May 25, 2018

Memorial Day 2018

Note: I wrote this in 2007 while a military analyst at NBC News. While the situation has changed, I think the sentiment is still true today.

Let us not forget that as I write this in 2018, there are still American forces in harm's way. From the mountains of Afghanistan in America's longest war, to the deserts of the Middle East where the remnants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria still pose a threat, to the hinterlands of sub-Saharan Africa, and on virtually every ocean on the planet, and the skies all over the world, every day American forces conduct a variety of military operations - often at great risk.

Just in these first few months of this year, we have lost troops in combat in Afghanistan, Syria, and Niger. In addition, we have lost fine young men and women in training accidents - their deaths are just as tragic and need to be honored and remembered.

These are our sons and daughters. Every one of them contributed to the cost paid to maintain the freedoms that define who we are as a nation.



'On behalf of a grateful nation'
Do not forget our fallen men and women
COMMENTARY
By Lt. Col. Rick Francona, U.S. Air Force (Retired)
Military analyst - NBC News


Lt. Gen. Ed Soriano, left, presents Jessica Hebert, sister of Spc. Justin Hebert who was killed in Kirkuk, Iraq, with an American flag during his military funeral (AP Photo/The Herald, Meggan Booker). Ed and I served together during and after Desert Storm - this must have been his toughest duty.

Memorial Day weekend – most people associate that with the start of the "summer driving season" or a chance to buy appliances on sale. The constant news coverage of still high gasoline prices tends to overshadow the real meaning of the holiday. It is not about driving or shopping – it is about remembering the men and women or our armed forces who died while in service to the country. It is important that we not forget that – after more than a decade, we are still at war and we still lose some our finest young men and women every week.

Yes, we are still at war. No one knows this more than the families of those who have fallen on battlefields far from home with names most of us cannot pronounce. Unlike most of the wars America has fought in the past, we are fighting with an all volunteer force – there has been no draft since 1973. Every one of the fallen volunteered to serve this country, and deserve a moment of remembrance. Less than one-half of one percent of Americans serve in uniform (in World War II, it was over 12 percent) at any one time.

In the draft era, a much higher percent of the population entered the service, creating a large pool of veterans. Veterans understand the unique demands of military service, the separation from loved ones, the dangers of combat. With far fewer veterans or a veteran in the family, community and government, it is easy to lose sight of the demands military service requires of our men and women in uniform – and to forget too quickly those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

Sometimes one could get the feeling that foreign countries – especially those that have been liberated by American forces in the past – pay more tribute to our fallen troops than we do. I will never forget standing in a church in rural France – not a fancy cathedral, not a tourist spot, nothing architecturally significant, just a small 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."

A 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."*

Over the years, well over 1.3 million American troops have died in military service. Each fallen warrior is afforded a military funeral - military funerals symbolize respect for the fallen and their families.

Anyone who has attended a military funeral will never forget it – the American flag draped on the coffin, an honor guard in full dress uniform, the crack of seven rifles firing three volleys as Taps is played on the bugle, the snap of the flag as it is folded into the familiar triangle of blue, the reverence of fellow warriors.

Before his final salute, the officer in charge presents that folded flag to, in most cases, a young widow. He makes that presentation "on behalf of a grateful nation."

At some point on this day, let us make sure that we do not forget our fallen men and women, and that we are in fact a grateful nation.

____________________
* France is our oldest ally, a military alliance going back to 1778. For more information, see my article, The Nice attack - standing with our first and oldest ally.



May 6, 2018

A Palestinian refugee pecking order - and a bad translation....


Note: This article is more of an informative piece rather than an analytical effort. A friend sent a tweet to me and asked if I had heard the obviously distressed remarks of a Palestinian "refugee" from the Yarmuk camp just south of Damascus. She asked me if this was real. Here is the video.

The tweet was posted by journalist CJ Werleman, a respected correspondent with over 78,000 followers on Twitter. I saw the caption, the alleged translation of the video, and was curious - these are not the words I would expect from a Palestinian refugee from the Yarmuk camp.

As a student of the Levantine (Palestinian) dialect of Arabic - that spoken in Syria, Lebanon, "Palestine," and parts of Jordan - I decided to give it a listen. Although I was trained in the Egyptian dialect, I have always been posted to countries where the Levantive dialect is spoken - it took me years to divest myself of an Egyptian accent.

I digress. The term "Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp" is somewhat of a misnomer. In my former role as the Air Attaché (photo) to the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, I spent a lot of time observing the situation in the environs of the capital, including Yarmuk. The word "camp" brings to mind images of tents and a population living in squalor.


The "Yarmuk Palestinian Refugee Camp" in Damascus is in reality just another section of the city. It consists of high-rise apartment buildings and a vibrant commercial center - hardly what one thinks of when the term "refugee camp" is used.

About refugees. There are various categories of Palestinian refugees, depending on the date a person or family departed their homes and applied to the United Nations (UN) for refugee status.

A “1948” stamp in either a national identity document, or a UN-issued Palestinian laissez passer which indicates that the bearer left the area which is now part of the State of Israel in 1948 is considered the gold standard among refugees, affording the holder the highest level of benefits.

These benefits are provided by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). Refugees who departed areas considered Palestinian at later dates still qualify for benefits, but not at the same level.

There are 560,000 Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA - 438,000 of these are in Syria (including 254,000 internally displaced).

Now to the video.

As I said, I was taken aback by the caption on the video. I read the posted caption: "Return me to the Jews. Even Israel is more merciful than Assad," says elderly Palestinian refugee in besieged Yarmuk.

I thought it was out of character and listened to the video. This is my translation, with the understandable caveat - his speech is difficult to understand, so I may have a few words wrong, but the meaning is easily understood.

“I am sick, I am starving, it’s the Jews – I have identification with 1948 (repeats several times), I am a refugee from 1948. I have children, I have four children and they’ve all been taken. It’s a shame, a shame.”

