October 28, 2019

QUOTED: After the killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi - what are the repercussions for ISIS?

The late Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

I was quoted in the London-based Arabic-language online newspaper Sharq Wa Gharb (East and West) on the death of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The article, "After the killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi - what are the repercussions for ISIS?" (in Arabic) can be accessed here.


Retired US Air Force Intelligence officer Rick Francona says it is important for the United States to carry out these types of operations against terrorist leaders.

Francona, a former officer with the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency, added that it sends a message that “we will devote time and resources to locate them, and we will take the risk to either bring them to justice, or in this case, bring justice to them.”

He points out, however, that this is not the end of ISIS. Since the loss of the territorial caliphate, ISIS has reverted to a more of a insurgent organization. They are on the ascent in many areas, especially in Iraq.

Francona says there will be an heir to succeed al-Baghdadi, and the organization will continue, stressing that US efforts against it will continue as well.

For the purists, here is the original Arabic:

October 26, 2019

Erdoğan demands the United States extradite Syrian Kurdish leader to Turkey

In what can only be described as delusional arrogance, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan asked the United States to extradite Syrian Kurdish leader Mazlum Abdi to Turkey, claiming the commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is a terrorist wanted by Turkey and the subject of an Interpol red notice.

Someone might want to tell the self-styled sultan just what an an Interpol red notice is. It is merely a request from the issuing country for assistance from other countries to find a wanted person - it is not an arrest warrant. According to the Department of Justice manual, red notices do not meet our probable cause standard. No country is legally obligated detain somebody based on a red notice - each member determines what legal status to give a red notice. I hope President Trump gives this red notice the respect it deserves - none.

The SDF is composed a variety of Syrian groups unified in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - the majority of SDF fighters are members of the People's Protection Units, more commonly known by the Kurdish initials YPG.

The Turks believe the YPG is nothing more than an extension of the Turkish Kurd separatist - and designated terrorist - organization. There is debate on whether or not that is true - personally, I believe there are PKK sympathizers in the YPG, but not actual PKK members.

That was not always the case. In past years, former Syrian President Hafiz al-Asad, father of the current president, allowed the PKK to establish safe havens inside Syria along the Turkish border. Hafiz's motive was not about supporting the PKK, but serving his own interests.

As the Turks built and filled the then-largest dam in the world on the Euphrates River, it reduced the flow of water into Syria. Hafiz allowed the PKK to lauch cross-border raids into Turkey to pressure Ankara into a higher rate of water flow.

It worked, and using the PKK to pressure Turkey on other issues became a foreign policy tool for Damascus. That said, I cannot find any evidence of an attack inside Turkey mounted by the Syrian Kurdish YPG. Their fight is not against the anti-Kurd government in Ankara, but against the anti-Kurd government in Damascus.

Ironically, the YPG is now working with that very Syrian government to resist the unnecessary and unjustified Turkish incursion into northeastern Syria, the Kurdish area of Syria.

Now Erdoğan wants the United States to extradite its ally, the leader that led the fight against ISIS, to Turkey, who arguably has blood on its hands for its unwillingness to staunch the flow of jihadist fighters flowing through Turkey from Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East into Syria and Iraq. It was not until ISIS mounted attacks in Turkey that Erdoğan took any action against the terrorist group.

It gets better - when the Turks decided they were going to engage ISIS, or at least claimed that they were going to engage ISIS in Syria, what we saw then is what we are seeing now. The Turks, in two military incursions into northern Syria, proceeded to fight the Kurds, which, of course, they identified as terrorists. Despite our admonitions that the SDF/YPG were allies in the fight against the actual enemy, the Turks insisted on attacking the YPG.

For my earlier thoughts on the recent American and Turkish actions in northern Syria, see:
- Trump, Turkey, and the Kurds - a study in perfidy
- Syria and Turkey - the NATO realities

Yesterday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu demanded that American officials refuse to meet with General Abdi. "Our allies' dialogue with a terrorist wanted with a red notice is unacceptable."

Two comments about Çavuşoğlu's tone-deaf remarks. First, I will risk the pun and label the Turkish claims as "trumped up charges."

