August 19, 2017

The fight against the Islamic State grinds on….

The pace of operations in the assault on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) self-proclaimed capital city of al-Raqqah has slowed as the fighting moves into the densely-populated urban streets. The attacking forces of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are now faced with the realities of urban combat, arguably the most difficult type of fighting.

The U.S.-backed and equipped SDF is composed of Kurdish, Arab and Assyrian groups allied in the fight against ISIS. They have surrounded al-Raqqah and are slowly reducing the ISIS presence there.

In these old and narrow streets, it is difficult for the SDF to advance quickly. The fighters have to move not only street by street, but house by house, some of the fighters describing it as even room by room, as the entrenched ISIS fighters put up a tough fight.

Most of the remaining ISIS fighters - some estimates place the number at less than 1000 - believe they have no option but to make the SDF pay a high price for the city. Although some ISIS fighters have been captured, they seldom surrender, preferring to become martyrs for their cause.

The fighting is complicated also by the difficulty of using coalition airpower in the city. The coalition is conducting "danger close" airstrikes when requested by SDF commanders, but it inevitably leads to increased civilian casualties.

As with the other areas "liberated" from ISIS, such as the Iraqi city of Mosul, there is, and will be more, tremendous damage to the city infrastructure and facilities. Unfortunately, that is the price of evicting ISIS - the group has had over four years to prepare to defend the city.

The ISIS fighters have no where to go - I suspect that most of the remaining fighters, as happened in Mosul, will die fighting ferociously, taking as many SDF troops as possible. They continue to use suicide vehicle improvised explosive devices and human shields to cause a high number of casualties.

The battle for al-Raqqah has been foretold for some time - both sides knew this was coming. As the tide of the war turned against ISIS, both sides realized what the outcome of the battle would likely be - the real question is the cost in blood and treasure.

ISIS knew that making a final stand in al-Raqqah would not give them the time they needed to reconfigure the group into a different organization, one without territory, more akin to other Islamist groups, such as its predecessor al-Qa'idah.

Before the SDF completely surrounded the city, ISIS moved many of its leaders and fighters to the southeast further down the Euphrates Valley into Dayr al-Zawr governorate (called al-Khayr by ISIS). The city of Dayr al-Zawr and the adjacent air/military base are still in the hands of the Syrian government, but are completely surrounded and besieged by ISIS.

Dayr al-Zawr

Airdrops by the Syrian Arab Air Force, Russian Air Force, Iranian Air Force, and yes - although the United Nations claims it is not taking sides - the World Food Programme - sustain the Dayr al-Zawr enclave.

The Syrian Army is pushing from Palmyra and along the Euphrates south of al-Raqqah and adjacent to the SDF units towards Dayr al-Zawr - and making good progress. They have isolated several ISIS pockets and will destroy them - I do not think the Syrian Army will attempt negotiations with ISIS as they have with Syrian rebel groups. In many cases, the Syrian government allows rebel fighters to relocate to rebel-held areas, usually in Idlib governorate, in return for surrendering their besieged positions.

These moves toward Dayr al-Zawr by the Syrian Army, combined with the SDF assault on al-Raqqah and ISIS's attempts at relocation to the southeast, are setting up what will be ISIS's last stand in Syria, maybe even in both Syria and Iraq, depending on how aggressively the Iraqi forces clear the remaining ISIS-controlled areas on their side of the border.

It appears that the final battle will take place somewhere in the Euphrates Valley (I believe it will be somewhere in the blue circle on the map below) - ISIS media is already calling it mu'arakat al-furat (the battle of the Euphrates).

The coming "battle of the Euphrates"

I believe we know how the final battle ends, however, we don't know exactly when or where. Although the SDF is in control of about 60 percent of the city of al-Raqqah, ISIS continues to offer stiff resistance and to mount deadly counterattacks with SVIEDs - the battle of the Euphrates is not imminent. It will take some time for the SDF to complete the liberation of al-Raqqah - one need only to look at the final push for Mosul to see the difficulties ahead.

It will also take time for the Syrian Army to consolidate its gains northeast of Palmyra and continue its push to the east. The Syrians have allocated its best troops to the effort, bolstered by Iranian forces and Russian airpower.

Although the battle of the Euphrates is not imminent, it will happen. Then the fight will shift to battle what ISIS becomes next. Barcelona might be a hint.

August 16, 2017

Iranian Air Force operations in Syria's Idlib governorate

Translation of the caption on the video: "Watch as packages of food and medical supplies are dropped to the besieged towns of Kafarya and Fu'ah, located north of Idlib."

For almost two years, aircraft of the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-affiliated airline YAS Air have been supporting residents of the towns of Kafarya and Fu'ah, located just four miles north of the city of Idlib with airdrops of food and supplies. I daresay some of the packages have included weapons and ammunition.

The two towns, loyal to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, are surrounded and besieged by units of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other rebel groups.

The two cities have another important distinction - they are two of the few Shi'a towns in this part of Syria. It is not only the fact that Iranian forces are allied with the Syrian government, but that Iran regards itself as the leader and guardian or all people and places Shi'a.

