September 30, 2015

Russian airstrikes in Syria - the coming confrontation with the United States

Still from video taken near Hamah of suspected Russian SU-24 fighter-bombers

As predicted, the Russian Air Force fighter-bombers which recently deployed to Syria have conducted their first airstrikes against targets near the cities of Homs and Hamah. While the Russians have claimed that their deployment of over three squadrons of fighter/fighter-bomber aircraft and helicopter gunships to Syria is to join the fight against the Islamic State (also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS), the targets struck by the Russians today belie that claim.

According to U.S. officials, the targets were anti-regime rebel positions. While there are some ISIS positions in the area near the central western cities of Homs and Hamah, none of the areas targeted by the Russians appear to be in areas controlled by ISIS. These areas are, however, strongholds of various anti-regime rebel groups, some of which are supported by the United States, including the Free Syrian Army.

The Russians' primary objective of their deployment to Syria is to prop up the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad. The survival of the regime will guarantee the Russians continued access to Syrian military facilities - specifically the joint Syrian-Russian port facility at Tartus and now the Humaymim Air Base base at Jablah, just south of the port city of Latakia. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union over two decades ago, the Russians have had only sporadic access to Mediterranean port facilities for its naval forces.

The Russians continue to increase the capabilities of their expeditionary force in Syria. On September 29, six of the Russian Air Force's newest and most capable fighter-bombers, the Sukhoi SU-34 (NATO: FULLBACK), deployed to Humaymim air base south of the port city of Latakia, joining the 28 fighters and fighter-bombers already present at the base. There is also a report of reconnaissance sorties by Russian Air Force IL-20 (NATO: COOT A) aircraft over the Homs area.

The above photograph was posted on the semi-official Encyclopedia of Syrian Military Facebook page. The caption reads: First documented photograph of the presence of a Sukhoi-34 bomber at the Russian base at Humaymim airport in Latakia .. it is considered one of the modern bombers in the Russian Air Force.

As of today, we have Russian Air Force combat aircraft engaged in operations in Syrian airspace. Add the Russians to the already complex situation in which Syrian, American, Turkish, French, Jordanian and several Gulf Arab States, and likely soon to be British combat aircraft are conducting operations.

This many air forces operating so many aircraft in the same relatively confined airspace is a recipe for disaster. One small error or misjudgment at supersonic speeds could easily spiral into an armed confrontation between Russian and Syrian aircraft on one side and aircraft of the U.S.-led coalition on the other. Incidents involving fighter or fighter-bomber aircraft tend to end in fatalities.

Both the United States and the Russian Federation understand the dangers inherent in the current situation. The Russians' rather ham-handed attempt to preclude an incident on their first day of airstrikes - delivering a demarche to the American Defense Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad - indicates that they realize that having American and Russian fighter aircraft in close proximity without some deconfliction protocol in place is dangerous.

I applaud the American government response to the Russians - the Russians were told that the United States will continue to conduct operations over Syria (and Iraq) as it sees fit, and did just that. This is especially important if the Russians are not attacking ISIS targets, but anti-regime rebels.

It appears that what the Russians are doing is similar to the what the Turks have done - commit to fighting ISIS and then attack other targets of their own choosing. In the case of the Turks, it is attacks on Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) positions. In the case of the Russians, they are supporting the regime of Bashar al-Asad by attacking the rebel forces that seek to remove him from power.

At some point - soon - Russian and American interests in Syria are going to clash. Russian aircraft will continue to attack U.S.-allied anti-regime forces. Are American pilots going to be told to stand down while Russian pilots kill American-supported, in some cases American trained and equipped, Syrian rebels? Are we going to defend those who have agreed to be our "boots on the ground" or watch them decimated by Russian airpower?

From what I have seen in the last two weeks, Russian President Vladimir Putin has demonstrated that when he sees a threat to Russia's national interest, in this case the possible collapse of the al-Asad regime, he has the political will to act accordingly. He ordered a Russian expeditionary force to the area, and soon afterwards, used that military force. He has used that military force not against ISIS as he committed, but against those forces who threaten the Syrian regime.

The Russian airstrikes will continue against anti-regime forces until and unless challenged. Vladimir Putin has assessed that American President Barack Obama will not challenge Russia's attacks on our allies on the ground. He does not believe President Obama will risk such a confrontation over Syria -literally.

The Russians have thrown down the gauntlet - now we will see what Barack Obama, John Kerry and Ash Carter are made of.

