November 5, 2013

Interview in The Daily Journalist - "NSA’s latest foreign surveillance scandal"

Although this is Middle East Perspectives, I was also an intelligence officer with direct experience in this arena. My thoughts:

1) What are your thoughts on the NSA spying foreign allies? Is it healthy for America’s relation with the EU and will that consecrate into a serious rupture of mistrust between close peers? 
I am not sure I agree with the term “spying” in regards to NSA. Spying to me is when you convince someone to betray their country and work for a foreign power. The National Security Agency intercepts and collects foreign communications. While some countries may try to make that illegal, once you put something onto electronic media, it is out there for anyone with the capability to access it.
The United States has been collecting the communications of some, not all, allies for as long as we have had the capability. All of these operations are in response to validated collection requirements – someone asked for information on a particular topic and these particular communications were assessed to contain the information needed to satisfy the request. NSA, or any intelligence agency, does not just go out and collect whatever they want. The intelligence community responds to its consumers.
As for relations with the EU, it could be a temporary problem, but I seriously doubt that any of them are surprised. They will do the Claude Rains “shocked” routine, but I don’t foresee a major issue. If the communications are sensitive, they should be encrypted. Using any type of unsecured communications device is asking for someone to exploit it.

 2) Merkel and other presidents are trying to get in contact with Edward Snowden to get more information about the spying programs. It seems now, that Edward Snowden has become somehow a vital key to open up new classified information about the CIA’s and NSA’s programs in Europe. How is the U.S. going to react with its close allies as their trying to obtain more information with Russia’s diplomatic permission from Edward Snowden? 
They are sovereign nations trying to secure their own communications vulnerabilities, so it will be hard for us to convince them not to seek the information from Snowden. Snowden is no doubt a fabulous source of information for the Russians. How would we treat someone who brought us all that information? We certainly would not send him back.

3) Overall, does the U.S. Government really trust its allies when we consider it targets not only its citizens but the actual presidents?
Trust and intelligence may be mutually exclusive terms. It really has nothing to do with it. If there is a collection requirement, obviously someone in the US government is wary of what we are being told by a particular ally. Again, NSA does not determine trust or who are allies – it responds to validated (that also means vetted by the lawyers) collection requirements.
Why wouldn’t you try to collect leadership communications – those are probably the best sources of the information the intelligence community has been tasked to collect? Regular citizens are not usually of interest unless they have access to information of interest.

4) It’s been proven again and again, that the NSA no matter what program they come up with does not have the capacity to process all the communications it intercepts since it doesn’t have the actual man power to sustain that vast amount of information it gathers. Why is the NSA, focused on spying other nations considering the unlikely hood of listing all the threats their supposed to intercept? 

Again, NSA and the intelligence community respond to information requirements. They do collect vast amounts of data that will never be fully processed, but that data may be useful at a later date, hence the need to store huge amounts of information. For example, when a raid of an al-Qa’idah safehouse in Pakistan yields cell phones or laptops that contain email addresses, phone numbers, etc., it requires searching through the stored data.
If that data is associated with a US person (different than a US citizen), that requires a FISA warrant. Some of the phone numbers may be in countries that are considered to be allies – NSA needs to access those records and communications. Remember, many of the 9/11 hijackers were living in Germany, an ally.

 5) Obama was not the first president who gave his permission to wiretap conversations among close allies. Bush also did so as well with the former German chancellor. Did spying on close allies start prior to the Bush era, or did they start after 9/11? 
I suspect it has gone on since we have had the capability. I an not sure this type of collection – they are foreign communications, which is the NSA charter – requires Presidential approval.
We do have agreements with certain countries on limiting certain activities, but unless there is an agreement, foreign communications are valid collection targets.

6) How is this latest diplomatic scandal going to affect Obama’s campaign overall and reputation? In 2008 he toured in the primaries around EU, promoting peace but it seems a little hypocritical now? 
I don’t think this will affect it at all. There will be some lip service, but if the European countries think that we are not targeting their communications, they are naive. I don’t assess them to be naive. Do you not think the BND and DGSE are not involved in similar operations? If we think not, it is us who are naive.

October 5, 2013

Secure Freedom Radio Interview - October 4, 2013

RICK FRANCONA, a retired USAF lieutenant colonel, joins guest host BILL GERTZ to discuss his recent trip to Egypt, and what he learned there about the Egyptian military forces and the current Egyptian and U.S. military alliance. RICK also updates on the situation in Syria.

October 3, 2013

Egypt Trip Press Conference

As many of you know, I just returned from Egypt as part of a political-military delegation to meet with senior Egyptian leaders, including the Minister of Defense and the Pope of the Coptic Church. My thanks to the Westminster Institute for inviting me to be part of the team.

On October 1, some members of the delegation spoke at a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. Here is the one-hour press conference in its entirety:

Here are the portions (11 minutes) in which I made remarks:

Rick Francona on Egyptian Television (Arabic)


As many of you know, I just returned from Egypt as part of a political-military delegation to meet with senior Egyptian leaders, including the Minister of Defense and the Pope of the Coptic Church. The team leader, Major General Paul Vallely (US Army, retired) and I sat down for an interview with Maysa Mahir from al-Balad television.

September 18, 2013

Syria: United Nations report does not blame the regime for chemical weapons use - really?

AP/Shaam Network

The United Nations has released its report on the August 21 chemical attacks in the southern and eastern suburbs of Damascus. You can read or download the full report on the United Nations website.

The report is carefully worded to detail the fact that chemical weapons were fired into the suburbs of Damascus, details the type of munition used and the chemical nerve agent dispersed. It does not specify who was responsible for the attacks.

Or does it?

The answer can be found on page 23 of the report. There are references to Impact Site Number 1, Impact Site Number 2 and Impact Site Number 4. Sites 1 and 2 are located in the southern Damascus suburb of Mu'adhamiyah; Site 4 is in the eastern suburb of 'Ayn Tarma (this eastern suburban area is also referred to as the East Ghutah).

Here are the telling portions:

Impact Site Number 1 - "...the original trajectory of the projectile, as it hit the ground, had an azimuth of 215 degrees. Impact Site Number 2 is located 65 meters away from number 1 and with an azimuth of 214 degrees. Both relative positions are fully congruent with the dispersion pattern commonly associated with rockets launched from a single, multi-barrel, launcher."

Impact Site Number 4 - "The projectile, in the last stage of its trajectory, hit the surface in an area of earthy, relatively soft, ground where the shaft/engine of he projectile remained dug in, undisturbed until investigated.

"The said shaft/engine, presenting no form of lateral bending, pointed in a bearing of 285 degrees that, again, represent a reverse azimuth to the trajectory followed by the rocket during its flight. It can be, thus, concluded that the original azimuth of the rocket trajectory had an azimuth of 105 degrees, in an East/Southeast trajectory."

