Thursday, December 29, 2016

Russia, Turkey, Iran eye dicing Syria into zones of influence

COMMENTARY: What a surprise?

Putin is employing the historic solution to problems in the Near East and Europe—a form of partition and sphere of influence. Russia and its Iranian/Alawite clients get what they want and the neo-Ottoman Turks get their desired “Sunni slice.” The key players with serious stakes in the outcome—Iran, Turkey, Russia--win, no one loses. As always, Washington is condemning any arrangement that did not originate with a Washington initiative. However, this approach is likely to work far better than anything Washington might impose through its deranged ideological prism of multi-cultural liberal democracy.

Tsarist Russia brokered the end of the last formal Ottoman-Persian War in 1823 by persuading all parties to reaffirm the 1639 border between the two powers that is the contemporary Iraq-Iran border. A subsequent peace was brokered by Moscow in 1847 yet again, this time with London’s participation. This peace also reaffirmed the 1639 border. Russia’s role in the region is not without historical precedent.

For the West, Putin’s approach provides is more evidence for Putin’s realpolitik. We in the West should take note.
Cheers, Doug

Russia, Turkey, Iran eye dicing Syria into zones of influence

By Andrew Osborn and Orhan Coskun | MOSCOW/ANKARA
Syria would be divided into informal zones of regional power influence and Bashar al-Assad would remain president for at least a few years under an outline deal between Russia, Turkey and Iran, sources say.
Such a deal, which would allow regional autonomy within a federal structure controlled by Assad's Alawite sect, is in its infancy, subject to change and would need the buy-in of Assad and the rebels and, eventually, the Gulf states and the United States, sources familiar with Russia's thinking say.
"There has been a move toward a compromise," said Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a think tank close to the Russian Foreign Ministry.
"A final deal will be hard, but stances have shifted." 
Assad's powers would be cut under a deal between the three nations, say several sources. Russia and Turkey would allow him to stay until the next presidential election when he would quit in favor of a less polarizing Alawite candidate. 
Iran has yet to be persuaded of that, say the sources. But either way Assad would eventually go, in a face-saving way, with guarantees for him and his family. 
"A couple of names in the leadership have been mentioned (as potential successors)," said Kortunov, declining to name names.
Nobody thinks a wider Syrian peace deal, something that has eluded the international community for years, will be easy, quick or certain of success. What is clear is that President Vladimir Putin wants to play the lead role in trying to broker a settlement, initially with Turkey and Iran
That would bolster his narrative of Russia regaining its mantle as a world power and serious Middle East player.
"It's a very big prize for them if they can show they're out there in front changing the world," Sir Tony Brenton, Britain's former ambassador to Moscow, told Reuters. "We've all grown used to the United States doing that and had rather forgotten that Russia used to play at the same level"


If Russia gets its way, new peace talks between the Syrian government and the opposition will begin in mid-January in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, a close Russian ally. The talks would be distinct from intermittent U.N.-brokered negotiations and not initially involve the United States. That has irritated some in Washington.

"So this country that essentially has an economy the size of Spain, that's Russia, is strutting around and acting like they know what they are doing," said one U.S. official, who declined to be named because of the subject's sensitivity. 

"I don't think the Turks and the Russians can do this (political negotiations) without us." Foreign and defense ministers from Russia, Turkey and Iran met in Moscow on Dec. 20 and set out the principles they thought any Syria deal should adhere to. Russian sources say the first step is to get a nationwide ceasefire and then to get talks underway. The idea would then be to get Gulf states involved, then the United States, and at a later stage the European Union which would be asked, maybe with the Gulf states, to pick up the bill for rebuilding. The three-way peace push is, at first glance, an odd one. 

