July 31, 2016

Russian Air Force targeting hospitals - war crimes, Mr. Kerry?

Video: The 'Andan city hospital has been withdrawn from service after it was targeted by Russian aircraft yesterday evening. 

I originally titled this piece (I often change titles as I develop my articles) "Russian and Syrian aircraft targeting hospitals - war crimes, Mr. Kerry?" As I thought of the Syrian civil war that has been raging since March 2011, I recall numerous occasions when Syrian armed forces, including the Syrian Air Force, deliberately targeted civilian targets, targets normally proscribed by professional armed forces - hospitals, mosques, bakeries, markets, and schools.

As I was beginning to record some thoughts, I remembered the incident in October 2015 in which a U.S. Air Force AC-130 gunship mistakenly attacked a hospital operated by the international medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Konduz, Afghanistan. Remember the reaction? MSF and a host of other international organizations normally hostile to the United States and its allies immediately labeled it a deliberate attack as well as a war crime, and demanded the "perpetrators" be brought to justice.

The international community demanded an accounting by the Americans. The irresponsible claims by MSF of a deliberate attack were unnecessary - the United States holds its troops accountable for their actions. The Air Force conducted a thorough review, admitted where mistakes were made and reprimanded those responsible.

I am not sensing anything approaching that same level of international outrage at the obvious systematic, deliberate attacks on Syrian medical facilities. Why not? Because most observers, including me, believe it is a waste of time. The Syrian Air Force has so routinely and blatantly violated international law and the laws of warfare that it has become the norm, and with that, accepted. Trying to hold this regime of thugs and liars accountable is useless.

Unfortunately, the Russians have not only continued the attacks on hospitals, they have increased the number - and the lethality. It should come as no surprise that the Russian Air Force is exponentially more capable and effective than the Syrian Air Force. That translates to more civilian casualties, and the loss of access to medical care for hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians.

According to Amnesty International, the recent attack (shown in the video) follows attacks on four hospitals and a blood bank in eastern Aleppo city a week ago. Some facilities have been hit repeatedly to ensure they are no longer capable of providing services to the population.

Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Program Director at Amnesty International: "Deliberate attacks on hospitals and medical facilities are serious violations of the laws of war and can never be justified. Hospitals, which have special protection under international humanitarian law, should be safe places for mothers, new-born infants and medical workers – even in the midst of a brutal prolonged conflict."

Another group, Physicians for Human Rights, tracks attacks on health care facilities and care providers in Syria. Before the attack shown in the video, the group claims that 373 medical facilities have been attacked and 750 medical personnel killed. While some of these can be attributed to fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and other groups opposed to the regime of Bashar al-Asad, the vast majority of them have been attributed to the Syrian government forces and their allies. "Allies" in this case means the Russian Air Force.

As I was about to post this, this came across Twitter, from an excellent source. Three more Syrian medical facilities were targeted by the Russian Air Force today.

These attacks on medical facilities are war crimes, and are codified in the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Additional Protocols. The conventions also allow that medical facilities that are being used for military purposes (not including treating military personnel) lose their protected status. That does not appear to be the case here - too many facilities appear to have been deliberately targeted, first by the Syrians, and now by the Russians.

This puts the Obama Administration and Secretary of State John Kerry in an untenable position, to put it mildly. Both the President and the Secretary are pushing for increased cooperation with the Russians in Syria, to include exchange of intelligence information on ISIS and other designated terrorist groups, followed by coordinated targeting of these groups by the Russian Air Force and aircraft of the U.S.-led coalition. Kerry's proposal also allows for the possibility of "integrated missions" between the Russians and the coalition.

Many senior U.S. Department officials, military officers and State Department personnel were against much of the intelligence and technical capability sharing aspects of the proposed arrangement with the Russians. Their arguments have held little sway with either Secretary of Defense Ash Carter of Secretary Kerry - they want a deal. For more on the Kerry proposal, see my article: Kerry - Lavrov talks in Moscow on Syria - why the secrecy?

Secretary Kerry, are you still in favor of closer cooperation with a country whose air force is blatantly and systematically violating international law? Do you want to make agreements potentially putting American and coalition pilots in a position of conducting "integrated operations" (the correct term is combined operations) with armed forces who bomb hospitals and other civilian targets?