If you draw the azimuths in reverse, the lines point to Jabal Qasiyun, the garrison of the Republican Guard (under the command of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad's brother Mahir) which has been used to shell the East Ghutah (Impact Site 4) and Mu'adhamiyah (Impact Sites 1 and 2) areas for months. Alternately, the attack on Mu'adhamiyah could have been launched from al-Mizzah air base, also on the same axis.

To this military analyst, these are sound indications that it was the Syrian regime that fired the chemical rockets. Perhaps Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov might want to read the United Nations report instead of continuing to advance their fantasy that it was the rebels who used the nerve agent to provoke a Western reaction.

Sorry, товарищи (comrades), it was your man in Damascus that did it.

Syria: What does Bashar al-Asad get for giving up his chemical weapons?

Bashar al-Asad and Vladimir Putin

Part of the deal between the Russians and the Syrians that led to the Syrians admitting that they possess chemical weapons and have committed to relinquishing them is believed to be Russian agreement to reinstate the halted deliveries of two military aircraft contracts with the Syrian Air Force.

Prior to the outbreak of the civil war, the Syrians contracted for a replacement trainer aircraft for their aging fleet of 1980s-era Czech-built L-39 trainers. The L-39 was used in the initial months of the civil war by the Syrians as a light attack aircraft - it is equipped with a gun pack and hardpoints on the wings to carry bombs and rocket launchers.

The L-39's have largely been marginalized because of increasing shoulder-launched air defense capabilities of the opposition forces (some seized from Syrian army depots and some provided by foreign countries), and the fact that most of the L-39 operating bases have been overrun or are under siege by the rebels.

The aircraft purchased - but not yet delivered - to replace the L-39 is the Yak-130 (NATO: Mitten), built with involvement of the Italian aircraft manufacturer Alenia. The Syrians have contracted for an initial lot of 36 of the aircraft. The Yak-130 can carry an external load of three tons (bombs, missiles, cannon pod, or fuel tanks).

In addition to the Yak-130, the Syrians have ordered between 10 and 24 MiG-29M2 (NATO: Fulcrum E), the newest version of the 1980's-era (fourth generation) fighter aircraft. Unlike the estimated 48 MiG-29 (NATO: Fulcrum) air-to-air fighters currently in service with the Syrian Air Force, the newer version is a multirole aircraft that adds a significant air-to-ground capability, including precision guided munitions (PGM).

The two aircraft represent a generational advance for the Syrian Air Force, giving them a heretofore nonexistent capability to deliver precision guided munitions. When equipped with PGM (either laser of GPS guided), the aircraft will be able to remain outside the threat envelope of the shoulder-fired air defense missiles available to the opposition forces, while being able to place weapons accurately on specific targets rather than dropping them near suspected rebel locations or indiscriminately on civilian populated areas.

In the absence of a no-fly zone, the addition of the capability to deliver PGMs will be a quantum leap in the effectiveness of the Syrian Air Force against the opposition. While these are not state-of-the-art fighters in the Western sense, they can he highly effective in the Syrian battlespace.

September 9, 2013

Syrian Chemical Weapons Strikes - Random Attacks or Viable Military Targets?

The August 21 chemical attacks that the U.S. government has ascribed to the Syrian armed forces killed over 1400 people, including over 400 children. President Obama is contemplating military action against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad in response to what he terms as a "violation of well established international norms against the use of chemical weapons...."

There has been a great amount of coverage of the results of the chemical warfare attacks - mostly based on videos posted on social media sites, but also hair, soil and blood tests that indicate the use of sarin gas, a nerve agent also known as GB. The videos show the agony caused by nerve agents, and hundreds of dead bodies. The rows of dead children wrapped in burial shrouds were difficult to watch.

What has gotten lost in the coverage is an answer to the basic question: Why did the Syrians use chemical weapons in the suburbs of Damascus? Let's look at the map (above - click for larger view).

The green line is a highway called the "Southern Beltway" - it is the de facto dividing line between the Syrian army to the west and the opposition forces to the east. The opposition forces in this area, called the East Ghutah, consist mostly of units who self-identify as part of the Free Syrian Army.

I have placed a red dot to the east of the highway in the government-controlled area. That is the location of al-'Abasiyin Square (although it is a circle). The conventional wisdom among military analysts is that if the opposition can break though the line and reach al-'Abasiyin Square, they may well be able to push into the heart of the city and take it.

To that end, there is ferocious fighting in the suburbs of Jawbar and al-Qabun as the rebels make forays to the west of the highway. There is almost constant fighting on the Southern Beltway itself as the army tries to retain control of the road, losing quite a few of its T-72 tanks (mostly of the 4th Armored Division and Republican Guard) to the opposition's antitank missiles.

If the Syrian regime was concerned that they might not be able to hold the line represented by the Southern Beltway, or if they wanted to send a message to the residents of the suburbs located to the east of the road perceived as supporting the opposition, they may have resorted to the use of chemical weapons.

'Ayn Tarma and Zamalka are two of these suburbs. The two areas have come under heavy artillery and air attacks for the last two years, but those attacks have not had the desired effect. The suburbs are directly opposite al-'Abasiyin Square. There are reports from other suburbs in the East Ghutah based on the presence of victims at medical facilities. However, soon after the attacks, the medical services of the FSA mobilized clinics and medical personnel in the neighboring suburbs to handle the mass casualty event.

Conventional weapons kill with blast effect and shrapnel, but are concentrated and do not cover wide areas, probably not as widespread as a suburb. Chemical agents in gas form, however, can.

Although the numbers - approximately 1400 dead - pale in comparison to the estimated 120,000 dead in the civil war thus far, killing that many people in two concentrated areas in one attack is effective. Not only does it clear an area of concern, it sends a psychological message to the remaining residents.

Recent reporting also indicates there were also attacks in the southern suburbs of Mu'adhamiyah and Daraya. In this case, the regime is protecting what they consider a strategic resource - al-Mazzah air base. I have annotated the base with a red dot as well.

These were not random attacks - someone chose these targets.

Personal anecdote: Al-'Abasiyin Square is really a large traffic circle. My wife was in a minor traffic accident when a dump truck forced the car she was driving into the barrier that surrounds the center of the traffic circle.

The police arrived, took a statement from my wife and the driver of the truck. The police then sent the truck driver on his way and provided my wife with an accident report, citing the cause of the accident as the "will of Allah."

Try filing a claim with your insurance company with that police report.

September 1, 2013

Obama "blinks" - a gift to Bashar al-Asad

President Obama "blinking"

If you watch/read Syrian and other Middle East media, as I do, the perception is that President Barack Obama "blinked" in the face of Syria's claims that it will defend itself and wreak havoc on American forces in the eastern Mediterranean. Yes, we all know that it is meaningless bluster from Damascus, but our understanding is not what matters in the region - their perception becomes the reality.