Iran, Assad's staunchest backer, has provided militia fighters to help Assad, Russia has supplied air strikes, while Turkey has backed the anti-Assad rebels. Putin has struck a series of backroom understandings with his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan to ease the path to a possible deal, several sources familiar with the process say. 
Moscow got Iran to buy into the idea of a three-way peace push by getting Turkey to drop its demands for Assad to go soon, the same sources said. 
"Our priority is not to see Assad go, but for terrorism to be defeated," one senior Turkish government official, who declined to be named, said.
"It doesn't mean we approve of Assad. But we have come to an understanding. When Islamic State is wiped out, Russia may support Turkey in Syria finishing off the PKK."
Turkey views the YPG militia and its PYD political wing as extensions of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has long waged an insurgency in its largely Kurdish southeast.
"Of course we have disagreements with Iran," said the same Turkish official. "We view some issues differently, but we are coming to agreements to end mutual problems." 
Aydin Sezer, head of the Turkey and Russia Centre of Studies, an Ankara-based think tank, said Turkey had now "completely given up the issue of regime change" in Syria.
Turkey's public position remains strongly anti-Assad however and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Wednesday a political transition with Assad was impossible.
Brenton, Britain's former ambassador, said Moscow and Ankara had done a deal because Moscow had needed Turkey to get the opposition out of Aleppo and to come to the negotiating table.
"The real flesh in the game the Turks have, and the fear they have, is of an autonomous Kurdistan emerging inside Syria that would have direct implications for them," he said.
Ankara launched an incursion into Syria, "Operation Euphrates Shield", in August to push Islamic State out of a 90-km (55-mile) stretch of frontier territory and ensure Kurdish militias did not gain more territory in Syria.
The shifting positions of Moscow and Ankara are driven by realpolitik. Russia doesn't want to get bogged down in a long war and wants to hold Syria together and keep it as an ally.
Turkey wants to informally control a swathe of northern Syria giving it a safe zone to house refugees, a base for the anti-Assad opposition, and a bulwark against Kurdish influence.
The fate of al-Bab, an Islamic State-held city around 40 km (25 miles) northeast of Aleppo, is also a factor. Erdogan is determined that Turkish-backed rebels capture the city to prevent Kurdish militias from doing so. 
Several sources said there had been an understanding between Ankara and Moscow that rebels could leave Aleppo to help take al-Bab. 
Iran's interests are harder to discern, but Ali Akbar Velayati, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's top adviser, said Aleppo's fall might alter a lot in the region.
By helping Assad retake Aleppo, Tehran has secured a land corridor that connects Tehran to Beirut, allowing it to send arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon. 
Russian and Western diplomatic sources say Iran would insist on keeping that corridor and on Assad staying in power for now. If he did step down, Tehran would want him replaced with another Alawite, which it sees as the closest thing to Shia Islam.
Iran may be the biggest stumbling block to a wider deal. 
Iranian Defence Minister Hossein Dehghan has said Saudi Arabia must not take part in talks because of its stance on Assad - Riyadh wants the Syrian leader to step down. 
Scepticism about the prospects for a wider deal abounds.
Dennis Ross, an adviser to Democratic and Republican administrations, now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he did not think a deal would bring peace to Syria. 
"I doubt this will end the war in Syria even after Aleppo," Ross told Reuters. "Assad's presence will remain a source of conflict with the opposition."  

(Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova in Moscow, Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in Beirut, William Maclean in Dubai, Ece Toksabay, David Dolan, Arshad Mohammed, Phil Stewart and Yeganeh Torbati in Washington; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Top U.S. General: Two More Years to Beat ISIS

COMMENTARY: Iraqi Forces taken heavy casualties, are facing considerable increases in AWOL rates for Federal Police & regular Army units. Baghdad has emptied its logistical pipeline.

As a result, Baghdad will not launch a major offensive until US reinforcements show up to spearhead a Spring '17 offensive.  Think of it as "Surge Two" -- like most movie sequels, if the original was bad, the sequel[s] will be worse. 

"No more Vietnams" means once committed, we can never leave, because of the investment of blood and treasure the first time around requires "perseverance" to get the RoI.  The idea that the "original" action was a policy failure and wrong is rejected as "defeatism."

