August 20, 2016

The impending showdown in Syria's skies

I appeared earlier today on CNN Newsroom - Martin Savidge in the anchor chair. Martin and I have been on the air together before - he is an excellent interviewer, and today was no exception.

The image of Omran Daqneesh, a five-year old Syrian child from the virtually-destroyed city of Aleppo, has gone viral across all media. Martin asked me if I thought this haunting image could impact us enough to actually bring about change, even a stop to the violence in Syria, or will we continue on as before?

Unfortunately, I hope for the former, but I believe the later to be true. Although the image has drawn attention to the horrors of the conflict that has defined Syria since 2011, the fighting has not subsided in the least. In fact, over the past few days, the situation has deteriorated even further.

The Russians continue their wide-scale air attacks, including what appear to be deliberate strikes on hospitals and other medical facilities, as well as obvious civilian targets such as markets, bakeries and even schools and mosques. See my earlier article, Russian Air Force targeting hospitals - war crimes, Mr. Kerry?

In the last few days, Russian navy ships in the Mediterranean Sea have begun attacks on anti-regime rebel targets using sea-launched cruise missiles - adding to earlier use of similar cruise missiles fired from the Caspian Sea.

Additionally, Russian Tu-22M3M (NATO: Backfire C) strategic bombers have staged from the Iranian air base in Hamedan to mount attacks on mostly anti-regime targets in the northern provinces of Aleppo and Idlib, as well as targets of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the eastern province of Dayr al-Zawr. For more on the Russian use of this air base, see my article, Russian use of Iranian air base - makes military sense.

Fighting has now spread to the Kurdish-majority area of northeastern Syria. Two regime-held enclaves, one in the city of Qamishly and another in the city of Hasakah, have come under attack from elements of the People's Protection Units, usually referred to by their Kurdish abbreviation YPG.

The YPG is the armed force of the self-proclaimed Federation of Northern Syria, or in Kurdish, Rojava. The group is primarily Kurdish, but also recruits Arabs, Assyrian/Syriac Christians, and even Turks and a few Westerners.

Hasakah and Qamishly enclaves in northeast Syria are marked by red dots

These enclaves are small holdouts far from Syrian regime lines and have been mostly resupplied by air and armed convoys. The attacks by the YPG coincide with the recent deployment of U.S. special operations forces working with a group called the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of YPG and Arabs who are both anti-ISIS and anti-regime.

It is here in the northeastern part of Syria that we may see what many of us have been warning about since the beginning of U.S. air operations against ISIS targets in Syria in 2014, and exacerbated by the Russian air intervention in 2015.

At some point, fighter aircraft of the United States, its coalition allies (including the United Kingdom, France, Italy, etc.), Russia and Syria will be operating in the same airspace - it is inevitable that there will be a confrontation.

That time may be nigh. With the expansion of the fighting into northeastern Syria, the Syrian Air Force has twice sent their Su-24M2 (NATO: Fencer D) fighter-bombers to attack YPG targets they believe are threatening the pro-regime areas of Hasakah.

While the U.S.-led coalition has up until not now committed force to oppose Syrian air attacks, the situation in the Hasakah area is different - there are American troops on the ground nearby.

The U.S. Department of Defense has warned the Syrians against air strikes in this area, via a variety of communications channels, including advising the Russians to notify the Syrians that any potential threat to American forces will be met with force. The Syrians should make no miscalculations about the capability of the U.S. Air Force to neutralize any threat posed by the Syrian Air Force. The only question is the political will to actually commit that force. American fighters, including the state-of-the-art fifth generation stealth F-22 Raptor, have begun protective patrols in the area should a response be required.

That said, the Syrians show no signs of backing down. It is very possible that in the next few days, we could see an air battle between Syrian Air Force and U.S. Air Force pilots in the skies of northeastern Syria. If and when that happens, a whole new series of issues will come to the forefront, challenges for which I hope the U.S. Central Command is prepared. Of course, the main question - will the Russian Air Force come to the aid of their Syrian allies?

What we do not need is an aerial battle between American and Russian pilots in the skies of Syria. This is exactly why the United States and Russia have established an air operations coordination center in Jordan.

Let's hope it works.

August 16, 2016

Russian use of Iranian air base - makes military sense

On August 15, the Russian Air Force deployed five of its Tu-22M3 (NATO: Backfire C) strategic bombers--including aircraft RF-34038 shown in the image--from home bases in Russia to Hamedan Air Base, Iran.

The Russians claim that the bombers are deployed to Iran to conduct airstrikes against targets of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) located in Syria. Although this matches the Russian narrative since they began military operations in Syria last September, the overwhelming majority of their targets have been anti-regime rebels, including groups supported by the United States.

The day after they arrived in Iran, the bombers, accompanied by Su-34 (NATO: Fullback) tactical fighter-bombers, struck targets in Aleppo, Idlib and Dayr al-Zawr provinces. While the targets in Dayr al-Zawr are almost certainly ISIS, the targets in Aleppo may or may not be--there are elements of Islamist groups there which are also valid targets--the targets hit in Idlib province are highly unlikely to be ISIS or other terrorist groups.

Idlib has come under intense Russian bombing over the past two weeks in retaliation for the rebel downing of a Russian helicopter near the city of Saraqib, about 25 miles southwest of Aleppo. After the helicopter was downed, the corpses of the five-man crew were abused and dragged behind trucks. Saraqib has been hit hard almost daily, as has the provincial capital of Idlib city.

The timing of the deployment and the willingness of the Iranians to grant the Russians use of their base and airspace indicates just how critical the military situation is in Syria in general, and in Aleppo in particular. Iran has not granted foreign use of its air bases since the creation of the Islamic Republic in 1979.

