October 15, 2017

The impending fall of al-Raqqah - then what?


It is only a matter of time before elements of the U.S.-backed and supported Syrian Democratic Front (SDF) complete the liberation of the city of al-Raqqah from the remaining fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). As we have known for sometime, the handwriting is on the wall* for ISIS in its self-declared capital city.

Unfortunately, as with many of these military operations conducted by the Iraqis, the Syrians (with their Russian, Iranian and Hizballah allies) and the SDF, there is great loss of civilian life as ISIS mounts a vigorous defense. ISIS's tactics include the use of large numbers of suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (SVBIED), booby-traps, minefields, and the indiscriminate use of human shields.

To prevent unnecessary loss of innocent life, the tribal elders of the greater al-Raqqah area have brokered an agreement between the SDF on one side and ISIS on the other. There are conflicting reports of the actual terms of the agreement, but in essence, the deal provides for safe passage from the city for ISIS fighters in return for surrender of the city to the SDF and the safety of the local population. It also allows Syrian members of ISIS to safely surrender to the SDF.

The confusion over the agreement revolves around the safe passage for ISIS fighters. Initially, it was believed that the tribal elders' deal only applied to Syrian members of ISIS, specifically excluding foreign members of the group.

This issue is of concern to coalition member France, which believes that some of the foreign ISIS fighters in the city are responsible for the multiple ISIS attacks on France over the past three years. They are opposed to safe passage of these fighters to an area still under ISIS control. The fighters from al-Raqqah have been relocating to the portions of Dayr al-Zawr governorate southeast of al-Raqqah in the Euphrates Valley.

The U.S.-led coalition, known as the Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTFOIR), claims to have had no role in the agreement struck among the tribal leaders, SDF and ISIS. There is precedent for such an agreement - in all cases, ISIS fighters have been afforded safe passage to other ISIS-held areas.

CJTFOIR has in the past opposed such deals, and recently criticized the Syrian regime when it entered into such an agreement that allowed ISIS fighters safe passage to Dayr al-Zawr from positions on both sides of the Syrian-Lebanon border. In this instance, American fighter aircraft kept the ISIS fighters at bay in the desert until an arrangement was reached with the Russians.

It appears that ISIS fighters in al-Raqqah seized the initiative and capitalized on the ambiguity in the wording of the agreement and dispatched some of its foreign fighters towards Dayr al-Zawr using al-Raqqah civilians as human shields. This is happening as the SDF is preparing for what it says will be the final assault on the city. The remaining ISIS pocket is about half a square mile (1.5 square kilometer), or less than 10 percent of the city. It will shortly be under SDF control.

Then the SDF and local government will begin the task of clearing the area of ISIS munitions, booby traps, and isolated holdout fighters, plus dealing with the humanitarian issues that always follow military action.

The battle against ISIS will continue. For some time, we analysts have been predicting the last battle with ISIS as a territorial entity (it will remain an ideological entity for some time to come) will take place somewhere in the Euphrates Valley near the Syrian-Iraqi border, most likely in Syria.

As the time of that final battle draws near, we see the political maneuverings beginning in Syria. However, across the border in Iraq, the political battles are in full swing. Almost immediately after Iraqi forces reduced the ISIS-held Hawayjah pocket southeast of Mosul and southwest of Kirkuk, two events occurred simultaneously - I am not sure if it was also coincidentally or consequently.

The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) held a referendum on independence - which to no one's surprise, passed overwhelmingly. As a result, the Iraqi government retaliated by limiting international flights to/from the KRG area, suspending any oil deals worked out by the KRG, and is seeking to re-open an oil pipeline that bypasses the Kurdish area.

Probably more importantly, however, is Baghdad's demand that Kurdish peshmerga forces begin to withdraw from the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Kirkuk has been under Kurdish control since the ISIS sweep across northern Iraq in 2014.

The city has been a source of friction between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurds. The Kurds regard Kirkuk as a Kurdish city - about half the residents are in fact Kurds - while the Iraqi government considers it an Iraqi/Arab city. This is complicated by the fact that Turkey has a special interest in protecting the Turkmen minority that represents about 20 percent of the population - in the past it has threatened military intervention to prevent Kurdish control of the city.

The Kurds have an emotional tie to the city. During the Saddam Husayn era, Kirkuk was one of several Kurdish cities singled out for "Arabization" (ta'arib) - a process by which Arabs were forcibly brought to the area to supplant Kurdish residents, who were removed to villages in the desert areas of southern Iraq. As the Kurds see it, the Iraqi government - now backed by Iraqi Shi'a militias - is again forcing them to leave. They feel betrayed after their key role in the liberation of northern Iraq from ISIS occupation.

In Syria as in Iraq, the Kurds played a key role in the defeat of ISIS. Like their brethren to the east, the Syrian Kurds are seeking political recognition for their contributions. Turkey is, of course, pushing both Iraqi and Syrian governments to limit Kurdish self rule and autonomy. The Turks in the past lobbied against America's creation of the SDF and then using this force to liberate al-Raqqah.

