March 23, 2017

Syrian Democratic Forces assault on al-Tabaqah - opening shots in the liberation of al-Raqqah

SDF armored vehicle on south bank of Euphrates River

The opening shots in the battle to liberate the Syrian city of al-Raqqah from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) may have been fired yesterday (March 22).

The daring assault by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by U.S. airlift, airpower, intelligence, and long-range rocket artillery was removed from the headlines by an ISIS-inspired terrorist attack in London, and the continuing saga of American political maneuverings.

For the first time in the U.S-led coalition fight against ISIS, American heavy transport helicopters moved hundreds of SDF troops from their positions north of the Euphrates River south to locations across the river behind ISIS lines, a classic American air assault tactic.

This operation also marked the first use in Syria of the U.S. Marines' M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS). The Marines, recently deployed to Syria via neighboring Iraq, fired long-range (up to 180 miles) guided artillery rockets in support of the air assault operation.

At the same time, other SDF units ferried heavy vehicles across Lake al-Asad, the reservoir created by one of the objectives of the operation, the al-Tabaqah Dam, the largest dam in Syria. The dam is a mere 25 miles west of ISIS's self-proclaimed capital of al-Raqqah.

Red=regime / Green=FSA / Brown=ISIS / Yellow=SDF
(Click image for larger view)

The initial focus of the U.S.-supported SDF operation was the Shurfah peninsula, about 10 miles west of al-Tabaqah city, dam, and airport. All three are occupied by ISIS and will be aggressively defended. Not only is the SDF attack putting pressure on ISIS, Syrian regime units just 25 miles to the west are also fighting the Islamist group.

After moving north and marginalizing the Turkish-supported Free Syrian Army elements moving south from the Turkish border towards al-Raqqah - but still 100 miles away - the Syrians are cooperating with the SDF to focus the fight on ISIS. (See my earlier article, SYRIA: Has Turkey been marginalized and the Americans thrust into the fight?)

The Syrian Army, with Russian airpower and support, has made good progress at forcing ISIS to retreat. These regime units have now reached the Euphrates from the west and are now poised to move east toward al-Raqqah. That said, the lead elements of the Syrian Army are still well over 60 road miles from al-Raqqah.

I assess that the SDF will move out of the Shurfah Peninsula beachhead as soon as possible to secure the al-Tabaqah dam, air base, and most of the city. Sitting on the peninsula will only invite an ISIS counterattack. ISIS has a history of mounting vicious counterattacks as soon as they are able to absorb an initial assault and regroup their forces.

There will likely be a supporting attack on the dam area from the north. It will be a tough fight for the SDF to take these objectives, but with American airpower and long-range artillery rocket support, they eventually will prevail.

Red=regime / Green=FSA / Brown=ISIS / Yellow=SDF
(Click image for larger view)

After seizing the objectives in the al-Tabaqah area, I expect the SDF forces to pivot to the east and continue to move against ISIS along the south bank of the Euphrates in the direction of al-Raqqah.

At the same time, about 35 miles to the east of al-Raqqah, additional SDF elements have successfully attacked south to the Euphrates. This accomplished two major objectives. First, it cut the main supply route between ISIS forces in al-Raqqah and its forces further east along the Euphrates River near the city of Dayr al-Zawr, and further east to the now-isolated Iraqi city of Mosul.

Second, it provides an opportunity for an additional crossing of the Euphrates to establish a second beachhead on the southern bank of the river. If SDF forces can successfully mount such an assault, they will be able to move west towards al-Raqqah while their counterparts are moving from the west, eventually surrounding and isolating the self-proclaimed ISIS capital.

Once the pocket is closed, it can be besieged - the SDF will be able to mount a multi-axis attack on al-Raqqah, eventually defeating ISIS in the city.

The fight for al-Raqqah will be reminiscent of the fighting in Mosul - it will take months. ISIS has had well over two years to fortify the city for the fight all knew would come someday.

It would appear that day is fast approaching.

March 20, 2017

Iraqi Prime Minister al-'Abadi in Washington - some realities

My quick readout of the Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi visit to Washington and his meeting with President Donald Trump.

While the current media coverage of the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has shifted to the fighting in Syria, the major battle continues to be the Iraqi campaign to defeat the Islamist group in the city of Mosul.

The Iraqi security forces - Army, Air Force, police, and special operations units, as well as several Iranian-backed Shi'a militias - have generally acquitted themselves well in the fighting. We all remember the Iraqi Army's dismal performance against ISIS in June 2014, when the Army collapsed as the group stormed into northern Iraq from Syria and began a lightning military campaign south down the Tigris Valley, and west into the Euphrates Valley.

Now, two years later, the Iraqis have reconstituted their forces with massive American support, and are on the verge of retaking the iconic city back from ISIS. Although Iraqi political leaders committed to having the city back under Iraqi control by the end of 2016, it was obvious to virtually all military analysts that it would take longer. I believe that by the end of April, they will have retaken the entire city.

That's the good news.

Here are some military realities that tend to get little media coverage. ISIS will be defeated in Mosul - the city is surrounded and isolated. It has taken some time to achieve that goal - I thought the Iraqis should have done that before launching the assault into the city. There is no escape route for the thousands of ISIS fighters now trapped in a portion of the right/west bank of the city.

While that is a good military position, it does not portend well for the thousands of Iraqi civilians trapped in Mosul with the remaining ISIS fighters. Unfortunately, they will be used as human shields in the street-by-street, house-by-house fighting over the next few weeks. It is a sad reality that the Iraqi and coalition forces can try to minimize, but by no means avoid.

After Mosul is liberated, ISIS will not be defeated in Iraq. There are still pockets of ISIS control, including a substantial area to the west of Mosul near Tal'afar towards the Syrian border. There is another stronghold in the Hawaijah area southwest of the city of Kirkuk, and several areas in al-Anbar province in the Euphrates Valley on the Syrian border.

