August 18, 2019

Turkish security zone in Syria - not so fast, Sultan Erdoğan

U.S. and Turkish forces joint patrol in Syria (U.S. Army)

Note: This is a follow-up to my earlier article, Erdoğan threatens to invade Syria - this time he just might.

In response to persistent Turkish demands for the establishment of a security zone inside northern Syria, the United States and the Turks have begun the development of the framework for such a zone. It appears that the U.S. side has pared down some of the more ridiculous, unrealistic, unnecessary, and unhelpful Turkish demands and will attempt to prevent Turkish autonomous military action against the Syrian Kurds.

It is important to remember the major participants here. The Syrian Kurds of the People's Protection Units (known by their Kurdish initials YPG) provided the bulk of the ground forces in the U.S.-led coalition-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

It was the SDF who, with massive coalition air support, liberated most of northern Syria from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The Turks provided only minimal support, and in most cases, were impediments to SDF operations, at times even attacking YPG forces engaged in combat operations against ISIS.

The Turks believe the YPG to be nothing more than an extension of the outlawed Turkish Kurdish Workers' Party (known as the PKK). The United States considers, and has designated, the PKK a terrorist group.* It does not, however, recognize Turkey's claims that the YPG is part of the PKK.

The American efforts are aimed at preventing a Turkish military incursion into northern Syria to eliminate the YPG. I doubt the Turks have the capability to achieve that goal - they have proven to be able to kill a lot of Kurds, but not capable of achieving much lasting military effect. Their two previous incursions have proven to create more problems than they solved.

If the Turkish army mounts a wholesale offensive against the SDF/YPG, it will soon find itself drawn further into Syria and engaged in the exact type of fighting at which the Kurds excel. More importantly, they will be attacking a U.S. ally - there are American forces embedded with the SDF who will be placed at risk.

The plan is - probably purposely - ambiguous. It allows Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to appeal to his base with strong talk about attacking "terrorists" in northern Syria, and allows the United States to keep faith with its Syrian Kurdish allies.

It also has the added, and important, benefit of preventing greater political differences between Ankara and Washington. The two countries are already at odds over Turkey's recent purchase of the Russian S-400 (NATO: SA-21 Growler) air defense system, and the resultant U.S. expulsion of Turkey from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.

According to documents allegedly leaked from the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey's demand for and exclusive security zone to protect the country against Syrian Kurdish "terrorists" is now being referred to as a "peace corridor" to facilitate the return of Syrian refugees.

The Turks had wanted an approximately 20-mile deep zone inside Syria to be exclusively patrolled by the Turkish army for the entire length of the 250 miles east of the Euphrates River to the Iraqi border.

The U.S. response proposes a three-mile corridor to be jointly patrolled by Turkish and American troops. A further five-mile zone will be patrolled only by U.S. forces. A joint command center will be established in Sanliurfa, Turkey (see map).

Oh, it gets better - the Russians have declared that the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad must agree to whatever arrangement the Turks and Americans reach. Of course, that's not going to happen - Syrian agreement would merely legitimize Turkish and American presence in Syria.

It appears to me that the United States is continuing the talks, dragging out the timeline while preventing a Turkish incursion that would be disastrous for the region as well as wider international relations. In any case, the likelihood that Erdoğan is going to control a 20 mile strip of northern Syria is diminishing - and that's a good thing.

He should concentrate on once again being a NATO ally....

* Some critics of this designation believe it was done as a concession to NATO ally Turkey.

August 4, 2019

Erdoğan threatens to invade Syria - this time he just might

"Ankara will not continue to tolerate the US-backed YPG terror group’s harassment in the region" – Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

It appears that Turkey's (or more correctly, Erdoğan's) long-threatened invasion of northern Syria may actually happen - there are reports this afternoon of Turkish shelling along the border. This self-styled new Ottoman sultan - true to form - couches attacking the Syrian Kurds as a counterterrorist operation.

The Syrian Kurds the Turkish president is threatening to attack are the People's Protection Units (known more commonly by the Kurdish initials YPG), the major fighting force on the ground against fighters of the Islamic State in Iraqi and Syria (ISIS) in Syria. While the Turks did in fact engage some ISIS forces, most of their efforts were misguided, aimed at the YPG and not the actual enemy.

The Turkish government of President Erdoğan regards the Syrian YPG as nothing more than a branch of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party, known as the PKK. The PKK has been designated by the United States and NATO as a terrorist organization, many believe in a gesture to NATO "ally" Turkey.

The United States and its other allies do believe the YPG to be part of the YPG. No matter how many of Erdoğan’s sycophants claim otherwise - and as soon as I write this, they will come out of the proverbial woodwork - the YPG is not the PKK.

As far as I know, the YPG has never attacked targets inside Turkey. The PKK certainly has, and has used northern Syria as a base of operations, but this predates the civil war that began in 2011. Support for the PKK has long been an periodic foreign policy tool of the Syrian regime of both the late President Hafiz al-Asad and the current president, his son Bashar.

Following the territorial defeat of ISIS in Syria, mostly at the hands of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the majority of which is made up of YPG fighters, Erdoğan made the decision to take advantage of the situation and demand that there be a security zone along the Turkish border extending into Syria by as much as 30 kilometers (18 miles).

Erdoğan even launched several barely successful military incursions into Syria as the first step. Since it didn't go so well for the Turks, they want the U.S. to agree to the establishment of the zone and force the YPG to comply.

Negotiations have gone nowhere, and the Turks continue making threats to invade. While his army has the capability with armor, artillery and air support to push the YPG militias – basically a light infantry force – back away from the border, the YPG is likely to fight.

We don't need this confrontation - there are still issues with the remnants of ISIS in northern Syria that need to be addressed, not the least of which is the thousands of ISIS prisoners. The ISIS prisoners not only include the fighters, but their wives and children. Many of these are from foreign countries, including the United States and Europe.

So now we have a NATO ally, albeit a problematic one (need I say F-35 and S-400?) threatening to attack another U.S. ally. As has been since almost the beginning of the civil war, and with very few exceptions, the Turks have been decidedly unhelpful – and ineffective - in the fight against ISIS.

One has to keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of ISIS fighters that come from outside Iraq and Syria arrived in Syria via Turkey. Having spent a lot of time on both sides of that border, I can say that crossing into Syria from Turkey is not done alone or without help.

This potential invasion is not only unhelpful, but totally unnecessary. The YPG is not a threat to Turkey. I suspect Erdoğan has read the polls in Turkey – his AKP party is in disarray and was rebuked in the latest local elections.

What’s the solution? Start a military operation against what Erdoğan claims to be a terrorist threat to Turkey. It might sell in Anatolia, maybe even in Trakya, but certainly not here.

Unhelpful and unnecessary.

