April 27, 2017

French government evaluation of Syrian chemical weapons attack

The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs released an official assessment of the April 4 Syrian chemical weapons attack on Khan Shaykhun, and analysis of the Syrian chemical weapons program. The report can be read or downloaded in English from the Ministry's website

The report consists of four sections:

1. – Technical analysis of the chemical attack on 4 April
2. – Militarily analysis of the tactical situation around 4 April 2017
3. – Analysis of the presence of armed groups in Hama and of their capabilities
4. – Continuation since 2013 of a clandestine Syrian chemical weapons programme

Sections 1 through 3 are consistent with the conclusions of other competent intelligence services, except perhaps the Russians, and no one believes the Syrian regime. It lays out a compelling case that the Syrian Air Force was responsible for the use of sarin gas in the attack.

It is Section 4 that interests me. So that I am not accused of cherry-picking words, I have included the text of the entire section (in British English). I have highlighted what I believe are significant passages.

4. – Continuation since 2013 of a clandestine Syrian chemical weapons programme

a) In a previous declassified national report in 2013, the French services laid out their knowledge of the Syrian chemical weapons programme and chemical attacks perpetrated by the regime. They noted that sarin was principally used in binary form: a mixture of methylphosphonyl difluoride (DF), a key precursor in the manufacture of sarin, and isopropanol produced just before use.

France informed the OPCW that Syria’s explanations on the quantities of DF declared – approximately 20 tonnes – as having been used in tests or lost in accidents were exaggerated. Moreover, France has observed since 2014 Syrian attempts to acquire dozens of tonnes of isopropanol. The Declaration Assessment Team (DAT) from the Technical Secretariat of the OPCW has been unable to obtain any proof of the veracity of Syria’s declarations. The OPCW itself has identified major inconsistencies in Syria’s explanations concerning the presence of sarin derivatives on several sites where no activity relating to the toxin had been declared.

b) On the basis of the conclusions of the DAT and its own intelligence, France assesses that major doubts remain as to the accuracy, exhaustiveness and sincerity of the decommissioning of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. In particular, France assesses that Syria has maintained a capacity to produce or stock sarin, despite its commitment to destroy all stocks and capacities. Lastly, France assesses that Syria has not declared tactical munitions (grenades and rockets) such as those repeatedly used since 2013.

c) The Damascus regime has continued to employ chemical weapons against its population since Syria’s accession to the CWC on 13 October 2013. There have been over 100 allegations of such use, concerning chlorine as well as sarin.

Since 2014, the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) has published several reports confirming the use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria. The UN-OPCW Joint Investigation Mechanism (JIM) has investigated nine allegations of chemical weapons employment. In its reports in August and October 2016, the JIM attributed three cases of employment of chlorine to the Damascus regime and one of mustard gas to Daesh.

The French seem to agree with me. The Syrians lied, had no intention of complying with the agreement, and continued to produce and stockpile chemical weapons.

In June of 2015, two years after the Russian-U.S. brokered agreement that supposedly led to the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons and chemical weapons production facilities, U.S. intelligence agencies warned that Syrian forces might again use chemical weapons against opposition groups. This was almost two years after the Syrians agreed to rid themselves of their stockpile of chemical weapons. I wrote a detailed article - Syrian regime might use chemical weapons - how is that possible? In the article, I reviewed the situation as of that point in time, as well as provide links to a series of my articles on the Syrian chemical weapons program.

Anyone* who has ever worked or lived in Syria got a chuckle out of the thought that the regime of Bashar al-Asad would give up his chemical weapons. Syria maintains its chemical weapons arsenal and delivery systems to provide a deterrent against an attack by the vastly superior (and nuclear-equipped) Israeli armed forces. Its ballistic missiles and squadron of SU-24 (NATO: FENCER) fighter-bombers can deliver chemical weapons to virtually anywhere in Israel.

The thought that the Syrians would give up their chemical weapons arsenal was, and remains, ludicrous. However, the Syrians' primary sponsor - Russia - saw an opportunity to back [then Secretary of State John] Kerry and the United States into a corner. The Russians announced that they had brokered a deal in which the Syrians would give up their chemical weapons in return for an American commitment to call off impending military action against Syria. Obama jumped at the chance.

I have to wonder if U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry actually believed his own rhetoric. I know of no serious Middle East analyst who thought that Syrian President Bashar al-Asad had any intention of complying with the 2013 agreement, for the reasons I have been stating since at least 2000.

I also have to wonder if Russian Minister of Foreign Sergey Lavrov, an accomplished negotiator and excellent advocate for the Russian regime and the president he serves, was complicit in the Syrian deception. It would not surprise me if President Vladimir Putin, Sergey Lavrov and Bashar al-Asad all conspired to craft an agreement that they knew was no more than a sham.**

I am also struck by the seeming naivete of John Kerry, and possibly Barack Obama. Their later performance in negotiating - well, mostly capitulating - the Iran nuclear deal does not fill me with confidence that the Iranian deal has any more chance of achieving its objectives in the nuclear arena than the Syrian deal did about chemical weapons. Call me skeptical.


* From 1992 to 1995, I served as the Air Attaché to the U.S. Embassy in Damascus. It was part of my brief to monitor the capabilities of the Syrian armed forces, including their chemical warfare capabilities.
** My Arabic-speaking friends will appreciate that definition. Al-Sham is the Arabic word for Damascus, Syria or the Levant, depending on context.

April 26, 2017

Turkey and the fight against ISIS - whose side are you on?