Second, the Turks really need to think about the term "our allies." If they want to remain NATO allies, they need to start acting like NATO allies. They haven't done that since before 2003. Their recent actions take them closer to the Russians than to NATO and Europe. Of course, that may be what Erdoğan has in mind - re-establish the Ottoman Empire, focusing on Asia.

This is the National Oath map that is displayed in Erdoğan's office - looks fairly obvious to me.

Today, highly-regarded Swiss jurist Carla del Ponte stated that Turkey’s intervention in northern Syria had broken international law. Del Ponte is a former Swiss attorney general who prosecuted war crimes in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia, and a former member of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria.

Del Ponte: "For Erdogan to be able to invade Syrian territory to destroy the Kurds is unbelievable. An investigation should be opened into him and he should be charged with war crimes."

Here's a thought: why doesn't Switzerland - Ambassador del Ponte surely has influence - issue an Interpol red notice on Turkey's Ottoman-revivalist President Erdoğan? We can detain him next month pursuant to the red notice request and extradite him to Switzerland for trial.

October 23, 2019

Movie Review: "Sand Storm" (Netflix - 2016)

Although not a geopolitical film, I found this Israeli production about a Bedouin family living in southern Israel interesting. It provides a glimpse of a relatively unknown part of Israeli society. Unlike the other "Israeli Arabs," these people are not of Palestinian heritage, nor do they speak like it.

I will admit that the dialect was fairly difficult to understand, and not at all similar to the Arabic spoken in other parts of Israel or the Palestinian Authority. The subtitling takes a lot of liberties - interpreting rather than translating. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but at times the text would have been better if it had stayed truer to the actual words.

The plot revolves around the second marriage of a hapless man and the effect of that marriage on his first wife and their four daughters. The main interactions occur between the father (Suliman), his first wife (Jalila) and their eldest daughter Layla. The two actresses playing these two women, Ruba Blal and Lamis Ammar, do an excellent job portraying their characters as they both deal with their separate issues. The changing relationship between the two is worth watching.

Jalila has to accept the fact that her husband is taking another wife (Alakel) - and treating the younger woman much better. Layla is rebelling against her upcoming arranged marriage to a man she does not know, while beginning a flirtatious relationship with a fellow university student.

For a rather surprising glimpse into the difference of the treatment afforded the two wives - first wife Jalila versus second wife Alakel - watch the five minutes at time code 1:02 to 1:07. Normally when a Muslim takes a second (or third or fourth) wife, the treatment of the wives is supposed to be generally equal.

Although the first wife will retain a senior position, the accommodations are usually similar. Here we see Jalila's four daughters living in austere conditions (some would say squalor) while right next door, second wife Alakel enjoys modern appliances, furniture, and a fully-stocked kitchen.

Pay attention as well to the general living conditions in the small village. It looks a lot like similar villages in the Arab Middle East - dusty, strewn with trash, animals wandering unsupervised, poor roads, etc. What is surprising is that this village is in Israel. Perhaps Tel Aviv's largesse has yet to reach here.

Strong acting by the two female leads, and a peek into a generally ignored segment of society - watch it.

Netflix subscribers, click here for the link to the movie.

October 15, 2019

Syria and Turkey - the NATO realities

Turkish troops in northern Syria - unnecessary and  unhelpful

The situation in northern Syria is in complete disarray, and changing by the hour. If you could take a snapshot of what is going on, it would have all the makings of confusing international geopolitical suspense movie.

Just a few days ago, the United States and its in-name-only NATO ally Turkey had arrived at an uneasy status quo in which military forces of the two countries were conducting combined patrols along the Syrian-Turkish border. The patrols were in essence a confidence-building measure by which the U.S.-allied, trained, and equipped Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) attempted to convince the Turks that they were not a terrorist organization, and that they posed no territorial (or other) threat to Turkey. The Turks were gathering intelligence on the best attack axes.