It was only a short time ago that the Syrian Army, backed by its Iranian, Hizballah, Iraqi Shi'a militia and even Afghan Shi'a volunteers, was able to surround and besiege Aleppo. The key to that successful operation was the massive amount of Russian air power committed to the effort.

That success was short-lived. The rebels mounted a surprisingly effective campaign to break the siege, and were successful. Despite continued waves of Russian airstrikes throughout the city, the rebels were able to punch through the Syrian (and their allies) lines.

Especially troubling was what appeared to be the deliberate targeting of hospitals and medical facilities in Aleppo and other cities across northern Syria by the Russian Air Force. (See my article, Russian Air Force targeting hospitals - war crimes, Mr. Kerry?) That campaign against medical facilities continues.

This bomber deployment to Hamedan is a smart move on the part of the Russians. It allows the Russians to provide better air support to the Syrian forces in Aleppo--a critical interest for the Iranians who are losing men in the fighting there every day. This was probably the "sales pitch" made by the Russians for access to the air base.

In the past, the Russians have launched long-range bombers from air bases in southern Russia to strike targets in Syria. The flight time to target was well in excess of two hours. Operating from Hamedan, that flight time is decreased in some cases to less than one hour, depending on target location.

It is more than just time and distance to a target. Normally, the limiting factor in air operations is the takeoff weight of the aircraft. Planners must decide how much fuel and munitions are to be carried for each mission. In the absence of aerial refueling operations--these bombers are not refuelable--the distance to the target determines how much fuel must be carried.

The further the target from base, the more fuel is required. More fuel necessarily means less munitions. It is always a trade off--you may be able to fly a long way to strike a target, but will you have enough firepower to make a difference once you get there?

Now that the Russians are operating in much closer proximity to their target area, they are able to carry less fuel to strike their targets, allowing greater weapons loads. It makes sense.

Compare this to the U.S. Air Force operating fighters and drones from Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, rather than flying much longer distances from bases in Persian Gulf Arab countries. While operating from foreign air bases is quite normal for American forces, Russian forces have not done it since the collapse of the Soviet Union - now they have air base access in two Middle East countries.

I think it interesting to note that in addition to clearance to operate from an Iranian air base and use Iranian airspace, Russia also received clearance to traverse Iraqi airspace to conduct air strikes in Syria. Russian transport aircraft traverse Iranian and Iraqi airspace daily, and on several occasions, the Russians have fired cruise missiles that crossed the airspace of both countries.

Iraq's agreement is not a surprise. When it comes to fighting ISIS--and supporting the survival of the Bashar al-Asad regime in Damascus--the Iraqis are allied with the Syrian, the Russians, Iranians and Hizballah.

To the people in the region, it is the Americans that seem to be out of step. We work with the Iraqis and tolerate the Iranians while fighting ISIS in Iraq, but are on opposing sides in Syria. War does indeed make strange bedfellows.

The Russians have played their hand well. Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin saw a chance to move into a position of power and influence in Syria in 2015--and he took it. He saw another opportunity in Iran just this week, and again, he seized it. Gaining access to an Iranian air base? It is the smart thing to do.

Rather than falling into a quagmire in Syria as President Obama warned his Russian counterpart in 2015, Putin seems to be calling the shots in Syria.

Well played, Mr. Putin, well played.

August 13, 2016

Intelligence reporting tailored to fit the Obama narrative?

Was intelligence reporting by the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), the combatant command responsible for American military operations in the Middle East, skewed to fit more optimistic assessments of the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)? According to a report titled Initial Findings of the House Joint Task Force on CENTCOM Intelligence Analysis (read it here), it appears that it was.

First, a few words - some by way of disclaimer and some by way of explanation. The men and women serving in the CENTCOM Intelligence Directorate, or the J2, are serious professionals performing a demanding and necessary function.

I know - for nine months I was detailed from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) to CENTCOM J2 in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. When I was not performing duties as General Norman Schwarzkopf's Arabic interpreter, I worked in several positions within the intelligence directorate, mostly in a liaison role with our Arab allies.

The Director of Intelligence at that time was U.S. Army Major General Jack Leide--airborne Ranger, combat infantryman, former defense attache in Beijing during the Tiananmen Square crisis - a no-nonsense soldier who you knew had your back. I saw him make some tough, unpopular calls--tailoring intelligence while American forces were engaging the enemy would not have happened on his watch.

This Congressional task force report is damning. It should be - deliberately altering intelligence is unconscionable.

That said, this should not be a reflection on the analysts at CENTCOM. In fact, it exonerates those who were brave enough to come forward and blow the whistle on the skewing of intelligence, or as we call it, "cooking the intel" to support a particular position or narrative.

As many of you know, I am an on-air military analyst for CNN. I offer analysis and commentary to CNN's worldwide cable television audiences as well as provide input for other CNN reporting - it is a position I enjoy and hope that it provides useful insight to our viewers. However, no one is moving troops based on what I say on television.

Conversely, the reporting by the CENTCOM J2 analysts is used by military commanders to do just that. Civilian leadership may use their analyses in making the decision to send young American men and women into harm's way. Having been in harm's way, I want the difficult decision putting our troops' lives at risk to be based on the best information possible - that requires accurate, unvarnished intelligence.

When this issue surfaced a year ago, I wrote an article, Is your government lying to you about the war against ISIS? I also appeared on several CNN broadcasts with my fellow military analysts, all voicing the same concerns. All of our comments were--and remain--in line with the analysis in that article.

As I read the Task Force Report, I was bothered by several things. Not once in the report is the name of the CENTCOM director of intelligence at the time of these alleged breaches of trust mentioned. When we are talking about skewed intelligence from an American combatant command and hoping to hold someone accountable, I would expect to see the name of that officer.