The Iranian leadership has made it a priority to ensure that the towns are not starved into submission by the surrounding rebel forces.

To that end, the IRIAF and IRGC have deployed aircraft to Damascus International Airport to conduct the airdrops. The aircraft are normally parked on an apron (red circle) located southeast of the main commercial passenger ramp.

In the above photo, there are two IRIAF C-130 and two YAS Air AN-72 (NATO: COALER) cargo aircraft. YAS Air is affiliated with the IRGC Qods Force and is under sanction by the U.S. Treasury Department for its role in supporting the IRGC, Lebanese Hizballah, and the Syrian regime.

In a rare capture, this transponder track shows a YAS Air (formerly registered to the IRIAF) AN-72 aircraft returning to Damascus after dropping supplies to the besieged towns.

These Iranian C-130 and AN-72 aircraft have also been seen dropping supplies into the ISIS-besieged city of Dayr al-Zawr in eastern Syria, although Russian and Syrian IL-76 (NATO: CANDID) are normally used for this mission.

August 15, 2017

North Korean M1978 Koksan Gun - the Iranian angle

Captured Koksan gun at the al-Suwayrah artillery depot, Iraq - 1988 (my photo)

The world's attention remains focused on North Korea and its continuing research and development of a deliverable nuclear weapon, specifically a nuclear warhead for its newly-tested Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). At last check, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has decided against "testing" four of his Hwasong-12 intermediate range ballistic missiles by launching them over 2000 miles into international waters a mere 20 miles from the U.S. territory of Guam.

Any confrontation between the United States and North Korea will undoubtedly ignite a war on the Korean peninsula and possibly the entire region, including Japan. A key part of North Korea's strategy is a massive artillery and rocket attack on the South Korean capital city of Seoul. The metropolitan area of the city is home to over 10 million people - the number of casualties would be astronomical.

The distance from the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ) to Seoul is about 35 miles, normally considered beyond the range of conventional artillery. To ensure the capability to reach Seoul, the North Koreans developed what has become known in the West as the Koksan gun, more formally the M1978 Koksan 170mm self-propelled field gun. With a rocket-assisted projectile, the gun can fire an artillery round over 36 miles, or just enough to fire from the DMZ into the South Korean capital.

Koksan gun in Iranian service on the al-Faw peninsula

In 1987, seeking to generate much-needed revenue, the North Koreans sold a number of Koksan guns to Iran. Iran had been at war with Iraq for almost seven years. Although the Iraqis had initially seized Iranian territory, they were unable to hold it - every year the Iranians pushed the Iraqis further back, until taking the al-Faw peninsula from the Iraqis.

Artillery fires from al-Faw to Kuwait

The acquisition of this piece of Iraqi territory allowed Iran to use the newly-received Koksan guns to fire from the peninsula into Kuwait's northeastern oilfields. Iran shelled the Kuwaiti oilfields - as well as firing Chinese-made SILKWORM missiles into Kuwait's ports - as punishment for Kuwait's support of Iraq in the war. Kuwaiti and Saudi oil exports kept prices low, hurting Iran's war effort as Tehran struggled to pay for imported weaponry (like the SILKWORM missiles and North Korean artillery).

At this time, I was assigned to the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) at the Pentagon. My office was charged with overseeing defense intelligence operations and analysis for the Middle East, including the developing relationship between DIA and the Iraqi Directorate of Military Intelligence. We were aware of the Iranians firing missiles into Kuwaiti ports, hoping to intimidate the Kuwaitis from shipping larger amounts of oil.

In early 1988, we received reports from our Kuwaiti colleagues about unexplained artillery shelling of their northeastern oilfields. It was puzzling because we did not believe the Iranians were in possession of artillery systems capable of reaching the Kuwaiti oilfields. The Kuwaitis provided us with one of the shells which did not explode - we measured it at 170mm. At that time, we were unaware of anyone manufacturing a 170mm artillery piece - standard calibers at that time were 122mm, 130mm. 152mm, 155mm, 175mm and 203mm.

At about this same time, President Reagan, reacting to an intelligence community assessment that Iran was likely to win the war against Iraq within the year, directed the Secretary of Defense to provide intelligence information to Iraq to prevent an Iranian victory. The President deemed it unacceptable for Iran to control both Iranian and Iraqi oil production, and to be in a position to intimidate Kuwait and Saudi Arabia into lowering production and thereby raising the price of oil.

I was dispatched to Baghdad to handle the flow of information to the Iraqi DMI. Using our information, the Iraqis were able to regain control of the al-Faw peninsula in April 1988. Shortly afterwords, the Iraqis notified us that they had captured an unusual artillery piece on the peninsula and asked our assistance in identifying it.

Our defense attache in Baghdad, an artillery officer, traveled to the recaptured peninsula to see the gun. He recognized the gun from grainy photos the intelligence community had taken from television coverage of a North Korean military parade. The Iraqis had captured what we had never been able to put eyes on, let alone touch - a Koksan gun.