The Turks insisted that they lead a Free Syrian Army force to re-take al-Raqqah, claiming that the Kurdish-majority SDF would not be welcomed by the predominantly Sunni Muslim Arab city. Since the Turks regard the Syrian Kurdish group that is the key member of the SDF as nothing more than an extension of the PKK, a Turkish Kurd separatist group labeled as a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and European Union - they criticized "using one terrorist group to fight another terrorist group."

The Turks were wrong then, and they're wrong now. The SDF was welcomed with open arms by the population of al-Raqqah, as well as the region's tribal leaders. In a letter to the SDF about the recent agreement between the SDF and ISIS, the leaders remarked, “The execution of such an agreement will reinforce the role of the SDF as a trustworthy national force as it has fought honorably and defended our people with integrity.”

That said, Damascus has stated that there will be no autonomy in northern Syria, that the Syrian military will reimpose control over all Syrian territory. The problem with that - this puts the Syrian/Russian/Iranian (and I dare say Turkish) axis on a direct path for a possible confrontation with the U.S.-backed SDF and possibly the anti-ISIS coalition.

Questions:
- Has the United States made any commitment to the Syrian Kurds after the defeat of ISIS?
- Will the United States mediate on behalf of the Iraqi Kurds over Kirkuk?
- What will be the effect on the relationship between NATO ally Turkey and the United States as Ankara tilts toward its new-found alliance with Tehran and Moscow?

________________
* Forgive the Babylonian metaphor - the handwriting on the wall refers to a mysterious hand that appeared at a feast hosted by Nebuchadnezzars's son Belshazzar in the sixth century BCE. The message: Belshazzar's days are numbered.



October 11, 2017

Designating the IRGC a terrorist organization - it's about time

Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari 

It is expected that President Donald Trump will add Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to the list of designated terrorist organizations later this week. The special operations branch of the IRGC, known as the Qods Force ("Jerusalem Force"), has been so designated since 2007.

The designation of the IRGC as a terrorist organization will come either at the same time or close to the same time that the President declines to certify Iran in compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly called the Iran nuclear deal. Current U.S. law requires the President to certify to Congress every 90 days that Iran is adhering to the requirements of the agreement.

The IRGC was formed shortly after the 1979 Revolution as a counterweight to the Iranian regular armed forces, who were viewed with distrust by the new leadership, wary of the military's previous loyalty to former Shah Reza Pahlavi.

It has since become part of the overall Iranian armed forces structure - some would say the premier organization of the armed forces. They are also responsible for internal security, protecting the revolution and the Islamic Republic system of government (vilayet-e faqih).

The IRGC currently comprises about 125,000 personnel organized into ground, aerospace, and naval forces, plus a 90,000-strong basij paramilitary militia. Its naval force is the primary force tasked with the control of the Persian Gulf, particularly the Strait of Hormuz.

Portions of the transit lanes of the narrow strait are within Iranian territorial waters, but are open to "innocent passage" under international law. IRGC naval units routinely harass U.S. Navy ships transiting the waters to and from the Persian Gulf. The United States Fifth Fleet is headquartered in Manama, Bahrain.

My history with the IRGC goes back to 1982. I was serving as a Middle East operations officer attached to an element of the National Security Agency. We were concerned about the increasing Iranian presence in Lebanon - that presence was facilitated by the Syrian government of Hafiz al-Asad, father of current president Bashar.

It was not long before we discovered that the Iranian operatives in the Levant were members of the IRGC, having set up the IRGC-SL (Syria and Lebanon contingent), one of the founding elements of the special operations unit that later became known as the Qods Force.

This contingent was responsible for the creation of a unified group of Shi'a militias in southern Lebanon and the Biqa' Valley in 1982 - this group eventually came to be known as Hizballah (the Party of God). It was this group that embarked on a series of terrorist acts in the name of "the Resistance" (al-muqawamah). The IRGC and Hizballah kept all of us busy in the 1980s. I continued to be tasked with operations against the IRGC for virtually the remainder of my career.

Some of the actions conducted by the IRGC or its Lebanese proxies that have taken up my time (this is not an inclusive list):

- 1983 / bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks at Beirut International Airport
- 1984 / kidnapping, torture and murder of CIA Beirut station chief William Buckley
- 1987 / mine attack by the IRGC ship Iran Ajr in the Persian Gulf against the reflagged Kuwaiti tanker Bridgeton
- 1988 / mine attack in the Persian Gulf against the USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58). This led to the retaliatory Operation Praying Mantis in which U.S. forces inflicted severe damage on the Iranian Navy and facilities in the Gulf. I was pleased to be asked to be one of the officers who selected the targets for the initial attacks.
- 1988 / kidnapping, torture and murder of U.S. Marine Colonel Rich Higgins, serving in Lebanon with the United Nations
- 1992 / the IRGC began its support for the Palestinian group HAMAS (acronym for the Arabic words Islamic Resistance Movement) after Israeli expulsions to Lebanon
- 1994 / Hizballah, on IRGC orders, bombed the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina building in Buenos Aires
- 1996 / bombing of a U.S. Air Force housing facility at Khobar Towers, Saudi Arabia
- 2006 / the IRGC provided the thousands of missile and rockets used by Hizballah to bombard the Israeli civilian population of northern Israel
- 2011 / Iran was already present in Syria at the outbreak of demonstrations that led to the civil war and came to Bashar al-Asad's assistance
- 2013 / had not IRGC troops and Hizballah fighters, along with other Iranian and Iraqi Shi'a militias intervened, the regime of Bashar al-Asad would have been removed

