May 25, 2018

Memorial Day 2018

Note: I wrote this in 2007 while a military analyst at NBC News. While the situation has changed, I think the sentiment is still true today.

Let us not forget that as I write this in 2018, there are still American forces in harm's way. From the mountains of Afghanistan in America's longest war, to the deserts of the Middle East where the remnants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria still pose a threat, to the hinterlands of sub-Saharan Africa, and on virtually every ocean on the planet, and the skies all over the world, every day American forces conduct a variety of military operations - often at great risk.

Just in these first few months of this year, we have lost troops in combat in Afghanistan, Syria, and Niger. In addition, we have lost fine young men and women in training accidents - their deaths are just as tragic and need to be honored and remembered.

These are our sons and daughters. Every one of them contributed to the cost paid to maintain the freedoms that define who we are as a nation.

'On behalf of a grateful nation'
Do not forget our fallen men and women
By Lt. Col. Rick Francona, U.S. Air Force (Retired)
Military analyst - NBC News

Lt. Gen. Ed Soriano, left, presents Jessica Hebert, sister of Spc. Justin Hebert who was killed in Kirkuk, Iraq, with an American flag during his military funeral (AP Photo/The Herald, Meggan Booker). Ed and I served together during and after Desert Storm - this must have been his toughest duty.

Memorial Day weekend – most people associate that with the start of the "summer driving season" or a chance to buy appliances on sale. The constant news coverage of still high gasoline prices tends to overshadow the real meaning of the holiday. It is not about driving or shopping – it is about remembering the men and women or our armed forces who died while in service to the country. It is important that we not forget that – after more than a decade, we are still at war and we still lose some our finest young men and women every week.

Yes, we are still at war. No one knows this more than the families of those who have fallen on battlefields far from home with names most of us cannot pronounce. Unlike most of the wars America has fought in the past, we are fighting with an all volunteer force – there has been no draft since 1973. Every one of the fallen volunteered to serve this country, and deserve a moment of remembrance. Less than one-half of one percent of Americans serve in uniform (in World War II, it was over 12 percent) at any one time.

In the draft era, a much higher percent of the population entered the service, creating a large pool of veterans. Veterans understand the unique demands of military service, the separation from loved ones, the dangers of combat. With far fewer veterans or a veteran in the family, community and government, it is easy to lose sight of the demands military service requires of our men and women in uniform – and to forget too quickly those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

Sometimes one could get the feeling that foreign countries – especially those that have been liberated by American forces in the past – pay more tribute to our fallen troops than we do. I will never forget standing in a church in rural France – not a fancy cathedral, not a tourist spot, nothing architecturally significant, just a small village church. I would not have paid much attention until I spotted a well-maintained corner with a small American flag and a plaque.

I walked over and read the simple but powerful words in French and English:

"In gratitude to the United States of America and in remembrance of her 56,681 sons that now and forever sleep in French soil."

A elderly parishioner sitting in a pew nearby saw me reading the inscription and asked if I was an American. I said that I was – she slowly rose, nodded at the memorial and said, "You are welcome in France."*

Over the years, well over 1.3 million American troops have died in military service. Each fallen warrior is afforded a military funeral - military funerals symbolize respect for the fallen and their families.

Anyone who has attended a military funeral will never forget it – the American flag draped on the coffin, an honor guard in full dress uniform, the crack of seven rifles firing three volleys as Taps is played on the bugle, the snap of the flag as it is folded into the familiar triangle of blue, the reverence of fellow warriors.

Before his final salute, the officer in charge presents that folded flag to, in most cases, a young widow. He makes that presentation "on behalf of a grateful nation."

At some point on this day, let us make sure that we do not forget our fallen men and women, and that we are in fact a grateful nation.

* France is our oldest ally, a military alliance going back to 1778. For more information, see my article, The Nice attack - standing with our first and oldest ally.

May 6, 2018

A Palestinian refugee pecking order - and a bad translation....

Note: This article is more of an informative piece rather than an analytical effort. A friend sent a tweet to me and asked if I had heard the obviously distressed remarks of a Palestinian "refugee" from the Yarmuk camp just south of Damascus. She asked me if this was real. Here is the video.

The tweet was posted by journalist CJ Werleman, a respected correspondent with over 78,000 followers on Twitter. I saw the caption, the alleged translation of the video, and was curious - these are not the words I would expect from a Palestinian refugee from the Yarmuk camp.

As a student of the Levantine (Palestinian) dialect of Arabic - that spoken in Syria, Lebanon, "Palestine," and parts of Jordan - I decided to give it a listen. Although I was trained in the Egyptian dialect, I have always been posted to countries where the Levantive dialect is spoken - it took me years to divest myself of an Egyptian accent.

I digress. The term "Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp" is somewhat of a misnomer. In my former role as the Air Attaché (photo) to the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, I spent a lot of time observing the situation in the environs of the capital, including Yarmuk. The word "camp" brings to mind images of tents and a population living in squalor.

The "Yarmuk Palestinian Refugee Camp" in Damascus is in reality just another section of the city. It consists of high-rise apartment buildings and a vibrant commercial center - hardly what one thinks of when the term "refugee camp" is used.

About refugees. There are various categories of Palestinian refugees, depending on the date a person or family departed their homes and applied to the United Nations (UN) for refugee status.

A “1948” stamp in either a national identity document, or a UN-issued Palestinian laissez passer which indicates that the bearer left the area which is now part of the State of Israel in 1948 is considered the gold standard among refugees, affording the holder the highest level of benefits.

These benefits are provided by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). Refugees who departed areas considered Palestinian at later dates still qualify for benefits, but not at the same level.

There are 560,000 Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA - 438,000 of these are in Syria (including 254,000 internally displaced).

