April 30, 2016

Syria: The impending fall of Aleppo

The city of Aleppo will fall in the near future - the anti-regime rebels in the remaining contested areas of the city will not be able to hold out much longer.

The graphic (left) epitomizes the pessimism that pervades the rebel-controlled areas of the city.

It is titled "Aleppo is burning - under the auspices of international organizations." It is a direct criticism that the United Nations is doing nothing to stop the relentless air strikes being conducted by both the Syrian and Russian air forces.

The targets, according to the graphic, are civil defense (fire and rescue) services, hospitals, schools, markets and bakeries. The complaints are accurate - over the last two weeks, Syrian and Russian fighter-bombers have conducted a coordinated campaign against these target sets across northern Syria, particularly in Aleppo and Idlib governorates, areas in which the bulk of the anti-regime rebels are located.

The increased air attacks are being conducted in conjunction with increased pro-regime ground forces operations in these same areas - the troops are Syrian armed forces supported by units of both the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and now the regular Iranian Army, as well fighters from Lebanese Hizballah. Russian advisers are also on the ground with these forces, coordinating air attacks and artillery fires to great effect.

The timing of the renewed focus on Aleppo is somewhat surprising. Rather than press the attack on retreating forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) following the regime victory in the strategic city of Palmyra, most of the regime forces were re-tasked for an assault on Aleppo. Militarily, it does make sense - the regime needs to secure the Aleppo area and close off the ISIS resupply lines from Turkey that lie to the northeast of Aleppo.

The situation in Aleppo has changed dramatically since September 2015 - it was then that Russian forces entered the fight, while at the same time increased numbers of IRGC and Hizballah units were deployed to Syria. It was the liberal (some would say indiscriminate) application of Russian airpower to support the revitalized Syrian government operations on the ground, allowing the regime to virtually erase all of the recent gains of the anti-regime rebels.

Prior to the Russian intervention, Syrian forces were on the defensive, retreating south from Aleppo and much of Idlib governorate. Soon after Russian aircraft began providing direct air support, the rebels were pushed back into enclaves in and north of the city of Aleppo. It is those enclaves that are now under renewed - and increased - air attacks. The recent attack on the Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in the Sukkari district of Aleppo is symptomatic of the stepped-up air campaign.

The cessation of hostilities, by all accounts, has collapsed. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are trying to revive the ceasefire, but it is doubtful that it will be any more effective than the previous failed agreement. In any case, the renewed ceasefire will exclude Aleppo - that is basically giving Bashar al-Asad the green light to press the attack and take the city.

It really does not matter if a new cessation of hostilities is enacted. Many observers, including me, believe any ceasefire is merely a ruse on the part of the Syrians (and Russians) to continue military operations, taking advantage of a loophole in the agreement that permits attacks on "terrorist" groups - specifically, but not limited to the al-Qa'idah affiliate in Syria known as Jabhat al-Nusrah (The Victory Front) and ISIS. The Syrian regime labels anyone in the opposition as terrorists, making them valid targets.

A look at the map above clearly shows the dire situation facing the opposition fighters in Aleppo. The regime has been able to pressure them from the west, south and east. It is obvious what the regime and its allies are attempting to do - continue the push on these same three axes and cut off the enclave, then pivot to the north and retake the entire city.

The fall of Aleppo will cripple much of the rebel activity in the northern part of Syria - it will also have significant psychological impact on both sides. The retaking of Aleppo will be a major morale booster for the regime, and a major blow to the opposition. It will be a hard fight - both sides realize the importance of controlling Syria's largest city.

With the regime in control of the capital of Damascus and Aleppo, the perception will grow that the forces supporting Bashar al-Asad are on the path to defeating the opposition. It is analogous to controlling both Washington, DC and New York City.

I see no good options for the opposition in Aleppo - their military situation is untenable. With the Russian Air Force bringing effective airpower to the fight, and the Syrian Army refocusing its efforts on the rebels in Aleppo rather than on ISIS to the north of Palmyra, it is too much force for the opposition to withstand.

The coming battle might not be a rout, but it is only a matter of time until an army with the resources of a state, willing allies on the ground (Iran and Hizballah) and a committed air force (the Russians) capable of massing a large number of sorties in a concentrated area, wear down any resistance.

What does this impending defeat mean for U.S. interests? Cynically, it clears the way for all parties to concentrate their efforts against ISIS. Thus far, the U.S. coalition has limited its operations to attacks on ISIS and occasionally al-Qa'idah elements in the country.

