February 20, 2017

American combat troops to Syria? Not so fast....

Click on image to view the clip (I am at the 4:10 time code)

Note: This article is my followup to an excellent piece written by fellow CNN military analyst Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, U.S. Army (Retired): Combat troops to Syria? Not so fast. In it, the general details very clearly the military planning process.

Here are some additional considerations that should be addressed when contemplating the introduction of American combat forces into Syria. The special operations forces now on the ground in Syria are technically in a "train, advise and assist" capacity - that is "Pentagon-speak" that there are no U.S. boots on the ground, no troops in combat.* What the report alludes to is the possible deployment of actual combat units - armor, artillery, infantry and the required support units - possibly a U.S. Army brigade combat team.

A key planning factor in developing a recommendation to be made to the Secretary of Defense and the President is the current political and military situation in Syria, in the region and how that affects the larger international landscape. Nothing in the Middle East happens in a vacuum - there are many competing interests that must be evaluated. Events in Syria are influenced by external events, just as external events are influenced by what happens in Syria. This also impacts the ever-important U.S.-Russia relationship as well.

I know this is complicated, so I will try to simplify it as best I can without sacrificing accuracy. Among a variety of assignments in the Middle East, I was the Air Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus. In that position, I routinely traveled the entire country, observing and reporting on the political and military situation. That travel took me to all of the areas in which there is now fighting between all of the various factions, including the al-Raqqah area. I like to say that I have been on every paved road in Syria - not exactly true, but close.

President Trump has tasked the Department of Defense to provide options to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Given those instructions, I will focus solely on that objective, rather than trying to address the Obama Administration's bifurcated (and in my view somewhat unrealistic) policy of defeating ISIS and also removing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad.

The two objectives are virtually incompatible, and became even more so with the deployment of Russian military forces to Syria in September 2015. Any window of opportunity for the removal of al-Asad regime, either militarily or politically, closed when the first Russian fighter-bombers landed at Humaymim air base in northwestern Syria.

Most Middle East military analysts would agree that ISIS's center of gravity in Syria - and thus the principal objective - is the group's self-proclaimed capital of al-Raqqah. It is analogous with the city of Mosul in Iraq, now under attack by Iraqi military, special operations and police units. It is only a matter of time before Mosul falls to Iraqi forces.

In Iraq, there is ISIS on one side and everyone else on the other. Those allied against ISIS include the various Iraqi security forces, Iranian-supported (and many of us believe, Iranian-led) Shi'a militias, the very effective Kurdish peshmerga forces, and a variety of U.S.-led coalition troops providing differing levels of support. That coalition support includes intelligence, logistics, training and advising, direct artillery and rocket fires, and constant air strikes.

The situation in Syria could not be more different. As in Iraq, ISIS is the common enemy, however, there is not a coordinated or even coherent effort to fight it.

Note that I am not addressing the ongoing fighting in the western and southern parts of Syria, as those areas are peripheral to the main efforts against ISIS. While important, they are primarily between Syrian regime forces backed by its allies and anti-regime rebel groups, be they secular or Islamist.

The area of operations to be considered in this analysis stretches from Aleppo to the Iraqi border, roughly along the Euphrates River, a distance of almost 250 miles (see map below). Al-Raqqah sits approximately in the middle. Most planners believe that taking al-Raqqah is the key to defeating ISIS in Syria.

In the coming battle for al-Raqqah, the major combatant groups in the fight against ISIS are:

* Syrian government and its allies. The Syrian armed forces are supported by the Russian armed forces, primarily through airpower, but also via missile strikes and rocket/field artillery. Additional ground forces are provided by the Iranian Army and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Lebanese Hizballah, Iraqi Shi'a militias, and a group of Afghan Shi'a fighters. These allies have effectively doubled the size of what remains of the Syrian Army. The Syrian military has been severely crippled by losses and defections to the point that without this external assistance, it would cease to be a viable force.

* Major elements of the Free Syrian Army, supported in this operation - dubbed Operation Euphrates Shield - by the Turkish military. One might question Turkey's motives for participating in the fighting. Although Ankara's stated reason is to fight ISIS - and they are doing that - many believe it is to ensure that the Syrian Kurds do not create some form of autonomous region in northern Syria as the Kurds have in Iraq, or worst case, attempt to merge the Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish areas into one political entity.

* U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF is made up of about two thirds Kurdish fighters from a group known as the People's Protection Units, more commonly known by the Kurdish initials YPG. Turkey is concerned about American support for the YPG, since they regard the Kurdish militia as nothing more that an extension of the separatist Kurdish Workers' Party (more commonly known by its Kurdish initials, PKK). The PKK has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union, and NATO.

The other third of the SDF is made up of Syrian Arabs who are committed to combating ISIS in return for American support - money, weapons and training. American special operations forces have been embedded with the SDF to "advise and assist" in the fight against ISIS, which includes on-the-ground control of American airstrikes.

(For more detail on the political-military landscape in Syria, see my earlier article, The coming assault on al-Raqqah - a political minefield.)

The current military situation on the ground in this area is also a key planning factor. There are basically two concurrent operations underway. The first is concentrated around the ISIS stronghold of al-Bab. Al-Bab is located about 20 road miles northeast of the city of Aleppo, and - here is the key number - about 100 road miles northwest of al-Raqqah.

