September 28, 2014

The war against ISIS - where are the Turks?

Turkish soldier on the Syrian border and Kurdish refugees

Turkey possesses the sixth largest armed forces in the world, with over 650,000 active duty personnel. Many of my fellow media military analysts agree with my assessment that Turkey has "serious military capability." It is a key member of the NATO alliance - its forces are second only to those of the United States in number, and are larger than the military forces of the United Kingdom, France and Germany combined. It fields modern aircraft and equipment - including the F-16 Fighting Falcon and M-1 Abrams tank - and has trained and deployed extensively with its NATO partners. Its air bases meet NATO standards and are well-positioned for operations in Syria.

So, why have the Turks not agreed to participate in the international coalition arrayed against the radical self-proclaimed Islamic State/Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)? Given its geographic location and capable armed forces, it would be a formidable asset to the coalition.

The answer is, as are many things in this part of the world, complicated.

Initially, Turkey's reluctance to join the coalition was understandable. When ISIS forces moved out of Syria in June and successfully and rapidly seized al-Mawsil (Mosul), Iraq's second largest city, they also seized the Turkish consulate in the city and took 49 Turkish diplomats and citizens as hostages. As the anti-ISIS coalition was forming, the Turks were concerned that joining the international alliance would put their personnel at risk. Given ISIS's brutal treatment of their enemies, Turkey's reluctance was not surprising.

It was not until September that the Turks were able to secure the release of their hostages. The details of that release are still unclear, but the Turks insist that they did not enter into an agreement to prevent the coalition from using Turkish facilities, nor did they commit to remain neutral in the conflict. On September 25, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that Turkey would no longer be a bystander; there is a special session of the Turkish Parliament on October 2 to discuss authorizing Turkish military action in Syria.

Should the Turkish Parliament give President Erdogan the authority to employ the Turkish armed forces against ISIS, that will likely also include allowing coalition aircraft to use Turkish air bases. That will allow coalition aircraft to dramatically increase the intensity of operations over Syria, with much less risk to pilots now flying long flight routes from bases in the region (Jordan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar) or the USS George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf.

The Turkish air force is well trained and flies the F-16 as its primary fighter aircraft. The Turks could play a major role by providing additional firepower against targets in northern and eastern Syria. Although less likely, the authorization to use the Turkish army in Syria would provide the elusive "boots on the ground" capability that has so far been lacking in the Syria portion of the alliance strategy against ISIS. It would also allow coalition aircraft to provide close air support to Syrian Kurds opposing ISIS. That would answer much of the unfounded and uninformed criticism of coalition airstrikes in stopping ISIS from advancing on Kurdish border towns inside Syria. It is irresponsible to expect coalition pilots to drop ordnance on troops in contact without positive control on the ground. Doing so is a recipe for disaster - there would inevitably be casualties among friendly forces.

All that said, what are the reasons the Turks have waited even after their hostages have been released to join the coalition against ISIS?

Turkey's relationship with Syria has been contentious for almost as long as the two modern nations of Turkey and Syria have existed - both coming into existence in the aftermath of World War I. There are border issues revolving around the "sanjak of Alexandretta," a piece of land on the Mediterranean Sea claimed by Syria but ceded to Turkey by France as the mandatory power in what is now Syria and Lebanon. It remains an issue between the two countries to this day.

Water issues have also played a role in the geopolitics of the region. The Euphrates River, arguably the most important waterway for Syria, begins in Turkey. When the Turks began to fill the huge Ataturk Dam on the Euphrates in southern Turkey, the flow of the river was reduced to the amount specified in the agreement between Turkey, Syria and Iraq (the three nations who share the water resources). That reduction, although in compliance with the treaty, caused a dramatic drop in Syria's electricity power generation capability. In response, the Syrians provided a safe haven to fighters of the Kurdistan Workers Party, more commonly known by its Kurdish acronym PKK. The Syrian government allowed the PKK to stage cross-border raids into Turkey. Turkey responded with artillery fire and threats of armed intervention.

