Crooked Line in the Sand — Russia and Turkey

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

On Tuesday, November 24, 2015, two Turkish Airforce F-16s shot down a Russian SU-24. How will that incident impact Russia-Turkey relations, Russia-West relations, NATO response, and the fight against ISIS?

 

Russian Sukhoi SU-24 Image by US Dept. of Defense, public domain.

Russian Sukhoi SU-24
Image by US Dept. of Defense, public domain.

 

Not surprisingly, Russia and Turkey disagree on what occurred leading up to Turkey shooting down the SU-24.

Russia claims that its aircraft flew along the Turkish border, making sharp turns along the crooked and sharp-angled Northwestern Syrian border to avoid flying into Turkish air space. According to Russia, its pilot received no warnings prior to being shot down. The Russians claim they were hitting ISIS targets in the area.

Turkey claims that the Russian plane flew a two mile route across a small section of Turkey that borders Syria to the east and west. Turkey claims that it radioed ten warnings to the Russian pilot before shooting down the SU-24. According to Turkey, there are no ISIS terrorists in the area that the Russians were bombing – that ethnic Turks that do not support ISIS, but do oppose Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, inhabit the targeted area.

Russia’s claim that the downed SU-24 never flew across Turkish airspace is highly improbable.

The SU-24 lacks the maneuverability required to fly the route that the Russians are claiming that it flew. Also, the Russian claim that they were attacking ISIS targets in the area is most likely at least partially false. ISIS members would be scarce in that area. The Turks seem to be telling the truth about those elements of the shoot down.

However, the Turks could not have radioed ten warnings in the few seconds that would have elapsed while the SU-24 was crossing over Turkish airspace. It’s possible that they could have been broadcasting warnings as the SU-24 flew the long leg of its route that paralleled Turkish airspace. In any case, Turkey had previously warned Russia to keep their warplanes out of Turkish airspace in response to earlier incursions by Russian planes. (For one example, see Russia Upskirts Turkey.)

So why did Russia allow their pilot to fly over Turkish air space?

Given the highly regimented air combat control structure employed by the Russians, it’s not likely that the pilot acted on his own initiative. Russian avionics equipment is not cutting edge, but it is certainly adequate to prevent an accidental flyover on the particular route taken by the SU-24. My guess is that Russia had decided that their pilots should limit their incursions into Turkish air space, but that they approved the flight path that led to their plane being shot down. It seems that Russia miscalculated Turkey’s resolve concerning its incursions.

So how will this incident affect the famed “international coalition to combat ISIS”?

Since the famed coalition is more a product of rhetoric and wishful thinking than of substance, it’s not likely to matter much. Russia is in Syria to prop up the hapless Bashar Assad. Russia’s opposition to ISIS is secondary to that goal. The West opposes both ISIS and Assad. Non-ISIS rebels are receiving Western aid, and both Turkey and its Western allies are opposed to Russian airstrikes targeting non-ISIS rebels. None of this will be greatly impacted by Turkey’s shoot down of the Russian SU-24.

On the diplomatic front, Putin claimed that Turkey “backstabbed” them by shooting down the plane.

Given that no real cooperation between Turkey and Russia has occurred in Syria, and given that the Syrian regime previously shot down a Turkish F-4 on the Syrian Turkish border, it’s more accurate to describe Turkey’s actions as a “counter slash.”

Russia canceled some official meetings between Russian and Turkish ministers and has asked Russians to halt any tourist travel in Turkey. Russia is also claiming that it is scaling back plans for gas exports through a new Russian gas line across Turkey. This seems unlikely since the alternative is for Russia to continue to rely on gas lines crossing Ukraine to reach European markets. With the current low prices of crude, Russia cannot afford to scale back on energy exports. Their fragile economy needs the revenue generated by oil and gas exports.

In military terms, Russia has reacted by deploying better air defense missiles in Syria.

This, when combined with the uncertainty that Putin relies upon so heavily in his foreign policy tactics, may present a new threat to Western and Jordanian aircraft flying in Syrian airspace hunting ISIS targets.

Putin likely does not want to further escalate the situation in Syria by attacking Western or Jordanian aircraft, but he might feel justified in shooting down Turkish aircraft that fly into Syrian air space. The possibility that Russia might mistake a French or American aircraft for a Turkish aircraft cannot be ignored. In recognition of that, the West might, without much fanfare, inform Russian commanders in Syria of Western flight plans when attacking ISIS targets.

As for Russian relations with Western nations, the impact will be minimal.

The US views Erdogan as unreliable on his best day. If Erdogan has “backstabbed” anyone, it has been his NATO partners. Nobody in the US military community will forget that on the eve of the 2003 US-coalition invasion of Iraq, Erdogan withdrew his permission for US troops to invade Iraq via Turkey. More recently, Turkey has been inconsistent in dealing with the Kurds in their fight against ISIS. Erdogan claims to want to fight ISIS, but he has spent far more effort fighting Kurds both in Turkey and in Syria.

Turkey is a NATO partner, but thanks to Erdogan, it is the least trusted and least liked member. NATO will not ignore direct military aggression by Russia against Turkey, but given Erdogan’s long, ugly record of ignoring the interests of his “allies,” NATO partners are not going to allow Erdogan to control their agenda in Syria.

As for the war on ISIS and statements by US cabinet members and DOD spokesmen that “this further complicates our efforts against ISIS” – that’s more PR effort than reality.

The Obama administration’s opponents have been critical of Obama’s minimalist approach to combating ISIS. The White House now has one more excuse for not escalating efforts against the Islamic extremists.

Given the economic trouble at home and the expensive conflict in Ukraine, Putin does not want to escalate a conflict with Turkey. Given the growing discontent and political violence in Turkey, along with troubled relations with his NATO allies, Erdogan does not want to escalate a conflict with Russia. NATO does not want Turkey or Russia to escalate a conflict. Neither Erdogan nor Putin have demonstrated skill in foreign policy or diplomacy, but both have strong reasons to avoid a serious engagement with each other.

Most likely, the status quo will continue in Syria. The fight against ISIS will remain in low gear, and since Russia has few friends, economic convenience will prevent a long term freeze of Turkey-Russia relations.