In addition to the 2007 designation of the Qods Force as a terrorist group, other IRGC officials were also sanctioned. President Trump's expected action will designate the organization as a whole. I have to agree with him. I would hate to have to tell Lieutenant Colonel Robin Higgins, USMC (Retired) - a colleague as we worked these issues, and yes, the widow of Colonel Rich Higgins - that we do not regard these thugs as terrorists.

So now I hear the IRGC commander and his spokesman spout drivel such as, "We are hopeful that the United States does not make this strategic mistake. If they do, Iran’s reaction would be firm, decisive and crushing and the United States should bear all its consequences. If the news is correct about the stupidity of the American government in considering the Revolutionary Guards a terrorist group, then the Revolutionary Guards will consider the American army to be like Islamic State all around the world."

You may not like being called out for the terrorist entity you are, but do you really want to get into an armed confrontation with the United States?

You are terrorists - don't be foolish terrorists.



October 9, 2017

Is anyone else growing weary of Turkey's Erdoğan?


The increasing tensions between the United States and Turkey - both nominally NATO allies - reached a new level with both sides suspending consular services in their respective countries (see image for the circulars).

The current state of relations between Ankara and Washington is not hard to fathom, despite the NATO veneer. Turkey has always been an outsider in NATO circles, most likely because of its majority-Muslim population and its geographic position - 99 percent of Turks are Muslim, and 95 percent of the country is on the Asian continent.

However, it is that geographic position that was, and remains, important to NATO - the country bordered on what was the Soviet Union. Today, its geographic position gives U.S.-led coalition pilots flying from Turkish air bases easy access to the airspace of Iraq and Syria in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

On the surface, it sounds like Turkey and the United States should be close allies, participating in a combined operation against a common enemy. Normally, that would be the case, except for one factor - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Since coming to power in 2014, Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have been instrumental in increasing the influence of Islam in what was was touted by political scientists as the model of a Muslim-majority democracy. Simple changes, such as allowing women to wear the hijab (head scarf) while working in government offices, were the start. When Erdoğan's wife began wearing the hijab full time, many Turkish women believed the AKP party, of which Erdoğan is a co-founder, was moving towards increased Islamism in the country.

The AKP identifies itself as favoring moderate Islamism (I am not sure there is such a thing), pro-West and pro-American. That may have been the initial position and intentions, but given Erdoğan's actions over the last two years, it is hardly the case. The party, and Erdoğan himself, have made alarming overtures to Russia and Iran, aligning himself with the East, not the West. It should not be surprising - it is where Erdoğan lives.

In fact, it is Russia, Iran and Turkey who are sponsoring the Syrian talks in Astana, Kazakhstan. The three countries believe they should be the key decision makers on the future of Syria, although for different reasons.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin wants a regime in Syria (Bashar al-Asad will do) which he can manipulate and guarantee Russian access to the Tartus naval facility on Syria's Mediterranean coast and Humaymim air base near Latakia. Putin has secured a renewable 49-year lease on both.

The Iranians also want a regime in Damascus that is friendly to Tehran. Bashar al-Asad fits the bill very well, since he is a member of the 'Alawi religious minority, considered by many to be a Shi'a sect when it suits their needs. The Iranians, who regard themselves as the leaders and protectors of all things Shi'a, want al-Asad in power to complete the "Shi'a Crescent" that runs from Tehran to Baghdad to Damascus to Beirut. They believe themselves to be the major power in this entire area.

So, what is Turkey's reason for allying with the likes of Russia and Iran? It's complicated, but one factor emerges high on the list - the Kurds. The Kurds, the largest ethnic group in the world without their own country, inhabit large areas of southeastern Turkey, western Iran, northern Iraq and northern Syria. Accurate population numbers are hard to come by - estimates range between 35 and 45 million.

In all four countries, the Kurds are seeking autonomy and/or independence. They have achieved some autonomy in Iraq - the Kurdish Regional Government is thriving. The Iraqi Kurds recent referendum drew anger from all of the host countries, including threats of military action from Turkey.

Turkey is against any autonomy or independence for any Kurdish enclave, fearing that such moves will only incite Turkey's Kurds - as much as 25 percent of the population, to demand the same right.

The Kurdish Workers' Party (known by its Kurdish initials PKK) is a separatist organization that has been waging a campaign of violence against the Turkish government, seeking equal rights and Kurdish autonomy in Turkey. The United States has designated the PKK a terrorist organization.

