February 10, 2018

Iran-Israel confrontation in Syria - more to come

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 2, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 26, 2018

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

Turkish tanks entering 'Afrin canton, Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watch the entire interview here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In President Erdoğan's own words:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 17, 2018

Syria - the coming showdown between the United States and Turkey

Most people's eyes now glaze over when Syria is mentioned. It is confusing - just look at the above map. It is confusing even to those of us who have devoted years or decades of our lives trying to understand the various factors that constantly influence the situation. With forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) removed from most of the country, the battles have again changed.

The fight against ISIS was a unifying force. All parties involved in Syria, be it the Syrian government (with its Russian, Iranian, Hizballah,and other Shi'a militia supporters), the Kurds, the Turks, the various groups that comprise what is now called the "Syrian opposition" (the Free Syrian Army, independent rebels, as well as several jihadist groups, including al-Qa'idah affiliated groups) had a common enemy.

With the virtual defeat of ISIS - it has lost almost all of the territory it controlled in the country, including its self-proclaimed capital of al-Raqqah - the commonality of ISIS as an enemy disappeared. The various factions in the country, as well as their sponsors, are now refocusing their efforts on each other. That means there is a greater risk of confrontation between the major players - Russia, Turkey, and the United States.

The Russians, supporting the Syrian regime and allies, is focused on the annihilation of the Syrian opposition, now mainly concentrated in the Idlib governorate. The situation in northern Syria continues to deteriorate as the Syrian Army, supported by its Russian and Iranian allies, continues its vicious assault on Hamah, Idlib and Aleppo governorates.

The Syrian alliance, I'll call it, is attacking the eastern portion of the rebel-held area (red arrows) – soon they will have created two small pockets which they then will reduce. In the past, they would negotiate a ceasefire and allow the fighters to depart, usually to be relocated to Idlib governorate. I wonder if they will continue that trend, allowing fighters to move west. Pretty soon, they will have no where to go as the Syrians continue to create more pockets.

The air base at Abu al-Duhur is one of the objectives of the regime advance, mainly to use a a forward staging base to complement the Russian air assets from Humaymim air base on the coast. The major objective in this area, however, is the main highway that runs from Damascus-Homs-Hamah to Aleppo (blue line). It is a good road, but as you can see, in this area it is controlled by opposition forces.

To maintain a supply line to its forces in Aleppo, the Syrians have been using a small desert road (yellow line) out to the east. It is a rough road through sparsely populated areas and is subject to being cut by both rebel and ISIS forces. There is an ongoing fight against the small ISIS pocket (grey) to keep that road open.

I have driven both routes – given the viability of the eastern alternative, the Syrians really need to secure that main highway.

They are starting to move up that highway from Hamah. In the red circle are a few small cities that are being destroyed by daily heavy Russian airstrikes. Al-Lataminah has been hit the hardest, as it is one of the first towns that will need to be taken. Note also Khan Shaykhun, site of the chemical attack that prompted the US missile attack on al-Sha'ayrat air base last year.

I don’t see a good end here for the opposition forces. They are not united – they tolerate each other and occasionally work together, especially the jihadist groups. They do not have the wherewithal to withstand the force that is being applied against them. With Russian airpower and rocket artillery, and Iranian-Hizballah-various militias providing the ground forces to supplement what is left of the Syrian army, it is only a matter of time before they will be defeated.

Turkish troops are also now present in Idlib governorate. While they claim they are there to support the Russian-declared “de-escalation zones,” they are there to contain the Kurds in ‘Afrin canton. The Turks have warned of an impending offensive into the enclave – the canton is almost completely surrounded by Turkish forces. Turkish artillery has already conducted preparatory fires near the region's administrative center, the city of 'Afrin. The main assault could happen virtually any time - all it requires is the order from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Erdoğan has called for the surrender of the "terrorists" in 'Afrin. He is referring to Syrian-resident Kurds who are members of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military arm the People's Protection Units (YPG). The Turks believe the YPG is nothing more than an extension of the PKK, a separatist organization composed of Turkish-resident Kurds who have been conducting a guerrilla war against the Turks since 1984. The PKK has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, NATO and the European Union (EU).*

This will not sit well with the United States – of course, the two NATO allies have been at odds for several years over the American support (airstrikes, artillery support, equipment, training and advice) to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), made up mostly of those same YPG Kurds the Turks are threatening. A Turkish military operation aimed at the very group that provided the bulk of the ground forces of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS will only exacerbate the tense relations between Washington and Ankara.