The first thing the attache did was measure the bore - 170mm. That explained the mysterious shelling of Kuwait's oilfields. It also told us that North Korea was actively supporting Iran in the war, which did not please the Iraqis. We at DIA explained to the Iraqis the importance of the gun to American forces and asked for the gun. I was directed to find a way to get the gun back to the United States for intelligence exploitation. Although the Iraqis initially agreed, they later decided to keep the gun but allowed us unlimited access to it.

I escorted a team of U.S. Army engineers and artillery officers to Iraq for as much exploitation as we could do in the field. The Iraqis moved the gun to the al-Suwayrah artillery depot about an hour south of Baghdad - we had five days to do everything but take it apart, later providing a detailed intelligence report for U.S. and allied forces' use.

As a side note - I found numerous used atropine injectors in the Koksan's driver's compartment, and what we later determined to be decontamination fluid in the vehicle's headlights. When I asked the Iraqis about these indications of chemical warfare usage, they deflected by claiming that Iraqi use of smoke confused the Iranians into thinking they were under chemical attack. It was a lie - I knew it and they knew it.

Exploitation of a Koksan gun in the Iraqi desert in 1988 was key to an accurate assessment of the ability of North Korean artillery to reach Seoul, South Korea.

July 7, 2017

A ceasefire in southwest Syria - genesis of a Trump Administration policy on Syria?

Southwest Syria

The United States and Russia have agreed to a ceasefire in southwest Syria which will take effect at noon on July 9. Jordan and Israel are also parties to the agreement. No additional details were released.

Any ceasefire in Syria is welcome, even a limited one such as this. Southwest Syria has been the scene of ongoing three-way fighting for months. The combatants are the Syrian Army supported by Iranian and Hizballah forces, an Islamist group who has declared itself part of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and opposition elements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

On several occasions, artillery shells fired from Syria have struck Israeli positions in the occupied Golan Heights. The Israelis have responded with artillery fire and air strikes against Syrian military and/or ISIS positions in retaliation.

Israel is concerned with the deployment of Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) forces and Hizballah fighters opposite the Golan Heights. News reports have shown Iranian and Hizballah flags visible from the Israeli side of the United Nations zone that separates the Israeli-occupied Golan from Syria. Iranian officials have claimed this IRGC deployment will be a permanent garrison opposite Israeli positions.

Syrian Air Force fighter-bombers have attacked FSA targets across the border in Jordan, although the Syrians claim the attack was the result of pilot error. Both Israel and Jordan are concerned about being drawn further into the six-year old Syrian civil war.

Ceasefires in Syria do not have a history of success, and I doubt this one will be an different. ISIS is not a party to this agreement and could be the spoiler. It may hold in the city of Dara' where the combatants are the regime and the FSA.

That said, the important point is that the United States and Russia are talking to each other directly about potential solutions in Syria.

The willingness of the United States to engage with the Russians over Syria may indicate the genesis of a long-awaited Trump Administration policy on Syria.

Despite all of the political posturing by other regional powers - Turkey, Iran, Iraq and even the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad - the main interlocutors for a solution to the civil war in Syria will be the United States and the Russian Federation.

It is high time that these two major powers came to terms with the fact that any solution in Syria is going to require American and Russian cooperation and leadership. Perhaps this is the start of that effort.

One can hope.

July 3, 2017

After the recapture of Mosul, what's next?

"The al-Hawayjah Pocket"

The Iraqi government's hard-fought battle for the recapture of the city of Mosul is nearing its end. Forces of the so-called Islamic State (formerly the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS) who had occupied the city for almost three years are now surrounded in a small section of the old city.

The estimated 300 remaining ISIS fighters, who have decided to fight to the death and make the Iraqi victory as expensive as possible, are slowly being eliminated. After the old city is cleared, there remains only the Yarmuk neighborhood in ISIS control.

The Iraqi government, in its desire for a catchy political slogan, declared the "end of the caliphate" on June 29, exactly three years to the day when ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his only pubic appearance - that was on June 29, 2014 in the Great Mosque of al-Nuri, famous for its iconic leaning minaret nicknamed al-hadba' (the hunchback). ISIS destroyed the beloved minaret, and the fighting still rages on.

The Iraqis, who routinely underestimate the amount of time required to secure military objectives, claim they need another 48 hours. I said in a CNN International interview on June 28 that I thought it would take Iraqi forces at least another week to clear the old city, and then turn its attention to the Yarmuk neighborhood.

That said, Iraqi forces - the Army, Counterterrorism Force, Federal Police, and the Iranian-backed Shi'a militias known as Popular Mobilization Units - will clear the entire city of Mosul in short order. There will be, and should be, a great celebration. However, the recapture of Mosul is not the end of the fight to expel ISIS from Iraq or eradicate it altogether. There are still sizable areas of the country which remain firmly under ISIS control (see map).

The three main areas fully under ISIS control are around the city of al-Hawayjah (called the al-Huwayjah Pocket), a large expanse of desert in al-Anbar province from just west of the al-Hadithah dam on the Euphrates River to the Syrian border (ISIS control extends far into Syria), and an area west of Mosul near Tal'afar. Military operations in the Tal'Afar area have been assigned to the Shi'a militias.

