June 27, 2017

Syria - Would Bashar al-Asad use chemical weapons again?

Sha'yrat air base, Syria - damage from April 6 U.S. missile strike

Last night, the White House released a statement indicating that the Syrians may be making preparations for another chemical weapons attack, specifically an air attack from Sha’yrat air base, the same base from which the April 4 chemical weapons attack in Khan Shaykhun (Idlib province) was launched.

Since the United States has demonstrated its willingness to strike Syrian military targets in retaliation for chemical weapons usage, why would Syrian President Bashar al-Asad risk another American military attack?

Looking at Syria’s military situation, it does not make sense to use chemical weapons.

First, in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Syrian Army is doing well, consistently taking territory from ISIS south of al-Raqqah and south of Palmyra. These two axes are part of a thrust into ISIS-held territory to reach the besieged city of Dayr al-Zawr on the Euphrates River.

The city and adjacent air base have been surrounded and under siege by ISIS for over two years. This effort is complemented by an operation mounted mostly by Iranian-supported militias moving northeast along the Iraqi border towards the Euphrates and Dayr al-Zawr.

Of course, the term “Syrian Army” includes heavy Russian air support and advice, Iranian military and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps units, Lebanese Hizballah, and Iraqi Shi'a militias. Without this foreign support, the Syrian military would like not constitute a viable military force.

That leaves the fighting against the various opposition groups – the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the al-Qa’idah-affiliated Islamist organizations. These include Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Ahrar al-Sham, both designated as terrorist groups. Mainly present in Idlib, the Syrians are not having great success against these groups, despite constant air, missile and rocket strikes on the groups.

In the southern province of al-Qunaytirah, the Syrian military is also having a difficult time in fighting another FSA group as well as an ISIS-affiliated group.

Assuming Bashar al-Asad orders a chemical weapons strike, what would be the target?

The Syrians are not going to use chemical weapons in al-Qunaytirah along the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights – the risk of Israeli reaction is too great.

There is no need to use chemical weapons against ISIS since those operations are going well.

Then there is Idlib province, home to the Islamists, FSA and many opposition refugees who have been relocated to the province vie ceasefire arrangements in cities the Syrian regime has besieged in the past.

In my opinion, Syria’s chemical weapons are militarily insignificant. A few weapons dropped on cities in Idlib will not affect the situation on the ground. It will cause mass murder, cause panic among the local population, draw international condemnation – and almost certainly an American military response. Why do it? Frustration and spite? Possibly.

Bashar al-Asad has been emboldened by seemingly increasing political and military support from his two key backers – Russia and Iran – but it is hard to believe he would resort to using chemical weapons again.

I would hope that the Russians are giving him counsel on what a mistake this would be.

June 25, 2017

Saudi Arabia - King Salman names his son as crown prince

Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud

There was a subtle but major shakeup in the diwan (royal court) of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia last week that garnered little press coverage. Saudi King Salman bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud replaced the existing crown prince with his son Muhammad bin Salman.

Before your eyes glaze over, let me explain why this is a significant development by a key ally in an critical part of the world.

In addition to the event itself, the timing is important - it follows a rather significant shift in U.S. foreign policy by the Trump Administration.

President Donald Trump has starkly (and in my opinion wisely) reversed the Obama Administration's policy of virtual acquiescence to Iran for almost eight years, despite the fact that Iran has demonstrated repeatedly that it has no interest in better relations with the United States.

King 'Abd al-'Aziz and FDR

Former President Barack Obama courted Tehran for eight years at the expense of good relations with our Gulf Arab allies - Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have had a close relationship since 1945 when King 'Abd al-'Aziz met with President Franklin Roosevelt onboard the USS Quincy in the Great Bitter Lake segment of the Suez Canal.

Thanks to the previous administration's myopic focus on Iran and former Secretary of State John Kerry's abysmal negotiating skills, Iran was able to secure an extremely favorable deal on its nuclear program. The Iranian negotiations were ably led by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, an American-educated, skilled diplomat that repeatedly bested Secretary Kerry.

John Kerry / Mohammad Javad Zarif

Iranian negotiators were also able to convince Mr. Kerry to agree to an alteration of the text of an existing United Nations Security Council resolution prohibiting Iran from developing and testing ballistic missiles.

These missiles will be the primary delivery system when, not if, Iran acquires a nuclear weapon. See my article on the ballistic missile fiasco, Iran's ballistic missile program - more fallout from the "Kerry Collapse".*

This - Iran's ascendance in the Middle East region - is why the American-Saudi relationship is so important.