Black=ISIS / Red=Syrian regime / Green=FSA / Orange=SDF
(Click on image for larger view)

The fighting around al-Bab clearly illustrates the complicated nature of the political-military situation in Syria. ISIS still controls most of the city, which is under attack from both the Turkish-backed FSA as well as Russian/Iranian/Hizballah-backed Syrian regime forces. American-backed SDF forces are not far away.

All three of the groups are fighting not only ISIS, but each other. The Russians and Turks have tried to keep their respective clients focused on combating ISIS, with only limited success.

The fighting around al-Bab has been ongoing for months. Despite Russian, Syrian and Turkish air and ground support, ISIS has fought a deliberate and steady defense, basically slowing the advance of the opposing forces into ISIS-held territory. This keeps the front line of the Turkish-backed FSA about 85 miles (over 100 road miles) from al-Raqqah. If the past fighting is any indication, it will take months for the FSA or Syrian regime to be in a position to mount an attack on al-Raqqah.

Contrast the positions of the regime and FSA with that of the American-backed SDF near al-Raqqah. According to the latest situation map (below), SDF forces have approached the northeastern suburbs of the city itself. This culminates a three-month operation to isolate al-Raqqah from the west, north and now east.

The Euphrates River presents a natural southern obstacle for ISIS in the city. The coalition has destroyed the two bridges over the Euphrates, complicating movement between the northern and southern sections of the city.

Here is where politics on the international level and the military situation on the ground in Syria converge. Turkey - a key NATO ally - insists that its forces be in the vanguard of the effort to liberate al-Raqqah. They believe that the Syrian Arab FSA troops, supported by Turkish Army artillery, armor and special forces, as well as Turkish Air Force air strikes, should mount the assault on the city, as opposed to the majority Syrian Kurdish SDF.

The Turks' rationale is that to the residents of al-Raqqah, the SDF will be regarded as a Kurdish force despite the SDF name and only minor Arab participation. In essence, according to the Turks, the people will be trading one oppressor for another, saying that "one terrorist organization can not be used to fight another." This makes sense if you buy into the Turkish assertion that the YPG, the Kurdish militia participating in the SDF, is a terrorist organization. Personally, I don't.

Although I have no direct evidence to refute this, my reading of what little uncensored information leaks out of al-Raqqah seems to indicate that the people of al-Raqqah are totally terrified by ISIS and would welcome any relief, even a Kurdish-dominant liberating force, hoping that after the city is liberated from ISIS life would return to normal under a Syrian (read: Arab) government.

That said, the Turks have presented their arguments to the United States at the highest levels. In response, the nascent Trump Administration has put a hold on additional armor and heavy weapons to the SDF, pending a review of U.S. policy in Syria.

Knowing that the United States believes time is of the essence in moving on al-Raqaah (based on intelligence that ISIS cells in the city are planning attacks on the West), the Turks have advanced two proposals for an accelerated Turkish-backed FSA assault on the city. The nearest FSA units are still almost 100 miles from al-Raqqah and in a tough fight around al-Bab.

The Turks' preferred plan of action, which I will call "Plan A," proposes the Turkish and American special operations forces lead an FSA force via a corridor through Kurdish-held territory from the border town of Tal Abiyad south to al-Raqqah (indicated in white on the above map), a distance of about 60 miles. Turkey would need American help to persuade the Kurds to allow the Turks to enter this area - not a small feat while Turkish forces near al-Bab are fighting SDF/YPG units.

The second option, or what I am calling Plan B, is to continue the fight from al-Bab, moving east to the Euphrates and along the south bank of the river to al-Raqqah, a distance of over 100 road miles (indicated in blue on the map). That is essentially the status quo, but would require American assurances that the SDF will not mount a unilateral assault on al-Raqqah while the Turkish-backed FSA fights its way to the city. This will take months.

In my assessment, Plan B is a nonstarter. It will take too long - it will prolong the suffering of the people of al-Raqqah and if the intelligence on ISIS attack planning is correct, possibly facilitate a lethal ISIS operation against a Western target. As for Plan A, I doubt the Kurds will be amenable to allowing the Turks to traverse their territory with armor and artillery for fear that they will never leave, regardless of any American guarantee to the contrary.

The next step is for the Trump Administration to determine what our overall policy in Syria is to be, how much stake we place in maintaining a cooperative relationship with NATO ally Turkey, while adhering to the commitment to defeat ISIS.

If asked, I would advise the President to provide whatever support - armor, artillery, airstrikes, intelligence, etc. - the Department of Defense deems necessary to the SDF, understanding the risks of having what will be perceived as a Kurdish force liberate a Syrian Arab city. We cannot wait for the Turks and the FSA.

If the Defense planners determine that the SDF is incapable of taking al-Raqqah, even with increased U.S. support, then and only then should they recommend the insertion of American combat units into this political minefield. Or as General Hertling and I both say, not so fast.

* In a refreshing change from the previous Administration's farcical rhetoric, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said of fighting in Mosul, U.S. troops "are very close to it, if not already engaged in that fight."

February 7, 2017

To my readers...a programming note

To my readers and subscribers:

Over the past few months, I have been posting more information on Twitter - I believe the practice is called "tweeting." I find it useful to impart information quickly and easily, although the limitation of 140 characters can be a bit frustrating. That said, I like the ability to almost instantly offer spot analysis.

I will continue to produce my normal articles via this "Middle East Perspectives" medium, but you might be interested in following my "tweets" as well.