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ISIS Attacks Paris — A Major Mistake

Bayard & Holmes
~ Jay Holmes

On the night of November 13, 2015, cowardly criminals from the ISIS gang carried out coordinated attacks against innocent people in Paris, France. So far, 136 people are confirmed dead, and many more remain wounded.

 

Memorial at Bataclan Image by Annie Harada Viot, public domain.

Memorial at Bataclan
Image by Annie Harada Viot, public domain.

 

Before examining the effects of the attacks beyond the casualties, Piper and I wish to offer our respectful sympathy to all the families that lost loved ones in the attacks. We also wish to assure the people of France that civilized people throughout the world stand in solidarity with them.

It is easy to see why reasonable people might view the Paris Attacks as a “success” by ISIS.

ISIS got attention, and its vainglorious leaders lust for that. They hurt France and, by extension, all French allies and sympathizers. The attacks were a tactical success in that, while they likely killed far fewer people than the ISIS head-monkeys had hoped for, they killed more than enough to justify their efforts in tactical terms.

All this notwithstanding, I view the Paris attacks as a gigantic failure on the part of ISIS.

That’s because the violence in France does not, and will not, support ISIS’s goal of extending its control over more Middle East territory. It certainly doesn’t get the group closer to its stated goal of worldwide Islamic rule.

The Paris attacks have already resulted in increased French air strikes against ISIS assets in the Middle East. As for ISIS assets in Europe, France and other European nations have redoubled their efforts in rounding up the ISIS vermin that have been roaming free across that continent. If you are an agent of ISIS in Europe, your life is more difficult this week than it was last week. Those seventy-two virgins are closer than you think.

This does not mean that ISIS is incapable of carrying out further attacks in the West.

It is never difficult for criminal enterprises to recruit the losers in any society. But since the latest attacks, Europeans will be more willing to tolerate increased police activity and higher military budgets. Those higher military budgets, coupled with increased Western willpower to use military force against ISIS, will equate to a higher rate of vaporization of ISIS thugs across the Middle East. If anyone disagrees with this theory, please note the ISIS casualties these last few days in Syria and North Africa. It’s not a good time to be waving an ISIS flag.

So then, why would a group that claims to be the rightful rulers of all the people on the planet be so unwise as to carry out the Paris attacks?

One critical element of the answer is stupidity. No sane, intelligent person would join ISIS, let alone try to lead it. Lots of types of individuals might join ISIS, but one of the common traits they share is an inability to reasonably perceive reality. Even those that join because they wish to rise in personal status from unemployed dishwasher to “badass terrorist gun slinger” must be intellectually deficient in order to volunteer for life as an ISIS gofer. Being the lead lowlife in a group like ISIS is, at best, a short-term thrill. Being at the bottom of the lowlife heap must be hellish. We are not dealing with a collection of 25,000 brilliant scholars. We are dealing with heartless, bloodthirsty idiots. And they will fail.

When ISIS first came to the forefront of Western media, some analysts predicted that they would be very difficult to defeat. I stated openly that with any real effort by the West, ISIS could be sent back to the caves and sewers that they crawled out of. Some observers viewed the well-publicized parades of black clad jihadists waving ISIS flags as a terrifying new event. I viewed them as an ideal opportunity for target practice for Western and Middle Eastern militaries. A few (very few) experienced military analysts scoffed at the notion that ISIS could be defeated with less than years of major military effort including thousands of US “boots on the ground.”

Thus far, with minimal effort by the US and far less serious efforts by a few of our allies, the ISIS Middle East blitzkrieg has been halted.

Keep in mind that Western efforts have amounted to airstrikes against ISIS targets, pathetically small assistance to the Kurds, a mammoth infusion of cash and arms to that vaguely defined troupe of hapless clowns that we so generously call “the Iraqi Army,” and minimal efforts at helping independent Syrian rebels. We will not at this time delve into any possible covert actions that may have occurred against ISIS.

Thus far, the airstrikes have been partially effective.

Some in the West have called for a more robust bombing campaign against ISIS targets, but that’s a topic for another discussion. The under-armed, outmanned Kurds, now assisted by a few poorly-armed Yazidis, have been very successful in their struggle against their well-armed ISIS opponents. The fact that the Yazidis and Kurds are willing and able to cooperate with each other is further bad news for the despised ISIS. Our wildly expensive efforts with the Iraqi Army have resulted in little more than accidentally supplying ISIS with weapons, ammo, and equipment. Our efforts at assisting Syrian rebels have yet to yield meaningful results. And yet, with such minimal effort by the West, ISIS has been stalled.

What about ISIS’s many friends across the Middle East?

They no longer have any. Thus far, the ISIS Middle East Foreign Policy Initiative has consisted of creating steadfast enemies in Jordan, infuriating the Egyptian government, and declaring war on Hezbollah in Lebanon, thus earning the always generous hatred of the Iranian Shia junta. All of this has been done without them initiating their most important battle – their “coming war” against Israel.

Even by the low standards of ISIS logic, the Paris attacks were a foolish move. ISIS’s future has never been bright. This week, it’s dimmer still.

Vive la France! Vive la liberté!

À la ferme porcine avec ISIS!

A Real Terrorist Expert’s Take on ISIS

Bayard & Holmes

~ Piper Bayard & Jay Holmes

Given recent problems with several Western “expert” commentators in the fields of intelligence, counterterrorism, and asymmetric warfare, we know that many of our readers are anxious to find an authority they can trust. Rather than risk engaging with yet another bugus fly-by-night camera hound, we have recruited a genuine terror specialist.

 

Intelligence, Terrorism, and Asymmetric Warfare Expert Sheik Mullah Ali Baba Mohammed Faqwahdi al-Lansingi a.k.a. Sheik Mo

Intelligence, Terrorism, and Asymmetric Warfare Expert
Sheik Mullah Ali Baba Mohammed Faqwahdi al-Lansingi
a.k.a. Sheik Mo

 

We are proud to introduce our new intelligence, terrorism, and asymmetric warfare expert, Sheik Mullah Ali Baba Mohammed Fuqwahdi al-Lansingi, a.k.a. Sheik Mo.