What the man says is entirely in keeping with reality in Syria, reality in Damascus, among the Palestinians. When I was there, I had a good friend - a Palestinian doctor - who explained the pecking order among refugees. The "1948" imprimatur is the top of the line in regards to benefits from UNRWA and hence the Syrian government. He is adamant that we know that he has a 1948 stamp on his identification documents.

That said, the issue here is the incorrect translation. Over 78,000 followers of the original poster saw the incorrect translation - it was retweeted over 275 times to who knows how many readers.

It is important that subscribers of social media be aware of the veracity of their sources. In this instance, the meaning was far from the truth.




The Iranian nuclear deal - fix it or nix it


With the growing use of various social media, I have begun putting more immediate and shorter pieces of analysis on such fora as Twitter (please follow me: @MiddleEastGuy).

Here is what is called a "thread" about the Iranian deal and the upcoming Presidential decision on whether to continue certifying Iran as in compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and continue to provide sanctions relief, or refuse to certify the agreement and trigger the re-imposition of crippling US sanctions. I have expanded some of the text to make it easier to read for "non-tweeters."

You can probably guess my view on the JCPOA debacle....



The above photo appeared in a Washington Post article that begins:

WASHINGTON — John Kerry’s bid to save one of his most significant accomplishments as secretary of state took him to New York on a Sunday afternoon two weeks ago, where, more than a year after he left office, he engaged in some unusual shadow diplomacy with a top-ranking Iranian official.

He sat down at the United Nations with Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to discuss ways of preserving the pact limiting Iran’s nuclear weapons program. It was the second time in about two months that the two had met to strategize over salvaging a deal they spent years negotiating during the Obama administration, according to a person briefed on the meetings.

Tweet 1:
[Former U.S. Secretary of State] @JohnKerry was badly outplayed by #Iran|ian counterpart [Foreign Mininster] @JZarif and #Russia's [Foreign Mininster] Sergey Lavrov to further [U.S. President Barack Obama] @POTUS44's signature [foreign policy] failure. Now he is likely in violation of the #LoganAct* as he conspires to aid [Iran,] the world's primary state sponsor of terrorism.

Tweet 2:
Lavrov went one better than @JZarif requesting that ballistic missile restrictions be lifted - I doubt he thought even the hapless @JohnKerry would agree. Not only did Kerry cave in to virtually every Iranian demand, he gave in to the Russians,too.

Tweet 3:
During the "negotiations" - an ambitious description of the total Kerry cave-in - the "anytime, anywhere" inspection/verification protocol was changed to a lengthy notification and appeals process, and former military aspects declarations of the Iranian program were forgotten.

Tweet 4:
As for Iranian military sites, the final document does theoretically grant access to [United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency] IAEA inspectors. The Iranians dispute this - who knows what side secret agreements were reached by Zarif and Kerry? Anything to get a deal - any deal, even a bad one.

Tweet 5:
I am not against an agreement that removes #Iran as a nuclear threat. I am against a bad deal that is not verifiable. The #IAEA refuses to demand access - authorized by the deal - to Iranian military sites, as it believes Iran's refusal will be a reason for the U.S. to leave the deal.

Tweet 6:
I suspect [U.S. President Donald Trump] @realDonaldTrump may stay in the deal for the sake of the @NATO alliance ([French President Emmanuel] Macron and [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel), but remember the "allies" are in this to sell things to Iran, not to limit Iranian nuclear efforts. I urge the President to consider American national interests, not Europe's.

Of course, I was savaged by supporters of the JCPOA. Most of these detractors are either members of the Obama Administration, supporters of the terminally ineffective John Kerry, or have no appreciation for the Iranian regime. They all have a vested interest in the Obama legacy - otherwise, they will be unmasked as supporting the world's worst supporters of terrorism, the mullahs in Tehran.

Either fix this disastrous agreement - not likely - or kill it.



On the May 6 edition of the CNN show Fareed Zakaria GPS, retired General Danny Yatom, former director of the Israeli intelligence service, urges President Trump to remain in the JCPOA, with the following important condition, which Fareed did not highlight.

Yatom advises the President to use the recent Israeli intelligence revelations about Iranian failure to declare the scope of its previous nuclear weapons programs, the Previous Military Dimensions (PMD), as specifically required by the JCPOA, to force the Iranians to agree to amendments to the agreement.

I know Danny Yatom - he is a tough former commando, experienced strategic and tactical intelligence officer, and a skilled politician. He is not naive. Certainly he knows that the Iranians have specifically rejected any amendments or adjustments to the JCPOA.

Why would they agree to changes? They have received almost all the benefits already - another Kerry failure. If the agreement fails, they will feel justified in resuming (many of us believe it has never stopped) their nuclear weapons program and will have reaped most of the benefits of the JCPOA as well.

That said - I can live with Yatom's suggestion, but I seriously doubt the Iranians will agree.



___________
* The Logan Act is a 1799 statute that bars private citizens from interfering with diplomatic relations between the United States and foreign governments. It makes it a felony, punishable by a fine or imprisonment of up to three years, if an American citizen, without government authorization, interacts “with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States.”


April 10, 2018

Notional message from Russian commander to President Bashar al-Asad on chemical attack

Syrian child killed in Duma chemical weapons attack - April 7, 2018

By now, most of the world has been repulsed by the dramatic, tragic images emerging from the eastern suburbs of Damascus, Syria. These images of dead children, and probably more so, of suffering children have had the same effect as in the past - anger that any government would unleash chemical weapons on its own population.

As I have repeatedly said during my interviews on CNN, no sane military commander would have authorized this attack. The Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Asad is on the verge of victory over virtually all of the disparate opposition groups in the country, be they the Free Syrian Army or the jihadist groups still fighting in the few remaining pockets of resistance in the country. This victory has been made possible by the massive application of Russian airpower, as well as Iranian and Hizballah fighters on the ground.

The forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have been largely ejected from almost all of the areas they previously controlled. The remaining ISIS-held areas in northeast Syria had been steadily defeated by the primarily Kurdish Syrian Democratic Front (SDF), supported by the U.S.-led coalition airpower, intelligence, artillery and special forces.

Thanks to NATO "ally" Turkey, the ground offensive against ISIS has been virtually put on hold as Turkish forces and their sycophantic Syrian allies launched an unnecessary and unhelpful offensive against the Syrian Kurds.

Despite the slowdown of the offensive against ISIS, the Syrian regime is on the path to reasserting almost complete control over the suburbs of Damascus, finalizing its operations in the Eastern Ghutah. There was no need to use chemical weapons.

I believe that the Syrians decided to use chemical weapons on their own, without seeking counsel from either their Russian or Iranian supporters. Given the international reaction to the images of dead and injured Syrian children, the Russians must be understandably upset at their Syrian clients.

I can imagine a strongly worded message from the senior general in charge of the sizable Russian expeditionary force headquartered at Humaymim air base just south of the major port city of Latakia on Syria's northwest coast. Here's how it might have read:

----------------------------

T O P   S E C R E T

Date: 8 April 2018

From: General-Colonel Sergey Vladimirovich Surovikin
Commander, Russian Group of Troops - Syria

To: His Excellency Bashar al-Asad
President, Syrian Arab Republic

Subject: Chemical Attack on Duma

Mr. President,

It is with great distress that I learned of the recent use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Arab Army in the Eastern Ghutah city of Duma yesterday.

As you are aware, Russian forces have supported Syria's military operations with virtually unlimited airpower, as well as special forces (Spetznaz) troops, artillery and rocket fires, intelligence information, and military advisers embedded at the battalion level. Our joint forces are on the verge of victory over the rebels and terrorists that threaten your government.

Duma is the last remaining enclave in the Eastern Ghutah. Russian military officers have struck a deal with the primary opposition force in Duma, the jaysh al-islam (Army of Islam). The fighters and their families will be allowed to leave Duma, and your forces will enter the city and reassert Syrian sovereignty over the entire area. Our joint forces will then turn our attention to the remaining pockets of resistance in the Damascus area, primarily in the area of the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp.

Unfortunately, the Syrian Arab Army's use of chemical munitions has created an unstable situation. As we witnessed just one year ago, the use of chemical warfare nerve agents risks a military response from certain Western nations. Last year, the United States Navy launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles into the Syrian Arab Air Force base at Sha'yrat, destroying a significant percentage of the SYAAF fighter-bomber inventory, as well as causing damage to the airfield facilities. Yesterday's attack may provide the impetus for an additional attack, or series of attacks, on Syrian military facilities.

Of course, the Russian armed forces are here to support your government. Unfortunately, the actions of your soldiers have forced us to change our offensive posture in parts of the country to prepare for a possible American or coalition military operation.

To that end, I have altered our operations here at Humaymim air base from attacking the forces opposed to the Syrian government, and refocused them on detecting and possibly countering a US/NATO/coalition strike. I await specific orders from President Putin on what actions I am to take. As you can appreciate, relations between the United States of America and the Russian Federation are at a particularly sensitive stage.

The American destroyer USS Donald Cook is moving into a position from where it can launch strikes against Syrian facilities, as is a French Navy frigate. I have ordered vigilance operations against these two ships - they now claim that Russian Air Force aircraft are harassing them. We will continue to maintain surveillance and monitoring of these naval assets until ordered to stand down by Moscow.

Mr. President, with all due respect, you have placed me in a difficult and unnecessary position. The use of a chemical agent by Syrian troops has galvanized world public opinion against both of our countries.

While normally that is of little concern to Russian troops, we now run the risk of heightened international attention and potential military action that will complicate our efforts to re-establish your control over all Syrian territory, including that currently occupied by the Islamic State, the American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, and the areas currently occupied by the Turks and their surrogates.

The use of chemicals was unnecessary - victory is at hand. As long as our joint forces limit weaponry to conventional munitions, we can kill our enemies with virtual impunity.

As always, the forces of the Russian Federation stand with our Syrian comrades. Please do not hesitate to seek our advice and counsel on future military operations.

Суровикин Сергей Владимирович


-------------------------

Translation: Mr. President, what were you thinking? Thanks to your stupidity, I now have a mess to clean up. This is probably going to cause an American military strike on Syria, placing my forces in a possible confrontation with American forces - something neither the Americans or us wants. Everything was on track in our military defeat of the opposition - the Americans were even making noises about leaving Syria, yet now they are planning an attack. In the future, consult with me before issuing anything but routine orders. Thanks a lot.



March 20, 2018

What are Erdoğan's intentions after the fall of 'Afrin?

Turkish and allied Syrian rebel forces (green) enter 'Afrin

Syrian rebel forces, supported by Turkish armed forces, have entered 'Afrin, the principal city in the Kurdish canton of the same name. The objective of the two-month long Turkish-led operation, ironically named Olive Branch, is allegedly to protect Turkey from what it labels as Syrian Kurdish "terrorists" of the People's Protection Units (YPG).

The Turks claim that the YPG is nothing more than an extension of the Turkey-based Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). The PKK has been designated as a terrorist group by numerous countries and international organizations, including the United States, Turkey, and NATO. I suspect the U.S. and NATO designations were a nod to Turkey's membership in the military alliance.

The United States does not regard the YPG as a terrorist organization, but rather as a key ally in the fight against the jihadi terrorist group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - the Kurds function as the major "boots on the ground" component of the U.S.-led coalition.

Unfortunately, the Turks have lost sight of the mission and created a major problem in the almost-complete war against ISIS in Syria. Rather than support the coalition efforts to defeat ISIS, the Turks have chosen to mount a military operation against one of the key fighting units.

As was to be expected, elements of the YPG which were engaged in combat operations against ISIS in eastern Syria have redeployed to confront the Turks in the northwestern part of Syria. Ground operations against ISIS have come to a complete standstill as the YPG moves to defend fellow Kurds. Who can blame them?

