April 28, 2014

Francona to Speak at Cazenovia Forum - May 2, 2014

I will be speaking about the situation in Syria at the Cazenovia Forum in Cazenovia, New York on Friday, May 2 - if you are in the Syracuse area, please come!

As many of you know, I am not a fan of the term "expert" - there is always more to learn. I prefer specialist.

Read the article.

April 15, 2014

American arms to Syria? Too little, too late?

BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missile

At least two videos posted on YouTube show Syrian rebels firing U.S.-manufactured TOW missiles at Syrian army tanks. This not only represents a quantum leap in the rebels' capability to engage the Syrian army's Russian-made T-72 tanks and other armored vehicles, it also indicates a decision on the part of whoever supplied the missiles to the rebels to provide more effective weaponry.

Up until the last summer, the rebels were using Russian-manufactured anti-tank weapons (AT-3, AT-5, AT-13 and AT-14) captured from the Syrian army. Starting in June of 2103, we started seeing videos of the rebels using - effectively - the Chinese-manufactured HJ-8 Red Arrow. The Red Arrow is not in the Syrian army inventory, so obviously these have been supplied by the rebels' foreign supporters, most likely Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Now we see the American-made state-of-the-art TOW in the hands of the rebels.

President Obama has been under pressure for over a year by Gulf Arab allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar to provide man-portable air defense systems, or "MANPADS," and anti-tank missiles (such as the TOW) to the rebels. These weapons systems are critical for the lightly-armed rebels to fight the relatively well-equipped Syrian armed forces. While the Syrians are no match for Western or Israeli militaries, they possess a large number of Russian tanks, armored fighting vehicles, artillery, rockets and surface-to-surface missiles, backed by hundreds of fighter-bombers and attack/assault helicopters - all of which have been used on the rebels.

Last August, the regime of President Bashar al-Asad even employed chemical weapons against rebel-held areas in the suburbs of Damascus, firing rockets carrying warheads filled with the nerve agent Sarin. See my articles on that event: Syrian Chemical Weapons Strikes - Random Attacks or Viable Military Targets? and Syria: UN report does not blame the regime for chemical weapons use - really?.

The Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons forced President Obama reluctantly into action - he had earlier stated that the movement of chemical weapons or their use constituted a "red line" that would result in consequences. The American threat to employ military force resulted in a Syrian agreement to rid itself of chemical weapons. That is a good thing, however, we immediately saw Syrian Air Force cargo planes making a number of flights to Iran - I wonder what was on those aircraft. I digress...

The presence of the US-manufactured TOW may represent a compromise on the part of the United States. The Obama Administration is reluctant to provide MANPADS to the rebels for fear that they might end up in the hands of Islamist jihadists also fighting in Syria, rather than the group the United States has opted to support, the secular Free Syrian Army.

Every time someone suggest MANPADS, both State and DOD officials remember the problems that arose years after the CIA provided the extremely-capable American-made Stinger MANPADS to the Afghan mujahidin. The missiles later showed up in the hands of the Iranians, thanks to our erstwhile allies, the Pakistani Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (yes, the same intelligence officers who claim not to have known that Usamah bin Ladin was living right under their noses).

Earlier this year, President Obama met with Saudi King 'Abdullah to discuss Syria. After the meeting, the President's deputy national security advisor reiterated the administration's concerns over supplying MANPADS to the rebels, but made no mention of anti-tank weapons. This comes just after the disclosure that the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG) took delivery of almost 16,000 TOW missiles late last year. The SANG is a force of about 100,000 men (organized into eight brigades) separate from the Ministry of Defense and Aviation structure and is a counterbalance to the Royal Saudi Land Forces.

Coincidence? Maybe not.

Let's look at this. That is a huge quantity of TOW missiles for that size force and for the potential threats the Saudis may face in the region. If you combine the armies of Israel, Iran and Iraq, you have a total of about 8,000 tanks. Even if you double that to account for armored fighting vehicles, acquiring 15,000 TOW missiles for the SANG seems a bit high. That does not include the well over 20,000 TOWs in the Saudi Land Forces inventory. Now we have TOW missiles showing up in Syria - it just seems too convenient.

For the record, let me state I am in favor of supplying the secular opposition forces in Syria with the money, weapons and training that they need to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Asad - I have always been in favor of the removal of the Ba'th Party government. We had an opportunity to do just that in 2012 and failed to do so.

In the aftermath of the beginning of the "Arab Spring" in early 2011 and the Syrian regime's brutal suppression of demonstrations in the southern Syrian city of Dara', hundreds of military officers defected from the Syrian armed force and began the resistance under the banner of the secular Free Syria Army. Although they had the military training, they did not have the weapons required to effectively fight the Syrian military - and thus turned to the outside world for assistance. Although they did receive some materiel support from the Saudis, Qataris and Turks, the United States and its western allies provided only small amounts of non-lethal aid.

The assistance was not enough. The deteriorating military situation called for desperate action - when various al-Qa'idah affiliated Islamist groups offered to bring fighters and weapons into Syria, the FSA reluctantly agreed. Unfortunately, they also brought their own agenda, that being to remove the al-Asad regime and replace it with an Islamic state. There have been clashes between rival Islamist groups, and between the FSA and the Islamists as well. This internal fighting has allowed the Syrian armed forces to regain the upper hand, from almost being defeated in 2012 to now systematically reasserting control over large areas of the country formerly controlled by the opposition.