After retiring to America from an exciting life of Mideast terror exploits, Mo has agreed to join our staff to help Westerners better understand the real world of terror and asymmetric warfare.

We’re here today in one of modern Islam’s cultural hotspots – downtown Lansing, Michigan – with Sheik Mullah Ali Baba Muhammad Fuqwahdi al Lansingi. In his first ever interview, Mo gives us an insider’s analysis of the ISIS phenomenon in Syria and Iraq.

Sheik Mo, thanks for joining us.

Hey, Jay and Piper, thanks for having me. It’s so nice to be seeing you again.

Sheik Mo, can you offer an expert analysis of the ISIS phenomenon in Syria and Iraq?

I am so glad you asked me this question. These so-called ISIS, IS, ISIL – whatever the daesh are calling themselves today – they are an embarrassment to honest, hardworking Mideast terrorists. Every time you turn on the TV, they are beheading more Muslims and burning more villages. Where did these idiots study terrorism? They don’t even know who to attack!

In my day, we knew who the enemy was . . . Well, at least we pretended to know, and we kept things straight from week to week. With a few AK’s and discount explosives from East Germany and Czechoslovakia, we got big results.

We were elite groups. We trained for years before going on our first missions. Now these ISIS types give any hash head that shows up a pair of black pajamas, and next thing you know they are parading in front of cameras, screaming like drunken English soccer fans. It’s embarrassing to the entire terrorist industry. They can’t even scream “allahu akbar” properly. Do you hear them? It’s terrible. I’ve seen better terrorists at the local preschool.

 

 

And these so called ISIS monkeys like all the publicity. In the old day, no self-respecting terrorist made videos. What’s next? ISIS book signings in London? Are they entering a float in the Rose Bowl parade?

Yet, they have captured a lot of territory, and they seem to keep recruiting more members. ISIS claims they are the new Islamic conquerors. They call themselves the “new caliphate” and the “new Islamic champions.” How should the West respond?

Well, of course, the West should oppose them. It’s always good to bomb people like that before they all get too comfortable. And anyway, with so many new models of drones competing for defense contract money all over the world, you have to test those drones somewhere. Nice videos of drones defeating a surplus Humvee on a test range is only going to sell so many. The West needs to use the advertising value from drone strikes on ISIS. A video of an ISIS convoy blowing up has sales power.

By the way, you need drones? Come see me. I have a brother-in-law that works for a defense contractor. I get you wholesale, even on small orders. No cheap Chinese junk. Only the latest drone fashions.

But please, “the new caliphate?” “The new Islamic champions?” No way. They only invade Muslim countries. It’s all a big fraud. You want a real Islamic conquest, you have to invade some high value real estate. When they capture Marbella and Manhattan, let me know, and I’ll buy some black pajamas.

For the West the answer is simple. More drones. And when they have nice big ISIS parades for the cameras, you drop lots of bombs. Remember, bombs have a shelf life. Why waste them dropping them in deserts in Nevada and New Mexico when you can drop them on ISIS?

What about the Kurdish fighters that are opposing ISIS?

Well those Kurds are serious fighters. You give them almost nothing and they show up and fight. When those ISIS clowns invaded the Kurdish region, a bunch of Kurdish farmers and girls beat the hell out of them. It was embarrassing! They call themselves big league terrorists? In my day we didn’t get beat up by girls!

 

Kurdish YPG fighters -- nobody's "girls." Image by About SLIMANY, wikimedia commons.

Kurdish YPG fighters — nobody’s “girls.”
Image by About SLIMANY, wikimedia commons.

 

But you know, many bigshots in the West don’t want to arm the Kurds because the Kurds will declare independence, and that Erdoğan guy in Turkey don’t like that. And if the Kurds declare independence in Iraq, what does that leave? That leaves you too many Iranian carpet merchants and amateur politicians in Iraq!

The Kurds don’t need Baghdad, but Baghdad needs the Kurds. Otherwise, you could send the Kurdish women’s soccer team to Syria with a few hand grenades, and they would take care of business.

Sheik Mo, thank you so much for joining us today. We look forward to our next interview with you concerning Afghanistan. In the meantime, we wish you the best of luck with your new defense contracting business.

Okay, Jay and Piper, and best wishes to your readers. Next time I’ll be contacting you from my new mobile communications and command center.

We look forward to it. Thanks again, Sheik Mo.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

And there you have it folks, a genuine insider’s view on ISIS.

 

Changing US-Mideast Relations — Turkey’s Hot and Cold Running Erdoğan

By Jay Holmes

During the past twelve years, US-Turkey relations have been in a state of flux. Statements from Ankara and Washington D.C. to the Western media have been almost habitually optimistic, but the reality beneath the rhetoric has proven problematic for both nations. For the West, the rise to power of Turkish President Recep Erdoğan and his pro-Islamist Justice and Development Party has introduced complications in the previously stable US-Turkey relationship.

 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Image by Govt. of Chile, wikimedia commons.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
Image by Govt. of Chile, wikimedia commons.

 

As compared to earlier Turkish leaders, such as Abdullah Gül, the outspoken Erdoğan has demonstrated less finesse when dealing with Western leaders. In his three terms as Prime Minister and now as the President of Turkey, Erdoğan has represented himself as an agent for change. Precisely what sort of change Erdoğan represents is not so easy to identify.

Erdoğan is a case study in contradictions.

Turkey has been moving toward economic integration with the European Community for over a decade, and Erdoğan openly supports this. He’s counting on European markets to provide the cash that will satisfy the “development” aspect of his Justice and Development Party platform. Yet, in spite of his desperate need to bring Turkey into the European Community, he simultaneously sees himself as leading Turkey into a leadership position among Islamic nations.

These two positions are not realistically or mutually sustainable. The values, standards, and laws that are central to European Community membership are not compatible with the values, standards, and laws of most Islamic nations.

One of Erdoğan’s dilemmas is his relationship with Iran.