It's easy - just follow this link - https://twitter.com/MiddleEastGuy - and follow me.

January 27, 2017

Iraqi prime minister may block visas to U.S. citizens? Think that over, Haydar

Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi

In response to President Trump's temporary ban on the issuance of entry visas to anyone from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, Iraqi parliamentarians said the Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi is considering reciprocal action that will block American citizens from entering Iraq.

Take a deep breath, siyadat al-ra'is Haydar, and think about this.

Without the U.S.-led coalition, you have very little chance of expelling the forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from your country. Yes, you need those American citizens - most in uniform - whose airpower, artillery, special operations, intelligence, logistics, front line "advise and assist" troops, etc. allow your military and police units to succeed on the battlefield.

Here endeth the lesson.

A personal anecdote: This exchange reminds me of a rather humorous situation that arose while I was serving as the air attache at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, Syria in the 1990's.

Anyone who has served at American embassies in the Middle East is familiar with the non-stop requests for visas to enter the United States - this was particularly true in Syria. Syrians who have received visas to enter the United States had (and probably still do) one of the highest over-stay ratings - they simply didn't return to Syria.

The visa application line at the consular section of the embassy, which was also the designated venue for Iranians seeking visas to the United States, was always very long, often extending hundreds of yards on the sidewalks and small streets around the embassy. It made getting to work a challenge at times, and parking a nightmare.

At one point, the Syrians became concerned about the potential security, safety and traffic congestion issues caused by the throngs of people waiting to take their turn at being rejected for a visa. They summoned the ambassador to the foreign ministry and told him that the situation was unacceptable and he needed to address it.

The U.S. ambassador at the time, Christopher Ross, was a career Foreign Service Officer and long-time Middle East specialist, having spent many of his formative years in Lebanon. He was an extremely effective ambassador, as well as a great mentor to his staff (me included).

Ambassador Ross asked Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara' how the Syrian embassy in Washington was dealing with its visa line issues.

January 14, 2017

The Astana talks - President Trump's first foreign policy challenge?

Almost immediately after he is inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States on January 20, Donald Trump will face his first foreign policy challenge. The United States has been invited to attend talks about the future of Syria, sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran to be held in Astana, Kazakhstan - the talks are scheduled to start on January 23.

The Astana talks are the result of a ceasefire arranged by the Russians and the Turks which took effect on December 29, 2016. Notably absent from the negotiations was U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. I believe the Obama Administration policy that Syrian President Bashar al-Asad had to be removed from power was a sticking point with the Russians. Russian President Vladimir Putin's primary reason for ordering Russian military intervention in Syria was to ensure the survival of the al-Asad regime. (See my earlier article, Russia and Turkey broker a ceasefire in Syria - where is the United States?

Putin appears to have been successful, on many fronts. His military forces - primarily air power, but also artillery, long range missiles and special forces - turned the tide of battle. Without the presence of Russian forces, Iranian troops and irregulars, Lebanese Hizballah, as well as Iraqi and Afghan Shi'a militias, the Syrian military would not have been able to dislodge the rebels from their stronghold in Aleppo.

The opposition forces are now on the defensive as the battle shifts southwest to neighboring Idlib governorate. The presence of the former al-Qaidah affiliate in Syria, now known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS, Levant Conquest Front), in Idlib provides the fig leaf for continued Russian air strikes at the new opposition center of gravity, since "terrorist" groups are not covered by the provisions of the ceasefire.

Although there have been some violations, the ceasefire is holding, or holding well enough. The key to this ceasefire is the provision that after a 30 day period of adherence to the truce, negotiations on the future of Syria will be held under the sponsorship of Russia, Turkey and Iran.

The timing of the talks, the venue, and the invitation to the United States are all calculated to demonstrate just who has become the current power brokers in the region - the mere fact that there are going to be talks demonstrates that Moscow and Ankara can bring the parties to the table - and the Americans cannot.

The timing excludes the Obama Administration and opens a channel of communication with the new Trump Administration. The venue in a Central Asia former Soviet republic keeps the talks somewhat in the region (as opposed to western Europe) and central to the three sponsors.

As I said in my earlier article, "It appears that once again, President Putin and his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, have outplayed American President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. As I have said in the past, the new power brokers in the region - especially when it comes to Syria - are Russia, Turkey and Iran."

Well played, Mr. Putin, well played.

That said, it is not all smooth sailing. The Syrian government and the opposition have agreed to send representatives. Although President Bashar al-Asad said that "all things are on the table," they are not. He will not discuss leaving office in the talks. He also wants a say in who represents the opposition. (See my earlier article, Syrian political talks in Astana - why Bashar al-Asad has little to fear.)

The Turks have ruled out Kurdish participation in the talks - the Kurds are the United States' best allies on the ground in Syria in the fight against ISIS. The Kurdish YPG comprises the bulk - and most effective part - of the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF). The Turks consider the YPG to be nothing more than an extension of the PKK, a Kurdish separatist organization designated as a terrorist group by the United States, NATO and the European Union. The situation is more than mere rhetoric - Turkish aircraft have bombed SDF units, despite the fact that these units are engaged in direct combat with ISIS.

The problem with the last-minute invitation to the United States is that it puts the Americans in almost an "afterthought" or "second-class" status and not really in a position to make demands. Still, when the President of the United States of America sends a delegation, America's status of a superpower cannot be ignored.