A short overview of the Saudi succession system might be useful.

In 1932, 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud founded the kingdom that still bears his family's name. The king, more often referred to as Ibn Sa'ud, ruled Saudi Arabia as an absolute monarchy until his death in 1953.

Following his death, the throne passed to his son Sa'ud without incident. The five successive kings after Sa'ud have been chosen by a council of the royal family from among the sons of Ibn Sa'ud - succession in Saudi Arabia was not from father to son, but from brother to brother. Ibn Saud had 45 sons, 36 of whom survived to adulthood. Of these, six have acceded to the throne.

As long as there were sons of Ibn Sa'ud to fill the position of king, succession was not an issue. Many of us "Saudi watchers" were concerned about succession after all of the sons of Ibn Sa'ud had died - what then? Was there a viable succession plan that transcended the generational divide from a son of Ibn Sa'ud to a grandson?

That question was partially answered in January 2015. When King 'Abdullah (2005-2015) died at age 90, his half-brother Salman bin 'Abd al-'Aziz acceded to the throne - again with no controversy. At that time - and as was expected - the new King Salman named his younger half-brother Muqrin as the new crown prince. At age 69, Muqrin was the youngest surviving son of of the kingdom's founder.

King Salman then surprised everyone by removing former King 'Abdullah's son Muta'ib from the recently created position of deputy crown prince and naming his full nephew Muhammad bin Nayif as the new deputy crown prince and Minister of the Interior (a powerful position somewhat akin to the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security). The position of deputy crown prince was created to gradually legitimize the generational transition to the next generation of the House of Sa'ud.

Here is where this gets complicated, conspiratorial, political, and in my opinion, masterful. Muhammad bin Nayif is the son of Salman's full brother Nayif - Nayif is one of the so-called "Sudayri Seven." The seven full brothers are the sons of who many believe to be Ibn Sa'ud's favorite wife, Husah bint Ahmad al-Sudayri.

The seven brothers for years were a close-knit group who wielded great power in the running of the kingdom. Two of the brothers have become kings (Fahd and Salman) and the others have held key ministerial and provincial governor's posts. Over the years, I have worked with four of the seven - all impressive men.

King Salman made other appointments in January 2015 as well, including naming his son Muhammad bin Salman as Minister of Defense and Aviation (MODA), one of the most powerful portfolios in the kingdom. With these moves, members of the al-Sudayri clan were once again the preeminent power brokers in the country.

It gets better. Just three months later, April 2015, King Salman removed his brother Muqrin from the position of crown prince, and elevated Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayif to that position. More importantly, the king named his son - MODA chief Muhammad bin Salman - as the new deputy crown prince.

Fast forward to June 2017. In another surprise move, and again in my opinion masterful, King Salman summarily removed Muhammad bin Nayif from his positions of crown prince and Minister of the Interior. King Salman at the same time elevated his son Muhammad bin Salman from deputy crown prince to crown prince.

I call these moves masterful because once the former crown prince - Muhammad bin Nayif - succeeded to the throne, he would be free to name anyone he wished to the position of crown prince, thus thwarting the obvious ambition of King Salman to have his son Muhammad bin Salman to sit on the Saudi throne.

Given the fact that Muhammad bin Nayif would likely have acceded to the throne in his 60's, he may have ruled for over 20 years - a lot can change in 20 years, especially who might succeed him. Muhammad bin Salman, now only 31 and the new crown prince, may rule for as long as 50 years.

Again, ever the masterful politician, King Salman named the son of the now deposed Crown Prince/Minister of Defense Muhammad bin Nayif as the new Minister of the Interior. This "consolation prize" in essence bought Muhammad bin Nayif's acquiescence and silence.

Assuming that what King Salman has put in place survives, he has single-handedly determined the succession of the Saudi throne from the first to the second generation of the sons of Ibn Sa'ud.

Further, he has further strengthened the position of the descendants - he and his son included - of who many believe was Ibn Sa'ud's favorite wife, Husah bint al-Sudayri. They now control the throne, the successor to the throne, the Ministry of the Interior, and the Ministry of Defense and Aviation. These are the key positions in the kingdom.

The king also appointed another of his sons, Prince Khalid (age 29), to be the kingdom's new ambassador to the United States, easily the most important position in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The sons of King Salman (bin Salman) will be the key determinants of Saudi Arabia's future.

Well played, Your Highness, well played.


For more detailed background, see two of my earlier articles:

- Saudi Arabia - the resurgence of the al-Sudayri clan

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

* I am sure this will spark another caustic retort from the former British Ambassador to the United States (and obvious Kerry supporter). Bring it, Sir Pete.

