Assad’s Fate Is In Trump’s Hands

On April 4th 2017 the Assad regime conducted an assault on the civilians of Khan Shaykhun not far from the frontline in Idlib province near Hama.Read More »

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American Armored Vehicles Enter Manbij

Several convoys containing a number of American Stryker APCs has been spotted driving from the eastern side of the Euphrates river in northern Syria and entering the Kurdish held city of Manbij. The vehicles were armed with a a 12.7 and 7.62mm machine guns, and bear clear unit markings. The Strykers were clearly identifiable as American due to the large American flags shown flying high over the several of the vehicles. Also shown are HMMWVs  bracketing the convoys from the front and rear.

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U.S Soldiers disembark from their HMMWVs near Manbij (source)

This is a big leap for American involvement in the Syrian conflict. While there have been Special Operations Forces (SOF) in Syria prior to this deployment, they kept a low profile and moved around in non-standard vehicles. The forces now in Manbij are not only using standard American equipment, but the equipment itself is also clearly marked with American flags and unit markings that overtly signal an American presence .

The reason for this deployment was made apparent shortly after first pictures emerged, with the U.S has announcing that it is increasing it’s presence in  Manbij to “deter hostile acts, enhance governance & ensure there’s no persistent YPG presence.” In other words, the troops are meant to assure the Turks that there are no YPG units operating with the Syrian Democratic Forces west of the Euphrates. Implicitly (and more importantly) ,the troops are also meant to deter Turkey from taking further action against the America’s partners in Syria.

As Turkey has expanded it’s zones of control it has attacked both ISIS and the Syrian Kurds, viewing them both as a threat to Turkish security. Recently, Erdogen vowed to take Manbij after the capture of Al-Bab was completed. With clashes ongoing around the edge of the salient it’s clear the Turkish president was serious about his threat.

Because the United States is relying on Kurdish forces to take the Islamic State capital of Raqqa, Turkish aggression against the SDF is clearly damaging to American objectives in Syria. It appears that rather than try to talk Erdogan out of an offensive, the Trump Administration has decided to simply present him with a fait accompli, by placing American forces in the way of an Turkish/FSA advance.

With American troops now in Manbij, Turkish aggression against SDF forces has been all but ruled out, similar to how the introduction of Russian forces in regime areas ruled out western military action against Assad. The political risks are too high and diplomatic repercussions are simply too severe. This is especially given the fact the SDF has also invited Russian convoys and regime troops into the city and has agreed to hand over some areas west of the city to government control.

What this situation creates is a multi-national tripwire that will prevent Turkish-backed forces from attacking SDF controlled territory. With the regime controlling the western approaches to the city the introduction of Russian advisers to those areas is inevitable. If Turkey wants Manbij, they will have to go through Russian, Syrian and American troops to get to it.

The U.S has denied coordination with Russia and the regime and their presence seems to be of solely the work of the SDF. Turkey, for it’s part is now threatening to stop it’s military operations against ISIS unless the United States and Russia “cooperate” with Turkey on the issue. What will happen next is up in air, but for now, the SDF are safe from Turkish aggression and this will hopefully allow them to concentrate more of their forces against ISIS rather than having to leave them in the north to fight to FSA, who are nowhere near the ISIS capital in Raqqa.

A Hot Winter in Ukraine

Violence in Ukraine’s Donbas region has spiked following a call between President Trump and Vladimir Putin on the 28th of January. The attacks by Russian-backed separatists have already killed over a dozen Ukrainian soldiers and left over 100 more wounded.

Videos have emerged showing heavy artillery being fired from inside the separatist controlled region including barrages of GRAD rockets and howitzers. The projectiles have hit civilian areas in Ukraine very hard.

In the video below you can see a MLRS firing around 20 rockets from rebel territory into Ukraine.

The city of Avdiivka near Donetsk appears to be the primary target of the attacks. As shells rain down the city has been made virtually unlivable. Water and electricity have been cut and in -18 C temperatures  (-0.4 Fahrenheit) 12,000 people now need to be evacuated to stop them from freezing to to death.