Ironically, coalition operations have indirectly assisted the Syrian regime by relieving pressure on the government from ISIS, allowing the Syrians and their allies to focus their efforts on the rebels. The bulk of American support in Syria has been to anti-ISIS groups, not anti-regime groups. While there has been some support to anti-regime groups, it has been too little to make a difference.

It does not appear that the U.S.-led coalition is willing to provide protection or support for the rebels in Aleppo. They are on their own, facing the Syrian Army and Air Force, the Russian Air Force, Iranian IRGC and Army troops and Hizballah fighters.

How long will it take? Hard to say exactly, but time is running out.

April 25, 2016

President Obama orders 250 more American troops to Syria - what's the plan?

President Obama has ordered the phased deployment of an additional 250 U.S. troops to Syria to intensify the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It is expected that most of these troops will be special forces, primarily U.S. Army Special Forces and U.S. Air Force Combat Controllers.

The Army soldiers will be used to advise and assist the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in their fight against ISIS with training, intelligence, logistics, medical help, etc. This is a core mission of the Green Berets - forming coherent fighting units among the local population. Rather than having to introduce large numbers of American troops into an area, the concept is that the locals will do the bulk of the fighting, with American guidance and assistance.

The Air Force combat controllers will serve as what used to be called forward air controllers, now called tactical air control parties (TACP). This puts American eyes on the ground in direct contact with coalition aircraft - primarily U.S. Air Force fighter and bomber aircraft - flying overhead.

These "battlefield airmen" have the capability to designate targets on the ground via laser or GPS coordinates, and to feed targeting data directly into the guidance systems on weapons carried on board the aircraft. It is a proven tactic we have perfected over the years, devastating and accurate - no one does this better than us.

The recent deployment of the venerable B-52 to the Middle East - flying sorties from an air base in Qatar - fits into this operation. The B-52 has been transformed from a wide area saturation bomber (sometime inaccurately described as "carpet bombing") to a precision guided munitions carrier, capable of releasing one GPS-guided weapon at a time from its huge bomb bay. (See my article on this, B-52 deployment to the Middle East - let's drop the term "carpet bombing")

Let's address the "elephant in the room." The President's order expands the U.S. military presence on the ground in Syria - continued deployment of advisers reminds those of us who served in Vietnam how we got there. The words used in the description of the additional troops - "non-combat troops" deployed in phases - are troubling.

First, to label these troops headed for Syria as non-combat is not only ludicrous, but insults the courage and commitment of the men being sent into harm's way. They will be on the ground fighting arguably the most ruthless enemy we have faced in half a century.

As for phasing troops incrementally into the fight, that too smacks of Vietnam. Last month, after a U.S. Marine was killed in Iraq, I wrote:

So, we have the incremental expansion of the size and scope of our military presence in Iraq. I fear we are sliding down a slippery slope with no clear mission or plan. If ISIS is indeed a threat to American national security, then let's address it. Stop the half-hearted measures and make the tough decisions. Forget the "boots on the ground" myth - that die is cast, that lie is past.

Make up your mind, Mr. President - are we in this fight or not? If we are, go big. If we are not, go home.
Read the entire article, More U.S. ground troops to Iraq - further down that slippery slope?

There is a plan, but I am not sure our political leadership is fully committed to its implementation. Over the last few years - since ISIS demonstrated that it is a threat rather than an aberration - the Obama Administration has gradually realized that the threat must be addressed.

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are wont to decree that "there is no military solution" to the situation in Iraq and Syria, yet they keep sending more troops into the region. While the ultimate solution to the problems may not be strictly military, it will be military action that leads the parties to that illusive political solution. Diplomacy only works when there is military force backing it up.

The new leadership at the Department of Defense - Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Marine Corps General Joe Dunsford - seem to have gotten the ear of the President.

The plan must be - it's just common military sense - to isolate the two cities that represent the centers of gravity for ISIS: al-Raqqah in Syria and Mosul in Iraq. Separate them and take them down, either simultaneously or sequentially. It is apparent that the current thrust of U.S.-led coalition operations is to cut the lines of communication between Mosul and al-Raqqah. The recapture of Sinjar, Iraq and the capture of al-Shadadi in Syria are part of that strategy.

The major problem remains - there is little to no coordination between efforts in Iraq and Syria. The situations are very different and very complicated. Iraq almost makes sense; Syria defies rationality.

The President's decision to deploy another 250 troops to Syria is a good thing, and hopefully enough to start taking back ground from ISIS. That said, it will be a long difficult fight. ISIS will not easily surrender the ground they have taken in either Syria or Iraq - there will be no diplomatic solution to the situation on the ground. As in most of these situations, the ground will be retaken by force of arms.