Here is the dilemma. During the polarizing political campaign leading up to the election of Donald Trump, there have been numerous stories and accusations of ties between the new President and the Russians. I am not in a position to judge if or any relationship exists - I am mainly concerned with what effect that has on the situation in the Middle East, particularly Syria.

There is no question that the Russians have conducted brutal military operations against almost exclusively anti-regime targets in Syria. When the Russians launch attacks on Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) targets, it is in support of the regime.

Although the Russians have couched their intervention in Syria as an anti-terrorism, anti-ISIS operation, the reality remains that the mission is to prop up the al-Asad regime. At times, the operations may be considered to rise to the level of war crimes - deliberately targeting hospitals and medical facilities, civilian housing areas, markets, schools, etc. Recall Senator Marco Rubio's rather harsh questioning of Trump Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson on this matter.

Should the new Trump Administration accept the invitation to the Astana talks? In my opinion, yes. You cannot affect what happens at the table unless you are at the table.

Obviously, the Obama Administration existent bifurcated policy is not working. This is an opportunity to lay out a new policy - just what is our primary national security objective in Syria? Is it the defeat of ISIS, or is is the removal of the regime of Bashar al-Asad? The Obama Administration wanted both, and it was sidelined by the other major players.

Do we need to chose one over the others? If we do, I believe the new Administration will chose the defeat of ISIS. I think any demand for the removal of Bashar al-Asad is a non-starter with the Russians, and that the Turks and Iranians will go along. President al-Asad has said that if his remaining as president of Syria is an issue, then the country should follow the Syrian constitution (yes, he said that without laughing) and go to the ballot box. Anyone of us who have lived in Syria knows that is ludicrous.

This will be a real test of the direction of President Donald Trump's foreign policy. How he handles this will set the tone for future situations, not only with the Russians, but around the world as well. How will the "new sheriff in town" respond to challenges and crises?

If the new President were to ask me - and he hasn't - I would advise that we focus on the defeat of ISIS, even if that means limited cooperation with the distasteful government of Vladimir Putin. We have cooperated with unsavory regimes in the past to attain our foreign policy objectives - we can address the Syrian regime later.

January 9, 2017

Syrian political talks in Astana - why Bashar al-Asad has little to fear

From a Turkish Anadolu Agency post

This article is based on the assumption that the current fragile ceasefire in Syria will continue to hold for the 30 days that are called for before the beginning of negotiations sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran. For my comments on the absence of the United States at those talks, please see Russia and Turkey broker a ceasefire in Syria - where is the United States?

In what would have been impossible just over a year ago has happened - Syrian President Bashar al-Asad has agreed to send representatives of his government to attend talks on resolving the crisis in the country. The talks will begin later this month in Astana, Kazakhstan. Speaking in English to European reporters, al-Asad said, "Everything is on the table, we are prepared to discuss everything."

That sounds good - the media even reported that President al-Asad had asserted there would be no preconditions for the talks. I think that is more an interpretation of his remarks rather than accurate journalism. When you read his actual words, there are several preconditions involved.

The first condition is Al-Asad's approval of who will represent the Syrian opposition at the table. The president has said they must be "genuine" Syrians, not Saudis, French or British. If the opposition delegation is somehow unacceptable to him - he has rejected talks in the past based on this condition - the Syrian government may threaten to not attend.

The second condition is the virtual exclusion of any discussion about al-Asad's position as Syria's president. Again, his words are fairly clear - he lived in England for years and expresses himself effectively in English.

"My position is related to the constitution, which is very clear about the mechanism by which the president assumes or leaves power. So if they want to discuss this point, they must discuss the constitution, which is not the exclusive property of the government, the presidency or the opposition. It belongs to the Syrian people. They (the parties in Astana) can propose a constitutional referendum, but they can’t say, ‘We want this president’ or ‘We don’t want this president’, because the president comes to power through the ballot box. If they’re unhappy with the president, let’s go to the ballot box."

That sounds to me like a precondition. I read it to mean that the question of whether or not he continues in office will not be "on the table."*

However, Bashar al-Asad may not have the final say about his participation in the talks.

These talks are being driven by the new power brokers in the region - Russia, Turkey and Iran. If they determine that Syrian government participation in the talks is required, they will simply tell Bashar that his regime will participate.

That said, Bashar al-Asad has little reason to fear that he will not continue in power.

President al-Asad's security was determined in September 2015 when the Russians deployed a sizable air expeditionary force to Syria to ensure that the Syrian regime was not defeated. At that time, the opposition was effectively pushing the Syrian armed forces south from Aleppo and Idlib governorates - despite the presence of large numbers of Hizballah fighters, Iranian troops and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps members, and Iraqi Shi'a militias. The Russian intervention - contrary to the warnings of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter - was effective in turning the tide of battle.

The Russians and President Vladimir Putin want, and appear to have gotten, a regime in Syria they can influence and manipulate. Although Russia claims that it is withdrawing its forces from Syria, Moscow announced an agreement with Damascus for a permanent Russian naval presence at the Syrian naval base at Tartus, and a long-term presence at Humaymim Air Base near Latakia - the Russians have invested a lot of money in the infrastructure for both facilities.

Iran will go along with the Russian position to maintain Bashar in power, as they too want a cooperative government in Syria. Iran needs access to Syrian airspace and prefers to use Damascus International Airport to equip and resupply its proxy militia Hizballah, now one of the major military and political forces in Lebanon. The Iranian leadership further likes the idea of a Shi'a Crescent extending from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus to Beirut, with Tehran being the key player.

