Saturday, November 12, 2016

The mysterious Mosul offensive

It is now about a month ago that Iraq started its offensive to retake Mosul from ISIS - with the support of the US.

From the beginning it has appeared as a weird operation to me. There was just too much territory around Mosul that needed to be conquered first. And they weren't even close to surrounding the city. It looks to me as a politically motivated operation - most likely Obama wants to have this finished before he hands over power to Trump. He must be well aware that the fall of Mosul - and his initial passive reaction to it - are among the biggests errors of his heritage.

But while it may make political sense it doesn't make much military sense. As it is unlikely that the ISIS defenses will break down it means that increasingly exhausted troops may increasingly get stuck in ISIS defenses.

The normal logic of a military offensive is that you assemble a lot of troops and material at one of a few locations so that at that location your forces are clearly superior to those of your enemy. Then you overrun his defenses and look how far you can come. However, unless the enemy defenses totally collapse you will find after a couple of days that your numeric superiority has evaporated and that you are suffering increasingly heavy losses against a well entrenched enemy. It is then time to stop and resupply and to consider what would be the best location and tactic for the next attack.

It looks like in Mosul that rhythm has been broken by the pressure for military success. There seems to be no strategy at all. It is attacking on all fronts and keeping attacking. And yet Tel Afar on the supply line of ISIS to Syria is protected by Turkey. Rumors are that already 3500 anti-ISIS fighters died. ISIS members who flee towards Syria are left unharmed. Very little is done to bridge the gap between Sunnites and Shiites.

Compare this to what is happening in Aleppo. First the government surrounded East Aleppo. Then it took some time to conquer the North of that area, a mainly industrial area that was relatively easy to conquer. Then it mainly let the siege do its own work and focused on the area to the West of Aleppo while keeping the pressure up in the East with occasional attacks and threats.

It is generally expected that it is a matter of time before the rebels lose East Aleppo. For Mosul the scenario is less clear. If ISIS is driven out it may well be a matter of brute force with a lot of American involvement that will leave the city devastated. Unlike the Russians in Syria the US in Iraq seems unable to forge a broad alliance that can provide future stability.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

7 Reasons why the US bombing of Syrian Army positions was no accident

Does anyone still believe that the bombing in Deir Ezzor was an accident? Let me list the indications that is was not:
- conflicting reports: some say that the area had been observed by the US for days. Others that the decision was made on the spot.
- the Pentagon is trying to deflect the attention with an investigation whether the targeted soldiers were "former prisoners turned into makeshift conscript soldiers". Of course this is completely irrelevant.
- ISIS was ready and attacked immediately after the bombing
- strategic importance: this was not just the killing of a few of the thousands of Syrian soldiers in the area. It was a very strategic attack that gave ISIS control over the mountains near the airport and that way makes it impossible for the Syrian army to use the airport for its supplies. It may well lead to the fall of Deir Ezzor to ISIS.
- the Pentagon had made it very clear that they didn't like the truce. This was the perfect way to sabotage it.
- it is the second US led attack on Syrian government positions in the East of Syria. Previously we saw the US had the Kurds attack government positions in Hasakah. Note also that the US did nothing when in May 2015 ISIS conquered Palmyra and according to reports considered it even a good development. Interestingly now too the US had its allies (Danes, Australians and Brits) doing the dirty work.
- If the US had really felt sorry about inadvertently helping ISIS it would acknowledged the damage that it had caused - now it suggested just to have killed some Syrian troops that it didn't like anyway -, it would have transferred the responsible commander, appointed some high ranking person to lead the investigation, involved at least one of the other countries that had participated in the bombing and made some other moves to make it clear that it really regretted what happened. We saw nothing of it. Other than a vague announcement of an investigation the US acted as if nothing had happened.
- And then there was the performance of Samantha Power, one of the leading neocons, at the United Nations. She didn't show any regret at all and was in full attack mode.
- the timing of the attack - one day before the Russian elections - may have been no coincidence.
- When Russia contacted its American contact person for monitoring the truce he initially wasn't there. Only on a second attempt did they succeed in contacting and was the air attack on Deir Ezzor cancelled - after nearly an hour. Here too, the Pentagon is in attack mode, calling the first Russian call incoherent and blaming that for that reason they weren't understood well. This doesn't show any regret or desire for improvement. It is a deliberate insult that can only harm the cooperation.
- And finally there is that attack on the aid convoy. We see the classical contradicting statements: first the US claimed that Syrian planes did it and later they shifted the accusations towards the Russians, claiming that the Syrian army was not advanced enough to have done this. Yet rebels claimed that barrel bombs had barrel bombs had been used - a specialty of the Syrian army. In fact the attack carries all the classical symptoms of a false flag incident: the Syrians and Russians had nothing to gain from it while for the US and the rebels it comes very convenient to detract the attention from the Deir Ezzor incident and to have one more reason to end the truce.