Once the Iraqi security forces secure Mosul, they will address these remaining pockets and reduce them one by one. That said, the ISIS leadership is not stupid - they can read the handwriting on the wall.

As the group began to suffer militarily over the last year, it began returning to its roots as an insurgency. There has been a major uptick in suicide bombings in Shi'a areas in the Baghdad area. A major face-to-face and online recruiting effort is underway to re-create what was originally known as al-Qa'idah in Iraq.

It is unknown if they will succeed or not, but surprisingly, their message still resonates among Iraqi Sunnis who believe they will never be treated equitably by what they perceive is an Iranian-influenced Shi'a-dominated government in Baghdad.

There are political realities as well - again not widely reported.

A new round of elections is scheduled for September of this year - the voting might well be the end of Prime Minister al-'Abadi's government. The two major threats to his continued leadership are the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki. In my opinion, either - especially al-Sadr - would be a disaster for Iraq, U.S.-Iraqi relations, and American foreign policy in the region.

Muqtada al-Sadr is a virulently anti-American Shi'a cleric from a respected family (in Shi'a circles) with a huge following among rank and file Shi'a. His militia has American blood on his hands - he is lucky to be alive.

Should the worst case happen and al-Sadr becomes the new prime minister, there will be no American military presence in the country - possibly no diplomatic relations between Baghdad and Washington - and Iraq will likely spiral into a Shi'a autocracy, making al-Sadr the poster boy for ISIS recruitment.

(Note: I have been highly critical of Muqtada al-Sadr since 2003, at one point advocating military action against him. My latest article is from last year: Iraq - Muqtada al-Sadr flexes his political muscles.)

An only slightly better scenario would be the return of Nuri al-Maliki as prime minister. Nuri al-Maliki, derisively known among his political enemies as nuri al-irani (Nuri the Iranian), would again be a puppet for the Iranian regime. It was Nuri al-Maliki - in concert with Barack Obama in what I believe was a colossal foreign policy blunder - who presided over the complete withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in 2011.

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

The best option is the retention of Haydar al-'Abadi. Should the United States decide to try and meddle in someone else's election - a hot topic these days - we might want to support Prime Minister al-'Abadi.

March 16, 2017

Russian and American cooperation in Syria - a policy change?

American and Russian troops in the city of Manbij, Syria

Recent American military moves in Syria may indicate a shift in U.S. foreign policy in the region. The presence of both American and Russian forces in the northern Syrian city of Manbij (photo) may herald the Trump Administration's new strategy to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

This map shows the current situation on the ground in northern Syria.

Click on image for larger view

Syria is a confusing tableau of competing interests, and at times a four-way fight. Major combatants in the fighting*:

- Free Syrian Army (FSA, green) - backed by Turkish forces (Operation Euphrates Shield)
- Syrian Armed Forces (red) - backed by Russian military, Iranian military and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iraqi Shi'a militia, and Hizballah forces
- Syrian Democratic Front (SDF, yellow) - a joint Kurdish-Arab group backed by the American-led coalition (Operation Wrath of Euphrates)
- ISIS (brown)

ISIS remains the common enemy of the other three combatant groups. In a perfect world, the three other combatants would ally with each other in the fight to defeat ISIS. While all of them are engaged in the fight against the Islamist group, at times they also engage in combat operations against each other, thus diluting the main effort against the terrorist organization.

Recent events may indicate a sea change in American policy following the inauguration of President Donald Trump.

In August 2016, the Turks began their intervention in northern Syria, ostensibly to support elements of the Free Syrian Army in its fight against ISIS. The FSA - heavily supported by Turkish air, armor, artillery and special forces - was able to push ISIS forces back over 40 miles from the Turkish border south into Syria, finally seizing the ISIS stronghold of al-Bab in late February.

After that hard-won fight, the Turks and FSA set their sights on the SDF held city of Manbij, about 30 miles to the east of al-Bab. This decision was obviously made by the Turks, whose main objective in Syria is not to defeat ISIS, despite protestations to the contrary.

Turkish troops are in Syria to ensure that when the Syrian situation is resolved, there is not an autonomous Kurdish region (similar to the Kurdistan Region in Iraq) on Turkey's southern border. The Syrian Kurds, who call the northern part of Syria Rojava, or Western Kurdistan, want exactly that.

The Turks, on the other hand, believe the Syrian Kurds to be at best supporters of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), or at worst, a mere extension of the terrorist/separatist group.

Click on image for larger view

As the Turkish and FSA forces began to pivot their forces from al-Bab east towards Manbij, the SDF made a quick arrangement with Syrian regime forces, allowing them to move north (black arrow on map) to take up positions in and around Manbij. The Kurds would rather strike a deal with the Syrian regime than get into a fight with the Turks who appear determined to remove them from what they consider Kurdish territory.

Not only does this agreement between the SDF and the regime serve to thwart a Turkish move on Manbij, it isolates the Turks from ISIS front lines, and further blocks their eventual march towards ISIS's self-declared capital of al-Raqqah. The Turks have insisted that they lead, or at least by involved in, the assault on al-Raqqah.

As all three non-ISIS combatants focused their attention on the city of Manbij, the effort against ISIS was bound to suffer. To prevent a three-way fight between the Turkish-backed FSA, the Syrian regime and the American-backed SDF, both the United States and Russia deployed forces to the city as a potential buffer between the three groups and to attempt to refocus the fight against ISIS.

This seemingly simple move in a complicated situation by two of the world's major powers just might indicate a significant shift in American policy in Syria, or the realization that the previous policy was flawed.

Under President Obama, U.S. policy in Syria hinged on two goals: to "defeat and destroy ISIS" and support the removal of the Bashar al-Asad government. Given the political-military realities on the ground in the region, the two objectives were at odds with each other. I think that became clear with the Russian military deployment to Syria in the fall of 2015.