August 3, 2019

Movie Review: "The Red Sea Diving Resort" (Netflix - 2019)

There has been a flood of publicity over the release of The Red Sea Diving Resort, a film about Operation Brothers, a Mossad operation conducted from 1979 to 1983 in which thousands of Ethiopian Jews were clandestinely transported from refugee camps in Sudan to Israel.

It is a great story, one that needs to be told. Unfortunately, this attempt to tell that story falls short.

In the late 1970's, the Israeli intelligence service was secretly moving Ethiopian Jews from Sudan to Israel via a circuitous route, usually by air through European cities. Because of the visibility of the flights and increased Sudanese security, Mossad leadership halted the operation, believing that it posed too great of a risk to both the refugees and its officers.

A group of Mossad officers came up with a plan to resurrect the effort to bring the Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Having planned and executed intelligence operations during my career, I regard the Israeli plan as truly outside-the-box thinking.

The officers, through off-shore shell accounts, purchased a defunct diving resort on Sudan's Red Sea coast. The plan was to move the Ethiopian refugees from the camps in Sudan to the resort, where Israeli Navy commandos would use inflatable boats to move them to an Israeli-owned, ostensibly commercial, trawler for transport back to the port of Eilat via the Gulf of Aqabah.

Excellent tradecraft and the courage of the Mossad operatives resulted in over 3000 Ethiopians being taken to safety by the time the operation ended in 1983.

A word to my fellow Arabic linguists. The Sudanese dialect of Arabic is unique and difficult, but the quality of the language in the movie, with a few exceptions, was mediocre at best.

Again, a great story. The movie version seems contrived, uneven, and focused more on the personal issues of the Israeli officers rather than the plight of the Ethiopians they were there to rescue.

Watch it because it is a compelling story, and forgive the shoddy production.

ADDENDUM - Did the Iraqi Air Force revert to the Saddam-era roundel?

As you can see, the Iraqi Air Force responded to my inquiry - they have been using the legacy roundel again since March 2019.


Top: C-130J-30 transport aircraft / Bottom: King Air 350ER reconnaissance platform

In the above photographs, taken from the Iraqi Air Force Twitter page, it appears that the Iraqis have decided to re-apply the old traditional roundel* on at least some of it military aircraft.

The Iraqi roundel used from 1931 to the end of 2003 is a green triangle with a stylized Arabic letter jim in red, with the required dot that is part of the letter in white, representing the Arabic word jaysh, or army.

The Iraqis discontinued use of this particular insignia in 2003 when the Iraqi Air Force ceased to exist following the American invasion. It was felt that the roundel had become identified with former Iraqi dictator Saddam Husayn.

The "new" Iraqi Air Force recommenced operations in 2004. It adopted this new roundel at that time - it is still in use today.

I was surprised to see the former green triangle insignia on these two aircraft. The C-130J-30 photo was posted on the Iraqi Air Force Twitter page today; the King Air 350ER photo was posted on July 31.

The green triangle "roundel" is not actually associated with Saddam Husayn, but I needed a catchy title, and most people do make the connection. The insignia has been in use from 1931, when the air force was established as the Royal Iraqi Air Force.

At that time, the Kingdom of Iraq was still a League of Nations mandate (which it became in 1920), administered by the United Kingdom until Iraqi independence in 1932.

The first batch of five Iraqi pilots received their aviation training at RAF Cranwell, returning to Iraq on April 22, 1931. This is recognized as the official date of the founding of the Iraqi Air Force.

Here is a photo of an Iraqi Air Force Hawker Audax reconnaissance aircraft, circa 1932. Note the green triangle insignia on the wings and fuselage.

Iraqi Hawker Audax ("Nisr")

The green triangle "roundel" has been a part of the Iraqi Air Force's 88-year history. Slightly different versions have been used on other pieces of military equipment.

When I was assigned as a liaison officer to the Iraqi armed forces Directorate General of Military Intelligence in 1988, they provided me with a duffel bag with this logo. Arabic speakers will easily recognize the Arabic letter jim (for jaysh, or army).

Since the roundel/insignia is clearly not associated with Saddam Husayn or the Ba'ath Party, and was used on Iraqi military aircraft since before the country's independence from the United Kingdom, no one should be offended or alarmed by its use.

That said, I would expect the Iraqis to announce the re-adoption of the roundel, the national insignia. There is nothing to be ashamed of here - it is a legacy going back over 80 years.


* A roundel is national insignia used on military aircraft, generally circular in shape and usually comprising concentric rings of different colors. Here is the roundel used on U.S. military aircraft. There are also subdued monochromatic variations for low-visibility.

August 2, 2019

Did the Iraqi Air Force revert to the Saddam-era roundel?

Top: C-130J-30 transport aircraft / Bottom: King Air 350ER reconnaissance platform

In the above photographs, taken from the Iraqi Air Force Twitter page, it appears that the Iraqis have decided to re-apply the old traditional roundel* on at least some of it military aircraft.

The Iraqi roundel used from 1931 to the end of 2003 is a green triangle with a stylized Arabic letter jim in red, with the required dot that is part of the letter in white, representing the Arabic word jaysh, or army.

The Iraqis discontinued use of this particular insignia in 2003 when the Iraqi Air Force ceased to exist following the American invasion. It was felt that the roundel had become identified with former Iraqi dictator Saddam Husayn.

The "new" Iraqi Air Force recommenced operations in 2004. It adopted this new roundel at that time - it is still in use today.

I was surprised to see the former green triangle insignia on these two aircraft. The C-130J-30 photo was posted on the Iraqi Air Force Twitter page today; the King Air 350ER photo was posted on July 31.

The green triangle "roundel" is not actually associated with Saddam Husayn, but I needed a catchy title, and most people do make the connection. The insignia has been in use from 1931, when the air force was established as the Royal Iraqi Air Force.

At that time, the Kingdom of Iraq was still a League of Nations mandate (which it became in 1920), administered by the United Kingdom until Iraqi independence in 1932.

The first batch of five Iraqi pilots received their aviation training at RAF Cranwell, returning to Iraq on April 22, 1931. This is recognized as the official date of the founding of the Iraqi Air Force.

Here is a photo of an Iraqi Air Force Hawker Audax reconnaissance aircraft, circa 1932. Note the green triangle insignia on the wings and fuselage.

Iraqi Hawker Audax ("Nisr")

The green triangle "roundel" has been a part of the Iraqi Air Force's 88-year history. Slightly different versions have been used on other pieces of military equipment.

When I was assigned as a liaison officer to the Iraqi armed forces Directorate General of Military Intelligence in 1988, they provided me with a duffel bag with this logo. Arabic speakers will easily recognize the Arabic letter jim (for jaysh, or army).