Blue=Turkish forces / Yellow=Kurdish (YPG) forces

In an unnecessary and unhelpful turn of events, a series of armed confrontations has broken out in several locations along the Syrian-Turkish border. The combatants, unfortunately, are both U.S. allies.

Turkish forces have mounted a series of artillery attacks and air strikes on a variety of Kurdish targets along virtually the entire Syrian-Turkish border, claiming that they are attacking members of the outlawed and designated terrorist organization Kurdistan Workers' Party, known more commonly by its Kurdish initials PKK.

The problem - most of the targets are not PKK targets, they are actually elements of the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units, more commonly called the YPG. The YPG is an integral part of a U.S.-backed force, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF was created, trained and equipped to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). They are the "boots on the ground" support by coalition air power, artillery, special forces, and logistics.

The Turks are acting like petulant children, unfortunately, petulant children with artillery and F-16 fighter bombers.

For those who do not follow events in Syria and the inherent animosity between the Turks and the Kurds, a brief (and by no means comprehensive) overview of the situation in northern Syria.

It has taken the Turks years to actually commit to the fight against ISIS. It delayed the U.S.-led coalition access to Incirlik air base, located near the city of Adana just north of the Syrian border until late 2015, although the air campaign against ISIS began a year earlier.

In August 2016, the Turks supported a Free Syrian Army (FSA) assault into ISIS-held territory along the Turkish border in an operation called Euphrates Shield. The FSA was supported by Turkish air, armor, artillery and special forces, and was moderately successful, eventually seizing the key ISIS stronghold of al-Bab. The next target was the city of Manbij, in the Syrian Kurdish enclave.

The FSA move towards Manbij revealed the actual reason for the Turkish-supported - some would say Turkish-directed - intervention. Although nominally an attack on ISIS, the Turkish objective was to ensure that the Syrian Kurds were not able to form an autonomous region similar to the Kurdish Autonomous Region in Iraq. The Kurds have already declared such an area, calling it Rojava.

The United States determined that time was of the essence in the effort to mount an attack on al-Raqqah. The choices were to wait until the Turks and FSA were able to fight the 100 miles to al-Raqqah, an effort that would take months, or support an SDF assault on al-Raqqah. SDF units were virtually at the outskirts of the city.

To head off a fight between the Turkish-backed FSA and the U.S.-backed Kurds, the Kurds made contact with the Syrian regime and allowed Syrian (with Russians) to occupy the Manbij area. This move isolated the Turks into a pocket, stopping their eventual march on the ISIS-declared capital city of al-Raqqah. See my earlier articles on these events: Has Turkey been marginalized and the Americans thrust into the fight?, and Russian and American cooperation in Syria - a policy change?

The Turks have always insisted that they be involved in the liberation of a-Raqqah, claiming that their FSA force, comprised of Syrian Arabs, would be more welcome in the city. They further claimed that the people of al-Raqqah would not want to be liberated by the Kurds, claiming that would be trading "one terrorist occupation force for another." Given my reading of what little information leaks out of al-Raqqah, I assess that the people don't care - they just want to be rid of the ISIS yoke.

Just days ago, as it appeared that the SDF was on the verge of reaching the city in force and preparing to mount an assault, the Turks conducted airstrikes in Syria and Iraq. While the attacks in Iraq appeared to strike legitimate PKK targets, the follow-on artillery strikes along the border in multiple cities inside Syria were undoubtedly attacks on SDF units and facilities.

Here is an exchange on Twitter I had this morning with an excellent Turkish analyst - I respect his views, we just happen to disagree on this particular issue.

It appears to me the Turks are throwing a tantrum. If they are not to be involved in the attack on al-Raqqah, they are going to employ military force to interfere with the execution of the U.S.-backed SDF attack. It may work, and it may not.

Now we have the Turks fighting the one viable military force that is in position with the requisite firepower and coalition air support to mount an attack on a key ISIS target in Syria. They believe that a multi-faceted attack on the SDF under the guise of fighting the PKK will tie up valuable SDF resources as the YPG is forced to defend itself.

Who benefits from Turkish petulance? ISIS, and no one else.

Again - if Turkey wants to be a NATO ally, it needs to act like one. Sabotaging another NATO ally's military efforts hardly qualifies.

April 23, 2017

President Trump and the Purple Heart presentation to Sergeant First Class Barrientos

CNN New Day Sunday - April 23, 2017

President Donald Trump presented the Purple Heart to U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Alvaro Barrientos at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on April 22, 2017. Sergeant Barrientos's wife Tammi was present as the President presented the medal reserved for troops wounded or killed in action.

Sergeant Barrientos was wounded in Afghanistan on March 17 - his right leg was amputated below the knee as a result of his wounds.

During the presentation, the President congratulated the soldier. Granted, it was not the best choice of words - the predictable criticism from the anti-Trump crowd began almost immediately.

I was asked for my thoughts on the needless controversy this morning on CNN. (Disclosure - I am a paid military analyst for the network.)

This should not be about President Trump - it should be about Sergeant Barrientos, and his service and sacrifice. His life has changed forever. Lest we forget, troops like the sergeant pay the cost of our freedom.

I agree that it would have been better if Mr. Trump had thanked the sergeant for his service and sacrifice instead of the awkward "congratulations," but I like the fact that the President made the presentation publicly.

In response to a question comparing President Obama's preference of presenting Purple Heart medals in private, I said that I was glad to see the President publicly acknowledging the high cost we as a country pay - the high cost that troops like Sergeant Barrientos pay - to maintain our freedom and security.