Although Russian President Vladimir Putin's stated mission was to fight ISIS, his main objective was to guarantee the survival of the Syrian regime in exchange for long-term Russian access to Syrian naval facilities and air bases - he appears to have achieved that objective.

The tenuous U.S.-Russian cooperation in keeping the Turks (with the FSA), Kurds and Syrian regime from engaging each other in Manbij could be de facto American acceptance of the survival of the Bashar al-Asad regime, and signal a willingness to work with the Russians to focus on the defeat of ISIS. See my earlier thoughts on this move: SYRIA: Has Turkey been marginalized and the Americans thrust into the fight?

President Trump said during his campaign that he will not launch wars to topple dictators. It appears that while seemingly more committed than Barack Obama to the defeat of ISIS, he is not committed to the removal of Bashar al-Asad. I have said in the past, the overarching objective in Syria is taking on ISIS - we can address the regime later, if at all.

One sticking point, however, if there has been a change of policy. What of the American-backed Syrian opposition groups? I would suggest they seek some form of political arrangement with the Syrian government - I do not see this Administration ready to support a long-term insurgency to remove Bashar al-Asad.
* For more details on the combatants, see my earlier article: American combat troops to Syria? Not so fast....

March 4, 2017

SYRIA: Has Turkey been marginalized and the Americans thrust into the fight?

Turkish Army M52T 155mm self-propelled howitzers in northern Syria

In a remarkably under-reported series of events in northern Syria, the success of the joint Turkish - Free Syrian Army (FSA) Operation Euphrates Shield (Turkish: Fırat Kalkanı Harekâtı, Arabic dara' al-furat) is now more uncertain than ever. The goal of the military campaign is to defeat the forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

FSA forces supported by Turkish air power, armor, artillery, intelligence and special forces were moving slowly but steadily on their way from the Turkish border towards what is regarded as ISIS's center of gravity - its self-proclaimed capital in the city of al-Raqqah. Just over a week ago, they completely removed ISIS from the key stronghold of al-Bab. This victory was supposed to pave the way for a faster-moving thrust east towards al-Raqqah.

As I wrote last month, the situation in Syria is a confusing tableau of competing interests, basically a four-way fight. (See that analysis: American combat troops to Syria? Not so fast....) Briefly, the major combatants in the fighting in northern Syria are:

* Free Syrian Army - backed by Turkish forces (Operation Euphrates Shield)
* Syrian Armed Forces - backed by Russian, Iranian, Iraqi and Hizballah forces
* Syrian Democratic Front - a joint Kurdish-Arab group backed by the American-led coalition (Operation Wrath of Euphrates)

ISIS remains the common enemy of the other three combatant groups. In a perfect, sane and rational world, the three other combatants would ally with each other in the fight to defeat ISIS. While all of them are engaged in the fight against the Islamist group, at times they also engage in combat operations against each other. This dilutes the main effort against what many believe is the vilest terrorist organization of our time.

At one point, there seemed to be some semblance of a temporary coalition between the Syrian government forces and the FSA, brokered by their two major backers - Russia and Turkey, respectively. That cooperation was short-lived and only worked in a few instances. Given the animosity between the Syrian regime and the FSA, not to mention the Syrian government's contention (with some merit) that the Turkish military forces are in Syria illegally, it was not unexpected.

The main point of contention between the three groups fighting ISIS: which group will conduct the eventual and inevitable attack on al-Raqqah?

The Syrian armed forces want to retake the city, after all, it is part of Syria. Even with the backing of their Russian, Iranian, Iraqi and Hizballah sponsors, the Syrian military has been unable to concentrate enough force to mount an attack on al-Raqqah.

After its successful campaign to regain control of the city of Aleppo from the FSA, Syrian government forces have been focused on consolidating their hold on Aleppo governorate, regaining control (again) of the crossroads city of Palmyra (Tadmur), fighting off a strong ISIS offensive in eastern Homs governorate, attempting to reassert control of the suburbs surrounding the capital of Damascus - along with other smaller, but manpower and resource intensive operations.

The Syrian armed forces are spread very thin throughout the south, west and central parts of the country. Without the support of their foreign sponsors, the Syrian Army would cease to be a viable combat organization in short order.

The FSA, with Turkish support, also wants to liberate al-Raqqah from ISIS, expanding the territory under its control after the devastating loss of its main stronghold - the city of Aleppo - to the regime late last year.

The Turks are providing support to the FSA for two reasons. First, they support the removal of the regime of Bashar al-Asad, and second, they want to ensure that there is no semblance of a Kurdish autonomous region along their southern border. If they have to choose between the two, they will opt for the latter.

Despite the fact that the Kurdish People's Protection Units (known as the YPG) are arguably the most effective fighting force arrayed against ISIS in Syria, the Turks regard them as nothing more than an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (known as the PKK).

The PKK has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union and NATO. The YPG is the majority component of the U.S.-backed SDF. It has not been designated as a terrorist organization by anyone but the Turks.

The Turks are adamant that no Kurds be involved in the attack on al-Raqqah. Their rationale is that the people of al-Raqqah, overwhelmingly Arabs - will be trading one oppressor for another.

I disagree - my reading of what little information that is available from the tightly-controlled city is that they have suffered terribly under strict Islamist ISIS governance and would welcome any relief, be it Kurd, Turk or Arab.

The United States and the recently-inaugurated Trump Administration is now formulating its policy on how to fight ISIS in Syria. I believe the U.S. military planners - looking at the situation map - believe that backing an SDF-led assault on the city is the best option. Although an FSA operation might be more palatable to the residents, time and distance mitigate that option.

The lead elements of the SDF are a mere five miles from the outskirts of al-Raqqah and in the process of isolating the city on the west, north and east - the south is bounded by the Euphrates River, and both bridges have been destroyed by U.S. airstrikes.

In contrast, the Turkish-backed FSA is almost 100 miles away, having just secured al-Bab.

