June 18, 2017

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

Syrian Air Force SU-22M3 at Dumayr Air Base

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red arrows: Syrian and SDF axes of attack on ISIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 8, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Military situation in Syria  - click on image for larger view

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 27, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 26, 2017

Memorial Day - 2017

Note: I wrote this in 2007 while a military analyst at NBC News. The situation has changed a bit, but I think the sentiment still is true today. Let us not forget that there are still American forces in harm's way.

In the last year, several of our elite fighting men have paid the ultimate price in Iraq, Syria, and Somalia in the brutal war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al-Qa'idah.

'On behalf of a grateful nation'
Do not forget our fallen men and women
By Lt. Col. Rick Francona, U.S. Air Force (Retired)
Military analyst - NBC News

Lt. Gen. Ed Soriano, left, presents Jessica Hebert, sister of Spc. Justin Hebert who was killed in Kirkuk, Iraq, with an American flag during his military funeral (AP Photo/The Herald, Meggan Booker). Ed and I served together during and after Desert Storm - this must have been his toughest duty.

Memorial Day weekend – most people associate that with the start of the "summer driving season" or a chance to buy appliances on sale. The constant news coverage of still high gasoline prices tends to overshadow the real meaning of the holiday. It is not about driving or shopping – it is about remembering the men and women or our armed forces who died while in service to the country. It is important that we not forget that – after more than a decade, we are still at war and we still lose some our finest young men and women every week.

Yes, we are still at war. No one knows this more than the families of those who have fallen on battlefields far from home with names most of us cannot pronounce. Unlike most of the wars America has fought in the past, we are fighting with an all volunteer force – there has been no draft since 1973. Every one of the fallen volunteered to serve this country, and deserve a moment of remembrance. Less than one-half of one percent of Americans serve in uniform (in World War II, it was over 12 percent) at any one time.

In the draft era, a much higher percent of the population entered the service, creating a large pool of veterans. Veterans understand the unique demands of military service, the separation from loved ones, the dangers of combat. With far fewer veterans or a veteran in the family, community and government, it is easy to lose sight of the demands military service requires of our men and women in uniform – and to forget too quickly those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

Sometimes one could get the feeling that foreign countries – especially those that have been liberated by American forces in the past – pay more tribute to our fallen troops than we do. I will never forget standing in a church in rural France – not a fancy cathedral, not a tourist spot, nothing architecturally significant, just a small village church. I would not have paid much attention until I spotted a well-maintained corner with a small American flag and a plaque.

I walked over and read the simple but powerful words in French and English, "In gratitude to the United States of America and in remembrance of her 56,681 sons that now and forever sleep in French soil." A elderly parishioner sitting in a pew nearby saw me reading the inscription and asked if I was an American. I said that I was – she slowly rose, nodded at the memorial and said, "You are welcome in France."*

Over the years, well over 1.3 million American troops have died in military service. Each fallen warrior is afforded a military funeral - military funerals symbolize respect for the fallen and their families.

Anyone who has attended a military funeral will never forget it – the American flag draped on the coffin, an honor guard in full dress uniform, the crack of seven rifles firing three volleys as Taps is played on the bugle, the snap of the flag as it is folded into the familiar triangle of blue, the reverence of fellow warriors.

Before his final salute, the officer in charge presents that folded flag to, in most cases, a young widow. He makes that presentation "on behalf of a grateful nation."

At some point on this day, let us make sure that we do not forget our fallen men and women, and that we are in fact a grateful nation.

* France is our oldest ally, a military alliance going back to 1778. For more information, see my article, The Nice attack - standing with our first and oldest ally.

May 13, 2017

Erdoğan - Trump meeting -- here are your talking points, Mr. President

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and U.S. President Donald J. Trump 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is scheduled to visit President Donald Trump at the White House on May 16. The main topic of discussion will be the situation in Syria - primarily the ongoing fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

One of Mr. Erdoğan's reasons for the quick and short trip to Washington is to request President Trump reconsider the American decision to provide more arms to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF is composed of Syrian Arabs and Kurds operating in northern Syria against ISIS - they have been by far the most effective ground force combatting ISIS.

The Kurdish component of the SDF is the People's Protection Units, in Kurdish Yekîneyên Parastina Gel‎ (YPG). The Turks maintain that the YPG is nothing more than the Syrian branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, in Kurdish Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê (PKK).

The PKK has been designated as a terrorist organization by not only Turkey but also the United States, NATO and the European Union. However, the United States does not consider the YPG to be part of the PKK. To the Turks, they are one and the same.

Since August 2016, the Turks have been supporting a major Free Syrian Army (FSA) incursion into northern Syria codenamed Operation Euphrates Shield. Turkish support has included airpower, armor, artillery, reconnaissance, logistics and special forces. Several Turkish troops have been killed by ISIS, including two captured soldiers who were burned alive.

The Turks had hoped that the FSA force would eventually make its way south and east into Syria via al-Bab, Manbij and on to al-Raqqah. Unfortunately, as the FSA force moved into Syria and fought successfully against ISIS, the Turks opted to have the FSA engage in offensive operations against the SDF as well as ISIS, claiming that the SDF's YPG component was part of the PKK.

In an unusual but not unheard of arrangement with the Syrian Army - and their Russian backers (some would say masters) - the SDF allowed the Syrian military to move north into the Manbij area and effectively block the advance of the FSA and their Turkish Army support troops. Russian and U.S. troops monitor the agreement in close proximity to each other.

This map shows the current situation.

Perhaps Turkish intelligence has failed to brief Mr. Erdoğan that the FSA forces he wants to liberate al-Raqqah are effectively blocked by the SDF and Syrians. The FSA force is at least 60 miles away from al-Raqqah, but in reality about 100 road march miles away. They are not in a position to mount an attack on al-Raqqah. In fact, Euphrates Shield forces no longer have a front line with ISIS.

