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.