.

Thus far in the almost two-year long civil war, the FSA has been able to down over 100 aircraft - about half of them helicopters - using anti-aircraft artillery, especially the ZPU-1 14.5mm gun. The ability to extend their range to over 10,000 feet complicates the regime's air strategy.

I am surprised that this pilot was operating within the envelope of the Sa-7/16/24 - the Syrian Air Force fixed wing (MiG-23, Su-22, Su-24, L-39) pilots have been popping flares, and flying at the outside edge of the shoulder-fired weapons' employment envelopes at high altitudes. They know the FSA has these missiles at their disposal.

One can only hope that the western intelligence services - the American CIA, British SIS and French DGSE are supplying and/or training the FSA on the use of these weapons. I hearken back to an earlier day in my career and the use of the Stinger missile in Afghanistan.

Video of a surface-to-air missile hitting a Syrian Air Force Mi-8 (HIP) helicopter about 12 miles west of Aleppo, November 27, 2012. On the audio track at 0:03, someone says, "Missile, missile." At 0:08, after the cheers, we hear, "It hit a military aircraft." In the background, another says, "It's catching on fire." At 0:22, the photographer says, "Helicopter [down] in the west Aleppo suburbs."

A still taken from the above video of as the heat-seeking missile homes in on the engine exhaust. Note the corkscrew smoke pattern typical of Russian-made shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles.

This still shows the detonation of the missile warhead. The warheads of these portable air defense weapons is relatively small, about 2.5 pounds of high explosive material. While it appears to be a catastrophic hit, the pilot was able to maintain flight for a few seconds as he attempted to get to the ground safely. I am not sure if that was a survivable landing, but it did exhibit good airmanship. Whether you agree with the pilot's politics, you have to recognize his piloting skills.

The regime's most potent weapon against the opposition - the FSA - is air power. Unless the opposition can neutralize the Syrian Air Force's total domination of the air space over the battlefield, at some point they will not be able to continue the fight. When the FSA leadership is asked about their main concern, it is the Syrian Air Force.

Despite the Syrian Air Force's limited capabilities - almost half of its pilots are grounded for political security reasons - it still remains as the key threat to the success of the revolution. Note the single-ship attacks, the limited use of advance aircraft - this is by no means a reliable asset of the government. More shoot downs like today will only undermine that capability.

Just like in Afghanistan in the 1980's, it's about air power, and the ability to deny it to the enemy.

November 23, 2012

Israel-Hamas ceasefire - too soon to have lasting effects

Gaza (Hamas) Prime Minister Isma'il Haniyah celebrates ceasefire in Gaza
(Photo: Reuters)

The loud and boisterous celebrations in Gaza area hailing not a ceasefire with Israel, but a victory over Israel. It does not matter that the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip endured eight days of devastating air strikes, it does not matter that 161 Palestinians, including 71 civilians, died while their "forces," a terrorist organization funded and equipped by Iran, were only able to kill six Israelis (two soldiers and four civilians) - in their minds, they won.

Look at the photos of the revelry in the streets of Gaza. This is not merely a perception of "victory" crafted by the Hamas public relations effort - the Gazans honestly believe that they have humbled the Jewish state.

In a way, they have.

As I wrote last week when this latest round between Hamas and Israel began (read the entire article at Israel and Gaza - here we go again:

"We seem to go through this drill every few years. The Israelis endure as many attacks as they are willing to tolerate, then conduct a punitive operation against Islamist elements in Gaza. Predictably, there will be a huge public outcry of the disproportionate nature of the response, the United Nations will call for a cessation of the violence (that's code for demanding Israel stop, but not so much the Palestinians), and Israel will stop short of destroying HAMAS's ability to fire more rockets. Here we go again."

And here we are again - Israel again has stopped short of destroying Hamas's ability to fire more rockets. Actually, it is even worse this time - they have emboldened the Palestinian militants. Whether it is true or not, the fighters of the military wing of Hamas - the 'Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigade - believe that their rockets deterred the Israelis from launching a ground incursion into Gaza to locate and destroy the groups weapons and kill as many of the group that they could.

Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and the author in Jerusalem

I wonder why the Israelis, specifically Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak chose not to invade. The air assault on Gaza was beginning to show dividends, and Israel's Iron Dome anti-rocket defense system was surprisingly effective against Hamas's Iranian rockets aimed at civilian areas. Of course, world public opinion had labeled the Israelis as the aggressors, but that was nothing new - what do you expect from a basically anti-Semitic Europe and United Nations?