Iran, unlike Turkey, is a Shia nation with a radical Shia theocracy. Therefore, it might seem a simple choice for Erdoğan to openly oppose Iran and Iranian ambitions in Syria and Iraq. However, Iran is Turkey’s second largest export customer. Iran also provides Turkey with about 35% of its oil supplies. Instead of being at odds, these two countries have fostered closer relations in recent years.

The rise of a democratic reform movement in Syria followed by the birth of the ISIS cancer presents Turkey with obvious security risks. It also presents Turkey with a golden opportunity to assume a leadership role in the fight against ISIS at a time when Turkey so desperately wants membership in the European Community.

In light of this golden opportunity, one might envision coalition air attacks being conducted from Turkish air bases, which are ideally located near the Syrian border. One might even expect the Turkish Air Force to take part in those raids. However, one would be quite mistaken. While Erdoğan has loudly demanded and received prompt NATO protection in the past, he refused to allow US and European air forces to conduct raids against ISIS from Turkish bases. For apparent diplomatic reasons, the US and its allies have downplayed their frustration with Turkey over this and several other issues concerning ISIS.

Another contradiction in Turkish policies is Erdoğan’s changing relationship with the Kurds. While most Kurds see themselves as being one people in need of an independent homeland, Turkey views them as three distinct groups.

The first group is the Kurds within Turkey. In order to enter the European Union, Turkey has been under pressure from Europe to improve its stance on human rights. Erdoğan and many Turks see the Kurds within Turkey as enemies of Turkish culture and a challenge to Turkish nationalism. In order to gain entry to the European Community, Turkey has changed some of the laws that discriminated against Kurdish Turks, but Turkey’s relationship with other Kurds remains more complex.

The second group of Kurds resides to the east of Turkey in Iraq. From Erdoğan’s point of view, they are “our dear Kurdish friends to the east.” The central feature of those particular Kurds that makes them dear to Erdoğan is the oil reserves in their region. Perhaps I oversimplify. It’s not just the oil. There’s gas, as well.

 

Kurdish refugee camp in Suruc, Turkey, Nov. 19, 2014 Image by Voice of America, public domain.

Kurdish refugee camp in Suruc, Turkey, Nov. 19, 2014
Image by Voice of America, public domain.

 

The third group of Kurds is in Syria. Many of these Kurds previously resided in Turkey, but they escaped to Syria to avoid oppression by the Turkish government. While practicing to pretend to love Kurds in Iraq, Erdoğan is hosting 200,000 Syrian Kurdish refugees in Turkey. These Kurds have no oil and no gas to sell to Turkey, and so to Erdoğan, they are only a problem.

Removing ISIS from Syria would be a simple solution to the refugee problem. However, when ISIS attacked Kobani, Syria, on the Turkish-Syrian border, Turkey refused to allow the US and other coalition members to supply the Kurdish resistance fighters in Kobani through Turkey. In Erdoğan’s mind, Kurdish control of part of Syria represents a threat to Turkey. Erdoğan fears that the Kurds will one day do to Turkey what Turkey has done to the Kurds.

The US grew tired of negotiating with Erdoğan and resorted to airdropping supplies to the Kurdish fighters. In spite of Erdoğan’s opposition to US assistance to the Kurds, the Kurdish resistance fighters were able to drive ISIS from Kobani.

 

Kurdish YPG fighting in Kobane, Feb. 4, 2015. Image by Voice of America, wikimedia commons.

Kurdish YPG fighting in Kobani, Feb. 4, 2015.
Image by Voice of America, wikimedia commons.

 

One particularly nasty rumor that surfaced during the battle of Kobani is that members of the Turkish army supplied ISIS with ammunition during the battle. Another serious allegation against Turkey is that it may have been supporting ISIS affiliated rebels in Libya.

Turkey denies those allegations, but they cannot deny that a Turkish-born ISIS commander, Emrah Çaçan , is being treated in a Turkish hospital after being wounded in Kobani. At the same time, Turkey is prosecuting a Kurdish-Turkish medical student named Esra Yakar for providing volunteer medical treatment in Kobani.

Esra left school to volunteer as a physician in Kobani. She was badly wounded there, and with the promise of better treatment, she was taken to a hospital in Turkey. Her Turkish doctor requested that she receive advanced care by eye specialists, but he was ignored. She then lost the use of her right eye. After she was finally transferred to a hospital in Ankara, Esra Yakar was ordered out of her hospital bed by police, arrested, and thrown in jail. Though she was released a few days later, she is still awaiting a trail date on April 30. Apparently, Erdoğan and his government consider anyone that gives medical treatment to Kurdish fighters to be criminals, yet they are happy to give medical care to a well-known terrorist.

To be clear, not everyone in Turkey supports Erdoğan’s pro-ISIS behavior.

The medical community in Turkey is outraged by what was done to Esra Yakar and has lodged complaints and petitions on her behalf. Unfortunately, the opposition in Turkey counts for less each day since Erdoğan’s government has stifled the press and used the police and intelligence services to crush any opposition to his rule.

So why is Erdoğan so willing to defy his Western “allies”? Why would the European Community seriously consider Turkey’s application when Turkey has so clearly rejected all of the European Community’s shared values?

In large measure, the answer is oil and gas.

Turkey is serving as a major conduit for oil from Russia, Central Asia, and Iraq. Turkey must import most of the oil and gas that it consumes, and if the Justice and Development Party is to deliver on its “development” promises, it needs even more oil and gas to do so.

 

Kirkuk-Ceyhan Oil Pipeline -- only one of many through Turkey. Image by Amirki, wikimedia commons.

Kirkuk-Ceyhan Oil Pipeline–only one of many through Turkey.
Image by Amirki, wikimedia commons.

 

Although Turkey has none of its own gas and oil to sell to Europe, it collects lucrative fees on each barrel of oil or cubic yard of gas that flows through its pipelines or transfers through Turkish ports. At a time when Russia’s trans-Ukraine oil and gas pipelines are under threat because of its invasion of Eastern Ukraine, Europe will likely remain quiet about whatever Erdoğan does as long as he keeps allowing that oil and gas to keep flowing across Turkey.

And what will the US do?

For the moment, the US administration has decided to keep pretending that Erdoğan is an ally to the US and NATO. Elections in Turkey are scheduled to take place in June. Whether or not the throttled opposition can manage a victory remains to be seen.