The director of intelligence was U.S. Army Major General Steve Grove. In candid interviews, CENTCOM J2 analysts have used pretty harsh language about General Grove as well as the CENTCOM commander, U.S. Army General Lloyd Austin. They described the command climate as "Stalinist" and General Austin as an "uninspired political animal" seeking to curry favor with the Obama Administration.

While General Austin set the tone for the command and is ultimately responsible for the alternate reality put forth by the command, most of the analysts singled out General Grove as the officer who directly altered their assessments of American efforts in Iraq, specifically the status of the war against ISIS.

There are some recurrent themes in the report that I think are important. If you are not familiar with the workings of military intelligence, I don't recommend reading through the entire report. Here are the key issues, as I see them, in plain language:

- CENTCOM intelligence analysts followed established best practices in the production of intelligence products. However, the senior leadership in the J2--that would be General Grove--edited the reporting to align more closely with claims from the operations personnel in theater.

This is a common problem, and a dangerous one. Military personnel serving on the ground as trainers and advisers with Iraqi Security Forces made their reports, highlighting whatever successes were achieved by their efforts. However--and I have personal experience with this as a military adviser--these personnel are too close to the issue and often at too low a level to adequately assess the success--or failure--of particular programs and operations.

- CENTCOM assessments of the success of U.S.-led coalition air operations were often more optimistic than information available via intelligence channels. At some point, intelligence reports were "softened" to fit the narrative that coalition airstrikes were having greater effect than being reported from reliable sources of intelligence information.

This was especially egregious as coalition pilots were operating under strict rules of engagement and in many cases were not cleared to use their weapons, often returning to base without engaging available targets. The two stories did not add up.

- CENTCOM's intelligence assessments, developed at CENTCOM headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida were often at odds with other elements of the U.S. intelligence community. Given the intelligence dissemination capabilities of the American intelligence system, for the most part all of the analysts throughout the intelligence community have access to the same information. Yet, CENTCOM's assessments were much more optimistic than other agencies.

It is almost as though the command used whatever information was available to support the Administration narrative that ISIS posed much less of a threat than it did, and that CENTCOM actions were taking more of a toll on ISIS than they were. This is the very definition of "cooking the intel," telling decision makers what they wanted to hear.

A particularly troubling passage at the end the report:

(U) The Joint Task Force is troubled that despite receiving the whistleblower complaint in May 2015 and receiving alarming survey results in December 2015, neither CENTCOM, DIA, the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, nor [Office of the Director of National Intelligence] have taken any demonstrable steps to improve the analytic climate within CENTCOM.

The survey results alone should have prompted CENTCOM and [Intelligence Community] (IC) leaders to take corrective action without other inducements. During interviews, however, multiple Intelligence Directorate senior leaders challenged the legitimacy of the survey results rather than taking responsibility for them.

This is, unfortunately, characteristic of the IC’s response to the situation at CENTCOM: leadership within CENTCOM, ODNI, and DIA attempted to diminish the significance of the allegations and the survey comments, despite significant evidence indicating widespread problems with morale.

DNI [James] Clapper downplayed reports of potential issues at CENTCOM, referring to them as “media hyperbole” and attributing the complaints to disgruntled analysts. These statements, and others, by senior IC leadership to downplay the significance of the incidents at CENTCOM were an inappropriate response from individuals charged with leading the IC in preserving analytic integrity.

The new CENTCOM commander, U.S. Army General Joe Votel and his new director of intelligence, U.S. Army Major General Mark Quantock, have their work cut out for them. They need to restore confidence in the command and start providing realistic intelligence and operational assessments. They must tell the President what he needs to hear, not what they think he wants to hear.

The big question, though, remains unanswered. Who, if anyone, pressured General Grove to alter the intelligence to fit the Obama Administration narrative. Was it General Austin, someone at the Department of Defense, or someone at the White House?

That person must be held accountable for this debacle.

August 11, 2016

Trump accuses Obama and Hillary of "founding" ISIS

I have been asked to appear on CNN Tonight with Don Lemon to discuss Donald Trump's remarks accusing President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of founding the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Trump: "He’s the founder of ISIS. He founded ISIS. I would say the co-founder would be Crooked Hillary Clinton."

I wish Mr. Trump would be a bit more reticent in his description of these things--after all, words are important.

CNN asked if I thought Obama was "responsible" for ISIS, to which I honestly answered, "I could make the case that he is."

Here's how I came to that conclusion:

Soon after Trump's remarks, Mrs. Clinton's supporters retorted that the responsibility for the creation of ISIS rests with President George W. Bush, based on the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Whether you support the decision to invade Iraq--as Mrs. Clinton did--or not, by the time President Bush left office in January 2009, the surge and accompanying "Sunni Awakening" (both engineered by General David Petraeus) had effectively defeated both the Shi'a militia (primarily the jaysh al-mahdi, JAM) as well as al-Qa'idah in Iraq (AQI).

The U.S. military mission in Iraq was in the process of changing to training Iraqi security forces and keeping a watchful eye on the Shi'a-dominated government of Nuri al-Maliki. That was the situation that President Obama inherited as he took office.

The failure of the Obama Administration to secure a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Iraq to replace the one signed in 2008 is an important factor in what happened afterwards. In my opinion, the President wanted out of Iraq so badly that he did not even try to hammer out a new SOFA with the Iraqis, who were willing to negotiate. Against the advice of his military commanders, President Obama ordered the complete withdrawal of American forces in late 2011.