September 27, 2015

Secretary of State Kerry - Russian aircraft in Syria are "basically force protection"

In the words of Secretary of State John Kerry, "It is the judgment of our military and experts that the level and type represents basically force protection."

Kerry's comments are in line with pronouncements made by Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu to Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, claiming that the deployment of over three squadrons of combat aircraft and hundreds of naval infantry troops was "defensive in nature" and there to protect the joint Russian-Syrian naval facility in the port city of Tartus.

The naval facility the Russian forces are ostensibly protecting is 30 miles south of the Humaymim air base near Latakia that the Russians now occupy. I understand why the aircraft are at the air base, but the troops should be at the naval base.

I am not sure who is being more disingenuous, Kerry or Shoygu. I understand Shoygu making the statement, but why is Kerry accepting his explanation? The force package that the Russians have deployed to Syria goes far beyond "force protection." The various vehicles and weapons systems provide not only the capability to defend the air base south of Latakia and the naval facility at Tartus, but the capability to launch offensive operations as well.

It is this offensive capability that has analysts concerned. There are three types of fixed wing aircraft in addition to Mi-24 (NATO: HIND) helicopter gunships deployed to Humaymim. The fixed wing aircraft include four Sukhoi SU-30SM (NATO: FLANKER C) multirole fighters, 12 SU-25 (NATO: FROGFOOT) ground attack/close air support fighters, and 12 SU-24 (NATO: FENCER) tactical interdiction fighter-bombers.

A closer look at this force package belies the "force protection" description accepted by Secretary Kerry. The SU-30SM is considered a 4th-plus generation fighter-bomber - it is one of the newer aircraft in the Russian inventory and is on par with American aircraft like the U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle and the U.S. Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet.

The SU-30SM has the ability to act as a command-and-control platform for a group of aircraft - it is likely for this capability the Russians deployed four of these aircraft to Syria. They will be used to guide and support the SU-24 and SU-25 fighters should they be tasked to conduct air strikes.

The SU-24 is an attack/tactical interdiction fighter bomber - the Syrian Air Force uses these aircraft extensively against both ISIS and rebel targets. The aircraft is similar to the now-retired U.S. Air Force F-111 Aardvark. It has only a nominal defensive role - it was built to strike targets deep inside enemy territory, not defend friendly formations or conduct close air support. Calling the SU-24 a "force protection" weapon is a bit of a stretch.

The SU-25 is a close air support aircraft akin to the U.S. Air Force A-10 Thuderbolt II (more commonly called the Warthog). You could make the case that the aircraft has a force protection role - it, along with the MI-24 helicopter gunships, could provide defensive air support if Russian positions came under attack.

The coastal areas of Latakia (including Jablah where the Humaymim base is located) and Tartus thus far have not seen any fighting, although the rebel groups, including those allied with the al-Qa'idah affiliate in Syria - Jabhat al-Nusrah (The Victory Front) have indicated a desire to take the fight to the 'Alawi homeland. President Bashar al-Asad and most of his senior civilian and military leadership are members of the quasi-Shi'a 'Alawi sect of Islam.

There has been some notable activity by the Russian task force since the defense chiefs of Russia and the United States had their conversation in which Minister Shoygu claimed that the Russian deployment is defensive in nature. Almost immediately after the deployment of the fighter aircraft to Syria, the Russians began manned and unmanned flights over Idlib province.

Flights over Idlib is interesting since one of the stated reasons behind the Russians military deployment to Syria is the threat posed by the Islamic State (also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) to Syria and Russia. Idlib is not controlled by ISIS, but rather by the rebel groups that pose the most serious threat to al-Asad regime military and militia forces. In the past few month, a coalition of rebel groups, many of them Islamist, have routed the Syrian Army from most of Idlib province.

I think we can assume that the Russians have gone far afield of what would be legitimate "force protection" for their naval facility at Tartus. The force package that has been deployed possesses sufficient combat power to commence offensive operations against either ISIS or the various rebel groups and tactical coalitions arrayed against the Syrian regime. The U.S.-led coalition has been conducting operations against ISIS targets in Syria (and Iraq) for over a year. The anemic nature of that campaign no doubt led to the Russian decision.

That said, it appears to me that we may have another what I will call the "Turkish conundrum" on our hands. The Turks agreed to allow the United States and its coalition partners the use of several Turkish air bases just north of the Syrian border - drastically reducing flight time to ISIS targets in both Syria and Iraq. The Turks also committed to conduct airstrikes against ISIS targets.