The US will not be interested in harming European allies by slowing the transit of oil and gas across Turkey to European markets. My guess is that, if Erdoğan and his party remain in power, the US will begin to disregard Turkish interests while continuing to pretend that Turkey is an ally.

If the Justice and Development Party loses the next elections in Turkey, Turkey will likely end up with a more secular-leaning government, and it will abandon its fantasies of friendship with Iran and ISIS.

Until that happens, we cannot expect any real improvement in US-Turkey relations.

 

 

The Changing Face of US — Mid-East Relations, Part One

By Jay Holmes

The cancerous growth of ISIS across Syria and Iraq since 2014 both exacerbates and illuminates a series of changes in US-Middle East relations. The most crucial and obvious of these changes is to the relationships between the US and Iraq, Iran, Israel, Egypt, and Turkey.

 

Kurdish YPG fighting in Kobane, Feb. 4, 2015. Image by Voice of America, wikimedia commons.

Kurdish YPG fighters in Kobane, Feb. 4, 2015.
Image by Voice of America, wikimedia commons.

 

The simplest case to review from the whirlwind of US foreign policy transformations is the relationship between the US and Iraq.

When ISIS rolled into Iraq, the US-financed and Iraqi-led Iraqi Army collapsed anywhere ISIS appeared or threatened to appear. Only the lightly armed, poorly supplied Kurds halted the tide of ISIS terror. The much better armed, well-financed Iraqi Army proved to be an embarrassment to themselves and to the US administration that had overseen their creation.

The US had, until then, pursued a policy of pretending that their extravagantly well-financed “friend,” Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, was capable of leading a democratic government in Iraq. He never was. Many observers had long felt that Maliki was not capable of leading anything other than a self-promotion campaign. Perhaps it was that particular resemblance to Western politicians that caused some in the US government to mistake Maliki as a functioning politician as opposed to a common circus clown.

 

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki Image by US government, public domain.

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki
Image by US government, public domain.

 

The collapse of the Iraqi Army leadership in response to the ISIS invasion forced the US to stop pretending that Maliki was anything like a “leader.” At the urging of the US, Iraq formed a new government with the less laughable and more pragmatic Haider al-Abadi taking the lead as Prime Minister.

Students of world history will undoubtedly wonder what “US urging” looked like in this case. Was it something dark, complex, and difficult? Did it involve secret assassinations or long propaganda campaigns? No, and no. The US simply explained that without changes, next month’s check would not be arriving.

Rather than expose himself to the justifiable wrath that would soon be unleashed on him by the people of Iraq, Maliki took the pro-Maliki option and stepped down. Under new leadership, the Iraqi military is beginning to resemble a real military, and it appears that, with the assistance of the Kurds and US air support, it will begin to push ISIS out of Iraq. Whether or not this or any future US administration will have learned any long term lessons from the fantastically expensive Maliki debacle remains to be seen.

 

President Barack Obama Re: Nuclear talks with Iran ". . . according to their Supreme Leader, it would be contrary to their faith to obtain a nuclear weapon, if that is true, there should be the possibility of getting a deal." Obama quote, Feb 9, 2015, joint news conference with German PM Angela Merkel. Image by Gage Skidmore, wikimedia commons.

President Barack Obama
Re: Nuclear talks with Iran
“. . . according to their Supreme Leader, it would be contrary to their faith to obtain a nuclear weapon, if that is true, there should be the possibility of getting a deal.”
Obama quote, Feb 9, 2015, joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Image by Gage Skidmore, wikimedia commons.

 

A less straightforward and more mystifying case can be seen in changing relations between the US and Iran.

As near as rational observers can determine, based on the information thus far available, the change has been minimal. Previously, US-Iran relations were a case of the US completely distrusting Iran and worrying about its efforts to obtain nuclear weapons, but not doing much about it. In return, Iran responded by pretending to not want nuclear weapons while continuing to pretend to love or hate the rest of the world depending on the time of day.

In particular, Iran vacillates between claiming that it is no threat to Israel and claiming that it will annihilate Israel, Zionists, and those that sympathize with Zionists. Iran has not budged an inch from its decades of anti-Western/anti-Israel policies, yet the US is now oddly pretending to trust Iran. Iranian Shia Revolutionary Guards are now operating openly in Iraq with US acquiescence, and the White House now seems convinced that Iran isn’t really developing nuclear weapons after all. This one-sided rapprochement with Iran seems to be an unwise change in US foreign policy.

That leads us to another simple case: US-Israel relations.

The US government’s increasing friendliness toward Iran and the Israeli perception that the US has gone soft on terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah has complicated relations between the two allies. To understand the US alliance with Israel, one must pragmatically ignore personal sympathies and admit that the relationship has been rather one-sided for over half a century.

 

Anwar Sadat, Jimmy Carter, and Menahem Begin at Camp David Accords Image from US National Archives, public domain.

Anwar Sadat, Jimmy Carter, and Menahem Begin
at Camp David Accords
Image from US National Archives, public domain.

 

Confident of continued US financial and military support, Israel has never made much effort to consider US interests in the region when making foreign policy decisions. Israel has only been able to do this because successive US administrations consistently allowed it. The one major instance of Israel acceding to US pressure was the Camp David Accords. The result of the Accords has been of mixed value from Israel’s point of view. Israel now enjoys better relations with Egypt and Jordan, but Syria, the Palestinians, and Iranian-controlled Hezbollah remain at war with it.

From the US point of view, it often seems like we should expect more cooperation from Israel. From the Israeli point of view, it often seems like trusting in US idealism will lead to the death of Israel. In practical terms, the current tension in US-Israel relations changes almost nothing. It likely will require a change of US administration before US-Israel relations improve, and there is no guarantee that the next administration will seek closer relations with Israel. In the meantime, the US will continue to send the checks.

One if the more complex foreign policy cases in the Middle East is that of US-Egypt relations.

 

Egyptian Protestors, Tahrir Square, November, 2011. Image by Lilian Wagdy, wikimedia commons.

