The Count 2.

Nowruz (aka Newroz, Nevroz) is the first day of Spring in the Iranian calendar.  Lots of other cultures in the region took up the celebration in the many days ago.  Among them were the Kurds, who see Nevroz as the most important holiday of the year.[1]  The holiday has assumed a nationalist form as cultural associations and veiled political parties sponsor events at which “young men wave flags of green, yellow and red, the colors of the Kurdish people.”

            Far away from Kurdistan, both in distance and in culture, is Istanbul’s Istiklal Avenue.  The street is in “Pera” or “Beyoğlu,” across the “Golden Horn” from the main part of the old city.  You pass the cheery chaos of the ferry dock; you walk across the Galata bridge; you wander through little streets that mount the hillside; and you arrive at the Galata tower.  It is the “European” part of the city with cafes, restaurants, art galleries, and many Westerners living in apartments with a bad plumbing and an excellent view of the Bosphorus.  Nearby is Taksim Square.

            Turkey might be described as having played a “bad boy” role in the recent migration crisis.  However, it has other pressing concerns as well.  On the one hand, the government is assaulting its restive Kurdish minority.  In July 2015 a truce broke down and the government turned loose its forces in southern Turkey.  On the other hand, it has belatedly engaged ISIS in neighboring Syria.  Under heavy pressure from the United States, Turkey has finally clamped down in the flow of foreign fighters through Turkey to Syria.  As a result, Turkey has been under attack by suicide bombers in recent months. ISIS has been blamed for bombings in Ankara (October 2015, 103 dead) and Istanbul (10 dead, January 2016).  For their part, Kurds have been blamed for a suicide bombing in Ankara (March 2015, 37 dead).

            On 19 March 2016, a suicide bomber blew himself up on Istiklal Avenue in Istanbul, killing three Israeli tourists[2] and an Iranian,[3] and wounding thirty-six.  Five of the wounded were Palestinians.  (There may have been an interesting conversation in whatever group they belonged to, or perhaps just a studied silence.)  The Israelis were, it seems, a bunch of “foodies” sampling the fare of Istanbul.[4]

This bombing, too, is attributed to ISIS.  The bomber has been identified as Mehmet Ozturk, but little about him has appeared in print.  He was born in 1992 in Gaziantep (which is both a city and a province).  Gaziantep, in turn, is a part of Turkey’s Southeastern Anatolian Region, which runs along much of the border with Syria.  Gaziantep is a very old city (by American standards anyway).  It has a thriving machine carpet-weaving industry and is surrounded by groves of olives, pistachios, and grapes.  It also is home to a number of high schools and universities.  However, it is also on the main route from Turkey to Syria for foreign fighters trying to join ISIS.  According to one report, his parents reported him as missing after he went to Istanbul in 2013.  Pretty quickly after the attack the Interior Ministry identified him as the bomber and confirmed it through DNA.  His father had provided the DNA for the comparison.

ISIS is now targeting tourists in Istanbul; and it has a bomb-maker there.  The hunt is on.

Turkish officials now have banned Nevroz celebrations this year.

[1] Apparently, Kurds don’t believe in Santa.  Them being Muslims and all.

[2] Two of whom held dual Israeli-American citizenship.

[3] Tim Arango and Ceylan Yeginsu, “Istanbul Suicide Bomber  Linked to Islamic State,” NYT, 21 March 2015.

[4] The NYT reports that one was from Dimona (the site of Israel’s “secret” nuclear weapons program); another was from Herzliya (a generally wealthy beach town near Tel Aviv, named for the Zionist leader Theodor Herzl).

CrISIS 6.

The Turks want the Assad regime gone as a first order of business, and they are attacking Kurdish forces as a second order target. The Saudis want the Assad regime gone and they are attacking Houthis in Yemen as a second order target. The Russians want the Assad regime to remain in place and they are attacking non-ISIS opponents of the regime. The Iranians want the Assad regime to remain in place and they have committed both their own military advisers and client Hezbollah forces from Lebanon to that end. The Shi’ite government if Iraq isn’t making any concessions to the Sunnis of Iraq in order to win them away from ISIS. In the past year, Germany has received about a million refugees from the Syrian civil war. The Kurds are fighting ISIS, even if the rest of the Iraqis are making a half-hearted effort, but that’s because they are trying to establish the territorial basis for an independent Kurdistan. Germans are more concerned about the behavior of Muslim hicks toward European women than they are about the undoubted dangers of terrorist wolves hiding among the refugee sheep. In short, nobody—except American politicians—seems very concerned about ISIS these days.