Since the roundel/insignia is clearly not associated with Saddam Husayn or the Ba'ath Party, and was used on Iraqi military aircraft since before the country's independence from the United Kingdom, no one should be offended or alarmed by its use.

That said, I would expect the Iraqis to announce the re-adoption of the roundel, the national insignia. There is nothing to be ashamed of here - it is a legacy going back over 80 years.


* A roundel is national insignia used on military aircraft, generally circular in shape and usually comprising concentric rings of different colors. Here is the roundel used on U.S. military aircraft. There are also subdued monochromatic variations for low-visibility.

July 16, 2019

Turkey, Erdoğan, the S-400 and the F-35

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan - is anyone else tiring of him?

I was asked a few questions about the Turks and the delivery of the Russian S-400 (NATO: SA-21) air defense system. My replies.

Q. The US Senate starts to discuss sanctions on Turkey, but Trump doesn't want such a move. How do you think is it possible that we can see the US impose sanctions on Turkey for this issue?

A. There are bipartisan demands in Congress for sanctions on Turkey for purchasing the Russian S-400 air defense system. The President is hoping that he can walk a fine line between economic sanctions on Turkey and just removing Turkey from the F-35 program. I am not sure he will be able to do that - there is US law that would require sanctions. He may be legally able to waive the sanctions, but he will be taking a political risk among his Republican supporters.

In any event, Turkey has to be removed from the F-35 program. That means the jets Turkey has already purchased and are located on a US Air Force base in Arizona will not be delivered to Turkey. The Turkish Air Force pilots there for training have already been restricted from access to the aircraft and its systems.

I do not believe the United States is willing to have the world's most advanced fifth-generation stealth aircraft be delivered to a country that is operating a near-state-of-the-art Russian air defense system. The risk to sensitive technology ending up in Moscow is much too high.

Q. If the US imposes sanctions, what can be the response of Turkey (within the cooperation with China (SCO))?

A. It appears that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made a conscious decision to pivot to the east - that includes better relations with what I would consider our (U.S.) adversaries and potential enemies: Russia, China, Iran, and even Pakistan. If he thinks he will be able to continue this eastern foreign policy reorientation and at the same time maintain a good relationship with the United States, I believe he is miscalculating.

The NATO alliance is important to the United States and our European allies - Turkey included, at least for now. If Erdoğan wants to remain a NATO ally, he needs to start acting like one again. Procuring an air defense system from our principal antagonist is not the act of an ally. There will be a price.

Q. Turkey invested in the F-35 project, does the US have the right to reject the sale within international law?

A. The reality of this is that the F-35 program is American technology and in the end the United States will determine where that technology is allowed to be exported. The parts of the program in Turkey will be moved to another location. They lose the business and the aircraft capabilities.

July 14, 2019

Some thoughts on Bastille Day

Many Americans are not very familiar with an alliance that was in a large way responsible for the successful conduct of the Revolutionary War.

After the American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain in 1776, very few - well, no - other countries were willing to recognize the United States, let alone provide assistance in its fight against the world's premier military power. The thought that a rag-tag group of rebellious farmers could hold their own against well-trained, well-equipped, and well-led British forces was laughable.

For its own reasons, France recognized the United States in 1778 - the two countries signed a treaty which, among other provisions, promised the new country French military support in case of attack by British forces indefinitely into the future. A French fleet arrived in the United States in 1780.

French troops were present in the fight against the British until the final battle at Yorktown in 1781. If you have not walked the battlefield there, I highly recommend it - the area is well-marked and nicely interpreted. The positions of the French forces were perfectly placed to counter the British under the command of Lord Cornwallis.

I often speak about the French alliance, facetiously remarking that if it were not for the French forces at Yorktown in 1781 - both naval and army - under the command of Comte de Rochambeau, we would all be speaking English. Facetious, yes, but when no one else would help the newly formed United States, the French stepped up and sent a fleet and troops. We may owe our freedom and independence to them.

We Americans have repaid the debt, some say several times over. On July 4, 1917 - during the intense fighting that was World War I - a U.S. Army infantry battalion marched to the tomb of the Marquis de Lafayette. The French aristocrat had led American troops in the fight against the British during the Revolutionary War - it was Lafayette's troops that fought a blocking action against British forces until other American and French forces could position themselves for the final battle at Yorktown.

At the tomb, the battalion commander, Colonel Charles Stanton, uttered the now famous words that signify the bond between the two countries, "Lafayette, nous voilà" (Lafayette, we are here).

On a much less significant, but personal note. I will never forget standing in a church in rural France – not a fancy cathedral, not a tourist spot, nothing architecturally significant, just a 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.” An 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.”

After 241 years, the alliance remains - American and French troops continue to serve side by side around the world.

Bon 14 juillet!

July 12, 2019

Turkey receives Russian S-400 air defense system - a symptom of "Erdoğan disease"

Russian Air Force AN-124 at Murted Air Base, Turkey

On Friday, July 12, two Russian Air Force AN-124 (NATO: Condor) heavy lift aircraft delivered initial components of the S-400 Triumph (NATO: SA-21 Growler) air defense system to Murted air base on the outskirts of Ankara, Turkey. Turkey's purchase of the Russian system is the latest in a series of issues between members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Turkey, a key member of the transatlantic alliance, is also, at least currently, a member of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. The F-35 is a fifth generation stealth fighter produced by Lockheed Martin and in service with at least 10 air and naval forces around the world. Turkey is a Level 3 participant in the program, having ordered 30 of possibly 120 aircraft. The initial four aircraft have been delivered to the Turkish Air Force at the F-35 pilot training facility at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona. Turkish Air Force maintenance personnel are also being trained at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.

The Turks have been warned that acquisition of the S-400 from Russia will halt their acquisition of the F-35 and terminate their participation in the distributed manufacturing program. The U.S. Air Force has stopped pilot training for Turkish pilots, and restricted access to the aircraft and training materials. Congress has passed legislation prohibiting the transfer of the Turkish jets in Arizona to Turkey pending the resolution of the S-400 issue.

The United States has been clear. The words of Acting Secretary of Defense to his counterpart, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar: “If Turkey procures the S-400, our two countries must develop a plan to discontinue Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program. While we seek to maintain our valued relationship, Turkey will not receive the F-35 if Turkey takes delivery of the S-400.”

This was reinforced by Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord: “Turkey still has the option to change course. If Turkey does not accept delivery of the S-400, we will enable Turkey to return to normal F-35 program activities. Turkey is a close NATO ally and our military-to-military relationship is strong.”

As of today, I would say that the issue has been settled. It seems that Erdoğan either does not think the American Administration is serious about removing Turkey from the F-35 program, or he has made a calculation that his relationship with the United States and NATO is not that important to his country's future.