Yellow=SDF/YPG / Brown=ISIS / Red =Syrian regime / Green=FSA
(Disregard the subjective editorial legend in Arabic)

The situation has changed dramatically in just the last week. As Turkish/FSA forces were securing al-Bab and preparing to continue their march east through YPG-controlled territory toward the city of Manbij, they began militarily engaging the YPG. Here again, we had two groups opposing ISIS fighting each other, rather than their common foe.

In a rather stunning move, the SDF/YPG made an arrangement with the Syrian regime forces to allow the Syrian Army to move into the city of Manbij (movement indicated by the black arrow), thereby completely cutting off the Turkish/FSA route of march to the east toward Manbij and then al-Raqqah.

Click on images for larger view

As a result, there is now a combined Syrian Army and SDF/YPG blocking force in front of the FSA, confining them to a pocket north of al-Bab and west of Manbij, essentially removing them from the offensive against al-Raqqah.

It gets murkier. These are new photos and a video clip taken from Arab language media:

The two photos of the U.S. Army Stryker infantry combat vehicles, one flying the U.S. standard, and Humvees have been geolocated to the Manbij area of northern Syria, the same area the Kurds have allowed Syrian Army units to enter. The video clip was taken along the main highway in the Manbij region.

Confusing? Yes - it raises a whole host of questions.

What is the position of the United States on their allies' seeming coordination with the Syrian regime to allow Syrian army forces into Manbij?

Are American forces in proximity to Syrian Army units - and their Russian advisers, as well as their Iranian, Iraqi and Hizballah fighters? Was the United States consulted before this cooperative operation was launched?

What is the role of the Russians? Are the Russians now on the ground with the SDF? Who is providing coordination and deconfliction between the parties?

What of the Turks? Are they going to engage the Syrian Army and SDF/YPG and force their way back into a position to continue their attack towards al-Raqqah?

It appears to me that the United States has decided its strategy: the Americans will provide increased support to the Kurds, over the objections of the Turks.

The Turks appear to be marginalized by the actions of the Syrian Army and the SDF/YPG. We should expect backlash from the Turks. (See my earlier articles from December and January on this issue, More U.S. troops to Syria - a showdown with the Turks?, and Turkish threat to limit access to Incirlik Air Base - a collision course?)

If what I believe is true, the United States will proceed with the Kurdish option to liberate al-Raqqah from ISIS. This will require the introduction of many more American forces than we have there now.

The SDF does not have the firepower, the heavy weaponry needed to dislodge entrenched, committed and prepared ISIS fighters from al-Raqqah. They will need much more assistance - the U.S. troops in the photos and video shown on Arabic media likely represent the vanguard of that effort.

If the Iraqis' experience in their campaign to retake Mosul is any indication, the fight for al-Raqqah will be long and bloody. I suspect that before this is all over, many more young Americans are going to be in the fight.

February 20, 2017

American combat troops to Syria? Not so fast....

Click on image to view the clip (I am at the 4:10 time code)

Note: This article is my followup to an excellent piece written by fellow CNN military analyst Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, U.S. Army (Retired): Combat troops to Syria? Not so fast. In it, the general details very clearly the military planning process.

Here are some additional considerations that should be addressed when contemplating the introduction of American combat forces into Syria. The special operations forces now on the ground in Syria are technically in a "train, advise and assist" capacity - that is "Pentagon-speak" that there are no U.S. boots on the ground, no troops in combat.* What the report alludes to is the possible deployment of actual combat units - armor, artillery, infantry and the required support units - possibly a U.S. Army brigade combat team.

A key planning factor in developing a recommendation to be made to the Secretary of Defense and the President is the current political and military situation in Syria, in the region and how that affects the larger international landscape. Nothing in the Middle East happens in a vacuum - there are many competing interests that must be evaluated. Events in Syria are influenced by external events, just as external events are influenced by what happens in Syria. This also impacts the ever-important U.S.-Russia relationship as well.

I know this is complicated, so I will try to simplify it as best I can without sacrificing accuracy. Among a variety of assignments in the Middle East, I was the Air Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus. In that position, I routinely traveled the entire country, observing and reporting on the political and military situation. That travel took me to all of the areas in which there is now fighting between all of the various factions, including the al-Raqqah area. I like to say that I have been on every paved road in Syria - not exactly true, but close.

President Trump has tasked the Department of Defense to provide options to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Given those instructions, I will focus solely on that objective, rather than trying to address the Obama Administration's bifurcated (and in my view somewhat unrealistic) policy of defeating ISIS and also removing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad.

The two objectives are virtually incompatible, and became even more so with the deployment of Russian military forces to Syria in September 2015. Any window of opportunity for the removal of al-Asad regime, either militarily or politically, closed when the first Russian fighter-bombers landed at Humaymim air base in northwestern Syria.

Most Middle East military analysts would agree that ISIS's center of gravity in Syria - and thus the principal objective - is the group's self-proclaimed capital of al-Raqqah. It is analogous with the city of Mosul in Iraq, now under attack by Iraqi military, special operations and police units. It is only a matter of time before Mosul falls to Iraqi forces.

In Iraq, there is ISIS on one side and everyone else on the other. Those allied against ISIS include the various Iraqi security forces, Iranian-supported (and many of us believe, Iranian-led) Shi'a militias, the very effective Kurdish peshmerga forces, and a variety of U.S.-led coalition troops providing differing levels of support. That coalition support includes intelligence, logistics, training and advising, direct artillery and rocket fires, and constant air strikes.

The situation in Syria could not be more different. As in Iraq, ISIS is the common enemy, however, there is not a coordinated or even coherent effort to fight it.

Note that I am not addressing the ongoing fighting in the western and southern parts of Syria, as those areas are peripheral to the main efforts against ISIS. While important, they are primarily between Syrian regime forces backed by its allies and anti-regime rebel groups, be they secular or Islamist.

