January 27, 2017

Iraqi prime minister may block visas to U.S. citizens? Think that over, Haydar

Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi

In response to President Trump's temporary ban on the issuance of entry visas to anyone from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, Iraqi parliamentarians said the Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi is considering reciprocal action that will block American citizens from entering Iraq.

Take a deep breath, siyadat al-ra'is Haydar, and think about this.

Without the U.S.-led coalition, you have very little chance of expelling the forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from your country. Yes, you need those American citizens - most in uniform - whose airpower, artillery, special operations, intelligence, logistics, front line "advise and assist" troops, etc. allow your military and police units to succeed on the battlefield.

Here endeth the lesson.

A personal anecdote: This exchange reminds me of a rather humorous situation that arose while I was serving as the air attache at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, Syria in the 1990's.

Anyone who has served at American embassies in the Middle East is familiar with the non-stop requests for visas to enter the United States - this was particularly true in Syria. Syrians who have received visas to enter the United States had (and probably still do) one of the highest over-stay ratings - they simply didn't return to Syria.

The visa application line at the consular section of the embassy, which was also the designated venue for Iranians seeking visas to the United States, was always very long, often extending hundreds of yards on the sidewalks and small streets around the embassy. It made getting to work a challenge at times, and parking a nightmare.

At one point, the Syrians became concerned about the potential security, safety and traffic congestion issues caused by the throngs of people waiting to take their turn at being rejected for a visa. They summoned the ambassador to the foreign ministry and told him that the situation was unacceptable and he needed to address it.

The U.S. ambassador at the time, Christopher Ross, was a career Foreign Service Officer and long-time Middle East specialist, having spent many of his formative years in Lebanon. He was an extremely effective ambassador, as well as a great mentor to his staff (me included).

Ambassador Ross asked Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara' how the Syrian embassy in Washington was dealing with its visa line issues.

January 14, 2017

The Astana talks - President Trump's first foreign policy challenge?

Almost immediately after he is inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States on January 20, Donald Trump will face his first foreign policy challenge. The United States has been invited to attend talks about the future of Syria, sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran to be held in Astana, Kazakhstan - the talks are scheduled to start on January 23.

The Astana talks are the result of a ceasefire arranged by the Russians and the Turks which took effect on December 29, 2016. Notably absent from the negotiations was U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. I believe the Obama Administration policy that Syrian President Bashar al-Asad had to be removed from power was a sticking point with the Russians. Russian President Vladimir Putin's primary reason for ordering Russian military intervention in Syria was to ensure the survival of the al-Asad regime. (See my earlier article, Russia and Turkey broker a ceasefire in Syria - where is the United States?

Putin appears to have been successful, on many fronts. His military forces - primarily air power, but also artillery, long range missiles and special forces - turned the tide of battle. Without the presence of Russian forces, Iranian troops and irregulars, Lebanese Hizballah, as well as Iraqi and Afghan Shi'a militias, the Syrian military would not have been able to dislodge the rebels from their stronghold in Aleppo.

The opposition forces are now on the defensive as the battle shifts southwest to neighboring Idlib governorate. The presence of the former al-Qaidah affiliate in Syria, now known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS, Levant Conquest Front), in Idlib provides the fig leaf for continued Russian air strikes at the new opposition center of gravity, since "terrorist" groups are not covered by the provisions of the ceasefire.

Although there have been some violations, the ceasefire is holding, or holding well enough. The key to this ceasefire is the provision that after a 30 day period of adherence to the truce, negotiations on the future of Syria will be held under the sponsorship of Russia, Turkey and Iran.

The timing of the talks, the venue, and the invitation to the United States are all calculated to demonstrate just who has become the current power brokers in the region - the mere fact that there are going to be talks demonstrates that Moscow and Ankara can bring the parties to the table - and the Americans cannot.

The timing excludes the Obama Administration and opens a channel of communication with the new Trump Administration. The venue in a Central Asia former Soviet republic keeps the talks somewhat in the region (as opposed to western Europe) and central to the three sponsors.