As the civilians leave the Ukrainian Army is holding it’s ground. Having repelled a separatist ground assault the army has been filmed with tanks inside Avdiivka preparing to counter further attacks on the ground. The Ukrainians claim that their “tanks are ready” to fight and continue to move more heavy equipment into the area.

Fighting has also expanded to the north as far as Horlivka and to the south as far as Mariupol. During the first week of the assault the artillery fire was nearly continuous from dawn until nightfall.

The size of these forces and the depth and breath of the assault initially suggested a probing attack both in the military and political sense. As the week went on however, dozens of tanks, self propelled artillery and other mechanized forces and supplies have been reported moving towards the front in Donetsk. While the fire subsided somewhat, there is no indication that these forces are being pulled back.

If nothing is done to stop Russia’s aggression in Ukraine the separatists could begin pushing further west. As of February 3rd they appear to lack the mobile forces to break out of the Donbas. However, with amount of equipment now at the front they are certainly capable of launching limited offensives into Avdiivka and the Svitlodarsk bulge.

Russia’s hybrid forces on the front line are not designed for major long distance operations. However, with thousands of Russian troops are massed along the border with Ukraine it would be relatively easy to reinforce the separatists with the necessary equipment and personnel. Such action could be taken  under the cover of regular maneuvers like he ones the Russians are beginning in mid- February.

This aggression, along with a recent strafing of an American warship and the violation of the INF treaty, are clearly meant as tests for the Trump administration to see how far Putin can take his aggression.

Without a forceful response from both the United States and Europe the violence will continue. Even if Russia mysteriously pulls back it’s forces like they are prone to to doing, it will send a clear message that Russia free to attack Ukraine as it sees fit and do further damage to the world order and the stability of Eastern Europe.

Unfortunately, this is this message that the administration has already sent. Despite Ambassador Haley’s condemnation at the U.N, no coherent response has yet emerged. All Trump has managed to do so far is display his profound ignorance of the situation.

First, Trump described the fighting as part of a border dispute, rather than an invasion. Then, he implied that he didn’t know if the separatists were really backed and controlled by the Kremlin. Finally, in a ham-fisted gesture, the administration demanded that Russia return Crimea to Ukraine and end it’s aggression in exchange for improved relations; basically, a return to the standard U.S position under the Obama administration.

Trump has now wasted weeks learning what he should have know when he began shooting his mouth off about Russia in the first place. Despite his boasts about improving U.S-Russia relations, it’s now painfully obvious that he never took the time to understand why relations were deteriorating in the first place.

Now, having shown his weakness and incoherence,  Putin is likely to exploit it. Already another challenge is brewing with the Russian deployment of intermediate range cruise missiles for the first time since the Cold War; A challenge Trump is clearly unprepared to meet.

 

 

 

 

 

Decoding Trump

If America is going to function for the next four to eight years there are some things we will need to understand  and accept a few things about how trump communicates his intentions and policies. The answer is fleeting and complicated, but it must be understood.

Right now there is so much spin on all sides of the political spectrum that any attempt at objective analysis of The President’s real goals and agenda has fallen by the wayside. As much as possible, It is my view that one should  attempt to view the world with an objective lens for the purpose of analysis, regardless of how you feel emotionally or politically. Bringing a clear view of the Trump administrations goals into focus is therefore extremely important to me. I cannot understand anything before I understand the basic reality.

To start; the focus must always be on Trump’s actions. From what I have observed throughout the campaign, Trump’s words are nearly meaningless. He uses them to signal his intent but rarely to describe actual policies.

Don’t try to understand his political hypocrisy either. Trump attacks people because it’s politically expedient, not because he has anything against them personally or ideologically. This is why he can call Romney and Obama traitors one month have dinner with them the next. It also explains why gave Hillary Clinton a standing ovation right after his inauguration despite having called for her to be jailed throughout his campaign.

Do not expect honesty or consistency from Trump. He is the political equivalent of a shady used car salesman. He will say anything to get the deal done (and sell you that dumb $200 pinstripe add-on with it).Trump’s campaign statements therefore need to be understood as signals to his supporters, not actual policy proposals or hard promises. This is the genesis of phrase “take him seriously, not literally.”