Yes, that's right. A NATO ally (Turkey) is attacking the ally (YPG) of another NATO ally (United States). Hard to believe, but thanks to short-sighted, Islamist, nationalist Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, that's where we are. Where are we going?

One only needs to listen to the self-styled new Ottoman sultan. As far back as October 2016, he has appeared in front of what most of us Middle East analysts call the National Oath (misak-i milli) map of 1920.


"National Oath" map - 1920

Note the borders - the city of 'Afrin is well within the Turkish borders portrayed on the map. In fact, the aspirational borders of Turkey include portions of what is now Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Syria, Iraq, Armenia and Azerbaijan. All of this territory was part of the Ottoman Empire prior to its defeat in World War I. The map designates what the Turks believed should have been the new borders of their new republic.

The Turks will secure 'Afrin in short order. The Kurdish forces which had been defending the city have left, rather than watch the city be reduced to rubble with thousands of civilian casualties. The next city in Erdoğan's sights is Manbij, to the east of 'Afrin, but still on the west bank of the Euphrates.



A move on Manbij will present a problem for the NATO alliance. It will put Turkish forces, or at least Turkish-backed Syrian rebel forces, in direct contact with both Kurdish YPG units and American troops located in the city. The Turks claim to have reached an agreement with the United States whereby Kurdish forces will withdraw, and turn the city over to a joint American-Turkish force. I have not seen that in outlets other than Turkish media.

I hope there is some solution that does not involve handing Syrian Kurdish territory over to the Turks. Of course, the Turks could solve the entire issue by simply stopping this unnecessary and unhelpful diversion from the main mission - fighting ISIS.

I doubt that will happen. Erdoğan has threatened to continue the Olive Branch operation east to the Iraqi border, and recently stated that his forces may even enter the Kurdish area of Iraq. I think he might be getting ahead of himself. He is the president of Turkey, not the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.

That said, it is interesting that Erdoğan keeps using the term "Ottoman" in much of his rhetoric - for decades the Turks have avoided the term, claiming that atrocities such as the Armenian, Assyrian and Greek genocides were not done by Turks, but the Ottomans. It appears now that is a distinction without a difference. His displays of the 1920 "national oath" map are not accidental - it is there for a reason.

At the same time, Erdoğan does not assuage the apprehensions of his neighbors when he openly encourages his young population to question the Treaty of Lausanne (1923) which effectively defined Turkey's borders with its neighbors. These are the borders that define the Middle East as we know it today. As part of that treaty, Turkey relinquished claims to the remainder of the Ottoman Empire, effectively ending the border conflicts that continued for several years after World War I.

A segment of the Turkish population, encouraged by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), are echoing a similar refrain, bristling at the terms - imposed or agreed to, depending on where you stand - of the Treaty of Lausanne.

We should not dismiss Erdoğan's words as mere rhetoric. He has shown himself to be a capable - if distasteful - political force with a vision for Turkey's future. We should be concerned about Erdoğan's long-term, strategic vision of Turkey. Are his displays of the "national oath" map, decision to provide military support to the Free Syrian Army in northern Syria (Operation Euphrates Shield), and the launching of Operation Olive Branch aimed at destroying the most effective anti-ISIS force in Syria, as well as his not-so-subtle encouragement of Turkish nationalists to challenge the terms of the Treaty of Lausanne a harbinger of things to come?

Are the Turks intent on at some point reclaiming what they consider to be Turkish territory "stolen" from them almost a century ago? I hope not, but I would not put it past Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

___________

Personal anecdote: When I was the Air Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, I had virtually no contact with the Syrian military. One exception was the monthly attaché dinner at the Syrian Officers Club to welcome new attachés and bid farewell to those about to depart.

Departing attachés were presented a small inlaid wooden box, a Syrian specialty. On the top of the box was a medallion with a map of Syria.

The map included a part of Turkey known as the sanjak of Alexandretta, an area ceded to Turkey by the French mandatory authorities in 1936. The Syrians have never recognized that agreement and believe the territory to be still part of Syria.

At every presentation, the two Turkish military attachés (one seen with me in the photo) would stand at attention and march from the room in protest of the inclusion of what they considered to be Turkish territory on a map of Syria.

I always admired my Turkish colleagues. I hope they are not part of the anti-YPG cabal.




March 9, 2018

Iraq's chemical weapons - shoddy journalism and me


Every two or three years, without fail, some aspiring journalist will write an article containing research into Iraq's use of nerve agents against Iranian troops in a series of offensives during the last year of the Iran-Iraq War. There is no question that the Iraqis not only used chemical weapons on Iranian troops, but also against Iraqi Kurds in March of 1988. We learned later that the attack on Halajah was actually a test of Iraqi-developed Sarin gas.

Inevitably, my name comes up in the ensuing article. Yes, I was a particpant in the U.S. intelligence support to Iraq in 1987 and 1988 - I was a liaison officer to the Iraqi Directorate of Military Intelligence in Baghdad. No, we did not assist Iraqis in their development of chemical weapons, in fact their use of the weapons almost ended our support for Saddam Husayn.

Here is the latest attempt at castigating American support for the Iraqis against the Iranians during the latter years of the eight-year long war. An article titled "US Continues Massive Military Build Up - America's 'inward turn' is in fact an invention of the mainstream media" by Shane Quinn, appeared on March 8 issue on the website of the rabidly anti-American Global Research, published by the Canadian-based Centre for Research on Globalization.

The opening salvo in the article:

Less than a year into his second term as president, Barack Obama addressed the nation by saying “for nearly seven decades the United States has been the anchor of global security”. Among his first words, Obama highlighted Syria and “where we go from here… against the repressive regime of Bashar al-Assad”.