As I said in my earlier article, "It appears that once again, President Putin and his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, have outplayed American President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. As I have said in the past, the new power brokers in the region - especially when it comes to Syria - are Russia, Turkey and Iran."

Well played, Mr. Putin, well played.

That said, it is not all smooth sailing. The Syrian government and the opposition have agreed to send representatives. Although President Bashar al-Asad said that "all things are on the table," they are not. He will not discuss leaving office in the talks. He also wants a say in who represents the opposition. (See my earlier article, Syrian political talks in Astana - why Bashar al-Asad has little to fear.)

The Turks have ruled out Kurdish participation in the talks - the Kurds are the United States' best allies on the ground in Syria in the fight against ISIS. The Kurdish YPG comprises the bulk - and most effective part - of the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF). The Turks consider the YPG to be nothing more than an extension of the PKK, a Kurdish separatist organization designated as a terrorist group by the United States, NATO and the European Union. The situation is more than mere rhetoric - Turkish aircraft have bombed SDF units, despite the fact that these units are engaged in direct combat with ISIS.

The problem with the last-minute invitation to the United States is that it puts the Americans in almost an "afterthought" or "second-class" status and not really in a position to make demands. Still, when the President of the United States of America sends a delegation, America's status of a superpower cannot be ignored.

Here is the dilemma. During the polarizing political campaign leading up to the election of Donald Trump, there have been numerous stories and accusations of ties between the new President and the Russians. I am not in a position to judge if or any relationship exists - I am mainly concerned with what effect that has on the situation in the Middle East, particularly Syria.

There is no question that the Russians have conducted brutal military operations against almost exclusively anti-regime targets in Syria. When the Russians launch attacks on Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) targets, it is in support of the regime.

Although the Russians have couched their intervention in Syria as an anti-terrorism, anti-ISIS operation, the reality remains that the mission is to prop up the al-Asad regime. At times, the operations may be considered to rise to the level of war crimes - deliberately targeting hospitals and medical facilities, civilian housing areas, markets, schools, etc. Recall Senator Marco Rubio's rather harsh questioning of Trump Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson on this matter.

Should the new Trump Administration accept the invitation to the Astana talks? In my opinion, yes. You cannot affect what happens at the table unless you are at the table.

Obviously, the Obama Administration existent bifurcated policy is not working. This is an opportunity to lay out a new policy - just what is our primary national security objective in Syria? Is it the defeat of ISIS, or is is the removal of the regime of Bashar al-Asad? The Obama Administration wanted both, and it was sidelined by the other major players.

Do we need to chose one over the others? If we do, I believe the new Administration will chose the defeat of ISIS. I think any demand for the removal of Bashar al-Asad is a non-starter with the Russians, and that the Turks and Iranians will go along. President al-Asad has said that if his remaining as president of Syria is an issue, then the country should follow the Syrian constitution (yes, he said that without laughing) and go to the ballot box. Anyone of us who have lived in Syria knows that is ludicrous.

This will be a real test of the direction of President Donald Trump's foreign policy. How he handles this will set the tone for future situations, not only with the Russians, but around the world as well. How will the "new sheriff in town" respond to challenges and crises?

If the new President were to ask me - and he hasn't - I would advise that we focus on the defeat of ISIS, even if that means limited cooperation with the distasteful government of Vladimir Putin. We have cooperated with unsavory regimes in the past to attain our foreign policy objectives - we can address the Syrian regime later.

January 9, 2017

Syrian political talks in Astana - why Bashar al-Asad has little to fear

From a Turkish Anadolu Agency post

This article is based on the assumption that the current fragile ceasefire in Syria will continue to hold for the 30 days that are called for before the beginning of negotiations sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran. For my comments on the absence of the United States at those talks, please see Russia and Turkey broker a ceasefire in Syria - where is the United States?

In what would have been impossible just over a year ago has happened - Syrian President Bashar al-Asad has agreed to send representatives of his government to attend talks on resolving the crisis in the country. The talks will begin later this month in Astana, Kazakhstan. Speaking in English to European reporters, al-Asad said, "Everything is on the table, we are prepared to discuss everything."