What we might regard as cautious deliberation over the use of military force - a good thing by many standards - is regarded as weakness and indecision by those in the Middle East. Al-Thawrah (The Revolution), the official newspaper of the Syrian Ba'ath Party reported, "Obama announced yesterday...the beginning of the historic American retreat."

It is difficult to find fault with Syrian media account. Despite Secretary of State John Kerry's tap-dancing semantics, the President has handed the ball off to the Congress, who may vote against military action, tying the President's hands. The President can't go to Congress and, if the authorization fails, later ignore the vote. This is not leadership - this is the Pontius Pilate school of politics.

I normally try to stay out of political analysis, but this was purely a political play on the part of the President. If, like their British counterparts, Congress refuses to authorize military action (although I do not believe Congressional authorization is required), the President has an out.

I firmly believe that Barack Obama has no desire to take any military action against Syria but has put his - and more importantly, American - credibility on the line. He can say, "I was ready to pull the trigger, but Congress would not give me the authority." If they approve it, then he may look for another excuse not to act, but he will have kicked the can down the road at least 10 or more days. If Congress votes no, it does set a precedent that this president and future presidents may regret.

In making this announcement, President Obama has given Bashar al-Asad and the Syrian armed forces a gift. Rather than having to allocate intelligence resources to determine when an American attack might occur, the Syrians know that they have at least 10 days in which to prepare for whatever military action President Obama might order. Of course, given the recent failure of British Prime Minister David Cameron to secure Parliamentary approval to participate in military action against Syria, the Syrian may feel confident that their American counterparts may do the same.

The Syrians also know, thanks to the Secretary Kerry's pronouncements, what targets the United States has taken off the table. There will be no strikes aimed at regime change, no attempt to change the situation on the ground and no strikes of chemical weapons depots (for fear of dispersing the chemical agents). That leaves military garrisons, command and control facilities, and air bases as potential targets.

While all of these potential targets in the country are vulnerable, the Syrians have at least 10 days to prepare for strikes. It is possible - and militarily prudent - to disperse high-value equipment (combat aircraft, for example), move transportable radars to alternate pre-surveyed locations, move sensitive equipment into hardened shelters that are not vulnerable to the Tomahawk warheads, and deploy tactical air defense systems with an anti-missile capability (such as the Pantsir-S1, NATO: SA-22 GREYHOUND) to protect static sites.

Wouldn't it be nice to have 10 days notice before an attack? Well, that's what the President has just done for Bashar al-Asad. Meanwhile, there are over 2000 American sailors and marines in the eastern Mediterranean, whose positions are fairly well known.

August 27, 2013

France24 Debate - A Panel on Potential U.S. Intervention in Syria

I participated in a panel discussion on potential U.S./NATO intervention in Syria for France-24 television. Click here to view the discussion.

Interview on NPR's The "Takeaway" with John Hockenberry

I was interviewed by John Hockenberry for his August 27 "The Takeaway" show on NPR.

August 26, 2013

Foreign Policy Article - Corrections and Clarifications

The recent article in the magazine Foreign Policy,Exclusive: CIA Files Prove America Helped Saddam as He Gassed Iran, both quotes me and attributes things to me that are inaccurate or taken out of context. While trying to correct already published articles in widely-read publications is akin to unringing a bell, I think it important to respond to correct and clarify words and actions attributed to me.

While the article is technically truthful, it is nuanced and written to portray a cavalier attitude among the participants in several foreign policy initiative and intelligence operations during the last full year of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, specifically from September 1987 to August 1988. Having been one of the participants in these events, I can assure that we were serious about our work, attempting to do the best we could in a very unpleasant set of circumstances.

Let's start with the line right under the title:

The U.S. knew Hussein was launching some of the worst chemical attacks in history -- and still gave him a hand.

Technically, this is true - but out of context. U.S. assistance to Iraq continued after it became known that the Iraqi armed forces had used chemical weapons against Iranian troops during the April 1988 offensive that reclaimed Iraq's al-Faw peninsula. I was on the al-Faw battlefields a few weeks after the battle. It was obvious to the other Defense Intelligence Agency officer and me that the Iraqis had used chemical weapons during the fighting. Our first clue was the presence of used atropine injectors on the ground, and in captured Iranian military weapons and equipment.

Atropine injectors are the universal antidote for exposure to nerve agents. When I asked the Iraqi officers escorting us about the injectors, they explained that they used a lot of obscurant smoke rounds in the artillery fires prior to the attack and that the Iranians may have been confused and thought they were being attacked with chemical weapons. While you could be skeptical, it was an explanation. It was an explanation that soon evaporated as we found decontamination fluid on the captured Iranian equipment. If there was no chemical warfare exposure, there was no need to decontaminate the vehicles.

We reported our findings to the embassy in Baghdad as well as all of the offices in Washington - CIA, State Department and Defense Department. Our cooperation with the Iraqis stopped immediately. A series of meetings were held in Washington - at a level, as we say, "way above my pay grade." In the end, we reluctantly resumed our program with the Iraqis. It was the only slightly better of two bad choices: stop helping the Iraqis and the Iranians would likely win the war, or continue to work with a country now using nerve agents on the battlefield.

Although we did not know it at the time, Saddam Husayn had already ordered his forces to use nerve agents against his own people - Iraqi Kurds living in the northern city of Halabjah. Thousands died in March of 1988 in what many analysts later believed was a weapons test of the nerve agent Sarin (GB).

America's military and intelligence communities knew about and did nothing to stop a series of nerve gas attacks far more devastating than anything Syria has seen.

I am not sure we were in a position to stop the Iraqis from using chemical weapons, a capability they denied until years later.

U.S. intelligence officials conveyed the location of the Iranian troops to Iraq, fully aware that Hussein's military would attack with chemical weapons, including sarin, a lethal nerve agent.

This is not accurate. While we did provide order of battle data about Iranian forces to the Iraqis, no one was "fully aware" that the Iraqis were going to use nerve agents. The first evidence that the Iraqis had successfully developed and weaponized nerve agents was after the attack on the al-Faw peninsula, not before.

U.S. officials have long denied acquiescing to Iraqi chemical attacks, insisting that Hussein's government never announced he was going to use the weapons. But retired Air Force Col. Rick Francona, who was a military attaché in Baghdad during the 1988 strikes, paints a different picture. "The Iraqis never told us that they intended to use nerve gas. They didn't have to. We already knew."

First of all, governments who deny possessing chemicals weapons don't announce they are going to use them. Second, armed forces do not generally announce in advance what weapons they are going to use, let alone the fact that they are going to launch an attack. For the sake of accuracy, I was not a military attaché in Baghdad - I served as a liaison officer to the Iraqi forces. As for the quote attributed to me, it is true - the Iraqis never told us they intended to use chemical weapons; they denied having them. After al-Faw, they did not need to admit to it, we knew.