The area of operations to be considered in this analysis stretches from Aleppo to the Iraqi border, roughly along the Euphrates River, a distance of almost 250 miles (see map below). Al-Raqqah sits approximately in the middle. Most planners believe that taking al-Raqqah is the key to defeating ISIS in Syria.

In the coming battle for al-Raqqah, the major combatant groups in the fight against ISIS are:

* Syrian government and its allies. The Syrian armed forces are supported by the Russian armed forces, primarily through airpower, but also via missile strikes and rocket/field artillery. Additional ground forces are provided by the Iranian Army and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Lebanese Hizballah, Iraqi Shi'a militias, and a group of Afghan Shi'a fighters. These allies have effectively doubled the size of what remains of the Syrian Army. The Syrian military has been severely crippled by losses and defections to the point that without this external assistance, it would cease to be a viable force.

* Major elements of the Free Syrian Army, supported in this operation - dubbed Operation Euphrates Shield - by the Turkish military. One might question Turkey's motives for participating in the fighting. Although Ankara's stated reason is to fight ISIS - and they are doing that - many believe it is to ensure that the Syrian Kurds do not create some form of autonomous region in northern Syria as the Kurds have in Iraq, or worst case, attempt to merge the Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish areas into one political entity.

* U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF is made up of about two thirds Kurdish fighters from a group known as the People's Protection Units, more commonly known by the Kurdish initials YPG. Turkey is concerned about American support for the YPG, since they regard the Kurdish militia as nothing more that an extension of the separatist Kurdish Workers' Party (more commonly known by its Kurdish initials, PKK). The PKK has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union, and NATO.

The other third of the SDF is made up of Syrian Arabs who are committed to combating ISIS in return for American support - money, weapons and training. American special operations forces have been embedded with the SDF to "advise and assist" in the fight against ISIS, which includes on-the-ground control of American airstrikes.

(For more detail on the political-military landscape in Syria, see my earlier article, The coming assault on al-Raqqah - a political minefield.)

The current military situation on the ground in this area is also a key planning factor. There are basically two concurrent operations underway. The first is concentrated around the ISIS stronghold of al-Bab. Al-Bab is located about 20 road miles northeast of the city of Aleppo, and - here is the key number - about 100 road miles northwest of al-Raqqah.

Black=ISIS / Red=Syrian regime / Green=FSA / Orange=SDF
(Click on image for larger view)

The fighting around al-Bab clearly illustrates the complicated nature of the political-military situation in Syria. ISIS still controls most of the city, which is under attack from both the Turkish-backed FSA as well as Russian/Iranian/Hizballah-backed Syrian regime forces. American-backed SDF forces are not far away.

All three of the groups are fighting not only ISIS, but each other. The Russians and Turks have tried to keep their respective clients focused on combating ISIS, with only limited success.

The fighting around al-Bab has been ongoing for months. Despite Russian, Syrian and Turkish air and ground support, ISIS has fought a deliberate and steady defense, basically slowing the advance of the opposing forces into ISIS-held territory. This keeps the front line of the Turkish-backed FSA about 85 miles (over 100 road miles) from al-Raqqah. If the past fighting is any indication, it will take months for the FSA or Syrian regime to be in a position to mount an attack on al-Raqqah.

Contrast the positions of the regime and FSA with that of the American-backed SDF near al-Raqqah. According to the latest situation map (below), SDF forces have approached the northeastern suburbs of the city itself. This culminates a three-month operation to isolate al-Raqqah from the west, north and now east.

The Euphrates River presents a natural southern obstacle for ISIS in the city. The coalition has destroyed the two bridges over the Euphrates, complicating movement between the northern and southern sections of the city.

Here is where politics on the international level and the military situation on the ground in Syria converge. Turkey - a key NATO ally - insists that its forces be in the vanguard of the effort to liberate al-Raqqah. They believe that the Syrian Arab FSA troops, supported by Turkish Army artillery, armor and special forces, as well as Turkish Air Force air strikes, should mount the assault on the city, as opposed to the majority Syrian Kurdish SDF.

The Turks' rationale is that to the residents of al-Raqqah, the SDF will be regarded as a Kurdish force despite the SDF name and only minor Arab participation. In essence, according to the Turks, the people will be trading one oppressor for another, saying that "one terrorist organization can not be used to fight another." This makes sense if you buy into the Turkish assertion that the YPG, the Kurdish militia participating in the SDF, is a terrorist organization. Personally, I don't.

Although I have no direct evidence to refute this, my reading of what little uncensored information leaks out of al-Raqqah seems to indicate that the people of al-Raqqah are totally terrified by ISIS and would welcome any relief, even a Kurdish-dominant liberating force, hoping that after the city is liberated from ISIS life would return to normal under a Syrian (read: Arab) government.

That said, the Turks have presented their arguments to the United States at the highest levels. In response, the nascent Trump Administration has put a hold on additional armor and heavy weapons to the SDF, pending a review of U.S. policy in Syria.

Knowing that the United States believes time is of the essence in moving on al-Raqaah (based on intelligence that ISIS cells in the city are planning attacks on the West), the Turks have advanced two proposals for an accelerated Turkish-backed FSA assault on the city. The nearest FSA units are still almost 100 miles from al-Raqqah and in a tough fight around al-Bab.

The Turks' preferred plan of action, which I will call "Plan A," proposes the Turkish and American special operations forces lead an FSA force via a corridor through Kurdish-held territory from the border town of Tal Abiyad south to al-Raqqah (indicated in white on the above map), a distance of about 60 miles. Turkey would need American help to persuade the Kurds to allow the Turks to enter this area - not a small feat while Turkish forces near al-Bab are fighting SDF/YPG units.

The second option, or what I am calling Plan B, is to continue the fight from al-Bab, moving east to the Euphrates and along the south bank of the river to al-Raqqah, a distance of over 100 road miles (indicated in blue on the map). That is essentially the status quo, but would require American assurances that the SDF will not mount a unilateral assault on al-Raqqah while the Turkish-backed FSA fights its way to the city. This will take months.