That sounds good - the media even reported that President al-Asad had asserted there would be no preconditions for the talks. I think that is more an interpretation of his remarks rather than accurate journalism. When you read his actual words, there are several preconditions involved.

The first condition is Al-Asad's approval of who will represent the Syrian opposition at the table. The president has said they must be "genuine" Syrians, not Saudis, French or British. If the opposition delegation is somehow unacceptable to him - he has rejected talks in the past based on this condition - the Syrian government may threaten to not attend.

The second condition is the virtual exclusion of any discussion about al-Asad's position as Syria's president. Again, his words are fairly clear - he lived in England for years and expresses himself effectively in English.

"My position is related to the constitution, which is very clear about the mechanism by which the president assumes or leaves power. So if they want to discuss this point, they must discuss the constitution, which is not the exclusive property of the government, the presidency or the opposition. It belongs to the Syrian people. They (the parties in Astana) can propose a constitutional referendum, but they can’t say, ‘We want this president’ or ‘We don’t want this president’, because the president comes to power through the ballot box. If they’re unhappy with the president, let’s go to the ballot box."

That sounds to me like a precondition. I read it to mean that the question of whether or not he continues in office will not be "on the table."*

However, Bashar al-Asad may not have the final say about his participation in the talks.

These talks are being driven by the new power brokers in the region - Russia, Turkey and Iran. If they determine that Syrian government participation in the talks is required, they will simply tell Bashar that his regime will participate.

That said, Bashar al-Asad has little reason to fear that he will not continue in power.

President al-Asad's security was determined in September 2015 when the Russians deployed a sizable air expeditionary force to Syria to ensure that the Syrian regime was not defeated. At that time, the opposition was effectively pushing the Syrian armed forces south from Aleppo and Idlib governorates - despite the presence of large numbers of Hizballah fighters, Iranian troops and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps members, and Iraqi Shi'a militias. The Russian intervention - contrary to the warnings of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter - was effective in turning the tide of battle.

The Russians and President Vladimir Putin want, and appear to have gotten, a regime in Syria they can influence and manipulate. Although Russia claims that it is withdrawing its forces from Syria, Moscow announced an agreement with Damascus for a permanent Russian naval presence at the Syrian naval base at Tartus, and a long-term presence at Humaymim Air Base near Latakia - the Russians have invested a lot of money in the infrastructure for both facilities.

Iran will go along with the Russian position to maintain Bashar in power, as they too want a cooperative government in Syria. Iran needs access to Syrian airspace and prefers to use Damascus International Airport to equip and resupply its proxy militia Hizballah, now one of the major military and political forces in Lebanon. The Iranian leadership further likes the idea of a Shi'a Crescent extending from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus to Beirut, with Tehran being the key player.

The Turks would prefer that the al-Asad government be replaced, believing that the Syrian regime has in the past supported the Kurdish separatist (and designated terrorist) PKK party. As long as there is no hint of Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria, they will go along. I believe they will press Russia for additional access in Central Asia - the Turks fancy themselves as the leaders of all things Turkic (as the Iranians do vis-a-vis all things Shi'a).

Thanks to the ascendancy of Russia, Iran and Turkey as the new power brokers in the region, combined with the seeming acquiescence of the United States, Bashar al-Asad will almost certainly remain as the President of Syria.

* Personal note: I lived in Syria - it is not a Jeffersonian democracy. The president's seemingly principled adherence to the Syrian constitution is sanctimonious and hypocritical - I saw how little concern the regime has for legal or constitutional values. For more, see this article I wrote when Bashar al-Asad was elected to the presidency on the death of his father in 2000, Syria - Next Target of the Bush Administration?

January 6, 2017

Turkish threat to limit access to Incirlik Air Base - a collision course?

A U.S. Air Force F-16 takes off from Incirlik Air Base

As I have warned in the past, the United States and Turkey are on a collision course over events in northern Syria. The tensions revolve around the fight against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS), a fight in which both countries are on the same side.