Given the location of the al-Hawayjah Pocket, it will almost certainly be the next focus for Iraqi forces. The area is close to the major north-south highway that serves as the main line of communications for not only Iraqi forces, but the entire country.

Over the last few months, the pocket has been the subject of a high level of aerial reconnaissance activity, while the other areas have been largely ignored. The pocket is already surrounded - the Iraqis will not have to encircle it first as they did in the fight for Mosul.

The Iraqis will have to fight for the territory, but they will likely not face the level of resistance they did in Mosul. Mosul is a large city, while the al-Hawayjah is less congested and crowded. We should remember, though, that ISIS has had years to establish their defenses. It will not be the proverbial "cake walk," but it will not be the intense street-by-street, house-by-house urban combat Iraqi forces faced in the confines of the old city section of Mosul.

Then, if I were advising the Iraqis, I would recommend they focus their efforts on clearing the Euphrates Valley. As long as they control sections of one of the region's most vital waterways, they pose a threat. As the Iraqis push northwest up the river valley, it is likely that the bulk of the ISIS fighters will simply withdraw to the relative safely, at least for now, of Syria.

That raises a host of questions, much of which we do not yet know the answers.

If ISIS withdraws to Syria, to the Dayr al-Zawr area that they have renamed wilayat al-furat (Euphrates state), will the Iraqis pursue them across the border? Or, will they consider territorial ISIS to be now a Syrian or a U.S.-led coalition problem?

Will the Iraqis and Syrian form an alliance and continue the pursuit of ISIS?

What will be the role of the Kurds on both sides of the border in the final dismemberment of the Islamic State? In Syria, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - made up mostly of Kurdish fighters - are currently mounting an attack on the city of al-Raqqah, the main ISIS stronghold in Syria, yet have no formal alliance with the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Asad.

This is different than the situation on the Iraqi side of the border, where the Kurdish peshmerga are a recognized force by Baghdad (as are the Shi'a militias).

If there is an agreement between Damascus and Baghdad on coordinated military operations against ISIS on either side of the border, what will be the status of the Americans? On the Iraqi side, we are allied with Iraqi forces, but on the Syrian side, Syrian and American forces are arrayed against each other, particularly in the area of southeastern Syria.

This will be interesting.

Note: For more on the situation after ISIS loses its territorial holdings, see my earlier article American troops in Iraq after the "defeat" of ISIS? A good idea....

June 27, 2017

Syria - Would Bashar al-Asad use chemical weapons again?

Sha'yrat air base, Syria - damage from April 6 U.S. missile strike

Last night, the White House released a statement indicating that the Syrians may be making preparations for another chemical weapons attack, specifically an air attack from Sha’yrat air base, the same base from which the April 4 chemical weapons attack in Khan Shaykhun (Idlib province) was launched.

Since the United States has demonstrated its willingness to strike Syrian military targets in retaliation for chemical weapons usage, why would Syrian President Bashar al-Asad risk another American military attack?

Looking at Syria’s military situation, it does not make sense to use chemical weapons.

First, in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Syrian Army is doing well, consistently taking territory from ISIS south of al-Raqqah and south of Palmyra. These two axes are part of a thrust into ISIS-held territory to reach the besieged city of Dayr al-Zawr on the Euphrates River.

The city and adjacent air base have been surrounded and under siege by ISIS for over two years. This effort is complemented by an operation mounted mostly by Iranian-supported militias moving northeast along the Iraqi border towards the Euphrates and Dayr al-Zawr.

Of course, the term “Syrian Army” includes heavy Russian air support and advice, Iranian military and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps units, Lebanese Hizballah, and Iraqi Shi'a militias. Without this foreign support, the Syrian military would like not constitute a viable military force.

That leaves the fighting against the various opposition groups – the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the al-Qa’idah-affiliated Islamist organizations. These include Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Ahrar al-Sham, both designated as terrorist groups. Mainly present in Idlib, the Syrians are not having great success against these groups, despite constant air, missile and rocket strikes on the groups.

In the southern province of al-Qunaytirah, the Syrian military is also having a difficult time in fighting another FSA group as well as an ISIS-affiliated group.

Assuming Bashar al-Asad orders a chemical weapons strike, what would be the target?

The Syrians are not going to use chemical weapons in al-Qunaytirah along the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights – the risk of Israeli reaction is too great.

There is no need to use chemical weapons against ISIS since those operations are going well.

Then there is Idlib province, home to the Islamists, FSA and many opposition refugees who have been relocated to the province vie ceasefire arrangements in cities the Syrian regime has besieged in the past.

In my opinion, Syria’s chemical weapons are militarily insignificant. A few weapons dropped on cities in Idlib will not affect the situation on the ground. It will cause mass murder, cause panic among the local population, draw international condemnation – and almost certainly an American military response. Why do it? Frustration and spite? Possibly.

Bashar al-Asad has been emboldened by seemingly increasing political and military support from his two key backers – Russia and Iran – but it is hard to believe he would resort to using chemical weapons again.