The Turks would prefer that the al-Asad government be replaced, believing that the Syrian regime has in the past supported the Kurdish separatist (and designated terrorist) PKK party. As long as there is no hint of Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria, they will go along. I believe they will press Russia for additional access in Central Asia - the Turks fancy themselves as the leaders of all things Turkic (as the Iranians do vis-a-vis all things Shi'a).

Thanks to the ascendancy of Russia, Iran and Turkey as the new power brokers in the region, combined with the seeming acquiescence of the United States, Bashar al-Asad will almost certainly remain as the President of Syria.

* Personal note: I lived in Syria - it is not a Jeffersonian democracy. The president's seemingly principled adherence to the Syrian constitution is sanctimonious and hypocritical - I saw how little concern the regime has for legal or constitutional values. For more, see this article I wrote when Bashar al-Asad was elected to the presidency on the death of his father in 2000, Syria - Next Target of the Bush Administration?

January 6, 2017

Turkish threat to limit access to Incirlik Air Base - a collision course?

A U.S. Air Force F-16 takes off from Incirlik Air Base

As I have warned in the past, the United States and Turkey are on a collision course over events in northern Syria. The tensions revolve around the fight against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS), a fight in which both countries are on the same side.

Turkey, a NATO ally, has allowed the United States and other members of the American-led coalition to use its air bases in southern Turkey, particularly Incirlik Air Base near Adana. Sorties launched from the base can get to the operations area in a matter of minutes rather than the hours it takes when operating from bases in the Arab Gulf states.

Several senior Turkish officials have made thinly-veiled threats that they may terminate American access to the base if the situation is not resolved. To the Turks, that means having it their way.

If they refuse to allow American combat aircraft to operate from Incirlik, it will have a serious impact on operations directly supporting the eventual assault on the ISIS stronghold/capital city of al-Raqqah.

To understand the issue between the two NATO allies, we need to look at the two separate anti-ISIS military operations currently underway in northern Syria.

First, we have an operation - Operation Euphrates Shield - launched by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that has successfully pushed ISIS back all the way from the Turkish border in an area north of Aleppo and west of the Euphrates River to the city of al-Bab, with the final objective being the liberation of al-Raqqah. The FSA is being supported by Turkish airpower, armor, artillery and special forces - the Turks have lost several of its troops, including two soldiers who were taken prisoner by ISIS and later burned alive.

The Turks believe it would be better if this force liberated al-Raqqah, because the FSA are mostly Sunni Arabs, and will be welcomed by the local population. I think that is a fair assessment, but the problem is one of geography, not demographics. The Turkish supported FSA force near al-Bab is almost 100 miles from al-Raqqah - it will take many weeks, if not many months for this force to reach al-Raqqah.

On the other side of the issue, there is the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF, or QSD in Arabic), comprised of Syrian Arabs and Syrian Kurds, some from an organization known as the YPG. This group presents itself as Arab-Kurdish cooperation, and is an attempt to put to present a less-threatening image of Kurdish participation in the fight against ISIS. The Kurds comprise the bulk of the SDF and constitute the most effective force facing ISIS.

Why is Kurdish participation in the fight against ISIS a problem? The Turks consider the YPG to be nothing more than an arm of the Kurdish PKK, or Kurdistan Workers Party, which has been branded a terrorist group by the U.S. and Turkey. The Turks are alarmed at even the merest hint of Kurdish nationalism or autonomy in either Syria or Iraq, believing any such movement will spill over into southern Turkey.

Elements of the U.S.-supported SDF are now less than 20 miles from al-Raqqah and will soon be approaching the city. The United States believes time is of the essence - the Central Command claims to have evidence that attacks on Western targets are being planned in al-Raqaah and may be launched at any time. Thus, the U.S. advocates an SDF attack on the city as soon as they are in position.

Although I have no direct evidence to refute this, my reading of what little uncensored information leaking out of al-Raqqah seems to indicate that the people of al-Raqqah are totally terrified by ISIS and would welcome any relief, hoping that even a Kurdish liberating force would be better than ISIS and at some point life would return to normal under a Syrian (read: Arab) government.

For more detailed explanation of the politics involved, please see my article, More U.S. troops to Syria - a showdown with the Turks?

The issue is further complicated by increased Turkish-Russian (and Iranian) consultations and possible future cooperation in the fight against ISIS and the future of Syria. They are working on both issues, and have purposely excluded the Obama Administration from participating in these talks. Russian President Vladimir Putin has hinted that after Donald Trump becomes president, they may include the United States.

There is a compromise on base access that might work. One of the complaints voiced by the Turks is the hesitation of the United States to provide air support to Turkish forces operating in the fighting near al-Bab. If the Americans agree to dedicate some of its close air support sorties to supporting the Turks, they may drop their threats to limit access to Incirlik.

I have said this in the past, and I will reiterate it. The United States and Turkey are NATO allies - they need to start acting like it.

The al-Raqqah and Kurd issue is another matter, as are the warming relations between Ankara, Moscow and Tehran.

One step at a time.

January 3, 2017

U.S. Air Force strike on Al-Qa'idah affiliate headquarters in Syria

The video above was produced by the Arabic-language STEP News Agency, which provides detailed reporting on the situation in Syria. I suspect they have anti-regime leanings, but I find their reporting to be concise and accurate.