Secretary Kerry, when you sold the Iran nuclear deal to the country, you warned against being on the "wrong side of history." Now you want to deal with probable war criminals. Just what side of history do you want to be on?

July 22, 2016

Iraqis plan to retake Mosul without the Kurds?

"We won’t let Peshmerga take part in Mosul’s liberation"
                                                      --- Iraqi defense minister

A few weeks after the Iraqi recapture of the city of al-Fallujah from fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Iraqis continue the rhetoric that the liberation of Mosul (al-Mawsil) is currently underway, and that the city will be under Iraqi government control by the end of this year.

The claim that the liberation is underway is technically true - the United States is adding up to a thousand more troops in staging areas south of the city to provide not only intelligence, communications, and logistics, but fire support as well. U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps long range artillery and rocket launchers are providing accurate fires to support Iraqi security forces preparing the battlefield for the eventual assault on Mosul.

That said, I remain skeptical that the Iraqi security forces - that includes the Iraqi armed forces, special police units, and the Kurdish peshmerga - will be able to secure the liberation of Mosul by the end of the year. These security forces have usually been augmented by the Popular Mobilization Units (sometimes referred to as the Popular Mobilization Forces), which are in reality Iranian-supported, trained and at times even led Shi'a militias.

Of the forces available to Baghdad, the Kurdish peshmerga are considered the most capable fighters, despite constantly being under-equipped and poorly supported by the government. The peshmerga have demonstrated their ability to fight ISIS, especially in the northern part of Iraq where they have legally established a Kurdish autonomous region, the Kurdistan Region. Mosul borders this autonomous region - the front lines between the ISIS-controlled area and the government-controlled area are manned by the Kurds.

In an interview today while on a visit to Washington, Iraqi Defense Minister Khalid al-'Ubaydi (commonly rendered in the press as al-Obeidi) made the surprising pronouncement that the peshmerga fighters will not only be proscribed from entering the city of Mosul, they will not participate at all in the liberation effort.

Not using what are arguably the best fighters in the Iraqi security forces, who would be operating on or near their home turf, is puzzling. Perhaps when he returns to Baghdad, the Iraqi general staff will enlighten the minister - who is not a professional military officer - on the reality of mounting this large offensive without the peshmerga.

The security situation in the environs of Baghdad also play a role in Iraqi military planning. The successful, albeit slow, recapture of the city if al-Fallujah to the west of Baghdad was portrayed as necessary to increase security in the capital. It was thought that many of the deadly bombings in Baghdad were staged from al-Fallujah. The fallacy of that assumption was exposed when a suicide bombing only a week later killed almost 300 residents in Karradah, an upscale Shi'a neighborhood. An additional 51 people have been killed since then, despite ISIS's removal from all of al-Anbar province.

The Iraqis not only have to continue planning and preparations for the Mosul campaign, they must provide security for the residents of Baghdad. They will be hard pressed to do both if they do not use some of their best fighters in the assault on Mosul.

I suspect that al-'Ubaydi will be forced to reconsider what was an ill-advised comment.

July 16, 2016

Kerry - Lavrov talks in Moscow on Syria - why the secrecy?

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and American Secretary of State John Kerry met in Moscow to try and salvage the all-but-dead Syrian "cessation of hostilities" agreement. The talks revolved around a rather ambitious American proposal that was probably - and not unexpectedly - rejected out of hand by the Russians.

The American proposal, about eight pages long, can be read here (PDF file), and consists of two documents:

- Approach for Practical Russian-American Cooperation against Daesh and Jabhat al Nusra and Strengthening the Cessation of Hostilities
- Terms of Reference for the Joint Implementation Group

In a nutshell, the U.S. proposed that the Syrian Air Force be prohibited from conducting offensive sorties in "designated areas." Designated areas will be established by the Russian and American officers at a joint center in Amman, Jordan. These are basically anywhere ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusrah and the anti-regime opposition are located.