It may be too late to help the rebels overthrow the regime. It is certainly too late to do it without the Islamists in the picture. Should the rebels be successful, the next fight will be between the secularists and the Islamists.

Had we been proactive in 2011 and backed up our rhetoric that al-Asad had to go with the wherewithal to effect change, we might have actually been able to change the course of the Middle East. (More on that later.) I am afraid it may be too late.

April 7, 2014

Sectarian violence in Iraq increases - just as predicted

As Iraqis prepare for the upcoming parliamentary elections, violence has increased to a greater level than what we have seen over the last few months. This current level of violence has not been seen since the bloody Sunni-Shi'a sectarian fighting of 2006-2007, which ended with "the surge" - a short-term increase in the number of American combat troops in the country. Since the beginning of 2014, almost 2,500 people have been killed, and over 400,000 displaced.

The violence has not been unexpected. Following the failure of the Obama Administration to secure a suitable Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that would have allowed the presence of American combat troops in the country beyond 2011 to confront just this eventuality, it was obvious to anyone with a modicum of experience in the region that it was only a matter of time before Iraq was once again torn apart by sectarian violence. Shortly after the departure of American forces in late 2011 - premature in my opinion - the violence began, slowly at first, and steadily increased.

The violence was not hard to predict.

As the Shi'a-dominated Iraqi government - a factor of the size of their majority in the country - took over almost all elements of political power in the country, it was no surprise that the pent-up anger at how the Shi'a were treated under the Sunni-dominated regime of former President Saddam Husayn led to a marginalization of Sunni influence in the new administration. No matter how bad the economy and conditions were in the country, it was always worse in the Sunni areas. The Sunnis bristled at this treatment, and at some point, groups of Sunnis decided they had no choice but to take up arms against what they regard as an Iranian-directed government.

The Iranian role

As a consequence of the numerical advantage enjoyed by the Shi'a in Iraq, it was logical that they would dominate any democratically elected government. It is also logical to expect that the new government would be friendly towards Iran - Iran has emerged as the de facto leader - and self-appointed protector - of the region's Shi'a Muslims. Although there is a U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, a U.S. diplomatic mission to an insecure Iraq without the backing of American combat forces leaves us with almost no influence in the country.

The election of Nuri al-Maliki as prime minister also fit nicely into Iran's plans for Iraq. Known derisively as "Nuri al-Irani" (Nuri the Iranian), he has constantly made pro-Iranian decisions that are a slap in the face of the United States. For example, shortly after the departure of American forces, al-Maliki permitted Iranian Air Force transport aircraft and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) charter aircraft to overfly Iraqi airspace in their resupply flights for Hizballah, and also now resupply of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad.

Iran has sent combat units to advise, train and participate with Syrian troops in the ongoing civil war. If were not for Hizballah and IRGC fighters, the Syrian regime may have fallen in 2012. Also, at Iranian insistence, Iranian-trained Iraqi Shi'a militias have shown up on the battlefields of Syria.

As many analysts have feared - this one included - we are seeing the emergence of a "Shi'a crescent" extending from Hizballah in Lebanon, to the 'Alawi-dominated Ba'th Party in Syria, through Nuri al-Maliki's pro-Iranian government in Iraq, and ending with the mullahs in Iran.

Spillover from Syria

Again, without the presence of American combat units in Iraq, there has been a resurgence in jihadist violence, much of it tied to the fighting in Syria. A group affiliated with al-Qa'idah emerged, calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This group began attacking elements of the Iraqi government in al-Anbar province, including the violence-prone cities of al-Fallujah and al-Ramadi. True to its name, ISIS also moved into northeastern and north-central Syria, where it attempted to set up Islamic enclaves ruled by Sharia' courts meting out harsh Islamic punishments.

ISIS's goal is to establish an Islamic state in the areas now occupied by both Iraq and Syria, eliminating the border and the governments in Baghdad and Damascus. Unfortunately, this has diverted the Syrian opposition, mainly the Free Syrian Army, from its fight against the Bashar al-Asad regime and started internal battles among the rebels. Although ISIS has lost some ground, it remains a force in part of Syria, and still diverts the secular opposition's efforts from the real fight.

It is the presence of ISIS and another jihadist group, Jabhat al-Nusrah (the Victory Front) that has caused Western governments from providing lethal arms to the rebels for fear that the sophisticated weaponry the rebels need - especially anti-tank missiles and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles - will fall into the hands of the jihadists. It is a reasonable concern.

The failed SOFA

As I have stated, I believe most of Iraq's current problems are the result of the premature departure of American combat units in late 2011. Without a SOFA, it was impossible for American troops to remain in the country. SOFAs are complex agreements that require detailed negotiations.

Many analysts (count me as one) believe the Obama Administration did not want the negotiations for a SOFA to be successful, thereby giving the Administration the excuse it was looking for to withdraw American forces. The Americans left the table and withdrew their troops, leaving unprepared Iraqi military and security forces to fend for themselves.

Mr Obama has taken credit for "ending the war in Iraq." Sorry, Mr President, all you did was end our involvement in the war. The fighting continues, which I believe is the result of your failure to WIN the war in Iraq. Thousands of Iraqis, and now Syrians, are paying the price.