The common assumption on the Potomac seems to be that ISIS has gigantic ambitions and will seek to wreak havoc in Western countries through terrorism. However, ISIS has little chance of expanding its territory. It made big gains in areas where the opposing forces were rotted by demoralization or were pre-occupied with other conflicts. There is little chance that it can make similar progress against the armies of Turkey, Iran, and Israel. It may not even want to make huge gains. In the words of one observer, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi “wanted to create an Islamic state in Syria—sacred land that, according to Islamic prophecy, was to be the site of the apocalypse.”[1] (See: Islamism as a Story.) That’s not quite the same as conquering the whole of the Middle East.

Heightened security in Western countries can limit the danger of ISIS terrorism, even if it cannot totally prevent it. The Israelis have lived with this danger for decades. OK, it hasn’t done their society and politics a lot of good. Still, Israel is still there. ISIS poses no existential threat to Western countries.

That isn’t the same as saying that ISIS hasn’t created problems. The European vulnerability to the flood of Syrian (and other) refugees has opened a means for other states to pressure the Europeans. Turkey started the process, but the Russians are in a position to either add to or to reduce the flood. What would the West give Russia to get it to play ball in Syria? Probably it will not be much fun to be a Ukrainian.[2] Probably it will involve a climb-down on sanctions. Probably it will involve letting the Assad regime survive or transition out on Russian and Iranian terms.

[1] Sohrab Amari, WSJ, 9 February 2016, p. A11.

[2] At the same time, Western democracies already seem to be experiencing buyer’s remorse over their support for Ukraine. Pervasive corruption and a very halting program of economic modernization are angering many people who didn’t look closely at the Ukraine or at its quarrels with Russia before the most recent revolution.

CrISIS 5.

There is a certain irony in the conquest of much of Syria by ISIS.[1] After 9/11, the Assad regime declined to join the American “global war on terror” (GWOT) in any serious way. Instead, it harbored Sunni Islamists. After the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, large numbers of foreign fighters passed through Syria on their way to join Abu Musab al Zarqawi. One Islamist leader explained Assad’s tolerance for these terrorists: “we [are] focusing on the common enemy, America and Israel.”

In 2007, the balance of forces in Iraq suddenly shifted. Zarqawi’s fundamentalism and his savagery had estranged many Sunnis in Iraq. This led to the “Awakening” movement that greatly reduced the need for American forces while offering much intelligence to the American Special Forces man-hunters. The George W. Bush Administration surged in reinforcements that allowed the US to restore order in Iraq and to pursue the Islamists. The situation began to improve. The Americans killed Zarqawi. Soon, his surviving followers took shelter in eastern Syria, beyond the reach of the man-hunters and the bombs. This allowed many American decision-makers to start looking for an eventual escape route. For his part, Assad seems to have started rounding-up Syrian Islamists whose usefulness had now declined.

Then came the “Arab Spring.” Popular uprisings—generally non-violent—began against the tyrants who ruled (and still rule) much of the Middle East. These movements rocked Tunisia, then Egypt, then Syria, and then Libya. The Tunisian regime soon struck its tents, but it took various types of American pressure to bring “reform” to Egypt and Libya. America had no such leverage in Syria.

At first, Bashar al-Assad responded to the popular challenge by force. This might well have done the job if he had stuck to his last. His faced a loose coalition of talkers-more-than-doers who were often at odds with one another. Like the young Egyptians of Tahrir Square, they seem to have had little support among the populace at large.

Instead, however, Assad tried to tar the rebels as Islamists. To this end, he released a lot of experienced Islamists from his jails. As expected, they took up arms against the regime. Assad then cast his government as the only viable barrier against jihad. Meanwhile, the surviving Iraqi Islamists had reconstituted themselves in eastern Syria as ISIS, with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as their leader. As the civil war dragged on, ISIS took control of much of the eastern part of Syria. Then, in Summer 2014 it attacked into western Iraq, routing Iraq’s army.

The results of Assad’s policies has been appalling. Huge numbers of deaths, hordes of miserable refugees, and a society laid in ruins. Many observers regret that the powers had intervened early on to replace Assad and create some kind of viable successor state. There are reasons to question this view. On the one hand, Assad followed a particularly disastrous version of the same course that is being followed more successfully by Egypt.   There the army turfed the Muslim Brotherhood out of power and has used the struggle against radical Islam as cover for a revived military dictatorship. So far, that approach seems to be working, mowing down young secular opponents of the old regime with as much enthusiasm as Islamists. So, it was not a foregone conclusion that Assad’s policy would fail.