The SDF is composed of mostly Syrian Kurds from the militia known as the People's Protection Unit - known more commonly by the Kurdish initials YPG - along with some Arab, Assyrian/Syriac, Armenian, and other militias. Turkish press accounts aside, these fighters were the key ground combat unit that removed the scourge of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from its territorial holdings in the country.

Why was this a problem? We have a U.S.-led coalition conducting an effective air campaign in support of an indigenous - Syrians all - on the ground. The SDF did the bulk of the fighting against ISIS, at the cost of over 10,000 killed in the fighting. This combination of forces required the presence of less that 1,000 American troops on the ground in Syria.

This was an effective use of American air power and special operations forces to leverage local militias - this is right out of the textbook taught at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg.

The problem, as far as the Turks are concerned, was the training and equipping of the SDF, or more specifically the YPG, by the United States and its allies - including key NATO allies the United Kingdom and France. Turkey believes that the SDF is an illegitimate organization.

To the Turks, the YPG is nothing more than extension of the Turkish Kurd separatist party known as the Kurdish Workers' Party, or by the Kurdish initials PKK. The PKK has been designated as a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States, European Union (EU), and Japan. The United States and the EU may have made the designation as a favor to their NATO ally.

As the U.S.-led coalition and the SDF successfully pushed ISIS out of city after city, the Turks were sidelined. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan insisted that the liberation of ISIS's capital city of al-Raqqah had to be done by Turkish troops. The only problem was that the YPG was not about to let the anti-Kurd Turks access to their areas of northern Syria. When Turkish troops pushed into northern Syria near the city of Manbij, the Kurds fought them to a standstill - they were stuck in place over 100 miles from al-Raqqah.

The SDF was ready to make the assault on al-Raqqah, a city that was crying out for relief from ISIS atrocities. It would have taken the Turks months to get there, having had to fight their way through the U.S.-allied SDF/YPG.

I remember saying at the time that the Turks were going to be a problem after ISIS was defeated. For the Turks, it was not, and is not, about ISIS. It's about the Kurds, specifically the Kurds in neighboring Syria. What better time that during a civil war in Syria to mount a cross border operation and destroy what is perceived to be a threat?

True to form, as soon as the ISIS threat abated, the Turks renewed their threats of a military incursion to "clear the area of terrorists." It was only a matter of time. The presence of a handful of American special operations forces on the border was not going to stop them.

Map and annotations: IHS Markit and the New York Times

President Trump, to my chagrin, was not forceful enough to convince Erdoğan that this was unnecessary and unhelpful, especially since ISIS remained a threat in parts of Syria and Iraq. For some time, Erdoğan had been moving Turkey more toward being an Islamic state rather than the secular republic envisioned and established decades earlier by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Atatürk would hardly recognize what Erdoğan has wrought.

I am not sure if it was by accident, or if someone in the Erdoğan government (I would call it an Islamist regime, but they are technically still a NATO ally) actually understands the reality of NATO politics. Would the United States side with the SDF/YPG against a NATO ally? We all know the answer to that - it's a resounding no.

While we believe we have an obligation to protect the YPG - protect them not only from Turkish troops, but against the marauding, undisciplined, bloodthirsty former al-Qaidah and Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels now used as proxies by Ankara.

The NATO alliance is almost sacrosanct among the members. Sacrosanct, it appears, except to its sole majority Muslim and Asian member. Turkey may think it's a European country, but it would be the only one that thinks that, given Erdoğan's AKP party moves toward Islamism.

Why is Turkey so important to the United States that it balks at defending the Kurds? A look at the map of the region should be enough.

Turkey is not only the bridge between Asia/East and Europe/West, it also sits astride the Bosporus and Dardanelles, the two narrow waterways that control access between the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea. In practical terms, it is the only sea route from the Russia Navy's ice-free port at Sebastopol (in what many call "occupied Crimea") and the best route to the Russian-leased Syrian port of Tartus.

Unhindered access to the Turkish straits and a route to Tartus (the red line on the map) is strategically and tactically important to Russia. So, Russian intervention in Crimea and Syria within just a few years of each other - coincidence?

So, now the unintended consequences of Turkey's ill-advised incursion into Syria will visit us.