I do not think the Trump Administration is bluffing. It is inconceivable that the United States would allow the same country that is operating a Russian near state-of-the-art air defense system to operate the world's most advanced aircraft, replete with sensitive avionics and reduced radar cross section technology.

While one might think that NATO ally Turkey would allow American intelligence access to the Russian S-400 system, the fact is that the "modified for export" version is delivered without source codes, advanced radar modes, and uses downgraded electronics.

When the Russians, or the United States for that matter, export these advanced systems, it is assumed that much of that technology will end up in foreign hands. We assume that exported U.S. technology will end up in Moscow or Beijing. The Russians will want to exploit the technology for intelligence and countermeasures, and the Chinese will just steal and clone the technology.

The S-400 purchase is just another symptom of what I will call "Erdoğan disease" - the myopic, blundering foreign policy moves that has cost Turkey much of its standing and likely its economy. Erdoğan seems to have pivoted to the east, favoring his burgeoning relationships with Russia and Iran at the expense of what used to be Turkey's attempts to align itself with Europe.

Other manifestations of Erdoğan disease?

When the United States began operations in Syria against the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Turkey, actually Erdoğan himself, was grossly unhelpful. The fact that most foreign ISIS fighters found their way into Syria via Turkey is not lost on the West.

I've spent a lot of time on both sides of the Turkey-Syria border. It is not a border I would attempt to cross clandestinely - it is replete with guard towers, minefields, patrols, etc. Turkish guards have orders to shoot anyone attempting to cross in either direction. Whoever crossed into Syria did so with Turkish help - either officially or unofficially.

As the U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - whose main component is the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (know by their Kurdish initials YPG) - did the lion's share of the ground fighting that eventually dislodged ISIS from controlling territory in Syria, they were attacked by Turkish military forces.

Erdoğan considers the YPG to be just an extension of the designated Turkish Kurd terrorist PKK armed insurgency. The Turkish president insisted that Turkish troops be the forces to liberate the main ISIS stronghold of al-Raqqah, even though his forces were months away and would have had to fight their way though the SDF. The whole concept was so ludicrous that U.S. commanders dismissed it out of hand.

The ill-fated al-Raqqah plan was followed by the Turkish invasion of 'Afrin - claimed to be an anti-terrorism operation, but in realty was just an excuse to attack the YPG in northern Syria and prevent the YPG/Kurds from controlling the Syrian side of the border from the Iraqi border to Idlib province.

Then there is the Turkish presence in Syria's Idlib province, ostensibly to prevent the Syrians - with their Russian and Iranian-backed allies - from eliminating the remaining rebels and Islamists who are bottled up in the province. One might get the impression the Turks are protecting the al-Qa'idah faction and other jihadists. There is probably a reason for that impression....

Decision time is coming for Turkey, for the Turks and for Erdoğan. The three might not be the same thing. Erdoğan is fast losing internal support - the recent elections in Istanbul were a blow to Erdoğan and his AKP party. His popularity, especially in Trakya, has been steadily waning. Cozying up to the Russians and Iranians will not help.

Is there a cure for Erdoğan disease? Turkey and the Turks will have to figure that out.

June 21, 2019

President Trump's decision to call off strikes on Iran - why?

U.S. Navy RQ-4 drone, tracking and video of shootdown

Following the shootdown of a U.S. Navy RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned reconnaissance aircraft over the Gulf of Oman on June 20 by air defense units of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), President Trump ordered - and cancelled - retaliatory missile strikes on Iranian targets.

Although the Iranians claim that the aircraft had violated Iranian airspace, video footage taken from another surveillance aircraft (probably a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon) annotated with geographic coordinates clearly indicates the incident occurred about 20 miles from the Iranian coast, well-beyond the 12 miles recognized as sovereign airspace.

Following the strike, the commander of U.S. Air Forces Central (the USAF component of U.S. Central Command) provided scant details of the incident, reiterating that the aircraft had remained in either international or allied (United Arab Emirates and Sultanate of Oman) airspace at all times, never entering either Iran's recognized or even claimed airspace.

After briefing Congressional leaders of both parties at the White House, the President ordered preparations for strikes on Iranian targets. As these preparations were underway, the President cancelled the strikes.

The President explained via Twitter:

On Monday they shot down an unmanned drone flying in International Waters. We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights when I asked, how many will die. 150 people, sir, was the answer from a General. 10 minutes before the strike I stopped it, not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone. I am in no hurry, our Military is rebuilt, new, and ready to go, by far the best in the world. Sanctions are biting & more added last night. Iran can NEVER have Nuclear Weapons, not against the USA, and not against the WORLD!

Of course, the media/pundit-sphere erupted, mostly along party or factional lines. Hawks decried it as a sign of weakness, Democrats were relieved - Senate Minority Leader Schumer had worried about the President "bumbling" into another war.

A few think-tank analysts thought it was a smart move, while others compared it to former President Obama's failure to enforce his own red line when the Syrian regime used chemical weapons on its own citizens.

What do I think?

Initially, I thought that we would have to respond militarily to the downing of the aircraft or risk being seen as Obama 2.0, talking tough and doing nothing, acquiescing to the Iranians yet again.

The Iranians, like most others in the Middle East, understand and respect power and decisive action. They also recognize and exploit weakness.

However, I agree with the President's cancellation of this particular target set. A military response that kills 150 people - although these would almost certainly be IRGC personnel, not innocent civilians - is, in the President's words, disproportionate. I have no problem with disproportionate retaliatory strikes, but concede the point on the high number of deaths.

Certainly the targeting shop at CENTCOM intelligence can come up with a target set that sends an overwhelming message, a disproportionate message if you will, that the United States will not tolerate further attacks, yet with less risk to personnel.

The unofficial unsanctioned motto of the Air Force is "kill people, break things." In this case, I would opt for the latter, but break a lot of things. If the Iranians continue to attack or escalate, the gloves come off and we remind the mullahs who they are trying to intimidate. Make it known if they kill more Americans, we will redefine "disproportionate."

Should the President have ordered the attack to proceed and U.S. missiles killed over 100 IRGC fighters, it would allow Iran to play the role of victim rather than perpetrator. That Iranian stance might succeed with our JCPOA*-loving European allies who desperately want to continue to peddle their wares to Iran. If we "over react," they may not be willing to re-impose sanctions when Iran openly violates the JCPOA.

I believe they have been violating it from the outset by refusing to make the required possible military dimension declaration, the so-called PMD. In addition, since the International Atomic Energy Agency refuses to compel Iran to open their military sites for inspection - allowed under the JCPOA -they have no way of knowing if Iran is in compliance. I am guessing they are not.

