December 17, 2018

Miniseries Review: "The Last Post" (Amazon Prime - 2017)

I just watched this BBC mini-series. Amazon Prime calls it one of their original productions, watch here.

I am recommending it to those of you who follow events in the Middle East - others might find it too much of a niche offering. If you follow events in the region, it makes perfect sense. Although it deals with the British experience in Aden (‘Adan) in the mid-1960’s, it is directly applicable to the situation the United States finds itself in today in several areas.

"The Last Post" follows a unit of the Royal Military Police and their families in Aden in 1965. Newlyweds Captain Joe Martin and his wife Honor arrive into the mix and must adapt to their new environment and their new lives together. Throughout the community, relationships are tested as the women struggle against what is expected of them as British Army wives and their own preferences. At work, the army unit fights a growing local insurgency and faces constant threats from hand grenades and snipers.

That’s the theatrical story that carries the underlying theme – the end of empire, dealing with local nationalism and confronting “liberation” movements. It also deals with military relationships between officers (and their families), noncommissioned officers, and enlisted troops. It offers insight into the British Army, still one of the finest military forces in the world. The series did not fully explain the command relationships between the various military units, but, it is entertainment, not a documentary. An added predictable touch is meddling from an American journalist.

On 30 November 1967, British forces withdrew and the independent People's Republic of South Yemen was proclaimed. It lasted until 1990 when South Yemen and North Yemen (Yemen Arab Republic) merged to form the Republic of Yemen.

We’ve seen how that has worked out….

I want to give a shout out to the performances by Stephen Campbell Moore as Lieutenant Ed Laithwaite (I see some of me in his character), and Jessica Raine and Essie Davis for, well, being Jessica Raine and Essie Davis.

December 16, 2018

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir visits Syria - on a Russian Air Force jet

Syrian President Bashar al-Asad and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir
at Damascus International Airport

With his arrival at Damascus International Airport today, Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir ('Umar al-Bashir - عمر حسن أحمد البشير - becomes the first Arab leader to visit Syria since the outbreak of the civil war in March 2011.

It is interesting that al-Bashir is the first Arab leader to visit - the Sudanese president is under indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC); warrants have been issued for his arrest. The charges include genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in Darfur. The charges are opposed by the African Union, the League of Arab States, the Non-Aligned Movement, and the governments of Russia and China.

The irony of the visit by an indicted war criminal was not lost on some observers. Hillel Neuer, Executive Director of United Nations Watch quipped, "Always nice when a president wanted for genocide visits with a president committing genocide. Sudan sits on the UN committee overseeing human rights [nongovernmental organizations]; Syria holds leadership position on UN decolonization committee that fights 'subjugation of peoples.'"

I draw your attention to the photograph (above) of the two presidents at the airport. Note the color pattern on the jet used to transport al-Bashir from Khartoum to Damascus - it is the official livery of the BBC России (Russian Air Force), as noted on the tail of the aircraft.

The Russians dispatched this TU-154M (RA-85155) VIP transport aircraft from Moscow to Khartoum (via the Russian air base at Humaymim, south of the Syrian port city of Latakia) to pick up al-Bashir, fly him to Damascus, wait for him to have his meetings with Syrian officials, including President Bashar al-Asad, then return him to Khartoum.

This fits in with Russian President Vladimir Putin's attempts to increase Russian influence in the Middle East and Africa. Putin and al-Bashir have met on at least two occasions in the last year to discuss continued and increased cooperation. Russia is the major supplier of arms to the Khartoum government. On both of those occasions, like today, Putin sent a Russian Air Force jet to ensure al-Bashir's safety while traveling out of Sudan, keeping him out of reach of the ICC.

The visit of an indicted war criminal does raise the question: Will Bashar al-Asad be held accountable for his war crimes?

On a lighter note, let's not feel sorry for the Russian pilots and crew tasked with this long VIP transportation mission. The weather in Moscow today was 5 degrees Fahrenheit and snowing. Damascus was party cloudy and 60 degrees, while Khartoum was sunny and 90 degrees.

December 13, 2018

Turkey and the fight against ISIS - whose side are you on? I ask again...

The above is a screen capture of an article I wrote and posted on this website in April 2017, titled "Turkey and the fight against ISIS - whose side are you on?" Not much has seemed to change with Turkey, our supposed NATO ally - and member of the coalition formed to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Turkey's unhelpful and unnecessary actions in northern Syria continue unabated.