I do not want the American people to forget the fine men and women who are fighting our nation's wars, their efforts often unheralded in the cacophony of the daily news cycle focused on partisan bickering.

President Trump's public recognition was appropriate.

April 22, 2017

New Saudi ambassador the United States - another al-Sudayri in a power position

 Khalid bin Salman bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud - خالد بن سلمان بن عبد العزيز آل سعود 

Saudi King Salman bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud has appointed one of his sons, Prince Khalid, to be the kingdom's new ambassador to the United States. While on the surface, it appears to be a simple case of a monarch placing a son in a key leadership position, in the Saudi ruling family hierarchy, it is a clever power play.

Over the past two years, a group inside the ruling House of Sa'ud has reasserted its power and influence. This group is the so-called al-Sudayri Seven, a moniker derived from the name of the tribe of the mother of seven of the sons of the kingdom's founder 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud. King 'Abd al-'Aziz's third wife was Hussah bint Ahmed al-Sudayri. All seven of her sons rose to influential positions in the kingdom, including two who became king (Fahd and Salman).

The succession issue in Saudi Arabia has always been a concern. Kings have been succeeded by their younger brothers, all sons of 'Abd al-'Aziz. There was no provision for the succession beyond the first generation, the sons of 'Abd al-'Aziz.

The issue was finally addressed - but by no means settled, two years ago when King Salman removed his half-brother Prince Muqrin (up until then the crown prince) from the succession line and replaced him with his full nephew Muhammad bin Nayif bin 'Abd al-'Aziz.

For the first time since the foundation of the kingdom, a king will be of the second generation of 'Abd al-'Aziz, a grandson of the founder. For the Saudi-watchers among us, this was huge.

I wrote a detailed piece on this in April of 2015 - see Saudi Arabia - the resurgence of the al-Sudayri clan for the whole story.

What does this have to do with the appointment of the new ambassador? I know it can be confusing, so I have condensed the earlier article here.


King Salman bin 'Abd al-'Aziz
Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayif bin 'Abd al-'Aziz (top right)
Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman bin 'Abd al-'Aziz (bottom right)

Upon the death of his half-brother King 'Abdullah, Crown Prince Salman bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud became the king with no controversy - the Saudi succession has been remarkably smooth for decades. As expected, Salman named his younger brother Muqrin (one of the few surviving sons of the kingdom's founder) as the new crown prince.

However, the new king surprised many "Saudi watchers" by removing King 'Abdullah's son Muta'ib from the recently created position of deputy crown prince and naming his full nephew Muhammad bin Nayif, the Minister of the Interior to fill the position. Muhammad bin Nayif is the son of Salman's full brother Nayif - thus also one of the al-Sudayri Seven brothers.

In April 2015, King Salman removed his half-brother Muqrin as crown prince and elevated Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayif to the position of crown prince, in essence personally selecting (rather than via a family meeting) the new king from the grandsons of 'Abd al-'Aziz. It will also maintain the superior position of the al-Sudayri clan.

The king also named as new deputy crown prince his son Muhammad bin Salman, who also serves as the powerful Minister of Defense and Aviation.

What King Salman has done effectively consolidates the major centers of power of the kingdom in the hands of the al-Sudayris:

- The King of course is the monarch.

- The king's full nephew Muhammad bin Nayif is now the crown prince as well as the powerful Minister of the Interior.

- The king's son Muhammad bin Salman is now deputy crown prince as well as the Minister of Defense and Aviation, controlling the armed forces and anything that flies, military or civilian - that same son is concurrently the secretary general of the royal court.

These three men, all al-Sudayris, in essence run the kingdom. The royal family has always run the kingdom, but now most of the power has been concentrated into one small faction of the royal family - the descendants of 'Abd al-'Aziz and his favorite wife Hassah bint Ahmad al-Sudayri.

Now add to the above list the position of ambassador to the United States. This is a key position in the Saudi government, charged with what is arguably the most important foreign relationship for the kingdom. The Saudi ambassador enjoys excellent access to the President of the United States in Washington and has the ear of the King in Riyadh.

The new ambassador, Prince Khalid bin Salman, is the son of the king, first cousin of the crown prince, and brother of the deputy crown prince. Another key power position in the Saudi government is now filled by an al-Sudayri.

The al-Sudayris continue to maintain and expand their power base in the ruling family and by extension the entire kingdom.

As I said in 2015 - and reiterate now: well played, Your Highness, well played.

April 19, 2017

Syrian Air Force moves its remaining fighter jets to Russian-controlled air base

Russian Air Force SU-25 attack jets - Humaymim Air Base, Syria

According to several news outlets, the Syrian Air Force has moved all its operational fighter jets to the Russian-controlled Humaymim Air Base, located along Syria's Mediterranean coast south of the major port city of Latakia. The moves began 10 days after the United States struck al-Sha'ayrat Air Base with 59 Tomahawk missiles in response to a Syrian air-delivered chemical warfare attack in the city of Khan Shaykhun in which almost 100 people were killed.

The American strike on al-Sha'ayrat Air Base destroyed over 20 Syrian fighter aircraft, including Sukhoi Su-22 (NATO:FITTER) and MiG-23 (NATO:FLOGGER) fighters. At the time of the strike, the general consensus among open-source publications which follow air forces credited the Syrian Air Force with seven operational fighter or fighter-bomber squadrons. That would equate to anywhere between 85 and 100 aircraft. If in fact 20 were destroyed in the April 7 American strike, that would seriously impact Syria's sortie generation rate. This number fits in with Secretary of Defense James Mattis's statements that 20 percent of Syria's [fighter] aircraft were destroyed.