Turkey, a NATO ally, has allowed the United States and other members of the American-led coalition to use its air bases in southern Turkey, particularly Incirlik Air Base near Adana. Sorties launched from the base can get to the operations area in a matter of minutes rather than the hours it takes when operating from bases in the Arab Gulf states.

Several senior Turkish officials have made thinly-veiled threats that they may terminate American access to the base if the situation is not resolved. To the Turks, that means having it their way.

If they refuse to allow American combat aircraft to operate from Incirlik, it will have a serious impact on operations directly supporting the eventual assault on the ISIS stronghold/capital city of al-Raqqah.

To understand the issue between the two NATO allies, we need to look at the two separate anti-ISIS military operations currently underway in northern Syria.

First, we have an operation - Operation Euphrates Shield - launched by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that has successfully pushed ISIS back all the way from the Turkish border in an area north of Aleppo and west of the Euphrates River to the city of al-Bab, with the final objective being the liberation of al-Raqqah. The FSA is being supported by Turkish airpower, armor, artillery and special forces - the Turks have lost several of its troops, including two soldiers who were taken prisoner by ISIS and later burned alive.

The Turks believe it would be better if this force liberated al-Raqqah, because the FSA are mostly Sunni Arabs, and will be welcomed by the local population. I think that is a fair assessment, but the problem is one of geography, not demographics. The Turkish supported FSA force near al-Bab is almost 100 miles from al-Raqqah - it will take many weeks, if not many months for this force to reach al-Raqqah.

On the other side of the issue, there is the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF, or QSD in Arabic), comprised of Syrian Arabs and Syrian Kurds, some from an organization known as the YPG. This group presents itself as Arab-Kurdish cooperation, and is an attempt to put to present a less-threatening image of Kurdish participation in the fight against ISIS. The Kurds comprise the bulk of the SDF and constitute the most effective force facing ISIS.

Why is Kurdish participation in the fight against ISIS a problem? The Turks consider the YPG to be nothing more than an arm of the Kurdish PKK, or Kurdistan Workers Party, which has been branded a terrorist group by the U.S. and Turkey. The Turks are alarmed at even the merest hint of Kurdish nationalism or autonomy in either Syria or Iraq, believing any such movement will spill over into southern Turkey.

Elements of the U.S.-supported SDF are now less than 20 miles from al-Raqqah and will soon be approaching the city. The United States believes time is of the essence - the Central Command claims to have evidence that attacks on Western targets are being planned in al-Raqaah and may be launched at any time. Thus, the U.S. advocates an SDF attack on the city as soon as they are in position.

Although I have no direct evidence to refute this, my reading of what little uncensored information leaking out of al-Raqqah seems to indicate that the people of al-Raqqah are totally terrified by ISIS and would welcome any relief, hoping that even a Kurdish liberating force would be better than ISIS and at some point life would return to normal under a Syrian (read: Arab) government.

For more detailed explanation of the politics involved, please see my article, More U.S. troops to Syria - a showdown with the Turks?

The issue is further complicated by increased Turkish-Russian (and Iranian) consultations and possible future cooperation in the fight against ISIS and the future of Syria. They are working on both issues, and have purposely excluded the Obama Administration from participating in these talks. Russian President Vladimir Putin has hinted that after Donald Trump becomes president, they may include the United States.

There is a compromise on base access that might work. One of the complaints voiced by the Turks is the hesitation of the United States to provide air support to Turkish forces operating in the fighting near al-Bab. If the Americans agree to dedicate some of its close air support sorties to supporting the Turks, they may drop their threats to limit access to Incirlik.

I have said this in the past, and I will reiterate it. The United States and Turkey are NATO allies - they need to start acting like it.

The al-Raqqah and Kurd issue is another matter, as are the warming relations between Ankara, Moscow and Tehran.

One step at a time.

January 3, 2017

U.S. Air Force strike on Al-Qa'idah affiliate headquarters in Syria

The video above was produced by the Arabic-language STEP News Agency, which provides detailed reporting on the situation in Syria. I suspect they have anti-regime leanings, but I find their reporting to be concise and accurate.