I would hope that the Russians are giving him counsel on what a mistake this would be.

June 25, 2017

Saudi Arabia - King Salman names his son as crown prince

Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud

There was a subtle but major shakeup in the diwan (royal court) of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia last week that garnered little press coverage. Saudi King Salman bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud replaced the existing crown prince with his son Muhammad bin Salman.

Before your eyes glaze over, let me explain why this is a significant development by a key ally in an critical part of the world.

In addition to the event itself, the timing is important - it follows a rather significant shift in U.S. foreign policy by the Trump Administration.

President Donald Trump has starkly (and in my opinion wisely) reversed the Obama Administration's policy of virtual acquiescence to Iran for almost eight years, despite the fact that Iran has demonstrated repeatedly that it has no interest in better relations with the United States.

King 'Abd al-'Aziz and FDR

Former President Barack Obama courted Tehran for eight years at the expense of good relations with our Gulf Arab allies - Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have had a close relationship since 1945 when King 'Abd al-'Aziz met with President Franklin Roosevelt onboard the USS Quincy in the Great Bitter Lake segment of the Suez Canal.

Thanks to the previous administration's myopic focus on Iran and former Secretary of State John Kerry's abysmal negotiating skills, Iran was able to secure an extremely favorable deal on its nuclear program. The Iranian negotiations were ably led by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, an American-educated, skilled diplomat that repeatedly bested Secretary Kerry.

John Kerry / Mohammad Javad Zarif

Iranian negotiators were also able to convince Mr. Kerry to agree to an alteration of the text of an existing United Nations Security Council resolution prohibiting Iran from developing and testing ballistic missiles.

These missiles will be the primary delivery system when, not if, Iran acquires a nuclear weapon. See my article on the ballistic missile fiasco, Iran's ballistic missile program - more fallout from the "Kerry Collapse".*

This - Iran's ascendance in the Middle East region - is why the American-Saudi relationship is so important.

A short overview of the Saudi succession system might be useful.

In 1932, 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud founded the kingdom that still bears his family's name. The king, more often referred to as Ibn Sa'ud, ruled Saudi Arabia as an absolute monarchy until his death in 1953.

Following his death, the throne passed to his son Sa'ud without incident. The five successive kings after Sa'ud have been chosen by a council of the royal family from among the sons of Ibn Sa'ud - succession in Saudi Arabia was not from father to son, but from brother to brother. Ibn Saud had 45 sons, 36 of whom survived to adulthood. Of these, six have acceded to the throne.

As long as there were sons of Ibn Sa'ud to fill the position of king, succession was not an issue. Many of us "Saudi watchers" were concerned about succession after all of the sons of Ibn Sa'ud had died - what then? Was there a viable succession plan that transcended the generational divide from a son of Ibn Sa'ud to a grandson?

That question was partially answered in January 2015. When King 'Abdullah (2005-2015) died at age 90, his half-brother Salman bin 'Abd al-'Aziz acceded to the throne - again with no controversy. At that time - and as was expected - the new King Salman named his younger half-brother Muqrin as the new crown prince. At age 69, Muqrin was the youngest surviving son of of the kingdom's founder.

King Salman then surprised everyone by removing former King 'Abdullah's son Muta'ib from the recently created position of deputy crown prince and naming his full nephew Muhammad bin Nayif as the new deputy crown prince and Minister of the Interior (a powerful position somewhat akin to the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security). The position of deputy crown prince was created to gradually legitimize the generational transition to the next generation of the House of Sa'ud.

Here is where this gets complicated, conspiratorial, political, and in my opinion, masterful. Muhammad bin Nayif is the son of Salman's full brother Nayif - Nayif is one of the so-called "Sudayri Seven." The seven full brothers are the sons of who many believe to be Ibn Sa'ud's favorite wife, Husah bint Ahmad al-Sudayri.

The seven brothers for years were a close-knit group who wielded great power in the running of the kingdom. Two of the brothers have become kings (Fahd and Salman) and the others have held key ministerial and provincial governor's posts. Over the years, I have worked with four of the seven - all impressive men.

King Salman made other appointments in January 2015 as well, including naming his son Muhammad bin Salman as Minister of Defense and Aviation (MODA), one of the most powerful portfolios in the kingdom. With these moves, members of the al-Sudayri clan were once again the preeminent power brokers in the country.

It gets better. Just three months later, April 2015, King Salman removed his brother Muqrin from the position of crown prince, and elevated Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayif to that position. More importantly, the king named his son - MODA chief Muhammad bin Salman - as the new deputy crown prince.

Fast forward to June 2017. In another surprise move, and again in my opinion masterful, King Salman summarily removed Muhammad bin Nayif from his positions of crown prince and Minister of the Interior. King Salman at the same time elevated his son Muhammad bin Salman from deputy crown prince to crown prince.

I call these moves masterful because once the former crown prince - Muhammad bin Nayif - succeeded to the throne, he would be free to name anyone he wished to the position of crown prince, thus thwarting the obvious ambition of King Salman to have his son Muhammad bin Salman to sit on the Saudi throne.