Francona, an experienced Middle East hand and Arabic linguist who served in the National Security Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency, said he first became aware of Iraq's use of chemical weapons against Iran in 1984, while serving as air attaché in Amman, Jordan. The information he saw clearly showed that the Iraqis had used Tabun nerve agent (also known as "GA") against Iranian forces in southern Iraq.

There is a problem here with "what I knew and when did I know it." I did serve in Jordan in 1984, although as an advisor to the Jordanian armed forces, not as an attaché. I learned about Iraq's 1984 use of the nerve agent Tabun after I had begun working on the Iraqi issue in 1987 - I had read these same documents that have now been released.

In late 1987, the DIA analysts in Francona's shop in Washington wrote a Top Secret Codeword report partially entitled "At The Gates of Basrah," warning that the Iranian 1988 spring offensive was going to be bigger than all previous spring offensives....

Just a minor correction here: That well-written report about the coming offensive was done by the analysts at the Defense Intelligence Analysis Center, not my office. I am not sure whether or not it warned of a larger offensive than normal, but it might have.

The last of these attacks, called the Blessed Ramadan Offensive, was launched by the Iraqis in April 1988 and involved the largest use of sarin nerve agent employed by the Iraqis to date.

Actually, the April 1988 offensive to re-take the al-Faw peninsula was the first of four offensives in 1988 that eventually brought the Iranians to the negotiating table. The use of chemicals in the later offensives was greater than the first.

There is an excellent New York Times article written by Patrick Tyler on these events (in which I am mentioned but for which I was not interviewed): OFFICERS SAY U.S. AIDED IRAQ IN WAR DESPITE USE OF GAS.

May 31, 2013

Russian arms to Syria - interview on the Steve Malzberg Show

Air Force Expert: US-Russia Confrontation Likely If Russia Delivers Missiles to Syria

(Story at:

A looming threat by Russia to deliver missiles to Syria will escalate tensions between Syria and Israel — and possibly trigger a confrontation between Russia and the United States, a former top Air Force intelligence officer says.

Retired Lt. Col. Rick Francona told "The Steve Malzberg Show" on Newsmax TV that the possible standoff could echo the tension that surfaced during the Yom Kippur War of 1973, which began with a surprise Arab attack on Israel.

"If you remember the 1973 war, we started to resupply Israel. The Russians put all of their forces on alert. They were going to intervene in the Middle East, we were going to intervene in the Middle East, and this was going to spiral out of control," Francona said.

"And this has the capability of leading to that confrontation because the Russians are backing the Syrians and if we declare a no-fly zone, they may feel that they have to intervene on behalf of the Syrians. We're approaching a very critical time in this right now."

The new threat stems from a cache of missiles Syria ordered from Russia years ago. They have yet to be delivered because of the ongoing civil war between forces loyal to the Syrian Ba'ath Party government and protestors trying to topple it.

"The Russians now are threatening to deliver the missiles. And as we get closer to a possible no-fly zone, you're going to see Syria pressuring the Russians to go ahead and deliver those systems that they paid for," Francona said.

"It looks like the earliest they can get them there would be this fall. But if these missiles are delivered, this is a game changer."

The reason being, he said, because while Syrians have a lot of military air power, their systems are old.

"It really hasn’t been upgraded in decades . . . The Russians have always built really great air defense stuff and this is about as good as it gets and if they get these into Syria, it will put the northern half of Israel at risk."

Francona said Secretary of State John Kerry is now trying to get all sides together to diffuse the situation.

"Hopefully, something will come out of that," he said. "I don’t hold much hope for that, but this has the potential to become, once again . . . the superpower confrontations of decades ago."

(There is more - please watch the video)

May 25, 2013

Memorial Day 2013

Note: I wrote this in 2007 while a military analyst at NBC News. With a few word changes, I think it holds true yet today. The original is still available at

'On behalf of a grateful nation'
Do not forget our fallen men and women

By Lt. Col. Rick Francona, U.S. Air Force (Retired)
Military analyst - MSNBC

Lt. Gen. Ed Soriano, left, presents Jessica Hebert, sister of Spc. Justin Hebert who was killed in Kirkuk, Iraq, with an American flag during his military funeral (AP Photo/The Herald, Meggan Booker). Ed and I served together in Desert Storm - this must have been his toughest duty.

Memorial Day weekend – most people associate that with the start of the "summer driving season" or a chance to buy appliances on sale. The constant news coverage of still high gasoline prices tends to overshadow the real meaning of the holiday. It is not about driving or shopping – it is about remembering the men and women or our armed forces who died while in service to the country. It is important that we not forget that – after more than a decade, we are still at war and we still lose some our finest young men and women every week.

Yes, we are still at war. No one knows this more than the families of those who have fallen on battlefields far from home with names most of us cannot pronounce. Unlike most of the wars America has fought in the past, we are fighting with an all volunteer force – there has been no draft since 1973. Every one of the fallen volunteered to serve this country, and deserve a moment of remembrance. Less than one-half of one percent of Americans serve in uniform (in World War II, it was over 12 percent) at any one time.

In the draft era, a much higher percent of the population entered the service, creating a large pool of veterans. Veterans understand the unique demands of military service, the separation from loved ones, the dangers of combat. With far fewer veterans or a veteran in the family, community and government, it is easy to lose sight of the demands military service requires of our men and women in uniform – and to forget too quickly those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

Sometimes one could get the feeling that foreign countries – especially those that have been liberated by American forces in the past – pay more tribute to our fallen troops than we do. I will never forget standing in a church in rural France – not a fancy cathedral, not a tourist spot, nothing architecturally significant, just a small village church. I would not have paid much attention until I spotted a well-maintained corner with a small American flag and a plaque.

I walked over and read the simple but powerful words in French and English, "In gratitude to the United States of America and in remembrance of her 56,681 sons that now and forever sleep in French soil." A elderly parishioner sitting in a pew nearby saw me reading the inscription and asked if I was an American. I said that I was – she slowly rose, nodded at the memorial and said, "You are welcome in France."

Over the years, over a million American troops have died in military service. Each fallen warrior is afforded a military funeral. Military funerals symbolize respect for the fallen and their families. Anyone who has attended a military funeral will never forget it – the American flag draped on the coffin, an honor guard in full dress uniform, the crack of seven rifles firing three volleys as Taps is played on the bugle, the snap of the flag as it is folded into the familiar triangle of blue, the reverence of fellow warriors.

Before his final salute, the officer in charge presents that folded flag to, in most cases, a young widow. He makes that presentation "on behalf of a grateful nation."

At some point on this day, let us make sure that we do not forget our fallen men and women, and that we are in fact a grateful nation.

© 2007 MSNBC Interactive and Rick Francona

May 16, 2013

Iran - time to intervene in Syria?