It will get even more tense. The U.S. has announced that it is training a force of 30,000 troops to control the Kurdish area of northeastern Syria, including controlling the Turkish border. The United States believes that, given Turkey's history of failing to control its own border with Syria and being the major conduit for thousands of foreign fighters into Syria to join ISIS, the SDF would be a better partner to prevent those same ISIS fighters from crossing back into Turkey to return to their countries of origin and continue the fight.

The Turks are wary of any Kurdish force on the border – they regard the Syrian Kurds, including the SDF, to be nothing more than an extension of the PKK terrorist group. In 2016, they inserted a sizable force into northern Syria to prevent a contiguous Kurdish area running from the Iraq-Iran border in the east to the Syrian-Turkish border in the west. They claimed they were supporting the Free Syrian Army's efforts to liberate al-Raqqah. They never got closer than 80 miles to al-Raqqah, and mostly obstructed the American-supported SDF with a series of harassing attacks.

The problem for the United States is the logistics of training, equipping, and maintaining a sizable force in Syria. To do so requires the ability to access the area. Given geography and political realities, that means access to eastern Syria via Iraq. That requires a continued presence in Iraq, not guaranteed after the virtual defeat of ISIS as a territorial force in the country.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has major influence in both Baghdad and Damascus. I can envision a scenario in which the Iranians pressure Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-‘Abadi to thank the Americans for their assistance in the fight against ISIS, and ask them to leave. If he does that, how will the U.S.-led coalition continue to maintain its support to the Kurds in Syria?

President Erdoğan needs to focus on the big picture here and not continue to be blinded by his hatred of the Kurds.

* There are unresolved legal issues within the EU concerning the designation of the PKK as a terrorist group. The United Kingdom lists the PKK as a "Proscribed Group" rather than a terrorist group. Many believe that the U.S. and NATO designation was a political move to support NATO ally Turkey.

January 13, 2018

Is there a fix to the flawed Iran nuclear deal?

Perpetrators of the JCPOA - April 2015

On January 12, President Donald Trump issued a statement about his planned actions to address what he believes (correctly) is a flawed agreement with Iran concerning its nuclear program. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was concluded in 2015 between Iran on one side and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council*, Germany, and the European Union on the other.

U.S. law requires the President to certify every 90 days that Iran is in compliance with the accord. In October 2017, President Trump refused to certify Iran as being in compliance, triggering a 60-day window for Congress to decide if it wished to re-impose sanctions on Iran.

Essentially, the President punted the ball - not certifying Iran's compliance, but remaining as part of the deal. It is close to "having your cake and eating it too" - the President "fires a shot across the bow" of the JCPOA without actually having to kill it.

There is a second factor to be considered here. The law also requires that every 120 days the President waive existing U.S. sanctions on Iran. That waiver of sanctions is the key part of the agreement, the glue that holds it all together. The thing that brought the Iranians to their knees and thus to the bargaining table were crippling U.S. sanctions, particularly lack of access to the American banking system and use of the U.S. dollar.

Nations who wanted to do business with Iran were afraid of secondary U.S. sanctions, the oft-repeated threat being, "You can do business with Iran or you can do business with the United States, but not both." It was an easy call for most - do business with the world's largest economy, or do business with Iran. To put that in perspective, using 2014 figures, the U.S. GDP was $17.4 trillion, Iran's was $425 billion (or 80 percent of the U.S. defense budget).