June 18, 2017

U.S. downing of Syrian Air Force aircraft - why are the Syrians attacking the SDF?

Syrian Air Force SU-22M3 at Dumayr Air Base

In the mid-afternoon hours of June 18, a U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet fighter jet shot down a Syrian Air Force Sukhoi SU-22 (NATO: FITTER) fighter-bomber after it conducted an airstrike on positions of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Front SDF) about 25 miles southwest of al-Raqqah. According to the Syrian Ministry of Defense, the pilot is missing.

This represents the first time the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has shot down a Syrian Air Force aircraft. The U.S. destroyed numerous Syrian aircraft on the ground with a Tomahawk cruise missile strike at Sha'yrat air base in April just days following a chemical attack on the city of Khan Shaykhun.

I believe that when the investigations are complete, we will find that today's shoot down was the result of a miscalculation or a series of errors. There is no reason for the Syrian armed forces, in this case the Syrian Air Force, to engage in military operations against the SDF, especially in the area south of al-Raqqah. In this instance, both sides - the Syrians and the SDF - are fighting a common enemy: ISIS.

There has been a tacit understanding between the SDF and government forces to cooperate in the fight against ISIS. Unlike the opposition Free Syrian Army, the SDF is not engaged in a fight to remove the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad.

The SDF represents a coalition of mostly Syrian Kurds Peoples' Protection Units (known by their Kurdish abbreviation YPG), Arabs and even Syriac Christians, all allied in the fight to remove ISIS from Syria.

For a more complete analysis of this cooperation, please see my article: An alliance between the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian government?

Red arrows: Syrian and SDF axes of attack on ISIS

The action today occurred in the village of Ja'din, located in the area where the forces of ISIS, SDF and the Syrian government converge. The SDF and government are moving east almost on parallel tracks. The SDF is moving to completely surround and isolate ISIS units south of al-Raqqah and the Euphrates River in support of the main SDF force that is currently assaulting the city proper.

Concurrently, and literally side by side with the SDF advance into ISIS-held territory, the Syrian Army and its allies are attacking east in an attempt to reach the besieged city of Dayr al-Zawr. The city and its adjacent air base have been under ISIS siege for over two years, relying on helicopter resupply for all necessities. Only massive amounts of Russian airpower has kept ISIS at bay. There is a second Syrian army effort attacking east towards Dayr al-Zawr from the city of Palmyra.

The Syrian government is happy to let the SDF undertake the difficult task of securing al-Raqqah from ISIS while they focus on reclaiming Dayr al-Zawr. What happened today directly threatens that tacit cooperative arrangement. It is not clear what sparked the regime attack on SDF units in Ja'din, but it resulted in not only ground combat, but the first aerial combat between American and Syrian pilots.

CNN's Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr reported that the Russians and the Americans have been in discussions to lessen tensions and re-establish the "de-escalation" protocol between the Syrians and the SDF that appeared to be working.

Hopefully, the two will be able to re-focus the fighting where it belongs - against ISIS. After ISIS is deprived of its territory in Syria, the parties can then work on the political solution for the country.

Distractions like that of today only serve to delay the removal of ISIS from Syria.

June 8, 2017

An alliance between the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian government?

Linkup of  Syrian regime and SDF forces west of al-Raqqah

After weeks of fighting, elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Syrian army coalition have successfully seized a large swath of territory from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the area east of Aleppo and west of al-Raqqah (see above map). The two military forces have met up with each other after the SDF attacked from the east and the regime attacked from the west on the southern bank of Lake al-Asad.

This comes at the same time that the SDF has begun the battle for the self-proclaimed ISIS capital city of al-Raqqah. The SDF is supported by air strikes and artillery fires by elements of the U.S.-led coalition.

I expect the battle for al-Raqqah to be difficult and slow, despite reports that many ISIS fighters have left the al-Raqqah and moved their operations nearer to the city of Dayr al-Zawr in what ISIS calls wilayat al-furat (Euphrates province).

The city and air base at Dayr al-Zawr are an ISIS-besieged Syrian government enclave under constant attack. It is only through a large number of Russian and Syrian air force airstrikes that the air base and city have not fallen to ISIS.

Al-Raqqah will fall to the SDF - the joint Kurdish-Arab alliance has proven itself to be an effective military force, seizing almost all of ISIS-held territory in northern Syria. The primary fighters in the SDF are the Kurds of the People's Protection Units (Kurdish: Yekîneyên Parastina Gel‎, or YPG).