I hope that realization has taken hold at the White House and the National Security Council. If ISIS to be defeated - I believe the President's words were "degrade and ultimately defeat" - it will require force of arms beyond what has been committed thus far. I have no problem committing the force required to defeat ISIS - we have the requisite military power; all we lack is the political will to do so.

Again, Mr. President - are we here to win, to defeat ISIS? If so, call Ash Carter and order him to get it done. You will say it's not that simple, that I don't understand. Actually, it is that simple, and I do understand.

Go big, or go home.

April 22, 2016

The "Kerry Collapse" continues - U.S. to buy Iranian illicit heavy water

You can't make this up.

In the photo, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif is smiling - he should be. He continues to outplay his American counterpart, Secretary of State John Kerry, who appears next to him with the "I'm not sure what just happened" look on his face. Add Mr. Zarif to the list of people who have outplayed Mr. Kerry.*

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, the United States will purchase 32 tons of "heavy water" (deuterium oxide) from the Islamic Republic of Iran. For those of us who are not nuclear physicists, heavy water is used to produce weapons-grade plutonium. This issue is important because one of the provisions of the Iranian nuclear deal (officially the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA) prohibits Iran from maintaining a stockpile of more than 130 tons of heavy water at any one time.

The JCPOA states that Iran, in cooperation with the six nations who are signatories to the agreement (China, France, Germany, Russia, United Kingdom and United States), will rebuild the Arak heavy water research reactor to support peaceful nuclear research and production needs, but in a manner that minimizes the production of plutonium.

All excess heavy water beyond Iran's needs for the redesigned reactor will be made available for export to the international market, and Iran will not build any additional heavy-water reactors or accumulate heavy water for fifteen years.

The agreement also states that the signatories will "support and facilitate" construction at the Arak complex. I am not sure how that obligates the United States - are we supposed to pay for an build the Iranian nuclear program? The more we discover about this "deal" the worse it looks.

Interesting that since the agreement took effect in January 2016, the Iranians have continued to produce heavy water, bringing them out of compliance with the terms of the JCPOA. In February, they exported enough to bring them back into compliance. So, imagine my surprise when I read that the Iranians still continue to produce heavy water and are now out of compliance again, this time by 32 tons of the material.

To assist the Iranians in getting back into compliance with an international agreement they signed, the Obama Administration will purchase the 32 ton overage from the Iranians. Since when is it the responsibility of the United States to assist the Iranians in meeting their international obligations?

Here is a great quote from David Albright, head of the Institute for Science and International Security: "We shouldn’t be paying them [the Iranians] for something they shouldn't be producing in the first place."

Are President Obama and Secretary Kerry so intent on salvaging what appears to be a bad deal just for the sake of having a deal? If the Iranians cannot adhere to this simple provision, what other provisions are they violating that the ineffectual monitoring protocols have not detected?

It appears to me that the Obama Administration, led by the easily-duped John Kerry, is determined to side with Iran as they violate several parts of the nuclear agreement, either in letter or spirit. Kerry collapsed on virtually every key point in his negotiations (I hate to even call his actions by that word) with his Iranian counterpart. Now Kerry seems to be facilitating every continuing Iranian maneuver to go beyond the provisions of the agreement.

Two other issues in which John Kerry has taken the side of the ayatollahs:

- Kerry refuses to acknowledge that the changing of the wording of the UN resolution on Iranian ballistic missile development from "shall not" to "is called upon not to" has any difference. The Iranians - and their Russian supporters - sure believe there is a difference, and are exploiting it. There has been a series of Iranian missile launches, which I read as permissible now, thanks to a "Kerry collapse." (See my article, Iran's ballistic missile program - more fallout from the "Kerry Collapse")

- Kerry (with Treasury Secretary Jack Lew) is working with the Iranians to allow them access to the U.S. financial system, something the Administration made a commitment not to do. The Iranians are demanding this, and Kerry is on the verge of yet another collapse.

Now with Mr. Kerry working to help the Iranians come into compliance with the nuclear deal which they area actively circumventing, one might ask Kerry, "Are you our Secretary of State, or Iran's?"

* See Syria: Cessation of hostilities - was John Kerry outplayed?

April 21, 2016

Truce in Syria collapses as pro-regime forces move on Aleppo

It was a noble effort to staunch the bloodshed in Syria - by some estimates the war has claimed over 450,000 lives - but the truce was doomed from the start. The terms of the "cessation of hostilities," as it was officially titled, were too vague, too open to interpretation, and did not apply to several of the major combatant groups. Ceasefires only work when all parties agree to stop fighting - clearly not the case here.