The Syrian civil war has raged on for over two years - over 70,000 Syrians have been killed. Most of the world is merely watching events unfold, while a few nations are supporting the opposition with low levels of arms and money. Western nations are debating the possibility of imposing a no-fly zone over the country, wondering if their national interests require involvement in yet another country in the troublesome Middle East.

Each country is doing its own calculations on what happens if Bashar al-Asad remains in power or not. For one country, however, the stakes are abundantly clear. The removal of the regime will be a serious foreign policy setback for the Islamic Republic of Iran. Syria is the key to their access to Lebanon, home of a sizable population of Shi'a Muslims and, more importantly, their proxy paramilitary force, Hizballah. Hizballah was created by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' (IRGC) Syria/Lebanon contingent in 1982 - that contingent formed the basis for the now-infamous Qods Force, the IRGC's special operations and "dirty tricks" unit.

Hizballah is part of Iran's greater strategy to isolate and confront Israel, which it regards as its primary enemy in the region and second only to the United States worldwide. Access to - and many would argue, control over - Hizballah allows Iran to open a northern front against Israel, or conduct a low-level war against the Jewish state with virtually no overt Iranian involvement. The ability of Hizballah to tie up huge amounts of Israeli military resources was demonstrated in the Israel-Hizballah war of 2006.

Iran's ability to maintain Hizballah as an effective organization - it provides virtually all of its weaponry, training and funding - is dependent on access to Syrian territory. Virtually all of Hizballah's weapons are delivered by Iranian aircraft - Iranian air force cargo aircraft or state-owned charters. The primary entry point for these supply flights is Damascus International Airport, about half an hour from the Lebanese border and Hizballah's strongholds in the Biqa' Valley.

As far as Syria itself, having an alliance with Damascus allows the Iranians to put additional pressure on Israel. Not only does Israel have to concern itself with Hizballah on its northern border with Lebanon, it also must be prepared to defend itself from the national armed forces of Syria.

Although the Syrian armed forces have recently gained the upper hand against the combined opposition of the Free Syrian Army and the more troublesome Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusrah, it is mostly through control of the sky that allows the regime to make gains against the opposition. Imposition of a no-fly zone - which is a distinct possibility as talks between Western powers begin in earnest - might tip the balance towards the overthrow of the al-Asad regime.

Iran may intervene militarily to prevent that from happening, and we may be seeing the next steps of that intervention. There have been IRGC troops in Syria for some time, but this week, the Iranian leadership announced that it was dispatching 10,000 IRGC fighters and basiji (volunteer augmentees) to Syria. The ostensible reason for the deployment was to defend two shrines in the Damascus area holy to Shi'a Muslims, and to defend the Golan Heights. The last excuse is interesting, since the Israelis have occupied the Golan Heights since 1967.

The two holy sites are the shrines of Sayidat Zaynab (left) and Sayidat Zukaynah (right). The shrine of Sayidat Zaynab is located just south of Damascus in the city of the same name (33°26'39"N 36°20'27"E) - it is the tomb of Zaynab, daughter of 'Ali (the first imam, son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet Muhammad) and Muhammad's daughter Fatimah, making her Muhammad's granddaughter, a woman revered among the Shi'a.

The shrine of Sayidat Zukaynah is located just a few miles southwest of Damascus in the suburb of Daraya (33°27'32"N 36°14'26"E) - a heavily contested area near an important air base (al-Mazzah). Zukaynah was the daughter of Husayn bin 'Ali (grandson of Muhammad), and thus the great granddaughter of the Prophet - she died in a Yazdi prison at age four.

There also is no need for Iranian IRGC or Basijis to guard either of the shrines. The Sayidat Zaynab shrine is in a heavily Shi'a area with plenty of Iranian guards already present, and the Zukayna shrine is in an area that the regime must hold; it has devoted a lot of resources to defend the entire area, not just the area of the shrine. It is a minor shrine - I lived close to this area and had never heard of it.

Defense of the Golan Heights? On the surface, one could make the case that since the Syrian regime has withdrawn much of its military force that was in the area between Damascus and the Golan Heights to bolster the defense of the capital, it is highly unlikely that Israel would move into southern Syria. Why interfere when one of your enemies is imploding on its own?

It appears to me this is just what the Iranians believe is a non-threatening means of deploying 10,000 troops to Syria. Once there, they can be used as needed to bolster one of Tehran's few allies. It might be the first step in a much larger intervention in the country, because if Bashar al-ASad falls, Hizballah will likely die on the vine.


April 15, 2013

The battle after the Battle for Damascus

Demonstration in Aleppo, Syria

I have recently written two articles, The Coming Battle for Damascus, and a follow-on piece, The Coming Battle for Damascus - Addendum. There will be a Battle for Damascus, and I predict when it is all over, the Syrian people will have overthrown the dictatorial party that has ruled the country for five decades. That is a good thing, but that victory will lead to the second battle for Syria, the "Battle after Damascus."

In the beginning of the Syrian revolution, which has just entered its third year, the various grass-roots opposition groups united under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The FSA was a loose amalgam of local groups across the country. It was not long before military officers who had defected to the FSA, bringing with them military organizational skills, began to coordinate the disparate operations and begin to bring a quasi-military structure to the group, forming battalions, then brigades. Just this last week, we saw the creation of the FSA's First Infantry Division in the Damascus Countryside governorate.

Not long after the creation of the FSA, foreign fighters began to join the fight, and some elements of the loosely organized FSA began to appear more Islamist. Watching the hours of videos posted to sites like YouTube and LiveLeak, I noticed the clips showed increasing instances of Islamist chants and the appearance of the black Islamist flag normally associated with al-Qa'idah and its affiliates.

It came as no surprise when the Jabhat al-Nusra (Victory Front) declared its affiliation with al-Qaidah, followed by the joint declaration of the Front and the Islamic State of Iraq (also known as al-Qa'idah in Iraq) that they had formed a joint organization called The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

Why has the FSA decided to cooperate with the Islamists? Simple - they offered capable assistance and support while the West, including the United States, sat on the sidelines, or offered "non-lethal" aid. I watch hours of Syrian opposition videos everyday - the term ghayr qatali (non-lethal) has become a joke among the Syrian fighters.

Do the more secular Syrians who make up the bulk of the FSA want an Islamic state in Syria after the fall of the Bashad al-Asad regime? Probably not, but right now is not the time for that battle. The secularists and Islamists are locked into an uneasy alliance based on a common enemy - they have decided that they will cooperate for now, knowing full well that there will be a major ideological clash in the future. There will be a fight over the future structure of the follow-on government of Syria. That battle will follow the coming battle for Damascus - the future of Syria will be decided in the streets of Damascus.

The FSA is aware that they may have mortgaged a piece of their future to the Islamists. Many of their supporters are not happy about it and have expressed their displeasure with the FSA leadership. The Christians - Arab, Assyrian and Armenian - are wary of supporting the FSA, but many have thrown in with the FSA. Most of the Kurds have reluctantly gone along as well.