The proposal effectively grounds the Syrian Air Force except for humanitarian and emergency flights. ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusrah - as well as a few other specifically designated "terrorist" groups - will be targeted and attacked by U.S.-led coalition or Russian aircraft, after coordination, targeting, weaponeering, etc. at the joint center. The proposal mentioned the possibility of "integrated missions" between the Russians and the U.S-led coalition.

Thus, the anti-regime rebels will not come under attack, at least from the air, sort of declaring a "no-fly zone lite." This would be a tough sell - the Syrian Air Force has been almost exclusively bombing these non-terrorist targets despite the in-name-only "cessation of hostilities." Not to be outdone, the overwhelming majority of Russian Air Force strikes have targeted these rebel groups as well - some of these groups have been supported by covert American programs.

I should note that many American senior military officers and State Department personnel were against much of the intelligence and technical capability sharing aspects of the proposed arrangement with the Russians. Their arguments held little sway with either Secretary of Defense Ash Carter of Secretary Kerry - they wanted a deal. Some would say they wanted a deal just to say they have a deal.

After the meeting in Moscow, Secretary Kerry announced only that a tentative deal had been reached, but refused to discuss the exact terms. Since Mr. Kerry has an abysmal track record in negotiating with the Russians - the Syrian chemical weapons deal and Russian input to the Iran nuclear deal spring to mind - I will let you read his rather convoluted words.

Note: When Mr. Kerry refers to the "two serious problems," he is referring to two issues addressed at the meeting - Syrian Air Force bombing operations and how to deal with the al-Qa'idah affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusrah (The Victory Front). Note the lack of the mention of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Secretary Kerry: "We agreed to steps that, if implemented in good faith, can address two serious problems that I just described about the cessation of hostilities. It is possible to help restore the cessation of hostilities, significantly reduce violence and help create the space for a genuine political transition.

"However, the concrete steps that we have agreed on are not going to be laid out in public in some long list because we want them to work and because they need more work in order to work. I want to emphasize, though, that they are not based on trust, but on specific steps that needed to be taken by both sides.

"So we’re not here promising the world. Not here tonight to suggest that overnight things are going to change. [The deal] has the opportunity to change the playing field significantly. Let the proof be in the pudding, not our words."

I take all that Kerry-speak to mean the proposal was rejected by the Russians and the resulting "concrete steps" are so far removed from the original terms that it would be embarrassing to compare the two. Just like with the Iran deal, we'll have to wait for the Russians to tell us just how well they outplayed John Kerry - again.

The Russians are skilled negotiators, and President Vladimir Putin has been relentless in pursuing what he believes are his national security interests in Syria. Paramount of those interests is continued Russian access to the joint Russian-Syrian naval facility at the Syrian port of Tartus, and now likely continued access to Syrian air bases. Integral to achieving those national security goals is a friendly, if not pliable, government in Damascus. The current president of Syria, Bashar al-Asad, is both.

Knowing that the continued fight against al-Qa'idah and its affiliated groups throughout the region is a key tenet of the Obama Administration's policy, the Russians have offered to coordinate air operations against Jabhat al-Nusrah. While that sounds like a good idea, and no doubt will get Kerry's attention, the terrorist group is focused on the removal of the al-Asad regime.

Joint American-Russian attacks on the group actually plays right into Putin's hand - hurting Jabhat al-Nusrah directly supports Russia's goal to prop up the al-Asad regime. Keeping Bashar in power is key.

I find it troubling that the Russians are privy to an American-Russian agreement, but the American people are not.

Why the secrecy, Mr. Kerry? Is what you agreed to that bad?

July 11, 2016

U.S. to deploy 560 more troops to Iraq - further down that slippery slope?

During a visit to Baghdad, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced that the United States will deploy an additional 560 troops to Iraq to assist in the fight against the self-declared Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

That will bring the number of American forces in Iraq to almost 6000, far higher than the Pentagon-cited figure of 4,647 - the Defense Department does not include personnel on temporary assignments in the official count.

The stated reason for the additional troops is to assist Iraqi forces as they prepare for the eventual campaign to retake the city of Mosul. Mosul is Iraq's second largest city - it has been under ISIS control since it fell to the group in June of 2014. One of the tasks assigned to the new troops will be the rehabilitation and reconstruction of facilities at the large al-Qayyarah air base - the base was recaptured from ISIS on July 9.