On the other hand, the “coulda-woulda-shoulda” view ignores the reality that the Syrian civil war is a proxy war for Shi’ites and Sunnis. It also ignores the reality that Russian agreement to yet another American intervention-overthrow would have been necessary to get UN approval. That wasn’t likely to happen after the Libyan imbroglio.

[1] Charles R. Lister, The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Evolution of an Insurgency (OUP, 2015)

Annals of Counter Terrorism 1.

Emanuel L. Lutchman lived in Rochester, New York.[1] He was born about 1990. His mother died soon afterward and he was raised by his grand-mother in Florida. He was diagnosed with mental problems early on. When he was 13 he returned to Rochester to live with his mother’s side of the family. He never graduated from high school. By 2006, at the latest, he was having “contact” with the police. In part, this stemmed from his unsteady mental health. In part, this stemmed from crimes. He did a five year bit for robbery. He became a Muslim while in prison. Prison doctors also loaded him up on meds for his mental problems. At some point he got married and the couple had a son, but Lutchman found the responsibilities of marriage and fatherhood a burden. He had a felony conviction, but no high school diploma. Who would hire him? After he got out of prison, he began to follow radical Islamist web-sites and complained on Facebook about the injustices of “the system.” He soon came to the attention of the authorities, who sprang into action. His grandmother said that he was visited by FBI agents in early Fall 2015. They asked him to work as an informant. He declined.[2]

Then he contacted a member of the Islamic State abroad. The government became aware of this and sicked on him several informants. The informants soon won Lutchman’s confidence. He told them of his desire to stage an attack in the near future. The informants told Lutchman that they would help him. His first thought was to imitate the Tsarnaev brothers by building a pressure-cooker bomb. However, he didn’t have enough money to buy a pressure cooker.[3] He thought about a stabbing attack in a restaurant on New Year’s Eve. His wife had a knife and he could get a ski-mask for $5. So, this was more in his price-range.

When Lutchman pledged his allegiance to ISIS, the internet contact urged him to kill many “kuffar” (Unbelievers). Lutchman then made an audio recording of himself pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed leader of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. He sent the recording to one of the informants. The informant gave the recording to his government superiors. Soon afterward, the superiors told the informant to pull out of the operation. This left Lutchman down-cast. He texted the informant that he “was thinking about stopping the operation.” The other informant quickly bolstered Lutchman’s resolve. He also took him to a Rochester Walmart. They scored ski masks, knives, a machete, and some other stuff. The bill came to $40. Lutchman didn’t have any money, so the informer paid the bill. The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force then arrested Lutchman the next day.

William J. Hochul, Jr., the United States Attorney in Buffalo declared that “this New Year’s Eve prosecution underscores the threat of ISIL even in upstate New York, but demonstrates our determination to immediately stop anyone who would cause harm in its name.”

The ISIS member with whom Lutchman was in contact has not been publicly identified.

[1] Benjamin Mueller, “Rochester Man Charged With Planning a Machete Attack on Behalf of ISIS,” NYT, 1 January 2016.

[2] See: https://www.google.com/search?q=Walmart+pressure+cookers+price&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8#q=Walmart+pressure+cookers+price&tbm=shop

[3] They range in price between $20 and $120. See: https://www.google.com/search?q=Walmart+pressure+cookers+price&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8#q=Walmart+pressure+cookers+price&tbm=shop

Quagmire.

President Barack Obama has long insisted that any solution to the Syrian civil war will require President Bashar al-Assad to yield power to his “moderate” opponents. Russia and Iran don’t care what President Obama thinks.[1] The Russians decided to intervene on behalf of Assad in late Summer 2015.[2] Planes and personnel began arriving in September. Now the Russians have expanded their firepower in Syria with a long-range artillery system, while Iran has sent a small force that may be a spear-head for a larger contribution. Early Russian airstrikes chiefly have hit the non-ISIS opponents of Assad. Meanwhile, the American effort to raise, train, and arm a force of “moderates”[3] to fight just ISIS has turned into a highly-public exploding cigar.

For their part, both Turkey and the Sunni Arab states insist that Assad has to go as part of any negotiated peace. Neither Shi’ite Iran nor the Shi’ite Hezbollah group in Lebanon will agree to one of their chief allies being sent off, to be replaced by conservative Sunnis. Then there is the whole problem of ISIS, which is equally dangerous to the Shi’ite regimes in Iraq and Syria.[4]

All this is deeply frustrating for President Obama, who has had several chances to involve the United States more deeply in Syria and wisely did not take them. Equally frustrating is the torrent of abuse that he has suffered from Republican critics.[5] President Obama described the recent Russian intervention in the civil war as born “not out of strength but out of weakness.” In an obvious allusion to the “Arab Afghans” who flocked to oppose the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the President argued that attacking non-ISIS forces as well as attacking ISIS will “turbocharge ISIS recruitment and jihadist recruitment.” President Obama went on to say that “an attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work. And they will be stuck there for a while if they don’t take a different course.”