The U.S. decision to arm the YPG has caused a rift with NATO ally Turkey, who regards the YPG as nothing more than an extension of the Kurdish separatist organization - and designated terrorist group - known as the PKK.

The U.S. decision was based on the situation on the ground. Turkey supported a Free Syrian Army (FSA) incursion into an ISIS-controlled area of the Kurdish region east of the Euphrates River. It was envisioned by the Turks that this force would eventually fight its way through the ISIS-controlled, regime-controlled, and yes, even the Kurdish-controlled areas all the way to al-Raqqah. Their mistake was refusing to cooperate with the YPG-dominated SDF, preferring to fight them rather than work with them.

After the Turkish-supported FSA wrested control of the ISIS stronghold of al-Bab, the rebels turned their sights on the Kurdish-controlled city of Manbij. Rather than divert assets from the main fight against ISIS to defend Manbij against the Turkish-supported FSA, the Kurds and regime entered into a cooperative agreement whereby the Syrian army with Russian observers, and the SDF with American observers, exercised joint control over the area.

This rather clever maneuver effectively halted the Turkish-FSA advance almost 100 miles from al-Raqqah and contained them in a pocket from which they have been unable to move forward. (See numeral 1 on the map below.)

On the other hand, the SDF has already fought its way to the gates of al-Raqqah and is beginning to enter the city. See my earlier article, SYRIA: Has Turkey been marginalized and the Americans thrust into the fight?

This tactical agreement in Manbij between the Russian-backed Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad and the U.S.-backed SDF may be a template for the future of Syria, or at least another step toward whatever political solution is found. For more on that, see Russian and American cooperation in Syria - a policy change?

As on other battlefields in Syria, now that the two attacking forces have met west of al-Raqqah, what happens next?

Military situation in Syria  - click on image for larger view

In this particular situation, I expect that the regime and SDF will again attempt to cooperate. They both need to fight ISIS, not each other. The SDF wants to remove ISIS from al-Raqqah and the remainder of northern Syria, and the Syrian government wants to continue the push beyond al-Raqqah towards the besieged enclave at Dayr al-Zawr.

Given its proximity to Dayr al-Zawr, the SDF is in good position to assist in a relief operation for Dayr al-Zawr as well. At a minimum, they can allow Syrian government passage through SDF-controlled territory on the way to Dayr al-Zawr.

I am going to make a prediction here - my track record on predictions about Syria is fairly good (but not perfect). As I said, al-Raqqah will fall to the SDF. It will be neither easy nor quick, but it will happen. The residents of al-Raqqah, who will suffer in the fighting, eventually will be liberated.

I disagree with the Turkish and FSA position that the citizens of al-Raqqah will not welcome the SDF liberation of their city. What little information that comes out of the city indicates to me that the residents are so oppressed under ISIS rule that they would welcome virtually anyone who can free them from the radical Islamists.

That said, there is valid concern about the Kurds exercising governance over a traditionally Arab city. There have been reports that the SDF is considering allowing the city to be governed by the Syrian government, meaning of course the Bashar al-Asad regime. I believe and hope this is what will happen. I do not think the SDF is interested in governing reclaimed territories outside of the traditionally Kurdish area.

If an agreement between the SDF and the Syrian government is reached, it may set up a template for the future of Syria. We all know that at some point there will be a political solution to the situation in Syria. We also know that it will be the military situation that shapes that political solution. The military situation in northeastern Syria may provide a glimpse of just how that might coalesce.

After al-Raqqah, both the SDF and government will focus their attention on the Euphrates Valley, the city of Dayr al-Zawr and eliminating ISIS from Syria. This is an operation that is in the interests of both the SDF and the Syrian regime. The two have proven that they can cooperate when it is in their best interests. I have already cited the Manbij situation.

There are also Syrian government enclaves in the city of al-Qamishli, located on the Turkish border, and the city of al-Hasakah, located about 40 miles south of al-Qamishli. (See numeral 2 on the map above.) Both cities are surrounded by the SDF, yet there are virtually no hostilities between the two groups.

There are good reasons for an alliance between the SDF/YPG and the Syrian government. The Kurds are not advocating the removal of Bashar al-Asad. They would like to form an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria similar to that enjoyed by Iraq's Kurds. On the other side of the equation, the Syrian government could use the military support of the SDF in ridding Syria of ISIS.

An agreement between the SDF/YPG and the government does not solve the entire Syrian crisis, does not solve the civil war, but it could be a start.