The Turkish decision - I assume Mr. Erdoğan was involved in making the decision - to attack SDF positions while both the FSA and the SDF were fighting ISIS has probably eliminated any chance that there will be cooperation between the two anti-ISIS forces.

To illustrate why this decision was a major blunder, let's look at the Turkish armed forces' proposals for the FSA Operation Euphrates Shield force to mount an assault on al-Raqqah. First, the Turks attack U.S.-backed forces, then demand the United States arrange for them to take the lead in the attack on al-Raqqah.

The Turks have proposed two options. As seen on the map, one option is to have the United States arrange with the SDF - the same force the Turks have been attacking along the entire length of the Syrian border - a safe passage corridor from the Turkish city of Akçakale (opposite the Syrian city of Tal Abyad) south 50 miles to al-Raqqah.

The Turks would have to move the entire FSA force from current positions in the al-Bab area back to Turkey, then east to Akçakale, cross the border into SDF-controlled Syrian territory, and finally move to attack positions near al-Raqqah. These positions have been secured by the SDF at great human cost.

I do not believe the SDF will countenance a Turkish-backed and supported FSA force moving through their territory. The Turks have poisoned those waters by the airstrikes and artillery attacks on SDF units over the last few weeks.

The second option is less challenging politically, but might be logistically impossible. Note the twisted ribbon-like arc to the south of the FSA positions ending near al-Raqqah. The twisted ribbon represents an airborne/heliborne assault.

If - big if - the United States wants to placate an important NATO ally despite its unhelpful actions, it could offer to try and coordinate some FSA participation in the coming attack on al-Raqqah. A small air assault might be the vehicle to do this. However, this would reward the Turks for their petulance.

So, Mr. President - to summarize your talking points:

- Mr. Erdoğan, your FSA supported forces are bottled up near al-Bab, almost 100 miles from al-Raqqah.
- Your air and artillery attacks on SDF forces, which are backed by my forces - including U.S. troops on the ground - have obstructed progress in the fight against ISIS and wasted valuable time.
- The Kurds are now only about three miles from al-Raqqah and pressing the attack.
- Time is of the essence - we believe ISIS is planning attacks on the West, and the people of al-Raqqah deserve relief from ISIS rule.
- Once al-Raqqah falls, there may be a role for the FSA, but I do not see a role for them in the assault.
- Now, let's talk about the future of the Kurds in Syria....

For more detailed coverage of the Turkish experience in northern Syria and Erdoğan's resulting petulance, see my earlier articles: Syria - has Turkey been marginalized and the Americans thrust into the fight? and Turkey and the fight against ISIS - whose side are you on?

May 9, 2017

Russian parade in Syria shows off some of their equipment

"Title: "Military exhibition at Humaymim Air Base" (Video is in Russian)

To celebrate the Allied victory in World War II, the Russian expeditionary force deployed to Humaymim air base, Syria, conducted a military parade (watch above). While the parade itself was pretty mundane, the music performed by a Russian Army band was pretty good, but what interested me was the glimpse at some of the military equipment at the base.

The base parking apron used for the parade looked like a sales brochure for the Sukhoi aircraft company - a display of a SU-24 (FENCER D), SU-25 (FROGFOOT), SU-30 (FLANKER C), SU-34 (FULLBACK), and SU-35 (FLANKER E) combat aircraft.

However, for us military equipment junkies, there was a glimpse of less exciting, but interesting equipment.

Having been the Air Attache at the U.S. Embassy in Syria in the 1990's, I have looked at a lot of this equipment in the past. Surprisingly, much of the Russian electronic equipment at the base is still of that earlier vintage.

Although the Russians have deployed state-of-the-art air defenses and electronic warfare systems to the base, those were not caught by the cameras.

Some things I thought were of interest:

Background: A-50 (MAINSTAY) airborne early warning

Two IL-20 (COOT A) reconnaissance aircraft flanking
an AN-30 (CLANK) cartographic aircraft

TU-154 (CARELESS) – transport "The Ivan Express”

- P-18 (SPOON REST D) early warning radar
- prob ATC radar in radome
- 1L22 Parol IFF dish
- P-18 radar

Same as above, then:

PRV-11 (SIDE NET) and PRV-9 (THIN SKIN) height-finder radars

Note drone and the PRV-9 THIN SKIN

Russian girls enjoying the celebration


My thanks to CWO3 R. A. Stonerock, U.S. Army (Ret), my colleague in the Defense Attache Office in Damascus for his assistance on the radar identifications. I learned a lot about weapons/equipment from him.

May 8, 2017

Russian military police as monitors in Syrian safe zones? Seriously?

Russian Military Police in Syria

At least two senior Russian Federation government officials have announced the deployment of additional Russian Army military police to monitor and provide security for the "de-escalation zones" as part of a three-party agreement reached by Russia, Turkey and Iran. The agreement took effect on May 6. (See my last article, "De-escalation" zones in Syria - call me skeptical)

Neither the Syrian government, the United States, nor any of the opposition groups are party to the agreement. The Syrian government, not surprisingly, has followed the bidding of its Russian and Iranian masters and has proclaimed support for the pact.

The Russian announcements may be a bit premature at best, or a downright power play at worst. The agreement is somewhat ambiguous - call me conspiratorial, but when the Russians write anything, they make sure there are loopholes - okay, I will be kind, ambiguities - that serve their interests.*

According to the text of the agreement, security zones along the lines of the de-escalation zones are to be established in order to prevent incidents and military confrontations between the combatants. This security includes checkpoints and observation posts, and "administration of the security zones" - all conducted by the forces of the three signatories.

Although the agreement allows for third party forces to be introduced, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mu'alim** has rejected any "international" presence. I take that as a reference to the United Nations or powers not acceptable to the regime of Bashar al-Asad. Why have anyone interfere with the Russians?