However, an overwhelming majority of Turkish air strikes have concentrated on facilities of the Kurdish Workers Party, known by its Kurdish acronym PKK; the PKK has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States and other countries. Not complaining about the Turkish operations appears to be the price paid by the United States for access to the Turkish air bases.

The Russians have claimed they are in Syria to address the threat posed by ISIS. Yet, it appears from their initial reconnaissance and familiarization flights that they are actually there to prop up the failing al-Asad regime. They may actually do both, which presents us with yet another awkward situation.

The Russians have joined the Iranians, Iraqis and Syrians in the formation of an anti-ISIS coordination and intelligence exchange center in Baghdad. While this is a prudent step, it excludes the U.S.-led coalition, although coalition operations information exchanged with the Iraqis no doubt will find it way to the "other coalition."

It should come as no surprise that the Russians are in Syria to protect Russian interests, primarily continued access to the Mediterranean. That access is a vital interest to Russia - they need the al-Asad regime to survive. That is the tactical mission in furtherance of a strategic policy objective. While Secretary Kerry and Secretary Carter might accept the fiction that this is "basically force protection" - I don't.

I suspect we will see Russian air attacks against anti-regime rebels in the near future.

September 22, 2015

Is it time to reassess our policy (assuming we have one) in Syria?

US Air Force B-1 bomber strike on Kobani, Syria earlier this year

It has become painfully obvious that the United States' policy toward Syria - and the entire Middle East for that matter - is not working. The Islamic State, or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), still controls vast swaths of territory in both Syria and Iraq, despite over a year of an American-led air campaign.

The Syrian civil war which has claimed over 250,000 lives still rages on multiple fronts with no end in sight. The much-touted American program to train moderate Syrian rebels to fight ISIS has produced less than 10 fighters currently in the fight - most of the initial cadre were killed, captured or defected to Islamist groups in Syria. Millions of dollars were wasted in what can only be described as incompetent execution of a flawed plan.

While I want to focus on Syria in this article, I should mention that the situation in Iraq is not much better. The Iraqi Army, despite over a year of renewed American and European forces' training efforts, is virtually useless. No matter the rhetoric emanating from the Iraqis in Baghdad, the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, or the political mouthpieces in Washington, the Iraqi military is incapable of mounting effective operations, even with the Iranian-trained and led Shi'a militias. I recall the claims last year that the Iraqi Army was about to mount a campaign to regain control of Mosul - they can't even retake the city of al-Ramadi, a mere 65 miles west of Baghdad.

Then again, how would we know what is actually happening? No one trusts the statements from either the State or Defense departments. Why should they? As I wrote last month, "someone is cooking the intelligence to make it fit into the narrative dictated by the White House and the political leadership at the Pentagon." (See the entire article, Is your government lying to you about the war against ISIS?

It has been an American policy objective that Syrian President Bashar al-Asad must either step down or be removed from power - that has been the policy since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011. Yet, in 2012, when the secular rebel group known as the Free Syria Army (FSA) requested assistance from the United States and our European allies, we offered only token amounts of non-lethal aid. It was a combination of this short-sighted position in Syria and the premature withdrawal from Iraq in late 2011 that led to the genesis and rapid expansion of ISIS. By 2014, the situation was ripe for ISIS to move from Syria and seize control of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city.

It was not until 2014 that the Obama Administration recognized the serious threat posed by the group now calling itself "The Islamic State" - deployment of U.S. military trainers to Iraq began, soon followed by commencement of airstrikes on ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria. In President Barack Obama's own words: “Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, [ISIS] through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy.” Sounds good, but....

To say that the US-led coalition air campaign has been anemic would be kind. The overly restrictive rules of engagement (ROE) and the fear of causing any collateral damage has hamstrung what passes for the air operation. Sorties rates are dismally low, and pilots often return to base without employing any of their weapons, again citing the ROE and a convoluted target approval process that takes hours instead of seconds or minutes. For some insight into these self-imposed limitations, see my article from March of this year, Why is American airpower not stopping ISIS?.

Because of the lack of American political commitment to the air campaign against ISIS, the Islamist group has made significant gains in Syria, losing basically only one battle, that being for the Kurdish city of Kobani, which was saved only through an uncharacteristic display of American airpower. Combined with successful ground operations by several of the Syrian rebel groups, especially a coalition of Islamist groups, the Syrian army has been pushed out of much of the northern part of the country and has come under attack in the south and in the suburbs of Damascus.