In truth, Tehran should be tasked with the mission to defend its satellite State in Baghdad, not the U.S. Armed Forces and the American Taxpayer. 

December 25, 2016

Top U.S. General: Two More Years to Beat ISIS
It wasn’t that long ago that the Pentagon was talking about taking down ISIS’s strongholds ASAP. Now, victory might not come until late 2018. Maybe.

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The general commanding coalition forces in Iraq predicts it will take two years of hard work to clear the so-called Islamic State from its twin capitals of Mosul and Raqqa, and then to burn out the remnants that will likely flee to the vast empty desert between Syria and Iraq.

In a Christmas Day sit-down with The Daily Beast at his headquarters, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend would not put specific timelines on the battle. But he mapped out a grinding campaign that he thinks is going slowly but as well as can be expected, considering how much time ISIS had to prepare and how brutal its fighters are willing to be.

“A fighter walking out of a building will hold a child over his head so we can see him through ISR until he reaches another building,” he said, using the military acronym for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.

The grim battle against ISIS is taking place against a backdrop of continuing sectarian tension in Iraq, which could get worse if newly empowered militia groups let their influence go to their heads. A new Iraqi law that goes into force this week makes militia forces here legal. Such groups—especially Iranian backed Shiite armed forces—have been accused of war crimes against Iraq’s Sunni minority. The U.S. has ordinarily eyed these units warily.

But Townsend, in an unusual statement for an American commander, said these militias been been “remarkably disciplined” allies since he arrived. That assessment marks a stark contrast with his previous tours, when deadly Iranian-manufactured bombs almost hit his vehicle, and took the lives of many of his troops.

The coalition footprint is much smaller than the 100,000-plus of Townsend’s previous tours in Iraq—somewhere south of 10,000 when troops on short term duty are added to the count. At the headquarters compound, soldiers were taking a brief break from work on Christmas to stage a spoon relay race in a hallway. One soldier dressed as Santa cheered competitors to the finish line, while those watching swigged nonalcoholic cider for some semblance of Christmas cheer.

The headquarters is tucked inside the sprawling “Green Zone” which the U.S. used to run, now turned over to Iraqi control. The Americans feel very much like visitors. U.S. authority extends to the gate of the compound—all outside is done with Iraqi government permission. Townsend’s team is very aware they are there to help, not to lead.

The Baghdad team, together with the northern based task force of special operations and conventional forces, feed a steady stream of intelligence from overhead drones to Iraqi forces on the ground. Most advisors are at Iraqi headquarters, though special ops “trainers” have joined their Iraqi advisees on missions, and the U.S. troops are also allowed to do unilateral raids with Iraqi permission.

In the process, Townsend’s forces are exposed to sights they will never forget.

“Beheading with a knife isn’t good enough anymore,” Townsend said of ISIS’s fighters. He said they use blow torches, chainsaws, and even bulldozers to crush rows of people. The coalition tries to stop such macabre displays by striking targets nearby, but that seldom helps.

A key challenge is to assist without causing insult. Sometimes, that means getting stuck between being honest with the U.S. media, while Iraqi generals are being less than forthcoming in a country where openly admitting mistakes or difficulties is not the done thing.

For instance, in the last couple of weeks, Iraqi generals told the local press that they were not pausing the Mosul assault.

But Townsend said Iraqi forces had indeed paused in their charge into Mosul over the past week or so, 60 days into their campaign, to take stock and resupply, with casualties in some units as high as 30 percent. It’s something U.S. advisors had warned them they might have to do.

“People need to rest. They need to assess how things are going because they are not going as fast as we thought,” he said.

The Iraqis are now moving in fresh reinforcements, ammunition, and taking time to repair vehicles broken in the headlong onslaught into western Mosul—all things the U.S. Army did in its 2003 charge on Baghdad when it paused on its way to taking the capital, Townsend said.

He said Iraqi generals commanding the fight met for a “lessons learned” session last week, and were forthright about what was working and what failed in battle.