So let me see if I have this right. Two key provisions:

- Russia, Turkey and Iran signed an agreement on "de-escalation" zones in Syria, without buy-in from the opposition, the Kurds, or the U.S.-led coalition, but dictate who can and cannot fly or conduct ground operations in specific areas of the country.

- The agreement charges the three powers to deploy their forces to lines around the safe zones, and then establish checkpoints, observation posts and "administer" those zones.

So, in effect, we have the military forces of primarily Russia (with possibly some Iranian and Turkish units) surrounding the areas of the country that remain under opposition control. The Russians then control movement into and out of the opposition areas while monitoring the enemies of the very regime that the Russians are in Syria to protect.

What could possibly go wrong?

When this ceasefire, like those in the past, fails - the Russians will be in perfect position to usher in Syrian and Iranian troops, and begin airstrikes with tactical air control parties already in place. No doubt, the Syrian forces, with their Iranian and Hizballah supporters, are redeploying and resupplying for that day.

That's what could go wrong.

* For an example of Russian skill at wordsmithing, see my article on Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and former Secretary of State John Kerry, Iran's ballistic missile program - more fallout from the "Kerry Collapse"

** Personal anecdote:

When I was the Air Attache to the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, I met with Dr. al-Mu'alim on several occasions, including an extended conversation on his Syrian Air Force VIP jet flying to and from the air base at Humaymim, now the primary Russian base in Syria. I found him to be a very capable representative of his government - tough and committed, but a pleasant conversant. He graded my Arabic language as A-.

May 6, 2017

"De-escalation" zones in Syria - call me skeptical

Russian military map of "de-escalation" zones in Syria

Today (Saturday, May 6) starts yet another effort to stop some of the carnage in Syria - the establishment of four what the Russians are calling "de-escalation" zones, a variation of no-fly zones.

While we all hope for a diplomatic solution to the six-year-old civil war in the country, this appears to be another in a series of ceasefire agreements, all of which have failed.

This one, unfortunately, will likely be no different. There are undoubtedly side deals between the three sponsoring parties - Russia, Turkey and Iran - and many loopholes for the combatants. The losers, or course, are the Syrian people, the opposition forces, and the Kurds.

I have numbered the four zones designated by the three parties on the Russian military map above. Zone 1 consists of most of Idlib and parts of Hamah governorates. Zone 2 is a smaller area occupied by elements of the opposition called the "al-Rastan pocket" located just north of the city of Homs. Zone 3 is the East Ghutah, the suburbs just east of the capital of Damascus, while zone 4 is the opposition-occupied areas in the south in al-Qunaytirah and Dara' governorates.

The agreement specifically exempts what are called "designated terrorist groups" - groups which have been identified as Islamist or former affiliates of al-Qa'idah. The al-Qa'idah affiliate was formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusrah, then later Jaysh Fatah al-Sham, and now as Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).

Because of numerous instances of tactical cooperation between so-called "moderate" groups that comprise the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the designated Islamist groups, they are all intermingled in a complex patchwork throughout the designated de-escalation zones.

Before the first day was over, combat aircraft of the Russian and Syrian air forces dropped a variety of weapons on the delineated de-escalation zone in Hamah - supposedly a no-fly zone. The areas in and around the highly contested city of al-Lataminah were hit with artillery and numerous air strikes, including at least 10 by barrel bombs. According to reliable maps, the opposition fighters in al-Lataminah are not members of HTS or other specifically designated terrorist organizations.

This is exactly what happened in virtually all previous attempted ceasefires. All of the previous agreements included the same provision - the ceasefire did not apply to designated terrorist groups. The Syrians and Russians failed to honor the distinction between the two categories - any group in opposition to the regime of Bashar al-Asad was deemed to be a terrorist organization and targeted as such.

I suspect this lack of distinction between groups opposing the regime will continue. How trustworthy is a regime that uses chemical weapons on its own population?

The United States is not a signatory to the de-escalation agreement, but, according to the State Department, "the United States supports any effort that can genuinely de-escalate the violence in Syria, ensure unhindered humanitarian access, focus energies on the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other terrorists, and create the conditions for a credible political resolution of the conflict." (Read the Department of State statement.)

The U.S. Department of Defense noted that the de-escalation agreement would not affect the U.S.-led air campaign against ISIS. To make that point clear to the Russians, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joe Dunford spoke by telephone with his Russian counterpart. Both officers agreed to continue deconflicting air operations in Syria.

I suspect the Russians are anxious to avoid a confrontation with the United States - Russian President Vladimir Putin believes, rightly in my opinion, that any political solution in Syria will require American support. Putin and President Donald Trump held a lengthy telephone conversation about Syria earlier in the week.

Should the two presidents come to an understanding about resolving the conflict in Syria, each will have to make accommodations with groups the two countries are supporting. The opposition may have to give up its hopes for the removal of the Ba'th Party regime, while the Russians may have to agree to the removal of the party's leader, President Bashar al-Asad.

In any case, there are other problems with the de-escalation agreement. The exact details are not yet known, but I am certain there are side deals between the three signatories, especially between the Russians and Turks.

This de-escalation agreement appears to repair relations between Moscow and Ankara, strained since November 2015 when Turkish Air Force F-16 fighter jets downed a Russian Air Force Su-24 fighter-bomber which the Turks claimed violated Turkish airspace. The pilot was killed by Syrian rebels after parachuting safely to the ground.

The Turks are seeking relevance in northern Syria and hope that the terms of this agreement provide that. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is angry over how Turkey has been marginalized in northern Syria.

No one trusts Erdogan, especially given his recent attacks on the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) while they are engaged in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

For more detailed coverage of the Turkish experience in northern Syria and Erdogan's resulting petulance, see my earlier articles: Syria - has Turkey been marginalized and the Americans thrust into the fight? and Turkey and the fight against ISIS - whose side are you on?

