August 26, 2018

Iranian defense minister in Damascus - the Syrian situation map

Iranian and Syrian defense ministers meeting in Damascus

Iranian defense minister Brigadier General Amir Hatami arrived in Damascus today for a two-day visit for a series of consultations with Syrian officials, no doubt to discuss the current situation in the country, but also to protect Iran's equities for the future.

The Iranians are concerned, rightly, that the Russians, along with the Americans and Israelis, might pressure the Syrian government of Bashar al-Asad to ask his Iranian allies to leave the country. Bashar would have to decide who is the more critical ally. I am betting on Russia.

If that happens, it would be a major blow to Iran's designs on becoming the key power broker in the area extending from Iran, across Iraq and Syria, all the way to Lebanon, in addition to its growing influence in Yemen, Bahrain, and even Afghanistan.

I will leave analysis of the meeting between the defense chiefs of the two countries to my colleagues. For a good rundown on the meeting, I refer you to a piece written by Seth Frantzman of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, How Iran's Defense Minister in Damascus sent a message to Washington.

For the purposes of my article, I draw your attention to the above photograph of a meeting released by official Iranian media of Hatami and his Syrian counterpart Lieutenant General 'Ali 'Abdullah Ayyub.

I recognize the conference room at the Syrian Ministry of Defense - I've been in it a few times when I was the air attaché to the American Embassy in Damascus.

Note the situation map on the wall. I have enlarged and enhanced the map to bring out some of the details as best I could, and added captions. While maps released to the public by Syrian state media have not always portrayed the true situation, this is a map intended for the two ministers of defense and is accurate based on my understanding and analysis.

It does not take a military genius to see that the regime now has the upper hand as well as momentum, given the advances over the last three years. That coincides with the initial Russian deployment in September 2015 to augment the basically failing Syrian forces which remained viable only because of the earlier commitment of Iranian-sponsored militias and Hizballah fighters.

I view Hizballah as nothing more than an expeditionary force of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its Qods Force. Remember that the Qods Force grew out of the IRGC's Syria/Lebanon contingent (IRGC-SL), formed as "the resistance" (al-muqawamah) to the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

The Iranians have expanded their commitment in Syria since they intervened in 2012 to prevent the collapse of the Syrian armed forces and the likely fall of the Bashar al-Asad regime. A regime defeat would have severely limited their access to Lebanon and Hizballah. Not only did the IRGC provide advice and leadership for the Iranian militias, but brought in Iraqi Shi'a militias, as well as Afghan Shi'a volunteers.

With Russian airpower, field and rocket artillery, and special forces support augmenting the efforts of the Syrian armed forces and their Iranian-led allies, it was only a matter of time before the disjointed, ill-equipped, and poorly led factions of the opposition forces were defeated.

In most of these military operations, the Syrians preferred to make deals by which fighters were allowed to surrender in exchange for passage to opposition areas, primarily Idlib. Note the position of Idlib on the map - it remains the single largest rebel holdout.

Preparations are underway for the impending assault on Idlib. Idlib will be different than previous battles - there is nowhere for the rebels to go. Their choice here will not be to surrender and relocate, it will be to surrender or die. Again, it is just a matter of time before the regime reasserts control over the entire area.

After the defeat of the rebels, the remaining pockets of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) will be reduced and eliminated. We have always known how and where the ISIS fight ends, we just did not know exactly when.

After Idlib is retaken and ISIS is a bad memory, the real battle for the future of Syria begins.

What becomes of the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF), the mainly Kurdish force which was arguably the most effective ground force in the fight against ISIS? The Syrian Kurds have tried to politic for what their Iraqi cousins have institutionalized - an autonomous Kurdish area. They have already formed a political entity - the Syrian Democratic Council in the area they have named Rojava, the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria.

The Syrian government has thus far refused to discuss automomy, stating that in time they plan to reassert control over the entire country. It is uncertain what the United States will do to support its Kurdish allies, keeping in mind the NATO ally Turkey is also against any Kurdish autonomy anywhere - Syria, Iraq, Iran, and especially Turkey.

The battle for Idlib is not the end of the war by any stretch of the imagination, but it does move it into a new phase. Russia, Turkey, the United States, the Kurds, and the Iran have vested interests in the future of Syria.

What we are seeing today is Tehran letting everyone know they certainly intend to be a key player.


Personal anecdote. Back to the map on the wall of the conference room. Note the international boundary to the west of Idlib governorate. It indicates the de facto border between Syria and Turkey (shown below in red), with the sanjak of Alexandretta in Turkey. Syria does not recognize the inclusion of the sanjak in Turkey - public maps in Syria all show it as part of Syria. The disagreement is the result of a treaty between Turkey and France, the League of Nations mandatory power for what are now the countries of Syria and Lebanon.