While the refusal to certify Iran in compliance with the JCPOA is certainly a serious step, failure to waive U.S. sanctions will essentially collapse the agreement. As I have said numerous times since the JCPOA was adopted, "The [JCPOA] was about sanctions relief and greed. Russia, China and Europe want to sell stuff to Iran, and Iran wants to buy it." If the rest of the world won't do business with Iran, Tehran has no incentive to stay in the agreement.

You can read the official Statement by the President on the Iran Nuclear Deal - I will address what I believe are the key points.

According to the statement, the President will continue to waive U.S. sanctions for 120 days, but if there are not binding fixes to the JCPOA, he will not do so in the future.

Iranian Foreign Minister (and principal negotiator) Javad Zarif, stated that the agreement "cannot be renegotiated in any way," and that Tehran "will not accept any changes in this agreement now or in the future, nor allow it to be linked to any other issue."

President Trump was equally clear in his statement: "I have not yet withdrawn the United States from the Iran nuclear deal. Instead, I have outlined two possible paths forward: either fix the deal’s disastrous flaws, or the United States will withdraw. ... Today, I am waiving the application of certain nuclear sanctions, but only in order to secure our European allies’ agreement to fix the terrible flaws of the Iran nuclear deal. This is a last chance. In the absence of such an agreement, the United States will not again waive sanctions in order to stay in the Iran nuclear deal. And if at any time I judge that such an agreement is not within reach, I will withdraw from the deal immediately."

So, exactly what does the President want changed? What would it take to keep the United States from essentially abrogating the JCPOA?

Mr. Trump wants Congress to draft legislation that addresses several issues.

-- It must demand that Iran allow immediate inspections at all sites requested by international inspectors. To me, this is a key issue. I have argued that it is impossible to certify that Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA when it refuses to allow access to its military facilities.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the accord calls for inspections of any suspect facility, but the United Nations' watchdog organization has not asked for access. Their reason? Iran will say no and possibly give the United States a reason to withdraw. Hardly valid, in my opinion. (See my earlier article on this, IAEA access to Iranian military sites - nuclear deal breaker?)

-- It must address the JCPOA's expiration dates (the so-called sunset clauses) for various activities, in essence, legalizing an Iranian nuclear program after 10 years. The President wants the provision of the agreement to be permanent, thus denying Iran future access to the fissile material they would need to produce a nuclear weapon.

-- It must state that long-range missile and nuclear weapons programs are inseparable, and that Iran’s continues research, development and testing of ballistic missiles must stop or face additional sanctions. This would merely re-instate a prohibition that then-Secretary of State John Kerry capitulated on - at Russian request - as a sweetener for the Iranians.

I am not sure if agreeing to a change in the status quo on ballistic missile development was advisable or even necessary - Foreign Minister Zarif was able to outmaneuver Kerry on virtually every issue, getting a great deal for Iran. We see how the Iranians have taken advantage of Kerry's lapse. (See my thoughts on this, Iran's ballistic missile program - more fallout from the "Kerry Collapse")

In my assessment, there is nothing wrong with AN agreement with the Iranians on their nuclear program - there is plenty wrong with THIS agreement. Although I would like to see all of he changes Mr. Trump wants, I don't think it is possible.

Of the three issues - inspections, sunset clauses, and ballistic missiles - I think the only one that has a chance of success is expanded inspections, the "anytime, anywhere" mantra promised by President Barack Obama and Secretary Kerry (that was the first thing Kerry capitulated on).

Without the ability to inspect all of Iran's suspect facilities, it is impossible for the IAEA to accurately certify that Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA. Put me in the category of those who believe that Iran maintains a nuclear weapons research and development program. As long as their military facilities remain off limits, we cannot rely on the JCPOA.

Forget help from the Europeans and Chinese in the attempt to redefine the execution of the JCPOA. They are in this not to address Iran's nuclear ambitions - they don't care, they regard this as an American (and Israeli) problem. To them, it's solely economic.

