December 27, 2017

Want to be a martyr? Reserve here!

Post on Hay'at al-Tahrir al-Sham website

The al-Qa'idah affiliated hay'at tahrir al-sham (هيئة تحرير الشام‎) - translated as "Organization for the Liberation of the Levant" and known by the initials HTS - is very active in Syria, particularly in Idlib governorate.

As the threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) diminishes - the group has lost control of virtually of the territory it controlled from 2014 to 2017 - there is more attention being given to other jihadist groups operating in Syria.

HTS was formed in January 2017 via a merger of several Salafist groups, including what used to be called jabhat al-nusrah (the Victory Front), the original al-Qa'idah organization dispatched to Syria by al-Qa'idah in Iraq (AQI) in 2012 when it saw an opportunity to take advantage of the rapidly deteriorating situation in Syria. The group later joined with AQI to create the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The union was short lived, and al-Nusrah became independent from ISIS and remained affiliated with al-Qa'idah.

The success of the multi-faceted fight against ISIS has made it more difficult to attract recruits to join the various jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria, to the point that the groups are now increasing advertising on the internet. The image above is one such posting.

A translation of the above mage:

Reserve your role in martyrdom (suicide) operations
- improvised explosive devices (has come to mean vehicle-borne IED)
- red gangs/bands
- behind enemy lines

[Telegram] at @aldogma

While most Westerners may find this type of posting almost laughable, it is deadly serious, and unfortunately effective. The fact that it was posted in Arabic indicates that the target audience is Arab youths.

December 16, 2017

Iranian weapons in Yemen - is anyone surprised?

Wreckage of an Iranian-made Qiam missile recovered in Saudi Arabia

At Defense Intelligence Agency headquarters in Washington, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley displayed the remnants of an Iranian-manufactured short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) that was fired by al-Houthi rebels in Yemen at the international airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on November 4. The missile was successfully intercepted by a Patriot missile fired by Saudi air defense forces.

Along with the wreckage of the Qiam SRBM, Haley showed reporters additional Iranian-made weaponry captured from the al-Houthi group, including a guided antitank missile and an armed drone. This is a clear violation of United Nations Security Council resolution 2231* which bars Iran from the “supply, sale, or transfer of arms or related materiel from Iran.”

The fact that Iran is supplying the Houthis in Yemen with the three things required for a successful insurgency - money, weapons and training - should come as no surprise to anyone who reads even the slightest news accounts from the Middle East. Iran has been using its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force for decades to provide the wherewithal to conduct insurgencies and terrorism virtually around the world.

The IRGC's operations have extended from Argentina, Cuba and Venezuela in this hemisphere to the former Yugoslavia, North Africa, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia - well, virtually everywhere in the Middle East. This includes support to non-state actors as well, with Hizballah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza being prime examples.

Yemen is no exception to Iran's foreign policy and IRGC operations. Iran takes special interest in failed states and states in which there is a significant Shi'a population - both of these factors are present in Yemen. The Shi'a comprise about 45 percent of the population of Yemen, and make up the vast majority of members of the al-Houthi (formally known as
ansar allah, "supporters of God") rebel group.

We see the same interest being paid to other states with significant or majority Shi'a populations. Of course, we have seen the massive support - men and materiel - being provided to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad, as well as the government of Iraq. I already mentioned the support provided by IRGC-created Lebanese Resistance, more commonly known as Hizballah. Those three countries, along with Iran itself, comprise the "Shi'a Crescent" extending from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus to Beirut.

This land bridge will develop further - the IRGC just sent an initial overland convoy from Iran through Iraq, crossing the border into Syria at the newly-retaken Tal Ba'adi border crossing. According to Iraqi military officials - currently and nominally our allies - the convoy consisted of IRGC troops Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi'a militia fighters. Interesting side note: the Iraqi border crossings along the central Syrian border are controlled by these Popular Mobilization Unit militias, not regular Iraqi forces.

Other areas of Iranian meddling include Bahrain and the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. Bahrain, venue of the headquarters of the U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet, is a majority Shi'a country ruled by a Sunni royal family. The Iranians have fomented demonstrations, including violent confrontations, against the government, demanding a greater role for the Shi'a population. A pipeline explosion last month was labeled an Iranian terrorist act by the Bahraini security services. Eventually, Iran would like to see the current government replaced with a pro-Iran (read: Shi'a) regime, and the expulsion of the Fifth Fleet from the Persian Gulf.

In Saudi Arabia, Iran's chief rival for regional influence, Iran often foments trouble among the the minority Shi'a population. The Shi'a in the kingdom are thought to be only about 10 to 15 percent of the overall population, and are concentrated in the Eastern Province. This province is the largest in Saudi Arabia and home to much of the kingdom's oil facilities. When relations between the two countries deteriorate, Iranian-inspired/directed trouble in the province is expected.