This clip is just 42 seconds long, but conveys the essence of the recent U.S. Air Force strike on what has been described as a headquarters of the Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS).

The Arabic jabhat fatah al-sham translates to the Levant Conquest Front, the new name of Jabhat al-Nusrah, or the Victory Front. In July 2016, al-Nusrah renounced its affiliation with al-Qa'idah and adopted the JFS moniker. No one buys it - we all consider them to still be loyal to al-Qa'idah.

Here are my translations of the captions on the video:

- American B-52 bombers of the international coalition

- Took off from the Incirlik air base in Turkey

- And targeted a headquarters of the Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in Sarmada in the Idlib Countryside

- Resulting in the destruction of the headquarters and the killing of 25 members of the group

- Also, 11 [other leaders] were killed over the last two days in coalition bombing of two cars belonging to the group

- Including commanders of the highest level

Sarmada is located in Idlib governorate about 20 miles north of the city of Idlib and about 20 miles west of the city of Aleppo.

This is an area in which U.S. drones have mounted strikes against JFS targets for some time. In fact, the initial American Tomahawk missile and air strikes in Syria in 2014 targeted al-Qa'idah related positions in this area.

Other reports place the death toll at 30, resulting from the attack by U.S. Air Force B-52 bombers firing at least four conventional air-launched cruise missiles (CALCM). The standard warhead of the CALCM is 3000 pounds of high explosives.

Reactions to the strike were interesting. While most analysts agree that JFS targets are not affected by the recent Russian-Turkish negotiated ceasefire, critics asked why it was possible for American aircraft to strike JFS targets, yet could not support anti-regime rebels or protect safe zones in northern Syria. They also want to know why the Americans are targeting a group that is anti-regime and also anti-ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria).

My answer to the critics: Al-Qa'idah is a special case for Americans. It was al-Qa'idah that came to our shores in 2001 and killed over 3000 of us. It has been the policy of the United States, with overwhelming popular support regardless of party or politics, to hunt down and kill these thugs - whoever, whenever and wherever. These just happened to be in Syria.

It may take years, even decades, but in the end, the United States will continue to either bring these killers to justice, or as we have seen here in Syria, bring justice to them.

Increased ISIS terror attacks - symptom of the impending loss of it's capital cities

ISIS's 'Amaq News Agency press release on Istanbul bombing

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has taken responsibility for a series of attacks over the last few days, including the New Year's Eve attack on a nightclub in Istanbul, Turkey, that killed 39 people and at least five separate bombings in Baghdad, Iraq, that killed over 60 people. Hundreds of others were injured in the attacks.

This is my translation of ISIS's press release claiming responsibility for the Istanbul attack. I tried to keep it as close to the original Arabic as possible.

‘Amaq – Fighter from the Islamic State Conducted the Istanbul Attack

Istanbul – ‘Amaq Agency: A reliable source says to ‘Amaq that a fighter of the Islamic State conducted the Istanbul attack which occurred at a nightclub in which a New Year celebration was being held the day before (Saturday).

According to the source, upwards of 150 Christian partygoers – among them Westerners from countries of the international coalition – were killed or injured as a result of the nightclub attack with hand grenades and a machine gun, and the source mentioned that some of the injured threw themselves into the waters of the Bosphorus after being fired on.

[The source] mentioned that the Islamic State called on its fighters and supporters to mount attacks against Turkey, which entered the cycle of conflict with the Islamic State.

I will leave the descriptions of the attacks and the subsequent investigations to the professional law enforcement authorities in Turkey and Iraq - unfortunately, both have extensive experience in these matters.

The investigations will tell the who (although I think we know), what, where and when. What is more important is the why - why is ISIS mounting attacks in Istanbul and Baghdad?

That was a question put to me twice today - once by Wolf Blitzer and again by Ana Cabrera. Is this an act of desperation or a sign of strength? Being the consummate analyst that I am, I responded:"Both." Jesting aside, it is still true.

The reasons for the attacks - in both countries - are the same. ISIS is under tremendous pressure as they try to defend the encircled city of Mosul, Iraq, and are preparing for the inevitable assault on its main Syrian stronghold of al-Raqqah.

ISIS is also demonstrating that as a terrorist group (they would not use that terminology), they have the capability to launch lethal attacks across the region, that they remain relevant even in potential military defeat.

Iraq first.

Looking at this from the perspective of the ISIS military commander, I would assess the ability to defend Mosul against the U.S.-coalition supported Iraqi forces that are arrayed against it and currently attacking the city, as poor. The Iraqis appear to have the political will to allocate the necessary resources to retake the city from ISIS.

ISIS's horrific attacks, mostly targeting Shi'a Iraqis in Baghdad, are meant to break the will of the Iraqi government, to demonstrate to the people that the government cannot provide adequate security. ISIS hopes that the people will demand that Iraqi forces be used to protect them.

ISIS is betting that the people of Baghdad are more concerned about their own security than the liberation of Mosul. While at one time, I believed that to be true, the situation has changed as the Iraqi forces have improved their capabilities and have been able to push ISIS back in both the Tigris and Euphrates valleys.

According to the original battle plan for Mosul, the Iraqis were going to encircle the city, then launch the attack. Just before the operation was to begin, there was a shift in tactics - the Iraqis decided to leave the city's western approaches/exits open to allow an escape route for ISIS fighters wishing to depart the area.