Obama accused (without a shred of evidence) the Assad government of having “gassed to death over a thousand people”, lamenting “the terrible nature of chemical weapons” which are “a crime against humanity”. Obama neglected to mention how, 25 years before, American policies made possible the most destructive gas attack of the post-World War II period – Saddam Hussein‘s assault on the Kurds of Halabja, northern Iraq, which killed at least 5,000 people.

In March 1988, Halabja – just nine miles from Iran’s border – was targeted by the US-sponsored Iraqi army, due to the city being under the control of the Tehran-allied Kurdish guerrillas. The Reagan administration was heavily supporting Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). Iranian nationalists had previously overthrown the US-backed dictatorship of the Shah in 1979, which was at the root of the ensuing war between the neighbors.

The Americans knew as early as 1983 that the Iraqi despot was utilizing chemical and biological warfare upon Iran. It went on for years. Rick Francona, a retired US Air Force colonel, said later that
“the Iraqis never told us that they intended to use nerve gas. They didn’t have to. We already knew."

Despite this knowledge, the US continued providing significant military aid to the Iraqi dictatorship.

So every two or three years, I have to rebut this incorrect characterization and misquote.

Here are the two previous rebuttals. I tire of this....

Foreign Policy Article - Corrections and Clarifications (August 2013)

Misquoted again - Iran, Iraq, chemical weapons and me (June 2015)

This time it is particularly egregious - I would have happily provided accurate information if asked. I am not hard to find - a Google search will yield my complete contact information.

At the end of his article, Shane Quinn claims to have obtained an "honors journalism" degree. It does not mention the school that awarded the degree, but I suggest he apply for a refund.



February 25, 2018

Ceasefire in Syria's East Ghutah was never going to happen

Caption: Russian occupation aircraft bombing cities and towns in the East Ghutah

The United Nations Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2401 demanding a 30-day "cessation of hostilities...to allow safe, unimpeded and sustained access each week for the humanitarian convoys of the United Nations and their implementing partners to all requested areas and populations — particularly the 5.6 million people in 1,244 communities in acute need and the 2.9 million in hard-to-reach and besieged locations, subject to standard United Nations security assessments." It also demanded that the United Nations and its partners be allowed "to carry out safe, unconditional medical evacuations, based on medical need and urgency."

You can read the text of the United Nations summary here (the actual text is not available yet). As you read this, I want to remind you of the Arabic idiom bas hibr 'ala waraq (mere ink on paper).

Immediately following the vote, however, at least three of the affected parties announced their self-declared exceptions to the resolution. The three affected parties are, as usual, the Russians, Iranians, and Syrians - in other words, the perpetrators of the slaughter that has killed well over 500 people in the space of a few days through relentless air, rocket, and artillery strikes on the besieged enclave east of Damascus.

As we have seen in virtually every attempt - all of which have failed - at a ceasefire, truce, cessation of hostilities, de-escalation, etc. - these three allies have declared that the agreement does not cover groups they label as terrorists.

To these parties, that label applies to anyone not fighting for the regime. Specifically, this time, Moscow, Tehran and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad stated that “parts of the suburbs of Damascus, which are held by the terrorists, are not covered by the ceasefire and clean-up [operations] will continue there.”


Those who the Russian, Iranians, and Syrians believe to be terrorists

Let's drill down on the phrase "clean-up" operations.

With the territorial defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - there are only small pockets remaining in Syria - the common enemy for the Syrians, Iranians, Hizballahis, various Iranian-led Shi'a militias, and even the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) no longer exists. More importantly, it frees up thousands of Syrian troops formerly used in the push to retake central Syria and the besieged city of Dayr al-Zawr to be redeployed for the next major assault.

That assault, the elimination of the rebel-held eastern Ghutah, has begun.



When I was assigned as the air attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, I lived about five miles west of the East Ghutah in the Western Villas section of the al-Mizzih district of the city (at the blue dot on the above map). Around the city is a greenbelt of trees and small towns - very pleasant, clean, safe, nice - called the Ghutah. There is a western Ghutah as well - both were preferred places to either live or have a weekend place outside the city.

Since the Iranian intervention in 2012 which allowed Bashar al-Asad to survive the first major challenge, and the Russian intervention in 2015 which kept him in power again as Syrian forces were being pushed south toward Damascus, the East Ghutah has held on, but has been under brutal siege.

The Syrian regime tactic has been, and remains, to impose a siege, hammer the infrastructure by air and artillery - including deliberate targeting of hospitals, markets/commercial bakeries, and schools - until the residents agree to a truce. In the past, the rebels would be allowed to leave, usually bused to Idlib.

I don't think that is going to happen - the situation has changed since the virtual/imminent/territorial (pick a word) defeat of ISIS. The Syrians have recommitted the bulk of their forces to start mopping up any pockets of resistance - the East Ghutah will be the first.

The Syrians have assigned the task to the Tiger Forces, an elite armored/mechanized force under the command of Brigadier General Suhayl al-Hasan - a very capable field commander who was the key leader in the fight against ISIS. He is brutal and efficient - his public statements echo that. He has become a folk here to the regime supporters.

The Tiger Forces listed their objectives, which basically are to regain complete control of the M5 highway - the main line of communication north to the rest of the Syrian forces, stop rebel mortar and rocket attacks on Damascus, secure the East Ghutah, and then move on to the Yarmuk rebel and ISIS pockets (southwest of East Ghutah).

With the resources no longer needed to fight ISIS, General al-Hasan now has overwhelming firepower, massive amounts of airpower from the Russian Air Force operating out of Humaymin air base near Latakia, as well as all the artillery organic to the regime-protection elements firing from the mountains just northwest of the city.

In General al-Hasan's own words:

"We won’t allow anyone to interfere with the battle’s issues. Any attempt to impose a ceasefire and open passageways to exit the militants from the western side of eastern Ghutah is not allowed at all. The battle is ongoing and will stay that way until the end of the last militant standing in eastern Ghutah. For every round from your weapons and for every drop of blood from a martyr or wounded in Damascus, our response will be firing so many rounds that you will know the righteousness of God and know that no one has ever tried to injure al-Sham to make her cry and succeeded. Long live you, and Syria al-Asad."