The situation is beginning to look much like mid-2012 when the al-Asad regime appeared to be on the verge of defeat. It was only intervention then by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Lebanese Hizballah that the Syrian military was able to regroup and stave off defeat.

Now that the al-Asad regime is again on the ropes, a new savior appears - none other than Russian President Vladimir Putin. Why the Russians? It was not our failure to effectively take on ISIS as Putin may want the world to believe, but the specter of the collapse of the Syrian regime that convinced him to take action. The fall of Bashar al-Asad may threaten what Putin believes is a vital Russian national interest - continued Russian access to the Middle East and the Mediterranean.

Since the mid-1970's, the United States has effectively pushed the Russians out of the region - with the exception of Syria. The Russians have maintained a small presence at a joint Russian-Syrian naval facility in the port city of Tartus and for a time a presence at a desert air base in central Syria. When the decision was made to move combat aircraft to Syria, I expected the Russians to again use the air base at Tiyas. However, recent ISIS gains have put that area at risk.

In the last few weeks, dozens of Russian transport flights have landed at Humaymim air base, located just south of the port city of Latakia on Syria's Mediterranean coast. This area is also the home of the 'Alawis, the sect of which Bashar al-Asad is a member. For more on the Russians in Syria, see Russian intervention in Syria - what is the endgame?

As of today, there are over two squadrons of Russian Air Force fighter, fighter-bomber and attack aircraft at the air base, as well as helicopter gunships. An anonymous American official confirmed the presence of 12 Sukhoi SU-24 (NATO: FENCER) fighter-bombers and 12 Sukhoi SU-25 (NATO: FROGFOOT) attack aircraft - see image.

Here is a short but good quality video of a Russian Ilyushin IL-78 (NATO: MIDAS) aerial refueling aircraft with four SU-24 fighter-bombers deploying to Humaymim air base a few miles south of Latakia. For my readers who do not speak Arabic, the speaker in the video explains that these are Russian aircraft heading west over the north rural area of Homs governorate - that puts them on a course for the air base at Humaymim.

Now that the Russians have deployed a small, but fairly potent expeditionary force to Syria, one has to ask, what are President Putin's intentions? Is he going to use his aircraft against ISIS in conjunction with the Syrian Air Force and the U.S.-led coalition? Is he also going to order his pilots to attack those rebel forces (some of which are supported by the United States) attempting to remove Bashar al-Asad from power? Or both? I believe he will publicly do the former and covertly do the latter.

Keeping Bashar in power meets Putin's goal of assuring continued Russian access to the area, while degrading ISIS serves his interest in combating Islamist fighters, many of which have come to Syria from Russia, most notably from Chechnya. Killing them now in Syria is preferable to fighting them later in Russia.

How does the current situation affect American policy? Perhaps it is time to recognize the reality that removing Bashar al-Asad from power - a good idea in 2011, 2012 and 2013 when we could have and should have supported it - may not be feasible now. Too much has changed since that policy goal was articulated, but it has been the rise and expansion of ISIS that has emerged as the major threat to American interests - ISIS far eclipses the threat posed by the al-Asad regime. Syria might be considered a regional threat because of its close ties to Iran and Hizballah - Syria is the conduit for Iran to continue to fund, train and equip the Lebanese Shi'a militia - but ISIS is now a far greater threat to the United States.

There is a common enemy for all parties involved - it is a strange match up indeed. The United States, Europe (including Turkey), Syria, Iraq, Iran, the Gulf Arabs, the Kurds and Hizballah are all fighting ISIS in Syria and/or Iraq. Now we have the deployment of Russian combat forces into Syria. While the elimination of ISIS is a desirable outcome, the presence of so many different military forces operating high-performance aircraft armed with sophisticated weapons in close proximity to each other without close coordination creates the potential for unintended confrontation. Confrontations between jet fighter aircraft tend to be quick and lethal, over in seconds.

The informal coordination (or more correctly, notification) channels that now exist are inadequate. Of course, the Pentagon claims that we do not coordinate coalition air operations with the Syrian Air Force (and now the Russians). While technically true, we do coordinate with the Iraqi armed forces - is anyone naive enough to believe that the Iraqis are not communicating with the Syrians while taking on a common enemy? It would be irresponsible to send American pilots into Syrian skies without some notification to the Syrians to not interfere.

