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 Erdo─čan 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.

February 16, 2019

The indictment of former Air Force intelligence specialist Monica Elfriede Witt

The "Wanted by the FBI" circular for Witt

The recent indictment of a former U.S. Air Force intelligence specialist and counterintelligence agent raises serious questions beyond the information released in the the court filings. If you have time, read the indictment here. I have, and will try to clarify much of the legalese and intelligence community phraseology, while omitting the boilerplate miscellany.

Here is my review of the facts as we know them from the actual text of the indictment, from reading "between the lines" of the indictment based on my similar military background and training, and other publicly available information.

Monica Witt enlisted in the Air Force in August of 1997, and served on active duty for over ten years until March of 2008. After enlistment and basic training, she attended the Defense Language Institute (DLI) in Monterey, California, from February 1998 to April 1999. At DLI, she was trained as a Persian Farsi linguist. For those not familiar with Middle East languages, Persian Farsi is the language spoken in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Between the summer of 1999 and the end of 2003, Witt deployed overseas as an aircrew member on board the U.S. Air Force RC-135 Rivet Joint reconnaissance platform. Given her language specialty, it is not hard to figure out what "overseas locations" mentioned in the indictment means.

In late 2003, Witt left the cryptologic linguist specialty and became a special agent for the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI). In addition to its criminal investigative mission, AFOSI is the Air Force organization charged with counterintelligence operations.

These are sensitive missions - Witt's fluency in Farsi would be a useful tool in determining Iran's intelligence operations against the U.S. Department of Defense. After separating from the Air Force in 2008, she continued to work as an AFOSI special agent until August 2010 as a contractor with Booz Allen Hamilton.

Here is where it gets a little murky. There is nothing that tells us what happened between Witt's termination of her contract in 2010 until she makes a trip to Iran in January 2012 to attend a conference sponsored by an organization with ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). During this trip, she appeared in a video, admitted to being a U.S. military veteran, and made anti-American statements. (FLAG)

Upon her return to the United States, Witt was approached by the FBI and warned that based on her military experience and training, she was a prime target for recruitment by Iranian intelligence services. As you would suspect, Witt claimed she would never reveal classified information to the Iranians.

Witt continued an association with at least one Iranian official with ties to an Iranian intelligence agency - I suspect this is a reference to the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS). During one of the exchanges in October 2012, when complimented on her U.S. Air Force training, she replied that she was happy to be able to use her skills for "good rather than evil." (FLAG)

In June 2013, Witt traveled to Kabul, Afghanistan, where she confided in a former colleague that she had gone to the Iranian embassy there and "told all," and mentioned that she might become another Edward Snowden. (FLAG)

Despite all these flags - and there are others - there appears to be no attempt to stop Witt from divulging classified information to Iranian intelligence services. Of course, by now, it is too late. In August 2013, she goes to Dubai, and then to Iran where she defects.

Once in Iran, Witt becomes an eager asset for the Iranian intelligence services. Not only does she tell them what she knows about U.S. signals intelligence (SIGINT) operations and capabilities against Iran, she offers the names of her fellow AFOSI special agents conducting operations against the Islamic Republic.

It gets worse - she participates in cyber operations against these American officers, and helps develop target packages against them, providing "spotting and assessing" insights and personal details. Having conducted human intelligence operations, I can attest that these details and insights are invaluable.

How much damage can a former U.S. Air Force Technical Sergeant (that is the rank associated with the pay grade of E-6) do? From her participation in SIGINT operations, she has no doubt told the Iranians not that we are conducting SIGINT collection operations against them - they know that - but what our successes and capabilities are, and maybe more importantly, what problems and challenges the U.S. government is facing in those operations. It is extremely helpful when you know which of your communications are secure, and which are vulnerable.

From Witt's participation in AFOSI counterintelligence operations, she will have identified any U.S. or allied operatives of whom she was aware. This is where lives are at stake - the Iranians execute people on mere suspicion. While the identity of U.S. Air Force counterintelligence agents is harmful, it is the assets they run who face mortal danger.

With Witt in Iran and working with the Iranian intelligence services, it is unlikely that she will face justice in the United States. If she is foolish enough to leave Iran, she might be arrested in a country that has an extradition treaty with the United States, but her previous statements indicate she is aware of that danger. Failing a change of government in Iran - we can always hope - she may never see the inside of an American court or prison.

There is no doubt that there is an internal investigation in the U.S. counterintelligence community - as there should be. This woman, a trained SIGINT specialist and counterintelligence special agent, travels to Iran, participates in an anti-American conference sponsored by the most ruthless of the Iranian intelligence services, and despite warnings from the FBI, continues to communicate with Iranian intelligence operatives for over a year, and no one can make a case to detain her, or at least prevent her from traveling to Iran?

Why did it take six years from her initial cooperation with Iranian intelligence services in 2012, her defection in 2013, and her continuing work since 2014 against the United States to file an indictment in 2018 and try to bring her to justice?

Someone has some explaining to do.