What other factors influenced the Israeli leadership to stop when it did? After the mobilization of thousands of reservists and deployment of the best combat units in the Israel Defense Forces to the Gaza border, after a punishing air campaign to prepare the battlefield for the impending combined arms thrust into Gaza on multiple axes, the Israelis agree to a ceasefire when the objectives of the operation have not been met. That assumes the objective was to eliminate or reduce Hamas's capabilities to fire rockets into Israel's population centers (that's Israeli domestic code for Tel Aviv and Jerusalem). I just do not believe Netanyahu's upbeat assessment that "the offensive's aims of halting Gaza rocket fire and weakening Hamas were achieved."

If you subscribe to some of the conspiracy theories being put forth, you might believe that the Israelis decided to accede to an American request to end the Gaza operation in exchange for increased support for Israel against a more lethal threat - that of a nuclear-armed Iran.

I am not sure if this is the case, but in my opinion, this is a dangerous move for the Israelis. As in the past when there have been these ceasefire deals, what always happens is the three R's - rearm, refit and recruit. The Iranians are standing by to provide the money and weapons to replace all the materiel lost in the week of fighting. The perceived "victory" by the 'Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigade will swell their ranks as young men eagerly join the ranks of the terrorist organization.

Meanwhile, the Israelis have agreed to talk about easing the blockade on the Gaza Strip, in effect making it easier for Hamas to resupply and rearm. In return, the United States (in the person of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) pledged to help curb arms shipments to Gaza. What a joke. I suppose we will put as much effort into this as we and the United Nations did to stop the resupply of Hizballah following the Israel-Hizballah conflict of 2006 (they are fully and more capably rearmed) and Hamas in 2009. Does anyone believe this?

For whatever reason that I cannot fathom, Israel has agreed to stop short of achieving any of its objectives in Gaza. Just as Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said, "Israel in the long run won't be able to live with an Iranian proxy on its border. As long as Hamas continues to incite against Israel and talk about destroying Israel they are not a neighbor that we can suffer in the long run. But everything in its time."

Everything in its time? Was there a deal between Washington and Tel Aviv over Iran? It just does not make sense. Hamas has no intention of living in peace with Israel. I said last week, "Here we go again." I suspect that in a few short years, I will be saying that yet again.

November 21, 2012

Syria - After the U.S. election, an opportunity for action?

US Army Patriot air defense missile battery

Now that the U.S. presidential election is over - الحمد لله - perhaps we can move to address the problems that had been allowed to fester as the Obama Administration focused on remaining in office. One of the most pressing issues - and there are others, to be sure - is Syria. Reliable figures of how many people have died in the civil war are hard to come by, but conservative estimates place the death toll at over 36,000.

Skeptics will shortsightedly argue that what happens in Syria is not a threat to the national interests of the United States. The "Syria issue" is just not about Syria. You cannot view this in isolation - events in Syria affect what happens in neighboring Lebanon, including the future of Hizballah, and impact on the west's dealings with Iran over the Islamic Republic's nuclear weapons program.

Let's start by looking at what can be done to stop to the killing in Syria. There are calls by many inside and outside Syria for a no-fly zone, citing as an example the no-fly zone imposed on Libya last year. Syria is not Libya - the country is much more populated, the population centers are much further from the coast, and the country is protected by state-of-the-art, very capable Russian air defense systems.

The Turks have proposed a safety zone inside Syria, protected by U.S. and NATO Patriot air defense missile batteries inside Turkey, deployed along the Syrian border. The Patriot system can reach out as far as 100 miles, placing aircraft flying over the entire governorates of Aleppo and Idlib in range. These two areas have seen some of the most brutal air attacks over the course of the civil war. Syrian jet fighters and attack helicopters are the most feared weapon that the Syrian regime possesses.

The Free Syrian Army, the rebels, have been able to down around 75 aircraft, about half of them helicopters. They have done this with captured air defense artillery systems and shoulder-fired missiles, but the Syrians have been quick to adapt their tactics to the threat. Over the last month, Syrian air force pilots fly their aircraft at high speed and high altitudes while dropping flares to decoy heat-seeking missiles.