The largest threat the Iraqi forces face comes from armored car bombs. Townsend showed a photo of one—a 2015 Jeep Cherokee that had been professionally armored and even fitted with a gun turret. There was even a platform on the back of the vehicle where suicide vest bombers can hang on until they reach the target.

The Iraqi army is learning to send its tanks into battle into the city—something Townsend said U.S. forces had to learn the hard way after fighting inside Iraqi urban areas.

“Quite honestly, I don’t think we trained them to do that,” he said. “They are learning to do it in combat.”

He said now the Iraqi ground forces are learning to clear houses alongside tank units, with the tank units protecting their progress from armored car bombs, or blasting holes in the side of houses so ground forces can pour in to clear them without going through booby trapped doors.

Townsend had praise for the rapid progress of the so-called Popular Mobilization Forces—mostly Shiite militias who stormed up to the outskirts of ISIS stronghold Tel Afar, west of Mosul, keeping off fighters from traveling back and forth with supplies or information.

“The PMF did advance more rapidly than we expected and they’ve done a good job,” he said.

The PMF are made up of several dozen irregular militia groups of every religious and political stripe in Iraq including Sunni and even Christian, but the majority are Shiite. Some groups formed to fight the U.S. after the 2003 invasion, and others formed after Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, issued a fatwa or religious order calling on Iraqis to take up arms after ISIS seized large parts of Iraq in 2014.

Iraq’s Parliament recently passed a law making such groups legal, and placing them under the umbrella of the Iraqi armed forces, though answering directly to Iraq’s Prime Minister Haidar al Abadi.

Spokesman for the PMF Ahmad Al Asady told The Daily Beast that the law goes into force on Monday, and will help professionalize the groups. Some have been accused of committing atrocities and holding Iraqis, especially minority Sunnis, in illegal detention by the hundreds—a charge Asady denies.

He said the PMF have been holding training sessions for a year to teach their fighters how to fight according to the Geneva Conventions, including workshops with the International Committee of the Red Cross and other humanitarian agencies. The ICRC in Baghdad confirmed they’d held training sessions.

Asady said they will answer directly to the Prime Minister, though he conceded his forces get significant help including battlefield advisors from Iran.

Townsend said from what he’s seen, the disparate PMF groups are acting professionally.

“Before I got here, I read all kinds of things about the PMF, and I got here and I haven’t observed that behavior,” he said. “We’re not having allegations of bad behavior or misconduct,” and that includes absolutely no threats to U.S. personnel.

“Their internal and external comms are to keep disciplined and follow the orders of the government,” he said. “They’re saying that and that’s what we’re seeing.”

Townsend believes the new law, and the newly legalized forces, could make Iraq more secure—if they become a national guard-like force, and not a “puppet” of Iran, which he says is what Iran’s Quds Force commander Qasem Suleimani would likely prefer.

The ugly alternative would be if the PMF “becomes like the Quds Force”—Tehran’s proxy forces for its wars in Syria and Yemen—“where it is an arm of Iran, an Iraqi security force that does what Iran wants it to do,” he said.

The PMF law is only a page and a half long, and very vaguely written.

“Our government is going to try to shape it,” he said. “I hope the Iraqis choose a smart path.”

He said there are no plans to dispatch U.S. advisors to the mostly Shiite units, however.
The war is grinding on against a backdrop of continuing sectarian strife in Baghdad, and a cynicism that political change is possible.

At St. George’s Catholic Church in Baghdad, where several hundred Christians gathered to celebrate Christmas, a prominent Shiite politician spoke of unity.

“Our choice after ISIS is not civil war, is not killing each other,” said Ammar Al-Hakim, one of Iraq's most powerful Shiite politicians. “The only option we have is to live together and this requires... a national reconciliation project. We will patch our wounds together.”

But he’s attended similar church services over the years, and Iraq’s Christian community has continued to dwindle from a high of 1.5 million before the U.S.-led invasion to roughly half a million now. ISIS has only made that worse, said St. George’s Father Meyassr Behnam.