The Kurdish issue becomes more complicated by the situation in Syria. In the fight against ISIS, the United States created the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF) to be its boots on the ground. The SDF is mostly composed of Kurds of the People's Protection Units (YPG), the militia of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). The Turks regard the PYD/YPG as nothing more than an extension of the PKK. To them, they are one in the same, and are all the enemy.

There are other groups in the SDF - Arabs and Assyrians - but the bulk of the fighters are Kurds. They have proven themselves to be an effective fighting force, and are on the verge of seizing ISIS's self-proclaimed capital city of al-Raqqah in north central Syria.

American support for the Syrian Kurds has created a severe strain on American-Turkish relations. The Turks insisted that the liberation of al-Raqqah be done by the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) with Turkish military support (air, armor, artillery, logistics, and special forces). The United States argued - correctly - that the Turkish/FSA force was too far away from al-Raqqah and that time was of the essence in the fight against ISIS. The U.S. field commander cited intelligence that the city was the staging ground for terrorist attacks against the West.

The Turks and FSA launched an incursion into northern Syria called Operation Euphrates Shield, fighting not only ISIS, but the SDF as well. This was an unnecessary, ill-advised, poorly-planned, badly-executed and easily-neutralized effort. The SDF, in a rare bit of cooperation with the Syrian regime, effectively cordoned the Turkish-led force into a small pocket, where they remain today. Turkey's response - attacks against Kurdish towns along the entire length of the Syria-Turkish border. For more, see my analysis of March 2017, SYRIA: Has Turkey been marginalized and the Americans thrust into the fight?

The latest news from Turkey is Erdoğan's agreement to purchase the state-of-the-art S-400 air defense system (Russian: C-400 Триумф, Triumph / NATO reporting name: SA-21 Growler), despite warnings from senior American and other NATO officers that the system is not compatible with the combined NATO air defense system and will not be integrated into the common defense network.

If Turkey wants to continue to be a NATO ally, it needs to act like one. You have to ask, Mr. Erdoğan, whose side are you on?



October 6, 2017

Trump and the Iranian nuclear deal - did Tehran just blink?

President Trump with senior military officers and spouses at the White House 

Analysts and journalists around the world are trying to decipher President Donald Trump's remarks made while hosting a White House dinner for senior U.S. military officers and their spouses. The President said to a group of reporters, "You guys know what this represents? Maybe it's the calm before the storm," setting off a wave of speculation of possible impending military action.

It's hard to know what the President means, but if I had to guess, I would say that he is referring to his intention to decertify Iran's compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly called the Iranian nuclear deal. The President is required by law to certify Iranian compliance every 90 days. When Mr. Trump declines to do so, as it is expected he will do next week, the issue will pass to Congress. Congress has 60 days in which it can reimpose sanctions on Iran.

If Congress reimposes sanctions, that will cause angst among our European allies, as well as the Russians and Chinese. The Europeans support the Iran nuclear deal because it was the lifting of U.S. sanctions that allowed them to reopen economic ties with the Islamic Republic. American sanctions will force European companies to re-think any deals with Iran for fear of being sanctioned themselves.

Make no mistake - the JCPOA is about money, not Iran's nuclear weapons program. As I said earlier,

"The JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal, was not about stopping an Iranian nuclear weapons program. Russia, China and the Europeans are not worried about a nuclear Iran - Iran is not threatening them, Iran is threatening Israel and the United States.

"The deal was about sanctions relief and greed. Russia, China and the Europeans want to sell stuff to Iran, and Iran wants to buy it.

"Thanks to John Kerry's cave-in on virtually every demand and the spineless IAEA, we have no way of knowing if they are in compliance with the agreement or not.

"It seems incomprehensible to me that the Iranians - and I've been working against them for decades - are not working on a nuclear weapons program."


During the negotiations that resulted in the JCPOA, Iranian representatives were able to negotiate from a position of strength. They assessed - correctly - that the Obama Administration was anxious to conclude a deal, even a bad one, and would acquiesce to a variety of Iranian demands.

The U.S. team, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, caved in on virtually every Iranian demand, and did not push the conditions the public was told were going to be part of the agreement. Does anyone remember "anywhere anytime inspections?"

One of Mr. Kerry's more egregious blunders was acceding to Iran's demand to include in the final agreement the rewording of a United Nations Security Council resolution restricting Iranian ballistic missile development. I wrote about it at the time:

UNSCR 1929, adopted in June 2010, included the decision that "Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology, and that States shall take all necessary measures to prevent the transfer of technology or technical assistance to Iran related to such activities." I highlighted the words "shall not" for a reason.

During the nuclear program talks in Vienna, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif - a skilled and experienced American-educated negotiator - demanded that the ban on ballistic missile development be lifted as part of the agreement. The Iranian argument was quite skillful and nuanced - if they were going to forgo a nuclear weapons program, any missile development therefore could not be related to systems "capable of delivering nuclear weapons," the wording in UNSCR 1929.

In response to Minister Zarif's demand, Secretary Kerry agreed that the missile development restriction would expire completely after eight years from the implementation of the agreement, and in the intervening period - and this is a quote - Iran is "called upon not to" develop ballistic missiles.