Egyptian Protestors, Tahrir Square, November, 2011.
Image by Lilian Wagdy, wikimedia commons.

 

 

The US relationship with Egypt since the Camp David Accords in 1978 has been fairly stable. The Mubarak dynasty did what it wanted, left Israel alone, and received lots of cash from the US. After the Mubarak dynasty collapsed in 2011, the Egyptian military took control of the country until elections were held in 2011. Some Middle Eastern potentates wondered why the US had so quickly abandoned “their guy” in Egypt. In any event, the US had little influence in the Egyptian version of the “Arab Spring” that lead to the “Mubarak Winter.”

In 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood won elections in Egypt, and Mohammed Morsi became the president. Morsi then quickly forgot his centrist moderate views and proceeded to try to consolidate power in his office while moving Egypt toward an Islamic theocracy. Many believed the elections were rigged, and As Morsi became more theocratic, many of his own supporters felt betrayed.

In 2013, Morsi was removed from office by the Egyptian military. Although he and his radical supporters had clearly lost the support of much of the membership of the Muslim Brotherhood and the rest of Egypt, the US reacted negatively to what they considered a coup. As required by US law, coups prevent any US aid from continuing. The rule is often ignored. In the case of Egypt, the administration wavered, and most of the military and other financial aid to Egypt continued. Nonetheless, the US response to the Egyptian military’s removal of Morsi aggravated the Egyptian military and many civilians. From their point of view, they had saved Egypt from becoming the “next Iran.” Morsi had been positioning himself as increasingly anti-West, anti-US, and anti-Saudi, so most Egyptians expected the US to be glad for Morsi’s removal.

 

Egyptians Celebrate Morsi's Ouster Image from Voice of America, July 7, 2013, public domain.

Egyptians Celebrate Morsi’s Ouster
Image from Voice of America, July 7, 2013, public domain.

 

In 2014, military leader Abdul al-Sisi won the presidential election. In theory, US-Egypt relations became simpler again with democracy appearing to be functioning in Egypt. The US was happy to have the sticking points gone from US foreign aid, but al-Sisi now has little confidence in his friendship with the US.

One obvious and interesting symptom of the cooling of US-Egypt relations is that Egypt has signed an agreement with France for the purchaser of French-made fighters. Anyone in the US government that happens to be awake this week might ask why, at a time when US unemployment is so high, US tax dollars are going to purchase French-made fighters for the Egyptian Air Force.

At the same time, Egypt has now joined in in the fight against ISIS, though they have been clear that they are operating on their own and not as a part of a US coalition. As in the case of Israel, it will likely require a new US administration for US-Egypt relations to improve. Whether or not the next US administration will develop better relations with Egypt or wish to continue foreign aid to Egypt remains to be seen.

Next week in Part Two, we will look at the changing relationship of the US and Turkey.

ISIS–Who Are the Players, and Where Do They Stand?

By Jay Holmes

This week, ISIS remains a major news item. For the sake of continuity, we will continue referring to them as ISIS, but be aware that, in recent weeks, they have acquired more aliases than the average Brooklyn mob goon.

 

ISIS logo public domain, wikimedia commons

ISIS logo
public domain, wikimedia commons

 

Since their defeat at the hands of the lightly armed but well organized Kurds of northern Iraq, ISIS has focused on training, recruiting, and re-establishing their local dominance in Syria. Even if ISIS were forced to retreat from all of Iraq, that would be of secondary importance to them as compared to maintaining their strongholds in Syria.

Where does Iraq stand?

The success of the Iraqi Kurds, with assistance from U.S. air support, was no surprise to anyone who knows or has studied the Kurds. It remains to be seen how well the Iraqi National Army will capitalize on the U.S. and allied airstrikes to recapture ISIS-held areas in their country. With Maliki no longer in charge in Iraq, and with so many Shia Iraqis rediscovering their long forgotten love of U.S. firepower, the ISIS offensive in Iraq is stalled for the moment.

If the new Iraqi government can deliver a closer approximation of “functioning government” than Maliki did, then Iraq should be able to eventually push ISIS forces out of their country. However, no amount of U.S. or anti-ISIS coalition airstrikes will push ISIS out of Iraq completely unless Iraqis take some responsibility for saving themselves by fielding a credible army and establishing and maintaining a functioning administration.

 

F/A-18E Super Hornet on Deck of U.S.S. George H.W. Bush image by U.S. Navy, public domain

F/A-18E Super Hornet on Deck of U.S.S. George H.W. Bush
image by U.S. Navy, public domain

 

More recently, the U.A.E., Jordon, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar joined in coordinated airstrikes against ISIS bases and assets in their Syrian strongholds. Aircraft from Belgium and Denmark also joined in strikes in Iraq. Simultaneously, the U.S. stepped up aid to non-ISIS anti-Assad rebels in Syria. The trick is—and long has been—to assist the legitimate indigenous freedom fighters of Syria without accidentally funding and equipping ISIS or any “Ali come lately” ISIS wannabes.

What does ISIS mean to the Gulf States?

Fortunately, the Gulf States are now exercising more discretion in how they fund and arm anti-Assad groups in Syria. For most Gulf Sates, enemies of the Shia Iranians are their natural friends. In the case of ISIS, the supposed “friends” have become an even greater danger to their former benefactors in the Gulf than the danger presented by the Shia theocracy in Iran.

Even if all outside financing of ISIS were halted, and it pretty well has been, ISIS would not be bankrupt. For the last few months, they have skillfully built a strong economy based on violent tax collection, bank robbery, and oil sales. Note that the recent coalition airstrikes against ISIS included oil refineries as priority targets. Destroying ISIS oil export operations has the added advantage of making the Gulf States happy to participate in the air campaign. Anything that drives up oil prices is good news for the Gulf States.

 

Map of coalition airstrikes on Syrian oil refineries September 24, 2014 image by Department of Defense, public domain

Map of coalition airstrikes on Syrian oil refineries
September 24, 2014
image by Department of Defense, public domain

 

How do the airstrikes benefit the coalition members?