Almost immediately after the departure of U.S. troops, we saw the reconstitution of AQI concurrent with the hollowing out of the Iraqi military as al-Maliki replaced his competent--mostly Sunni--commanders with his unqualified cronies, all Shi'a. Corruption skyrocketed and the Iraqi Army became the impotent force that collapsed in the defense of Mosul in June 2014.

AQI began operations in the western part of Iraq, retaking al-Fallujah and Ramadi fairly quickly. The resurgence of AQI came as no surprise. When you announce a date certain that you are withdrawing your forces from the country, adversaries merely wait until you are gone and resume their operations.

Meanwhile, across the border in Syria, the "Arab Spring" demonstrations had deteriorated into a bloody civil war. In 2012, the Free Syrian Army asked for help. To her credit, Secretary Clinton (as did the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) favored providing weapons and other assistance to the rebels. They were overridden by the President.

With no help going to the rebels from the West, AQI sent forces to Syria to take advantage of the deteriorating situation, on one hand to assist the FSA, but mostly to carve out territory for an Islamic state. They formed the al-Qa'idah element in the Levant, calling themselves the Victory Front (jabhat al-nusrah, JN). Soon afterwards, AQI and JN merged to form ISIS, changing later to just the Islamic State.

According to Mr. Trump (and in this specific claim, I agree) it was President Obama's premature withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, and his refusal to assist the Syrian opposition in 2012--both against the advice of his senior advisers--that created the power vacuums (plural) that directly led to the formation of ISIS.

However, for Mr. Trump to say that Obama and Clinton are the "founders" of ISIS is not just misleading, it is untrue. However, I do think the President and former Secretary of State bear responsibility for the rise of ISIS--he more than she.

Putin and Erdogan rapprochement - what happens to Syria?

Turkish President Erdogan and Russian President Putin

To say that many changes have happened in Turkey over the last year would be an understatement.

Without going into great detail, the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian plane for a minor incursion into Turkish airspace, Russia retaliated with sanctions, the Turks have allowed U.S.-led coalition aircraft to operate from southern Turkish airfields, Turkey actively joined the coalition to fight ISIS (although their focus was Kurdish separatist groups), the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has mounted multiple mass casualty attacks in several Turkish cities (including Ankara and Istanbul), and a coup attempt against the government failed. You get the idea.

The failed coup attempt of July 15 has paradoxically increased the power of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In addition to the purge of the armed forces, intelligence and security services, the judiciary, and academia, Erdogan has reassessed his relationships with NATO, the United States and, somewhat surprisingly, with Russia.

Although Russia and Turkey had enjoyed good relations and mutually beneficial economic ties, the downing of Russian Air Force fighter-bomber last November 24 completely soured ties between the two countries. When Erdogan refused to apologize for the incident, Russia levied sanctions against Turkey's tourist industry, agricultural exports and other businesses.

The resulting animosity between the two countries severely impacted Erdogan's vision of being a key power broker in largely Muslim Central Asia, a role that requires Russian cooperation, or at the least, acquiescence. Both countries have mutual and complementary interests in the region - Turkey wants to wield influence, and the Russians want to kip a lid on Islamic fundamentalism.

The two presidents met this week in St. Petersburg to mend fences, of course beginning with Erdogan's apology for the shootdown of the Russian aircraft and regrets over the loss of the pilot. One if the outcomes of the was a commitment from both leaders to cooperate in fight against ISIS. Where have we heard this before? The U.S.-led coalition and the Russians are nominally cooperating in their air operations in Syria, mostly limited to deconfliction of operations areas to ensure flight safety.

Another significant, and a bit surprising, outcome of the meetings was a concession by Erdogan that the current Syrian regime will have a place at the table when the political settlement for the country is discussed. Erdogan has been adamant in the past that the Ba'ath regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad must be removed as a basic requirement for any cooperation on Syria.

The Russians are the principal supporters of the al-Asad regime. It was the imminent failure of Syrian forces in the northern part of the country that catalyzed Putin's decision to deploy Russian combat aircraft and supporting forces to Syria last September.

It was not only the loss of the major population center of Aleppo, but rebel forces were pushing the Syrian army out of the province of Idlib and forcing them to retreat south toward the city of Hamah. The situation was so dire that President al-Asad announced that the armed forces were going to "redeploy" to defend strategically important areas of the country.

Russian military intervention was critical - the al-Asad regime, on the verge of collapse in 2012, had been saved by the intervention of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force and their surrogate fighters from the Lebanese Shi'a group Hizballah. More firepower and competent military leadership was needed to save Bashar al-Asad this time. Enter the Russians, bringing both.

So, the unanswered, and possible unanswerable question, is just what role will Syria play in future relations between Russia and Turkey, or more accurately, future relations between Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Erdogan. The positions of the two leaders and their countries remain diametrically opposed.

The Bashar al-Asad regime stays in power, and will stay in power, only through the continued support of the deployed Russian contingent, Iranian IRGC fighters, regular Iranian Army troops, Lebanese Hizballah, Iraqi Shi'a militias, and Aghan Shi'a volunteers. Without these external supporters, the regime will collapse.

That said, the Russians are in this for the long haul. They have signed an agreement that allows them access to Humaymim air base just south of Latakia for an indefinite period of time free of charge. They have made major improvements to the base, and have announced plans to enlarge the support areas to handle more of their heavy transport aircraft in support their expanding operations in the country.

Just 35 miles south on the coastal highway is the port of Tartus, which includes a Russian Navy support facility, the only such facility outside the territory of the Russian Federation.

Syria has become Putin's base of operations in the Middle East. He hopes to return Russia to what he believes is its rightful position - a major player in the region. Given his alliance with Iran and Syria, his good (and profitable) relationship with Iraq, and now his rapprochement with Turkey, he may be on the way to achieving that goal.