The opening paragraphs of that earlier article:

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. (Francona 2017)

In recent days, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has announced that Turkish forces are about to begin an operation in northern Syria east of the Euphrates to eliminate elements of the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units, known by the Kurdish abbreviation YPG, located along the Turkish border.

Erdoğan used words that indicate the operation will consist mainly of artillery, rocket and air strikes, rather than a ground incursion. He also referred to the YPG as nothing more than an extension of the Turkish Kurdish separatist group Kurdistan Workers Party, known by its Kurdish initials PKK. The PKK has been designated by the UN, U.S., and NATO as a terrorist organization.

The YPG is the Kurdish element of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF, or QSD in some media). Although there are also Arab, Assyrian, and Turkmen fighters in the SDF, the primary fighters are the Syrian Kurds. They are relentless, and arguably the most effective ground units in the fight against ISIS.

Unfortunately, the Turkish president is not that concerned with ISIS, he would rather conduct operations against American-supported forces. Unhelpful and unnecessary - I keep using those words, because that is exactly what it is.

To complicate things, the U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement Ambassador James Jeffrey said inter alia that American support to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the mainly Syrian Kurdish force acting as the U.S.-lead anti-ISIS coalition's boots on the ground, is "temporary and tactical." See my article, American envoy: US Support to Syrian Kurds is "temporary". It was music to Erdoğan's ears.

Of course, the United States is attempting to reach an agreement with the Turks to not take the pressure off ISIS, and more importantly, begin military strikes in areas in which there may be American troops working with the SDF. There are at least 2000 U.S. forces on the ground in Syria - I suspect the number is higher, but it is hard to get specific numbers from the Pentagon.

Here is the Pentagon's response to the Turkish threat. Department of Defense spokesman: "Unilateral military action into northeast Syria by any party, particularly as U.S. personnel may be present or in the vicinity, is of grave concern. We would find any such actions unacceptable."

Wow - that ought to send the Turks scurrying. How about a more forceful response? Like this:

If you want to be a NATO ally, you need to act like a NATO ally. You need to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Fighting ISIS - you are, after all, a member of the anti-ISIS coalition - is the main focus. Eliminating the remaining pocket in Syria along the Euphrates River near the Iraqi border is the priority, not your perceived and frankly, unwarranted, attempts to force the Syrian Kurds away from the border between you and Syria.

Here's what is going to happen if you continue down this reckless path. Once you start attacking SDF/YPG elements near the border, the YPG elements currently taking the fight to ISIS in the city of Hajin - which is about to fall after months of bloody fighting - will stop operations against ISIS and redeploy to the border area to defend their homes and families. This should come as no surprise to you - it happened in April 2017 when you did the same thing.

In essence, what you are planning not only potentially puts American, French, and British troops on the ground in Syria at risk, it aids and abets ISIS by relieving the pressure on them in the Dayr al-Zawr area. They terror group may be able to regroup and hold or even retake all of Hajin.

Unhelpful and unnecessary.

It again begs the question - whose side are you on?

December 9, 2018

American envoy: US Support to Syrian Kurds is "temporary"

Arabic media coverage of Ambassador Jeffrey's statement

In a recent press conference after a Turkish-U.S. working group meeting on Syria in Ankara, U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey said the Manbij roadmap requires a series of additional steps, and that American support to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the mainly Syrian Kurdish force acting as the U.S.-lead anti-ISIS coalition's boots on the ground, is "temporary and tactical."

I understand that the ambassador was speaking in Turkey to a group of reporters composed mainly of Turkish journalists, but this either borders on "tell 'em what they want to hear" or is a slap in the face of the Syrians Kurds who have proven to be among the most effective forces fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), making a much more significant contribution than the Turks the ambassador appears to be trying to appease.

I have made no secret about my disappointment in the actions of our nominal NATO ally Turkey when it comes to the fight against ISIS. There are analysts who believe that Turkey at best turned a blind eye to the undeniable virtually unabated flow across the border with Syria of thousands of Middle Eastern, North African, and European believers that became ISIS fighters.

Others are not so kind, accusing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of supporting the terrorist group in return for a tacit agreement not to attack Turkish interests. I have no doubts about the former, but remain hopefully unsure of the latter.

My interpretation (not a translation) of a report* published in an Arabic-language media outlet widely read in the Kurdish area of Syria:

James Jeffrey - American special envoy for Syria

Washington will soon take some additional steps to guarantee the implementation of the roadmap for Manbij, which will ensure the removal of SDF personnel from Manbij, including their presence on the local council, and as local military officials in the city. Manbij will become the model for peaceful solutions throughout Syria. Regarding [our] cooperation with the SDF, it will be temporary and tactical.