Humaymim Air Base is about 10 miles south of Latakia, east of the main coastal highway adjacent to the town of Humaymim (hence the name) - it is colocated with the Basil al-Asad International Airport. Prior to the Russian deployment of several squadrons of fighter, fighter-bomber and attack aircraft to Humaymim, the base was used almost exclusively by the Syrian Navy's 618th Maritime Warfare Squadron. The squadron operated Mi-14 (NATO:HAZE), Ka-25 (NATO:HORMONE) and KA-28 (NATO:HELIX) anti-submarine helicopters.

As the Air Attache to the U.S. Embassy in Damascus in the 1990's, I had the opportunity to visit this base on several occasions. It was usually not a busy base - the Syrian Navy is by far the least resourced and used arm of the armed forces. That said, the maritime helicopters have been used during the civil war to drop naval mines on opposition targets. The fact that the Syrian military has resorted to using these helicopters to drop naval mines on ground targets is indicative of a shortage of aircraft or munitions, or both.

Since September 2015, the Russians have made extensive modifications to the base to accommodate dozens of Russian tactical aircraft, as well as deploying the state-of-the-art S-300VM (NATO:SA-23 GIANT/GLADIATOR) and S-400 (NATO:SA-21 GROWLER) air defense missile systems, effective against both aircraft and missiles. The base facilities have been expanded to house thousands of Russian military personnel - there are daily personnel rotation and resupply flights to and from Moscow.

The base is now almost completely Russian controlled. Although the Russians are in Syria ostensibly to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the overwhelming percentage of their sorties target anti-regime opposition groups. They are there to support and prop up the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad.

In return, the Russians have negotiated a 49-year lease for the use of Humaymim Air Base and a naval facility about 30 miles south at the Syrian port of Tartus. This is Russia's sole military operating facility abroad since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. They are also attempting to gain base rights in Egypt and Libya.

If true, it goes without saying that the move of Syrian Air Force assets to the Russian-controlled air base was at the very least coordinated with, and possibly directed by, the Russians. The presence of 60 to 80 additional fighters on the base will strain the base's resources, but it effectively brings them under Russian protection.

Although the United States could target the Syrian fighters on the base, attacking what is essentially a Russian air base would be politically difficult and provoke a confrontation that neither the United States nor Russia wants.

Again, as with some of your other moves in Syria, well played, Mr. Putin, well-played.

April 17, 2017

Idlib Governorate - the next Syrian offensive

Russian Air Force Sukhoi SU-25 attack aircraft

As the Syrian Army consolidates its gains following its success in retaking the city of Aleppo, it is slowly turning its attention to Idlib Governorate, the next major stronghold of the various opposition groups. Idlib has become the new center of the Syrian revolution.

The Syrian Army is stretched thin - it is about half the size it was prior to the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in March 2011. It has been wracked with defections, desertions, and battlefield losses. Without the support of its foreign allies, it is doubtful that it could be considered a viable combat force.

The Syrians' principal supporters are Russia (air, air defense, missiles, field and rocket artillery, special forces), Iran (special forces, troops, logistics, air bridge resupply), Hizballah (troops), Iraq (Shi'a militias) and Afghanistan (Shi'a militias). Over half the combat power of the forces supporting the regime of President Bashar al-Asad are foreign.

Immediately after their success in Aleppo, most military analysts believed that the Syrians would turn their attention to Idlib Governorate - it made sense. One of the main reasons is to secure a reliable and direct main supply route between regime-controlled territory around Hamah and the newly "liberated" areas around Aleppo.

Red=regime / yellow=rebels / purple=SDF / gray=ISIS / striped=mixed control
Click on image for larger view

The main highway through Syria, from the Jordanian border in the south to the Turkish border in the north is officially called the M5 or the International Highway - most people just call it the Aleppo highway. On the map, it is clear that the opposition controls a small section of the highway between Homs and Hamah, and almost all of the highway from just north of Hamah to the outskirts of Aleppo.

Because of the opposition control of major sections of the highway, the Syrian forces must use a secondary road from Homs to the northeast through al-Salamiyah, then north to Syrian forces in Aleppo - note the thin red line on the map.

It is not a great road (I say this from personal experience) and has been cut occasionally by the opposition. Becuase of the importance of this line of communication, the Syrians make every effort to regain control quickly. Militarily, it is not an ideal situation.

Immediately after the retaking of Aleppo, Syrian forces began to move east from Aleppo towards the city of al-Bab, most likely in preparation for an eventual assault on the self-proclaimed capital of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The Russian Air Force, operating from Humaymim air base just south of Latakia, however, diverted the bulk of its attack sorties to rebel-held cities in Idlib Governorate.

North of Aleppo, the opposition consists of Free Syrian Army (FSA) units backed by the Turkish army and air force. In a rare instance of cooperation between the regime and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the joint Syrian Kurdish and Arab force backed by the United States, the opposition forces have been contained in an enclave along the Turkish border, effectively marginalizing the Turks. See my earlier piece, SYRIA: Has Turkey been marginalized and the Americans thrust into the fight?

The Syrians also mounted an assault on the ISIS-held city of Palmyra, ostensibly an attempt to open the road to Dayr al-Zawr on the Euphrates river. The city, with a Syrian air base and large army garrison, is surrounded by ISIS. Control of Palmyra has gone back and forth between the regime and ISIS - currently, it is in the hands of the regime.