Up until now, Erdogan has been adamant that the future of Syria cannot include Bashar al-Asad. Will the recent meetings cause a change in his position? Do improved ties with Russia threaten Turkey's continued role in NATO? Will Turkey withdraw its permission for the U.S.-led coalition to use its air bases to conduct operations over Syria?

I suspect relations between Turkey and Russia will return to something similar to what they were prior to the shootdown of the Russian fighter-bomber.

Although both presidents have committed to cooperate against ISIS, I suspect they will continue to use this as cover for their own narrow interests.

The Russians will continue to strike anti-regime rebels - including medical facilities - to prop up Bashar al-Asad, and the Turks will continue their operations against Kurdish separatists, especially the PKK.

August 5, 2016

Ransom for hostages - the view from Tehran

By now, most people have seen the back and forth between the Obama Administration's various spokesmen and the media. The journalists, to their credit, are demanding a rational explanation about what appears to most rational observers as payment of ransom to the Iranian regime in return for the release of four (it turned out to be five) Americans being detained on trumped-up charges - in essence, hostages.

The Administration has admitted that it sent $400 million to the Iranian regime in January, but claimed that the payment was strictly connected to a legal settlement in an unrelated case - President Obama insisted it was not “ransom.”

If President Obama, Secretary Kerry, John Earnest and John Kirby have not watched the above video, they should. Why, since they are all familiar with the facts of the case? Because what is portrayed in the video is what the Iranian people believe. They have been told by their government (we'll address credibility issues later) that the United States paid a ransom for the release of the hostages.

The text of the video clip:

The Islamic Republic added an expensive offer to the [JCPOA] equation: the release of seven Iranian prisoners in the United States, $1.7 billion, and the lifting of sanctions against 16 Iranians who were prosecuted by the U.S. legal system with unjust excuse of sanctions violations.

But these were not the Iranians' only demands. Lifting sanctions against Sepah [IRGC] Bank was added to Iran's list.

All of this, in return for the release of only four American citizens. A win-lose deal that benefits the Islamic Republic and hurts the United States.

The Democrats' concern was mostly due to the fact that Obama's rivals might find out.

Normally, most Americans would dismiss this as propaganda from Iran, a country decidedly unfriendly to the United States, a country with the blood of American soldiers on its hands, a country regarded by any honest observer of events in the Middle East to be the world's primary state sponsor of terrorism.

That said, Americans have grown wary of trusting this Administration - it goes from the President down to both of his secretaries of state - currently John Kerry and previously Hillary Clinton - and their spokesmen.

President Obama has been caught in so many lies since he took office that people just do not believe him. Secretary Clinton has been shown to be untruthful repeatedly - her mishandling of classified information and continuing refusal to acknowledge any wrongdoing is the latest example.

Secretary Kerry's history of capitulating on almost every demand in the Iran nuclear deal and in every negotiation he has had with the Russians, and his unwillingness to share the actual terms of his bad agreements, do not inspire confidence among the American people.

Let me put it this way, Messrs. Obama, Kerry, Kirby and Earnest: No one believes you.

The words of the video seem to be corroborated by one of the hostages, Pastor Saeed Abedini. Here are some excerpts from an interview he provided to a cable news outlet:

"I just remember the night that we've been in an airport - you know - just take hours and hours there. And I asked one of the intelligence police heads that was with us - that why we were not letting us to go to the [inaudible] plane and he told me we are waiting for another plane. And if that plane takes off then we are going to let you go.

"They told us you are going to be there for 20 minutes but it took like hours and hours. We slept at the airport and when I asked them why you don't let us go - because the plane was there, pilot was there, everyone was ready that we leave the country - they said we are waiting for another plane. And until that plane doesn't come we never let you go.

"You know we went to the airport I think it was like 2, 3pm and we waited there for a whole night. And we, you know, fly back I think the day after at 10 in the morning."

To rational observers, it appears that the Iranians were waiting for the aircraft carrying $400 million in cash to arrive before the hostages would be allowed to depart. That indicates that the release of the hostages was linked to the payment of the money to the Iranians. The State Department, of course, denies "categorically" any such linkage.

The State Department's words are in typical diplo-speak - this is Mark Toner, one of Josh Earnest's assistants:

"I was actually with the Secretary in Vienna - this was the night of the implementation of the JCPOA. And as I said, it was a moment where three separate lines of effort were culminating at the same time. And all of them were, as I said, separate but distinct lines of effort operating concurrently.

You had the JCPOA implementation day, you had the freeing of the American hostages or detainees, and you also had this Hague settlement taking place. So as to the timing, I can’t answer conclusively that these detainees were on a plane before that money arrived."

Mr. Toner (I assume you are speaking for the Secretary), I appreciate your efforts to paint this as "three separate lines of effort," but that is not how it is viewed by Iran. We know now that the arrival of the money was a condition for the release of the detainees.

The money and the hostage release - actually a lop-sided exchange - were incentives to the Iranians to agree to the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). Of course, many of us think the Kerry-negotiated deal was incredibly generous to the Iranians and no further incentives would be needed.

The Iranians are excellent negotiators - some say they actually developed it into an art form - and were able to wrest concession after concession from the American negotiators. The Americans even capitulated to a Russian proposal to drop the United Nations ban on ballistic missile tests. (See my article, Iran's ballistic missile program - more fallout from the "Kerry Collapse")

For my detractors - yes, I have some - I am not against negotiating with the Iranians to eliminate their nuclear weapons program. I would support a good deal, but what Kerry negotiated is not a good deal for the United States. To the contrary, what Kerry produced serves Iran well.