All that said, the shootdown of the aircraft requires a response. Unless the Iranians admit an error - the President gave them an out when he said he was not sure the action was intentional and perhaps it was a general who gave the order to engage the RQ-4 in error - and offer compensation for the loss, there will have to be consequences.

I don't see that happening. So, break things - break lots of expensive things.

* Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action - the Iran nuclear deal of 2015 from which the United States withdrew in May 2018.

May 24, 2019

Memorial Day 2019

As I do most years, I write an article for Memorial Day discussing my thoughts on those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for this country.

It is my way of reminding everyone that although the Memorial Day weekend marks the unofficial beginning of the summer season and is a great opportunity to pick up appliances on sale at the local big-box store, the day is meant to pay tribute to those who went off to fight our wars, but did not return.

Since the Revolutionary War, over 1,100,000 Americans have died in our wars. Almost 100,000 of those were on my watch (1970-1998). That's too many.

The photograph above is a compilation of the 17 members of the 6994th Security Squadron who were killed in action in the skies of Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. All of them were aircrew members on EC-47 reconnaissance aircraft, affectionately called by those who flew on, and loved, them - "Electric Goons."

The unofficial nickname is based on the E designator for "electronic" and the common nickname of the DC-3/C-47 Skytrain, the "Gooney Bird." Note the tail numbers of the aircraft listed below - the first two digits indicate the year the aircraft was procured, in these cases by the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1943 through 1945.

EC-47 "Electric Goons" over Vietnam

These 17 airmen were communications intercept operators and analysts, monitoring Morse code and voice communications between Viet Cong (VC) units, and later communications of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). That required the linguists to be trained in the Hanoi dialect of Vietnamese, markedly different from the dialect spoken in South Vietnam.

The aircrews, operating as a team on multiple aircraft, were able to locate VC and NVA units by employing a technique known as airborne radio direction finding (ARDF) - basically triangulating the signals. Once an emitter of interest was detected, operators on multiple aircraft would all take "cuts" on the signal, passing the data to the navigators who plotted the location of the target. The resulting intelligence - target coordinates - was passed on to battle managers who more often than not directed air strikes at those locations. It was an effective mission.

Monitoring these communications mostly transmitted on low-power radios, required the mission aircraft to operate at low altitudes and low speeds - the EC-47, the electronic reconnaissance version of the venerable C-47 aircraft of World War II fame, was a perfect airframe for the mission.

Operating over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia at low altitudes searching for low-power radio signals is inherently dangerous. A slow lumbering vintage EC-47 aircraft was an easy target for enemy gunners. By the later years of the war, the NVA had moved highly-lethal Soviet-made 37mm antiaircraft guns into South Vietnam and Laos. We believe that at least two of the losses detailed below involved a 37mm gun.

These aircraft losses resulted in squadron deaths. These do not include the "front-end" crews of the 460th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing and its three subordinate squadrons - the no-nonsense pilots, navigators, and engineers who got us into the target areas. Many of them also paid the ultimate price.

- EC-47P tail number 43-49201 / March 9, 1967 / callsign Tide 86 / Nha Trang AB, Vietnam / three 6994th Security Squadron members killed

- EC-47Q tail number 45-1133 / February 5, 1969 / callsign
Cap 72 / Pleiku AB, Vietnam / five 6994th Security Squadron members killed

- EC-47P tail number 43-49100 / October 8, 1969 / callsign
Prong 33 / Phu Cat AB, Vietnam / two 6994th Security Squadron members killed

- EC-47P tail number 43-48402 / April 22, 1970 / callsign Cap 53 / Pleiku AB, Vietnam / one 6994th Security Squadron member killed

- EC-47Q tail number 43-49771 / November 21, 1972 / callsign Baron 56 / Nakhon Phanom AB, Thailand / one 6994th Security Squadron member killed

- EC-47Q tail number 43-48636 / February 5, 1973 / callsign Baron 52 / Nakhon Phanom AB, Thailand / five 6994th Security Squadron members killed

These seventeen airmen gave their lives in service to the country. I wish all of you a pleasant weekend - there is nothing wrong with enjoying time with family and friends.

I would ask, however, that at some point, take a moment and remember what this holiday is about.

May 10, 2019

Another intelligence analyst betrays his country - collusion with a reporter?

Traitor Daniel Everette Hale - the indictment - Traitor Jeremy Scahill

Daniel Everette Hale becomes the latest in a series of intelligence personnel to be charged with either treason, espionage, mishandling classified information or divulging classified material to unauthorized persons.*

This case is a bit different, however. Here we may have active collusion between a defense contractor (Hale) - with leftist "reporter" Jeremy Scahill. I realize it is a reporter's job to uncover government malfeasance, but in this case Scahill may have crossed the line between journalism and criminal activity.

Hale served in the U.S. Air Force from July 2009 to July 2013. During that time, he was assigned as a cryptologic linguist to the National Security Agency (NSA). During this assignment, Hale deployed to Afghanistan where he supported drone intelligence collection and kinetic kill/capture operations against a variety of targets.

After he left the Air Force in July 2013, he began work for a defense contractor with duties at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). During all of this time, Hale held a Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information clearance. Hale was arrested on May 9 for unauthorized disclosure of classified information. Read the now unsealed indictment.

Reading federal indictments involves wading through a lot of legalese/law enforcement jargon. Here is a quick synopsis of what happened, and how Scahill acted more like a foreign intelligence officer rather than a professional journalist. In a perfect world, Scahill would be indicted as a co-conspirator and be in jail along with Hale.

In April 2013, while still on active duty and assigned to NSA, Hale sought out and personally met with Scahill in the Washington, DC. After that meeting, Scahill told Hale he wanted to tell "Hale's story" on drone operations in Afghanistan.

Contacts and meetings continued through July when Hale separated from Air Force, and beyond. Hale had provided his unclassified resume which described his participation in drone operations. He also revealed his experience in classification and declassification procedures, an indication that he fully understood the sensitive nature of classified material.

At this point, Scahill advised Hale to set up an encrypted chat capability using the Jabber program. In December 2013, Hale began work for defense contractor Leidos with duties at NGA headquarters on Fort Belvoir near Springfield, Virginia. Hale and Scahill used the encrypted chat program at least three times between September 2013 and February 2014.

Immediately after an encrypted chat on February 27, Hale accessed and printed one document marked Top Secret, and five documents marked Secret. None of the six documents were related to Hale's duties at NGA.

All six documents printed were later published in The Intercept, a publication of which Scahill is an editor and notorious for publishing classified government documents. It gained fame by publishing material provided to it by another traitor, Edward Snowden.

While employed as an NGA contractor, Hale printed 36 documents; 23 were unrelated to his duties at the agency. Of these 23 documents, Hale provided at least 17 to the Scahill; all were subsequently published in The Intercept.