The regime appears to be maintaining its positions in the Palmyra/east Homs Governorate area, but is only slowly advancing, if at all, towards Dayr al-Zawr. The Syrian military in the besieged city is being kept alive by supplies airdropped by Syrian, Russian and Iranian military cargo planes. The civilian population in the surrounded enclave are resupplied by United Nations airdrops.

It appears now the Syrian military is finally focusing its main effort in Idlib Governorate. This makes sense - the Syrian regime can seek to reduce the opposition-held areas on the Homs-Aleppo axis while maintaining its positions to the east. Although ISIS controls a large area of Syria - about one-third of the country - the organization is steadily losing ground to the SDF. The SDF has isolated the city of al-Tabaqah, home to Syria's largest dam and an airbase - part of the larger strategy to encircle and then attack al-Raqqah.

In the fight in Idlib Governorate, we have seen a significant increase in both the quantity and lethality of air strikes, especially by the Russian Air Force. Fully 75 percent of all sorties flown in Syria on behalf of the regime are being flown by the Russians. Syrian Air Force sorties have decreased following the American missile strike on al-Sha'yrat air base, in which over 20 aircraft (SU-22 and MiG-23 fighter-bombers) were destroyed. Those losses represent about 20 percent of the Syrian Air Force's operational fighter inventory.

Since the April 4 Syrian chemical attack on Khan Shaykhun and the retaliatory American missile strike on April 7, the Russians have increased the use of both incendiary cluster munitions and thermobaric weapons. Both of these weapons are extremely destructive and lethal, causing large numbers of civilian casualties and major damage to the infrastructure.

Russian Air Force dropping thermobaric bombs in Syria

It also appears that the Russians and Syrians both are continuing their systematic attacks on hospitals and other medical facilities, now in Idlib Governorate just as they did in the battle for Aleppo last year. The Russians have been deliberately attacking medical facilities since at least early 2016, and likely since their forces arrived in Syria in September 2015. See my earlier piece on these war crimes, Russian Air Force targeting hospitals - war crimes, Mr. Kerry?

Idlib Governorate is becoming the primary location for the various groups that comprise the Syrian opposition. This includes, among others, the FSA and other non-Islamist groups. There is also a major presence of several Islamist groups, notably the former al-Qa'idah affiliate known as the Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). HTS was formed by a merger of several Islamist groups and has emerged as the key opposition group after the FSA. Two other Islamist groups, Jaysh al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham, are also involved in the fighting in Idlib.

Accurate numbers are hard to determine, but the two sides are probably close when it comes to personnel. However, the Syrian Army is supported by large amounts of Russian airpower, as well as Iranian and Hizballah forces on the ground. Since the fall of Aleppo, the regime has held the upper hand on the battlefield, slowly reducing pockets of opposition resistance. The army will continue to mount attacks on rebels in the Idlib pocket until they have them surrounded and cut off.

At that point, there may be an opportunity for a negotiated solution. We have seen a willingness on the part of both sides to reach agreements whereby the government forces assume control of an area in return for free passage of opposition fighters. The opposition fighters, with a few exceptions, are transported to locations in Idlib Governorate. That only works until there is no place left to go.

I have said in the past that given the Russian commitment to the regime of Bashar al-Asad, it is highly unlikely that the opposition will be able to win a victory on the ground. The fighting in Idlib will likely follow the template of the fighting in Aleppo. The Syrian military, backed by its allies, will isolate and besiege pockets of opposition fighters, attack them with overwhelming air and ground delivered firepower until they are forced to surrender.

The battle for Idlib? It is only a matter of time. If Bashar al-Asad can restrain himself from further use of chemical weapons and maintains the support of the Russians and Iranians, he will eventually reassert control over the entire Idlib Governorate.

After that, the remaining pockets of resistance - the eastern suburbs of Damascus, some isolated pockets in southern Syria and a small presence in the north, will fall as well. As for Bashar al-Asad and the Russians - as we used to say in Pittsburgh - "he owes them big."

April 13, 2017

Communications Intercepts and the Syrian Chemical Attack

The above conversation on Twitter highlights a continuing problem in and for the intelligence community. It refers to a CNN report, US intelligence intercepted communications between Syrian military and chemical experts by CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

In her report, Barbara writes, "The US military and intelligence community has intercepted communications featuring Syrian military and chemical experts talking about preparations for the sarin attack in Idlib last week, a senior US official tells CNN."

By way disclosure, I am a paid military analyst for CNN. I have worked often with both Jim Sciutto and Barbara Starr. Both are excellent journalists, and I take no issue with their reporting of this information.

I do, however, take serious issue with the "senior US official" who leaked the information to CNN. This practice, all too common, is damaging to our intelligence collection operations. Any senior official should be aware of the potential damage from these information releases.

Here's how this hurts our collection efforts. I speak from experience - a large part of my U.S. Air Force career was spent in Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) operations. Intelligence derived from the intercept and exploitation of communications - Communications Intelligence (COMINT) - is a sub-discipline of SIGINT.

The type of intelligence is valuable because the targets are not aware that their communications are being exploited by the U.S. intelligence agencies. For that reason, COMINT is normally handled in separate communications channels.

The seemingly innocuous statement by a senior official mentioning intercepted communications is bad enough - it is not necessary to reveal the sources and methods of our intelligence efforts - but to identify the specific communications as "Syrian military and chemical experts" is not helpful. Because of this revelation, we may lose a valuable source of information.

Here's what will likely happen. The Syrians will have read the CNN report and discovered that their communications are being exploited by the United States intelligence agencies. That, of course, will come as no surprise - the United States operates one of the largest communications intercept systems in the world.