I criticized this on the air, as I felt that the Iraqis were wrong in their assessment that ISIS fighters would leave the city for Syria. The Iraqis, of course, were hoping this was the correct scenario, since the exodus of ISIS fighters would make their retaking of Mosul that much easier. It also would transfer the ISIS problem out of Iraq and into Syria.

As many of the military analysts (including me) from all of the networks predicted, ISIS used the western opening as a resupply/reinforcement route. It took weeks for the Iraqis to deploy an Iranian-backed Shi'a Popular Mobilization Unit to cut that line of communication.

The lack of an escape route has virtually sealed ISIS's fighters' fate - they will now fight to the death. We are seeing that level of commitment now. Conversely, we also see the Iraqi forces suffering horrific casualties as they slowly work their way into the city. Just this week, the Iraqis announced that they had just started "Phase Two" of the Mosul operation. In reality, they were stalled for two weeks as their casualties exceeded anyone's assessments.

It will continue to be a slow, bloody process as Iraqi forces - army, police and special units - claw their way from suburb to suburb, block to block, street to street, and at times even house to house. In the end, however, I believe that the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi has the political will to see this through.

In the end, Iraq wins this one. That does not mean ISIS or its inevitable follow-on Islamist group is gone permanently, but the current scourge will be defeated.

Now to Syria - and the ISIS "capital" of al-Raqqah.

The battle for al-Raqqah is taking shape. There is an American-backed Kurdish-Sunni Arab alliance called the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF) merely 20 miles away from the city and advancing every day. At the same time, there is also a Turkish-supported Free Syrian Army (FSA) force currently about 90 miles away fighting for the city of al-Bab.

The United States and Turkey are at odds over which should be the force that retakes al-Raqqah. See my earlier article about this issue, The coming assault on al-Raqqah - a political minefield.

ISIS's strategy in attacking Turkey is similar to their strategy for the bombings in Baghdad, although it has only a slightly greater chance of success. By making Turkey's incursion into Syria and supporting the fight against ISIS as bloody and painful as possible, they hope to create what guerrilla groups call a "significant emotional event."

ISIS believes that if they can create enough mayhem and bloodshed in cities like Istanbul and Ankara, the Turkish people will demand that the government stop its support for the FSA and withdraw its forces back to Turkey. Without Turkish air, artillery, special forces and advisory support, the FSA will not be able to take on ISIS.

Ordinarily, I would give this strategy a chance at success, but in post-coup attempt Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has amassed such political power that I doubt he will respond to popular calls for him to reassess his intervention in Syria.

Bottom line: Mosul and al-Raqqah will fall and ISIS will be forced to alter its structure, like emerging as more of an Islamist group more along the model of al-Qa'idah. It's terrorist attacks will continue and likely increase as they morph into a new organization.

December 29, 2016

Russia and Turkey broker a ceasefire in Syria - where is the United States?

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

A ceasefire in Syria, brokered by the Russians and the Turks, is scheduled to take effect at midnight on Thursday. Notably absent from any of the negotiations was the United States. Russian President Vladimir Putin made a statement outlining the agreement, and in effect, marginalized any American role in resolving the six-year conflict in the country.

The Russian-Turkish brokered ceasefire follows a December 20 meeting in Moscow between the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey to discuss the future of Syria, both short and long term. A ceasefire was one of the topics, as was the potential for a political solution to the civil war. The ceasefire agreement announced by Mr. Putin seems to have addressed both.

It appears that once again, President Putin and his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, have outplayed American President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. As I have said in the past, the new power brokers in the region - especially when it comes to Syria - are Russia, Turkey and Iran.

While all of us are pleased that there is a chance for a cessation of the bloodshed in war-torn Syria, it remains to be seen if this ceasefire will have any greater chance of success than the preceding attempts. Mr. Putin called the ceasefire "fragile."

As with previous ceasefire agreements, the parties to this agreement are the Syrian government and its allies on one side, and the armed opposition on the other.

Syria's regime is backed militarily by a tightly-managed coalition of Russia, Iran, and Lebanese Hizballah, as well as Iraqi and Afghan Shi'a militias. About half of the ground forces fighting for the al-Asad regime are provided by these alliance groups. However, it was the introduction of Russian airpower in September 2015 that guaranteed the survival of the Bashar al-Asad government, allowed the regime to regain momentum in its military operations, and to retake the city of Aleppo.

It is also important to note that, as in previous ceasefires, the agreement does not include groups labeled as terrorists. Those groups specifically include the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the former al-Qaidah affiliate in Syria, now known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS, Levant Conquest Front). However, some groups that have been labeled as terrorists in the past, such as Ahrar al-Sham, are now included in the scope of this agreement.

If past precedent holds, agreement on what constitutes a terrorist group will still be an issue. The exact wording in the agreement defines groups that can be attacked as "those associated with" designated terrorist groups. The Syrian regime regards virtually any group that has taken up arms against it as a terrorist group. In the Arabic-language Syrian government-controlled press, the words rebel and opposition are not used - all opposition is labeled terrorism.

There is no doubt that the opposition has suffered recent setbacks - the loss of its stronghold in east Aleppo was a strategic, tactical and symbolic defeat. The Syrian coalition now has the momentum. I expect that after totally securing the city of Aleppo, they will turn their attention to neighboring Idlib governorate and use their successful seizure of Aleppo as the template to expel the rebels from that area. Unless the situation changes, I do not think the opposition will be able to prevent this regime coalition operation from succeeding.