The base will be a key staging area for Iraqi forces as they mount the attack on Mosul. The base is about 40 miles south of Mosul and west of the Tigris River. This assault was successful in crossing the river and reclaiming territory from ISIS west of the Tigris Valley, further reducing the amount of Iraqi territory in the country under the group's control.

The air base, formerly known as al-Qayyarah West, is a large facility with long runways capable of handling heavy transport aircraft, as well as scores of helicopters. The base provides an excellent base from which to launch attack sorties against ISIS positions in Mosul. Additionally, Iraqi or American long-range artillery or rocket launchers will complement the existing American firebase located at Makhmur on the east bank of the Tigris.

The recapture of the air base is an important step, one of the many needed before the operation to liberate Mosul can start. The liberation of Mosul is necessary to defeat ISIS and eject them from Iraqi territory - it is the group's major holding in the country. Mosul and the Syrian city of al-Raqqah, which ISIS claims as its capital city, are major centers of gravity for the group.

The loss of Mosul will effectively end their claims on Iraq. Only then can the government in Baghdad begin the rebuilding of the country as a viable, united political entity.

Preparing for a campaign to retake Mosul has been a long and slow process. The Iraqis have thus far expelled ISIS from Tikrit and Bayji (and now al-Qayyarah) in the Tigris Valley, as well as ridding the entire al-Anbar province by successful - if not devastating - operations in al-Ramadi, al-Hit and recently al-Fallujah.

It was hoped that the removal of ISIS from al-Anbar would reduce the number of ISIS bombing attacks in and around Baghdad - July was a month of a series of high-profile bombings in the city. Unfortunately, ISIS used its lingering presence in Diyala province (east and southeast of Baghdad) to launch the most devastating truck bombing in the upscale Shi'a neighborhood of Karradah on July 4. That attack, in which almost 300 people died, was the worst single attack since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Although the recapture of Mosul is arguably the key to the eventual defeat of ISIS in Iraq, the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi has another concern - the security of Baghdad. As long as ISIS is able to mount devastating bombings in and around the capital, the residents will demand that he focus on their immediate security rather than the eventual recapture of Mosul. Should al-'Abadi decide to allocate security resources - army, militia or police - to Diyala to deal with the ISIS threat emanating from that province, it will delay the Mosul operation.

The Mosul operation will be a large-scale undertaking. Retaking cities like al-Ramadi and al-Fallujah were much smaller operations, and took much longer than expected. Mosul is going to require virtually all of the combat power Iraq has and then some.

The "then some" will be the assets committed by the U.S.-led coalition - airpower, artillery and rocket fire support, intelligence, logistics, communications, command and control, engineer support, as well the placement of U.S. military officers in Iraqi combat battalions.

It is those capabilities that Secretary Carter cited in his remarks: "These additional U.S. forces will bring unique capabilities to the campaign and provide critical enabler support to Iraqi forces at a key moment in the fight."

The increased American support will be necessary for the Iraqis to recapture Mosul. As we have seen in recent military operations, there is great reliance on American airpower, intelligence, fire support, etc. Since Mosul will be a much larger, more complex operation, there will likely be calls for an even higher level of support.

The Administration's decision to deploy additional troops to Iraq reflects the realization that Iraqi forces as they stand today are not capable of conducting that operation, and certainly not on the timetable promised by Prime Minister al-'Abadi - he has pledged to retake Mosul before the end of the year.

To those of us who served in Vietnam, the gradual escalation of American troop presence in Iraq over the last two years reminds us of how a small advisory mission grew into a large-scale military operation lasting over a decade and costing over 58,000 American troops.

The words "mission creep" come to mind. It is not only the troop presence in Iraq that concerns many observers - it is the continuing build up of forces in the region that directly conduct operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

It is critical that ISIS be defeated - and key to that defeat is the retaking of Mosul. Should the Iraqis prove incapable of doing that with the current levels of American support, will we continue to escalate our troop presence? Are we in danger of sliding further down that slippery slope? Are we going to reach the point when we see the re-introduction of American combat formations into Iraq?