Now to the video.

As I said, I was taken aback by the caption on the video. I read the posted caption: "Return me to the Jews. Even Israel is more merciful than Assad," says elderly Palestinian refugee in besieged Yarmuk.

I thought it was out of character and listened to the video. This is my translation, with the understandable caveat - his speech is difficult to understand, so I may have a few words wrong, but the meaning is easily understood.

“I am sick, I am starving, it’s the Jews – I have identification with 1948 (repeats several times), I am a refugee from 1948. I have children, I have four children and they’ve all been taken. It’s a shame, a shame.”

What the man says is entirely in keeping with reality in Syria, reality in Damascus, among the Palestinians. When I was there, I had a good friend - a Palestinian doctor - who explained the pecking order among refugees. The "1948" imprimatur is the top of the line in regards to benefits from UNRWA and hence the Syrian government. He is adamant that we know that he has a 1948 stamp on his identification documents.

That said, the issue here is the incorrect translation. Over 78,000 followers of the original poster saw the incorrect translation - it was retweeted over 275 times to who knows how many readers.

It is important that subscribers of social media be aware of the veracity of their sources. In this instance, the meaning was far from the truth.

The Iranian nuclear deal - fix it or nix it

With the growing use of various social media, I have begun putting more immediate and shorter pieces of analysis on such fora as Twitter (please follow me: @MiddleEastGuy).

Here is what is called a "thread" about the Iranian deal and the upcoming Presidential decision on whether to continue certifying Iran as in compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and continue to provide sanctions relief, or refuse to certify the agreement and trigger the re-imposition of crippling US sanctions. I have expanded some of the text to make it easier to read for "non-tweeters."

You can probably guess my view on the JCPOA debacle....

The above photo appeared in a Washington Post article that begins:

WASHINGTON — John Kerry’s bid to save one of his most significant accomplishments as secretary of state took him to New York on a Sunday afternoon two weeks ago, where, more than a year after he left office, he engaged in some unusual shadow diplomacy with a top-ranking Iranian official.

He sat down at the United Nations with Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to discuss ways of preserving the pact limiting Iran’s nuclear weapons program. It was the second time in about two months that the two had met to strategize over salvaging a deal they spent years negotiating during the Obama administration, according to a person briefed on the meetings.

Tweet 1:
[Former U.S. Secretary of State] @JohnKerry was badly outplayed by #Iran|ian counterpart [Foreign Mininster] @JZarif and #Russia's [Foreign Mininster] Sergey Lavrov to further [U.S. President Barack Obama] @POTUS44's signature [foreign policy] failure. Now he is likely in violation of the #LoganAct* as he conspires to aid [Iran,] the world's primary state sponsor of terrorism.

Tweet 2:
Lavrov went one better than @JZarif requesting that ballistic missile restrictions be lifted - I doubt he thought even the hapless @JohnKerry would agree. Not only did Kerry cave in to virtually every Iranian demand, he gave in to the Russians,too.

Tweet 3:
During the "negotiations" - an ambitious description of the total Kerry cave-in - the "anytime, anywhere" inspection/verification protocol was changed to a lengthy notification and appeals process, and former military aspects declarations of the Iranian program were forgotten.

Tweet 4:
As for Iranian military sites, the final document does theoretically grant access to [United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency] IAEA inspectors. The Iranians dispute this - who knows what side secret agreements were reached by Zarif and Kerry? Anything to get a deal - any deal, even a bad one.

Tweet 5:
I am not against an agreement that removes #Iran as a nuclear threat. I am against a bad deal that is not verifiable. The #IAEA refuses to demand access - authorized by the deal - to Iranian military sites, as it believes Iran's refusal will be a reason for the U.S. to leave the deal.

Tweet 6:
I suspect [U.S. President Donald Trump] @realDonaldTrump may stay in the deal for the sake of the @NATO alliance ([French President Emmanuel] Macron and [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel), but remember the "allies" are in this to sell things to Iran, not to limit Iranian nuclear efforts. I urge the President to consider American national interests, not Europe's.

Of course, I was savaged by supporters of the JCPOA. Most of these detractors are either members of the Obama Administration, supporters of the terminally ineffective John Kerry, or have no appreciation for the Iranian regime. They all have a vested interest in the Obama legacy - otherwise, they will be unmasked as supporting the world's worst supporters of terrorism, the mullahs in Tehran.

Either fix this disastrous agreement - not likely - or kill it.

On the May 6 edition of the CNN show Fareed Zakaria GPS, retired General Danny Yatom, former director of the Israeli intelligence service, urges President Trump to remain in the JCPOA, with the following important condition, which Fareed did not highlight.

Yatom advises the President to use the recent Israeli intelligence revelations about Iranian failure to declare the scope of its previous nuclear weapons programs, the Previous Military Dimensions (PMD), as specifically required by the JCPOA, to force the Iranians to agree to amendments to the agreement.

I know Danny Yatom - he is a tough former commando, experienced strategic and tactical intelligence officer, and a skilled politician. He is not naive. Certainly he knows that the Iranians have specifically rejected any amendments or adjustments to the JCPOA.

Why would they agree to changes? They have received almost all the benefits already - another Kerry failure. If the agreement fails, they will feel justified in resuming (many of us believe it has never stopped) their nuclear weapons program and will have reaped most of the benefits of the JCPOA as well.

That said - I can live with Yatom's suggestion, but I seriously doubt the Iranians will agree.

* The Logan Act is a 1799 statute that bars private citizens from interfering with diplomatic relations between the United States and foreign governments. It makes it a felony, punishable by a fine or imprisonment of up to three years, if an American citizen, without government authorization, interacts “with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States.”