“Families are leaving, maybe 100 a month,” from Baghdad, and it’s worse in the north where Christian villages have been razed by ISIS.

Outside his church was a crèche set up in what looked like a house destroyed by ISIS, and next to it, the model of a famous church in the northern Christian city of Qaraqosh, defamed by ISIS graffiti. He pointed out that the graffiti has been artfully drawn over, changing just a few letters to transform the phrase, “Islamic State in Iraq & the Levant” to “Peace is born in Iraq & the Levant.”

5 Big Reasons U.S.- China Ties Could Go Up in Flames (and On a Path to War)

By Robert Farley—Commentary by Douglas Macgregor

The sand islands in the SCS and Senkaku/Daiyou island in the ECS are militarily irrelevant. We know from WikiLeak sources that the Obama State Department was actually very irritated with the Japanese who deliberately initiated this “Island Crisis” in both locations.

We also know from publicly available Japanese documents that the Chinese and Japanese in the 1970s both agreed to shelve this issue indefinitely. The Chinese can’t nor are they willing to invade the SE Asian countries. It’s beyond the limits of their resources and military capabilities. The only country China has ever threatened to invade is Taiwan and this is based on Taiwan’s use as Japan’s unsinkable aircraft carrier and staging base from 1937 to 1945. However, China knows that directly attacking Taiwan will result in conflict with Japan. Japan treats Taiwan’s independence from China as a vital strategic interest. Thus, why would the Chinese risk war with Japan when doing so could involve the United States as well? Bottom Line: As long as Taiwan is not used as a launching point for attack on and invasion of China, Beijing will register their discontent, but otherwise leave Taiwan alone.

Trade with China should continue, however, as President Elect Trump argues, the uneven trade regime must change for the sake of American workers. Americans are unaware that President Clinton set the terms of trade with China as part of the globalization strategy. These favorable terms were based on the false assumption that trade with China would undermine the Chinese Communist Government and produce democratic reform.  Instead, our trade with China simply made China wealthy and strengthened the Communist Party’s legitimacy to rule. It was yet another monumental misunderstanding and miscalculation by US and Western globalizationists. President-elect Trump can change these terms because large American companies are already leaving China for India and SE Asia. These moves are likely to disappoint,  but the urgency associated with leaving China is the suffocating corruption and government demands inside China for greater profit sharing. It’s also part of the relentless search for cheap labor. In the end, President-elect Trump’s determination to end the American Left’s policies of punishing US industries will do more to return industry to the US than any new, negotiated trade deal with Beijing.

When it comes to North Korea, any U.S. and ROK attack on North Korea will produce forgiveness in Beijing for all of North Korea’s ridiculous and dangerous behavior. The outcome for Pyong Yang would be Beijing’s readiness to support North Korea. In truth, our strategic interests and those of our allies in the region would be better served by the unilateral withdrawal of US ground forces from both the Korean Peninsula and Okinawa. This would send an unambiguous signal to Beijing that we are totally disinterested in attacking China and facilitate an agreement worked out by the three parties with the greatest interest in North Korea: Japan, the ROK and China.

In this connection, Washington’s efforts to cultivate India as a strategic partner are wasted. India is Russia’s strategic partner, not America’s. In addition, India is not a nation; it’s a collection of very diverse states and peoples that coexist inside the construct called India. With few exceptions, India’s population, unlike China’s, lives under conditions of unimaginable poverty. Changing these conditions will likely require a century or more of development. Wise policymakers realized this truth decades ago and have adjusted their expectations of India’s role in the international system and global economy accordingly.

These points notwithstanding, a stable Pakistan is in Western interest. No one in Washington wants Pakistan and its nuclear weapons to fall into the hands of Islamist extremists. Pakistan’s harsh regime is an unavoidable necessity given the character of Pakistan’s society. We should accept this reality and move on to more productive topics for discussion with Islamabad.