As mentioned, the lead elements of the Turkish assault into northern Syria - after the air and artillery strikes - were not even minimally-disciplined Turkish troops, but former al-Qa'idah, FSA, and other Islamists. These undisciplined thugs ran amok, executing any Kurdish officials they encountered, ransacked homes, and caused unnecessary civilian casualties.

Faced with no U.S.-led coalition support, the SDF, or probably more correctly, the YPG made a deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, yes, the same Bashar al-Asad who on several occasions had ordered the use of chemical weapons on Syrian citizens.

The Kurds, still Syrians, were now faced with a Turkish onslaught with no hope of support from the U.S.-led coalition with whom they had battled ISIS. They requested the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) move forward to fight the Turkish incursion.

What choice did they have? For Kurds in Syria, in Iraq, in Turkey, in Iran - as they say, there are no friends but the mountains. They believed, probably correctly, that they were now on their own.

So now we have the Syrian army entering the fight on the side of, and at the request of, the SDF. What we may see are the national forces of two countries - Turkey and Syria - fighting each other, escalating the fighting from an army on one side and militias on the other, to a battle between two states.

Unfortunately, the way this has unfolded with Turkish President Erdoğan's unnecessary and unhelpful actions against the U.S.-allied SDF, many observers are now siding with the murderous Syrian regime against a NATO ally.

Some history for those who "have not read history and are doomed to repeat it."

- Our involvement with the Kurds in Iraq in 1975 at the behest of the Shah of Iran was about Iran, not them.
- Our involvement with the mujahidin in the 1980s in Afghanistan was about the Soviet Union, not them.
- Our involvement with the Iraqis in 1988 was about Iran, not them.

And as realpolitik goes, our involvement with the SDF/YPG was about ISIS, not them.

Bottom line, whether we like it or not, our relationship with the Kurds was a tactical alliance to defeat ISIS. The NATO/U.S. alliance with Turkey is a strategic alliance about the Russians.

Despite American issues with Turkey's acquisition of the S-400 air defense system from Russia, Ankara's removal from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, its support of Islamist movements, and Erdoğan unwise incursion into Syria, the strategic NATO relationship supercedes any tactical relationship with the YPG.

Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper have been dispatched to Turkey to discuss the situation. This is an easy one. President Erdoğan, adhere to an immediate ceasefire, let's start a dialogue, and the sanctions on Turkey's economy will continue until that happens.

Yes, Turkey is a strategic partner which NATO needs, but we need to extract a price for this ill-advised course of action. Erdoğan, not our friend, needs to recognize he isn't the new Sultan.

October 9, 2019

Trump, Turkey, and the Kurds - a study in perfidy

The long-threatened Turkish invasion of northern Syria has finally begun. I am in total disagreement with the decision of President Donald Trump to basically give Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a green light to mount an attack on what have become some of America's best allies in the region - the Syrian Kurds.

I spent a fair amount of time working with the Iraqi Kurds in the mid-1990s. Even then, the perceived betrayal of the Kurds in 1975 as part of the fallout of the Shah’s signing of the Treaty of Algiers was still a sore point with the Kurds. It appears that we are repeating the same treatment with the Syrian Kurds, this time at the behest of the Turks.

For some time now, probably since the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), I have not regarded Turkey as an ally. While they are part of NATO, it seems to me they are not really our allies. Ignore the platitudes and lip service that flows out of the Department of Defense and the U.S. Central Command - the Turks are not a close ally, they have been and continue to be a major part of the problem.

The impending crises - and there will be several because of this irresponsible invasion - will be a direct result of Erdoğan's foolhardy decision to invade, and Trump's unfathomable acquiescence. Certainly our access to Turkey's Incirlik Air Base is not that critical.

I hate to say this, but when the fighting between Turkish troops and the YPG starts, I am rooting for the Kurds. The Turks haven't fared well in their previous incursions into Syria: Operation Olive Branch in the Afrin area, and Operation Euphrates Freedom to the northeast of Aleppo.