This clip is just 42 seconds long, but conveys the essence of the recent U.S. Air Force strike on what has been described as a headquarters of the Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS).

The Arabic jabhat fatah al-sham translates to the Levant Conquest Front, the new name of Jabhat al-Nusrah, or the Victory Front. In July 2016, al-Nusrah renounced its affiliation with al-Qa'idah and adopted the JFS moniker. No one buys it - we all consider them to still be loyal to al-Qa'idah.

Here are my translations of the captions on the video:

- American B-52 bombers of the international coalition

- Took off from the Incirlik air base in Turkey

- And targeted a headquarters of the Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in Sarmada in the Idlib Countryside

- Resulting in the destruction of the headquarters and the killing of 25 members of the group

- Also, 11 [other leaders] were killed over the last two days in coalition bombing of two cars belonging to the group

- Including commanders of the highest level

Sarmada is located in Idlib governorate about 20 miles north of the city of Idlib and about 20 miles west of the city of Aleppo.

This is an area in which U.S. drones have mounted strikes against JFS targets for some time. In fact, the initial American Tomahawk missile and air strikes in Syria in 2014 targeted al-Qa'idah related positions in this area.

Other reports place the death toll at 30, resulting from the attack by U.S. Air Force B-52 bombers firing at least four conventional air-launched cruise missiles (CALCM). The standard warhead of the CALCM is 3000 pounds of high explosives.

Reactions to the strike were interesting. While most analysts agree that JFS targets are not affected by the recent Russian-Turkish negotiated ceasefire, critics asked why it was possible for American aircraft to strike JFS targets, yet could not support anti-regime rebels or protect safe zones in northern Syria. They also want to know why the Americans are targeting a group that is anti-regime and also anti-ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria).

My answer to the critics: Al-Qa'idah is a special case for Americans. It was al-Qa'idah that came to our shores in 2001 and killed over 3000 of us. It has been the policy of the United States, with overwhelming popular support regardless of party or politics, to hunt down and kill these thugs - whoever, whenever and wherever. These just happened to be in Syria.

It may take years, even decades, but in the end, the United States will continue to either bring these killers to justice, or as we have seen here in Syria, bring justice to them.

Increased ISIS terror attacks - symptom of the impending loss of it's capital cities

ISIS's 'Amaq News Agency press release on Istanbul bombing

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has taken responsibility for a series of attacks over the last few days, including the New Year's Eve attack on a nightclub in Istanbul, Turkey, that killed 39 people and at least five separate bombings in Baghdad, Iraq, that killed over 60 people. Hundreds of others were injured in the attacks.

This is my translation of ISIS's press release claiming responsibility for the Istanbul attack. I tried to keep it as close to the original Arabic as possible.

‘Amaq – Fighter from the Islamic State Conducted the Istanbul Attack

Istanbul – ‘Amaq Agency: A reliable source says to ‘Amaq that a fighter of the Islamic State conducted the Istanbul attack which occurred at a nightclub in which a New Year celebration was being held the day before (Saturday).

According to the source, upwards of 150 Christian partygoers – among them Westerners from countries of the international coalition – were killed or injured as a result of the nightclub attack with hand grenades and a machine gun, and the source mentioned that some of the injured threw themselves into the waters of the Bosphorus after being fired on.

[The source] mentioned that the Islamic State called on its fighters and supporters to mount attacks against Turkey, which entered the cycle of conflict with the Islamic State.

I will leave the descriptions of the attacks and the subsequent investigations to the professional law enforcement authorities in Turkey and Iraq - unfortunately, both have extensive experience in these matters.

The investigations will tell the who (although I think we know), what, where and when. What is more important is the why - why is ISIS mounting attacks in Istanbul and Baghdad?

That was a question put to me twice today - once by Wolf Blitzer and again by Ana Cabrera. Is this an act of desperation or a sign of strength? Being the consummate analyst that I am, I responded:"Both." Jesting aside, it is still true.

The reasons for the attacks - in both countries - are the same. ISIS is under tremendous pressure as they try to defend the encircled city of Mosul, Iraq, and are preparing for the inevitable assault on its main Syrian stronghold of al-Raqqah.