We are about to come to a strategic crossroad.

Does the United States take the hard line and attempt to change the toothless JCPOA currently enforced by a spineless IAEA, or continue the status quo whereby Iran continues to overtly develop nuclear-warhead capable ballistic missiles and, in my mind, covertly develop a nuclear weapons capability (as I would)?

Much of this depends on Iran's actions/reactions. At this point in time, for better or worse, the United States is the big kid on the block. Donald Trump is the President - does Tehran really want to go down this path?

* China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and United States

January 5, 2018

Syrian rebels attack Russian air base - a wake up call

Damaged Russian Air Force Su-24 fighter-bombers

On December 31, 2017, Syrian rebels attacked, probably with mortars, a Syrian air base used by the Russian expeditionary force in that country, damaging several aircraft and killing two troops assigned to the base. The Russians delayed announcing the attack until days after - surprisingly, the rebels did not publicize their success. The Russian press released details to refute a report that seven aircraft had been destroyed.

The Syrian air base is a dual-use military installation and civilian airport, known as both Humaymim* Air Base and Basil al-Asad International Airport. There are no scheduled commercial flights to the airport, and the occasional civilian aircraft which use the facility are SyrianAir (the national airline) flights that have been diverted from Damascus International Airport when there is a security concern.

Top dot is Humaymim Air Base (note proximity to al-Qardahah)
Lower dot is Syrian-Russian naval facility at Tartus

Prior to the arrival of the Russians in September 2015, Humaymim Air Base was a rather sleepy base used by the Syrian Air Force's 618th Maritime Warfare Squadron, operating a mix of older Soviet/Russian Mi-14 (NATO: HAZE), Ka-25 (NATO: HORMONE) and Ka-27 (NATO: HELIX) antisubmarine warfare helicopters. It is also the closest airfield to the al-Asad family home in al-Qardahah, a short helicopter flight to the north of the air base (see map).

I was the Air Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus in the early to mid 1990's. In addition to what I would call "normal" attaché duties, I also was responsible for arranging diplomatic clearances for all U.S. military aircraft either visiting or overflying Syria.

Surprisingly, there were quite a few U.S. Air Force aircraft that visited Syria, either carrying the Secretary of State or Congressional delegations - which I believed were merely shopping trips to the al-Hamidiyah souk, one of the best Oriental carpet and gold markets in the world.

On several occasions, we at the embassy were tasked to support meetings between the Secretary of State and then-President of Syria Hafiz al-Asad in al-Qardahah. Since I had to make all the arrangements for the Secretary's U.S. Air Force aircraft, Humaymim Air Base - and the surrounding area - became very familiar to me. We would scout out the local area for places to place the crews, and of course, observe any Syrian armed forces facilities in the area.

The Russians have deployed dozens of combat aircraft - attack jets, attack helicopters, fighters and fighter-bombers to the air base. Being almost a world-class air force, they also deployed base defense assets - including state-of-the-art surface-to-air missile systems and antiaircraft weapons. While the radars associated with the S-300 (NATO: SA-10 GRUMBLE) and S-400 (NATO: SA-21 GROWLER) air defense systems are very capable against air threats, they are not effective against low-tech insurgent attacks.

The air base at Humaymim was the perfect target for what the Russians have labeled an attack by a "mobile militant subversive group." The target was the source of much of the suffering among the Syrian opposition - and their supporters.

The Russians claimed that they deployed to Syria to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but in reality, the vast majority of their air strikes, estimated as high as 85 percent, targeted Syrian rebel forces. Specifically, the Russians - as did their Syrian proteges - targeted hospitals, schools, bakeries and markets. The real objective, which they have achieved, was to keep the regime of Bashar al-Asad in power. (See my condemnation of President Obama and then-Secretary of State John Kerry for their refusal to address these war crimes, Russian Air Force targeting hospitals - war crimes, Mr. Kerry?)