The agreement, brokered by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, specifically excluded the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the al-Qa'idah affliliated Jabhat al-Nusrah ("the Victory Front"), and "other terrorist groups" designated by the United Nations. That list of other terrorist groups was never clarified - hence the problem.

That last clause was a major factor in the failure of the truce. In several CNN interviews, I identified it as a huge loophole that the Russians and Syrians were prepared to exploit - and exploit it they did.

The term "terrorists" has always been used by the government of President Bashar al-Asad to describe any armed group that opposes it - the Russians adopted a similar definition. Thus, anyone not on the regime side was considered outside the scope of the agreement and thus subject to continued military action. The Russians and Syrians continued air operations against virtually everyone.

When the Lavrov-Kerry agreement was announced, I wrote: "I am afraid we have set up a long-term stalemate where hundreds of Syrians will continue to die while Russia and Syria diplomatically fend off accusations that they are violating the ceasefire - they will continue to strike any target they wish regardless of American and Western objections. They have done it before, and they will do it again. Well played, Messrs. Putin and Lavrov." (Read the entire article, Syria: Cessation of hostilities - was John Kerry outplayed?)

The truce was conceived to provide an opportunity to reach a political solution to the five-year old conflict between the Syrian government and the myriad opposition groups seeking to overthrow al-Asad's Ba'ath Party regime. Despite the ceasefire agreement, the fighting continued. The Russians followed up the agreement with an announcement by President Vladimir Putin that he had ordered most of Russian forces to withdraw from Syria.

What actually happened was not a withdrawal, but merely a rotation of forces - the Russian expeditionary force in northern Syria is as potent as ever, but with different types of aircraft. Rather than a large number of fighter-bombers, the force is now composed of mostly attack aircraft and helicopter gunships. When the Syrian Army liberated the city of Palmyra from ISIS, Russian air assets were heavily involved - and controlled by Russian special forces soldiers embedded with the Syrian forces.

While several rounds of talks did take place in Geneva, for the most part the two sides were talking past each other. The opposition groups' primary demand was that any agreement include the removal of Bashar al-Asad from office. Syrian government officials insisted that the continuation of Bashar as president was a non-negotiable condition in any agreement. Neither side was willing to move away from those diametrically-opposed positions. Despite the maneuverings of John Kerry, neither side was open to compromise.

On April 18, the committee representing the opposition groups announced a "postponement" of the talks in Geneva, pointing to the lack of progress in the talks and the continued military buildup and operations in the Aleppo area. Not only is the Syrian Army moving more forces to the area, there are deployments of Lebanese Hizballah units, as well as forces from the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and now the regular Iranian Army, and not to be overlooked, Russian advisers and artillery troops.

It is likely that without the foreign forces, the Syrian Army would be hard pressed to retake the city. Without retaking Aleppo, the regime cannot reassert control over the country.

The day after the announcement by the opposition groups that they were leaving the talks, Syrian Air Force fighter-bombers struck the produce market in the rebel-held city of Kafr Anbal, followed immediately by an attack on the produce market in Ma'arat al-Nu'aman, just five miles distant. The death toll approached one hundred.

Two markets hit one after the other just five miles apart - that appears to be deliberate targeting of civilians to me. A high-casualty attack on two cities, each with the reputation of being "poster children" for the rebellion, coming just one day after the opposition pulls out of the talks - a coincidence? Hardly.

It is a harbinger of things to come. The Syrian regime, with its Russian and Iranian supporters, will continue to kill thousands of Syrians. The introduction of Russian forces into Syria last year saved the Syrian Army from having to cede a large portion of northern Syria to the rebels. The impact of virtually indiscriminate bombing by the Russian Air Force allowed the Syrians to retake most of the ground they had lost in Idlib province, move back towards Aleppo and begin an encirclement of the city.

At the same time, the Syrians pushed east in Homs province, retaking the strategic - and culturally significant - city of Palmyra. It was a major victory for the Syrians - both real and symbolic - and a major defeat for ISIS. The Syrians appeared to be poised to advance further east towards the oil center of Dayr al-Zawr and relieve the besieged Syrian military garrison at and adjacent to Dayr al-Zawr air base. Things finally seemed to be going the Syrians' way - thanks to the Russian air umbrella.

However, with the collapse of the talks in Geneva, the Syrians have a tougher task. The focus for the next round of fighting will necessarily be Aleppo. Given the amount of military power being deployed by the Syrians and allies, I believe it is only a matter of time before Russian air strikes and artillery fire create the conditions by which the Syrian and Iranian ground troops encircle the city and eventually starve it into submission. We've seen this tactic work before.