With the presence of Russian fighters, fighter bombers and attack aircraft in Syria ostensibly to fight ISIS, now might be the time for a more formal coordination/notification protocol. Since it is likely impossible politically to coordinate with the Syrian Air Force - they drop crude barrel bombs on their own civilian populations - we should establish a coordination mechanism with the Russian expeditionary force in Syria. The Russians can work with the Syrians. If it is not true coordination of air operations against ISIS, at least we should be able to deconflict the operations of the various parties. We do not need an armed confrontation between an American pilot and a Syrian or Russian pilot at 600 miles per hour 20,000 feet over northern Syria.

On the ground, we should also reassess how we are going to take on ISIS in Syria. Obviously, the 10 U.S.-trained rebels are not going to make a difference. Despite any assurances or deals we have made with the Turks in return for access to their air bases just north of Syria, we need to better support the Kurds, they are the only effective fighting force now engaging ISIS on the ground.

This is a ready-made solution requiring a bit of spine, something seemingly in short supply in Washington. Provide better weapons and materiel to the Kurds in Syria. With U.S.-led coalition and Russian airpower supporting the Kurds on the ground, this could take the fight to ISIS effectively.

Let's destroy (not defeat, but utterly destroy) ISIS, then we can worry about the dictator in Damascus. Eliminate the threats one at a time - ISIS first, Bashar second. It has a chance to succeed, whereas our current policy is an abject failure.

September 13, 2015

Russian intervention in Syria - what is the endgame?

Russian Air Force AN-124 (CONDOR) and IL-76 (CANDID) transport airlifters

It has been rumored for sometime, and it has finally happened - the Russians have deployed a sizable contingent of military personnel to Syria. At least seven Russian Air Force Antonov AN-124 Ruslan (NATO: CONDOR) jumbo airlifters have moved men and materiel to an airfield just south of the Mediterranean port city of Latakia.

The AN-124 is the largest military transport aircraft in the world. The aircraft can transport 255 tons of cargo, compared to the 135 ton capacity of the U.S. Air Force C-5M Super Galaxy, although the AN-124 has a much shorter range.

The airfield near Latakia is a joint Syrian air base (actually used by Syrian Navy helicopters) known as Humaymin Air Base and a civilian airport known as Basil al-Asad International Airport. The airport is named after the President Bashar al-Asad's late older brother - it was Basil who was supposed to be the successor to their father Hafiz. Basil's death in an automobile accident in 1994 led to Bashar's ascendancy to the presidency. The familial home of the al-Asad clan is just a few miles northeast of the airfield in the city of Qurdahah.

By way of disclosure, I was the Air Attaché to the U.S. Embassy in Damascus from 1992 to 1995. In that role, on several occasions I have been to Humaymim Air Base and what was then known simply as Latakia International Airport. Coincidentally, I was also at Damascus International Airport only minutes after the automobile accident in which Basil al-Asad was killed at the airport entrance.

The Russians have requested overflight rights for their military "air bridge" between Russia and Syria from September 1 to September 24. Although they have flown at least seven AN-124 sorties, we are unsure of the exact number of flights - no doubt there will be more. The United States has pressured NATO allies Bulgaria and Greece (and no doubt others) to deny the overflight requests. The two countries have acceded to the American request - good for them.

The Russians have an alternate flight route, however. Immediately after the two NATO members refused access to their airspace, Iran offered Russia the use of its airspace for flights to Syria. Of course, that will also require overflight of Iraq, whose Shi'a-dominated government will acquiesce to Iranian "requests" to facilitate the Russian airlift.

Like any military expeditionary force, the Russians deploy with mobility and air defense assets. According to various media reports, the Russians are airlifting armored personnel carriers and tactical air defense systems with their troops - this is typical and we would do the same thing.

The Russians have deployed the BTR-82 armored personnel carrier (APC, left) and the very-capable Pantsyr-S1 (NATO: SA-22 Greyhound) air defense system with its troops in Syria. The BTR-82 is a first-rate APC, and the SA-22 is a formidable mobile gun and missile platform - the Russians build excellent tactical air defense systems.

Interestingly, one of the first confirmations we had of Russian troops in Syria were "selfies" posted on Twitter and other social media by Russian soldiers who now find themselves in northwestern Syria. The Russians have yet to stop their troops from posting photos on social media that belie the official Kremlin position - the selfies posted last year with meta data indicating their presence in Ukraine should have been a lesson in operations security.