Given the fact that Muhammad bin Nayif would likely have acceded to the throne in his 60's, he may have ruled for over 20 years - a lot can change in 20 years, especially who might succeed him. Muhammad bin Salman, now only 31 and the new crown prince, may rule for as long as 50 years.

Again, ever the masterful politician, King Salman named the son of the now deposed Crown Prince/Minister of Defense Muhammad bin Nayif as the new Minister of the Interior. This "consolation prize" in essence bought Muhammad bin Nayif's acquiescence and silence.

Assuming that what King Salman has put in place survives, he has single-handedly determined the succession of the Saudi throne from the first to the second generation of the sons of Ibn Sa'ud.

Further, he has further strengthened the position of the descendants - he and his son included - of who many believe was Ibn Sa'ud's favorite wife, Husah bint al-Sudayri. They now control the throne, the successor to the throne, the Ministry of the Interior, and the Ministry of Defense and Aviation. These are the key positions in the kingdom.

The king also appointed another of his sons, Prince Khalid (age 29), to be the kingdom's new ambassador to the United States, easily the most important position in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The sons of King Salman (bin Salman) will be the key determinants of Saudi Arabia's future.

Well played, Your Highness, well played.


For more detailed background, see two of my earlier articles:

- Saudi Arabia - the resurgence of the al-Sudayri clan

- New Saudi ambassador the United States - another al-Sudayri in a power position

* I am sure this will spark another caustic retort from the former British Ambassador to the United States (and obvious Kerry supporter). Bring it, Sir Pete.

June 18, 2017

U.S. downing of Syrian Air Force aircraft - why are the Syrians attacking the SDF?

Syrian Air Force SU-22M3 at Dumayr Air Base

In the mid-afternoon hours of June 18, a U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet fighter jet shot down a Syrian Air Force Sukhoi SU-22 (NATO: FITTER) fighter-bomber after it conducted an airstrike on positions of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Front SDF) about 25 miles southwest of al-Raqqah. According to the Syrian Ministry of Defense, the pilot is missing.

This represents the first time the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has shot down a Syrian Air Force aircraft. The U.S. destroyed numerous Syrian aircraft on the ground with a Tomahawk cruise missile strike at Sha'yrat air base in April just days following a chemical attack on the city of Khan Shaykhun.

I believe that when the investigations are complete, we will find that today's shoot down was the result of a miscalculation or a series of errors. There is no reason for the Syrian armed forces, in this case the Syrian Air Force, to engage in military operations against the SDF, especially in the area south of al-Raqqah. In this instance, both sides - the Syrians and the SDF - are fighting a common enemy: ISIS.

There has been a tacit understanding between the SDF and government forces to cooperate in the fight against ISIS. Unlike the opposition Free Syrian Army, the SDF is not engaged in a fight to remove the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad.

The SDF represents a coalition of mostly Syrian Kurds Peoples' Protection Units (known by their Kurdish abbreviation YPG), Arabs and even Syriac Christians, all allied in the fight to remove ISIS from Syria.

For a more complete analysis of this cooperation, please see my article: An alliance between the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian government?

Red arrows: Syrian and SDF axes of attack on ISIS

The action today occurred in the village of Ja'din, located in the area where the forces of ISIS, SDF and the Syrian government converge. The SDF and government are moving east almost on parallel tracks. The SDF is moving to completely surround and isolate ISIS units south of al-Raqqah and the Euphrates River in support of the main SDF force that is currently assaulting the city proper.

Concurrently, and literally side by side with the SDF advance into ISIS-held territory, the Syrian Army and its allies are attacking east in an attempt to reach the besieged city of Dayr al-Zawr. The city and its adjacent air base have been under ISIS siege for over two years, relying on helicopter resupply for all necessities. Only massive amounts of Russian airpower has kept ISIS at bay. There is a second Syrian army effort attacking east towards Dayr al-Zawr from the city of Palmyra.

The Syrian government is happy to let the SDF undertake the difficult task of securing al-Raqqah from ISIS while they focus on reclaiming Dayr al-Zawr. What happened today directly threatens that tacit cooperative arrangement. It is not clear what sparked the regime attack on SDF units in Ja'din, but it resulted in not only ground combat, but the first aerial combat between American and Syrian pilots.

CNN's Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr reported that the Russians and the Americans have been in discussions to lessen tensions and re-establish the "de-escalation" protocol between the Syrians and the SDF that appeared to be working.

Hopefully, the two will be able to re-focus the fighting where it belongs - against ISIS. After ISIS is deprived of its territory in Syria, the parties can then work on the political solution for the country.

Distractions like that of today only serve to delay the removal of ISIS from Syria.

June 8, 2017

An alliance between the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian government?

Linkup of  Syrian regime and SDF forces west of al-Raqqah

After weeks of fighting, elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Syrian army coalition have successfully seized a large swath of territory from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the area east of Aleppo and west of al-Raqqah (see above map). The two military forces have met up with each other after the SDF attacked from the east and the regime attacked from the west on the southern bank of Lake al-Asad.