There are so many back roads on that coastal area between Jablah to the south of the base, Humaymim (for which the base is named) to the west, and Bustan al-Bashah to the north - it is the bane of force protection officers.

Force protection became a key mission for American troops after the June 25, 1996 Khobar Towers attack on a U.S. Air Force barracks in Saudi Arabia. The Russians have experienced similar attacks during their time in Afghanistan. It is a very difficult mission - most of the time, troops are trying to protect themselves in the middle of what can be assumed to be hostile territory.

Theses attacks do not have to be decisive - they are meant to send a message that what are deemed to be secure facilities are vulnerable to attack. Two Russian servicemen died in this particular attack. There was also materiel damage - any attack on Humaymim was likely to damage aircraft.

The Russians moved into a small Syrian air base and deployed a large number of fighter, fighter-bomber, attack, reconnaissance, airborne command and control, and refueling aircraft. This is a huge footprint, bringing all the elements of modern airpower to just one location. The aircraft are parked almost wingtip to wingtip on taxiways and parking pads, not in revetments to protect aircraft and limit damage in just such an attack.

The Russians thought that using Humaymim, located on Syria's northwest coast, in the heart of the 'Alawi heartland - home to the sect to which the Syrian president and all key members of the government belong, not to mention relatively far from the fighting - would be safe from attack.

Think again.

This attack sends a message to the Russians that their intervention and continued presence in Syria will not be without risk. The Russians have no intention of leaving. Russian President Vladimir Putin has secured a 49-year renewable lease from Syrian President Bashar al-Asad for both the Humaymim Air Base and a naval facility about 30 miles south in the port of Tartus. These agreements represent the first Russian permanent military deployments since the fall of the Soviet Union.

These moves by Putin are not limited to Syria - he has secured basing rights in Egypt and Libya. In addition, Putin has arranged Russian bomber access to Iranian air bases for operations in Syria.

The Russian sense of invulnerability in Syria has just been challenged. They have lost aircraft and soldiers in the past, but an attack on their base of operations in Humaymim is different.

I suspect the Russians are in Syria to stay. This is the price they have to pay, and I see no indication they are not willing to do so.

*Normally rendered incorrectly in various media as Khmeimim or Hmeimim. According to the official U.S. government BGN transliteration system, حميميم is properly rendered as Humaymim.

December 27, 2017

Want to be a martyr? Reserve here!

Post on Hay'at al-Tahrir al-Sham website

The al-Qa'idah affiliated hay'at tahrir al-sham (هيئة تحرير الشام‎) - translated as "Organization for the Liberation of the Levant" and known by the initials HTS - is very active in Syria, particularly in Idlib governorate.

As the threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) diminishes - the group has lost control of virtually of the territory it controlled from 2014 to 2017 - there is more attention being given to other jihadist groups operating in Syria.

HTS was formed in January 2017 via a merger of several Salafist groups, including what used to be called jabhat al-nusrah (the Victory Front), the original al-Qa'idah organization dispatched to Syria by al-Qa'idah in Iraq (AQI) in 2012 when it saw an opportunity to take advantage of the rapidly deteriorating situation in Syria. The group later joined with AQI to create the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The union was short lived, and al-Nusrah became independent from ISIS and remained affiliated with al-Qa'idah.

The success of the multi-faceted fight against ISIS has made it more difficult to attract recruits to join the various jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria, to the point that the groups are now increasing advertising on the internet. The image above is one such posting.

A translation of the above mage:

Reserve your role in martyrdom (suicide) operations
- improvised explosive devices (has come to mean vehicle-borne IED)
- red gangs/bands
- behind enemy lines

[Telegram] at @aldogma

While most Westerners may find this type of posting almost laughable, it is deadly serious, and unfortunately effective. The fact that it was posted in Arabic indicates that the target audience is Arab youths.

December 16, 2017

Iranian weapons in Yemen - is anyone surprised?