Perhaps spurred by the Russian intervention, the Obama administration began touting a new initiative of its own.[6] A projected 3,000 to 5,000 Arabs in northeastern Syria will be armed in order to co-operate with the much larger Kurdish forces and both will be better supported by air strikes from Turkey. The objective of the offensive will be to isolate the ISIS capital city of Raqqa. The U.S. also hopes that its Syrian clients can cut off a 60 mile stretch of the border with Turkey between Kilis and the Euphrates River to end the influx of foreign fighters to ISIS. However, the new plan seems intended to counter Russia as much as ISIS: an expanded area of air operations might cause the Russians to restrict their own strikes.

One possibility is that the Russo-Iranian intervention will not turn into a quagmire. Additional fire-power might turn the tide against the non-ISIS opponents of Assad. It could reduce the flow of foreign fighters to ISIS. It could presage a greater involvement of Iranian forces in opposing ISIS in Iraq. Another possibility is that the Russians aren’t opposed to a protracted struggle against ISIS. Russia has been fighting Islamists in Chechnya for a long time. Success could give the Russians diplomatic leverage over their intervention in Ukraine.

[1] Peter Baker and Neil MacFarquhar, “Obama Sees Russia Failing In Syria Effort,” NYT, 3 October 2015.

[2] See: “The Teeter-Totter.”

[3] See: “Arming the Moderates.”

[4] It is possible that the current Syrian refugee crisis in Europe was facilitated by Turkey in an effort to exert pressure on the Europeans to demand action against Assad. See: “the Syrian Refugee Crisis.” At the same time, Turkey is equally unable to prevent the crossing of its territory by foreign fighters going to join ISIS. Perhaps the Turkish state is just really weak. Or perhaps not.

[5] They seem to have learned nothing from the Iran disaster.

[6] Eric Schmitt and Michael Gordon, “U.S. Aims To Put More Pressure on ISIS in Syria,” NYT, 5 October 2015.

The Teeter Totter.

During August 2015 the Russians decided to increase their support for their Syrian ally, Bashar al-Assad. This decision came into the open in the first days of September 2015 when an advance team of Russians appeared at a Syrian air force base near the port city of Latakia. Signs of things to come included pre-fabricated housing units for a thousand men and an air-traffic control system separate from the one in use by the Syrians.[1]

Really heavy equipment in large quantities would have to come by sea through the Bosporus. More immediately, the fastest way for the Russians to get men and weapons to Syria lay in an air-lift. The U.S. got Bulgaria to reject a Russian request for over-flight rights. With the Balkan flight route closed, the Russians turned to Iran and Iraq. On 5 September 2015, the U.S. “asked” Iraq to reject any Russian request for over-flight rights from Iran into Syria. Iraq declined to bar the flights. The advance team then welcomed a half-dozen battle tanks, 35 armored personnel carriers, 15 howitzers, and the personnel to operate and service them. One American expert described the Russian moves as “risky.” He didn’t say for whom.[2]

Beginning in mid-September 2015, Putin widened his efforts with suggestions that he and President Obama meet in New York during a U.N. conference on Syria; that the militaries of the two countries hold talks on Syria, and announcing his intention to lay out a peace plan for Syria.

American observers described these efforts as part of an effort by Putin to worm and slime his way back into the good graces of the U.S. after the costs of his intervention in Ukraine a year ago had begun to bite. The Russian view is that the Americans have wreaked havoc in the Middle East in recent years by sponsoring—or forcing—the overthrow of tyrants who were keeping the lid on explosive situations. Other voices suggested that the American problems in the Middle East (Iran, ISIS) would be difficult to resolve without Russian assistance. This would be all the more true if the Russians could expand their influence beyond the Syrian regime.[3]

In the first half of September 2015 Russia deployed two to three air-defense systems to the Latakia base, along with four fighter aircraft. In mid-September 2015, two dozen Russian ground-attack aircraft arrived at the Latakia air base.[4]

Then, in late September 2015, Russia formed an intelligence-sharing agreement with Iran, Iraq, and Syria. On the surface the agreement is directed only against ISIS. The announcement caught the Americans by surprise. It seemed just as likely that non-ISIS opponents of Assad will be targeted.[5] The early reports on bombings bear out this fear.

There are two questions worth asking.