On a related note, forensic analysis of Hale's computers and devices indicated the presence of Tor software and the Tails operating system, which were recommended by The Intercept in an article on how to anonymously “leak” documents. I am sure this is not coincidental.

As a professional intelligence officer, I consider what Scahill did to be tasking. In fact, since Hale obtained employment with Leidos that would place him at NGA headquarters, it will be interesting to find out if Hale was encouraged (tasked) to seek that job position by Scahill.

It further appears that since Hale began providing documents to Scahill almost immediately after beginning work at NGA, this amounts to what we in the intelligence business call "collection tasking." Note that Hale only worked for the contractor for a total of eight months, quitting one month after he provided the last document to Scahill. One could draw the conclusion that he accomplished what he had set out to do, or possibly fulfilled his taking, and then left the company.

We will eventually know exactly the relationship between the so-called journalist and his traitorous accomplice. In virtually all of these cases, the accused enters into a plea deal in return for lesser charges. In return, the accused agrees to provide a full accounting of his/her criminal activity.

Hale's lawyers will undoubtedly try the "whistleblower" defense. Whistleblowers, of course, deserve protection when they follow the guidelines. First, report via the chain of command, then the inspector general of the organization, and possibly even appropriately cleared congressional bodies. Note that the media is not among these channels.

Hopefully, Hale's future allocution will include details of Scahill's involvement into convincing, coercing, or even paying - Hale to violate his oath of allegiance to the United States, as well as a series of federal statutes.

Reporting on government operations is one thing - tasking, aiding and abetting the unauthorized release of classified national defense information is another.

We know Hale violated the law. If what Scahill did does not constitute criminal activity, it should.

* See my earlier comments on two other former U.S. Air Force intelligence linguists who have been indicted and/or convicted of similar crimes.

- Reality (is the) Winner - former NSA contractor pleads guilty

- The indictment of former Air Force intelligence specialist Monica Elfriede Witt

April 20, 2019

Movie Review: "Operation Finale" (MGM - 2018)

Operation Finale is a 2018 American historical drama about the 1960 Israeli intelligence operation to capture Nazi SS officer Adolph Eichmann in Argentina and transport him to Israel to stand trial. It is the story of a well-planned and well-executed operation that should have made a great movie.

Unfortunately, the screenwriters took far too many liberties with actual events when there was no need to do so - the actual story is fascinating and deserving of just being told, not embellished.

That said, the performances of Ben Kingsley and Lior Raz go a long way to making up for the historical inaccuracies.

What was in reality a excellent Mossad operation comes across as a poorly-executed amateurish effort that barely succeeded. The Mossad is one of the world's best intelligence agencies, and this was one of their signature successes, but you wouldn't know that from this account.

This movie is available on Amazon video - not included in Amazon Prime, so you'll have to cough up about six dollars to watch it. I'd recommend you try to find the much better account The House on Garibaldi Street, a 1979 made-for-TV movie. That earlier effort is much more faithful to the excellent book (of the same name) written by Isser Harel. Harel was the director of the Mossad and personally oversaw the operation.

April 18, 2019

"Taliban John" Walker Lindh to be released - justice undone

Inmate 45426-083

John Walker Lindh, or more properly, Inmate 45426-083, will be released from the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana on May 23. Lindh is fortunate to still be alive, and fortunate to not be serving a life sentence at the Supermax prison in Colorado - both of which I find disappointing.

Lindh, now 38, is being released after serving 17 years of a 20 year sentence, a sentence reached in a plea deal to preclude the government from being questioned about Lindh's treatment after his capture on a battlefield in Afghanistan while fighting for the Taliban.

Many (including me) believe that Lindh could have prevented the death of CIA officer Mike Spann during a prison uprising in Mazar-i-Sharif. He was aware of the impending violence, but remained silent.

Inmate 45426-083 now prefers the nom de guerre Abu Sulayman al-Irlandi, reflecting his status as an Irish citizen - he acquired Irish citizenship through his grandmother, and has stated that he plans to emigrate to Ireland after his release. Fortunately, that is not going to happen anytime soon.

A federal judge has ruled that "Abu Sulayman" will be under supervised release for three years. Theoretically, during that time, he is precluded from having an internet-capable device without permission from his probation office, cannot view or access extremist or terrorism videos, and must allow the probation office to monitor his internet use.

Lindh must also undergo mental health counseling. I doubt that will do much good - he's not mentally ill, he's a committed jihadist.

Lindh has shown no remorse whatsoever for his past terrorist activities. Despite his father's continued crusade to whitewash his son's treasonous actions, he is a committed Islamist terrorist, and there is no reason to believe that he will not rejoin the jihad against the United States.

Frank Lindh and  Marilyn Walker

His father repeatedly speaks out about the government's "persecution" of his son. In his own words:

"John loves America. We love America. John did not do anything against America. John did not take up arms against America. He never meant to harm any American, and he never did harm any American. John is innocent of these charges."

Tell that to the family of Mike Spann.

At his sentencing, Lindh said he went to Afghanistan and joined the Taliban to fight what he saw as the anti-Muslim Northern Alliance and learned later about the Taliban’s close connection to al-Qa'idah leader Usamah bin Ladin. "I want the American people to know that had I realized then what I know now about the Taliban, I never would have joined them."

Dear Inmate 45426-083: I didn't believe you then and I don't believe you now. If it was up to me, you'd either be dead or rotting in an Afghan prison.

April 13, 2019

Movie Review: "Queen of the Desert" (Benaroya Pictures - 2015)

(Note: This movie is available on Netflix.)

I often make presentations on the Middle East to various audiences, including cruise ships. Surprisingly, there is great interest in the history of the region, particularly how the current borders were drawn by the United Kingdom and France.

A friend recommended this film to me as it touches on that history. Of course, as soon as I saw the name Gertrude Bell, I had to watch it. She was one of the key British advisers as the Ottoman Empire was carved up after World War One, at a time when women were not readily accepted in this role.

Queen of the Desert is a 2015 film that purports to be a biography of Gertrude Bell. I found it to be condescending and petty - Gertrude Bell was a pioneer who made major contributions to not only the British Empire (she was made a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire), but to the nascent Kingdom of Iraq as an adviser to King Faysal. It was Gertrude Bell that proposed the borders between Iraq, Syria and Jordan, borders that remain virtually identical today. It was her understanding of the relations between the tribes in that region where the three countries and Saudi Arabia are closest that allowed the British to maintain political influence in the area.

Although there are glitches and gaffes in every movie, one stands out to me. The opening scene is labeled as taking place in 1914 at the British Arab Bureau in Cairo, in which senior British officials (including Winston Churchill) and military officers are discussing the eventual carving up of the Middle East after the war. The war had just begun at that time, and the agreement being discussed at this meeting - the Sykes-Picot Agreement between France and Great Britain - was not reached until the spring of 1916.