For those not familiar with Manbij, some context based on my assessment of the continuing unhelpful and unnecessary actions by the Turks since Erdoğan ordered Turkish troops to move into northern Syria in August 2016, ostensibly to fight ISIS.

While they did take the fight to ISIS, the Turks also began a series of engagements with the newly formed SDF, comprised mainly of Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units, or YPG in Kurdish. The Turks believe that the YPG is nothing more than a Syria-based extension of the outlawed Turkish-based Kurdish Workers' Party, known more commonly by its Kurdish initials PKK. The United States, NATO and the European Union have designated the PKK a terrorist organization, possibly in deference to Turkey's status as a NATO member.

The operation was technically a success - the Turks and their Free Syrian Army allies did clear the area northeast of Aleppo of ISIS, but they also started a long and deadly battle against the Syrian Kurds.

We all understand that the Turks have an ongoing armed confrontation in Turkey against the PKK. Those same Turks seem to have forgotten that the focus of the anti-ISIS coalition - the fighting in Iraq and Syria - is to eliminate ISIS, not the Kurds. Perhaps they did not forget - some will argue that the main focus of the operation was to open a front against the YPG, the Kurdish contingent of the SDF. The map shows the situation in 2017.

Erdoğan publicly claimed that Operation Euphrates Shield was the precursor to the eventual coalition assault on ISIS's self-proclaimed capital in the Syrian city of al-Raqqah, an assault that he said must be led by Turkish troops.

This claim was ludicrous - since his forces had begun military operations against the SDF, arguably the most effective ground units in the fight against ISIS - the Kurds were not going to allow Turkish forces to traverse over 100 miles of territory under their control, territory they had taken at great cost from ISIS. In his typical petulant style, Erdoğan ordered a series of border attacks along the length of the Syrian-Turkish border. Again, more unhelpful distractions from a nominal NATO ally.

For a more detailed analysis of Operation Euphrates Shield, see my article, Turkey and the fight against ISIS - whose side are you on?

Turkish forces eventually fought their way to the city of Manbij - not by taking it from ISIS, but from the allied SDF. It was only the direct intervention of American special operations units and Russian military police that the inter-coalition fighting was halted. It was a necessary step to refocus the fight on ISIS; many SDF units stopped operations against ISIS and returned to the Manbij are to resist the Turks, again, a distraction no one needed.

Manbij remains on the edge of the Turkish and SDF lines. The United States has had to divert time and resources to assuage the Turks' anger at being marginalized in a pocket and basically taken out of the fight against ISIS. The Manbij "roadmap" is an attempt to give the Turks a voice as to what happens in northern Syria. The two countries now run joint patrols outside the city. It is useless and serves no purpose but to allow the Turks to believe they are part of the coalition on the ground in Syria.

The U.S.-led coalition perpetuates this myth. Here is a tweet from Combined Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTFOIR), and my response. Their use of the hashtag #DefeatIsis is insulting to those actually in the fight.

Back to Ambassador Jeffrey's statement. It was the last sentence that got my attention and raised my concerns. He said that our cooperation with the SDF will be "temporary and tactical."

These are words the Turks, undoubtedly the intended audience, wanted to hear. Unfortunately, this is a zero-sum game. If you side with the Turks about the future of northern Syria, you do so at the expense of the Kurds. The Kurds have been, if not the best ally in northern Syria in the fight against ISIS, then among the top contenders. It has been the Kurdish-majority SDF that has taken the most casualties in the fighting on the ground. They are dedicated, courageous, and relentless fighters. The ambassador's words must have cut deep.

Here is what the Turks heard: When this anti-ISIS fight is over, we are going to repair the current rift between Washington and Ankara - the NATO alliance is critical to both of us, and despite what the Syrian Kurds have done for us in the fight against ISIS, you are the more important ally. In the end, you will have most of what you want in northern Syria. Just wait a while longer while we clean up the remaining ISIS pocket in the Euphrates Valley, then you can deal with the Kurds with minimal U.S. interference.

Here is what the Kurds heard: When this is all over, we have to act in what are our larger national interests. We both want to defeat ISIS, but once that it done, we will again focus on the major American national security threats in the region - Russia and Iran. For that, we need Turkey more than we need you. We will try to help where we can, but our interests do not include you.

Again, the Kurds are left standing alone.

* Although the ambassador made his remarks in English, those remarks were translated into Arabic and reported. The translation is not exact - my interpretation of the translation is what people in the Kurdish area of Syria are reading.