First, the Russians are joining the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war within Islam on the side of the Shi’ites. The U.S. has been trying to straddle that conflict with “allies” in both camps (Shi’ite dominated Iraq and Sunni Saudi Arabia). Will the Russian move force an undesired clarity on American policy?

Second, Iraq’s embrace of the Russians caught the U.S. flat-footed. Did Iraq launch a big rat-hunt for spies the minute the Americans withdrew? Did CIA know it was blind?

[1] Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt, “Russian Moves in Syria Pose Concerns for U.S.,” NYT, 4 September 2015.

[2] Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt, “Russian Moves in Syria Widen Role in Middle East,” NYT, 14 September 2015.

[3] Neil MacFarquhar and Andrew Kramer, “Putin Sees Path to Diplomacy Through Syria,” NYT, 16 September 2015.

[4] Eric Schmitt and Neil MacFarquhar, “Russia Expands Fleet in Syria With Jets That Can Attack Targets On the Ground,” NYT, 21 September 2015.

[5] Michael Gordon, “Russia Surprises U.S. With Accord on Battling ISIS,” NYT, 27 September 2015.

CrISIS 3.

Robert H. Scales (1944- ) grew up in an Army family, went to West Point, went into the field artillery, served in Vietnam, won the Silver Star for his actions when an NVA attack over-ran his fire-base, and then climbed the greasy pole to the rank of Major General. This involved a combination of education (Ph.D., History, Duke University); field commands (South Korea, Germany); staff appointments (V Corps, Training and Doctrine Command); and teaching (Artillery School at Fort Still, Army War College at Carlisle Barracks). He is the author or co-author of six books. Two of those books are Certain Victory: The U.S. Army in the Gulf War (1994), the official history of the Army in the First Gulf War; and The Iraq War: A Military History (2003), a history of the initial military defeat of Iraq in 2003.

General Scales has thought a lot about warfare in the Arab world, so his opinions are worth consideration. Some of them are at odds with the dominant beliefs that appear to have led to a series of disasters, so they are worth careful consideration. You never know. We might learn something. Stranger things have happened.

He has argued that Arab armies don’t do “modern warfare” very well.[1] Western armies (Britain, France, Israel, United States) have beaten up on Arab armies a whole bunch of times. So far, “Westernized” Arab armies (Syria, Iraq) have not performed well against ISIS. General Scales is NOT arguing that Arabs lack courage or ability as soldiers. Rather he argues that Arab culture differs markedly from Western culture. Arab culture centers on powerful loyalties to “family, tribe, and clan.” The “nation” is a more remote concept. As a result, Arabs fight best when organized in groups based on sub-national loyalties. He cites the example of the long defense of Ramadi against ISIS (October 2014-May 2015), although Western media focused chiefly on the final ISIS victory. In Scales’ view, such troops fight best on defense and markedly less well on offense. However, the Egyptian attack across the Suez Canal in the 1973 Yom Kippur War shows under what conditions Arab conventional armies can be successful. The Egyptian attack set limited, specific, and achievable goals; it relied on careful training of troops and rehearsal of movements; and it accumulated over-whelming fire-power on a circumscribed battlefield.[2]

General Scales offers his advice on future operations in Iraq against ISIS. The next campaigning season starts in April-May 2016. What needs to be done? First, stop trying to build a “Western” army for Iraq. Acknowledge the power of sub-national loyalties. Build an army that includes militias based on the real loyalties in Iraq. Second, the attack on ISIS cannot be a drawn-out battle of attrition. It has to be prepared on the model of the Egyptian 1973 offensive. Third, the Americans are going to have to commit an immense amount of airpower to support this attack. Air support will have to be on the level of Operation Desert Storm. Fourth, the objective must be to break the will to fight of ISIS, not merely to retake territory.

All this sounds persuasive. Still, a couple of questions arise. First, if Arabs fight best for “family, tribe, and clan,” then why is ISIS doing so well? If Arabs don’t fight well on the offensive, how has ISIS over-run so much of Syria and Iraq? Second, sub-national loyalties can also be anti-national loyalties. Is defeating ISIS still going to lead to the disintegration of Iraq?

[1] Robert H. Scales, “The Iraqi Army Can’t Be Westernized,” WSJ, 26 June 2015.

[2] For the Egyptians, that meant a lot of surface-to-air weapons to negate the Israeli air superiority over the battlefield and a lot of anti-tank weapons to negate the Israeli armored advantage on the battlefield. The Egyptian offensive went awry when they moved out of the reach of their air defenses, when the US poured in aid to Israel, and when the Israelis proved exceptionally resolute.