When I was the air attaché in Damascus, with few exceptions, I had virtually no contact with the Syrian military. One exception was the monthly attaché dinner at the Syrian Officers Club to welcome new attachés and bid farewell to those about to depart.

Departing attachés were presented a small inlaid wooden box, a Syrian specialty. On the top of the box was a medallion with a map of Syria, inclusive of the sanjak of Alexandretta.

At every presentation - like clockwork - the two Turkish military attachés (one seen with me in the photo) would stand at attention and march from the room in protest of the inclusion of what they considered to be Turkish territory on a map of Syria.

August 15, 2018

Nostalgia for Saddam Husayn - who would have thought?

I was reading my Twitter feed a few days ago and the above post popped up. I looked at it and thought, you know, I have a series of photos that are also examples of this phenomena.

Let's go back to the era of Saddam Husayn, specifically 1987-1988, the last two years of the Iran-Iraq war. I had been sent to Baghdad as a liaison officer with the Iraqi Directorate of Military Intelligence.

While I was there, the Iraqis regained control of the al-Faw Peninsula in the spring of 1988 in Operation Blessed Ramadan (ramadhan mubarak). I toured the battlegrounds shortly after the battle and saw things like this.

On the left we see Iraqi soldiers' response to the Iranian occupiers of the al-Faw Peninsula southeast of the Iraqi city of al-Basrah. Iraqi troops - either by desire or order - defaced the image of Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini and re-established the portrait of Saddam Husayn.

Over the next few months, I was able to tour other battlefields as the Iraqis mounted a series of offensives - supported by U.S.-provided intelligence - that eventually led to the end of the war. I developed a friendship with my Iraqi Army "handler" - at one point I remarked about the number of photos and likenesses of Saddam Husayn on what seemed like every vertical surface in the country. After a few drinks one evening, I asked him how long it would take to remove all the posters of the president. He looked at me and quietly said, "Overnight."

Another example of what I call "truth in graffiti." When I was working as a military analyst for the NBC networks (NBC, CNBC, MSNBC), I remember seeing a news agency report that MSNBC carried on the air after the removal of Saddam Husayn. Here is one of the images in the report.

The accompanying text cited this as a defaced poster of Saddam Husayn in the former president's hometown of Tikrit with a comment that even people there were against him. I looked at the image and read the spray-painted Arabic words on the portrait. It reads: "Long live Saddam and the Ba'ath [Party]." Hardly anti-Saddam.

There is still a following in Iraq who remembers Saddam Husayn fondly - almost exclusively limited to the Sunni Arab minority. You will remember that this was the group that was (and remains) fertile recruiting ground for the insurgency and al-Qa'idah in Iraq, which later morphed into the Islamic State in Iraq, and later into the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, known more commonly as ISIS.

Nostalgia combined with new ISIS recruiting efforts as it reverts to an insurgency as it loses what little territory it might hold, means that the ISIS threat will be with us for some time.

The Defense Department agrees. This is their latest assessment: "We have assessed that, even after the liberation of ISIS controlled territory, ISIS probably is still more capable than al-Qaida in Iraq at its peak in 2006-2007...suggesting it is well positioned to rebuild and work on enabling its physical caliphate to reemerge."

August 13, 2018

At American urging, Saudis to investigate Yemen airstrike - we know the results

Screen capture from my interview on CNN

The August 9 Saudi airstrike on a crowded market in Sa'ada province in northern Yemen that struck a bus and killed 40 children on their way from school has finally drawn attention to one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.

The Yemeni civil war has been going on for over three years. It began as a Saudi attempt to prevent the Iranian-backed Houthi faction from removing the legally-elected government of 'Abd al-Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. The Houthis are a Shi'a group comprising almost 40 percent of the population.

Iranian support for the group derives from the fact that Tehran regards itself as the leader and protector of all things Shi'a, compounded by the fact that the Saudis support the Hadi government. In effect, the stalemated Yemeni civil war began and continues as a proxy fight between the two Gulf antagonists.

The initial Saudi-led coalition of 2015, which included forces and support from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Kuwait, Qatar, and Morocco, has dwindled to basically Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The primary participants in the conflict today are the Houthis, supported (armed, trained, and possibly led) by the Iranians on one side, and the Yemeni Hadi faction, supported by the armed forces of Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the other. This so-called "coalition" is supported by both the United States and the United Kingdom - primarily via weapons sales and intelligence cooperation.

U.S. Air Force and Royal Air Force officers have had decades of experience trying to train the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) not only how to operate their aircraft and weapons, but to gather and use intelligence to develop suitable targets. This includes a target selection process that limits civilian casualties as much as possible. From personal experience, training - and working with - the RSAF is difficult and frustrating.

With that as background, let me try to assess what likely happened last week, based on the limited information available.