So now the Russians are in Syria. No matter your opinion of Russian President Vladimir Putin, you have to acknowledge the decisive nature of his actions. At some point, he and his advisers - no doubt with many years of experience in Syria since they have been Damascus's primary weapons suppliers and military trainers/advisers for half a century - assessed that Bashar al-Asad was in danger of being overthrown.

The removal of Bashar al-Asad is not in and of itself a major issue for the Russians, but continued access to Syria is.

Over the past four decades, the Russians have been edged out of the region as most Middle Eastern nations turned toward the West. The one exception has been Syria - the Russian naval facility at the Syrian port of Tartus is virtually the last Russian outpost in the Mediterranean. There have also been reports of Russian advisers working with Syrian military and air defense units.

I have no doubts that Vladimir Putin will want to maintain that Mediterranean presence, just as he has moved to re-establish the Crimea as a Russian navy base, and has deployed Russian navy ships to Cuba.

It is interesting that the Russians have deployed to the air base just south of Latakia. The northwestern coastal mountain range is the home of the 'Alawis, a quasi-Twelver Shi'a sect of Islam that has produced much of Syria's current leadership of the armed forces and ruling Ba'th Party. Membership in either organization has been seen as a way out of the poverty and persecution formerly experienced by the group.

When Syria was placed under a French mandate after the end of World War One, the 'Alawis were encouraged by the French to join the military as a counterbalance to the majority Sunni population. Since the "Correctionist Movement" in 1970 that brought Hafiz al-Asad to power, the 'Alawis have been the dominant power brokers in the country.

Hafiz al-Asad strengthened Syria's ties with the Soviet Union, a relationship that survived the collapse of the USSR and continues even today, although Russia's financial problems over the years have limited the amount of support provided to Damascus.

The deployment to the Latakia area may be an attempt to protect the 'Alawi homeland. Syrian rebel groups, both the Free Syrian Army and a loose alliance of Islamist groups including the al-Qa'idah affiliate in Syria - Jabhat al-Nusrah (the Victory Front) - have expelled the Syrian army and its supporting Iranian and Hizballah forces from Idlib province, located immediately to the east of the 'Alawi-dominated area.

The rebels have been vocal in their plans to move towards the coast and to seize Syria's three major ports (Latakia, Baniyas and Tartus) as well as the mountains that are home to most of the 'Alawis in the country. The loss of this region would be a major blow - possibly the fatal blow - to the regime of Bashar al-Asad. It is the fear of this loss and the real threat posed by the opposition forces that are likely driving the Russian deployment to this region.

Syria's armed forces are not capable of defending this area despite their control of the skies and relentless bombing of civilian areas. As they pull back for the inevitable battle for Damascus, they have ceded large areas of the country to the rebels or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Thus far, the Russians have not engaged ISIS. At some point, however, propping up Bashar al-Asad may mean the Russians will have to do just that. While it sounds good to have another ally involved in the US-led coalition's fight against ISIS, and the Russians could certainly be helpful in the short term, the problem is the endgame. The Russians want to make sure that no matter what the political solution at the end of the civil war, Bashar al-Asad or someone as compliant remains in power. That assures them access to their remaining naval facility in the Mediterranean.

Failing keeping Bashar al-Asad in power, the Russians want to have the defining voice in who runs the country. Before we start to talk to them about joining the effort against ISIS, we should remember that a previous alliance with the Soviet Union against a common enemy 70 years ago led to an endgame of fifty years of Communist repression in Eastern Europe known as the Cold War.

Secretary of State John Kerry has made several overtures to his Russian counterpart warning the Russians about their intervention in Syria. Mr. Kerry, the Russians no longer take you or the Administration you represent seriously. We have done nothing to stop Russian adventurism in Ukraine, have capitulated on the anti-missile defense system in Poland the the Czech Republic, have sat and watched as Russian ships and aircraft probe our defenses at levels not seen since the end of the Cold War, and caved in to late Russian demands in the Iran nuclear talks to lift sanctions on ballistic missiles after just a few years.

The Russians have assessed that they can do almost anything they wish and there will be no consequences from the United States. They will pursue their own objectives, whether or not those objectives are compatible with American interests.

They will be more involved, not less, in Syria. They mean to have the final say in Syria's future.

September 7, 2015

The United Kingdom and France to attack ISIS in Syria?