Airpower is the regime's most potent weapon. Even the opposition fighters acknowledge that for the most part, they are defenseless. While they have downed over 70 regime fighters and helicopters, that is a small percentage of the number of sorties launched by the Syrian air force. Each aircraft carries multiple weapons - they range from the conventional high-explosive general purpose bombs, normally about 500 pounds, to cluster munitions with hundreds of smaller sub-munitions, each capable of destroying a 60-ton tank, or the fuel-air explosive weapons that have the concussive effects just short of nuclear weapons. Add the locally-developed "barrel bomb," a crude home-made canister filled with explosives and nails, ball bearings, etc. See my description of this weapon, The Syrian "barrel bomb" - a terror weapon.

About all the Free Syrian Army can do is harass the pilots into flying out of anti-aircraft artillery range and the relatively outdated SA-7 shoulder-fired heat-seeking missile, but the effect of the bombing is the same - utter devastation of Syria's cities, the division of the country into sectarian groups and animosities that will last for generations.

What can we do?

The proposed safe zone protected by Patriot missiles could be a start, but it will not be as effective as a no-fly zone patrolled by U.S. and NATO aircraft. To impose a true no-fly zone, the Syrian air defenses would have to be attacked. Syria's air defense system is much more advanced and robust than Libya, so it will take some time to neutralize the weapons systems, their radars and the command and control system.

We also need to engage the Syrian opposition, now united in a loose coalition, even to the point of affording the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces some level of diplomatic recognition. There are concerns over the number of Muslin Brotherhood and other Islamist groups members in the coalition, but ignoring the coalition will not solve the issue.

If the United States hopes to exercise any influence over the course of events in Syria, it must be in the game. When the Syrian regime falls, we need to be ready to assist the follow-on government to resist the establishment of an Islamic state - the goal of many in the opposition. We need to be in a position to convince a new government to break away from Iran and re-enter the Middle East peace process.

We cannot afford to "lead from behind" - we need be out in front of this one. It is past time to do something.

November 18, 2012

Iraq sides with Iran against U.S. in release of Hizballah terrorist

In an unfortunate move that was easily predictable, the Iraqi government released Hizballah fighter 'Ali Musa Daqduq. Daqduq immediately returned to the safety of Beirut where he is considered a hero by his Hizballah colleagues.

Daqduq was accused by American forces of organizing an attack in the Iraqi holy city of Karbala' in January 2007 - that attack resulted in the death of five U.S. Army soldiers. Daqduq was in Iraq at the behest of the Hizballah's primary sponsor, the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Qods Force. Daqduq's mission was to train Iraqi Shi'a militias in Hizballah tactics. Many military analysts consider Hizballah to be among the most effective guerrilla forces in the world.

Daqduq was captured by British forces in the southern port city of al-Basrah a few months after the Karbala' attack, and turned over to U.S. forces. At this point, internal American politics came into play. The Obama Administration, in its misguided interpretation that terrorist or insurgent attacks are crimes, wanted to bring Daqduq to the United States for trial in a civilian court. Other officials wanted to transfer Daqduq to the detention facility at Guantanamo. I side with that latter group.

The Obama Administration refused the transfer to Guantanamo, citing its desire to close the facility. Thus, no action was taken for over four years. In its rush for the exits in December 2011, the Administration transferred Daqduq to Iraqi custody. Although Iraqi officials assured the U.S. they would prosecute Daqduq, I don't know of anyone who thought that would ever happen.

It didn't. In May 2012, an Iraqi court ruled that there was insufficient evidence against Daqduq and ordered that he be released. Although the Iraqis continued to detain him during a sham appeals process, they upheld the initial ruling, refused an American request for extradition, and set him free.

This is what happens when you quit a war and fail to maintain any position of influence. I lay this at the feet of the President. Had he taken advantage of the provisions in the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement, we could have maintained a presence that might have stopped this travesty from happening. Quitting a war never wins it, never ends it. All the President did was hand a victory to neighboring Iran.

That is the clear result. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had a choice. Listen to the United States (in the persons of the vice president and U.S. Ambassador) and engineer a way to hand Daqduq over to the Americans, or follow the counsel of the Iranians - his fellow Shi'a and political masters - and release a member of their primary proxy terrorist organization, Hizballah.

Given the fact that Daqduq is in Beirut, we see who wields influence in Iraq.

The timing of Iraq's release of this Hizballah terrorist is also telling. The Iraqis chose to delay the order of the Iraqi court until after the U.S. presidential election. They wanted to make sure it did not negatively impact the re-election chances of what both the Iraqis and Iranians perceive as a weak American president. Senior Iranian leaders stated earlier that an Obama re-election was in the interests of the Islamic Republic.