However, the specific revelation that the intercepted communications were between Syrian military and chemical experts will give the Syrian counterintelligence services a place to start looking for the vulnerability in their communications systems.

This task will likely fall to the capable Syrian Air Force Intelligence (SAFI) service. Despite their fearsome reputation for human rights abuses in the name of internal security, they are a capable counterintelligence service.

SAFI will conduct a survey of all of the communications systems that may have been the source of the U.S. intelligence reporting. It may take some time to determine, but they will likely figure it out.

Once they do, that system will be altered - it may be shut down, it may be encrypted, if it was already encrypted, the encryption system will be changed. In any case, the communications will no longer be available to U.S. intelligence.

It seems like a minor revelation, but it could have major repercussions for future intelligence operations. It was totally unnecessary and totally preventable.

April 12, 2017

Secretary of State Tillerson visit to Moscow - my initial readout

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has completed his first visit to Moscow, in which he met with his Russian Federation counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin. After the meetings, Tillerson and Lavrov held a press conference. I was "in the chair" in my role as a CNN military analyst.

Here is my initial readout of the meetings, based on the two officials' statements and responses to media questions. I will limit my comments to Syria and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). I found four points of significance.

April 4 nerve agent attack
The American and Russian positions on the April 4 chemical warfare attack on the civilian population of the city of Khan Shaykhun, located in Idlib governorate about 20 miles north of the city of Hamah, could not be further apart.

According to Secretary Tillerson, echoing comments from U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis a day earlier, there is no doubt on the part of the United States that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad "planned, authorized and executed" the attack. The use of the nerve agent sarin constituted a violation of both international law and the Chemical Weapons Convention to which Syria is a signatory.

Russia does not dispute the use of the nerve agent. It would be difficult to say otherwise since several organizations have conducted tests of the victims and have confirmed the presence of sarin.

The Russians further do not dispute the claim that the Syrian Air Force conducted an airstrike in the area of the incident, again, difficult to refute since the U.S. Air Force provided radar tracking data that shows Syrian fighter aircraft taking off from al-Sha'ayrat air base, flying to Khan Shaykhun, dropping weapons and returning to base.

The Russians disagree that the Syrian pilots dropped bombs filled with sarin. They claim that conventional high-explosive bombs struck what they believed was a weapons depot belonging to an al-Qa'idah affiliated group. Instead of the expected secondary detonations from explosives in the building, smoke and gas leaked out and was carried by the wind over the city. The Russians state that the gas dispersed by the bombing of the building was the sarin nerve agent that caused the casualties.

Both Messrs. Tillerson and Lavrov are adamant about their version of the incident. Lavrov has called for an independent investigation to be performed by the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The OPCW is an independent, autonomous international organization with a working relationship with the United Nations (UN).

OPCW is the same group that provided the expertise for the UN investigation into the August 21, 2013, chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs. In my opinion, the fact that the report did not assign responsibility for that attack to the Syria regime was a political decision that ignored reality.

I am not sure that OPCW is the agency to be trusted with this investigation. (See my analysis of the 2013 attack and the UN report: Syrian Chemical Weapons Strikes - Random Attacks or Viable Military Targets?, and Syria: United Nations report does not blame the regime for chemical weapons use - really?

It gets better. At about the same time Minister Lavrov was calling for an OPCW investigation in Moscow, the Russian ambassador to the UN vetoed a Security Council resolution condemning the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and requiring Syria to cooperate with an investigation. It is Russia's eighth veto of resolutions on Syria.

American-Russian deconfliction channel
This is a positive result of the Secretary's visit. At the press conference, Minister Lavrov announced that he and Secretary Tillerson had met with President Vladimir Putin and that the President had authorized the resumption of the military-to-military contacts between Russian and American air forces to deconflict air operations over Syria. The Russians withdrew from the arrangement in the wake of the April 7 American missile attack on al-Sha'ayrat air base.

There has been some speculation that the channel never went dormant - shutting down the very system the Americans used to warn the Russians of the impending attack on the air base would be not only ironic but unwise. The channel is a safety-of-flight mechanism designed to maintain safe intervals between combat aircraft of the US-led coalition and the Russian Air Force operating over Syria at the same time.

Regime change and the future of Bashar al-Asad
I believe the Russians have made a subtle concession in their continuing insistence that the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad remain in power. Paraphrasing Mr. Lavrov, the Russians are not wedded to any one personality, only insisting that Syria retain its territorial integrity, be a secular state and represent all constituencies. In the Russian context, that means no separate Kurdish area, no Islamic state, and a future for the 'Alawi minority to which the al-Asad family belongs.

Speaking for the United States, Mr. Tillerson stated that he could not see a role for Bashar al-Asad or the al-Asad family in the future of Syria. He did not call for the overthrow of the regime, hoping that conditions could be created for a diplomatic-political solution, probably following the defeat of ISIS.

I believe that the Secretary hinted - I wish he would articulate this clearly - that the current U.S. policy in Syria is the military defeat of ISIS, followed by a negotiated political settlement that removes Bashar al-Asad (and his family) from the political leadership of Syria. I would push for the dissolution of the Ba'ath Party, but that might be too much for Russian concurrence.

My takeaway: the Russians are not wedded to Bashar al-Asad as the leader of Syria, but they are insistent on a regime they can influence (or control). They are concerned that whoever is in charge will honor the recent military base agreement by which the Russians have access to the Tartus naval facility and the Humaymim air base for the long term. The initial agreement is for a 49-year lease.