Here is a propaganda video from the Tiger Force media office lionizing (no pun intended) General al-Hasan.


Here is a report of Syrian military operations from the day after the ceasefire went into effect - you be the judge.


Given the commitment of units such as the Tiger Forces, the overwhelming force at its disposal, the unwavering support of the Russians and Iranians, and the willingness to ignore and exploit the United Nations resolution, it is only a matter of time before the Syrian regime regains control of the area.

The downside is the huge numbers of civilian casualties (hundreds per day now - it will get worse) and the destruction of almost all the infrastructure in the area.

How long with this go on? The area is about 100 square kilometers - they could hold out for maybe weeks, but it is going to be ugly. Take a look at the destruction in the cities of Mosul, al-Raqqah. Aleppo, etc - this will be worse.

Here are my thoughts on the ongoing, and unfortunately future, carnage in the East Ghutah, on CNN International a few days ago.






February 10, 2018

Iran-Israel confrontation in Syria - more to come

Israeli Air Force F-16I "Sufa" of 253 Squadron at Ramon Air Base

There has been ample reporting on the events of the day, but allow me to add some thoughts and clarifications. To recap quickly, an Iranian-controlled unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) was detected over northern Israel and shot down. The Israelis responded by launching four F-16I "Sufa" fighter-bombers (like the one shown in the above photograph) to strike the facility used to control the UAV.

Syrian air defense units fired a volley of as many as 24 surface-to-air missiles at the jets, hitting one, causing it to crash in northern Israel as it tried to reach an Israeli air base.

Most Middle East analysts knew this was coming at some point, given Iran's expanding influence in the region. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), spearheaded by its special operations unit, the Qods force, has been a key player in supporting the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad.

That support has included what many consider the bulk of the Syrian alliance forces - IRGC units, Iranian army units, Iranian-led Iraqi Shi'a militiamen, Lebanese Hizballah fighters, and even volunteer Shi'a fighters from Afghanistan. Without this Iranian-led support, the Syrian regime would have likely been overthrown in 2012.

The Iranians have also provided materiel support to Syria, including a variety of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). It is common to see the Mohajer-4 reconnaissance UAV as well as the armed Shahed-129 UAV in Syrian skies. The U.S.-led coalition has shot down at least two of the armed versions over Syria. It is believed that the drone downed by an Israeli Air Force AH-64 Apache helicopter today was a new Iranian UAV based on an American UAV which Iran seized in 2011.

The Israelis believe the UAV was launched from an Iranian unit at Tiyas air base, located in the central Syrian desert between the cities of Homs and Palmyra (Tadmur). It is also referred to in some media as T-4 (variants Tifur or Tayfur) because it is adjacent to the T-4 pumping station.

The Israeli defense ministry released a reconnaissance photograph (below) of what they claim is an IRGC UAV unit at the base. I have circled the location of the unit on the larger satellite image.



Some media reports are questioning why the Iranians chose to launch a UAV sortie against northern Israel from Tiyas. The distance from the base to where the UAV was downed near Beit She'an by the Israeli Apache is 300 kilometers/185 miles - there are numerous other bases and locations closer to Israel from which to conduct such operations. (Note: the red line is NOT the flight route for the UAV.)


In this case, the simplest answer is probably correct. Tiyas is where the IRGC has set up its operations to support the Syrian regime. Its central location makes sense, and the airfield can handle large transport aircraft, including Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force planes as well as those of the not-so-covert IRGC support airlines (YAS Air, Pouya Air, Fars Qeshm, and SAHA).

Many observers are wondering how the Syrian air defense was able to down an Israeli Air Force F-16 when it has not been able to in the past. I am not sure of the flight path today, but Tiyas is a bit further inside Syria than many previous targets. Although the Israelis struck a nascent nuclear facility at located on the north bank of the Euphrates River between al-Raqqah and Dayr al-Zawr in 2007, that area is almost devoid of capable air defenses. Tiyas, on the other hand, sits in the middle of an intense air defense environment.

Here are the "threat rings" for Syria's air defense missiles.



Here are the threat rings for the long-range S-200 (NATO: SA-5 GAMMON) system that was used to down the F-16. Even if the F-16's used stand-off weapons and launched them from a distance, the location of Tiyas would necessitate entering the heart of the SA-5 threat envelope.


According to the Israelis, the Syrians fired a volley of as many as two dozen SA-5 and Kvadrat (NATO: SA-6 GAINFUL) missiles. One missile was able to penetrate the Israeli electronic warfare defenses and damage one of the four F-16s conducting the mission against Tiyas.

The Israeli response was quick and predictable. It will extract a price for the loss of the F-16, and also for the blow to its ego. There have been two waves of retaliatory airstrikes, hitting a variety of air bases and air defense units, air defense command and control facilities, and installations known to be associated with the IRGC.

For example, one of the targets was Khalkhalah air base, located 25 miles south of Damascus on the al-Suwayda' road. Syrian press reports that the SA-5 site just north of the air base was hit as well.



This will continue until the Israelis believe they have made their point.

The questions: Does Syria attempt to continue the engagement with Israel? Does Iran plan to continue to provoke the Israelis?

If either of them decide to engage the Israelis, I assess that it will be of limited scope and duration. They are, after all, busy with the Syrian civil war. It is a distraction neither of them needs.



February 2, 2018

The Turks and the Kurds - creating a self-fulfilling prophecy


The Turks are now two weeks into their so-called campaign to "eradicate terrorists" inside northern Syria. By terrorists, they are referring to the fighters belonging to the militias of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat, or PYD). The two militias are known as the People's Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, YPG) and its female counterpart, the Yekîneyên Parastina Jin (YPJ).