It does not matter if what Mr. Toner described as "three separate lines of effort" are technically as the State Department claims - what matters is how the Iranians perceive them. While the State Department insists - correctly - that the $400 million was Iranian money at the time it was frozen, including it in the series of negotiations for the JCPOA and the detainee negotiations made it a package deal.

The Iranians know the money, the hostages and the nuclear agreement were a package deal. The American people know it. The Administration knows it, but will never admit it. It's now open season on Americans foolish enough to travel to Iran.

July 31, 2016

Russian Air Force targeting hospitals - war crimes, Mr. Kerry?

Video: The 'Andan city hospital has been withdrawn from service after it was targeted by Russian aircraft yesterday evening. 

I originally titled this piece (I often change titles as I develop my articles) "Russian and Syrian aircraft targeting hospitals - war crimes, Mr. Kerry?" As I thought of the Syrian civil war that has been raging since March 2011, I recall numerous occasions when Syrian armed forces, including the Syrian Air Force, deliberately targeted civilian targets, targets normally proscribed by professional armed forces - hospitals, mosques, bakeries, markets, and schools.

As I was beginning to record some thoughts, I remembered the incident in October 2015 in which a U.S. Air Force AC-130 gunship mistakenly attacked a hospital operated by the international medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Konduz, Afghanistan. Remember the reaction? MSF and a host of other international organizations normally hostile to the United States and its allies immediately labeled it a deliberate attack as well as a war crime, and demanded the "perpetrators" be brought to justice.

The international community demanded an accounting by the Americans. The irresponsible claims by MSF of a deliberate attack were unnecessary - the United States holds its troops accountable for their actions. The Air Force conducted a thorough review, admitted where mistakes were made and reprimanded those responsible.

I am not sensing anything approaching that same level of international outrage at the obvious systematic, deliberate attacks on Syrian medical facilities. Why not? Because most observers, including me, believe it is a waste of time. The Syrian Air Force has so routinely and blatantly violated international law and the laws of warfare that it has become the norm, and with that, accepted. Trying to hold this regime of thugs and liars accountable is useless.

Unfortunately, the Russians have not only continued the attacks on hospitals, they have increased the number - and the lethality. It should come as no surprise that the Russian Air Force is exponentially more capable and effective than the Syrian Air Force. That translates to more civilian casualties, and the loss of access to medical care for hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians.

According to Amnesty International, the recent attack (shown in the video) follows attacks on four hospitals and a blood bank in eastern Aleppo city a week ago. Some facilities have been hit repeatedly to ensure they are no longer capable of providing services to the population.

Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Program Director at Amnesty International: "Deliberate attacks on hospitals and medical facilities are serious violations of the laws of war and can never be justified. Hospitals, which have special protection under international humanitarian law, should be safe places for mothers, new-born infants and medical workers – even in the midst of a brutal prolonged conflict."

Another group, Physicians for Human Rights, tracks attacks on health care facilities and care providers in Syria. Before the attack shown in the video, the group claims that 373 medical facilities have been attacked and 750 medical personnel killed. While some of these can be attributed to fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and other groups opposed to the regime of Bashar al-Asad, the vast majority of them have been attributed to the Syrian government forces and their allies. "Allies" in this case means the Russian Air Force.

As I was about to post this, this came across Twitter, from an excellent source. Three more Syrian medical facilities were targeted by the Russian Air Force today.

These attacks on medical facilities are war crimes, and are codified in the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Additional Protocols. The conventions also allow that medical facilities that are being used for military purposes (not including treating military personnel) lose their protected status. That does not appear to be the case here - too many facilities appear to have been deliberately targeted, first by the Syrians, and now by the Russians.

This puts the Obama Administration and Secretary of State John Kerry in an untenable position, to put it mildly. Both the President and the Secretary are pushing for increased cooperation with the Russians in Syria, to include exchange of intelligence information on ISIS and other designated terrorist groups, followed by coordinated targeting of these groups by the Russian Air Force and aircraft of the U.S.-led coalition. Kerry's proposal also allows for the possibility of "integrated missions" between the Russians and the coalition.

Many senior U.S. Department officials, military officers and State Department personnel were against much of the intelligence and technical capability sharing aspects of the proposed arrangement with the Russians. Their arguments have held little sway with either Secretary of Defense Ash Carter of Secretary Kerry - they want a deal. For more on the Kerry proposal, see my article: Kerry - Lavrov talks in Moscow on Syria - why the secrecy?

Secretary Kerry, are you still in favor of closer cooperation with a country whose air force is blatantly and systematically violating international law? Do you want to make agreements potentially putting American and coalition pilots in a position of conducting "integrated operations" (the correct term is combined operations) with armed forces who bomb hospitals and other civilian targets?

Secretary Kerry, when you sold the Iran nuclear deal to the country, you warned against being on the "wrong side of history." Now you want to deal with probable war criminals. Just what side of history do you want to be on?

July 22, 2016

Iraqis plan to retake Mosul without the Kurds?

"We won’t let Peshmerga take part in Mosul’s liberation"
                                                      --- Iraqi defense minister

A few weeks after the Iraqi recapture of the city of al-Fallujah from fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Iraqis continue the rhetoric that the liberation of Mosul (al-Mawsil) is currently underway, and that the city will be under Iraqi government control by the end of this year.

The claim that the liberation is underway is technically true - the United States is adding up to a thousand more troops in staging areas south of the city to provide not only intelligence, communications, and logistics, but fire support as well. U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps long range artillery and rocket launchers are providing accurate fires to support Iraqi security forces preparing the battlefield for the eventual assault on Mosul.

