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.

February 8, 2013

The Coming Battle for Damascus


The two-year old civil war in Syria may be reaching a tipping point. Fighting rages across the country in almost all of the major cities and large portions of the countryside. It is hard to determine who is "winning" because it really does not matter. All that matters is who emerges as the victor at the end.

That end will be determined in the streets of the capital - the fighting elsewhere is important, but the fate of the Syrian people will be, as it always has been, in the streets of Damascus. It will be the battle FOR Damascus, not the battle OF Damascus.

The regime of Bashar al-Asad is keenly aware that Damascus is the center of gravity for control of the country. From what I can gather through viewing hundreds of videos posted by the Syrian media and the information offices of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), it appears that the Syrian armed forces have shifted their focus from defeating the FSA and its Islamist allies, to an aggressive defense of Damascus. The two army divisions tasked with protecting the regime from internal threats, the 4th Armor Division and the Republican Guard, have been re-deployed from operations in the south and north of the country to their home garrisons in Damascus.

The 4th Armor Division and the Republican Guard are the best-trained and best-equipped formations in the Syrian Army, and are made up mostly of 'Alawis (the President's Shia' Islam offshoot sect). The senior leadership of these two units reads like a who's who of the 'Alawi families in Syria. Their livelihood depends on the continuation of the al-Asad regime.

By re-deploying the 4th Division and the Republican Guard back to Damascus, President al-Asad has in effect ceded control of the large portions of the north and northeast to the opposition. While there are daily punishing air, artillery and ballistic missile attacks on the cities believed to be supportive of the opposition, the focus of the regime's operations is now to, if possible, prevent an FSA/Islamist assault on the capital, and failing that, to defeat that attack.

The situation is quite clear to anyone who has been following the fighting, as is the strategy of both the regime and the opposition. The combat is vicious and constant. Many of Syria's cities have been reduced to rubble - scenes of huge sections of Aleppo and Homs rival those of Germany's cities in 1945.

The opposition is pushing closer and closer to the city of Damascus itself. It is doing so on three sides (the fourth side is Qasiyun mountain), from the Harasta-Duma area on the northeast, the eastern suburbs known as the East Ghutah, and from the south near al-Mizzih air base and the upscale section of al-Mizzih.

The regime is relentlessly fighting the opposition on all three fronts with virtually every weapon (short of chemicals) in their inventory. There are constant bombardments from rockets, artillery, mortars, supported by armor assaults - all complemented by MiG-23 (NATO: FLOGGER) and Su-22 (NATO: FITTER C) fighter-bombers dropping thermobaric and white phosphorus cluster munitions.

Here is a graphic that illustrates the situation:

The red lines indicate the progress made by the opposition. The blue indicates the operations by the regime to disrupt that progress. In the Mu'adhamiyah and Daraya areas south of al-Mizzih air base, regime tanks conduct daily raids into the two cities. These 4th Division normally assaults (armor and artillery) Mu'adhamiyah since its home garrisons are just west of the city. The Republican Guard normally attacks Daraya in the same manner.

The regime is also trying to maintain control of the road to Damascus International Airport, although the airport has come under opposition rocket attacks. To the area east of the city, the opposition has made good progress, to the point that the regime does not venture much into the area, being content to hammer the entire region with artillery and air power.

The regime seems very concerned about an opposition assault into the 'Abasiyin section of Damascus itself (shown in black). This may be the opposition's best avenue of attack. The rabbit warren-like streets favor small bands of lightly armed fighters, although the regime has shown no reticence in basically flattening the entire area.

As I have said, it comes down to the "last man standing" in Damascus - everything has been leading to this fight. It is not a coincidence in the Syrian dialect of Arabic, the word for Syria (the country) and Damascus (the city) is one and the same.

February 4, 2013

A message to my readers

On the set of  Spike TV's "Who is the Deadliest Warrior?"

It has been my pleasure to expound, vent, explain, complain, praise, criticize - pick your verb - over the last few years my perpective of what is happening in the Middle East. However, circumstances require that I scale back my writing. I will still write comments when I can or feel that I must, but the tempo will be reduced.

Thanks to you all for your support, and even the occasional hate mail.

Rick Francona