In both of these operations, the Turks claimed to be fighting ISIS, when in reality they were attacking the Kurdish People Protection Units, known by the Kurdish initials YPG. The Turks, of course claim the YPG is nothing more than an extension of the designated terrorist group, the Turkey-based Kurdish Workers' Party, known more commonly by the Kurdish initials PKK. Now they are using this faulty rationale as the excuse to invade northern Syria.

A few of my predictions:

- the Kurds will stop offensive operations against the remaining ISIS pockets in the country and redeploy to fight the Turks
- the Kurds will move their forces from guarding the tens of thousands of ISIS fighters and their families, and redeploy to fight the Turks
- ISIS will get a breather from Syrian Democratic Forces attacks and regroup
- the Syrian regime will start operations to re-establish its sovereignty over the Kurdish-controlled areas
- the PKK may step up their attacks inside Turkey
- the United Nations will make noise but basically do nothing

If the Turks are looking for a fight, they may just find a tough one in northeastern Syria. I cannot believe that President Trump is going to sit by and watch a blood bath ensue in Syria. This whole situation is unnecessary and unhelpful. The responsibility for whatever happens rests with Presidents Erdoğan and Trump.

October 6, 2019

The "Israeli Carry" and the new season of Fauda

Israeli actor Lior Raz portraying commando Doron Kavillio and "the Israeli carry"

As we fans of the Netflix series Fauda await the release of the third season of the excellent Israeli nail-biter drama series, I thought I would offer a few thoughts of something I noted in the production. For my review of this series, see Miniseries Review: "Fauda" (Netflix 2017- ).

I believe this new season's operations area may shift from the Nablus area of the West Bank to the Gaza Strip. I am sure it will be excellent, but am somewhat disappointed as I find the Gazan dialect more difficult than the more familiar (to me) south Levantine Arabic spoken on the West Bank.

Some years ago, while serving as an operations officer in the U.S. intelligence community, I was sent to a defensive training course that involved, among other things, an intensive personal weapons course. The first thing I learned is that I didn't know as much as I thought about handling weapons, specifically semiautomatic pistols.

That changed - the instructors, probably among the best in the world, were relentless in forcing me to acquire these critical weapons skills. I still remember being knocked to the ground by them if I did not drop to at least my knees before reloading my weapon...I digress. It all paid off later in the field.

Most of the time in the training, which ranged from concealable pistols to machine guns to anti-tank weapons, was spent with a personal sidearm - it became an extension of my arm. I was trained on the Browning Hi-Power and Beretta 92FS, and later the Glock 19 (all chambered in the 9mm round). I still have a Glock 19, but if I had to chose my favorite weapon, I'd likely go with the tried-and-true Browning. It just feels right in my hand.

For those of us who have had weapons training - and I don't mean the NRA safety course most states require to obtain a concealed carry permit/handgun license (depending on state) - we noticed the skills exhibited by some of the Israelis in the Fauda series, particularly by the leading actor Lior Raz. Raz should be good at this - he served as a commando in the elite undercover counter-terrorism unit known as Sayeret Duvdevan. I isolated on video one instance of Raz using what we refer to as "the Israeli carry." You can watch it in Season 2, Episode 3, timecode 19:20.

Before I show you the video, allow me to explain just what this means. Most U.S. government organizations' protocol is to carry a sidearm with the weapon loaded, round in the chamber, hammer (if present) back, and safety on. This is sometimes referred to as having the weapon in Condition One. If the weapon is needed, all that is required is to disengage the safety and pull the trigger. It is fast, and requires the use of only one hand. In a high-stress situation, the fewer steps you need to do to bring the weapon into action is better. Milliseconds may count.

That said, carrying a weapon in this configuration can be unnerving. The Israelis believe that it is too dangerous for most situations, and use what is called weapons Condition Three, or in the common parlance, the Israeli Carry (although they did not develop it). In this condition, the weapon has a loaded magazine, but there is no round in the chamber, and the safety is off. If the weapon is needed, you charge the weapon (rack the slide to load a round in the chamber) while removing it from the holster; the safety is not in play. It is theoretically a bit slower, and does require the use of two hands.