In my assessment, Plan B is a nonstarter. It will take too long - it will prolong the suffering of the people of al-Raqqah and if the intelligence on ISIS attack planning is correct, possibly facilitate a lethal ISIS operation against a Western target. As for Plan A, I doubt the Kurds will be amenable to allowing the Turks to traverse their territory with armor and artillery for fear that they will never leave, regardless of any American guarantee to the contrary.

The next step is for the Trump Administration to determine what our overall policy in Syria is to be, how much stake we place in maintaining a cooperative relationship with NATO ally Turkey, while adhering to the commitment to defeat ISIS.

If asked, I would advise the President to provide whatever support - armor, artillery, airstrikes, intelligence, etc. - the Department of Defense deems necessary to the SDF, understanding the risks of having what will be perceived as a Kurdish force liberate a Syrian Arab city. We cannot wait for the Turks and the FSA.

If the Defense planners determine that the SDF is incapable of taking al-Raqqah, even with increased U.S. support, then and only then should they recommend the insertion of American combat units into this political minefield. Or as General Hertling and I both say, not so fast.

* In a refreshing change from the previous Administration's farcical rhetoric, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said of fighting in Mosul, U.S. troops "are very close to it, if not already engaged in that fight."

February 7, 2017

To my readers...a programming note

To my readers and subscribers:

Over the past few months, I have been posting more information on Twitter - I believe the practice is called "tweeting." I find it useful to impart information quickly and easily, although the limitation of 140 characters can be a bit frustrating. That said, I like the ability to almost instantly offer spot analysis.

I will continue to produce my normal articles via this "Middle East Perspectives" medium, but you might be interested in following my "tweets" as well.

It's easy - just follow this link - - and follow me.

January 27, 2017

Iraqi prime minister may block visas to U.S. citizens? Think that over, Haydar

Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi

In response to President Trump's temporary ban on the issuance of entry visas to anyone from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, Iraqi parliamentarians said the Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi is considering reciprocal action that will block American citizens from entering Iraq.

Take a deep breath, siyadat al-ra'is Haydar, and think about this.

Without the U.S.-led coalition, you have very little chance of expelling the forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from your country. Yes, you need those American citizens - most in uniform - whose airpower, artillery, special operations, intelligence, logistics, front line "advise and assist" troops, etc. allow your military and police units to succeed on the battlefield.

Here endeth the lesson.

A personal anecdote: This exchange reminds me of a rather humorous situation that arose while I was serving as the air attache at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, Syria in the 1990's.

Anyone who has served at American embassies in the Middle East is familiar with the non-stop requests for visas to enter the United States - this was particularly true in Syria. Syrians who have received visas to enter the United States had (and probably still do) one of the highest over-stay ratings - they simply didn't return to Syria.

The visa application line at the consular section of the embassy, which was also the designated venue for Iranians seeking visas to the United States, was always very long, often extending hundreds of yards on the sidewalks and small streets around the embassy. It made getting to work a challenge at times, and parking a nightmare.

At one point, the Syrians became concerned about the potential security, safety and traffic congestion issues caused by the throngs of people waiting to take their turn at being rejected for a visa. They summoned the ambassador to the foreign ministry and told him that the situation was unacceptable and he needed to address it.

The U.S. ambassador at the time, Christopher Ross, was a career Foreign Service Officer and long-time Middle East specialist, having spent many of his formative years in Lebanon. He was an extremely effective ambassador, as well as a great mentor to his staff (me included).

Ambassador Ross asked Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara' how the Syrian embassy in Washington was dealing with its visa line issues.

January 14, 2017

The Astana talks - President Trump's first foreign policy challenge?

Almost immediately after he is inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States on January 20, Donald Trump will face his first foreign policy challenge. The United States has been invited to attend talks about the future of Syria, sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran to be held in Astana, Kazakhstan - the talks are scheduled to start on January 23.

The Astana talks are the result of a ceasefire arranged by the Russians and the Turks which took effect on December 29, 2016. Notably absent from the negotiations was U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. I believe the Obama Administration policy that Syrian President Bashar al-Asad had to be removed from power was a sticking point with the Russians. Russian President Vladimir Putin's primary reason for ordering Russian military intervention in Syria was to ensure the survival of the al-Asad regime. (See my earlier article, Russia and Turkey broker a ceasefire in Syria - where is the United States?

Putin appears to have been successful, on many fronts. His military forces - primarily air power, but also artillery, long range missiles and special forces - turned the tide of battle. Without the presence of Russian forces, Iranian troops and irregulars, Lebanese Hizballah, as well as Iraqi and Afghan Shi'a militias, the Syrian military would not have been able to dislodge the rebels from their stronghold in Aleppo.

The opposition forces are now on the defensive as the battle shifts southwest to neighboring Idlib governorate. The presence of the former al-Qaidah affiliate in Syria, now known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS, Levant Conquest Front), in Idlib provides the fig leaf for continued Russian air strikes at the new opposition center of gravity, since "terrorist" groups are not covered by the provisions of the ceasefire.

Although there have been some violations, the ceasefire is holding, or holding well enough. The key to this ceasefire is the provision that after a 30 day period of adherence to the truce, negotiations on the future of Syria will be held under the sponsorship of Russia, Turkey and Iran.

The timing of the talks, the venue, and the invitation to the United States are all calculated to demonstrate just who has become the current power brokers in the region - the mere fact that there are going to be talks demonstrates that Moscow and Ankara can bring the parties to the table - and the Americans cannot.

The timing excludes the Obama Administration and opens a channel of communication with the new Trump Administration. The venue in a Central Asia former Soviet republic keeps the talks somewhat in the region (as opposed to western Europe) and central to the three sponsors.