Erdogan hopes to insert Turkish troops into Idlib province, making up for his marginalization in Aleppo province. He will use authority under this agreement to operate in Syria (which technically he now lacks) to continue his attempts to ensure that the Kurdish population on his southern border is not permitted to create an autonomous region similar to the Kurdish Autonomous Region across the border in northern Iraq.

Erdogan further hopes that his participation in this agreement will give him standing to convince the Trump Administration that Turkish troops supporting the FSA should lead the coming assault on the ISIS stronghold of al-Raqqah.

There is a senior delegation made up of Turkish military and intelligence officials headed to Washington for discussions - I suspect their pleas will fall on deaf ears. President Erdogan himself is due to meet with President Trump on May 16 - I expect this issue to be raised.

In addition to Turkey's petulance, it is also a matter of time and distance. The American-backed SDF is on the northern outskirts of the city and is pressing an attack from the west, having recently closed on the city of al-Tabaqah. SDF forces are as close as five miles to al-Raqqah, while the Turkish-supported FSA is at least 50 miles away, bottled up in a pocket bordered by Syrian regime forces and the SDF.

Turkey's attacks on the SDF along the Syrian border have closed any window of opportunity for Erdogan to salvage his role in northern Syria, and rightfully so.

In the meantime, Russian and Syrian aircraft will continue to bomb - albeit at a lower operations tempo - the same targets they have for months.

May 4, 2017

American troops in Iraq after the "defeat" of ISIS? A good idea....

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joe Dunford
meets with members of the coalition (DoD Photo) 

According to officials of both the U.S. and Iraqi governments, Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi has opened talks with the Trump Administration to keep American troops in Iraq after the presumed "defeat" of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

I applaud the prime minister's decision to reach an agreement whereby the gains of the past almost three years are not lost when American troops are no longer present to advise and assist their Iraqi colleagues. I think it is clear that until the Iraqi forces are capable of defending the country on their own, the presence of American troops is needed to ensure Iraq’s security.

I think it is also a realization that after the battle of Mosul is over (as well as the coming battle of al-Raqqah in Syria), ISIS will not be completely defeated - it will remain a threat to Iraq. The group knows full well that at some point in the not too distant future, they will lose their territorial holdings.

ISIS has already begun the transition from a so-called "state" to an insurgency. Surprisingly, their message resonates with many Sunni Iraqis who believe themselves to be disenfranchised by an Iranian-influenced, Shi'a-dominated government in Baghdad.

Of course, Prime Minister al-'Abadi may not be in a position to guarantee a continued U.S. presence in Iraq. A new round of elections is scheduled for September of this year - the voting might well be the end of al-'Abadi's government.*

The two major threats to his continued leadership are the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki. In my opinion, either would be a disaster for Iraq, U.S.-Iraqi relations, and American foreign policy in the region.

It was Nuri al-Maliki - in concert with Barack Obama in what I believe was a colossal foreign policy blunder, easily his worst - who presided over the complete withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in 2011.

The result of the Obama/al-Maliki decision was the corruption and atrophy of the Iraqi Army, the resurgence of the almost-defeated al-Qa'idah in Iraq (AQI) terrorist group, the transformation of AQI into ISIS, and the mess that is the current geopolitical situation we now have in the region.

We do not need a repeat of that disaster. A small American military presence is a good idea until ISIS is no longer a threat, or the Iraqis are capable of their own defense.

* For my assessment of the upcoming Iraqi elections, see Iraqi Prime Minister al-'Abadi in Washington - some realities.

April 27, 2017

French government evaluation of Syrian chemical weapons agreement

The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs released an official assessment of the April 4 Syrian chemical weapons attack on Khan Shaykhun, and analysis of the Syrian chemical weapons program. The report can be read or downloaded in English from the Ministry's website

The report consists of four sections:

1. – Technical analysis of the chemical attack on 4 April
2. – Militarily analysis of the tactical situation around 4 April 2017
3. – Analysis of the presence of armed groups in Hama and of their capabilities
4. – Continuation since 2013 of a clandestine Syrian chemical weapons programme

Sections 1 through 3 are consistent with the conclusions of other competent intelligence services, except perhaps the Russians, and no one believes the Syrian regime. It lays out a compelling case that the Syrian Air Force was responsible for the use of sarin gas in the attack.

It is Section 4 that interests me. So that I am not accused of cherry-picking words, I have included the text of the entire section (in British English). I have highlighted what I believe are significant passages.

4. – Continuation since 2013 of a clandestine Syrian chemical weapons programme

a) In a previous declassified national report in 2013, the French services laid out their knowledge of the Syrian chemical weapons programme and chemical attacks perpetrated by the regime. They noted that sarin was principally used in binary form: a mixture of methylphosphonyl difluoride (DF), a key precursor in the manufacture of sarin, and isopropanol produced just before use.

France informed the OPCW that Syria’s explanations on the quantities of DF declared – approximately 20 tonnes – as having been used in tests or lost in accidents were exaggerated. Moreover, France has observed since 2014 Syrian attempts to acquire dozens of tonnes of isopropanol. The Declaration Assessment Team (DAT) from the Technical Secretariat of the OPCW has been unable to obtain any proof of the veracity of Syria’s declarations. The OPCW itself has identified major inconsistencies in Syria’s explanations concerning the presence of sarin derivatives on several sites where no activity relating to the toxin had been declared.

b) On the basis of the conclusions of the DAT and its own intelligence, France assesses that major doubts remain as to the accuracy, exhaustiveness and sincerity of the decommissioning of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. In particular, France assesses that Syria has maintained a capacity to produce or stock sarin, despite its commitment to destroy all stocks and capacities. Lastly, France assesses that Syria has not declared tactical munitions (grenades and rockets) such as those repeatedly used since 2013.

c) The Damascus regime has continued to employ chemical weapons against its population since Syria’s accession to the CWC on 13 October 2013. There have been over 100 allegations of such use, concerning chlorine as well as sarin.