See this article: US strikes on Syrian troops: Report data contradicts 'mistake' claims:
The report, released by US Central Command on 29 November, shows that senior US Air Force officers at the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at al-Udeid Airbase in Qatar, who were responsible for the decision to carry out the September airstrike at Deir Ezzor:
• misled the Russians about where the US intended to strike so Russia could not warn that it was targeting Syrian troops
• ignored information and intelligence analysis warning that the positions to be struck were Syrian government rather than Islamic State
• shifted abruptly from a deliberate targeting process to an immediate strike in violation of normal Air Force procedures
The Russians were informed that the targets were nine kilometres south of Deir Ezzor airfield: they were actually only three and six kilometres from that airfield, respectively, according to the summary of its findings.
Originally, the CAOC had initiated a process called “Deliberate Targeting”, which is used for fixed targets and requires extensive and time-consuming work to ensure the accuracy of the intelligence on the targets, according to the report. But that had been changed abruptly to “Dynamic Targeting”, which involves “fleeting targets” – those that are either moving or about to move - for which intelligence requirements are less stringent.
The authors of the report found that change to be improper, given that the sites being targeted were clearly identified as defensive positions and could not justify such a switch to a hastily prepared strike. But again, it offers no explanation as to why.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

What's wrong with "Wir schaffen das" [Merkel]

On 31 August 2015 Merkel for the first used her now (in)famous sentence "Wir schaffen das" when discussing the increase of refugees. In many circles it was greeted as a courageous and moral standing. I beg to disagree.

It is a well known principle that the best place for refugees is neighboring countries. Yet the UN is complaining that is receiving less and less money to support the Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. And the EU has cut at least as much as the rest of the world. Money can't be the problem: The total the UN asks for is 4.5 Billion dollar but it receives only a fraction of that. Yet the EU is spending much more on receiving the refugees and on paying off Turkey.

The EU has a problem that a large part of the refugees are economic refugees. Even many Syrians are not fleeing the violence but the economic catastrophe that is caused by the violence. In such a situation an experienced politician like Merkel knows that although you may do your best to receive refugees in a decent way it is not wise to say anything that might be explained by would-be refugees as an encouragement. It is puzzling that she did it anyway.

Then there is Turkey. Turkey was at that moment already trying to blackmail the EU by flooding it with refugees.In that light encouraging refugees to come was puzzling. Unfortunately Merkel's behavior towards Erdogan would become even more puzzling. In the refugee agreement she insisted on giving Erdogan largely what he wanted. Strange - you should punish blackmailers, not rewards them. By giving Erdogan what he wanted - including a visa-free travel agreement - and by going to Istanbul and telling the press there that the refugee agreement had brought Turkey closer to an EU membership Merkel helped Erdogan to win the elections a few months later.

The refugees are fleeing for the war in Syria. Turkey plays an important part in that war as the insurgents are mainly supplied through its territory. For a long time Turkey actively prevented refugees from travelling further towards the EU - seeing them as a reservoir from which it could recruit more rebel fighters. It is not really clear why it suddenly changed its policies and opened the gates. One theory is that it wanted to put the EU under pressure to do more to support the uprising. Other theories point to the fact that the US is supporting Merkel's position and mention old theories that Merkel is a CIA asset. They point to America's military doctrine that wants to prevent that the rising of dominant countries on other continents - including Europe.

The EU has largely supported Turkey's and America's active support of the uprising. Yet this constitutes a severe violation of international law. Stopping that support would soon end the war and the refugee crisis. Yet this option is considered taboo.

Merkel's "Wir schaffen das" was also undemocratic. She didn't have any mandate from the German parliament when she opened the door with her statement. It was a solo action. And it is by now widely detested among the population. She doubled down when next she tried to force the other EU countries to open their doors for refugees too.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Pentagon believes ISIS is weakened. In their dreams...