Be wary of absurd or blatantly unconstitutional statements. Sending federal troops to Chicago or utilizing powers that are clearly in the purview of congress are recent examples. Remember that Trump only controls a single branch of government and still has to content with the internal politics of his administration within that branch.

The fact that Trump has continued to use this dishonest and hyperbolic campaign rhetoric into his presidency means we must treat him differently than past presidents. Trump and his spokespeople many times operate outside the realm of reality in order to defend trump much in the way propaganda machines operate in countries like Russia.

As the President’s administration has decided to act like a tin pot dictatorship, we must observe it like one in order to understand it.

To understand Trump then, we must observe him like a black hole. In that sense we must look for what goes on around him rather than looking to him. Watch the people he appoints to cabinet positions along with the orders and legislation he signs. Watch his actions in critical situations and how he speaks to both American and world leaders. These are occasions where sales tactics and distractions are less effective and Trump will need to be more honest.*

Also check for leaks from within his administration. Trump will never admit fault in public or break his strongman persona, but privately, he is by all accounts much more open. Those who work with him are also much more reliable sources of information then the man himself. I most cases, they are also much more willing to divulge information, as seen in the constant stream of leaks that have come out since January 20th.

Most importantly, Do not become distracted by the propaganda his inner circle spews or the drama that constantly follows him. The media is not currently capable of dealing with Trump. A tweet at three A.M could easily dominate the news cycle over an important piece of legislation or a meeting with a foreign leader.

Following his inauguration his lies about crowd sizes and voter fraud have dominated the news cycle for five days and counting. During the same time period Trump has pulled out of TPP, instituted a federal hiring freeze (that includes the VA), approved two oil pipelines and shifted back and forth about whether he will move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

These petty lies have also distracted America from the incompetence of his administration in filling vital foreign and domestic policy posts along with Trump’s failure to divest from his business interests, numerous ethics violations and nepotism.

For these reasons we should be wary of fact checking Trump. We should not spend time attempting to counter every argument or statement he makes or attempting to read into the implications of each false statement. Many of lies are things Trump doesn’t believe or says only to protect his ego. Other times he will switch back and forth between positions to cover himself politically. Deep investigations will only serve to eat up time that should be used on more substantive issues.

For these reasons the President’s words should be one of the last places one should look to understand the man. Attempting to follow up and disprove each lie or boast has and will lead us to stray further from an objective understanding of Donald Trump’s goals and the reality of his administration.

While questing to make sure the truth wins in the small battles over crowd size we will lose or even miss the big battles over corruption, government transparency, free speech, international conflict, the economy and trade.

 

*Always remember to follow up anything Trump says with a look at what he does. We have been down this road before.

What Mass production of North Korean Nuclear Weapons Means

With the successful nuclear test on September North Korea has very likely successfully tested a compact nuclear bomb. The test produced a 5.0 magnitude earthquake and equated to about 10-20 kilotons of explosive force; in the same range as the first American nuclear weapons. The warhead in question is very likely a functional version of the prototype they showed off in April of 2016.

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Turkey (Finally) Invades Syria.

Turkey has launched a military intervention to clear ISIS from the border region around the city of Jarablus in northern Syria. Dubbed “Operation Euphrates Shield” 30005000 FSA fighters have entered Syria along with a 25 tanks, multiple IFVs, and Turkish special forces troops.

The ground incursion follows hours of bombardment by Turkish artillery and fighter jets which are still striking ISIS positions in area. Warplanes from the U.S-led coalition have also been carrying out airstrikes and the U.S has committed to support the operation from the air as it continues.

 

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A map from Liveuamap showing the intial assault. Note the heavy concentration of strikes. Most of these occurred within a few hours and represent multiple weapons being deployed.

Turkey’s interests in Syria are varied. Aside from the removal of Assad, one of Turkey’s main goals in Syria is to prevent the formation of a self-governing Kurdish entity on the border in Syria. While the U.S has backed the YPG/SDF against ISIS, Turkey still views them as an offshoot of the PKK, a Kurdish political party and insurgent group that they have been fighting for decades.