As a result, UNSCR 2231 of July 2015 was approved and superseded UNSCR 1929 - the JCPOA took effect in January 2016. As agreed between Kerry and Zarif, the agreement states that Iran is "called on not to" develop nuclear-capable missiles or conduct launches.

I am not a lawyer, but even I know the difference between "shall not" and "called upon not to." For those still confused, the former is mandatory; the latter is voluntary.
(See Iran's ballistic missile program - more fallout from the "Kerry Collapse" for the entire article.)

It is Iran's continued aggressive ballistic missile development program that has angered the Trump Administration. In response to President Trump's criticism of the missile program, the Iranian parliament voted to increase spending on ballistic missile research and development.

However, in a rather startling turnabout, it appears that someone in Tehran is beginning to understand the difference between the administrations of Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

According to news reports, Iran has sent out feelers to the six powers who are signatories to the JCPOA that it is now willing to open talks about its ballistic missile program - the phrase cited was "possible talks on some dimensions of the program."

It seems that some of the bravado and bluster normally associated with Iranian pronouncements has abated.

I believe that Tehran just blinked.



September 20, 2017

Syrian and Iraqi coordinated operations against ISIS

Syrian, Iraqi and SDF operations against ISIS

Slowly but surely, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is being ejected from its remaining territory in eastern Syria and western Iraq. It has already been completely cleared from the Iraqi city of Mosul, and is almost completely defeated in the Syrian city of al-Raqqah. The two cities were ISIS's key geographic holdings.

The operations to eradicate ISIS's territorial presence are taking place simultaneously in Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, the reconstituted Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) - that includes the Army, Federal Police, Counterterrorism Service, and various Iranian-trained (and led) Shi'a militias - and the Kurdish peshmerga forces spent over nine months removing ISIS fighters from the city of Mosul. Shortly after that, the ISF moved against the ISIS enclave in the Tal'afar area northwest of Mosul, eliminating that presence fairly quickly.

The Iraqis have now turned their attention to the two remaining ISIS-controlled areas in their country - the "Hawayjah pocket" southwest of Kirkuk, and the Euphrates Valley west to the Syrian border. The Huwayjah area is close to the main highway from Baghdad to Mosul, the main supply route and communications corridor for the country. I thought the Iraqis would have (should have) moved on this area immediately after liberating Mosul.

Removing ISIS from Huwayjah and the Euphrates Valley will virtually remove the group from the country. It is important to remember that the retaking of all Iraqi territory is not the same as defeating ISIS. ISIS, and its ideology will remain a threat to peace and stability in Iraq for some time to come.

With the intervention of the U.S.-led coalition in 2014 - assisted somewhat by the Russian intervention in 2015 aimed at keeping Syrian dictator Bashar al-Asad in power - ISIS saw the handwriting on the wall (to borrow a Babylonian metaphor) that at some point they would lose their territories in Iraq and Syria.

For at least the last year, ISIS has been planning the transition from a geographic-based Islamist organization to what I will call a more "traditional" group, such as al-Qa'idah. The group has refocused its online recruiting efforts in Iraq, hoping to recruit Sunni Iraqis who can be convinced that they have been disenfranchised by an Iranian-influenced Shi'a government in Baghdad, a government that neither represents them nor promotes their welfare. Surprisingly, it resonates among many young Sunni Iraqis.

In a somewhat surprising change of tactics, the Iraqis have launched two operations simultaneously, one against the Huwayjah pocket and another focused on ejecting ISIS from al-Anbar province in the Euphrates Valley. (See the red arrows on the map indicating Iraqi moves.)

The Iraqi Air Force is conducting a rather impressive number of reconnaissance and attack sorties in al-Anbar, supporting two thrusts by the ISF to push ISIS into Syria, or destroy them in place. They will likely be successful on their side of the border before the Syrians can push ISIS to the Iraqi border.

Both sides know where this is headed - the Euphrates Valley in Syria, probably to the northwest of the city of Albu Kamal. While the Iraqis are pushing west, the various forces in Syria are slowly pushing ISIS east.

Syria, unlike Iraq, does not have a unified command structure. The main players, all nominally arrayed against ISIS, include the Syrian Army, supported by Russian airpower and the indispensable Iranian regulars and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and a variety of Shi'a militias from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and even Pakistan. A majority of the Syrian forces are actually from outside the country - without these foreign fighters, the Syrian Army, and likely the al-Asad government, would have collapsed years ago.

The other key player in Syria, in fact the group that has taken the fight to ISIS more than any other, is the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF). The SDF is made up of mostly Syrian Kurds from a group known as the YPG, along with Syrian Arabs and even an Assyrian Christian militia. This is the force that has besieged the city of al-Raqqah and is expected to have the city cleared of ISIS within a month, possibly sooner.

SDF forces are also fighting their way southeast along the Euphrates and are making thrusts near the regional population center of Dayr al-Zawr. Dayr al-Zawr and its adjacent airbase was a Syrian regime enclave under ISIS siege for over two years. Syrian forces have been remarkably successful in fighting across the central part of the country and relieving the siege earlier this month. I credit more direct Russian involvement.