Since 2014, the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) has published several reports confirming the use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria. The UN-OPCW Joint Investigation Mechanism (JIM) has investigated nine allegations of chemical weapons employment. In its reports in August and October 2016, the JIM attributed three cases of employment of chlorine to the Damascus regime and one of mustard gas to Daesh.

The French seem to agree with me. The Syrians lied, had no intention of complying with the agreement, and continued to produce and stockpile chemical weapons.

In June of 2015, two years after the Russian-U.S. brokered agreement that supposedly led to the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons and chemical weapons production facilities, U.S. intelligence agencies warned that Syrian forces might again use chemical weapons against opposition groups. This was almost two years after the Syrians agreed to rid themselves of their stockpile of chemical weapons. I wrote a detailed article - Syrian regime might use chemical weapons - how is that possible? In the article, I reviewed the situation as of that point in time, as well as provide links to a series of my articles on the Syrian chemical weapons program.

Anyone* who has ever worked or lived in Syria got a chuckle out of the thought that the regime of Bashar al-Asad would give up his chemical weapons. Syria maintains its chemical weapons arsenal and delivery systems to provide a deterrent against an attack by the vastly superior (and nuclear-equipped) Israeli armed forces. Its ballistic missiles and squadron of SU-24 (NATO: FENCER) fighter-bombers can deliver chemical weapons to virtually anywhere in Israel.

The thought that the Syrians would give up their chemical weapons arsenal was, and remains, ludicrous. However, the Syrians' primary sponsor - Russia - saw an opportunity to back [then Secretary of State John] Kerry and the United States into a corner. The Russians announced that they had brokered a deal in which the Syrians would give up their chemical weapons in return for an American commitment to call off impending military action against Syria. Obama jumped at the chance.

I have to wonder if U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry actually believed his own rhetoric. I know of no serious Middle East analyst who thought that Syrian President Bashar al-Asad had any intention of complying with the 2013 agreement, for the reasons I have been stating since at least 2000.

I also have to wonder if Russian Minister of Foreign Sergey Lavrov, an accomplished negotiator and excellent advocate for the Russian regime and the president he serves, was complicit in the Syrian deception. It would not surprise me if President Vladimir Putin, Sergey Lavrov and Bashar al-Asad all conspired to craft an agreement that they knew was no more than a sham.**

I am also struck by the seeming naivete of John Kerry, and possibly Barack Obama. Their later performance in negotiating - well, mostly capitulating - the Iran nuclear deal does not fill me with confidence that the Iranian deal has any more chance of achieving its objectives in the nuclear arena than the Syrian deal did about chemical weapons. Call me skeptical.


* From 1992 to 1995, I served as the Air Attaché to the U.S. Embassy in Damascus. It was part of my brief to monitor the capabilities of the Syrian armed forces, including their chemical warfare capabilities.
** My Arabic-speaking friends will appreciate that definition. Al-Sham is the Arabic word for Damascus, Syria or the Levant, depending on context.

April 26, 2017

Turkey and the fight against ISIS - whose side are you on?

Blue=Turkish forces / Yellow=Kurdish (YPG) forces

In an unnecessary and unhelpful turn of events, a series of armed confrontations has broken out in several locations along the Syrian-Turkish border. The combatants, unfortunately, are both U.S. allies.

Turkish forces have mounted a series of artillery attacks and air strikes on a variety of Kurdish targets along virtually the entire Syrian-Turkish border, claiming that they are attacking members of the outlawed and designated terrorist organization Kurdistan Workers' Party, known more commonly by its Kurdish initials PKK.

The problem - most of the targets are not PKK targets, they are actually elements of the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units, more commonly called the YPG. The YPG is an integral part of a U.S.-backed force, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF was created, trained and equipped to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). They are the "boots on the ground" support by coalition air power, artillery, special forces, and logistics.

The Turks are acting like petulant children, unfortunately, petulant children with artillery and F-16 fighter bombers.

For those who do not follow events in Syria and the inherent animosity between the Turks and the Kurds, a brief (and by no means comprehensive) overview of the situation in northern Syria.

It has taken the Turks years to actually commit to the fight against ISIS. It delayed the U.S.-led coalition access to Incirlik air base, located near the city of Adana just north of the Syrian border until late 2015, although the air campaign against ISIS began a year earlier.

In August 2016, the Turks supported a Free Syrian Army (FSA) assault into ISIS-held territory along the Turkish border in an operation called Euphrates Shield. The FSA was supported by Turkish air, armor, artillery and special forces, and was moderately successful, eventually seizing the key ISIS stronghold of al-Bab. The next target was the city of Manbij, in the Syrian Kurdish enclave.

The FSA move towards Manbij revealed the actual reason for the Turkish-supported - some would say Turkish-directed - intervention. Although nominally an attack on ISIS, the Turkish objective was to ensure that the Syrian Kurds were not able to form an autonomous region similar to the Kurdish Autonomous Region in Iraq. The Kurds have already declared such an area, calling it Rojava.

The United States determined that time was of the essence in the effort to mount an attack on al-Raqqah. The choices were to wait until the Turks and FSA were able to fight the 100 miles to al-Raqqah, an effort that would take months, or support an SDF assault on al-Raqqah. SDF units were virtually at the outskirts of the city.

To head off a fight between the Turkish-backed FSA and the U.S.-backed Kurds, the Kurds made contact with the Syrian regime and allowed Syrian (with Russians) to occupy the Manbij area. This move isolated the Turks into a pocket, stopping their eventual march on the ISIS-declared capital city of al-Raqqah. See my earlier articles on these events: Has Turkey been marginalized and the Americans thrust into the fight?, and Russian and American cooperation in Syria - a policy change?

