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:

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‘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:

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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.