That said, I remain skeptical that the Iraqi security forces - that includes the Iraqi armed forces, special police units, and the Kurdish peshmerga - will be able to secure the liberation of Mosul by the end of the year. These security forces have usually been augmented by the Popular Mobilization Units (sometimes referred to as the Popular Mobilization Forces), which are in reality Iranian-supported, trained and at times even led Shi'a militias.

Of the forces available to Baghdad, the Kurdish peshmerga are considered the most capable fighters, despite constantly being under-equipped and poorly supported by the government. The peshmerga have demonstrated their ability to fight ISIS, especially in the northern part of Iraq where they have legally established a Kurdish autonomous region, the Kurdistan Region. Mosul borders this autonomous region - the front lines between the ISIS-controlled area and the government-controlled area are manned by the Kurds.

In an interview today while on a visit to Washington, Iraqi Defense Minister Khalid al-'Ubaydi (commonly rendered in the press as al-Obeidi) made the surprising pronouncement that the peshmerga fighters will not only be proscribed from entering the city of Mosul, they will not participate at all in the liberation effort.

Not using what are arguably the best fighters in the Iraqi security forces, who would be operating on or near their home turf, is puzzling. Perhaps when he returns to Baghdad, the Iraqi general staff will enlighten the minister - who is not a professional military officer - on the reality of mounting this large offensive without the peshmerga.

The security situation in the environs of Baghdad also play a role in Iraqi military planning. The successful, albeit slow, recapture of the city if al-Fallujah to the west of Baghdad was portrayed as necessary to increase security in the capital. It was thought that many of the deadly bombings in Baghdad were staged from al-Fallujah. The fallacy of that assumption was exposed when a suicide bombing only a week later killed almost 300 residents in Karradah, an upscale Shi'a neighborhood. An additional 51 people have been killed since then, despite ISIS's removal from all of al-Anbar province.

The Iraqis not only have to continue planning and preparations for the Mosul campaign, they must provide security for the residents of Baghdad. They will be hard pressed to do both if they do not use some of their best fighters in the assault on Mosul.

I suspect that al-'Ubaydi will be forced to reconsider what was an ill-advised comment.

July 16, 2016

Kerry - Lavrov talks in Moscow on Syria - why the secrecy?

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and American Secretary of State John Kerry met in Moscow to try and salvage the all-but-dead Syrian "cessation of hostilities" agreement. The talks revolved around a rather ambitious American proposal that was probably - and not unexpectedly - rejected out of hand by the Russians.

The American proposal, about eight pages long, can be read here (PDF file), and consists of two documents:

- Approach for Practical Russian-American Cooperation against Daesh and Jabhat al Nusra and Strengthening the Cessation of Hostilities
- Terms of Reference for the Joint Implementation Group

In a nutshell, the U.S. proposed that the Syrian Air Force be prohibited from conducting offensive sorties in "designated areas." Designated areas will be established by the Russian and American officers at a joint center in Amman, Jordan. These are basically anywhere ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusrah and the anti-regime opposition are located.

The proposal effectively grounds the Syrian Air Force except for humanitarian and emergency flights. ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusrah - as well as a few other specifically designated "terrorist" groups - will be targeted and attacked by U.S.-led coalition or Russian aircraft, after coordination, targeting, weaponeering, etc. at the joint center. The proposal mentioned the possibility of "integrated missions" between the Russians and the U.S-led coalition.

Thus, the anti-regime rebels will not come under attack, at least from the air, sort of declaring a "no-fly zone lite." This would be a tough sell - the Syrian Air Force has been almost exclusively bombing these non-terrorist targets despite the in-name-only "cessation of hostilities." Not to be outdone, the overwhelming majority of Russian Air Force strikes have targeted these rebel groups as well - some of these groups have been supported by covert American programs.

I should note that many American senior military officers and State Department personnel were against much of the intelligence and technical capability sharing aspects of the proposed arrangement with the Russians. Their arguments held little sway with either Secretary of Defense Ash Carter of Secretary Kerry - they wanted a deal. Some would say they wanted a deal just to say they have a deal.

After the meeting in Moscow, Secretary Kerry announced only that a tentative deal had been reached, but refused to discuss the exact terms. Since Mr. Kerry has an abysmal track record in negotiating with the Russians - the Syrian chemical weapons deal and Russian input to the Iran nuclear deal spring to mind - I will let you read his rather convoluted words.

Note: When Mr. Kerry refers to the "two serious problems," he is referring to two issues addressed at the meeting - Syrian Air Force bombing operations and how to deal with the al-Qa'idah affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusrah (The Victory Front). Note the lack of the mention of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Secretary Kerry: "We agreed to steps that, if implemented in good faith, can address two serious problems that I just described about the cessation of hostilities. It is possible to help restore the cessation of hostilities, significantly reduce violence and help create the space for a genuine political transition.

"However, the concrete steps that we have agreed on are not going to be laid out in public in some long list because we want them to work and because they need more work in order to work. I want to emphasize, though, that they are not based on trust, but on specific steps that needed to be taken by both sides.

"So we’re not here promising the world. Not here tonight to suggest that overnight things are going to change. [The deal] has the opportunity to change the playing field significantly. Let the proof be in the pudding, not our words."

I take all that Kerry-speak to mean the proposal was rejected by the Russians and the resulting "concrete steps" are so far removed from the original terms that it would be embarrassing to compare the two. Just like with the Iran deal, we'll have to wait for the Russians to tell us just how well they outplayed John Kerry - again.

The Russians are skilled negotiators, and President Vladimir Putin has been relentless in pursuing what he believes are his national security interests in Syria. Paramount of those interests is continued Russian access to the joint Russian-Syrian naval facility at the Syrian port of Tartus, and now likely continued access to Syrian air bases. Integral to achieving those national security goals is a friendly, if not pliable, government in Damascus. The current president of Syria, Bashar al-Asad, is both.