The Turks have always insisted that they be involved in the liberation of a-Raqqah, claiming that their FSA force, comprised of Syrian Arabs, would be more welcome in the city. They further claimed that the people of al-Raqqah would not want to be liberated by the Kurds, claiming that would be trading "one terrorist occupation force for another." Given my reading of what little information leaks out of al-Raqqah, I assess that the people don't care - they just want to be rid of the ISIS yoke.

Just days ago, as it appeared that the SDF was on the verge of reaching the city in force and preparing to mount an assault, the Turks conducted airstrikes in Syria and Iraq. While the attacks in Iraq appeared to strike legitimate PKK targets, the follow-on artillery strikes along the border in multiple cities inside Syria were undoubtedly attacks on SDF units and facilities.

Here is an exchange on Twitter I had this morning with an excellent Turkish analyst - I respect his views, we just happen to disagree on this particular issue.

It appears to me the Turks are throwing a tantrum. If they are not to be involved in the attack on al-Raqqah, they are going to employ military force to interfere with the execution of the U.S.-backed SDF attack. It may work, and it may not.

Now we have the Turks fighting the one viable military force that is in position with the requisite firepower and coalition air support to mount an attack on a key ISIS target in Syria. They believe that a multi-faceted attack on the SDF under the guise of fighting the PKK will tie up valuable SDF resources as the YPG is forced to defend itself.

Who benefits from Turkish petulance? ISIS, and no one else.

Again - if Turkey wants to be a NATO ally, it needs to act like one. Sabotaging another NATO ally's military efforts hardly qualifies.

April 23, 2017

President Trump and the Purple Heart presentation to Sergeant First Class Barrientos

CNN New Day Sunday - April 23, 2017

President Donald Trump presented the Purple Heart to U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Alvaro Barrientos at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on April 22, 2017. Sergeant Barrientos's wife Tammi was present as the President presented the medal reserved for troops wounded or killed in action.

Sergeant Barrientos was wounded in Afghanistan on March 17 - his right leg was amputated below the knee as a result of his wounds.

During the presentation, the President congratulated the soldier. Granted, it was not the best choice of words - the predictable criticism from the anti-Trump crowd began almost immediately.

I was asked for my thoughts on the needless controversy this morning on CNN. (Disclosure - I am a paid military analyst for the network.)

This should not be about President Trump - it should be about Sergeant Barrientos, and his service and sacrifice. His life has changed forever. Lest we forget, troops like the sergeant pay the cost of our freedom.

I agree that it would have been better if Mr. Trump had thanked the sergeant for his service and sacrifice instead of the awkward "congratulations," but I like the fact that the President made the presentation publicly.

In response to a question comparing President Obama's preference of presenting Purple Heart medals in private, I said that I was glad to see the President publicly acknowledging the high cost we as a country pay - the high cost that troops like Sergeant Barrientos pay - to maintain our freedom and security.

I do not want the American people to forget the fine men and women who are fighting our nation's wars, their efforts often unheralded in the cacophony of the daily news cycle focused on partisan bickering.

President Trump's public recognition was appropriate.

April 22, 2017

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

 Khalid bin Salman bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud - خالد بن سلمان بن عبد العزيز آل سعود 

Saudi King Salman bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud has appointed one of his sons, Prince Khalid, to be the kingdom's new ambassador to the United States. While on the surface, it appears to be a simple case of a monarch placing a son in a key leadership position, in the Saudi ruling family hierarchy, it is a clever power play.

Over the past two years, a group inside the ruling House of Sa'ud has reasserted its power and influence. This group is the so-called al-Sudayri Seven, a moniker derived from the name of the tribe of the mother of seven of the sons of the kingdom's founder 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud. King 'Abd al-'Aziz's third wife was Hussah bint Ahmed al-Sudayri. All seven of her sons rose to influential positions in the kingdom, including two who became king (Fahd and Salman).

The succession issue in Saudi Arabia has always been a concern. Kings have been succeeded by their younger brothers, all sons of 'Abd al-'Aziz. There was no provision for the succession beyond the first generation, the sons of 'Abd al-'Aziz.

The issue was finally addressed - but by no means settled, two years ago when King Salman removed his half-brother Prince Muqrin (up until then the crown prince) from the succession line and replaced him with his full nephew Muhammad bin Nayif bin 'Abd al-'Aziz.

For the first time since the foundation of the kingdom, a king will be of the second generation of 'Abd al-'Aziz, a grandson of the founder. For the Saudi-watchers among us, this was huge.

I wrote a detailed piece on this in April of 2015 - see Saudi Arabia - the resurgence of the al-Sudayri clan for the whole story.

What does this have to do with the appointment of the new ambassador? I know it can be confusing, so I have condensed the earlier article here.


King Salman bin 'Abd al-'Aziz
Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayif bin 'Abd al-'Aziz (top right)
Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman bin 'Abd al-'Aziz (bottom right)

Upon the death of his half-brother King 'Abdullah, Crown Prince Salman bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud became the king with no controversy - the Saudi succession has been remarkably smooth for decades. As expected, Salman named his younger brother Muqrin (one of the few surviving sons of the kingdom's founder) as the new crown prince.

However, the new king surprised many "Saudi watchers" by removing King 'Abdullah's son Muta'ib from the recently created position of deputy crown prince and naming his full nephew Muhammad bin Nayif, the Minister of the Interior to fill the position. Muhammad bin Nayif is the son of Salman's full brother Nayif - thus also one of the al-Sudayri Seven brothers.

In April 2015, King Salman removed his half-brother Muqrin as crown prince and elevated Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayif to the position of crown prince, in essence personally selecting (rather than via a family meeting) the new king from the grandsons of 'Abd al-'Aziz. It will also maintain the superior position of the al-Sudayri clan.

The king also named as new deputy crown prince his son Muhammad bin Salman, who also serves as the powerful Minister of Defense and Aviation.

What King Salman has done effectively consolidates the major centers of power of the kingdom in the hands of the al-Sudayris:

- The King of course is the monarch.