Wreckage of an Iranian-made Qiam missile recovered in Saudi Arabia

At Defense Intelligence Agency headquarters in Washington, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley displayed the remnants of an Iranian-manufactured short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) that was fired by al-Houthi rebels in Yemen at the international airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on November 4. The missile was successfully intercepted by a Patriot missile fired by Saudi air defense forces.

Along with the wreckage of the Qiam SRBM, Haley showed reporters additional Iranian-made weaponry captured from the al-Houthi group, including a guided antitank missile and an armed drone. This is a clear violation of United Nations Security Council resolution 2231* which bars Iran from the “supply, sale, or transfer of arms or related materiel from Iran.”

The fact that Iran is supplying the Houthis in Yemen with the three things required for a successful insurgency - money, weapons and training - should come as no surprise to anyone who reads even the slightest news accounts from the Middle East. Iran has been using its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force for decades to provide the wherewithal to conduct insurgencies and terrorism virtually around the world.

The IRGC's operations have extended from Argentina, Cuba and Venezuela in this hemisphere to the former Yugoslavia, North Africa, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia - well, virtually everywhere in the Middle East. This includes support to non-state actors as well, with Hizballah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza being prime examples.

Yemen is no exception to Iran's foreign policy and IRGC operations. Iran takes special interest in failed states and states in which there is a significant Shi'a population - both of these factors are present in Yemen. The Shi'a comprise about 45 percent of the population of Yemen, and make up the vast majority of members of the al-Houthi (formally known as
ansar allah, "supporters of God") rebel group.

We see the same interest being paid to other states with significant or majority Shi'a populations. Of course, we have seen the massive support - men and materiel - being provided to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad, as well as the government of Iraq. I already mentioned the support provided by IRGC-created Lebanese Resistance, more commonly known as Hizballah. Those three countries, along with Iran itself, comprise the "Shi'a Crescent" extending from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus to Beirut.

This land bridge will develop further - the IRGC just sent an initial overland convoy from Iran through Iraq, crossing the border into Syria at the newly-retaken Tal Ba'adi border crossing. According to Iraqi military officials - currently and nominally our allies - the convoy consisted of IRGC troops Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi'a militia fighters. Interesting side note: the Iraqi border crossings along the central Syrian border are controlled by these Popular Mobilization Unit militias, not regular Iraqi forces.

Other areas of Iranian meddling include Bahrain and the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. Bahrain, venue of the headquarters of the U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet, is a majority Shi'a country ruled by a Sunni royal family. The Iranians have fomented demonstrations, including violent confrontations, against the government, demanding a greater role for the Shi'a population. A pipeline explosion last month was labeled an Iranian terrorist act by the Bahraini security services. Eventually, Iran would like to see the current government replaced with a pro-Iran (read: Shi'a) regime, and the expulsion of the Fifth Fleet from the Persian Gulf.

In Saudi Arabia, Iran's chief rival for regional influence, Iran often foments trouble among the the minority Shi'a population. The Shi'a in the kingdom are thought to be only about 10 to 15 percent of the overall population, and are concentrated in the Eastern Province. This province is the largest in Saudi Arabia and home to much of the kingdom's oil facilities. When relations between the two countries deteriorate, Iranian-inspired/directed trouble in the province is expected.

The Iranians regard themselves as the leaders, sponsors and protectors of all things Shi'a. They have successfully made themselves a force to be reckoned with in the Persian Gulf and the larger Middle East. It should come as no surprise to see Iranian IRGC members, including the Qods Force, and Iranian weapons in areas where a Shi'a presence can be exploited.

Yemen - a failed state with a large Shi'a minority - is a prime target for Iran.

* UNSCR 2231 Annex B, paragraph 6b: [All States are to:] Take the necessary measures to prevent, except as decided otherwise by the UN Security Council in advance on a case-by-case basis, the supply, sale, or transfer of arms or related materiel from Iran by their nationals or using their flag vessels or aircraft, and whether or not originating in the territory of Iran, until the date five years after the JCPOA Adoption Day or until the date on which the IAEA submits a report confirming the Broader Conclusion, whichever is earlier.