That brings us to the most likely reason for Turkey's reluctance to support the coalition - fear of the rise of Kurdish nationalism. Support for the coalition will by necessity mean support for the Syrian Kurds. The use of the term "Syrian Kurds" should not be confused with Syrian - the operative term here is Kurds. The Kurds in Syria and the Kurds in Turkey are the same people; they speak the same Kurdish dialect and have close family ties on both sides of the border. Kurds in both countries, like their brethren in Iraq, want an independent Kurdistan. Providing support to the Kurds will only fan the flames of that nationalist desire. It is a desire the Turks have spent decades and huge amounts of resources to extinguish, with limited success.

There are other reasons for Turkish reluctance to join the coalition. Turkey has been and remains the gateway for weapons and personnel entering Syria - for all groups, including the Free Syrian Army, the Islamic Front, Jabhat al-Nusrah (the Victory Front, the al-Qa'idah presence in the country) and of course, ISIS. Why has that been allowed? Turkish politics come into play here. President Erdogan's party the Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish acronym AKP, is an Islamic party. That in no way means the party espouses the radical theology of ISIS, but it did in the past lead the Turkish government to turn a blind eye toward all the men and materiel flowing into Syria. Hopefully, that has changed. Even Erdogan cannot excuse the brutality and inhumanity that is ISIS.

So, where are the Turks? Hopefully, they are on the way.

September 19, 2014

Israel believes Syria retained some chemical weapons - no surprise

Syrian chemical warfare rocket in the Damascus suburbs - September 2013

Israeli military intelligence officials are claiming that the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad did not dispose of all of its chemical weapons as it committed to do as part of an agreement made last summer following its use of the nerve agent sarin on Syrian opposition fighters in the suburbs southeast of Damascus. Veteran Syria watchers and Middle East specialists will not be surprised by this Israeli assessment.

For years, the Syrian government of the late President Haziz al-Asad and the successor government of his son, current President Bashar al-Asad, had maintained a stockpile of chemical weapons as a deterrent against Israel, which it believes has nuclear weapons. Although chemical weapons are not in the same category as nuclear weapons, it does provide the Syrians with a level of strategic capability. The Syrian armed forces can deliver chemical weapons by ballistic missiles or tactical aircraft, and as demonstrated in August 2013, by battlefield rockets.

When confronted with an almost certain American military response, the Syrians agreed to a quick Russian-brokered deal by which they would turn over their chemical weapons arsenal in return for a commitment on the part of the United States to refrain from military strikes.

When the agreement was announced, I was in Washington as a military analyst for the CNN news network. When asked for my views on the deal, I expressed skepticism that the Syrians would willingly divest themselves of what they consider a vital military capability. Without chemical warheads, Syria's ballistic missile force of Russian, Iranian and North Korean missiles would be reduced to essentially long range artillery rather than potent weapons of mass destruction.

Soon after the announcement that Syria agreed to turn over its chemical weapons arsenal and the stockpiles of precursor chemicals to be destroyed, independent analysts reported an unusually high level of Syrian Air Force IL-76 (NATO: CANDID) heavy transport aircraft between Syrian and Iranian military installations. Although there is no way to determine the exact cargo moved on the aircraft, many analysts (including this one) believe that there is a high probability that the highest-priority chemical weapons - I judge that to be the ballistic missile warheads - were moved to Iran for clandestine safekeeping.

It makes sense - I just do not believe that Bashar al-Asad would give up all of his chemical weapons, especially when he has an ally like Iran that would be happy to store his weapons for a period of time.

September 17, 2014

The Free Syrian Army as our "boots on the ground" in Syria?

Free Syrian Army commander Colonel Riyadh al-As'ad

Secretary of State John Kerry looks awful - tired, slow and fumbling for words. That comes from trying to convince people that he has assembled a coalition willing to confront the self-proclaimed Islamic State, the Islamic Caliphate, or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria/Levant (ISIS or ISIL).