At the same time, SDF forces have moved on Dayr al-Zawr from the north, almost in position to meet up with Syrian forces, creating one or two ISIS pockets northwest of the city. Once the forces have joined up and cut off ISIS forces, I expect a coordinated effort against ISIS, reducing those pockets before turning their attention to the Euphrates Valley southeast of Dayr al-Zawr. Looking at the map and the Syrian and SDF thrusts, it appears there is already coordination.

It will take time, but at some point - probably in a location in Syria - Iraqi, SDF and Syrian forces will have ISIS encircled and begin the task of eliminating whatever ISIS forces remain. A big question is how much coordination will occur between these forces. I suspect that at the tactical level, the commanders will coordinate, if not cooperate, their movements to make sure they are fighting ISIS and not each other.

A bigger question - how much coordination will there be between the two major powers? On the Syrian side, the Russians are the key interlocutor, while when dealing with the SDF and Iraqis, the United States is key.

Cooperation between the Russians and Americans, beyond the air deconfliction protocol, would be welcome and might just provide the basis for the political solution that will be required to end the bloodshed in Syria.

I hope that major power coordination is there, but I remain skeptical.



September 15, 2017

ISIS claims responsibility for London underground attack


As we have come to expect following terrorist attacks around the world, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed responsibility for today's attack in London, via a statement from the 'Amaq Agency, its in-house propaganda arm.

My interpretation of the initial claim (posted above) reads:

----
‘Amaq Agency - 15 September 2017 - Urgent

A trusted source to ‘Amaq Agency: Explosion of an improvised explosive device in the London subway was carried out by a detachment of the Islamic State.

----

I have read a lot of these statements in the past, and pay careful attention to the Arabic words used in them. Normally, the statements claim that the attack was executed by a "soldier" or "soldiers" of the Islamic State, or of the Caliphate.

In this statement, however, they use the term that translates most accurately to "detachment." This gives the connotation of more than one perpetrator. I have seen other analysts translate the word as "cell," although there is a more precise word for cell that ISIS has used in the past.

'Amaq followed up the initial brief claim with a longer statement (posted below).



My interpretation of the statement:

----
Urgent – Upwards of 30 Crusaders injured in an improvised explosive device in a London underground station

Great Britain – 24 Thu al-Hijjah 1438 AH

Pleasing God and trusting in him, soldiers of the Caliphate were able to place a number of improvised explosive devices and detonate one near a group of Crusaders in the Parsons Green underground station in London, leading to the injury of nearly 30 Crusaders, as ordained by God, thanks be to God, lord of the universe.

----

This is the first indication of multiple IED's being placed in this attack. There is credence to this claim - Scotland Yard confirmed later that they have more than one suspect.

The claim about multiple IED's is interesting. If there were in fact more than one IED involved and the police had not made that public prior to the release of the statement, it may indicate that ISIS had prior knowledge of the attack. The fact that the United Kingdom has raised it threat warning level to critical lends credence to this theory.

That would tend to indicate an ISIS-directed attack rather than another of the ISIS-inspired attacks in the recent past.

If this is in fact an ISIS-directed attack, it would fit with the new direction of ISIS as it morphs into a more al-Qa'idah-like terrorist organization as it faces the eventual loss of it territory in Syria and Iraq.





September 13, 2017

The Syrian-SDF assault on Dayr al-Zawr - a cooperative effort?

The two-pronged assault on Dayr al-Zawr

Forces of the Syrian government and its allies have broken the siege on the eastern city of Dayr al-Zawr* and the adjacent air base, attacking the city along the south bank of the Euphrates River. Dayr al-Zawr has been under siege from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) since May 2015.

The Syrian Army is supported by Russian airpower, Iranian regular troops and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) forces, as well as various Shi'a militias from Iran and Iraq. This coalition has been making steady progress in the operation to relieve the garrison at Dayr al-Zawr following a series of successful operations in Aleppo and in the Damascus area - some resolved by agreements with opposition forces.

At the same time, forces of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Front (SDF) - composed of Syrian Arabs, Kurds and Assyrians - are attacking ISIS along the north bank of the Euphrates River. Although there is no formal coordination protocol between the Syrian regime and the SDF, there is - and has been - informal cooperation in the fight against the common enemy that is ISIS.



Looking at the map and the operations mounted by the Syrian regime coalition and the SDF, it is hard to believe there is not some coordination occurring. While the Euphrates River is a logical boundary between the two commands, there are locations where the division is merely a line on a map.

While I suspect there is contact between Syrian Army commanders and SDF leaders at the tactical level to prevent unnecessary incidents that detract from the fight against ISIS, I hope there is operational and/or strategic level cooperation between the two major powers who are supporting the Syrians and the SDF - Russia and the United States, respectively.

I have been encouraging just this for months - see my earlier article, An alliance between the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian government?

It appears that the Syrian government has decided to focus its current operations on taking Dayr al-Zawr, with or without the SDF's help. President (and nominal commander in chief) Bashar al-Asad evidently will leave the liberation of ISIS's self-proclaimed capital of al-Raqqah to the SDF.