These militias are a key component of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF was the primary ground force which - with massive American air and artillery support - liberated most of the areas of northern Syria that had been seized and occupied by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). They were the proverbial "boots on the ground" as part of the U.S.-led coalition to oust ISIS from its strongholds in Syria and Iraq.

A few words about the Turks and ISIS. Although the Turks couch their operations in Syria as an effort to support the fight against ISIS, the Turks rarely, if ever, took on the jihadist group. There has been a lot of finger pointing between the Turks and other members of the anti-ISIS coalition over Turkey's real stance on ISIS.

If you will recall, between 2013 and 2016, ISIS's ranks were swelled by the constant flow of new recruits from North Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and even some from the United States. The major transit route for these foreigners was via Istanbul, then to the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep, then across the border into Syria.

I have spent a lot of time along both sides of that border - it's not a border I would attempt to cross unassisted. It is quite formidable, with substantial fences, obstacles, including minefields in some areas, overseen by a series of guard towers manned by armed soldiers on the Turkish side. One has to wonder how these thousands of ISIS recruits were able to reach Syria. I think we know the answer.

As a result, the United States is reportedly in the process of creating a 30,000-strong "border security force" from the ranks of the SDF. The pragmatic reason for the necessity of such a force? If thousands of ISIS recruits were able to infiltrate into Syria via Turkey, why would we expect that they would not be able to exfiltrate via the same route in reverse?

The mission of the new forces is to prevent the survivors of the anti-ISIS operation in Syria and Iraq from re-entering Turkey and returning to their home countries. Most of the countries of origin are concerned that these veterans of the fighting in Syria and Iraq will return home and attempt to conduct "martyrdom" operations.

As I said in my recent article, Turkey's main concern in Syria is not ISIS, it is the Kurds. If you ask the Turks, they believe the YPG/YPJ is nothing more than an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê, PKK). While the PKK has been designated as a terrorist group by the United States, NATO, and the European Union, the YPG has not. (See that article, Turkey - Operation Olive Branch: how far will they go?)

I disagree with the Turkish assertion that the PKK is synonymous with the YPG (and there will be numerous comments from my Turkish readers that I am incorrect). For a better perspective, here are excerpts from a recent article by journalist and award-winning author (and friend) Michael J. Totten, No, the Syrian Kurds are not Terrorists:

Their [YPG] ideology isn’t Islamist. It’s leftist. They champion, in their own words, “social equality, justice and the freedom of belief” along with “pluralism and the freedom of political parties.” They hope to implement “a democratic solution that includes the recognition of cultural, national and political rights, and develops and enhances their peaceful struggle to be able to govern themselves in a multicultural, democratic society.” They describe themselves as libertarian socialists, a minority faction within the worldwide socialist movement that rejects one-party rule and authoritarian state control of the economy.

They also ascribe to what they call Communalism, a set of ideas put forth by Abdullah Ocalan, founder of Turkey’s Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). It is here that the YPG gets itself into trouble with Turkey.

Ocalan founded the PKK in 1978 as a Kurdish nationalist separatist movement and a Marxist-Leninist insurgency. Like nearly all communist guerrilla armies—from Peru’s Shining Path to the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia—it was inherently prone to terrorism. While primarily striking Turkish soldiers and police officers, the group has also committed a number of attacks against civilian targets, including a car bomb in Ankara last March that killed dozens and wounded more than 100 and a suicide attack in Istanbul’s Taksim Square in 2010.

The YPG...has never committed an act of terrorism in Syria or anywhere else, not even at a time when terrorist attacks are as routine as weather in Syria. So while, yes, the YPG and the PKK are ideologically linked, the Turkish government has never been able to identify a single act of terrorism the YPG has ever committed, not in Turkey, not in Syria, nor anywhere else.

Turkey can call the Kurds terrorists all they want, but that will not make them so.


With their ill-advised and ill-timed invasion of 'Afrin canton in northern Syria, the Turks may be creating, or at the very least, exacerbating the very problem they claim to be solving. If there was no cooperation between the various Kurdish factions in all four countries that are home to Kurdish minorities - Turkey, Syrian, Iraq, and Iran - there soon may be. With the Turks attacking the PYD/YPG in Syria, who is next? The Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in Iraq?

I spoke yesterday with a member of the PUK. He believes that Turks have done something that the Kurds themselves have not been able to do for decades - unify the various Kurdish parties and factions.

He added (my translation), "All of us are now YPG, we Kurds in Syria, Iraq, and Iran - all over the world - now support the YPG and Rojava.* Now the PKK, YPG and peshmerga are all one. It is the only way to have a free Kurdistan. The Turkish army, ISIS and the Free Syrian Army are all against us."

Bottom line: If the PYD/YPG were not cooperating with the PKK, thanks to the Turkish invasion of northern Syria, they most likely are now or will be in the future. The Turks have just created a larger enemy that will continue the fight for years to come. They did this to themselves.

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* Rojava is the common Kurdish name for the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, a de facto autonomous region in northern Syria. It is not recognized by the Syrian government.




January 26, 2018

Turkey - Operation Olive Branch: how far will they go?

Turkish tanks entering 'Afrin canton, Syria

First - and remember this as we go through this - for Turkey, it's about the Kurds. Turkey's perceived national interest in Syria has always been about the Kurds.

I will only talk only briefly about the background, because most of you who read my writings are very familiar with the intense animosity between the Turks and the Kurds - and that means any Kurds, be they resident in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and even Iran. I can somewhat understand the Turkish position - they have been fighting an insurgency against the Kurdish Workers' Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê, PKK) since 1984.

The casualties and costs have not been insignificant. Over 5,000 Turks and 35,000 Kurds have been killed, and millions of Kurds have been displaced. The monetary cost to the Turkish government is estimated to be between 300 and 450 billion dollars.

I have been in Turkey many times, have discussed this with Turks and Kurds alike, and still have friends and contacts among both. The Turks view their military as their own sons, very much as the Israelis do - both have universal conscription, so virtually everyone serves.