Cooperation against "terrorism"
Here Minister Lavrov adhered to the party line, but nonetheless, his remarks are important. The Russians continue the farce that they are in Syria at the request of "legitimate Syrian government" to assist in the fight against terrorism.

We all know that the Russians are there to prop up the al-Asad regime. Fighting terrorism depends on the definition of a terrorist group. If the Russians use the Syrian regime definition, anyone who has taken up arms against the regime is a terrorist.

The Russians have been absent in the fight against the major terrorist group in the region - ISIS. To be sure, the Russians have struck ISIS targets on occasion, but only in support of Syrian Army operations. The overwhelming majority of Russian air operations are focused on anti-regime rebels.

Minister Lavrov's assertion that the United States has ignored attacking al-Qa'ida affiliated groups - he used the term Jabhat al-Nusrah - is just wrong. The coalition has struck a variety of non-ISIS terrorist groups in Syria.

Overall, it appears to have been a productive visit. The Syrian chemical warfare incident remains a divisive issue between the two countries. I suspect it will pass in time just like the August 2013 chemical attacks in the Damascus suburbs has.

April 5, 2017

Reaction to Syrian chemical attack on Khan Shaykhun - the American calculus

If you have not listened to the above video clip please do - it is only about 25 seconds, but it speaks volumes. Rarely do we find such clarity in diplomatic rhetoric. Ambassador Haley undoubtedly cleared this with the White House.

Ambassador Haley: "When the United Nations consistently fails to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action." (my emphasis)

I have to admit that I am surprised at the almost universal outrage at the latest Syrian regime chemical weapons attack on its own people. These attacks have been taking place for years, yet it usually gets very little media attention.

You will remember the initial furor over Syrian chemical weapons usage, the nerve agent attack on the opposition-occupied eastern suburbs of Damascus in the pre-dawn hours of August 21, 2013. That attack involved sarin gas delivered by artillery rockets, which killed well in excess of 1,000 people, almost all of them innocent civilians.

The attack easily crossed a "red line" declared by U.S. President Barack Obama in 2012. Revisionist historians - and President Obama himself - have tried to equivocate on whether or not a red line had been drawn.

Here are the President's words on August 20, 2012: "We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”

His own press secretary further elaborated, "As the President said yesterday in terms of Syria, we’re watching very closely the stockpile of Syrian chemical weapons; that any use or proliferation of efforts related to those chemical weapons is something that would be very serious and it would be a grave mistake. There are important international obligations that the Syrian regime must live up to in terms of the handling of their chemical weapons. And the officials who have that responsibility will be held accountable for their actions and will be held accountable for living up to those international obligations."

Ah, that's a red line.

After the attack, the President opted not to take military action, not to hold anyone accountable. That opened the way for the Russians to enter the crisis with what many believe was a better solution - an agreement by which the Syrians would declare their chemical weapons stockpile and allow them to be removed from the country for destruction.

Had it actually gone according to the agreement, the resulting removal and destruction would have been a good thing. Unfortunately, it appears that the Syrians retained some of their chemical weapons.

The downside of President Obama's decision to not enforce his own red line was the damage to the credibility of the United States and its foreign policy in the region. In the West, it appeared that the United States had taken the high road and engineered a diplomatic solution to the crisis. In the Middle East, however, his failure to follow through on what was, in essence, an ultimatum was regarded as weakness.

Additionally, the seeming naïveté that the Syrians would actually rid themselves of what their senior military and government officials regard as a strategic deterrent against Israel - Syria's ballistic missile arsenal armed with chemical weapons, including the deadly agent VX - actually emboldened the Syrians and their allies in the fight against the opposition.

The scope of the casualties in the April 4 attack in Khan Shaykhun brought all this back to the forefront. Listening to the President and especially Ambassador Haley today, I believe that there is serious consideration in the Trump Administration of launching a military strike on Syrian regime targets.

I am sure the planners at the Pentagon are preparing a wide range of options for the President. I will leave that to them. There are, however, some important considerations that need to be a part of the calculus.

The wild card, probably the most important of the considerations, is the Russians. The Russians are in Syria to ensure the survival of the Syrian regime, despite their claims that they are they to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In return for their support, Russia has secured long-term (49-year initial leases with renewal options) access to Syrian naval facilities and an air base.

Part of Russia's role in ensuring the survival of the regime is to protect it from United Nations action. The Trump Administration realizes full well that it is very unlikely that the international body will be able to take meaningful action against Syria. Russia was decidedly obstructionist as the issue was debated in the Security Council. That is what prompted Ambassador Haley's direct remarks.

I am of the opinion that the United States and Russia have begun to cooperate in the fight against ISIS. The best example of this is the marginalization of the Turks through an agreement between the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Russian-backed Syrian regime.

The SDF, composed of Syrian Kurds and Arabs, allowed the regime to move into territory it had taken from ISIS, effectively isolating the Turkish-backed and supported Free Syrian Army (FSA). That agreement would require the blessing of both the Russians and Americans. Is punishing the Syrian regime for its chemical attack on Khan Shaykhun worth jeopardizing future cooperation with Russia? See my earlier piece, Russian and American cooperation in Syria - a policy change?

Any American military action against Syrian facilities runs the risk of ending what nascent cooperation with Russia exists now, or may in the future. Under President Trump, American policy had changed to focus on the defeat of ISIS - the removal of Bashar al-Asad was in effect taken off the table. That may change in the aftermath of this horrific chemical weapons attack.

Let us also not forget that the Russians have a sizable military presence in Syria - naval units, capable air-to-air fighter aircraft and a state-of-the-art air defense system. If they detect an attack on their Syrian allies, will they confront the attackers militarily? Are we willing to start an armed confrontation with the Russians over this incident?