However, there are secularists who are taking a hard line against the Islamists. The picture above of a group of women holding a sign the northern city of Aleppo illustrates the point. For my fellow Arabic linguists, the language is a bit awkward - it is a poem and it must rhyme.

The sign reads:

"Oh, what a pity for the Al-Qa'idah [men]
The [FSA] men are in jail and the Muslim women are free
And to trample their dignity would make them (the al-Qa'idah) despicable."

There is no illusion among the secularists that there is not another fight ahead of them. It too will not be an easy struggle.

April 11, 2013

Iraq "inspects" Iranian cargo aircraft heading for Syria - color me skeptical

There is widespread reporting about Iraq's third inspection of Iranian cargo aircraft bound for Damascus in just the past three days. This particular flight was a Mahan Air Boeing 747, similar to the one pictured above.

These "inspections" are in response to the recent visit of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to Baghdad. On March 24, Kerry met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and almost demanded that Iraq stop Iran from shipping arms to Syria through Iraqi airspace. "Anything that supports President Assad is problematic,” Mr. Kerry said, adding that the Iranian flights were "sustaining the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Asad."

If it were not such a serious issue, Kerry's naivete would be humorous. A virtual neophyte in Middle East matters, Kerry presumes to explain regional politics to the prime minister of Iraq. Specifically, he tells pro-Iranian Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki - known in Iraq derisively as "Nuri the Iranian" - that allowing Iranian flights to transport weapons, supplies and personnel to Iraq is supporting the pro-Iranian regime of Bashar al-Asad.

Do we see a theme here? Iran, al-Maliki and Bashar al-Asad are on the same side. Why does Kerry not seem to know that?

Again, a neophyte in things Middle Eastern, Kerry probably believes the Iraqi accounts of what has happened this week. Three Iranian flights have been asked to land while transiting Iraqi airspace for inspection to ensure weapons are not among the cargo. In all three instances, Iraqi officials have found only "humanitarian goods" on the planes. True to form, the Iranian government has called the inspections “unacceptable," and vowed to continue its "relief operations" in Syria despite the inspections.

Mr. Secretary, surely you must know this is theater for your benefit. The Shi'a-dominated government of Nuri al-Maliki is in the pocket of the Iranians - al-Maliki takes his orders from Tehran. Iran is the Syrian regime's primary supporter - the two countries have had close relations since Syria supported Iran in its eight year war with Iraq in the 1980s.

The Syrian and Iraqi leaders have grown closer since the premature departure of American forces in 2011, completing what one could call a "Shi'a crescent" running from Damascus through Baghdad to Tehran. You can thank your President for that....

There are two scenarios that may be in play here. The Iranians may have told the Iraqis which planes are not carrying weapons and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps fighters, and the Iraqis are selecting these for inspection. Alternatively, the planes are carrying weapons and the Iraqis have been told to look the other way. Either is possible, although I suspect it is the former.

I also question the use of Mahan Air for resupply to the Syrians. In the past, they have used Iranian air force Boeing 747 cargo freighters, just as they have for decades. If you honestly believe that your admonition to Nuri al-Maliki has stemmed the flow of weapons from Iran to Syria via Iraq, you really are naive.

March 9, 2013

The Coming Battle for Damascus - Addendum

Note: This is an addendum to my article of one month ago, The Coming Battle for Damascus.

Al-Tadamun section of south Damascus

The Syrian rebels - an amalgam of the the loosely-organized mostly Sunni Muslim Free Syrian Army and a few Islamist groups, notably the Jabhat al-Nusrah, have made significant advances against the armed forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Asad.

The rebels have been effective enough to seriously alter the military operations and planning of the Syrian government. Over the last month, the opposition has been able to down a number of armed assault helicopters as well as fighter-bomber aircraft using what I believe to be Chinese-manufactured shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles. Additionally, they have been able to take over a number of cities in the north of the country, some in the oil-rich northeast governorates.

At the same time, the rebels gathering around Damascus, despite being pounded around the clock by artillery, rockets and air attacks, have been able to push to within about a mile of al-'Abasiyin Square, considered to be a key target for the rebels. I believe that Bashar al-Asad has realized that the battle for Damascus is about to begin in earnest.

The Syrian general staff has made some alarming decisions to address the military situation. To understand the significance of these military moves, perhaps a quick look at Syrian defense strategy will be illustrative. The "normal" (pre-revolution) deployment of Syrian forces were to provide defense against what Syria considered its primary threat - Israel. Four divisions - the 1st Armor, 5th Armor, 7th Mechanized and 9th Armor were arrayed south of Damascus from the Lebanese border on the west, across the foothills of the Golan Heights to the Jordanian border in the east.

To protect the regime, there were two divisions stationed in the southern and western suburbs of Damascus whose primary mission was regime protection - the 4th Armor Division and the division-equivalent Republican Guard. These two units were officered almost solely by members of Bashar's 'Alawi sect.

As events unfolded this week, the Syrian general staff ordered the main combat units of the four divisions in the south to redeploy to defense positions in and around the capital city. In almost 40 years of watching the Syrian military, I have never seen these military units allowed into downtown Damascus. This leaves the borders with Israel, and to some extent Jordan, virtually unprotected. I believe the Syrian regime has determined that there is much less of a threat from either of these neighboring countries than the internal threat from the Free Syrian Army and the Islamists.

For President Bashar al-Asad to move these forces into Damascus indicates the level of concern over the gravity of the situation and the realization that his worst nightmare is about to commence - the bloody street battles that will determine the fate of Syria.

Bashar is also concerned for his minority 'Alawi sect, centered in northwest Syria near the Latakia coast. He has ordered additional army units to that area to protect this group from what might easily become a bloodbath of retribution for years of oppression. Deploying forces to this area lessens the number of forces to address the burgeoning revolution in the north and northeast - Aleppo, al-Raqqah, Dayr al-Zawr and al-Hasakah governorates. That area now has basically one armor division to quell the violence - it is not working. Bashar has likely made the calculation to cede this area to the rebels and concentrate on the defense of the 'Alawi homeland and the city of Damascus.

Things are happening quickly in the Levant. Syria is basically up for grabs. How far is Bashar and the regime prepared to go to remain in power? Would they rather see the country destroyed and have a chance at remaining in power, or will they opt for some way to prevent further bloodshed in return for a way out? I am guessing the former - it is going to get ugly.

February 28, 2013

Obama's visit to Israel - will this be Pollard's last chance?

Convicted spy Jonathan Pollard

President Barack Obama will make his first visit as president to Israel in March, assuming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can form a coalition to govern the country. According to the Israeli media, Israeli President Shimon Peres will make yet another request for the release of admitted and convicted spy Jonathan Pollard "on humanitarian grounds."