December 11, 2017

Russia to withdraw troops from Syria? Hardly....

Humaymim air base, Syria - Defense Minister Fahd al-Frayj and President
Bashar al-Asad with Russian counterparts Vladimir Putin and Sergei Shoigu

During a scheduled trip to Egypt to further develop Russia's deepening ties with Cairo, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a short stop at Syria's Humaymim air base to address Russian forces operating from the base. Putin announced the beginning of the withdrawal of "a significant portion" of Russian forces from Syria, claiming that Russia's claimed "counterterrorism" operation has been successfully concluded.

For the complete English text of Putin's remarks and a series of photographs, see the Russian government press release.

Putin also stated that Russia will maintain a permanent presence at Syria's Humaymim air base and the Tartus naval facility. The Russians were able to reach an agreement with the Syrian government of Bashar al-Asad for a renewable 49-year lease on the two facilities. This constitutes Russia's first permanent overseas deployments to the region since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

This is a Russian map of the military situation in Syria in early December. I have placed two red dots to indicate the location of Humaymim air base (south of the port city of Latakia) and the Tartus naval facility further to the south. With Putin's recent agreement with Egyptian President 'Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi on Russian Air Force access to Egpytian air bases, the Russians intend to reassert themselves as a power in the Middle East.

Back to the Russian fiction about the reasons for the their involvement in Syria since September 2015. Although the stated reason for the deployment of Russian air power, naval units, ground troops and special forces was to join the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the underlying reason was to prevent the defeat of the government of Bashar al-Asad.

I believe that Putin does not care who is the leader of Syria, as long as that leader is willing to provide bases for the Russian military and will do Moscow's bidding in the region. For now, that happens to be Bashar al-Asad, so Putin will ensure that al-Asad remains in power.

As ISIS nears the loss of all of its territorial holdings in Syria (as well as in neighboring Iraq), Putin has emerged as one of - if not THE - key power brokers in the country. Not only is he Bashar al-Asad's guarantor, he has hosted several international conferences on the future of Syria.

The participants in these talks have been the Syrian government and representatives of Russia, Iran and Turkey - the United States has almost no role in the discussions that will shape the future of Syria. This is not coincidental, this is Vladimir Putin continuing to outplay the Trump Administration much as he outplayed Barack Obama.

As the last pockets of ISIS resistance in Syria are eliminated, the Syrian government (backed by its now majority Iranian, Hizballah and Iraqi militias force) will begin to reassert its authority over all of the country. This includes the 25 percent of the country under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a largely Kurdish force supported, funded and equipped by the United States. Unlike in neighboring Iraq, the Kurds in Syria have no official standing. Bashar al-Asad has refused to grant any form of autonomy to the Kurds, despite their significant contribution to the defeat of ISIS.

The near-term future in Syria is not hard to predict. The Russians, Iranians and Turks are pulling the strings on which Bashar al-Asad will dance. The Russians will ensure that in the political settlement that will eventually evolve, Bashar will remain in power. The Iranians will emerge as the political power behind the throne, completing the "Shi'a Crescent" extending from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus to Beirut. The Turks will ensure that the Kurds in northern Syria are granted no official recognition or autonomy and will likely maintain forces in Aleppo and Idlib governorates to enforce that goal.

What role will the United States play? I seriously doubt there will be much of one, despite senior U.S. military officials' claims of a continued American presence in Syria. The Syrians (urged and supported by the Russians, Iranians and Turks) will demand the United States withdraw its forces from Syrian territory.

Since there is no longer an ISIS threat, on what grounds can the United States maintain a force presence? Is Washington willing to instigate a confrontation with Turkey and Russia over Syria's Kurds? In any case, how would the United States support military operations there? It is not far-fetched to think that Iraq - with Iranian urging - will ask the United States to leave Iraq as well. See my earlier analysis: American presence in post-ISIS Syria - not likely.