I guess we now know how much sway we have in Baghdad. Thank you, Mr. President.

November 16, 2012

Israel and Gaza - here we go again

HAMAS fires rockets into Israel

Israel has few options in its dealings with HAMAS* and the Gaza Strip. The recent increase in violence has forced the Israelis to order air strikes against targets in the territory and prepare for a ground incursion reminiscent of the operation four years ago.

The number of rockets fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip is quite astounding. To recap, since the end of the fighting in January 2009, there have been more rockets fired each year than the previous year. In 2009, there were 300 fired, in 2010 there were 510 fired, in 2011 there were 615 fired, and thus far in 2012, there have been at least 900 fired. Over 400 of those 900 have been fired in the last week. Over 150 were fired on November 16 alone.

It's not just the quantity of rockets, it's the quality. In the fighting in late 2008 and early 2009, the only rockets in the HAMAS inventory were the home-made, not very effective Qassam rockets with range capabilities between three and 12 miles. The short range of the rockets placed the Israeli border cities in jeopardy, especially the city of Sderot. See my article written in January 2009 after I visited Sderot during the fighting, Sderot - Israel's "Rocket City".

Since 2009, HAMAS has significantly upgraded its rocket arsenal, acquiring longer range systems from Iran, smuggled in via the Sinai peninsula under the "watchful eyes" of our erstwhile allies, the Egyptians. This includes Iranian Fajr-5 rockets that were used by Hizballah against northern Israel in 2006. The Fajr-5 has a range of almost 45 miles, placing Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in range.

This week, HAMAS crossed an Israeli red line - it fired rockets at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Another attack killed three Israelis in the southern city of Qiryat Malachi. It was too much for the Israelis to absorb. It also reinforces the perception among Israelis who live in the southern part of the country that until the people in more upscale Tel Aviv or Jerusalem are threatened, the government ignores the plight of the average Israeli.

The Israelis began a series of air strikes in Gaza. The Israelis have been continuously collecting intelligence on the Gaza Strip - they have a huge catalog of targets to be struck. The initial targets, of course, are the longer range rocket systems, particularly the Fajr-5 launchers. HAMAS is a capable enemy - they are hiding the launchers in mosques, schools and other areas that the Israelis are reluctant to strike. World public opinion is never on the side of the Israelis, so they have to hold themselves to a much higher standard than the Palestinians.

Since many of the launchers may be in areas that cannot be attacked from the air without unacceptable civilian casualties, a ground incursion may be necessary. The Israeli cabinet authorized a call-up of up to 30,000 reservists. Of that, 16,000 have been mobilized. That will free up active duty units to move towards Gaza. The minister of defense is seeking authority to call up as many as 75,000 reservists.

The units that have deployed to the border are among the best in the IDF - the Givati Brigade, the Paratrooper Brigade, and the 401st Armored Brigade. The 401st is equipped with the latest Merkava-4 tank. The quality of troops moving towards Gaza and the reserve call-up indicate how serious Israel is taking the matter, and how likely it is that they will invade Gaza. Mobilizing reservists in a small country like Israel is expensive and disrupts virtually everything. These steps are not taken lightly.

Israel has rushed into service as many Iron Dome anti-missile batteries as it can. The system has been able to defeat dozens of inbound HAMAS rockets. The country is fast assuming a war posture. Likewise, in Gaza, residents are stocking up on food, fuel, water, etc., since they too know that an Israeli incursion is not only possible, but inevitable.

We seem to go through this drill every few years. The Israelis endure as many attacks as they are willing to tolerate, then conduct a punitive operation against Islamist elements in Gaza. Predictably, there will be a huge public outcry of the disproportionate nature of the response, the United Nations will call for a cessation of the violence (that's code for demanding Israel stop, but not so much the Palestinians), and Israel will stop short of destroying HAMAS's ability to fire more rockets.

Here we go again.

* HAMAS, (حماس) Arabic for enthusiasm, is an acronym of the Arabic titleحركة المقاومة الاسلامية harakat al-muqawamat al-Islamiyah, the Islamic Resistance Movement.

November 13, 2012

Let's get past the sex and concentrate on Benghazi

CNN - Piers Morgan Tonight - November 12, 2012

I appeared on CNN's Piers Morgan on November 12 to talk about the resignation of CIA Director David Petraeus. Since it was a panel discussion, I only had limited time to make a few comments. Here are those points, with a bit of expansion. (Watch the segment here.)

I have been invited back to be on the November 13 show to discuss this issue more fully.