The Pentagon believes that ISIS is weakened. They point to its rather easy loss of Manbij and Jarablus.

They are dreaming. ISIS didn't lose Jarablus. The Turkish army occupied it for them so that the Kurds can't touch it. The ties between Turkey and ISIS are old and there is no reason to believe that Erdogan's talk about fighting ISIS as an excuse for his invasion in Syria is anything else than lies. The "conquest" of Jarablus happened almost without a fight and recent reports show a lot of fighting against Kurds, but none against ISIS. So there is no reason at all that the "fall" of Jarablus weakened ISIS.

Also, if ISIS had experienced the Turkish invasion as a major threat one would have expected them to send troops to the north of Syria to fight the Turks. Yet it looks like the opposite is happening. ISIS is attacking the Kurds south of Manbij and it has also started a major offensive against the Syrian government in the Palmyra region.

The story of Manbij is a more complex one. Once upon a time ISIS fought tooth and nail to occupy Kobani. They were on a winning streak and they didn't want to lose their aura of invincibility. In the end they had to conclude that this was foolish: they sent scores of men into death without any chance of success. Since then they have given up cities rather easy when coming under pressure. In many cases - like Manbij, Ramadi and Fallujah - they cut an agreement with their opponents that gave them the opportunity to withdraw. I don't know about Palmyra, but I wouldn't be astonished if there had been some kind of agreement there too when ISIS lost control.

ISIS is following standard a insurgent strategy, as described by Mao and others. They occupy cities when they see a chance and they appreciate the propaganda benefits of such actions. But their roots are in the countryside from where they can attack when it suits them. They know better now than holding cities at all costs.

Friday, August 26, 2016

The US-Turkish "Save ISIS" operation

The Kurds must be banging their heads against the wall for their stupidity in attacking the Syrian Army in Hasakah. They fueled Turkish fears about a Kurdish state - and doing so gave the Turkish army an excuse to invade. At the same time they antagonised the Syrian Army - that otherwise might have done something to help them. And by attacking Syria's legal government they reduced the threshold for the Turkish army to violate Syrian sovereignty. Either they were really stupid or their adversaries seduced them in some very clever Machiavellian scheme to do some very stupid things. As the Kurds have said that they don't do anything without the consent of the US, that raises awkward questions about the role of the US here.

They might not have known the details, but the Kurds could have known they made a mistake. The time just isn't there for a Kurdish state with Turkey and Iran rabidly opposed and in a position to fight it. Not to mention that neither Iraq nor Syria is resigned to let its Kurds go and that in neither country the borders from such a Kurdish state are clear. So the smart thing for the Kurds is to get a good position for when negotiations will take place. And in the case of Syria keeping their liberal autonomy without the repression of Assad is probably the maximum that can be achieved for now. And even that only once the war is coming to an end.

Another issue is that there are much too much Arabs living in the north of Syria - specially in the middle where they constitute a wide majority of the population. Assuming that a Kurdish state will cover that whole territory is just not realistic. Not to mention that it alarms both Turkey and the local Arab population. So the smart thing would have been to keep quiet and claim that they were only building temporary structures and that only after the war there would be negotiations where a definitive solution would be decided - taking into account the wishes of the local Arab population. Even for Kurds with more radical ideals it would have been wise to adopt that position for tactical reasons.

After having conquered Manbij the Kurds were in a position to make life hard for ISIS. If they conquered Al Bab - what they declared to be their next goal - they would be close to the government held Kuweires airbase east of Aleppo. Connecting with them would cut the ISIS territory in two. That would cut their supply lines to Turkey - generally believed to be a supporter of ISIS. It looks like that prospect was too much both for Turkey and the US. So this is in essence about saving ISIS. And while the Turks attacked Jarabulus the Americans put heavy pressure on the Kurds to withdraw from Manbij. Reports about whether they are complying are contradicting.

That impression is strengthened with the first reports from the ground that there were almost no casualties: one rebel and zero Turkish soldiers died. Locals reported from Jarablus that ISIS fighters went to Turkey by car and came back with a different uniform.

The situation in South Syria - where ISIS maintains territories that can only be supplies via territories held by other rebel groups - provides little hope that the rebels that Turkey is sending in will do anything against ISIS.