The reason the Secretary is having a problem convincing the American public, our allies, or anyone else that there is a viable coalition to effectively combat the radical Islamist terrorist group is simple - there isn't a viable coalition.

Let's review the situation in basic terms while setting aside the rhetoric used by the Secretary and the Obama Administration.

President Obama was quite clear in his address to the nation on September 10. He said, "America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat. Our objective is clear: we will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL...."

Most people realize by now that ISIS/ISIL controls territory the size of New England in western Iraq and eastern Syria. To effectively "degrade, and ultimately destroy" the organization, it must be confronted in the entire area it controls - in both countries. In Iraq, that appears to be doable without American ground forces. American airpower coupled with a revitalized Iraqi Army - that means with restored effective leadership - and the now better-equipped Kurdish peshmerga fighters have been able to stop ISIS's momentum and will soon begin the process of rolling them back and either destroying them in place or pushing them back into Syria.

It is their presence in Syria that is problematic.

The President continued, "In Syria, we have ramped up our military assistance to the Syrian opposition. Tonight, I again call on Congress to give us additional authorities and resources to train and equip these fighters. In the fight against ISIL, we cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorizes its people; a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost. Instead, we must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to extremists like ISIL..."

Sounds good, right? To many, the President's words are interpreted as meaning that the United States is going to provide assistance to this undefined "Syrian opposition" and that organization will be our "boots on the ground" and operate in the same manner as the Iraqi Army and Kurdish peshmerga - a ground force taking on ISIS supported by American airpower.

The group the President is referring to is the Free Syrian Army (FSA), headed by former Syrian Air Force Colonel Riyadh al-As'ad (different Arabic spelling than Syrian president al-Asad). While I applaud increased American support to the FSA, it is important to realize that the FSA is not focused on fighting ISIS - it's goal, its reason for existence, is the overthrow of the Ba'th Party regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad. The only time the FSA has confronted ISIS militarily has been to defend itself when ISIS sought to expand its area of control into FSA-held areas.

To listen to the President, Secretary Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, the FSA will serve as the ground component of this nebulous coalition that will take on ISIS. Secretary Hagel and General Dempsey reiterated this as late as September 16 in a Congressional hearing. That claim is interesting in light of the statements of FSA Colonel al-As'ad that he is not interested in joining the U.S. led coalition to fight ISIS - he remains focused on the removal of the al-Asad regime in Damascus.

In an interview, Colonel al-As'ad remarked that he would work with an American led coalition if he received a commitment that the United States would support him in the removal of the Syrian regime in addition to its fight against ISIS. Thus far, the Administration has not made that clear to the colonel. In any case, I support funding, arming and training the Free Syrian Army. However, if we think they are going to act as our "boots on the ground" to combat ISIS, we need to clarify that with the FSA.

As far as the coalition goes, I have yet to see anyone commit to military action in Syria. The French have conducted reconnaissance flights over Syria, but the British have been silent, as have most of the other members of the "broad coalition." In fact, there are almost no offers to provide anything more than loosely defined "support."

I think the reality that none of our so-called "partners" are interested in putting forces into or over Syria has begun to sink in with the leadership in Washington. Note that General Dempsey told the Congressional committee that the goal of the U.S. operation is now to destroy ISIS in Iraq, but to only "disrupt" it in Syria. That is not what the President said in his address to the nation. It appears that the Administration is beginning to realize that unless we determine that ISIS is a direct, imminent threat to the United States that must be addressed by our own armed forces, the best we can hope for in Syria is to "disrupt."

So which is it, Mr President? ISIS is one organization - present in both Iraq and Syria. Are we going to destroy it or merely disrupt it? I suspect that if you believe that the FSA is going to be your boots on the ground in Syria, we will have to settle for disrupt.