This comes at the same time that the SDF has begun the battle for the self-proclaimed ISIS capital city of al-Raqqah. The SDF is supported by air strikes and artillery fires by elements of the U.S.-led coalition.

I expect the battle for al-Raqqah to be difficult and slow, despite reports that many ISIS fighters have left the al-Raqqah and moved their operations nearer to the city of Dayr al-Zawr in what ISIS calls wilayat al-furat (Euphrates province).

The city and air base at Dayr al-Zawr are an ISIS-besieged Syrian government enclave under constant attack. It is only through a large number of Russian and Syrian air force airstrikes that the air base and city have not fallen to ISIS.

Al-Raqqah will fall to the SDF - the joint Kurdish-Arab alliance has proven itself to be an effective military force, seizing almost all of ISIS-held territory in northern Syria. The primary fighters in the SDF are the Kurds of the People's Protection Units (Kurdish: Yekîneyên Parastina Gel‎, or YPG).

The U.S. decision to arm the YPG has caused a rift with NATO ally Turkey, who regards the YPG as nothing more than an extension of the Kurdish separatist organization - and designated terrorist group - known as the PKK.

The U.S. decision was based on the situation on the ground. Turkey supported a Free Syrian Army (FSA) incursion into an ISIS-controlled area of the Kurdish region east of the Euphrates River. It was envisioned by the Turks that this force would eventually fight its way through the ISIS-controlled, regime-controlled, and yes, even the Kurdish-controlled areas all the way to al-Raqqah. Their mistake was refusing to cooperate with the YPG-dominated SDF, preferring to fight them rather than work with them.

After the Turkish-supported FSA wrested control of the ISIS stronghold of al-Bab, the rebels turned their sights on the Kurdish-controlled city of Manbij. Rather than divert assets from the main fight against ISIS to defend Manbij against the Turkish-supported FSA, the Kurds and regime entered into a cooperative agreement whereby the Syrian army with Russian observers, and the SDF with American observers, exercised joint control over the area.

This rather clever maneuver effectively halted the Turkish-FSA advance almost 100 miles from al-Raqqah and contained them in a pocket from which they have been unable to move forward. (See numeral 1 on the map below.)

On the other hand, the SDF has already fought its way to the gates of al-Raqqah and is beginning to enter the city. See my earlier article, SYRIA: Has Turkey been marginalized and the Americans thrust into the fight?

This tactical agreement in Manbij between the Russian-backed Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad and the U.S.-backed SDF may be a template for the future of Syria, or at least another step toward whatever political solution is found. For more on that, see Russian and American cooperation in Syria - a policy change?

As on other battlefields in Syria, now that the two attacking forces have met west of al-Raqqah, what happens next?

Military situation in Syria  - click on image for larger view

In this particular situation, I expect that the regime and SDF will again attempt to cooperate. They both need to fight ISIS, not each other. The SDF wants to remove ISIS from al-Raqqah and the remainder of northern Syria, and the Syrian government wants to continue the push beyond al-Raqqah towards the besieged enclave at Dayr al-Zawr.

Given its proximity to Dayr al-Zawr, the SDF is in good position to assist in a relief operation for Dayr al-Zawr as well. At a minimum, they can allow Syrian government passage through SDF-controlled territory on the way to Dayr al-Zawr.

I am going to make a prediction here - my track record on predictions about Syria is fairly good (but not perfect). As I said, al-Raqqah will fall to the SDF. It will be neither easy nor quick, but it will happen. The residents of al-Raqqah, who will suffer in the fighting, eventually will be liberated.

I disagree with the Turkish and FSA position that the citizens of al-Raqqah will not welcome the SDF liberation of their city. What little information that comes out of the city indicates to me that the residents are so oppressed under ISIS rule that they would welcome virtually anyone who can free them from the radical Islamists.

That said, there is valid concern about the Kurds exercising governance over a traditionally Arab city. There have been reports that the SDF is considering allowing the city to be governed by the Syrian government, meaning of course the Bashar al-Asad regime. I believe and hope this is what will happen. I do not think the SDF is interested in governing reclaimed territories outside of the traditionally Kurdish area.

If an agreement between the SDF and the Syrian government is reached, it may set up a template for the future of Syria. We all know that at some point there will be a political solution to the situation in Syria. We also know that it will be the military situation that shapes that political solution. The military situation in northeastern Syria may provide a glimpse of just how that might coalesce.

After al-Raqqah, both the SDF and government will focus their attention on the Euphrates Valley, the city of Dayr al-Zawr and eliminating ISIS from Syria. This is an operation that is in the interests of both the SDF and the Syrian regime. The two have proven that they can cooperate when it is in their best interests. I have already cited the Manbij situation.

There are also Syrian government enclaves in the city of al-Qamishli, located on the Turkish border, and the city of al-Hasakah, located about 40 miles south of al-Qamishli. (See numeral 2 on the map above.) Both cities are surrounded by the SDF, yet there are virtually no hostilities between the two groups.

There are good reasons for an alliance between the SDF/YPG and the Syrian government. The Kurds are not advocating the removal of Bashar al-Asad. They would like to form an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria similar to that enjoyed by Iraq's Kurds. On the other side of the equation, the Syrian government could use the military support of the SDF in ridding Syria of ISIS.