Iraq and Afghanistan
General Petraeus did a great job in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq, it was General Petraeus who convinced President Bush to commit additional combat forces for what is now called "the surge." That, combined with the Sunni Awakening, broke the back of al-Qa'idah in Iraq (AQI) and rendered them ineffective as a fighting force. The presence of additional American troops forced the Shi'a militias, particularly that of Iran's fair-haired child Muqtada al-Sadr, to back down.

Unfortunately, President Obama's decision to not pursue the option of keeping American forces in Iraq past the December 31, 2011 date specified in the Status of Forces Agreement undid many of those gains. There was a provision in the SOFA as negotiated by the Bush Administration to allow for troops to remain based on the security situation. The realization that American forces would still be in Iraq past 2011 kept al-Qa'idah and the militias in check.

In my analysis, the security situation in late 2011 was perilous enough to warrant talking to the Iraqis about continued American support. Unfortunately, President Obama chose to withdraw all of the troops. While "ending the war in Iraq" might have made a great campaign talking point, it was inaccurate. The war in Iraq continues and the situation continues to worsen. Quitting a war neither ends it nor wins it.

In Afghanistan, the general again convinced the President, this time Barack Obama, to deploy additional combat forces to increase the tempo of the fighting. It succeeded, but only for a short while, for two reasons. The President did not authorize the number of troops General Petraeus thought was required for the mission, and once deployed, the President announced the timetable for the withdrawal not only of the surge forces, but all American forces.

Announcing an arbitrary withdrawal schedule merely telegraphs the date of victory to the insurgents. This is not, as promised, "ending the war responsibly." It is, in essence, quitting. Again, quitting a war neither ends it nor wins it.

CIA Director
General Petraeus is remarkable military officer, trained at West Point and educated at some of America's finest universities. He has distinguished himself in several military leadership roles. However, none of those qualify him to be the nation's top spymaster.

The Central Intelligence Agency has two main functions. First is the collection and production of intelligence to support national-level decision makers - we are mainly speaking about the President, Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense. Its second mission is the conduct of covert operations, those things that must be done in secret. That involves things like providing arms to insurgent groups - the Kurds, Libyans and hopefully the Syrians, come to mind. It also includes direct actions with Defense Department special operations forces, such as the killing of Usamah bin Ladin. CIA paramilitary officers also conduct drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen.

Much of this work is distasteful and requires thinking outside the generally accepted military box. It requires a different skill set to manage people who are taught to lie, cheat and steal, albeit for their government. Directing the CIA requires a professional intelligence officer - either a case officer who recruits and runs spies, or a special activities officer who understands covert operations.

Sex and Benghazi
The most important point I tried to make Monday night was the need to get past the sex scandal and focus on what happened in Benghazi. This resignation gives us that opportunity. Petraeus is the "go to guy" for what happened out there. Virtually everything that transpired that night in Benghazi was either in the Director's purview, or he had access to the information. The CIA base in Benghazi was much more involved in what was happening in that part of Libya than the consulate.

General Petraeus would also have had access to the decision-making process that resulted in no military response. The CIA operations center would have been involved with this crisis from its start to its finish.

Also of interest is the timing of the general's resignation. If there were political considerations involved - and I don't know one way or the other - I do not believe it was tied to the election, but rather to the upcoming testimony before Congressional committees about what transpired in Benghazi. The important point here is, that the American people finally have an opportunity to get the real story, since next to no one places any credibility in the ever-changing Administration account.

General Petraeus is no longer an active-duty military officer, nor is he any longer the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency - thus no longer part of the Executive Branch, no longer a part of the government. He has no official standing to prevent him from detailing exactly what happened in Benghazi, and possibly more importantly, what was happening in Washington. He is the "go to guy" - he can tell us who knew what, when did they know it, and what did they do about it.

General Petraeus is not scheduled to appear before any of the Congressional oversight committees. Despite President Obama's spokesman's words, "The president is confident that Acting Director [Michael] Morrell is fully informed and capable of representing the CIA in a hearing about the incidents in Benghazi," I would rather hear it from someone no longer answerable to the President. That someone is David Petraeus.

November 8, 2012

Destruction of the suburbs of eastern Damascus

This video, dated November 5, 2012, shows the damage to the al-Tadamun suburb in southeast Damascus from recent air strikes and artillery fire. The whole area east of the capital city, from Harasta in the north to areas near the Damascus International Airport in the south, have been pounded by MiG-23 fighter-bombers almost daily for the past three weeks.