It is interesting that the SDF has moved forces towards the city of Dayr al-Zawr in an enveloping maneuver. This required the SDF to divert resources from the fighting in al-Raqqah either in a bid to seize and occupy territory in Dayr al-Zawr governorate, or in a coordinated operation with the Syrian government. I am hoping for the latter, but suspect the former.

Both the Syrian regime (and its allies) and the SDF are setting up the final battle with ISIS in Syria, or in a best-case scenario, the final battle between combined Iraqi and Syrian forces with ISIS in the border region along the Syria-Iraq border. ISIS media has referred to this as the "Battle of the Euphrates."

We know how the battle ends, we just do not know the exact venue or the human cost of the battle. For more on this, see my article: The fight against the Islamic State grinds on….

Make no mistake, this will not be the defeat of ISIS, but the end of its territorial presence in the Levant - the ideology, unfortunately, will continue. The organization will morph back into a more "traditional terrorist organization" along the lines of al-Qa'idah.

We're not there yet, however. The next steps are for the SDF to completely secure the city of al-Raqqah, while the Syrian coalition and the SDF create an ISIS pocket along the Euphrates northwest of the city of Dayr al-Zawr - that pocket will then be reduced.

In a perfect world, the Iraqis will have eliminated the Huwayjah pocket (far right of above map) and concentrate their efforts on al-Anbar province and the Euphrates Valley, pressuring ISIS towards the Syrian border.

The final battle will take place somewhere around Albu-Kamal, Syria / al-Qa'im, Iraq.

Then the problem of Syria must be addressed. While Iraq has its own issues for the future - dealing with the Sunni-Shi'a split, the Kurds and other ethnic groups - it has a chance of recreating a stable nation.

Syria, in the throes of a civil war and the venue for competing foreign interests - Russia, Iran, Turkey, the United States to name a few - has a long road of reconciliation ahead of it.

Cooperation between the major powers - Russia and the United States - would be useful. Hopefully, the coordination/deconfliction line between American and Russian forces in the region is busy.
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* Personal note: I have only fond memories of Dayr al-Zawr. It was a drive from Damascus, but well worth the effort. It was - and hopefully will be again - a beautiful city on the Euphrates, with great history and an ambiance of a gentler Middle East. I miss it.



September 1, 2017

IAEA access to Iranian military sites - nuclear deal breaker?

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry

The above photograph was taken in 2015 during the final negotiations that resulted in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or more commonly, the "Iranian nuclear deal." I hesitate to call these talks negotiations - the American discussant was the ineffectual Secretary of State John Kerry who agreed to virtually everything his Iranian counterpart wanted.

The key issue during this particular session was United Nations (UN) inspectors' ability to interview Iranian scientists and to inspect military facilities suspected of being involved in Iran's nuclear research and development program. At that time, senior Iranian negotiator Abbas Araghchi stated flatly, "Interviews with scientists are completely out of the question, and so is the inspection of military sites."

In response, the director of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Yukiya Amano, reiterated the requirement that any deal with Iran include the authority to inspect any sites suspected of being a venue for nuclear-related activity, including military sites. In the end, the distinct wording of the signed JCPOA does not differentiate between military and non-military sites.

That said, it is impossible to know if there was a secret understanding between the Obama Administration and the Iranian government to not demand inspections of Iranian military sites, given the previous Administration's overarching desire to reach an agreement, any agreement, with the Iranians. If that was indeed the case, the Trump Administration has demonstrated that its stance toward what it calls "the worst deal" will be much stricter and less tolerant of Iranian deceptive tactics.

The issue of access to Iranian military sites is not yet resolved. A full two years later, IAEA Director Amano is still trading words with Iranian officials over access to these sites. Last week, an Iranian government spokesman said that any chance Iran would allow inspections of any of its military facilities was "a dream."

Director Amano rejected Iran's claim that its military sites were off-limits to inspection, declaring that military sites could be considered "relevant locations" if the IAEA believes there are nuclear activities at the sites. He again made the point that in the agreement signed by Iran, the IAEA "has access to (all) locations without making distinctions between military and civilian locations."

Iran's stance is not surprising. During the negotiations between Iran on one side, and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) plus Germany (P5+1) and the European Union on the other, the primary negotiators were Secretary Kerry and his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif.

To ensure that the Obama Administration was able to reach an agreement with Iran, Secretary Kerry acceded to almost every Iranian demand, including a word change in an existing UNSC resolution on Iranian missile tests, from "shall not" develop ballistic missiles to "is called upon not to" develop.* Zarif and the Iranians grew so used to having their own way during the Obama Administration, they are likely surprised that they are not being coddled by the Trump Administration as well.

The fact that Iran is so sensitive about access to these military sites only arouses more suspicion. If I was part of the IAEA monitoring effort, it is probably the first place I would want to inspect. Given Iran's belief that these sites are exempt from inspection, it makes sense that any undeclared facilities, materials or equipment would be secreted at these locations.