We haven't even started talking about ejecting ISIS from Syria yet.

July 8, 2016

The battle after Fallujah - an Iraqi strategy shift?

Iraqi Army officers and dead ISIS fighters in al-Fallujah, al-Anbar province

After a month of intense fighting between fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and a mixture of Iraqi security forces supported by Iranian-backed Shi'a militias and U.S.-led airpower, the city of Fullajah (al-Fallujah, الفلوجة‎‎) is now back under Iraqi government control. The city had been occupied by ISIS since January 2014 - Fallujah was the first major Iraqi city to fall to the group.

As with previous Iraqi military operations aimed at retaking cities from ISIS - Ramadi, Tikrit, Bayji, etc. - it took much longer than predicted and has reduced substantial sections of the city to little more than rubble. The areas not devastated by airstrikes, bombing, artillery and street-to-street fighting is riddled with booby traps and mines. It will be weeks, possibly months before the city is inhabitable by its former residents.

The liberation of Fallujah came against the backdrop of a series of high-profile bombings in and around the city of Baghdad. The government of Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi was criticized for allocating resources to the fighting in Fallujah at the perceived expense of security in Baghdad. Al-'Abadi maintained that the operations in Fallujah would increase public safety in Baghdad since he believed that many of the bombings in the capital were planned in and staged from Fallujah.

Almost immediately after the initial government claims of victory in Fallujah, Iraqi military leaders declared that they are planning a military operation to retake Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. Mosul has been in ISIS hands since they seized it from a hollow, weakened Iraqi Army in June of 2014. That statement was echoed by a few American senior officers currently "advising and assisting" Iraqi forces.

The proposed timeline - Mosul back under government control by the end of this year - in my opinion is exceedingly optimistic. The Iraqi Army has still not regained its competence since its humiliating defeat in Mosul in 2014.

The Iraqi Army collapsed not because ISIS was such a superior military force, but because Iraqi forces had atrophied due to the devastating policies of former Prime Minster Nuri al-Maliki following the complete - and I believe premature - withdrawal of American troops from the country at the end of 2011.

The withdrawal was the result of the failure of the United States to secure an updated status of forces agreement that would allow the continued presence of a limited number of American troops in the country to assist with the training and development of Iraqi security forces. In my opinion, the Obama Administration was so anxious to leave Iraq that it ignored the still tenuous security situation in the country.

On July 3, in retaliation for the Iraqi government's successful retaking of Fallujah, ISIS detonated two truck bombs in Baghdad, one in the upscale Shi'a neighborhood of Karradah and one in the less affluent Sha'ab neighborhood. The death toll from the bombings has reached almost 300. The blasts - the deadliest since the 2003 invasion - have caused anger and fear in the city.

Much of the anger has been directed at the prime minister - his claims that removing ISIS from Fallujah would make Baghdad safer now ring hollow. The two suicide bombers mounted their attacks from Diyala province, located to the east and northeast of Baghdad, not from Fallujah in al-Anbar province to the west. Again, the residents have called on the government to provide security for the city.

Iraqi political leaders and military planners are now reassessing their strategy. Given the continued presence of ISIS fighters in Diyala province and the group's demonstrated capability to mount large-scale attacks in central Baghdad, Iraqi leaders may now opt to completely clear Diyala province of ISIS prior to moving its forces north for the eventual assault on Mosul. The residents of Baghdad are more concerned about their own security than an artificial timeline to retake Mosul.

ISIS has taken a page from the manual of asymmetric warfare - they have been successful in creating a "significant emotional event" that has caused the Iraqi government to reassess its strategy. If the leadership in Baghdad postpones its plans to mount an attack on ISIS in Mosul and instead focuses its immediate attention on the ISIS presence in Diyala, that gives ISIS more time to develop its defenses for what it knows will be the definitive battle in the country.

It is merely a delaying tactic, to be sure. The Iraqis, with support from the U.S.-led coalition and Iranian-supported Shi'a militias, will eventually marshal the forces and resources necessary to retake Mosul. However, it does appear that ISIS has forced Baghdad to reassess its strategy.