January 24, 2019

Interview on Israeli I24 NEWS "Perspectives"

My interview on the Israeli television network I24 NEWS this morning with anchor Tracy Alexander (who asked good questions) on remarks made by the Russian ambassador to Israel. We talked about ISIS, Turkey, Israel, and Syria.

Alternatively, watch on YouTube.

January 13, 2019

Trump threatens Turkey's economy if it attacks Kurds

I was asked on Twitter by a prominent Kurdish journalist about President Trump's tweet (above) concerning Syria, Turkey, and the Kurds. It is difficult to answer complex issues via Twitter's 280 characters, so here is an expanded version.

I believe the President’s earlier announcement of a withdrawal of American forces from Syria was a blunder. Another U.S. premature withdrawal is wrong. I cite the 2011 Obama withdrawal from Iraq that led to the creation of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Abandoning our Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) allies, a military force made up of several groups, but primarily the Kurdish People's Protection Units (known by the Kurdish initials YPG) is even worse.

That said, I liked the President’s words.

This tweet is more of the President’s realization that he was hasty - and wrong - in accepting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's word on anything. Hopefully, he now understands that Turkey has neither the intent nor the capability to defeat ISIS in Syria. It’s not about ISIS for the self-styled new "sultan" of what he delusionally believes is a new Ottoman Empire.

Defeating ISIS in Syria will have to be done by the U.S.-led coalition, with the YPG providing ground forces for the effort. The President may want to pull out American forces, but it isn’t as easy as he thinks. The SDF is much more effective with U.S. troops on the ground directly coordinating the effort against ISIS.

Pullout of U.S. forces will thus be slower than Trump wants. I am encouraged that the President now appears committed to the defeat of ISIS before we leave. It is important to note that he realizes ISIS represents an ideology and may re-surge. His pledge to address that is welcome.

I hope Trump is listening to his advisers, most of whom (including those of us who served with the Kurds) want him to ensure Turkish President Erdogan does not mount an incursion against the YPG.

I like his threats that Turkey will pay a price for its unhelpful and unnecessary military operations in northern Syria. It is about time a U.S. president called out the Turks for the unhelpful positions.

To those who wring their hands that President Trump is threatening a NATO ally, I respond that Turkey has not been any kind of ally since 2003. Recall the perfidy involved with the canceled approval for the already-begun deployment of the U.S. Army 4th Infantry Division into northern Iraq via Turkey. After deploying the entire division to Turkey, the Turkish government reneged on the authorization for the troops to move towards northern Iraq. The entire division had to be redeployed to Saudi Arabia at great expense, and great risk to the coalition plan of attack.

A 20 mile safe zone? That seems a bit excessive. How about a no-go/fly zone along the border from the Euphrates River to the Iraqi border? American airpower should be able to enforce that. Turkey's military is impressive on paper, but I doubt they want to challenge the U.S.

Bottom line
Turkey is not in the fight against ISIS, it never has been. I have been all along the Syrian-Turkish border, on both sides. I still wonder how all the thousands of ISIS fighters were able to cross what is a seriously controlled border. You hate to think there was collusion....

Turkey, and its new self-styled "sultan" Erdogan, wants to use the anti-ISIS fight as a fig leaf to attack the Syrian Kurd YPG. If they do, I hope the President makes them pay a price.

Bey Erdogan, do you want to be a NATO ally? Then act like it.

January 5, 2019

Turkey now wants U.S. support to defeat ISIS?

Turkish troops on the Syrian border

Since President Trump's rather surprising decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, there has been concern about the continuation of the fight against the remnants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). While ISIS fighters have been pushed almost completely out of Syria, there is a stubborn remaining pocket southeast of the city of Dayr al-Zawr.

Trump's announcement came as the forces of the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF) seized the city of Hajin, the last remaining sizable city still under ISIS control, after three months of bloody fighting, attacks and counterattacks.