As an example of Iran's sensitivity, there was one inspection conducted at Parchin, a military site where it was believed some nuclear activity had taken place. Normally, IAEA inspectors take air and soil samples, as well as swabbing equipment at suspect sites. In this case, the IAEA allowed Iranian personnel to take the samples - not exactly instilling confidence in the integrity of the verification protocol.

Per the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, the President must certify that Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA every 90 days - the next certification is due in mid-September. For its part, the IAEA last week declared that it had noted no violations by Iran in its latest quarterly Iran monitoring report, although the agency was still searching for "undeclared nuclear material and activities."

Director Amano, here's a hint: look at the military sites. If there are "undeclared nuclear material and activities," - and knowing the Iranians, I believe there are - that's where it will be found.

If the IAEA does not inspect suspect Iranian military sites, how can they - or for that matter the President - certify that Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA? Well, technically, the IAEA is not stating that Iran is in compliance. What they said is that they "had noted no violations...."

Of course, if you don't look, you can't "note."

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* For more on this fiasco, see my earlier article: Iran's ballistic missile program - more fallout from the "Kerry Collapse"




Middle East Perspectives named one of the Top 100 Middle East Blogs


Middle East Perspectives by Rick Francona has been named as one of the Top 100 Middle East Blogs and Websites on the Web by the news aggregator Feedspot.

You can see the entire list of 100 here. This blog is number 11 on the list.


It is an impressive list, and I am honored to be listed among them.


August 30, 2017

The deal to relocate ISIS fighters to eastern Syria actually makes sense


In a controversial agreement reached by the Syrian government, its close ally Lebanese Hizballah, and the Lebanese government, hundreds of fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have been guaranteed and provided safe passage from their besieged enclave in the Arsal district of northeastern Lebanon and the Qalamun area of western Syria to the city of Albu Kamal.

The agreement has been criticized by both the U.S.-led coalition and the Iraqi government. Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi remarked that while Iraqi troops are busy killing ISIS fighters, the Syrian government is busing other ISIS fighters to the Iraqi border.

In return for safe passage of over 300 of its disarmed fighters and their families, approximately 700 persons total, ISIS agreed to surrender its positions in Syrian-Lebanese border areas, repatriate the remains of an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) member beheaded by ISIS as well as the remains of two Hizballah fighters, reveal the burial site of several Lebanese Army soldiers, and release a Hizballah fighter being held prisoner.

Although the deal was widely criticized, it follows a pattern of Syrian government agreements with various rebel groups. The terms are similar - a rebel group agrees to surrender territory in return for safe passage to another rebel-held area, usually in Idlib governorate.

These agreements have effectively closed pockets of resistance and allowed the Syrian government to re-establish control over cities and towns without having to forcibly evict entrenched and committed fighters, thus avoiding unnecessary civilian casualties and damage to the country's already severely damaged infrastructure.


(Click on image for larger view)

Albu Kamal sits on the Euphrates River on the Syrian-Iraq border opposite the Iraqi city of al-Qa'im. Both sides of the border are currently controlled by ISIS. As the Iraqis eliminate the ISIS pockets of resistance in Tal'Afar and al-Huwayjah, the Syrians reduce the ISIS pockets between Homs and Dayr al-Zawr, and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces eliminates the ISIS presence in al-Raqqah, virtually all of the remaining ISIS fighters will be located in the Euphrates Valley.

Taking an analytical look at this specific deal in the Lebanese-Syrian border area, it makes sense for all parties:

- The 300 or so ISIS fighters are allowed to relocate - and live to fight another day. As we have seen in the fighting in Mosul and now al-Raqqah and Tal'afar, small numbers of fanatical, willing-to-die ISIS fighters can be very effective in defending urban terrain.

- The Lebanese government has effectively removed ISIS from its territory, with minimal casualties to the Lebanese Army and minimal damage to the country's infrastructure.

- The Syrian government has reduced yet another enemy pocket, this time an ISIS enclave. They are effectively reducing ISIS pockets in central Syria as they move east towards the ISIS-surrounded major city of Dayr al-Zawr and its adjacent air base. These reduced pockets of resistance free up badly needed forces for fighting ISIS.

Combined with the Russian-Turkish-Iranian brokered ceasefires holding in many areas, the Syrians have been able to concentrate much more force on the campaign to relieve the city and garrison in Dayr al-Zawr - they are now within 40 miles of the city.

I would note that despite Syrian press reporting about the prowess of the "ISIS hunters," without Russian airpower and the presence of IRGC and Hizballah troops the Syrians would be hard pressed to move on Dayr al-Zawr.

The move of ISIS fighters into Dayr al-Zawr governorate is another phase in the fighting that will culminate in the Battle of the Euphrates. That final fight to eliminate ISIS will take place somewhere in the Euphrates Valley, possibly near Albu Kamal. See my earlier piece on this: The fight against the Islamic State grinds on….

The final battles may also involve coordinated Iraqi and Syrian military operations. If that happens, it will be interesting to see what roles the American and Russian forces will play to support their respective allies.