French President François Hollande hints at impending French airstrikes in Syria

In welcome developments, two of the United States' closest allies announced that they have expanded, or are in the process of expanding, their offensive operations against the Islamic State (or ISIS - the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), to include targets in Syria. Both countries have been members of the US-led coalition since the beginning of air operations in the summer of 2014, but have only allowed their pilots to attack targets in Iraq.

That appears to be about to change. Both countries now appear to be on the verge of taking the fight to ISIS in its key strongholds in Syria, joining pilots of the United States and its Arab allies who have already been conducting air operations in Syria.

This is a welcome development - while the air forces of the Arab participants in the coalition are certainly capable partners, the British and French air forces are among the finest in the world and have long experience in conducting joint operations with American forces. They can also bring excellent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to the fight. The coalition partners now participating in the air operations in Syria are almost totally reliant on American ISR capabilities.

French President François Hollande announced on September 7 the impending commencement of French reconnaissance flights over Syria and the possible subsequent authorization for French combat aircraft to begin attacks on ISIS in Syria.

The President justified the possible French expansion of its operations into Syria on recent attacks against targets in France, including the attack of the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the recent - thankfully failed - attack on a French high speed train. According to Hollande, those attacks were planned in Syria, and the perpetrators had a connection to ISIS in Syria - the train attacker fought as a part of ISIS in Syria.

Should the French president order airstrikes in Syria, it would be a welcome development to be sure, but it would be helpful if France would increase its overall level of participation in the air campaign. This far, the French have conducted just over 200 airstrikes. The vast majority of the airstrikes - in both Syria and Iraq - have been conducted by the United States. Of course, our forces are much larger than our allies, but the commitment of additional resources would be welcome.

President Hollande seems to be on solid ground here - he has the authority to order French forces into action in Syria. The French have shown a willingness to take on Islamist fighters, as evidenced by France's lead in anti-terrorist operations in North Africa for the last two years. While it is a virtual certainty that French ground troops are not part of the equation in Syria, French air assets are a welcome addition.

Contrast the French president's position with that of the United Kingdom's Prime Minister David Cameron. Mr. Cameron surprised almost everyone with his announcement that the British military had used a drone to launch an attack in Syria that killed two British citizens and a third ISIS fighter. The Royal Air Force operates American-built MQ-9 Reaper armed drones - they have been used in Afghanistan and Iraq. While they have been used for reconnaissance operations over Syria since late last year, this is the first lethal strike by the drones in Syria.

The revelation of the attack on the two British subjects - considered by most a targeted killing - has rekindled the debate in Britain over UK operations in Syria. The House of Commons has in the past refused to authorize British military operations in Syria.

As with the possibility of French participation in the air campaign in Syria as well as Iraq, British participation would be welcome as well. In addition to the addition of very capable air forces, the combined participation of American, British and French air forces would send a strong message to the rest of the world that three of the West's leading powers are committed to finally making realistic attempts to - as President Barack Obama promised over a year ago - "degrade and defeat ISIS." It would also treat ISIS as a single target set rather than two separate operations in Iraq and Syria.

If I was handicapping this, I would say there is an even chance we will see French offensive air operations in Syria, and a one in three chance we will see British air operations there. I hope I am underestimating - I would welcome their participation in the fight.

September 1, 2015

Classified information on Hillary Clinton's private email server - how did it get there?

One of many press reports on the email issue

Although I tend to limit my analysis and commentary to Middle East issues, my expertise in the region was gained from almost three decades of service as an intelligence officer - as both a clandestine case officer and a signals intelligence officer - with the Defense Intelligence Agency, Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency, agencies probably better known by just the initials DIA, CIA and NSA.

All three intelligence agencies deal with the highest levels of classified information in the United States government. The proper handling and safeguarding of that information is taken extremely seriously in the intelligence community. Serious breaches of the federal laws and departmental/agency regulations are usually career-ending events.

I will not address the politics of the email controversy surrounding former Secretary of State and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. I will, however, address some facts about national security intelligence information and draw some conclusions about the presence of Top Secret/SCI information found in supposedly unclassified emails discovered on Mrs. Clinton's unsecured private email server.

SCI refers to Sensitive Compartmented Information and involves special handling requirements because of the sensitivity of the sources and methods used to acquire and produce the intelligence information bearing the SCI markings.