The bulk of the SDF is made up of Syrian Kurds belonging to the People's Protection Units, known by its Kurdish initials YPG. The SDF/YPG has done the lion's share of the ground combat against ISIS in northern Syria, with extensive air, artillery, logistics, and advisory support from the U.S.-led coalition. The YPG's continued participation in the fight against ISIS is critical.

In formulating his withdrawal decision, President Trump spoke with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Reportedly during that conversation, Trump asked Erdoğan, "If we withdraw our soldiers, can you clean up ISIS?” Erdoğan replied that Turkish forces were up to the task. Evidently, Trump took Erdoğan at his word.

I really wish President Trump had followed the advice of, well, virtually everybody. I have been quite vocal in my writings and on-air interviews that I regard taking the word of the president of an unreliable NATO ally a huge mistake - I think I used the words "serious blunder."

Why do I say that? Let's look a the map.

I have drawn a red circle around the last remaining ISIS pocket, the al-Sha'afah pocket - in the middle Euphrates Valley east of the river. The larger pocket to the west is in the area of Syria controlled by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad, with his Russian, Iranian, and Lebanese Hizballah supporters, without whom he would have been removed from power years ago. That pocket is mainly desert and of no real strategic or tactical consequence.

It is ludicrous to think that the Turks are willing and capable of "cleaning up ISIS" in Syria. The closest Turkish troops to the al-Sha'afah pocket are at least 275 kilometers/170 miles away.

The only way for Turkish ground forces - tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery, troop transports, supply trucks - plus a huge logistics tail, is to traverse that distance through territory controlled and inhabited by Syrian Kurds, as well as a significant number of Assyrians.

Can the Turks pull this off? Short answer: No.

Longer answer: To accomplish what they claim they are willing to do - "clean up ISIS" - they will need a lot of support. Who is going to provide that support? The Turks have requested that the United States provide air strikes, logistics, and transportation.

Not only are the Turks not capable of the logistics of this operation, they have to solve the problem of traversing what will undoubtedly be hostile territory. It might be that the Turks are asking for so much assistance that it would require the deployment of additional American troops to Syria, rather than reducing the number.

What the Turks are really asking is for the United States to arrange safe passage for Turkish forces through the areas controlled by the YPG, the very people the Turkish president has branded as terrorists, nothing more than an extension of the terrorist group PKK. The PKK, a Kurdish separatist movement in southeastern Turkey, has been fighting an insurgency against the Turkish government for decades.

I do not think the United States will be able to - nor should it - attempt to arrange safe passage with a group that Erdoğan has vowed to eliminate militarily. The YPG will not trust the Turks (I don't either). Exacerbating the issue is the increased wariness on the part of the Kurds as to what American intentions are in Syria, and what commitment the United States is willing to make. If I were the Kurds, I would refuse.

The existing coalition is perfectly capable of removing ISIS from Syrian territory. Two things are required for that to happen. First, the U.S.-led coalition must remain intact. In other words, American forces must continue the fight in Syria.

Second, the Turks need to stop threatening an incursion into northern Syria to attack the YPG. If the YPG believes the Turks are going to attack, they will stop operations against ISIS in the al-Sha'afah pocket and redeploy back to their homes to defend their territory and families. The fight against ISIS will stagnate. ISIS has in the past taken advantage of previous Turkish tantrums to launch counterattacks.

The Turks continue to be difficult "allies." They threaten and make preparations to move troops into northern Syria, extending from the 'Afrin area (venue of a previous unhelpful and unnecessary Turkish incursion) east to the Iraqi border, an area mostly inhabited by Kurds.

Then they make a commitment to President Trump to finish the removal of ISIS from Syria - an objective I do not believe they are capable of attaining. To do that, they now ask for American assistance, including negotiating with the very group they want to destroy.