An agreement between the SDF/YPG and the government does not solve the entire Syrian crisis, does not solve the civil war, but it could be a start.

May 27, 2017

Syrian regime gains in southeastern Syria - another blow to the opposition

The May 18 U.S. Air Force air strike on a group of Syrian Army and Iranian-backed Iraqi militia forces in southeastern Syria has drawn attention to a normally overlooked part of the Syrian civil war and the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The attack took place on a section of the Damascus-Baghdad highway, or Syrian Highway 2, that traverses large desert areas where the countries of Syria, Iraq, and Jordan meet - commonly referred to as al-muthalath - the triangle.

To help understand what is happening in southeast Syria, some background explanation might help. For the purposes of our discussion, the key geopolitical feature is the line on the map the constitutes the border between Syria and Iraq, and the major border crossing. On the Syria side, it is the al-Tanf border crossing, and on the Iraqi side the al-Walid border crossing.

In the past, the highway was a major transportation hub with hundreds of tractor-trailers crossing in both directions daily. As the Syrian civil war dragged on, the commercial traffic flow decreased, but the highway remained an important transfer route for the rotation of Iraqi Shi'a militias in and out of Syria.

Sayyidat Zaynab shrine on southern outskirts of Damascus (my photos)

The Iraqi militias deployed to Syria at the request of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad's Iranian allies, initially to protect Shi'a shrines and holy places in Syria - like the shrine of Sayyidat Zaynab. Zaynab was the granddaughter of Muhammad, the daughter of Imam ‘Ali (first [Shi'a] imam and fourth [Sunni] caliph) and sister of Imam Husayn.

That role has since expanded to actual combat operations under the command of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), without whose support - along with the IRGC proxy Lebanese Hizballah and Russian airpower - the Syrian Army would have collapsed years ago.

With the changing situation in southern Syria, what was once firmly under the control of the regime changed. Opposition rebels, part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), are now in control of the area in southeastern Syria in which the road lies.

The Iranians would like to be able to use the Baghdad Highway to rotate the Iraqi Shi'a militias again. They are in the process of moving forces to the area in preparation for an offensive to re-establish regime control over the highway.

It is this movement that puts the pro-regime forces in proximity with FSA units being trained by U.S. and UK forces in the al-Tanf area. The May 18 airstrikes were in response to what appears to be a probing action on the part of the militias. After failing to heed warning low altitude flyovers by U.S. aircraft, the units were engaged by the aircraft. Several vehicles were destroyed.

The halt in the regime attack by Syrian Army forces and the militias on the FSA units in the area was only temporary. The regime has much more firepower than the FSA. The U.S.-led coalition is not tasked with providing air support to anti-regime rebels, and I do not envision a scenario in which that changes.

Regime forces, supported by Syrian and Russian airpower, will eventually overwhelm the lightly-equipped rebel forces. If the objective of the U.S. and UK-trained FSA units was to mount an attack on ISIS towards the northeast and the city of Al-Bukamal (green arrow), it is doubtful the operation can or will proceed.

The regime has already begun an operation (lower two red arrows) to section the FSA pocket and besiege it - this is the normal Russian tactic we have seen the Syrians employ successfully in other areas of the country. They are also continuing their attack on the Baghdad highway, which if successful, will section the FSA pocket into thirds.

The FSA units will defend themselves, but in the end, will have to either exfiltrate the area to other FSA-controlled areas, or surrender. Reportedly, the U.S. and UK trainers have been ordered to move back into Jordan or Iraq. This is the problem with not thoroughly assessing American policy on the ground in Syria, combined with a change in U.S. Administrations.

The Obama Administration reluctantly provided limited support to the FSA to fight the regime. The Trump Administration is not committed to the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, and is focused on the fight against ISIS. I have repeatedly warned that the anti-regime FSA effort to remove the al-Asad regime is no longer tenable.

With the introduction of first the Iranians (the IRGC, Army, Lebanese Hizballah, and Shi'a militias from Iraq and Afghanistan) in 2012, followed by the Russian expeditionary deployment in 2015, Bashar al-Asad now has little to fear.

I urged the oppsition to seek the best political deal possible in Astana. (For more on al-Asad's situation, see my earlier article: Syrian political talks in Astana - why Bashar al-Asad has little to fear).

It appears inevitable that the Syrian regime, backed by its sponsors, will secure the Baghdad road to the Iraqi border and force the FSA units to leave or surrender. In the past, the two sides have been able to arrange safe passage for the rebels to another FSA enclave - perhaps that will happen here.

The fight will then turn to ISIS-controlled al-Raqqah and the Euphrates valley. At that point, we may see coordinated action between the regime and the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF), a Kurdish-Arab joint group fighting ISIS.

The regime is backed by the Russians, and the SDF by the United States. Neither of the two groups are committed to the destruction of the other. That leaves one group out in the cold - the FSA.

What does this all mean for the future of Syria? My next article will deal with the potential resolution to the six year old civil war.