As I said in my earlier article, "It appears that once again, President Putin and his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, have outplayed American President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. As I have said in the past, the new power brokers in the region - especially when it comes to Syria - are Russia, Turkey and Iran."

Well played, Mr. Putin, well played.

That said, it is not all smooth sailing. The Syrian government and the opposition have agreed to send representatives. Although President Bashar al-Asad said that "all things are on the table," they are not. He will not discuss leaving office in the talks. He also wants a say in who represents the opposition. (See my earlier article, Syrian political talks in Astana - why Bashar al-Asad has little to fear.)

The Turks have ruled out Kurdish participation in the talks - the Kurds are the United States' best allies on the ground in Syria in the fight against ISIS. The Kurdish YPG comprises the bulk - and most effective part - of the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF). The Turks consider the YPG to be nothing more than an extension of the PKK, a Kurdish separatist organization designated as a terrorist group by the United States, NATO and the European Union. The situation is more than mere rhetoric - Turkish aircraft have bombed SDF units, despite the fact that these units are engaged in direct combat with ISIS.

The problem with the last-minute invitation to the United States is that it puts the Americans in almost an "afterthought" or "second-class" status and not really in a position to make demands. Still, when the President of the United States of America sends a delegation, America's status of a superpower cannot be ignored.

Here is the dilemma. During the polarizing political campaign leading up to the election of Donald Trump, there have been numerous stories and accusations of ties between the new President and the Russians. I am not in a position to judge if or any relationship exists - I am mainly concerned with what effect that has on the situation in the Middle East, particularly Syria.

There is no question that the Russians have conducted brutal military operations against almost exclusively anti-regime targets in Syria. When the Russians launch attacks on Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) targets, it is in support of the regime.

Although the Russians have couched their intervention in Syria as an anti-terrorism, anti-ISIS operation, the reality remains that the mission is to prop up the al-Asad regime. At times, the operations may be considered to rise to the level of war crimes - deliberately targeting hospitals and medical facilities, civilian housing areas, markets, schools, etc. Recall Senator Marco Rubio's rather harsh questioning of Trump Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson on this matter.

Should the new Trump Administration accept the invitation to the Astana talks? In my opinion, yes. You cannot affect what happens at the table unless you are at the table.

Obviously, the Obama Administration existent bifurcated policy is not working. This is an opportunity to lay out a new policy - just what is our primary national security objective in Syria? Is it the defeat of ISIS, or is is the removal of the regime of Bashar al-Asad? The Obama Administration wanted both, and it was sidelined by the other major players.

Do we need to chose one over the others? If we do, I believe the new Administration will chose the defeat of ISIS. I think any demand for the removal of Bashar al-Asad is a non-starter with the Russians, and that the Turks and Iranians will go along. President al-Asad has said that if his remaining as president of Syria is an issue, then the country should follow the Syrian constitution (yes, he said that without laughing) and go to the ballot box. Anyone of us who have lived in Syria knows that is ludicrous.

This will be a real test of the direction of President Donald Trump's foreign policy. How he handles this will set the tone for future situations, not only with the Russians, but around the world as well. How will the "new sheriff in town" respond to challenges and crises?

If the new President were to ask me - and he hasn't - I would advise that we focus on the defeat of ISIS, even if that means limited cooperation with the distasteful government of Vladimir Putin. We have cooperated with unsavory regimes in the past to attain our foreign policy objectives - we can address the Syrian regime later.

January 9, 2017

Syrian political talks in Astana - why Bashar al-Asad has little to fear

From a Turkish Anadolu Agency post

This article is based on the assumption that the current fragile ceasefire in Syria will continue to hold for the 30 days that are called for before the beginning of negotiations sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran. For my comments on the absence of the United States at those talks, please see Russia and Turkey broker a ceasefire in Syria - where is the United States?

In what would have been impossible just over a year ago has happened - Syrian President Bashar al-Asad has agreed to send representatives of his government to attend talks on resolving the crisis in the country. The talks will begin later this month in Astana, Kazakhstan. Speaking in English to European reporters, al-Asad said, "Everything is on the table, we are prepared to discuss everything."

That sounds good - the media even reported that President al-Asad had asserted there would be no preconditions for the talks. I think that is more an interpretation of his remarks rather than accurate journalism. When you read his actual words, there are several preconditions involved.

The first condition is Al-Asad's approval of who will represent the Syrian opposition at the table. The president has said they must be "genuine" Syrians, not Saudis, French or British. If the opposition delegation is somehow unacceptable to him - he has rejected talks in the past based on this condition - the Syrian government may threaten to not attend.

The second condition is the virtual exclusion of any discussion about al-Asad's position as Syria's president. Again, his words are fairly clear - he lived in England for years and expresses himself effectively in English.

"My position is related to the constitution, which is very clear about the mechanism by which the president assumes or leaves power. So if they want to discuss this point, they must discuss the constitution, which is not the exclusive property of the government, the presidency or the opposition. It belongs to the Syrian people. They (the parties in Astana) can propose a constitutional referendum, but they can’t say, ‘We want this president’ or ‘We don’t want this president’, because the president comes to power through the ballot box. If they’re unhappy with the president, let’s go to the ballot box."

That sounds to me like a precondition. I read it to mean that the question of whether or not he continues in office will not be "on the table."*

However, Bashar al-Asad may not have the final say about his participation in the talks.

These talks are being driven by the new power brokers in the region - Russia, Turkey and Iran. If they determine that Syrian government participation in the talks is required, they will simply tell Bashar that his regime will participate.

That said, Bashar al-Asad has little reason to fear that he will not continue in power.

President al-Asad's security was determined in September 2015 when the Russians deployed a sizable air expeditionary force to Syria to ensure that the Syrian regime was not defeated. At that time, the opposition was effectively pushing the Syrian armed forces south from Aleppo and Idlib governorates - despite the presence of large numbers of Hizballah fighters, Iranian troops and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps members, and Iraqi Shi'a militias. The Russian intervention - contrary to the warnings of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter - was effective in turning the tide of battle.