On Wednesday (August 8), a Houthi group fired a surface-to-surface missile at the Saudi Arabian city of Jizan. The missile was intercepted by a Saudi Patriot missile and destroyed, however, falling debris killed one person and injured several others. In retaliation, the Saudis launched an airstrike targeting the Houthi group they believe were responsible for the missile launch.

The airstrike, employing an unknown number and type of weapons, struck a crowded market and a bus carrying children. It is unclear if the bus was a planned target of the strike or just happened to be in the area. In any case, 40 children and 11 others are dead in one of the worst attacks of the war.

I suspect the Saudis wanted to retaliate for the missile strike on Wednesday and mounted a quick reaction airstrike. Quick reaction airstrikes are not unusual, but they do require a pre-planned target set. That requires accurate, up-to-date intelligence.

Thus, I was concerned by the Saudi military spokesman's statement, that the market was a "legitimate target," and "No, this is not children in the bus. We do have high standard measures for targeting."

That statement leads me to believe that the pilots deliberately targeted the bus, possibly considering it a target of opportunity. It also leads me to believe that they were unaware there were children in the bus, and that the bus was suspected of carrying the Houthis the Saudis were in fact targeting.

The RSAF operates fourth generation fighter aircraft, including the American-made F-15SA Strike Eagle, dropping precision guided munitions. The Saudis are competent in the employment of these weapons and more likely than not hit what they were aiming at.

The U.S. State Department supports a United Nations call for an investigation. Secretary of Defense James Mattis went one step further, announcing, "I have dispatched a three-star general into Riyadh to look into what happened here and if there is anything we can do to preclude this in the future."

The Saudis have announced they will investigate the incident, probably to preclude a confrontation with the United States and a possible unilateral U.S. investigation.

I can predict what the Saudi investigation will "reveal" - they were operating on the best intelligence information available, it turned out not to be accurate.

In the end, no one will be held accountable.

August 12, 2018

Arabic no longer an official language of the State of Israel - so?

Israeli currency with both Hebrew and Arabic text

On July 19, 2018, the Israeli Knesset adopted a new law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People (Hebrew: חוק יסוד: ישראל - מדינת הלאום של העם היהודי‎). It is more commonly referred to as the "nation-state bill." The law is controversial and passed only after years of failed attempts. The vote was 62 for, 55 against, with two abstentions.

The eleven-clause law defined the State of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and addressed the flag, state motto, state symbol, and national anthem. It also declared that the language of the State is Hebrew.

This is a surprising change - since the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, Arabic was an official language of the country. After 70 years, two months, and five days, it now has "special status" - whatever that means.

Here is a translation (from the Hebrew) of the fourth clause of the law:

4 — Language
- a. The language of the State is Hebrew.
- b. The Arabic language has a special status in the State; regulating the use of Arabic in State institutions or by them will be set in law.
- c. This clause does not harm the status given to the Arabic language before this law came into effect.

Not being either a lawyer or a politician, it seems to me that the only actual statement in that clause above is the first one - the state's language is Hebrew. The other two sentences are "feel good" pablum in an attempt to assuage what the law's drafters must have known would be anger on the part of the Arabic speakers in the country. Note to those drafters: it didn't work.

Israel's population is approximately 8.9 million. The Israelis keep meticulous records - here is the population breakdown: Jewish 74.5 percent, Arab 20.9 percent, Druze* 1.6 percent, and other 3.0 percent. Combining the Arabs and Druze together brings the Arabic-speaking portion of the population to be 22.5 percent.

The new law has sparked outrage among the non-Hebrew speakers, as well as with many of the Jewish population who believe that the law causes unnecessary divisions in the country. Many Israeli military personnel object to it because it marginalizes the Druze, who serve in the armed forces in higher numbers than their percentage of the population and are well-respected for their capabilities.

I titled this article, "Arabic no longer an official language of the State of Israel - so?" Here is the "so."

The law in general, and the language clause in particular, sends different messages to the two groups, one to the Hebrew speakers, and one to the Arabic speakers.

To the Hebrew speakers - in reality the three quarters of the population who are Jewish: this is the Jewish state where we speak Hebrew, this is your country.

To the one quarter who do not speak Hebrew - the Arabs (Muslim and Christian), Druze, and other minorities: you can live here because your birth venue happens to be inside the national borders of the Jewish state, but it's really not your country. Feel free to leave - drive in almost any direction for an hour and you could be home.

The above tweet was posted by Avital Leibovich, a retired Israeli military intelligence officer, and a professional acquaintance. She raises a key point - if these Israeli Arabs believe they really are Israelis, why not carry the Israeli flag?

On the other hand, the Nation-State law goes one step further towards making the term "Israeli Arab" an oxymoron.

* The Druze in Israel do not identify themselves as Arabs. In Syria and Lebanon, they identify as Arabs by ethnicity, and Druze by religion.