While ISIS bases are being destroyed, ISIS is less able to plan and conduct effective terrorist strikes against its enemies. In the ISIS reality, its enemies, real or imagined, can be roughly defined as the non-ISIS segment of the human population. If nothing else, we can appreciate that ISIS is consistent and predictable. If it lives, and it is not ISIS, they want it dead.

Where is France in all of this?

During the last week, France made a moderate effort at conducting independent airstrikes against ISIS. It is not in the nature of French politicians to place their troops, ships, or planes under foreign control, so French efforts might remain independent and somewhat uncoordinated with US-led airstrikes. It’s possible that the French Air Force and Navy are quietly receiving refueling support, reconnaissance, and intelligence from U.S. forces. If that is so, it’s best that it happen quietly so that French voters can view French airstrikes as being a strictly French affair. Call it “Operation Les Belles Artes” if you like. As long as the bombs drop on suitable ISIS targets, it doesn’t much matter who dropped them or which national anthem they were humming at the time.

What are our allies in the U.K. doing?

Having settled the critical question of Scottish secession, the U.K. government turned some attention back toward ISIS. David Cameron called for the U.K. to join in airstrikes against the group, and it has done so to a minimal degree.

How is Syria’s largest neighbor, Turkey, reacting to the “ISIS crisis”?

The Turkish position is somewhat complex. Turkish President Recep Erdogan can see both potential opportunities and potential disasters in the ISIS crisis, and Erdogan is highly skilled at envisioning potential disasters.

The potential benefit of ISIS to Turkey comes from the fact that ISIS hates Iran. The group has destabilized the already-pretty-unstable pro-Iranian Iraqi government.

 

Map of U.S. airstrike areas in Iraq image by JhonsJoe, CC3.0

Map of airstrike areas in Iraq
image by JhonsJoe, CC3.0

 

One of the potential disasters is already manifesting itself in the form of hundreds of thousands of refugees flooding into Turkey. Some of those refugees are Syrian Kurds, and Erdogan’s secret target number of Kurds in Turkey is zero. Rather than having more Kurds moving into Turkey, Erdogan would prefer to get rid of the independence-minded Kurds that are already there. And yet, these refugees are close cousins of the Iraqi Kurds that are willing to export oil to and through Turkey.

ISIS captured over forty Turkish diplomats during its summer blitzkrieg in Iraq. On most days in the ISIS universe, Turks are “filthy western lapdogs.” Yet, rather than staging the usual “ISIS entertainment hour” publicly broadcasted beheadings of their Turkish prisoners, ISIS released them. Why? Western observers are asking what deal Erdogan might have made with the devil to secure the safe return of his diplomats. My suspicion is that any deal was likely brokered through Erdogan’s friends in Qatar and might have involved oil. However, in truth, Turkey needs ISIS to be defeated nearly as urgently as Iraq and the Assad regime in Syria do.

The view from my kitchen window here in the U.S. is different from the view from Turkey. I cannot see ISIS from my house. Erdogan, on the other hand, sees ISIS standing right past his border crossings with Syria. He needs the Sunni fundamentalists vanquished far more than we do, but when we decide that ISIS has been suppressed enough for our liking, we will stop bombing them, and they will still be across the border from Turkey.

Given the basic ISIS tenet that everyone outside of their direct control is their mortal enemy, it’s likely that any deals that Erdogan might have made with the devil will be null and void once the bombs stop falling on ISIS heads. As he so often does, Erdogan missed the easy play. ISIS will never be a friend to Turkey. In the long run, Erdogan further damaged Turkey’s relationship with its supposed NATO allies without obtaining any long-term benefit for his country.

 

U.S. Marines constructing Kurdish refugee camp image by Department of Defense, public domain

U.S. Marines constructing Kurdish refugee camp
image by Department of Defense, public domain

 

What is the Syrian point of view?

The Assad regime is grateful for the tactical windfall being delivered by its distant enemies against the closer and more immediately threatening ISIS forces in Syria and Lebanon. However, Assad and his gang cannot express any happiness with the U.S. or its allies. From the Syrian point of view, while ISIS is a threat to the Assad regime, once ISIS is substantially defeated, the Assad gang would be the next obvious target.

So what can we see in the crystal ball?

My best guess is that Gulf States will remain willing to cooperate just long enough to save themselves from ISIS. As the casualties mount for ISIS, the ISIS leaders will try to understand why their We Will Kill You All publicity campaign has failed them. If their current gangster-in-chief and/or enough of his closest pals are killed, ISIS might transform itself into a more publicity-friendly criminal enterprise and survive under some new name with a slightly less visible agenda of hate and destruction. When the dust from the bombs settles, the region will still be a hellish mess, but we in the West might succeed in avoiding or blunting major terrorist strikes by ISIS. If we can do so without investing more ground forces in the region, then we can declare a victory before moving on to the next “catastrophe du jour.”

Bad News for ISIS

By Jay Holmes

On June 29, 2014, after gaining control over large swaths of northern Iraq, ISIS declared itself to be a caliphate.

Its intention is to expand this caliphate from Morocco to Malaysia and Indonesia. ISIS “Caliph,” is supreme leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi—we’ll call him Abu. Abu made it clear that ISIS considers itself to be the one true Islamic authority for all of the world’s Islamic population. He called on all the world’s Muslims to declare their allegiance to ISIS and to obey his dictates. Fortunately, most of the world’s estimated 1.6 billion Muslims show no interest in bowing down to Abu. However, while Abu’s lack of majority support might confine his greater caliphate dreams to the fantasy realm, it will not keep ISIS from creating more misery in the real world.

 

ISIS logo public domain, wikimedia commons

ISIS logo
public domain, wikimedia commons

 

If you have been following the news and find yourself unable to draw clear conclusions about ISIS’s impact and the world’s response to it, don’t feel bad. The media’s interpretations and opinions on ISIS vary even more widely than what we saw during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Even well-respected analysts are struggling to achieve much consensus in their evaluations. Disliking ISIS is simple. Predicting the impacts of ISIS and defining effective responses requires a bit more work.

Reading the basics of ISIS history is a tedious challenge, even for CIA analysts that have been on the case for several years.