The opposition knows it is now in a much weakened position and that they have lost much of their leverage in negotiations with the regime. If the opposition can get something that guarantees that they will have a voice in a future political settlement, they will likely adhere to the agreement. That is a tall order, however - the two sides are still far apart. The Russians believe that any future political solution must include the continuance of the Bashar al-Asad government, while Turkey and the opposition want the future of the present government to be on the table as well.

There is one group that is not included in the agreement which the United States considers to be part of the fight against ISIS. This is the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF, or in Arabic QSD), composed of Sunni Arabs and Kurdish fighters who are members of the Syrian Kurdish group known as the YPG. The U.S.-led coalition supports the SDF with airstrikes, weapons and on-the-ground advisers. They have proven themselves to be effective against ISIS, and are now only about 15 miles from the ISIS capital of al-Raqqah.

The Turks consider the YPG to be nothing more than an extension of the PKK, a Kurdish separatist organization designated as a terrorist group by the United States, NATO and the European Union. The situation is more than mere rhetoric - Turkish aircraft have bombed SDF units, despite the fact that these units are engaged in direct combat with ISIS.

It is not clear if the Turks are going to continue their attacks in the SDF/YPG. Given President Erdoğan's recent activities and statements, I fear the US is headed for a showdown with the Turks over this issue. (See my earlier article, More U.S. troops to Syria - a showdown with the Turks?)

Part of the agreement calls for talks on a future political settlement in Syria after the ceasefire holds for 30 days. Those talks will be held in Astana, Kazakhstan - again with no American participation. The Russians did note that after January 20, the Trump Administration may be asked to play a role.

I suspect that President-elect Trump's statements have partially shaped this ceasefire and political settlement talks framework. Mr. Trump has hinted that he is not in favor of continuing American policy demanding the removal of the current Syrian government, and thus ending what covert support to the opposition that exists. The opposition may believe that they may be losing American sponsorship and should take this opportunity to at least have some say in Syria's future.

I further suspect that the Russians are hoping that a Trump Administration might be amenable to coordinated or joint operations against ISIS. While many senior U.S. military officers are wary of closer ties with the Russians, the Russian and Turks are now in the drivers' seats.

December 25, 2016

Implications of crash of the Russian Air Force aircraft en route Syria

Earlier image of Russian Air Force Tu-154B RA-85572

Early on Christmas day, a Russian Air Force passenger jet crashed into the Black Sea while on its way to an air base in Syria. The aircraft, Russian Air Force Tu-154B (NATO: Careless) RA-85572 was flying from Moscow to Humaymim Air Base just south of Latakia on Syria's Mediterranean coast.

Humaymim Air Base base has been the headquarters of Russian expeditionary forces deployed to Syria since September 2015. The aircraft crashed shortly after takeoff from a refueling stop in Sochi on the Black Sea.

The aircraft was carrying 84 passengers and eight crew. The majority of the passengers were members of the Russian Army choir, heading to Syria to provide holiday concerts for Russian troops in Syria, as well as a few reporters and at least one charity fund director.

At this point, there is no suspicion of terrorism - Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered a thorough investigation into the incident. I believe the investigation will show some technical issue or pilot error - this was a Russian military aircraft and access to the aircraft would normally be restricted to authorized military personnel. However, while the aircraft was being serviced in Sochi, others may have have had access to the plane.

Two questions come to mind:

- Why was the aircraft on this flight route?
- Why did the flight stop in Sochi?

The aircraft was headed from Moscow to Syria. That's not unusual - the Russian Air Force flies at least one resupply and troop rotation flight to Humaymim Air Base every day. In addition to Tu-154 jets, the Russians also use AN-124 (NATO: Condor) heavy transports and Il-62 (NATO: Classic) passenger aircraft.

The normal flight route from Moscow takes the aircraft over Russian airspace to the Caspian Sea, then the airspace of Iran and Iraq before entering Syrian airspace.

This circuitous route is used because Russian Air Force aircraft are not normally granted permission to overfly Turkey. This restriction is in response to an American request that members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) refuse overflight clearance for Russian military aircraft heading to or from Syria.

This particular flight appears to have been on a different flight route - from Moscow to the international airspace of the Black Sea, then via Turkish airspace to Syria. Why would the Turks grant overflight clearance to this Russian military flight? Was the fact that the aircraft was carrying the Russian Army choir deemed to not fall into the category of a military flight? Would the Turks have known the exact manifest?

Call me a cynic, but I wonder if the recent meeting of the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey in Moscow to discuss the future of Syria, resulted in an agreement between the Russians and Turks to allow overflight of Turkish airspace for the airbridge between Moscow and Humaymim Air Base.

That would represent a significant change in Turkish-Russian relations, and a blow to NATO solidarity. I note that the United States was not invited to the Moscow meeting.

In any case, the aircraft was flying directly from Moscow to Humaymim, a distance of about 1400 miles. This is easily within the flight range of the Tu-154B - a refueling stop in Sochi was not required. Why did the aircraft make a stop? Were there mechanical problems with the aircraft the caused the pilot to land at Sochi?

I look forward to the answers. It is important to know if this was mechanical or human failure, or worse, terrorism.