This chemical attack has galvanized world public opinion over the Syrian use of chemicals on innocent civilians. It almost demands a military response. The United States is arguably the best, maybe only, force willing and able to deliver that response. In the words of Ambassador Haley, we may be "compelled to take our own action."

I am not against such a military response to this Syrian provocation, but we have to ask - is it worth the price?

April 3, 2017

Egyptian President al-Sisi visit to Washington - my initial readout

President al-Sisi with President Trump at the White House

In his first official visit to the United States, Egyptian President 'Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi* met with U.S. President Donald Trump to improve American-Egyptian relations that declined precipitously under the Administration of Barack Obama. The Egyptians, major recipients of U.S. foreign aid - including military assistance - are participants in the alliance in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The relations between President al-Sisi and the Obama Administration - and President Obama personally - were strained since 2013 when then-General al-Sisi led a military coup against the democratically-elected government of President Muhammad al-Mursi. Mursi, a member of the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, was elected in 2012, about 18 months after the government of President Husni Mubarak was bought down in the Egyptian Revolution of 2011.

Mursi began to transform Egypt into a much more Islamist state, triggering massive popular demonstrations in 2013, in what was almost a repeat of the 2011 demonstrations in Cairo's Tahrir Square. At one point, 22 million people - well over a quarter of the entire population - actively protested the Mursi government. The potential for violence was growing as Mursi became more dictatorial and less democratic, governing by decree.

Sensing the danger to the fragile new Egyptian democracy, General al-Sisi - then chief of the armed forces - gave President Mursi an ultimatum: respond to the people's demands for change or face removal. Mursi refused - on July 3, 2013, General al-Sisi removed President Mursi from power, suspended the constitution, and called for new presidential and parliamentary elections.

The author with then-General al-Sisi in Cairo - 2013

I met with General al-Sisi in Cairo in 2013, shortly after he removed Mursi from office. He and I sparred verbally over the definition of that removal - I called it a coup d'etat; he would not.

I asked the general if he had mobilized units of the Egyptian Army and deployed them at key positions around Cairo and other major cities around the country. He allowed that he had, but claimed that it was not a coup as he himself did not assume power. Instead, al-Sisi asked the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to act as the interim executive authority pending new elections. I said it was a distinction without a difference.

The general insisted that he was merely implementing the "will of the Egyptian people." I tried to explain that the two are not exclusive, but he was adamant. I know the reason why he bristled at the use of the term coup.

American law is very specific in how the we react as a nation to military takeovers. I understood his concern that the United States government would likely label this a coup and be forced to react. His fears were well placed.

The United States, citing the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, immediately cut off all aid to Egypt, including the annual $1.5 billion in military assistance. Although President Obama had the authority to waive the requirements of the law, he chose not to do so and applied sanctions on the interim Egyptian government.

The results were immediate. The Egyptian armed forces, charged with keeping the peace in the face of the expected Muslim Brotherhood violence - aimed mainly at the mostly defenseless Coptic Christians - found themselves without access to needed military hardware and spare parts.

The Egyptians had to ground many of its AH-64 Apache helicopters and F-16 fighter-bombers when they were sorely needed to fight a growing Muslim Brotherhood insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula. The general told me if President Obama would not lift the embargo, he would go to the Russians.

Since the mid-1970s, the United States has spent a lot of money and enormous effort to wean the Egyptian military away from the Russians. We were on the verge of completely purging the armed forces of their Soviet/Russian/Eastern weapons and mentality, and converting them to a modern, more Western-style military.

Egyptian Army tweet: Egyptian Air Force Mig-35 test flight in Russia

Not one week after my meeting with al-Sisi, the Russian Foreign Minister and Defense Minister arrived in Cairo with an initial offer of $2 billion of military equipment to offset the loss of American aid.

The arms package included the advanced fourth-generation-plus multi-role MiG-35 (NATO: FULCRUM F) fighter aircraft, the state-of-the-art S-300 (NATO: SA-23) air defense system, and what Cairo regards as critical, the Mi-35 (NATO: HIND E) attack helicopter, in addition to a host of other equipment. That package has grown to well over $3 billion.

The Russians are not only making moves in Egypt to regain its position as a major arms supplier in the region. In October 2012, Moscow signed a $4.3 billion arms deal with Iraq. While that sounds huge, Iraq has ordered about $10 billion worth of military equipment from the United States in the last few years.

Russian President Vladimir Putin sensed that the reticence of the Obama administration to maintain its leadership role in the region and to be Egypt's primary supporter - and military supplier - provided an opening for Russia to regain what it perceives as its rightful place in the Middle East.

In addition to recent deals for long-term (initially 49 years) access to a naval facility and air base in Syria, and a port in Libya, the Russians have regained a foothold in Egypt as well. They recently deployed a small special forces unit to an airbase in western Egypt from which they can monitor events in Libya.

It is against this backdrop that President al-Sisi met with President Trump in Washington. Not only must Mr. Trump repair relations with a valuable Arab ally, he must also try to outmaneuver his aggressive Russian counterpart. President al-Sisi will do what Egyptian presidents have done for decades - pit Moscow against Washington. It will be an interesting contest.

Well played, Messrs al-Sisi and Putin.

* Value added trivia: Although the president's name is spelled al-Sisi, it is pronounced as-Sisi. Arabic has two types of letters: 14 solar and 14 lunar. When a word or name beginning with a solar letter is preceded by the definite article (al-), the l is not pronounced, and the following solar letter is doubled.