You will also see references to SI (Special Intelligence - a specific reference to information derived from signals intelligence, the exclusive purview of NSA) and "codeword" information in the emails - these are references to SCI. SCI can be at the Secret or Top Secret level - it can also be further restricted to limited distribution lists in the cases of extremely sensitive sources.

For example, if NSA was able to obtain information on Russian nuclear weapons capabilities and the intentions of the Russian leadership based on breaking an encrypted Russian military communications system, it would be very closely held - only a small group of senior military officers and national security decisionmakers would see that information.

If the fact that NSA had successfully penetrated these communications were to come to the attention of the Russians - or their allies - our capability to access that information would dry up immediately. This is the level of damage inflicted by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden - it will take many years and billions of dollars to recover from his treachery.

Because intelligence information is sensitive, the laws and regulations that govern how it is produced, marked, handled, transmitted, stored and ultimately used are very specific and not open to interpretation. Intelligence material is classified at its inception, at the very first stage of the acquisition of the raw intelligence information, and remains classified throughout its entire existence until it is destroyed or an authorized official declassifies it. Declassification authority rests with the agency or department that originated the information and determined the initial classification.

It is that last part that seems to be lost on people at the State Department. Even retired Admiral John Kirby (a fine officer by all accounts) seems to misunderstand the rules. Granted, for almost all of his Navy career, the admiral was a public affairs specialist and not involved in either operations or intelligence, but any senior officer in the armed forces should be aware of the basic rules of handling classified information.

Admiral Kirby's public pronouncements that Mrs. Clinton's emails contained information that was not classified when it was sent, but was classified later, defy not only common sense but the rules and regulations of both the Defense Department and the State Department. The admiral and I have a cordial relationship, but his position on this is untenable and bordering on the ludicrous.

Of course, the media doesn't quite get it either. I heard an anchor this morning describe the emails as "subsequently classified" - obviously she has accepted Admiral Kirby's fiction. It is ridiculous - the information was always classified; it was classified by the originator. What she should have said was that the emails contained classified information that had been improperly handled.

I think we can all stipulate certain facts, despite the State Department's claims to the contrary or their attempts to claim that information was not classified but now is (a virtual impossibility): it has been shown that Mrs. Clinton's emails or email server contained information deemed by the intelligence community - the agencies that originated the information - to be Top Secret/SCI. That information was classified when it was collected, analyzed, collated and disseminated - thus it was classified when it reached her private unsecured server.

Top Secret/SCI information is, and has been, restricted to either Defense Department, State Department or CIA communications channels authorized to handle such information. The firewalls between the intelligence community and unclassified networks are managed by NSA to guarantee that no classified information is introduced into unclassified and unsecured communications systems - Mrs. Clinton's private email server is a perfect example of a unsecured communications system. Having done this for a living, I can attest that it is virtually impossible to electronically move classified information to an unclassified network or server.

Yet classified information, including Top Secret/SCI information, was found in over 100 emails on Mrs. Clinton's private unclassified unsecured system. The question that immediately comes to mind is how is that possible? All classified information is prominently marked - on the document overall and on each paragraph separately. Although the exact paragraph markings differ by department/agency, each and every paragraph bears the classification of that specific portion of the information. It is the basic classification marking in all classified documents.

It fast becomes evident that the information resident on Mrs. Clinton's server and in some of her emails was transferred illegally and improperly from classified government servers across a firewall to that server. These are the emails that Mrs. Clinton initially claimed were unclassified, but has now altered that description to "not marked as classified." She is splitting hairs here.

Someone on the Secretary's staff - most of us believe it may have been either Huma Abidin or Jake Sullivan - took highly classified US intelligence information and wittingly ignored the classification markings and retyped or "cut and pasted" the intelligence information for relay to Secretary Clinton via the unsecured "" server.

Technically, Mrs. Clinton can claim - disingenuously - that she received no information marked classified. The information was of course highly classified but improperly stripped of its classification markings - a felony. Either Mrs. Clinton knew about it, condoned it or chose not to report it, or she did not realize that sensitive intelligence information from DIA, CIA and NSA was classified. If the former is the case, she might be complicit; if the latter is the case, she might be incompetent. I doubt that she is incompetent.

The bottom line is that classified information was found on her unsecured server. It was never unclassified and later classified - it doesn't work that way, regardless of how Mrs. Clinton or the State Department spokespersons try to spin it. Someone deliberately put sensitive national security information at risk for the sake of convenience. Everyone involved needs to be held accountable - perhaps the FBI will do just that.