- The king's full nephew Muhammad bin Nayif is now the crown prince as well as the powerful Minister of the Interior.

- The king's son Muhammad bin Salman is now deputy crown prince as well as the Minister of Defense and Aviation, controlling the armed forces and anything that flies, military or civilian - that same son is concurrently the secretary general of the royal court.

These three men, all al-Sudayris, in essence run the kingdom. The royal family has always run the kingdom, but now most of the power has been concentrated into one small faction of the royal family - the descendants of 'Abd al-'Aziz and his favorite wife Hassah bint Ahmad al-Sudayri.

Now add to the above list the position of ambassador to the United States. This is a key position in the Saudi government, charged with what is arguably the most important foreign relationship for the kingdom. The Saudi ambassador enjoys excellent access to the President of the United States in Washington and has the ear of the King in Riyadh.

The new ambassador, Prince Khalid bin Salman, is the son of the king, first cousin of the crown prince, and brother of the deputy crown prince. Another key power position in the Saudi government is now filled by an al-Sudayri.

The al-Sudayris continue to maintain and expand their power base in the ruling family and by extension the entire kingdom.

As I said in 2015 - and reiterate now: well played, Your Highness, well played.

April 19, 2017

Syrian Air Force moves its remaining fighter jets to Russian-controlled air base

Russian Air Force SU-25 attack jets - Humaymim Air Base, Syria

According to several news outlets, the Syrian Air Force has moved all its operational fighter jets to the Russian-controlled Humaymim Air Base, located along Syria's Mediterranean coast south of the major port city of Latakia. The moves began 10 days after the United States struck al-Sha'ayrat Air Base with 59 Tomahawk missiles in response to a Syrian air-delivered chemical warfare attack in the city of Khan Shaykhun in which almost 100 people were killed.

The American strike on al-Sha'ayrat Air Base destroyed over 20 Syrian fighter aircraft, including Sukhoi Su-22 (NATO:FITTER) and MiG-23 (NATO:FLOGGER) fighters. At the time of the strike, the general consensus among open-source publications which follow air forces credited the Syrian Air Force with seven operational fighter or fighter-bomber squadrons. That would equate to anywhere between 85 and 100 aircraft. If in fact 20 were destroyed in the April 7 American strike, that would seriously impact Syria's sortie generation rate. This number fits in with Secretary of Defense James Mattis's statements that 20 percent of Syria's [fighter] aircraft were destroyed.

Humaymim Air Base is about 10 miles south of Latakia, east of the main coastal highway adjacent to the town of Humaymim (hence the name) - it is colocated with the Basil al-Asad International Airport. Prior to the Russian deployment of several squadrons of fighter, fighter-bomber and attack aircraft to Humaymim, the base was used almost exclusively by the Syrian Navy's 618th Maritime Warfare Squadron. The squadron operated Mi-14 (NATO:HAZE), Ka-25 (NATO:HORMONE) and KA-28 (NATO:HELIX) anti-submarine helicopters.

As the Air Attache to the U.S. Embassy in Damascus in the 1990's, I had the opportunity to visit this base on several occasions. It was usually not a busy base - the Syrian Navy is by far the least resourced and used arm of the armed forces. That said, the maritime helicopters have been used during the civil war to drop naval mines on opposition targets. The fact that the Syrian military has resorted to using these helicopters to drop naval mines on ground targets is indicative of a shortage of aircraft or munitions, or both.

Since September 2015, the Russians have made extensive modifications to the base to accommodate dozens of Russian tactical aircraft, as well as deploying the state-of-the-art S-300VM (NATO:SA-23 GIANT/GLADIATOR) and S-400 (NATO:SA-21 GROWLER) air defense missile systems, effective against both aircraft and missiles. The base facilities have been expanded to house thousands of Russian military personnel - there are daily personnel rotation and resupply flights to and from Moscow.

The base is now almost completely Russian controlled. Although the Russians are in Syria ostensibly to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the overwhelming percentage of their sorties target anti-regime opposition groups. They are there to support and prop up the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad.

In return, the Russians have negotiated a 49-year lease for the use of Humaymim Air Base and a naval facility about 30 miles south at the Syrian port of Tartus. This is Russia's sole military operating facility abroad since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. They are also attempting to gain base rights in Egypt and Libya.

If true, it goes without saying that the move of Syrian Air Force assets to the Russian-controlled air base was at the very least coordinated with, and possibly directed by, the Russians. The presence of 60 to 80 additional fighters on the base will strain the base's resources, but it effectively brings them under Russian protection.

Although the United States could target the Syrian fighters on the base, attacking what is essentially a Russian air base would be politically difficult and provoke a confrontation that neither the United States nor Russia wants.

Again, as with some of your other moves in Syria, well played, Mr. Putin, well-played.

April 17, 2017

Idlib Governorate - the next Syrian offensive

Russian Air Force Sukhoi SU-25 attack aircraft

As the Syrian Army consolidates its gains following its success in retaking the city of Aleppo, it is slowly turning its attention to Idlib Governorate, the next major stronghold of the various opposition groups. Idlib has become the new center of the Syrian revolution.

The Syrian Army is stretched thin - it is about half the size it was prior to the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in March 2011. It has been wracked with defections, desertions, and battlefield losses. Without the support of its foreign allies, it is doubtful that it could be considered a viable combat force.

The Syrians' principal supporters are Russia (air, air defense, missiles, field and rocket artillery, special forces), Iran (special forces, troops, logistics, air bridge resupply), Hizballah (troops), Iraq (Shi'a militias) and Afghanistan (Shi'a militias). Over half the combat power of the forces supporting the regime of President Bashar al-Asad are foreign.

Immediately after their success in Aleppo, most military analysts believed that the Syrians would turn their attention to Idlib Governorate - it made sense. One of the main reasons is to secure a reliable and direct main supply route between regime-controlled territory around Hamah and the newly "liberated" areas around Aleppo.