In the previous months the SDF has been quickly taking ground against ISIS in northern Syria with the help of U.S air power. Fresh from their victory against ISIS at Manbij the prospect that they could link their eastern territories with the enclave around Afrin is increasing by the day.

The Turkish assault against ISIS in Jarablus then, is widely seen as a ploy to prevent the SDF from taking the city first and denying the Kurds the ability to unify the Kurdish regions of Syria and create an independent state on Turkey’s southern border.

August Syria
A map of the current territorial distribution in Syria as of August 2016. Credit: @Arabthomness

So far Turkey has committed to securing a 70 km line between Marea (north of Aleppo) and Jarablus. Assaults on SDF positions can’t be ruled out though. Already,  clashes have broken out between the Turkish backed FSA with Turkish tanks firing on SDF fighters. The name of the operation also seems to hint at Turkey’s intention to push the Kurds across the Euphrates.

Erdogen has promised to target the YPG* and has threatened them with direct action if they refuse to withdraw to the western side of the Euphrates. The threat seems to have works as the YPG announced that they will pull back** from the western side of the Euphrates but the remaining SDF elements have stated that they will remain. Whether this will be enough to satisfy the Turks is unknown, but it’s clear the YPG do not want to fight the Turkish army directly or lose U.S support.

The question now is, how far will this intervention go? With the SDF marching toward the city of Al-Bab, the prospect of unifying the Kurdish territories still exists, even without direct YPG involvement.

From a military standpoint Al-Bab is a major junction in the area that links Manbij with Aleppo via the M4 and 212 highways. It also links the two Kurdish territorial blocks through a series of minor roads. If Al-Bab is captured by the YPG it will allow the flow of men and material through the Kurdish territories from Afrin to the Iraqi border.

If Turkey intends to stop the spread of the SDF’s territory then capturing Al-Bab will be necessary. There is also the possibility that today’s clashes along the front with the SDF foreshadow a larger offensive against them. If so, the line the Turks are drawing may be as deep as it is wide and could stretch to Manbij. 

*The YPG is a component faction of the SDF

**UPDATE: Now getting reports from the YPG spokesman that they will not pull out.

Why Arab States Can’t Win Wars

Modern war requires not only modern weapons, but modern organization and tactics as well. Soldiers and commanders must be able to not only fight in cohesive units using combined arms, but plan and supply their operations as well.

However, in the Arab world, militaries have yet to understand this reality. In conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Iraq even the best equipped Arab militaries have failed to achieve their goals. Even with hundreds of modern battle tanks and hundreds of thousands of troops, wars between the Arab states are almost without exception, bloody, long, and inconclusive.
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Russia is Massing Forces on the Ukrainian Border.

Over the past week the situation along the Ukrainian border has been worsening. Following the capture of alleged Ukrainian saboteurs in Crimea, Moscow has escalated both rhetorically and militarily against Ukraine. Reports have surfaced off new Russian troops near Donetsk. Meanwhile Conveys made up of troop transports and BTRs have been filmed moving into Crimea along with S-400 Air defense systems, warplanes and frigates in the Black Sea.

Russia build up
An info-graphic from the Institute for the Study of War showing the Russian build up.

In the preceding months, two Motorized Rifle Brigades and a Motor Rifle Division have been deployed to the border, along with the creation of three new divisions, each totaling around 10,000 troops. Along with recon, EW and a tank unit in Moldova’s Transnistria region, Russia has all of the components necessary for an invasion of Ukraine.

In Ukraine, troops have been placed on high alert as fears mount of an imminent invasion of southern and eastern portions of the war torn nation. Such fears have a basis not just in the reality of Russia’s military build up but the timing as well. Russian attacks and invasions have become know as August surprises because they tend to fall in the mouth of August while the world is distracted with presidential elections and the Olympics. Such was the case when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008.

Putin has also laid the rhetorical and political groundwork for such an invasion. The capture of “Ukrainian spies” makes a good pretext for action. Following the incident he accused Ukraine of terrorism and proclaimed that he will not let the offense “slide by”. He has also changed his position on the Minsk talks, and now calls them “pointless.”

The political motives behind the build up and possible invasion have been the subject of vast speculation. However, there are several rational reasons that Putin would invade or feint and invasion of Ukraine.