Turkish public opinion generally is opposed to foreign adventures like this one. They fear getting stuck in swamp at the cost of the lives of many Turkish soldiers. ISIS could easily have played on those fears by making the Turkish entry deadly. It didn't. On the other hand we saw on the eve of the attack a bombing of a Kurdish wedding in south Turkey. This may well have been a false flag operation by the Turkish army to prepare the popular mood for the operation. Both the target - Kurds - and the conflicting information about this attack - Turkey later withdrew its initial claim that the attack had been made by a teenager - suggest so.

Initial reports from Turkey claim that 15000 troops are ready to participate and that the aim is to secure the border between Jabavulus and Marea (some 70 km). "We want to secure the border before moving south", according to a rebel. The first reports of clashes with Kurds from the SDF are there.

One puzzling question is the role of the Syrian government and Russia. Both reacted very slow and reticent. They certainly can't complain that the action surprised them as the preparations were clear. The head of the Turkish secret service Fidan has been in Damascus frequently recently and very likely discussed the issue. There may be a secret clause in old treaty that gives Turkey the right to invade to fight PKK. Moscow too knew about the attack before. Very likely both fell for the "Kurdish state" red herring. What Turkey is now implementing is something it asked for already three years ago when the Kurds were hardly visible. So although they may now have more reasons to point to Kurdish expansionism, I can't see that as the main reason for Turkey's invasion. Neither do I expect that Turkey will limit its actions to what serves that purpose.

In my opinion the Kurdish rise was mainly a threat to Turkey because it gave the PKK hope. However, for Syria it never was a serious threat. Yet the hysteria is widespread. There are now even reports about a new Arab anti-YPG group in Afrin.

Finally there is the US position. Some people have explained Biden's appeal to the Kurds to withdraw East of the Euphrates as a sign that the rift between Ankara and Washington is not real and may just have been theatre to build bridges towards Moscow. Some see even the coup as a theatre co-production between them. However, I tend to the view that it was real. I read some where that Biden was met at the airport by a low ranking official. My impression is that the Turks told the US that they would invade Syria and that they told that to the US as a matter of fact, that Biden went to Ankara to save what could be saved and that the Turks told him that the best the Kurds could do is to get out of the way and east of the Euphrates. Erdogan may even be blackmailing the Americans - for example by threatening to close Incirlik for them.

In the mean time Obama keeps talking about Raqqa. But conquering Raqqa is useless. The city is a symbol because it was the first big city conquered by ISIS. But conquering symbols is not a strategy. It is not impossible to get the city, but what then. It will be like Palmyra. It was conquered a long time ago by the Syrian army yet it stays vulnerable to attacks from ISIS. In the open desert one would need to conquer a perimeter of at least a hundred kilometer to be a bit safe. Unfortunately it looks like Obama isn't interested in a structural solution. He only wants a symbolic victory and the accompanying positive pr.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

The Times goes full speed against the Iran deal

The NY Times has in its magazine of this week a portrait of Ben Rhodes, the "Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting." of the Obama administration ("The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama’s Foreign-Policy Guru"). It is a full blown attack against the Iran deal and Obama's lack of involvement in Syria.

One can only be puzzled what moved Rhodes to invite the author - David Samuels - to report on his work. Maybe Rhodes, who once studied creative writing, saw in him a kindred spirit. Anyway, the article is a hatchet job, and - besides Rhodes - its main target is Obama's foreign policy.

Some have taken the article as a praise of Rhodes. The article starts with describing how brilliant he is and what a good job he has done a.o. reporting for the Iraq Study Group and writing speeches for Obama. But that praise is restricted to Rhodes writing skills and used as an explanation for his influence. Samuels then turns to attack his understanding of international relations and suggests that his brilliance in writing has given him undue and very harmful influence on Obama's foreign policy.

Rhodes switched to International Relations after 9/11 and has since built quite a reputation for his ability to understand complex situations. He played an important role in writing the report of the Iraq Study Group and was closely involved in the negotiations with Iran. Yet Samuels paints him as an amateur writer who - because he never studied international relations - isn't qualified to have anything to do with international relations. Never mind that Clinton and Kerry didn't study international relations either. Never mind that Rhodes worked in the field for almost 15 years.