Red=regime / yellow=rebels / purple=SDF / gray=ISIS / striped=mixed control
Click on image for larger view

The main highway through Syria, from the Jordanian border in the south to the Turkish border in the north is officially called the M5 or the International Highway - most people just call it the Aleppo highway. On the map, it is clear that the opposition controls a small section of the highway between Homs and Hamah, and almost all of the highway from just north of Hamah to the outskirts of Aleppo.

Because of the opposition control of major sections of the highway, the Syrian forces must use a secondary road from Homs to the northeast through al-Salamiyah, then north to Syrian forces in Aleppo - note the thin red line on the map.

It is not a great road (I say this from personal experience) and has been cut occasionally by the opposition. Becuase of the importance of this line of communication, the Syrians make every effort to regain control quickly. Militarily, it is not an ideal situation.

Immediately after the retaking of Aleppo, Syrian forces began to move east from Aleppo towards the city of al-Bab, most likely in preparation for an eventual assault on the self-proclaimed capital of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The Russian Air Force, operating from Humaymim air base just south of Latakia, however, diverted the bulk of its attack sorties to rebel-held cities in Idlib Governorate.

North of Aleppo, the opposition consists of Free Syrian Army (FSA) units backed by the Turkish army and air force. In a rare instance of cooperation between the regime and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the joint Syrian Kurdish and Arab force backed by the United States, the opposition forces have been contained in an enclave along the Turkish border, effectively marginalizing the Turks. See my earlier piece, SYRIA: Has Turkey been marginalized and the Americans thrust into the fight?

The Syrians also mounted an assault on the ISIS-held city of Palmyra, ostensibly an attempt to open the road to Dayr al-Zawr on the Euphrates river. The city, with a Syrian air base and large army garrison, is surrounded by ISIS. Control of Palmyra has gone back and forth between the regime and ISIS - currently, it is in the hands of the regime.

The regime appears to be maintaining its positions in the Palmyra/east Homs Governorate area, but is only slowly advancing, if at all, towards Dayr al-Zawr. The Syrian military in the besieged city is being kept alive by supplies airdropped by Syrian, Russian and Iranian military cargo planes. The civilian population in the surrounded enclave are resupplied by United Nations airdrops.

It appears now the Syrian military is finally focusing its main effort in Idlib Governorate. This makes sense - the Syrian regime can seek to reduce the opposition-held areas on the Homs-Aleppo axis while maintaining its positions to the east. Although ISIS controls a large area of Syria - about one-third of the country - the organization is steadily losing ground to the SDF. The SDF has isolated the city of al-Tabaqah, home to Syria's largest dam and an airbase - part of the larger strategy to encircle and then attack al-Raqqah.

In the fight in Idlib Governorate, we have seen a significant increase in both the quantity and lethality of air strikes, especially by the Russian Air Force. Fully 75 percent of all sorties flown in Syria on behalf of the regime are being flown by the Russians. Syrian Air Force sorties have decreased following the American missile strike on al-Sha'yrat air base, in which over 20 aircraft (SU-22 and MiG-23 fighter-bombers) were destroyed. Those losses represent about 20 percent of the Syrian Air Force's operational fighter inventory.

Since the April 4 Syrian chemical attack on Khan Shaykhun and the retaliatory American missile strike on April 7, the Russians have increased the use of both incendiary cluster munitions and thermobaric weapons. Both of these weapons are extremely destructive and lethal, causing large numbers of civilian casualties and major damage to the infrastructure.

Russian Air Force dropping thermobaric bombs in Syria

It also appears that the Russians and Syrians both are continuing their systematic attacks on hospitals and other medical facilities, now in Idlib Governorate just as they did in the battle for Aleppo last year. The Russians have been deliberately attacking medical facilities since at least early 2016, and likely since their forces arrived in Syria in September 2015. See my earlier piece on these war crimes, Russian Air Force targeting hospitals - war crimes, Mr. Kerry?

Idlib Governorate is becoming the primary location for the various groups that comprise the Syrian opposition. This includes, among others, the FSA and other non-Islamist groups. There is also a major presence of several Islamist groups, notably the former al-Qa'idah affiliate known as the Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). HTS was formed by a merger of several Islamist groups and has emerged as the key opposition group after the FSA. Two other Islamist groups, Jaysh al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham, are also involved in the fighting in Idlib.

Accurate numbers are hard to determine, but the two sides are probably close when it comes to personnel. However, the Syrian Army is supported by large amounts of Russian airpower, as well as Iranian and Hizballah forces on the ground. Since the fall of Aleppo, the regime has held the upper hand on the battlefield, slowly reducing pockets of opposition resistance. The army will continue to mount attacks on rebels in the Idlib pocket until they have them surrounded and cut off.

At that point, there may be an opportunity for a negotiated solution. We have seen a willingness on the part of both sides to reach agreements whereby the government forces assume control of an area in return for free passage of opposition fighters. The opposition fighters, with a few exceptions, are transported to locations in Idlib Governorate. That only works until there is no place left to go.

I have said in the past that given the Russian commitment to the regime of Bashar al-Asad, it is highly unlikely that the opposition will be able to win a victory on the ground. The fighting in Idlib will likely follow the template of the fighting in Aleppo. The Syrian military, backed by its allies, will isolate and besiege pockets of opposition fighters, attack them with overwhelming air and ground delivered firepower until they are forced to surrender.

The battle for Idlib? It is only a matter of time. If Bashar al-Asad can restrain himself from further use of chemical weapons and maintains the support of the Russians and Iranians, he will eventually reassert control over the entire Idlib Governorate.

After that, the remaining pockets of resistance - the eastern suburbs of Damascus, some isolated pockets in southern Syria and a small presence in the north, will fall as well. As for Bashar al-Asad and the Russians - as we used to say in Pittsburgh - "he owes them big."