The film was harshly treated by critics. While I often like movies that critics do not, in this instance, I agree with their assessment. This could have been a hard-hitting biography of a woman who is a role model for other women today, but seemed to focus on her personal failures rather than her professional accomplishments. I was not surprised to discover that the $36 million project grossed only $2 million dollars at the box office.

That said, Nicole Kidman did the best she could with the script she had. I would compliment her on her accurate pronunciation of the Arabic phrases that she used in the film.

Pass on this one. Letters from Baghdad (Between the Rivers Productions - 2018) is a better choice.

April 12, 2019

Movie Review: "Beirut" (Radar Pictures - 2018)

(Note: This movie is available on Amazon video.)

I recently made a series of talks on the Middle East during a cruise - yes, a tough job - and one of the movies available to stream in the passenger staterooms was Beirut. Bottom line: Watch it - it is two hours of tense action with a reasonable story line. As a glimpse into Beirut in 1982, it is plausible. As an "inspired by actual events" documentary of the situation at that time, not probable.

The movie opens with a really well-done scene set in 1972 at the Beirut home of the main character Mason Skiles, played by Jon Hamm of Mad Men fame. Skiles, a Sate Department diplomat, is hosting a cocktail/dinner party for a visiting congressional delegation - those of us who have served at American embassies in the Middle East will recognize the scenario. Skiles delivers an explanation of the situation in 1970's Lebanon that is brilliant, and alone worth the price of admission.

The party is interrupted by an attack by Palestinian terrorists which sets up much of the later action in the movie. I will not go into too much detail so as not to spoil the movie for those who have not yet seen it.

The remainder of the movie takes place in 1982, a few weeks prior to the Israeli invasion. Skiles, who has retired, is called back into service to negotiate the release of a CIA officer who has been kidnapped by a Palestinian group. This takes place in the context of rising tensions between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization - the drums of war are beating as Skiles tries to arrange a hostage exchange.

I enjoyed the interplay between the various factions that make up the American country team and the outsiders. The ambassador, CIA station chief, a visiting colonel from the National Security Council, and a CIA officer played (well) by Rosamund Pike, all functioned pretty much as they would in real life, with some minor exceptions in the station chief's activities, but this was Beirut in 1982. It was a wild time, as I recall. The Israeli angle is a bit overplayed, but it does make for good fiction.

I recommend the movie as good entertainment, but not necessarily an insight into the situation in Lebanon at the time.

March 8, 2019

Iran continues its missile research and development efforts - thank you, John Kerry

John Kerry and Javad Zarif - also known as "Give and Take"

According to a recent article by David Wainer for Bloomberg, U.S. Warns Wary UN Security Council on Iran Ballistic Missiles, the United States is calling on the United Nations Security Council to take action against Iran for its continued ballistic (and cruise) missile research and development program.

A letter from Ambassador Jonathan Cohen, the acting U.S. representative to the body, claimed that Iran “has conducted several activities that defy” a UN resolution urging it to refrain from actions related to “ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.”

Ambassador Cohen is referring to UNSCR 2231 of July 2015 which was adopted as the United Nations agreed to the disastrous Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the so-called Iran nuclear deal.

Cohen's letter claims that any UN member state supporting Iran’s ballistic missile program is in violation of the resolution, that all members “have an obligation under that resolution not to supply, sell, or transfer to Iran ballistic missile-related items, materials, equipment, goods, and technology absent advance, case-by-case approval from the Security Council.”

Pushing back against the American letter, Russia and China - both permanent members of the Security Council with veto power - noted, correctly in my opinion, that UNSCR 2231 does not prohibit Iran from testing ballistic missiles, as UNSCR 1929 (June 2010) did.

UNSCR 1929 stated that "Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles...." The new resolution, watered down at Iran's request, states that Iran is "called upon not to" develop ballistic missiles.

Thank you, John Kerry

Yes, it was the terminally ineffective John Kerry who caved in to Iran's demands to alter the wording of UNSCR 1929. In Kerry's negotiations (and I use the word reluctantly) with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif - or as I call the duo, "Give and Take" - he agreed to the change, claiming that the new words carried the same restrictions as the former wording.

I am not a lawyer (John Kerry is), but even I know the difference between "shall not" and "called upon not to." Evidently, Kerry does not. Here is an exchange between then Secretary of State Kerry and Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

SENATOR ROBERT MENENDEZ: Mr. Secretary, I'm seriously concerned about the lifting of the arms embargo that creeped its way into this deal. As I read the Security Council resolution on page 119, the ban on Iranian ballistic missiles has, in fact, been lifted. The new Security Council resolution is quite clear. Iran is not prohibited from carrying out ballistic missile work. The resolution merely says, quote, "Iran is called upon not to undertake such activity." Previously, in Security Council Resolution 1929, the council used mandatory language where it said, quote, "It decides that Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons." Why would we accept inferior language that changes the mandatory shall to a permissive call upon. We often call upon a lot of countries to do or stop certain actions in the U.N., but it doesn't have the force of shall not which has consequences if you do. Can you answer simply, is Iran banned from ballistic missile work for the next eight years?

SECRETARY KERRY: That is not accurate. The exact same language in the embargo is in the agreement with respect to launches. And that is under Article 25 of the U.N. And that is exactly where it is today in the language. But in addition to that, Iran did not want it, and we insisted on it. They are restrained from any sharing of missile technology, purchase of missile technology, exchange of missile technology, work on missiles. They cannot do that under Aticle 41, which is Chapter VII and mandatory. And it does have the language still.

MENENDEZ: It seems -- I'm reading to you from the Security Council resolution that was adopted, codifying the...

KERRY: Yes, this agreement. The security council resolution.

MENENDEZ: And that security council resolution says Iran -- Mr. Secretary, I'm reading you explicit language. I'm not making this up. Iran is called upon...

KERRY: Correct.

MENENDEZ: ... not to undertake...

KERRY: That's the article 25, it's exactly what it is.

MENENDEZ: That's far different than shall not.

KERRY: Senator, that's exactly what it is today. It's the same language as it in the embargo now. We transferred it to this and that's what it is.

MENENDEZ: Not the same language as Security Council resolution 1929.

It goes on, but you get the idea. While Secretary Kerry may not grasp the difference, the rest of the world has. A sane person believes that John Kerry either wanted to make a deal with the Iranians no matter what the cost, or that he does not grasp the difference between "shall not" and "called upon not to." Perhaps both are true.

The Iranians obviously know the difference between the two phrases, and have exploited that Kerry-provided loophole to continue their aggressive missile research and development program. They now have the support and protection of the Russians and Chinese.

Thanks, John Kerry.

