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.