But it becomes worse. He accuses Rhodes of lying to sell the Iran deal in the US. He uses a classical straw man argument tactic, first suggesting that the deal was sold as the result of the election of "moderates" in Iran and then claiming that much of the agreement was already settled before. In fact everyone knew that there were negotiations before 2012. The election of Rouhani just made it easier to conclude and sell the deal.

Sure, Rhodes isn't a saint. He is the kind of cynic who looks down on many of the press and the foreign policy experts. But such arrogance is quite common for young professionals who shine in their profession and haven't had much public exposure. Yet Samuels makes a major effort to enlarge this behavior and make it look like a major character defect.

And then - in the last quarter of the text - Samuels goes for the kill. He visits a lot of "experts", mostly anonymous, and draws devastating conclusions: Rhodes doesn't listen to people with different opinions. He doesn't care if Iran gets the bomb. He never changes his mind. He is naive and not grown up. Iraq is Rhodes' one-word answer to criticism. And as a result of Rhodes's pushing "We" are trying to strong-arm Syrian rebels into surrendering to the dictator who murdered their families and "We" insist on allowing Iran to maintain its supply lines to Hezbollah. Journalists who do have some respect for Rhodes are robots who spread his propaganda.

All over the internet one can now find articles demonizing Rhodes and claiming that we were lied to about the Iran deal.

However, the longer one studies the article, the less of it keeps standing. There is no coherent story about how Rhodes thinks. Samuels looks ridiculous when he - after having blamed Rhodes for not having an education in international relations - criticizes Rhodes views in a very superficial way. He has fixed ideas about Iran and Syria and just cannot accept that Rhodes has different ideas. It looks like Samuels has done some cherry picking among the experts in order to get the results that he was looking for. But here too there is no consistent story.

Usually the moderation of comments section of the Times is rather objective, trying to give both sides in a discussion a voice. This article is among the 5% exceptions: only comments critical of Rhodes and the Iran deal are published. It looks like this isn't over yet.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

A reaction to Obama’s interview with The Atlantic

I was left a bit puzzled by Obama's view on America's position in the world, as reflected in his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg.

Far from leading, the US is usually the country that stays behind. There are many UN resolutions and treaties were the US is the only or one of the few countries that do not participate. The kind of leadership that the US usually provides is that - by stopping to hit the brakes - it finally allows things to go forward.

Obama criticizes Europe for doing enough to get Libya on track after the overthrow of Gaddafi. Obama misses here the lesson that the Europeans have learned from the 1956 Suez crisis when their operations were sabotaged by the US: do nothing on areas where the US has its own interests and might overrule you. In the case of Libya the US had its contacts and favorites among the new Libyan leaders. One could bet that those would run to the US embassy if they felt they didn't get an important enough role - and would be warmly welcomed there. So - given the inaction from the US - it was predictable that the Europeans wouldn't do anything too.

Obama's attitude towards America's allies is puzzling. He was led by Brittain and France into a war against Libya, he is supporting Saudi Arabia in its war against Yemen. And he has rewarded rather than punished increasingly outrageous behavior of Netanjahu. Sure, he criticises those countries. But isn't it a bit ridiculous: a superpower led around by its vasals? Where is the US leadership?

Obama is not the first one to see tribalism in the Middle East. Bush used the same excuse when his Iraq project went wrong. However, both in Libya and Iraq tribalism was much less of a problem before the US intervention. Each time it was the polarization caused by the US that made it a problem.

Nobody would argue that it would be good to shoot an US president and then install his murderer. Everybody is aware that such a killing would have fargoing consequences for the political climate in the country and destroy a lot of trust between people. Yet that is what the US regularly does in other countries. Obama has done more regime change operations than any president before him - oblivious to the fact that such operations always have serious destabilizing effects. Even worse, he has never made any effort to minimize those effects.

Obama's call for an Islamic reformation is bound to fail. Things don't work that way. People change when they feel a need. Not when they are told that they are oldfashioned. Turkey has a rather modern Islam because after the loss of the Ottoman empire it felt the need to reform. Saudi Arabia - on the other hand - never has felt this need thanks to its oil wealth. So it can stick to its medieval convictions and even export them. This export - both explicitly with its support for radical mosques and schools and implicitly by returning guest workers - is what is holding the Arab world back. Here lies also the real ground of the Saudi fear of Iran: its combination of religious conservatism and rather modern policies is an ideological challenge to the Saud dynasty.