Pollard, a U.S. Navy intelligence analyst, was convicted in 1987 of espionage against the United States on behalf of Israel. He was sentenced - as he should have been - to life in prison, but because of laws in existence at the time, he will be eligible for parole and may be released on November 21, 2015.

Almost a year ago, Shimon Peres made the same request. Prior to a trip during which he was awarded America's highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Israeli president requested that President Obama release the convicted traitor. I wrote about that request - and the correct response, a refusal, from Mr. Obama. See Obama, Peres and Pollard - any "flexibility?"

Shimon Peres is an honorable man who has served his country in a continuous series of military, political and diplomatic positions that mirror the creation and development of the Jewish state. To have this icon of Israeli history grovel for the release of a traitor should be embarrassing for the people of Israel. A paragon of honor asking for the release of a spy - not exactly the legacy he would want. It is hard to believe the government of Israel wants one of its most respected citizens to compromise his standards to be associated with the ilk that is Jonathan Pollard.

Israeli requests for Pollard's release are nothing new. I am conflicted by the Israelis' continuous requests to excuse Pollard's treason. The intelligence officer in me respects the Israelis' desire to stand by a recruited spy who worked for them, while the American military officer in me would have supported the death penalty against a traitor whose perfidy may have led to the deaths of people who we, American intelligence, had recruited to work for us. It is a haunting duality. Do the Israelis really want to insult the only real ally they have?

What has changed in less than a year? For one, President Obama has been re-elected, and as such, may have what he believes is more "flexibility." He pointed this out to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev when discussing America's European-based missile defense system, that he will have more "flexibility" after the 2012 election.

What does this mean for Jonathan Pollard? President Obama's self-ascribed flexibility might just be the key to Pollard's early release. It is no secret that Barack Obama is not highly regarded in Israel - no wonder, he has done very little to engender confidence that his declared support for the Jewish state is genuine.

A decision by President Obama to pardon Jonathan Pollard might be the one gesture that would endear him to the Israeli people. I hope the President does not take this step, in effect placing political expediency above doing the right thing. You may take from that phrase that I believe Jonathan Pollard should rot in that jail cell - he did the crime, he is doing the time.

A presidential pardon for Jonathan Pollard would be an insult to those of us who have conducted intelligence operations on behalf of our country. That said, I am not confident that this president is above playing politics at the expense of propriety.

To my Israeli friends: I know we disagree vehemently on this issue. I will not change my mind, nor will I get involved in a drawn-out discussion when we are unlikely to resolve our differences. This is my view - you are free to voice your own. I just will not respond.

February 27, 2013

A man left behind - "Zero Dark Thirty" and the Pakistani doctor

Last year, I wrote an article (repeated below) about the inexcusable actions of this Administration by leaving a man behind during the operation that resulted in the death of al-Qa'idah leader Usamah bin Ladin. No, we did not leave a Navy SEAL behind, but an intelligence asset that was key to the success of the operation - Pakistani physician Dr. Shakil Afridi.

After the recent Academy Awards show, the cast of the movie Zero Dark Thirty publicly called for the doctor's release. They need to direct that call to the President and the Administration which left this man behind. It will take action at that level to put enough pressure on the Pakistani government to release Dr. Afridi. Failure to do so will prolong one of the most shameful actions of this Administration.

Oh, and I do realize that no one in the military says "zero dark thirty." It is, and always has been, "oh dark thirty."

Breaking faith: the CIA and the Pakistani doctor

Pakistani television reporting of 33-year sentence for Dr. Shakil Afridi

It is inexcusable. It is the first and most important lesson case officers are taught at "The Farm"* - you have a moral and professional responsibility to safeguard the security of an asset. Security is the key part of any successful operation - it is the first and last thing you cover with your asset each and every time you meet or communicate. No security means no operation at best, a dead or imprisoned asset at worst.

Somewhere in the operation that led to the killing of al-Qa'idah leader Usamah bin Ladin, someone forgot that most basic of concepts. A CIA asset, Pakistani physician Shakil Afridi, has just been sentenced by a Pakistani court to more than 33 years in prison for "conspiring against the state." His crime? Working with American intelligence against bin Ladin. Our crime? Allowing him to get caught.

How did this happen? Why was he allowed to remain in Pakistan after the operation? Was there no plan to extract him and his family immediately after the raid? This is basic Agency tradecraft, but in this case, the basics seem to have been ignored.

That said, the use of a local physician to collect DNA samples of residents in the area of Abbottabad under the guise of a vaccination program to verify the presence of bin Ladin was brilliant. It will be a teaching point at The Farm for years to come - as it should be. The case officer who came up with this method was thinking outside the box.

Unfortunately, somewhere up the chain of command, someone dropped the ball on ensuring the safety of the asset. Was Dr. Afridi considered a throwaway? A local source to be sacrificed for the greater good, a small pawn in the larger game of taking down Usamah bin Ladin? If so, this is not the same CIA that I knew. If this is how we treat our assets, why would any potential asset ever agree to work with or for American intelligence agencies again?

What makes this case ever more egregious is that it appears senior Administration officials did not even attempt to protect the doctor's identity. From the press reporting and the Administration spin, I cannot tell how the Pakistanis learned of Dr. Afridi's involvement, but what has come out is troubling.

There were Pakistani press reports, what they call the results of their own investigation - more likely a feed from the Pakistani intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate. Plausible, since the ISI can be an effective internal security service.

However, here is where it gets disturbing. Two senior Administration officials made statements to the press about the doctor's identity and the role he played in vetting information that bin Ladin was in Abbottabad.

First was Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Panetta was the CIA director at the time of the bin Laden raid. In January of this year, he appeared on CBS' "60 Minutes" and said, "I'm very concerned about what the Pakistanis did with this individual. This was an individual who, in fact, helped provide intelligence ... that was very helpful with regards to this operation. And he was not in any way treasonous toward Pakistan. He was not in any way doing anything that would have undermined Pakistan."

The second official was described as "a senior U.S. official with knowledge of counterterror operations against al-Qa'idah in Pakistan." This official stated, "The doctor was never asked to spy on Pakistan. He was asked only to help locate al-Qa'idah terrorists who threaten Pakistan and the United States. He helped save Pakistani and American lives. His activities were not treasonous, they were heroic and patriotic."

Given the tone and tenor of the statement, I assess that the "senior U.S. official" was none other than White House terrorism advisor John Brennan - it sounds just like him. Either John never attended the tradecraft course at The Farm (Brennan was a reports officer, not a case officer) or he missed the lecture on protecting your intelligence assets. You NEVER reveal the identities, access and most critically, the names of your intelligence assets. Never. The Farm - Rule Number One.

Now what?