Well played, Mr. Putin, well played.

November 23, 2017

American presence in post-ISIS Syria - not likely

U.S. troops in northern Syria supporting Syrian Democratic Forces

According to media reports, the Trump Administration is exploring options to maintain an American military presence on the ground in northern Syria after the expulsion of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). While I applaud the Administration's commitment to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), this policy is certain to put the United States on a collision course with the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad and his supporters. Those supporters are, not surprisingly, Russia, Iran, and now even Turkey - let's call them the troika.

I believe the United States is being effectively marginalized by the troika. We were late to come to the fight, refusing to assist the Free Syrian Army (FSA) when they asked for Western assistance in 2012. At that time, we military analysts were discussing how much time the al-Asad regime had left, how soon the FSA would be taking the fight to Damascus, and what options were available for the future of a post-Bashar Syria.

At that time, not only was the FSA asking for outside assistance, so too was Bashar al-Asad - the difference is that he actually received it. The initial support came in the form of fighters from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force, and their Lebanese proxy Hizballah. That later expanded to include Shi'a militias from Iran, Iraq and even Afghanistan. It was these outside forces that prevented the removal of Bashar al-Asad.

Two years later - September 2014 - when it appeared that the al-Asad regime was in danger of being defeated at the hands of the FSA and a coalition of Islamist groups, the Russians intervened. The Russians claimed they were in Syria to attack ISIS and other Islamic groups, but in reality the Russians came to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Asad. The pattern of their airstrikes from the initial deployment until now bears that out.

The Russians were able to extract 49-year renewable leases for use of the Syrian naval facility at Tartus, and the Syrian naval aviation facility at Humaymim near the port city of Latakia. The Russians are in Syria to stay.

It is important to note that of the foreign forces in Syria, including the Turks in the Kurdish area northeast of Aleppo and now in Idlib governorate, only the Russians and the Iranian-led Shi'a coalition are there at the request and authorization of the Syrian government. Syrian government media constantly decries the "illegitimate and illegal" American military presence in the country.

The Syrian Kurds, who comprise the bulk of the SDF coalition, were hoping that their contributions in the expulsion of ISIS forces from Syria would gain them consideration from the government in Damascus. The Kurds hope to establish an autonomous region in northern Syria - they call it Rojava - analogous to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) autonomous region in northern Iraq.

The Syrian government has been quite clear in their intention to re-establish full government control over the entire area of Syria, including the Kurdish area, specifically rejecting Kurdish proposals for any form of autonomy.

The Kurds, looking east at their cousins in northern Iraq, cannot take comfort in recent Iraqi government moves to reassert federal control over all non-KRG territory which the Kurds had taken from ISIS in support of Iraqi government's efforts to eject ISIS fighters from Iraq. The Baghdad government is now in the process of taking control of all border crossings and international airports in the KRG.

I predict that Iraq, now that virtually all ISIS fighters have been expelled from the country, will bow to Iranian pressure and ask (well, demand) the United States and the coalition it leads to withdraw its forces from the country. It will be very difficult for American forces to remain in the country in the face of that request.

In Syria, it will be even more difficult to maintain an American military presence after the expulsion of ISIS from the country. Despite our desire to support the SDF and the Kurds, with no American/coalition force presence in Iraq the logistics will be almost impossible. Assuming that there will be no U.S. presence in Iraq, the only alternate line of communication would be via Turkey.

The Turks are not going to assist the United States in any way to support the Kurds - in fact, the Turks, a nominal NATO ally, have been obstructionist and generally unhelpful in American/SDF efforts to remove ISIS from Syria. Count them out as far as any assistance goes.

The troika will continue to meet to discuss the future of Syria - of course, that means the continuation of the Bashar al-Asad regime and the roles and interests of the three countries. They are united in their positions that the United States has no role to play in the future of Syria. I see almost no chance of a continued American military presence in Syria.

I fear for the Kurds.