ISIS’s terror group pedigree is based on political incest and bastardry conducted at a frenetic pace. While ISIS is consistent in hating everyone that is not their brand of Sunni Muslim, ISIS’s best friend this morning is their avowed enemy this afternoon and their holy martyr tomorrow. Some of the rapid changes in alliances, friendships, and death lists are based on ruthless pragmatic opportunism. However, that alone can’t quite explain all of their instability. The Taliban are known to be opiate consumers, and many members of Al-Qaeda have a taste for hashish and alcohol. Perhaps ISIS is buying its “energy supplements for jihad” from Walter White. If they are not consuming meth, they are at least faking the symptoms quite well.

I am certain that publishing this article will have me near the top of the ISIS death list, but only for the briefest moment. In the ISIS universe, life is a rich pageantry of endless top priority targets that blossom with each new moment. In its loud and colorful world, hysteria is its own reward.

Western responses to ISIS have been yawningly predictable.

In the USA, Republican loyalists blame Obama, and Democrat loyalists blame Bush. In Europe, the responses range from “Blame it on America” to blaming it on whichever national political party they least like. The world is always so simple for party loyalists. It might be hard for some Americans and Europeans to imagine, but sometimes things actually do occur in the world without the USA or Europe being the cause.

ISIS has a complicated history, but it has some consistent characteristics. Such as, ISIS is barbaric and ruthlessly violent. In fact, it is so violent that it had a falling out with Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda terrorist leaders considered ISIS to be too violent and indiscriminate in its killing of fellow Sunnis. From Al-Qaeda’s point of view, the worst brutality should be reserved for non-Sunnis. That argument with Al-Qaeda, combined with generous funding from Gulf State billionaires, resulted in ISIS’s founding fathers abandoning their Al-Qaeda affiliation and setting their sights on creating their own world order.

A small portion of ISIS’s brutality toward the Yazd minority in northern Iraq has now been well documented by the media. What the media and the United Nations have not covered well is the ongoing genocide against Christian groups and other minorities in Syria and Iraq.

For several months, ISIS has conducted a systematic genocide against Christian communities in Syria. Thousands of Christians have been raped—boys and girls alike. Torture and beheadings are daily occurrences in ISIS’s war against Christianity. Christians represent a greater threat to ISIS because they are far more numerous and more cosmopolitan than the Yazd community.

ISIS’s wealthy Gulf State supporters have been aware of this genocide since it began, but they continued to fund the group.

Now that ISIS has succeeded in presenting a credible threat to the Iraqi government, some of their Gulf State patrons are having second thoughts. Funding genocide is all well and good until they have to greet the genocidal maniacs at their own doorsteps.

A few months ago, a decrease in funding from the Gulf States would have been a crisis for ISIS. Now, it hardly matters. Intelligence estimates indicate that ISIS has stolen nearly half a billion dollars from banks in the cities that they now control. As the badly-led Iraqi Army melted away during ISIS’s advance across northern Iraq, ISIS also captured ammunition, tanks, helicopters, armored personnel carriers, anti-aircraft weapons, trucks, radios and other assorted military equipment. ISIS is in better material condition than they ever have been before.

But it’s not all good news for ISIS.

While bribing and intimidating Iraqi Army leaders into desertion was easy, ISIS discovered that the Kurds are not quite as eager to desert their positions or surrender. As the Kurds brought the ISIS advance to a halt, and the Yazd genocide became the latest cause célèbre in the West, Western governments felt a ground swell of support for action in Iraq. After long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s no simple task to get the jaded and bankrupted Western public interested in committing to action in a seemingly hopeless cause like Iraq, but ISIS has succeeded in doing just that.

The Kurds are, in some ways, unique in Iraq. Unlike other Iraqi communities, the Kurds have never seemed hopeless, and they have a track record of having delivered on the agreements that they have made with Western governments. The credibility that the Kurdish community has established with Westerners makes it easier for Europeans and Americans to accept delivering military and humanitarian aid to them. Western aid to the Kurds is clearly bad news for ISIS.

The bad news for ISIS doesn’t stop there. The group can no longer count on the feeble and inept government of Prime Minister Maliki to keep Iraq weak and fractured. Maliki is gone. He resigned on August 14. It’s possible he imagined that the West and most Iraqis were about to arrange an unfortunate accident for him, and that his Iranian pals were no longer going to be able to keep him safe.

The infamously corrupt and incredibly incompetent Maliki has been replaced by Haider al Abaidi. Al Abaidi will not remind anyone of George Washington. He in no way resembles Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. He is not a savior, and he will not resolve all of Iraq’s problems, but unlike Maliki, he will not do his determined best to alienate most of the Iraqi population. This translates into more cooperation with the West and, more importantly, more Iraqis cooperating with each other. That’s also bad news for ISIS.

In a German blitzkrieg-like fashion, ISIS has moved quickly and deliberately. The group stripped away much of its soldiers and equipment from its battle in Syria to conduct its offensive in Iraq. Now that ISIS is facing counterattack by American-backed Kurds and a better led Iraqi Army, it cannot shift its troops back to Syria. Assad’s Syrian Army and native Syrian rebels are in a position to take advantage of ISIS’s force realignment to Iraq, and they have begun to do so. Assad has celebrated some small victories and recaptured territory from ISIS. If the native Syrian rebels can find enough support, they might now establish a solid position in Syria.

ISIS is enjoying looking at its map of its new “Caliphate.” If it looks a little more closely, it will notice that it has maneuvered itself into a three front war, and two of their principal enemies are rapidly improving. More bad news for ISIS.

Many Western viewers have seen a photo of an ISIS wannabe holding up an ISIS flag in front of the White House. That’s as close as an ISIS flag will come to flying over the White House. Before ISIS can even establish a real caliphate across Islam, it will need to do two things. It will need to destroy its growing list of enemies in the Middle East, and it will need to competently administer the territory that it now holds. I doubt that it will do either.

Here is my best guess:

ISIS will not be swept aside quickly. It will continue its skilled manipulation of on-line media platforms. It also might conduct successful terrorist attacks against the West, even as it loses ground in Syria and the Middle East. However, now that ISIS has succeeded in alienating most of the planet, it will eventually be reduced to the marginalized position from whence it spawned.