Inside Russia, his control over Russian media allows him to spin the West (or the “fascists” in Ukraine) as the aggressor. This gains him popularity  and primes his party’s victory in the upcoming 2016 legislative elections in December.

Externally, aggression puts pressure on the United States and the NATO alliance. It will bring the pro-western government in Kiev under pressure, and  further stain the already overstretched Ukrainian army even if the conflict stays at the level of armed observation and a full scale invasion is not launched.

Remember that Putin primary objective in Ukraine is to regain influence salvage the country as a Russian client state. Beyond that, he wants to destabilize NATO and the EU in Europe while bolstering his regime inside Russia. The more chaotic the situation the greater the advantage for Putin.

 

 

 

Don’t Involve Congress in Nuclear Decision Making

As concerns over a Trump presidency grow, more and more people have become concerned about the power of the executive. One of the most talked about concerns has been Trump’s control over America’s vast nuclear arsenal which many fear an unstable Trump could use disproportionately or in a fit of rage.

In response, Representative Ted Lieu has proposed legislation that would require the President and the Secretary of Defense to consult with congressional leaders before launching a nuclear strike. Currently, launching a nuclear attack requires only two people; the President and the concurrence of the Secretary of Defense. While two people are involved the Secretary is an appointee of the president and therefore somewhat beholden to him (or her).

As the General Hayden noted this system is designed for decisiveness, not debate. The reason for this is simple; in many scenarios there is simply no time for such debate. With only 30 minutes between the launch of an ICBM to detonation, this idea is unworkable under most circumstances.

“Launch under attack ” is one such case. In this scenario, enemy forces will have already fired off dozens of missiles armed with hundreds of warheads. Because of detection, confirmation and the process of going though the command, control and communications infrastructure,  the president will have a maximum of just two minutes to decide whether to launch the missiles before the enemy warheads hit American missile solos and destroy them.

Lieu’s proposal would involve having to having to consult with at least one more person during the decision making. Having to locate and consult the Speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leader and receive their concent could easily eat up those two minutes, making a timely response impossible.

Even if launch under attack were to be taken out of the equation, there are other problems with this proposal. Having to consult congressional leaders on nuclear use would mean limited flexibility in other situations that could embolden American adversaries like Russia and China.

In a limited use scenario time may also be critical. The addition friction created in the decision making process could seriously damage the credibility of our deterrent. What would happen if the President and Secretary of Defense have a different strategy than the House Majority Leader and that disagreement stalls action? How long would it take to reconcile those opinions?

If Putin, for example, knew that it might take several hours, or even a day to respond to a limited nuclear strike, it would give him more reason to conduct one. This would be especially true in an escalate to deescalate situation where Putin could conduct a limited strike, then, while leaders debate a response, Russia could use the extra time to sue for peace, solidifying gains before a response could be implemented.

As the Daily Beast noted, there are other ways to derail a delusional president than get Congress involved. A nuclear attack certainly meets the definition of an imminent threat that is firmly within the realm of an executive’s power to react to without asking for the consent of congress.

This should not be taken as a blanket condemnation of Lieu’s idea. If American and Russian weapons were not on hair trigger alert and more time was available to plan a response from the moment of re-alert, then a congressional approval process would have more merit. In a “first use” case as well, where time is less restricted and an unstable president is most likely to abuse power, giving congressional leaders a veto might be beneficial to global security.

That said, in most cases centralized decision making is necessary in wartime and especially in a nuclear crisis. Military command is a process that cannot be democratized; and the more critical the situation, the less room there is for debate. In that sense, launch under attack may be considered a logical extreme that demands the utmost speed an decisiveness.

Apache Gunships May Soon Be In Afghanistan.

The war against the Taliban is set to escalate once again. Roughly 800 aviation troops from the 1st Combat Aviation Brigade will deploy to Afghanistan by the end of the summer. The Brigade is equipped with logistical aircraft like the Chinook and the Black Hawk, along with gunships like the Apache. While the Army was characteristically tight lipped about whether the Apaches would be deployed for combat missions, all signs point to a renewed assault.
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