The Iranians regard themselves as the leaders, sponsors and protectors of all things Shi'a. They have successfully made themselves a force to be reckoned with in the Persian Gulf and the larger Middle East. It should come as no surprise to see Iranian IRGC members, including the Qods Force, and Iranian weapons in areas where a Shi'a presence can be exploited.

Yemen - a failed state with a large Shi'a minority - is a prime target for Iran.

* UNSCR 2231 Annex B, paragraph 6b: [All States are to:] Take the necessary measures to prevent, except as decided otherwise by the UN Security Council in advance on a case-by-case basis, the supply, sale, or transfer of arms or related materiel from Iran by their nationals or using their flag vessels or aircraft, and whether or not originating in the territory of Iran, until the date five years after the JCPOA Adoption Day or until the date on which the IAEA submits a report confirming the Broader Conclusion, whichever is earlier.

December 11, 2017

Russia to withdraw troops from Syria? Hardly....

Humaymim air base, Syria - Defense Minister Fahd al-Frayj and President
Bashar al-Asad with Russian counterparts Vladimir Putin and Sergei Shoigu

During a scheduled trip to Egypt to further develop Russia's deepening ties with Cairo, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a short stop at Syria's Humaymim air base to address Russian forces operating from the base. Putin announced the beginning of the withdrawal of "a significant portion" of Russian forces from Syria, claiming that Russia's claimed "counterterrorism" operation has been successfully concluded.

For the complete English text of Putin's remarks and a series of photographs, see the Russian government press release.

Putin also stated that Russia will maintain a permanent presence at Syria's Humaymim air base and the Tartus naval facility. The Russians were able to reach an agreement with the Syrian government of Bashar al-Asad for a renewable 49-year lease on the two facilities. This constitutes Russia's first permanent overseas deployments to the region since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

This is a Russian map of the military situation in Syria in early December. I have placed two red dots to indicate the location of Humaymim air base (south of the port city of Latakia) and the Tartus naval facility further to the south. With Putin's recent agreement with Egyptian President 'Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi on Russian Air Force access to Egpytian air bases, the Russians intend to reassert themselves as a power in the Middle East.

Back to the Russian fiction about the reasons for the their involvement in Syria since September 2015. Although the stated reason for the deployment of Russian air power, naval units, ground troops and special forces was to join the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the underlying reason was to prevent the defeat of the government of Bashar al-Asad.

I believe that Putin does not care who is the leader of Syria, as long as that leader is willing to provide bases for the Russian military and will do Moscow's bidding in the region. For now, that happens to be Bashar al-Asad, so Putin will ensure that al-Asad remains in power.

As ISIS nears the loss of all of its territorial holdings in Syria (as well as in neighboring Iraq), Putin has emerged as one of - if not THE - key power brokers in the country. Not only is he Bashar al-Asad's guarantor, he has hosted several international conferences on the future of Syria.

The participants in these talks have been the Syrian government and representatives of Russia, Iran and Turkey - the United States has almost no role in the discussions that will shape the future of Syria. This is not coincidental, this is Vladimir Putin continuing to outplay the Trump Administration much as he outplayed Barack Obama.

As the last pockets of ISIS resistance in Syria are eliminated, the Syrian government (backed by its now majority Iranian, Hizballah and Iraqi militias force) will begin to reassert its authority over all of the country. This includes the 25 percent of the country under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a largely Kurdish force supported, funded and equipped by the United States. Unlike in neighboring Iraq, the Kurds in Syria have no official standing. Bashar al-Asad has refused to grant any form of autonomy to the Kurds, despite their significant contribution to the defeat of ISIS.

The near-term future in Syria is not hard to predict. The Russians, Iranians and Turks are pulling the strings on which Bashar al-Asad will dance. The Russians will ensure that in the political settlement that will eventually evolve, Bashar will remain in power. The Iranians will emerge as the political power behind the throne, completing the "Shi'a Crescent" extending from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus to Beirut. The Turks will ensure that the Kurds in northern Syria are granted no official recognition or autonomy and will likely maintain forces in Aleppo and Idlib governorates to enforce that goal.

What role will the United States play? I seriously doubt there will be much of one, despite senior U.S. military officials' claims of a continued American presence in Syria. The Syrians (urged and supported by the Russians, Iranians and Turks) will demand the United States withdraw its forces from Syrian territory.

Since there is no longer an ISIS threat, on what grounds can the United States maintain a force presence? Is Washington willing to instigate a confrontation with Turkey and Russia over Syria's Kurds? In any case, how would the United States support military operations there? It is not far-fetched to think that Iraq - with Iranian urging - will ask the United States to leave Iraq as well. See my earlier analysis: American presence in post-ISIS Syria - not likely.

Well played, Mr. Putin, well played.