It appears that the quagmire and bloodletting will continue unabated. Casualties will climb on both sides, but the majority of the dead and wounded will continue to be noncombatant civilians caught in the crossfire - most caused by the regime and its allies. Neither the Syrians, Iranian nor even the Russians are concerned about "collateral damage."

The eventual winners? Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

April 10, 2016

B-52 deployment to the Middle East - let's drop the term "carpet bombing"

USAF B-52 bombers arriving at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar

The first U.S. Air Force B-52 heavy bombers deployed to the Persian Gulf to participate in Operation Inherent Resolve have arrived at Al Udeid (al-'Udayd) Air Base, located just a few miles outside Qatar's capital city of Doha. The huge jets from the 2nd Bomb Wing at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, represent the first operational BUFF* deployment to the Middle East since the Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm) in 1991.

For the record, this deployment does not represent an increase of U.S. forces in the region - the B-1 bombers now present in theater are being rotated back to the United States for maintenance and system upgrades. The B-1 Lancer** is credited for critical air support to Syrian Kurdish fighters in their successful defense of the border city of Kobani in 2014.

Al Udeid Air Base is home to the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing - the base sits about 900 air miles from the Iraqi city of Mosul (al-Mawsil), and about 1000 air miles from the Syrian city of al-Raqqah - both easy prey for the B-52. The two cities are the primary centers of gravity for the self-proclaimed Islamic State, more commonly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

At some point in the near future, the fight against ISIS will be waged in and around those two cities. In Iraq for sure and probably in Syria as well, American airpower - including bombers such as the B-52 - will play a key and integral role in those battles.

That role needs clarification.

Many people associate the B-52 with the term "carpet bombing." Carpet bombing is a Vietnam-era term meaning wide-scale - some would say indiscriminate - bombing of areas suspected to be enemy troop concentrations or areas in which they have sought refuge. To be sure, the B-52 was used in Vietnam to bomb large areas where we believed either Vietcong or North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops were present.

Much of that bombing was based on sketchy intelligence. By way of disclosure, I was involved in the collection of tactical intelligence on NVA troop locations - the threshold to select targets was not high.

That targeting paradigm changed with the development and deployment of precision-guided munitions (PGM). Granted, during Operation Desert Storm, we did what some might consider carpet bombing, although with great restrictions.

What we see in the photograph above from Operation Desert Storm is as close as we have come to carpet bombing since the end of the Vietnam War.

This is more accurately called "saturation bombing" against massed Iraqi troops in the deserts of Kuwait and southern Iraq in 1991. The targets were exclusively military and located far from civilian areas. Based on our interrogations of Iraqi prisoners of war (in which I participated) following B-52 strikes, the saturation bombing was very effective against entrenched Iraqi troops.

However, most of the American aircraft dropping ordnance on Iraqi cities and areas in which civilians might be present carried PGMs - bombs and missiles designed to be guided to their targets to maximize the effectiveness of the military objectives while at the same time minimizing collateral damage (military-speak for civilian casualties).

American use of PGMs as the routine method of delivery has changed the face of aerial attack - airpower is now almost required to be accurate and sterile.

Today's employment of the B-52 was systemically defined during the 2001 American invasion of Afghanistan in the aftermath of the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.

In conjunction with U.S. Air Force tactical air control parties (TACP) or U.S. Army Special Forces teams on the ground, the B-52 provided a tremendous firepower advantage - accurate airpower on demand guided by American forces with eyeballs on the target.

The B-52 massive gravity bomb (also known as "dumb bomb") carrier of Vietnam has been transformed into a huge flying magazine. The aircraft was modified to carry PGMs and drop weapons one at a time rather than the "bombs away" emptying of the bomb bays - the weapons are now guided primarily by Global Positioning System (GPS) guidance modules. The B-52 remains a key asset in modern air support operations.

That said, we no longer "carpet bomb." It would be useful if that phrase was erased from the lexicon of the current presidential campaign - it does a gross disservice to the men and women who place themselves in harm's way every day in the fight against ISIS. This includes flying the B-52 Stratofortress, the aircraft almost instinctively identified with the outdated phrase.

Despite its age and the fact that we now have more capable bombers in the inventory, the U.S. Air Force B-52 remains an iconic symbol of American military power, or as we said in my day, "when you care enough to send the very best."

* BUFF is military slang for the B-52 Stratofortress. In polite company, the acronym expands to Big Ugly Fat Fellow. Those who have ever worn an Air Force uniform know the actual terminology.

** Lancer is the official name of the B-1, but the bomber is more commonly known in Air Force circles as "the Bone" - the letter B and the word 1 - "B ONE."