ISIS is also demonstrating that as a terrorist group (they would not use that terminology), they have the capability to launch lethal attacks across the region, that they remain relevant even in potential military defeat.

Iraq first.

Looking at this from the perspective of the ISIS military commander, I would assess the ability to defend Mosul against the U.S.-coalition supported Iraqi forces that are arrayed against it and currently attacking the city, as poor. The Iraqis appear to have the political will to allocate the necessary resources to retake the city from ISIS.

ISIS's horrific attacks, mostly targeting Shi'a Iraqis in Baghdad, are meant to break the will of the Iraqi government, to demonstrate to the people that the government cannot provide adequate security. ISIS hopes that the people will demand that Iraqi forces be used to protect them.

ISIS is betting that the people of Baghdad are more concerned about their own security than the liberation of Mosul. While at one time, I believed that to be true, the situation has changed as the Iraqi forces have improved their capabilities and have been able to push ISIS back in both the Tigris and Euphrates valleys.

According to the original battle plan for Mosul, the Iraqis were going to encircle the city, then launch the attack. Just before the operation was to begin, there was a shift in tactics - the Iraqis decided to leave the city's western approaches/exits open to allow an escape route for ISIS fighters wishing to depart the area.

I criticized this on the air, as I felt that the Iraqis were wrong in their assessment that ISIS fighters would leave the city for Syria. The Iraqis, of course, were hoping this was the correct scenario, since the exodus of ISIS fighters would make their retaking of Mosul that much easier. It also would transfer the ISIS problem out of Iraq and into Syria.

As many of the military analysts (including me) from all of the networks predicted, ISIS used the western opening as a resupply/reinforcement route. It took weeks for the Iraqis to deploy an Iranian-backed Shi'a Popular Mobilization Unit to cut that line of communication.

The lack of an escape route has virtually sealed ISIS's fighters' fate - they will now fight to the death. We are seeing that level of commitment now. Conversely, we also see the Iraqi forces suffering horrific casualties as they slowly work their way into the city. Just this week, the Iraqis announced that they had just started "Phase Two" of the Mosul operation. In reality, they were stalled for two weeks as their casualties exceeded anyone's assessments.

It will continue to be a slow, bloody process as Iraqi forces - army, police and special units - claw their way from suburb to suburb, block to block, street to street, and at times even house to house. In the end, however, I believe that the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi has the political will to see this through.

In the end, Iraq wins this one. That does not mean ISIS or its inevitable follow-on Islamist group is gone permanently, but the current scourge will be defeated.

Now to Syria - and the ISIS "capital" of al-Raqqah.

The battle for al-Raqqah is taking shape. There is an American-backed Kurdish-Sunni Arab alliance called the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF) merely 20 miles away from the city and advancing every day. At the same time, there is also a Turkish-supported Free Syrian Army (FSA) force currently about 90 miles away fighting for the city of al-Bab.

The United States and Turkey are at odds over which should be the force that retakes al-Raqqah. See my earlier article about this issue, The coming assault on al-Raqqah - a political minefield.

ISIS's strategy in attacking Turkey is similar to their strategy for the bombings in Baghdad, although it has only a slightly greater chance of success. By making Turkey's incursion into Syria and supporting the fight against ISIS as bloody and painful as possible, they hope to create what guerrilla groups call a "significant emotional event."

ISIS believes that if they can create enough mayhem and bloodshed in cities like Istanbul and Ankara, the Turkish people will demand that the government stop its support for the FSA and withdraw its forces back to Turkey. Without Turkish air, artillery, special forces and advisory support, the FSA will not be able to take on ISIS.

Ordinarily, I would give this strategy a chance at success, but in post-coup attempt Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdo─čan has amassed such political power that I doubt he will respond to popular calls for him to reassess his intervention in Syria.

Bottom line: Mosul and al-Raqqah will fall and ISIS will be forced to alter its structure, like emerging as more of an Islamist group more along the model of al-Qa'idah. It's terrorist attacks will continue and likely increase as they morph into a new organization.