In my training, our primary instructor told us, "You are not a professional masters at arms, like Navy SEALs, Army Special Forces soldiers, or Rangers. Hopefully you will never need to use your weapon - it is there only for your self-defense, not part of your operating skill set." He recommended we consider the safer Israeli Carry as our normal protocol.

He went on to explain that in a high-adrenaline situation, your motor skills become impaired. As I learned later, drawing a weapon in a situation where you may have to actually use it is a high-adrenaline situation. Removing a small safety can be considered a fine motor skill and under stress, difficult. Racking a slide, however, is a gross motor skill and probably easier to accomplish. It made sense to me - I adopted the Israeli Carry, and still use it to this day.

Now, I want you to watch how a professional master at arms brings a weapon into action (some call it "into battery"). Remember, Lior Raz was an Israeli commando who did this for a living. He withdraws the weapon, charges it and fires it in almost the blink of an eye. It is hard to imagine doing this any faster. I slowed it down to 1/8 speed - it is still almost impossible to detect the racking of the slide.

October 2, 2019

Miniseries Review: "The Spy" (Netflix - 2019)

Eli Cohen was arguably one of Israel's best, if not the best, intelligence assets in its relatively short history. This new miniseries certainly highlights his value as an Israeli agent who penetrated the highest levels of the Syrian government. The producers attempted - with a modicum of success - to tell Cohen's story.

Most people are aware of the basic facts of this case: Eli Cohen, an Egyptian-born son of Syrian Jews from Aleppo, immigrated to Israel, where he twice applied to work for the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service. While working as an accountant, he was finally offered employment with Mossad in 1959. Cohen's assignment was to penetrate the Syrian political and military establishments.

The Israelis developed a legend (that's the technical term for a cover story) using the name Kamil Amin Thabit. The legend had Cohen/Thabit move to Argentina, where he posed as a businessman. He made it known that he was anxious to "return" to Syria. He soon befriended military attaché Colonel Amin al-Hafiz at the Syrian embassy in Buenos Aires.

In 1962, Cohen made the move to Damascus, where his extravagant spending and parties gained him popularity among the wealthy and influential in the country. As luck would have it, Colonel al-Hafiz returned to Damascus, after which he participated in the 1963 Ba'th Party coup and later became the president of Syria.

You would think as an intelligence operation, it doesn't get any better than that. Actually, it does - later in the operation, Cohen became a senior adviser to the Syrian minister of defense. This gave him access to particularly sensitive military information. In the series, Cohen was named deputy minister of defense - just one of the theatrical licenses taken.

In the end, Cohen was captured and executed. I won't spoil the how and why for those who have not seen the miniseries.

My comments. I enjoyed the history, but not the theatrical license the producers took to tell it. The ridiculous story of the Israeli farmer on the border and the cameo appearance by a 7-year old Usamah bin Ladin are two such examples. They were both contrived and unnecessary - the actual story is compelling enough.

I have always been interested in the Eli Cohen story, on a professional and personal level. Professionally, I had hope to see more of the tradecraft used by Cohen - his communications systems, secret travel to/from Israel, use of dead drops if any. There were instances in the series where Cohen took photographs of classified Syrian military documents. How did he get the photographs back to the Mossad? Gathering information is sometimes the easy part, it's the getting it to headquarters that's hard.

On a personal level, when I was assigned as the Air Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, I visited what we called the "Eli Cohen apartment" in the Abu Rumanah section of the city. In fact, the embassy leased the apartment as part of the housing pool. It was fascinating to stand there on the balcony that looks over what was the Ministry of Defense compound in Cohen's time.

As for history, we often visited Marjah Square, the site of Cohen's public execution. By the time I was there in the 1990s, public hangings had been moved to the much larger 'Abbasiyin Square. As with Cohen, the bodies of those executed were allowed to hang for hours, ostensibly as a deterrent.

It is an interesting story. I'd recommend it with the caveat that there is more sensationalism than needed. This is a real-life drama that would have stood on its own. That said, I think Sacha Baron Cohen gave a good performance. It is available on Netflix.