Unfortunately, this colossal blunder does not leave the United States with many options to secure Dr. Afridi's release. First, let's disabuse ourselves of the notion that Pakistan is an ally. At best, they are a useful adversary and at worst complicit in the deaths of American troops in Afghanistan. The ISI was embarrassed by the raid and the fact that we have exposed them as either incompetents or complicit liars. I have worked peripherally with the ISI - they are not the former, so I have to go with the latter.

What would I do? I would not have missed the opportunity last week to address Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari while he attended the NATO summit in Chicago on Afghanistan. Rather than snub him as President Obama did, I would have had a private "come to Muhammad" meeting with the president and explained that unless the doctor was pardoned or released via whatever face-saving mechanism Zardari could work out, the relationship between the United States and Pakistan would undergo drastic changes.

First, the American ambassador in Islamabad would be recalled and our diplomatic presence downgraded to the chargé d'affairs level. Then all American financial aid (not the symbolic $33 million cut voted on by the Senate), military parts and supplies for Pakistan's American-built equipment and any military training assistance would be halted. Drone attacks would continue from American bases in Afghanistan, this time without Pakistani coordination. All Pakistani military officers attending courses in the United States would be returned to Pakistan, as would most of the Pakistani embassy staff. None of that would change until Dr. Afridi and family arrive in the United States.

Instead, the State Department tells us that "we have regularly taken up this matter with Pakistan" and will "continue to go forward." Forward? The man, an intelligence asset of the United States intelligence community was just sentenced to 33 years in prison, a virtual death sentence. Absolute drivel. Amateur hour.

Do something. Do it now.

* "The Farm" is the CIA training facility "believed to be located at Camp Peary on the outskirts of Williamsburg, Virginia." Since I was trained at the facility, I can neither confirm nor deny that it is there....

February 17, 2013

Syria: Attempting to Neutralize the Air Force

Syrian Air Force MiG-23BN dropping two FAB-250 bombs

Throughout the two-year revolution in Syria, the Syrian Air Force has enjoyed dominance of the airspace - and used it relentlessly against the rebels. The regime has used general purpose bombs, white phosphorous incendiary cluster bombs, anti-tank cluster munitions, rockets and home-made "barrel bombs" against its own people. (See my article, The Syrian "barrel bomb" - a terror weapon).

For months, the Syrian rebels called out to the world, the West and NATO to impose a no fly zone over the country to prevent the massive destruction of the country, not to mention deaths and injuries. Although they have been able to down many of the regime's Mi-8/17 (NATO: HIP) assault helicopters and a few L-39 trainer/light attack fighters and MiG-23 (NATO: FLOGGER) fighter-bombers, the fixed wing aircraft operate virtually at will.

There have been a few instances in which the rebels have used captured shoulder-launched missiles to hit the higher-flying fighters - on February 17, 2013, they were able to down one of the air force's fighter-bombers.

Syrian Air Force fighter bomber downed over central Syria

One of the tactics I have encouraged is to attack the air bases from which the Syrian Air Force aircraft operate. See my earlier article, Note to the Syrian opposition - take the airbases! Either they are reading my articles (joking), or they have figured this out on their own (more likely).

Syrian air bases

Of the air bases shown on the map, some have already been seized by the rebels, others are under pressure and will likely fall soon, some are not in service, and a few are key to continued Syrian Air Force operations.

Thus far, the rebels have taken Marj al-Sultan, just outside Damascus, Abu al-Duhur, north of Hamah, Afis (Taftanaz), south of Aleppo, and Jirah, east of Aleppo. Marj al-Sultan was an Mi-8/17 assault helicopter base and a command and control center. Afis was used to launch Mi-8/17 and Mi-25 (NATO: HIND) gunship attacks, Abu al-Duhur was used to launch MiG-23 attacks, and Jirah was used to launch L-39 attacks.

The rebels are in the process of attacking the training bases at Minakh, Rasm al-'Abud, both near Aleppo, and the military ramp at Aleppo international airport. Minakh is a small training base, but the other two bases have been used to launch L-39 and MiG-23 sorties against the opposition. The rebels have also surrounded and are attacking Dayr al-Zawr in the east, and are conducting harassing attacks on the military ramp at Damascus International Airport. The attacks on the two international airports have severely restricted flights into Syria.

Of the remaining airbases, al-Nasiriyah, north of Damascus, is used to launch Scud missiles against opposition targets in the Aleppo area. Marj Ruhayil, just south of Damascus International Airport, is now used for Mi-25 gunship operations. Khalkhalah, a bit further south, houses MiG-21 (NATO: FISHBED) fighters, but they appear infrequently in the fight. Al-Suwayda' (al-Tha'alah) in the south, does not appear to be in use at this time.

Sayqal, east of Damascus, is home to the air force's premier air-to-air fighter, the MiG-29 (NATO: FULCRUM), which, given the nature of the fighting, has not been needed. Al-Qusayr, in the west on the Lebanese border, appears to be abandoned. The air base at al-Tabaqah, near the Euphrates Dam, does not appear to be used in the fighting. The international airport at Latakia, on the Mediterranean in northwest Syria, is home to the anti-submarine warfare helicopters and is not in the fight.

The most important bases remaining in service are located between Damascus and Hamah - al-Dumayr, Shayrat (Daghdaghan) and Tiyas. Al-Dumayr is home to a MiG-23 squadron and a Su-22 (NATO: FITTER C) squadron. Both squadrons have been used extensively in operations in the Damascus area. Shayrat is home to two squadrons of Su-22 fighter bombers, used heavily in operations against the rebels in the central Syrian governorates of Homs, Hamah and Idlib. Tiyas is home to the Syrian Air Force's two Su-24 (NATO: FENCER) squadrons. These fighter bombers have also been used in the central Syrian governorates. All three of these bases are easily defended and present a real challenge to the opposition. At this point, I do not assess the rebels as capable of shutting down these three major air bases.

The air base at Hamah has become a major logistics base for regime operations in the central governorates. IL-76 (NATO: CANDID) transport aircraft of both the Syrian Air Force (they have four) and the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force routinely deliver troops and materiel to the base, and transport high-value detainees to the intelligence and security services in Damascus.

Of the remaining bases in the Damascus area, 'Aqrabah is a small helipad in a congested and contested area - I have to assume the Syrians have moved the Mi-8/17 helicopters to the air base in the south Damascus suburb of al-Mizzih. Al-Mizzih will be important in the upcoming battle for Damascus. In addition to the helicopters, it is also used to fire artillery and rockets at rebels in the neighboring towns of Mu'adhamiyah and Daraya. (See my analysis - The Coming Battle for Damascus.)

The rebels will take the military ramp at Aleppo International (called Nayrab air base), Rasm al-'Abud, Dayr al-Zawr and Minakh in the near future. However, they will not be able to take the bases that are mounting the most devastating air strikes on their forces and the cities that support the revolution. They will have to win despite the Syrian Air Force.