Here is a gisted translation of the narrator's remarks:

"November 5, 2012 - the local coordination committee for the al-Tadamun district of Damascus.

"This is the 'Ali bin Abi Talib mosque in what remains of the al-Tadamun district. Where are you Arabs, where are you Muslims?

"There are clashes in the Hajar al-Aswad area, in Yalda, Babilah, and Bayt Sahim - there is thick smoke rising. This is your fault, Bashar [al-Asad].

"There are tracer rounds lighting up the skies of Babilah. There are clashes between the gangs of Bashar al-Asad and the heroes of the Free Syrian Army. These are your crimes, Bashar.

"We will not bow to anyone but God.

"Damascus, the al-Tadamun district, November 5, 2012 - God is great."

If you go to coordinates 33 28 33N 36 19 02E on a mapping program (like Google Earth), you will see the mosque. What is striking on the satellite imagery is the density of the residential and commercial buildings, in stark contrast to the scenes of absolute destruction on the video. For orientation, the cameraman is located to the southwest of the mosque.

It will take a long time to rebuild this section of the city, even longer to rebuild the lives of the residents.

November 2, 2012

Syrian opposition execution of Iraqi Sadrist - not helpful


It is no secret that I support the Syrian opposition in their efforts to remove the regime of Bashar al-Asad. My involvement with Syria goes back almost four decades. I have always had a special place in my heart for the Syrian people - I have always found them to be open, warm and friendly. Syrian hospitality is legendary.

My feelings do not extend to the Syrian government. Bashar al-Asad and the Ba'th Party must be removed.

That said, there are limits to the opposition's methods that I will endorse and support. This is not one of them. So why am I publishing this article? I think it is important that we not enter into any relationship with the Syrian opposition groups without understanding who they are. This two-minute video demonstrates the level of hatred, sectarian in this case, that exists in the region, including Syria.

Since few of you speak Arabic, I will translate it, not word for word, but close enough for you to understand the nuances of the interrogation. The prisoner knows this is not going to end well. As he answers the questions (likely under duress), it becomes clear that his fate is all but sealed. Listen to it, whether you understand the words or not - note the calm, businesslike demeanor of the interrogator.

(I = interrogator; P = prisoner)

I: The Mujahidin (holy warrior) Brigade through the grace of God captured a shabih (thug, militiaman) - what is your name?

P: Muhammad Jasim al-Maliki

I: Where are you from?

P: Al-Basrah (Iraq)

I: Where do you live in Iraq?

P: Baghdad

I: Baghdad - where?

P: Sadr City

I: What sect are you?

P: Shi'a

I: What work did you do in Iraq?

P: Police and as an informant

I: For who?

P: For the Americans

I: And what are you doing in Syria?

P: Protecting the Shi'a and killing Sunnis

I: And you are in Sitt Zaynab*?

P: Yes

I: Killing Sunnis?

P: Yes

I: How many Sunnis have you killed?

P: 50

I: 50 exactly, or just around 50?

P: Around 50

I: OK, how long have you been in Syria?

P: About a year, a year and a half

I: Are there Iraqi or Iranian Shi'a here now in Syria?

P: Approximately 1500

I: And they are here now on the same mission as you?

P: Yes

I: And they are from the jaysh al-mahdi (Sadrist militia)?

P: Yes, the jaysh al-mahdi

I: And this is all true?

P: Yes

Another speaker then pronounces sentence by the Mujahidin Brigade in the name of God and executes the prisoner. I have removed much of the more graphic scenes.

In summary: This is the interrogation and later execution of an Iraqi Shi'a, Muhammad Jasim al-Maliki, originally from al-Basrah who moved to Sadr City in Baghdad and who worked as a police officer and informant for the Americans. He is a member of the jaysh al-mahdi (al-Sadr militia), and along with about 1500 other Iraqis and Iranians, has been in Syria for about a year and a half, in the Sitt Zaynab* area south of Damascus. He says his mission was to kill Sunnis, and he admits to killing about 50.

I abhor this type of behavior, but given the emotions and animosity between the Syrian people on one side, and the regime ruling and oppressing the country on the other, I can understand it.

This has to stop.
* The Sayidah Zaynab Mosque is a shrine located south of Syria that contains the grave of Zaynab, daughter of 'Ali and Fatimah and granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad. It is a site revered by Shi'a Muslims, and in my opinion, one of the most beautiful mosques in the world.