Knowing that the continued fight against al-Qa'idah and its affiliated groups throughout the region is a key tenet of the Obama Administration's policy, the Russians have offered to coordinate air operations against Jabhat al-Nusrah. While that sounds like a good idea, and no doubt will get Kerry's attention, the terrorist group is focused on the removal of the al-Asad regime.

Joint American-Russian attacks on the group actually plays right into Putin's hand - hurting Jabhat al-Nusrah directly supports Russia's goal to prop up the al-Asad regime. Keeping Bashar in power is key.

I find it troubling that the Russians are privy to an American-Russian agreement, but the American people are not.

Why the secrecy, Mr. Kerry? Is what you agreed to that bad?

July 11, 2016

U.S. to deploy 560 more troops to Iraq - further down that slippery slope?

During a visit to Baghdad, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced that the United States will deploy an additional 560 troops to Iraq to assist in the fight against the self-declared Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

That will bring the number of American forces in Iraq to almost 6000, far higher than the Pentagon-cited figure of 4,647 - the Defense Department does not include personnel on temporary assignments in the official count.

The stated reason for the additional troops is to assist Iraqi forces as they prepare for the eventual campaign to retake the city of Mosul. Mosul is Iraq's second largest city - it has been under ISIS control since it fell to the group in June of 2014. One of the tasks assigned to the new troops will be the rehabilitation and reconstruction of facilities at the large al-Qayyarah air base - the base was recaptured from ISIS on July 9.

The base will be a key staging area for Iraqi forces as they mount the attack on Mosul. The base is about 40 miles south of Mosul and west of the Tigris River. This assault was successful in crossing the river and reclaiming territory from ISIS west of the Tigris Valley, further reducing the amount of Iraqi territory in the country under the group's control.

The air base, formerly known as al-Qayyarah West, is a large facility with long runways capable of handling heavy transport aircraft, as well as scores of helicopters. The base provides an excellent base from which to launch attack sorties against ISIS positions in Mosul. Additionally, Iraqi or American long-range artillery or rocket launchers will complement the existing American firebase located at Makhmur on the east bank of the Tigris.

The recapture of the air base is an important step, one of the many needed before the operation to liberate Mosul can start. The liberation of Mosul is necessary to defeat ISIS and eject them from Iraqi territory - it is the group's major holding in the country. Mosul and the Syrian city of al-Raqqah, which ISIS claims as its capital city, are major centers of gravity for the group.

The loss of Mosul will effectively end their claims on Iraq. Only then can the government in Baghdad begin the rebuilding of the country as a viable, united political entity.

Preparing for a campaign to retake Mosul has been a long and slow process. The Iraqis have thus far expelled ISIS from Tikrit and Bayji (and now al-Qayyarah) in the Tigris Valley, as well as ridding the entire al-Anbar province by successful - if not devastating - operations in al-Ramadi, al-Hit and recently al-Fallujah.

It was hoped that the removal of ISIS from al-Anbar would reduce the number of ISIS bombing attacks in and around Baghdad - July was a month of a series of high-profile bombings in the city. Unfortunately, ISIS used its lingering presence in Diyala province (east and southeast of Baghdad) to launch the most devastating truck bombing in the upscale Shi'a neighborhood of Karradah on July 4. That attack, in which almost 300 people died, was the worst single attack since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Although the recapture of Mosul is arguably the key to the eventual defeat of ISIS in Iraq, the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi has another concern - the security of Baghdad. As long as ISIS is able to mount devastating bombings in and around the capital, the residents will demand that he focus on their immediate security rather than the eventual recapture of Mosul. Should al-'Abadi decide to allocate security resources - army, militia or police - to Diyala to deal with the ISIS threat emanating from that province, it will delay the Mosul operation.

The Mosul operation will be a large-scale undertaking. Retaking cities like al-Ramadi and al-Fallujah were much smaller operations, and took much longer than expected. Mosul is going to require virtually all of the combat power Iraq has and then some.

The "then some" will be the assets committed by the U.S.-led coalition - airpower, artillery and rocket fire support, intelligence, logistics, communications, command and control, engineer support, as well the placement of U.S. military officers in Iraqi combat battalions.

It is those capabilities that Secretary Carter cited in his remarks: "These additional U.S. forces will bring unique capabilities to the campaign and provide critical enabler support to Iraqi forces at a key moment in the fight."

The increased American support will be necessary for the Iraqis to recapture Mosul. As we have seen in recent military operations, there is great reliance on American airpower, intelligence, fire support, etc. Since Mosul will be a much larger, more complex operation, there will likely be calls for an even higher level of support.

The Administration's decision to deploy additional troops to Iraq reflects the realization that Iraqi forces as they stand today are not capable of conducting that operation, and certainly not on the timetable promised by Prime Minister al-'Abadi - he has pledged to retake Mosul before the end of the year.

To those of us who served in Vietnam, the gradual escalation of American troop presence in Iraq over the last two years reminds us of how a small advisory mission grew into a large-scale military operation lasting over a decade and costing over 58,000 American troops.

The words "mission creep" come to mind. It is not only the troop presence in Iraq that concerns many observers - it is the continuing build up of forces in the region that directly conduct operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

It is critical that ISIS be defeated - and key to that defeat is the retaking of Mosul. Should the Iraqis prove incapable of doing that with the current levels of American support, will we continue to escalate our troop presence? Are we in danger of sliding further down that slippery slope? Are we going to reach the point when we see the re-introduction of American combat formations into Iraq?

We haven't even started talking about ejecting ISIS from Syria yet.