Finally, no country in the SCS, or for that matter in East Asia, wants to obstruct US access to Asia’s markets and resources. None of Asia’s nations including China wants to lose access to US markets. For that reason our dealings with Asia should be economically focused. Thus, U.S. military action in the SCS or NE Asia is necessary. In fact, it would be strategically self-defeating and misguided.

December 25, 2016

Monday, December 12, 2016

Lawmakers seek Army analysis of potential BCT replacement

Army officials may be required to analyze a potential replacement of the service's brigade combat team fighting formation, according to the defense authorization conference report for fiscal year 2017.
In the report, lawmakers seek information on the potential for restructuring the Army with Reconnaissance Strike Groups, an organizational construct that would replace BCTs with groups of 5,500 to 6,000 soldiers commanded by a brigadier general. Douglas Macgregor, a retired Army colonel who developed the construct and is an executive vice president of a strategic consulting group, describe the RSG in a presentation to the Senate Armed Services Committee as a "self-contained organization for combat; organized around [intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance], strike, maneuver and sustainment."
The Senate-passed authorization bill included a provision requiring the defense secretary and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff to oversee the modeling of "an alternative Army design and operational concept" and produce a report that assesses the value of having a pilot program for the effort. The provision would also require officials to establish an office to test, evaluate, and develop and validate the "RSG's joint warfighting concept, required platforms and structure." The House bill lacks such a provision.
According to the joint explanatory statement accompanying the bill, the House receded with an amendment that requires "the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Chief of Staff of the Army, in consultation with the Commanding General, U.S. European Command, to each conduct a separate analysis of RSG organizational design and operational concepts" and provide a report to the Senate committee and the House committee. The amendment also requires "a Federally Funded Research and Development Center or 501(c)(3) to review and evaluate the reports." The document also notes that the RSG was previously outlined in the 2016 National Commission on the Future of the Army report.
According to Macgregor's memorandum to the Senate committee, the RSG is "designed to punch above its weight, mobilizing fighting power disproportionate to its size," "unlike brigade combat teams." Macgregor's statement to the NCFA states that the RSG consists of four maneuver battalions, one strike battalion, one ISR battalion and one sustainment battalion. Under a brigadier general, the RSG's "[command and control] structure consolidates more combat power under fewer headquarters allowing it to respond directly to a joint task force," according to Macgregor's statement. A colonel would serve as chief of staff in the formation, with lieutenant colonels holding primary staff positions.
The organizational construct also differs from the BCT in regard to its weapons systems. The RSG uses a common chassis vehicle, which would help the Army drive down costs and cut down on delivery times while also improving performance, Macgregor notes in the NCFA statement. The Puma infantry fighting vehicle, a six-passenger German vehicle lauded by the Congressional Budget Office in an April 2013 report as superior to both the Bradley Fighting Vehicle and the Ground Combat Vehicle in terms of capability, serves as the common chassis in the RSG. Macgregor describes the Puma as the "world's best infantry fighting vehicle."
"The Puma's 1100 horsepower engine, high power to weight ratio, modular armor plus superior suspension performance allows the mounting of larger weapon systems creating multiweapon variants on a single Puma chassis. This represents a capability that cannot be achieved with other existing platforms," Macgregor told the NCFA.
In his memorandum to the Senate panel, Macgregor highlights the importance of using the RSGs in the Army's current situation. Pointing out that the service has reduced its numbers, Macgregor describes the RSG as "a critical first step in the process of extracting more ready, deployable combat power from existing numbers of soldiers in the U.S. Army."
To test the capabilities of the RSG, Macgregor used the StrongPoint Combat Power Builder and Combat calculator, a simulation method, to assess its effectiveness against Russian forces and included the results in a presentation to the Senate committee. Labeling the results as "dramatic" in the presentation slides, Macgregor found that 23,000 Russian soldiers in independent brigades were defeated by two RSGs with 11,000 to 12,000 soldiers, whereas 28,500 U.S. soldiers structured into BCTs were defeated by the same adversary. 
-- Connie Lee