The Russians and President Vladimir Putin want, and appear to have gotten, a regime in Syria they can influence and manipulate. Although Russia claims that it is withdrawing its forces from Syria, Moscow announced an agreement with Damascus for a permanent Russian naval presence at the Syrian naval base at Tartus, and a long-term presence at Humaymim Air Base near Latakia - the Russians have invested a lot of money in the infrastructure for both facilities.

Iran will go along with the Russian position to maintain Bashar in power, as they too want a cooperative government in Syria. Iran needs access to Syrian airspace and prefers to use Damascus International Airport to equip and resupply its proxy militia Hizballah, now one of the major military and political forces in Lebanon. The Iranian leadership further likes the idea of a Shi'a Crescent extending from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus to Beirut, with Tehran being the key player.

The Turks would prefer that the al-Asad government be replaced, believing that the Syrian regime has in the past supported the Kurdish separatist (and designated terrorist) PKK party. As long as there is no hint of Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria, they will go along. I believe they will press Russia for additional access in Central Asia - the Turks fancy themselves as the leaders of all things Turkic (as the Iranians do vis-a-vis all things Shi'a).

Thanks to the ascendancy of Russia, Iran and Turkey as the new power brokers in the region, combined with the seeming acquiescence of the United States, Bashar al-Asad will almost certainly remain as the President of Syria.

* Personal note: I lived in Syria - it is not a Jeffersonian democracy. The president's seemingly principled adherence to the Syrian constitution is sanctimonious and hypocritical - I saw how little concern the regime has for legal or constitutional values. For more, see this article I wrote when Bashar al-Asad was elected to the presidency on the death of his father in 2000, Syria - Next Target of the Bush Administration?

January 6, 2017

Turkish threat to limit access to Incirlik Air Base - a collision course?

A U.S. Air Force F-16 takes off from Incirlik Air Base

As I have warned in the past, the United States and Turkey are on a collision course over events in northern Syria. The tensions revolve around the fight against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS), a fight in which both countries are on the same side.

Turkey, a NATO ally, has allowed the United States and other members of the American-led coalition to use its air bases in southern Turkey, particularly Incirlik Air Base near Adana. Sorties launched from the base can get to the operations area in a matter of minutes rather than the hours it takes when operating from bases in the Arab Gulf states.

Several senior Turkish officials have made thinly-veiled threats that they may terminate American access to the base if the situation is not resolved. To the Turks, that means having it their way.

If they refuse to allow American combat aircraft to operate from Incirlik, it will have a serious impact on operations directly supporting the eventual assault on the ISIS stronghold/capital city of al-Raqqah.

To understand the issue between the two NATO allies, we need to look at the two separate anti-ISIS military operations currently underway in northern Syria.

First, we have an operation - Operation Euphrates Shield - launched by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that has successfully pushed ISIS back all the way from the Turkish border in an area north of Aleppo and west of the Euphrates River to the city of al-Bab, with the final objective being the liberation of al-Raqqah. The FSA is being supported by Turkish airpower, armor, artillery and special forces - the Turks have lost several of its troops, including two soldiers who were taken prisoner by ISIS and later burned alive.

The Turks believe it would be better if this force liberated al-Raqqah, because the FSA are mostly Sunni Arabs, and will be welcomed by the local population. I think that is a fair assessment, but the problem is one of geography, not demographics. The Turkish supported FSA force near al-Bab is almost 100 miles from al-Raqqah - it will take many weeks, if not many months for this force to reach al-Raqqah.

On the other side of the issue, there is the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF, or QSD in Arabic), comprised of Syrian Arabs and Syrian Kurds, some from an organization known as the YPG. This group presents itself as Arab-Kurdish cooperation, and is an attempt to put to present a less-threatening image of Kurdish participation in the fight against ISIS. The Kurds comprise the bulk of the SDF and constitute the most effective force facing ISIS.

Why is Kurdish participation in the fight against ISIS a problem? The Turks consider the YPG to be nothing more than an arm of the Kurdish PKK, or Kurdistan Workers Party, which has been branded a terrorist group by the U.S. and Turkey. The Turks are alarmed at even the merest hint of Kurdish nationalism or autonomy in either Syria or Iraq, believing any such movement will spill over into southern Turkey.

Elements of the U.S.-supported SDF are now less than 20 miles from al-Raqqah and will soon be approaching the city. The United States believes time is of the essence - the Central Command claims to have evidence that attacks on Western targets are being planned in al-Raqaah and may be launched at any time. Thus, the U.S. advocates an SDF attack on the city as soon as they are in position.

Although I have no direct evidence to refute this, my reading of what little uncensored information leaking out of al-Raqqah seems to indicate that the people of al-Raqqah are totally terrified by ISIS and would welcome any relief, hoping that even a Kurdish liberating force would be better than ISIS and at some point life would return to normal under a Syrian (read: Arab) government.

For more detailed explanation of the politics involved, please see my article, More U.S. troops to Syria - a showdown with the Turks?

The issue is further complicated by increased Turkish-Russian (and Iranian) consultations and possible future cooperation in the fight against ISIS and the future of Syria. They are working on both issues, and have purposely excluded the Obama Administration from participating in these talks. Russian President Vladimir Putin has hinted that after Donald Trump becomes president, they may include the United States.

There is a compromise on base access that might work. One of the complaints voiced by the Turks is the hesitation of the United States to provide air support to Turkish forces operating in the fighting near al-Bab. If the Americans agree to dedicate some of its close air support sorties to supporting the Turks, they may drop their threats to limit access to Incirlik.

I have said this in the past, and I will reiterate it. The United States and Turkey are NATO allies - they need to start acting like it.

The al-Raqqah and Kurd issue is another matter, as are the warming relations between Ankara, Moscow and Tehran.

One step at a time.