February 23, 2019

U.S. to leave 400 troops in Syria - is it enough?

U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers in Syria

In what appears to be a significant - and welcome - policy reversal, the United States now plans to keep about 400 troops in Syria. This is yet another change to the complete withdrawal plan voiced earlier by President Donald Trump, which then became a small residual force of 200, and now has grown to a force of 400.

The American forces will not be operating alone in Syria. The French and British - two allies with troops on the ground in Syria supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the primarily Kurdish force providing the ground component in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - will only remain if there is a U.S. presence. This residual U.S. force addresses that requirement.

Note that I did not include alleged NATO ally Turkey. While the Turks definitely have forces on the ground in Syria, they are not allied with the SDF nor are they helping in the fight against ISIS.

In fact, the Turks are threatening to attack the SDF. They consider the Kurdish People's Protection Units, known by the Kurdish initials YPG, as the Syrian branch of the Turkish Kurdish separatist Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK). The YPG is the main component of the SDF.

So, in essence, we have a NATO ally threatening to attack the most effective ground force taking the fight to ISIS. I have been consistent in labeling the multiple Turkish incursions into northern Syria as unhelpful and unnecessary.

The President is contemplating a larger force of Western allies of between 800 and 1500 troops. The presence of these troops will be to monitor the Kurdish areas to prevent a resurgence of ISIS - there are sleeper cells who have begun reconstituting what was the Islamic "state" as an insurgent group.

It also serves what I believe is a more important purpose: it interposes a NATO/Western force between the SDF - the Kurds if you will - and the Turks. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has threatened military action against the Kurds to create a "safety zone" inside Syria running virtually the entire length of the Turkish border. The Turks continue to be unhelpful in defeating ISIS, and unhelpful in creating stability in northern Syria.

It also maintains a NATO/Western presence to protect the SDF/Kurds from the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad. The regime wants to reassert Syrian control over the newly liberated areas of northern Syria. At one point, the SDF had hoped that the Syrian government might agree to some form of Kurdish autonomy similar to the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. The Syrian leader, backed by his Russian masters, has rejected any such notion.

With all that said, can the presence of only 400 American troops, as part of a potential allied force of 1500, be enough to prevent a resurgence of ISIS, a reassertion of Syrian rule, and a foolhardy Turkish military operation against the YPG?

The short answer is yes. The longer answer is a bit more complicated.

The key factor to success in achieving the three objectives I posited above is continued U.S. access to Iraq, specifically to 'Ayn al-Asad air base in western al-Anbar. None of this works without access to Syria via Iraq. Jordan cannot fill the bill, and Turkey won't.

The second factor is the force structure of the 400 troops. Half of the American forces will be deployed to the al-Tanf area to maintain a presence in the Syria-Iraq-Jordan tri-border. One of the missions of this deployment is to remain a blocking force to prevent Iranian-backed Shi'a militias from completing a land bridge from Tehran, Iran to Beirut, Lebanon via Iraq and Syria. Personally, I think this "threat" is a bit overplayed - the Iranians have been supplying Hizballah via a Tehran-Damascus air bridge for well over three decades.

The other half of the American troops will remain in northeast Syria to continue to work with the SDF and other allies, hopefully British and French troops. Although the numbers will be reduced, the ISIS threat has diminished as the last pocket of the "caliphate" at Baghuz is eliminated. The SDF will have to continue to root out remaining cells as ISIS attempts to reconstitute itself as an insurgency.

The right combination of U.S. special operations forces will be able to provide the support the SDF requires, while keeping the Syrians and Turks at bay. In my opinion, the latter is the key mission.

February 22, 2019

Repentant "ISIS bride" wants to return to the United States

(Click for larger view)

Hoda Muthana in her own words

Hoda Muthana, a 24-year old woman who grew up in the United States, was captured by Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Syria after she attempted to flee from the last remaining pocket of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). She tells her captors she “deeply regrets” travelling to Syria to join the terror group and has asked that she be allowed to reunite with her family in Alabama.

My initial reaction to this was similar to that of many others who follow the Middle East - why should we allow her to come back? She made her bed, literally, having taken not one ISIS husband, but three, taking a new fighter as her husband as the previous ones were killed by U.S.-led coalition forces. Let her live out her years in a Syrian or Iraqi prison. Failing that, declare her an illegal/enemy combatant and send her to Guantanamo with her fellow terrorists.

The question of Muthana's future hinges on her citizenship status. Is she or is she not an American citizen? Ultimately, it will be settled in court. Was Muthana's father a Yemeni diplomat or a permanent resident alien at the time of his daughter's birth? There are conflicting dates and various subtleties that the lawyers will debate ad nauseum.

My hope, futile I know, is that the lawyers on both sides will focus on the legal issues and not allow her Islamist activist lawyer Hassan Shibly to turn this admitted terrorist - read her own words above - into a celebrity or a sympathetic creature.

Hoda Muthana is neither - she was a willing participant in one of the most brutal terrorist organizations in the world, attempted to incite violence against innocent Americans, advocated an assassination attempt against a sitting U.S. President, encouraged other women to join ISIS, and sought funds for "jihad" (holy war).

If the courts decide she is in fact not a U.S. citizen, the argument is basically over. She's on her own in Syria, Iraq, or wherever she ends up. It is not, nor should it be, a concern of the United States. Not one dime of taxpayer money should be spent on her.

If the courts decide Hoda Muthana is a citizen of the United States, the legal case against her appears strong. Again, her actions and words were in violation of the law. Several would-be ISIS terrorists are currently serving long sentences in American prisons for conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist organization, in many cases ISIS.

In this case, we have an actual ISIS terrorist - she is facing decades, possibly life, in prison for her crimes. I sympathize with her plight, but am not willing to excuse it. Despite her claims that she "deeply regrets" her actions, she shouldn't get a do-over.

I also hope her lawyers, again probably futile, spare us the "she was only 19 years old" in 2014 when she decided to go to Syria and join a terrorist organization. Thousands of young Americans decide at age 18 and 19 to join the U.S. armed forces to protect this country against groups like ISIS, and by extension, people like Hoda Muthana.

Muthana claims that she is willing to face American justice in order to provide some sort of life for her son. It's always the children who pay the price for the mistakes of the parents. I wonder if that is truly the case here, or is she merely hoping to escape fending for herself in Syria, Iraq, or possibly Tunisia (original home of her child's father). In any case, she doesn't get to determine if she faces American justice - the people of the United States determine that.

I suspect that the courts will rule in Muthana's favor and declare that she is a U.S. citizen. If that happens, I hope that same legal system holds her accountable for her crimes.

Although part of me would prefer she be left to rot in a Middle Eastern prison, it would not be a bad thing to put her on trial in the United States and send the message that we will hold our own citizens accountable for their actions.