In 2012, I was in Turkey when the PKK killed 22 Turkish soldiers in a series of attacks near the Iraqi border. The reaction among average Turks was palpable, like losing a cousin. It registered with me - the Turks take their losses to the Kurds personally. Rather than cowering the Turks, it strengthens their resolve.

I was on CNN International earlier this week. I remarked that what Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is doing in Syria resonates with much of the Turkish electorate, particularly those in Anatolia. They support his hard-line stance and what they perceive as a proactive operation against a potential future threat: fight the PKK in Syria rather than having to fight them here in Turkey.

Watch the entire interview here:

That's fine, if you buy into the Turkish assertion that the PKK is synonymous with the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat, PYD) and its militia known as the People's Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, YPG).

While I take the point that the YPG and PKK have cooperated against Turkey in the past, much of that cooperation has been at the behest of the Syrian government. The Syrians and Turks have had major issues for decades over border security, and probably more importantly, the amount of flow of Euphrates River waters.

The PKK has been designated as a terrorist group by the United States, NATO, and technically by the European Union. It is listed as a Proscribed Group by the United Kingdom. The United Nations has not listed them as a terrorist organization. Only the Turks regard the YPG as a terrorist group.



The Turks are now seven days into Operation Olive Branch. They have virtual control of the airspace over 'Afrin canton, overwhelming firepower that state armed forces can provide, and almost complete encirclement of the alleged enemy, the so-called "terrorist" forces in northern Syria. Militarily, there is no doubt that the Turks could take over the entire 'Afrin canton area.

Unfortunately, there is little recourse for the United States. Although the YPG is arguably the most effective partner in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the alliance of Kurdish, Arab and even Assyrian militias supported by the United States in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), there was virtually no ISIS presence in the 'Afrin canton, thus little SDF ground operations and accompanying American support.

In August 2016, fearing the establishment of a continuous Kurdish-controlled area along the entire Syrian-Turkish border, the Turks launched Operation Euphrates Shield (dara' al-furat). While the stated goal of the operation was the eventual liberation of the ISIS self-declared capital of al-Raqqah, it was evident that the real goal of the operation was to split the Kurdish area into two pockets.

The Turks never came within 100 miles of al-Raqqah, and were essentially marginalized into a pocket between Kurdish forces to the east and west, and Syria forces to the south. It is important to note that the YPG and/or the SDF have no real fight with the Syrian government in Damascus - they are focused on the fight against ISIS.

Now the ISIS has lost almost all of its territory in Syria (and Iraq), the Turks are making their move to eliminate the YPG, first in 'Afrin canton. The question is, after they accomplish their objective, will they turn their attention and their quite capable military forces to the east, areas under the control of the American-backed SDF. We should also remember that there are about 2,000 American forces on the ground in these areas to the east of Turkish Operation Euphrates Shield forces.



After the Turks complete operations in 'Afrin, their next objective will be the city of Manbij, 100 km (60 miles) east of Afrin and east of the Euphrates Shield operations area. (I have underscored Manbij on the map above.)

In President Erdoğan's own words:

“With the Olive Branch operation, we have once again thwarted the game of those sneaky forces whose interests in the region are different. Starting in Manbij, we will continue to thwart their game. We will clear Manbij of terrorists ... No one should be disturbed by this because the real owners of Manbij are not these terrorists, they are our Arab brothers. From Manbij, we will continue our struggle up to the border with Iraq, until no terrorist is left."

Manbij is currently held by the SDF - the force there is a mix of Arabs, Kurds, and Assyrians. There are also American forces present in the area. There was initial thought that the Turks would attempt to secure the area held by the SDF in the Manbij area as far east as the Euphrates River, almost an undeclared boundary between the Turkish-back FSA (now calling themselves National Forces) and the SDF. Erdoğan's words suggest otherwise, that the Turks are not going to stop their eastward push at the river.

The Turkish president is also on record that he wants to establish a "security zone" of 30 kilometers (18.65 miles) inside Syria along Turkey's southern border. His plans are not without precedent. In the past, the Israelis have done the same thing inside Lebanon, and the Turks themselves have done so in northern Iraq in the 1990s.

However, this brings the Turks, a nominal NATO ally, into direct contact with not only the American trained, supported, and equipped SDF, but American troops as well. Do the Turks want to place themselves in a possible direct armed confrontation with American forces, another NATO member?

While I hope that both sides continue talking (initial talks have not gone well), it is not helpful when President Erdoğan refers to his NATO allies as "crusaders." Would he bristle at being called an Ottoman or a Saracen?

Another major unknown: Is the United States willing to risk a direct confrontation with a NATO ally over a commitment to a group of Syrian Kurds? The Kurds are wary of the Americans, for good reason. They believe the United States has abandoned them in the past, as far back as 1975. After entering into a virtual alliance with the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition, the SDF - primarily the Kurds - acquitted itself well on the battlefield. By most accounts, they were the most effective fighting force on the ground against the group, and were key to the reclamation of almost all of northern Syria from the group.

Senior American officials have indicated a desire to maintain American forces in northern Syria in support of the SDF until there is a political solution to the Syrian civil war. To provide some stability to the recently "liberated" area, the United States is reportedly training a "border security" force of almost 30,000 fighters drawn from the SDF. A major task for this force will be not only to prevent jihadists from entering Syria, but more importantly, preventing ISIS fighters from leaving and returning to their home countries and mounting terrorist attacks.

Predictably, the Turks have objected to this plan. They claim that there is no need for such a security force. Perhaps Mr. Erdoğan could explain how tens of thousands of jihadis entered Syria via Turkey over the last three years. It was the major route to join ISIS. I have been on both sides along most of the Syrian-Turkish border - it is well-marked and well-defended. Passing through that border would be difficult without someone turning a blind eye.

Watch what happens after 'Afrin. I think a move on Manbij is highly likely, but will the Turks cross the Euphrates and try to move east? If so, there could be direct confrontation between two NATO allies.