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.

- 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.
* 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."


* 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.

August 19, 2017

The fight against the Islamic State grinds on….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dayr al-Zawr

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

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

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

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

The coming "battle of the Euphrates"

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

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

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

August 16, 2017

Iranian Air Force operations in Syria's Idlib governorate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 15, 2017

North Korean M1978 Koksan Gun - the Iranian angle

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

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

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

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

Koksan gun in Iranian service on the al-Faw peninsula

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

Artillery fires from al-Faw to Kuwait

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 7, 2017

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

Southwest Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One can hope.

July 3, 2017

After the recapture of Mosul, what's next?

"The al-Hawayjah Pocket"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This will be interesting.

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

June 27, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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