I don't trust Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He has been a consistent obstacle in the ongoing fight against ISIS. He knows his forces are not going to reach the middle Euphrates Valley to fight ISIS - that was never the plan. Erdoğan wants to eliminate the YPG, and he wants us to help him do it.

This entire charade is not a Turkish commitment to "finish ISIS," it's a plan to attack the Kurds in Syria.

January 1, 2019

Miniseries Review: "Fauda" (Netflix 2015-2018 )

We just finished watching the first two seasons of the Israeli-produced mini-series Fauda. Fauda (or more properly fawda) is the Arabic word for chaos, which is used by the Israeli military special operations team as a distress call.

Here is the Wikipedia description: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fauda

We would recommend it for those interested in the chaotic (pun intended) situation in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, administered by the Palestinian Authority. The antagonists are the Israel military versus the Palestinian Islamist group HAMAS (an acronym for al-harakat al-muqawamat al-islamiyah, the Islamic Resistance Movement), in season one, and in season two, HAMAS and a nascent ISIS cell.

Most of the action takes place in and around the city of Nablus. I recognized many of the locations from trips to the West Bank - I have often used the checkpoint at Qalqiliyah shown repeatedly in the show. It is the best route from Israel proper to Nablus.

In addition to our general recommendation, we would especially recommend the series for Arabic linguists. The two languages spoken by the characters are, of course, Hebrew and Arabic. The Hebrew dialog is dubbed (quite well) into English, so when you hear English spoken, remember that it is actually in Hebrew.

The Arabic is subtitled. The subtitles are accurate, but are more interpretation than a direct translation. If you are going to try to understand the Arabic dialog, one caveat: it is West Bank accented Palestinian Arabic. It took our Syrian/Damascene-tuned ears a few episodes to adapt to the dialect.

For the Arabic linguist geeks among you, I would describe it as Levantine Arabic with the Egyptian use of the letter shin attached to the verb for the negative. It makes for some interesting sounds. For example, in one scene, a Palestinian woman is being taken away by the team, screaming “I didn’t do anything.” In the local dialect, it becomes, ma ‘amalt-shi shi. Yeah, I know, too far down in the weeds….

Anyway, watch it. Season 3 will be shown in 2020.

POSTSCRIPT: I am told by a linguistics scholar that the dialect spoken in Nablus is actually called Southern Levantine Arabic.

Movie Review: "The Angel" (Netflix - 2018)

The (mostly) true story of Ashraf Marwan, who was Egyptian President Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasr's son-in-law and special adviser, and confidant to his successor Anwar al-Sadat - while simultaneously the Israeli intelligence service Mossad's most precious asset of the 20th century. More on Marwan: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashraf_Marwan.

I think it is very well done, and if you are an Arabic speaker, you will appreciate the Egyptian dialect spoken throughout, even though none of the actors are Egyptian. They include a Palestinian-American, a Tunisian-Dutchman, Palestinian-Israeli, an Iraqi-Israeli Jew, among others.

In 1973, Egyptian and Syrian forces launched an attack on Israel on the holy day of Yom Kippur, setting off what would turn into a weeks-long war. Though most of Israel was caught off guard by the attack, the Mossad had received a tip about what was to come. That tip came from Ashraf Marwan, a well-connected Egyptian national. Through access to Egypt’s top officials, Marwan had access to sensitive information — which he provided to Israel for several years, earning the code name “Angel.”

One minor (and I mean really minor) nit – in one scene set in 1973, an older version of the Egyptian flag appears in the President’s office. The flag design was changed in 1972.

The flag on the left is that of the United Arab Republic (UAR), the union between Syria and Egypt - Syria still uses this flag today. The UAR ended in 1961 with the Syrian coup that ushered in the Ba’ath Party. In 1972, Egypt replaced the two green stars with the Hawk of Quraysh (middle image), and in 1984, replaced the hawk with the Eagle of Salah al-Din (Saladin).

Watch it. It's available on Netflix, in fact, it is a Netflix Original.