Washington started focusing more on domestic issues this week rather the war in the Middle East. The Ebola pandemic and the upcoming mid-term elections are attracting more attention from many think tanks and the American public.
This week’s Monitor Analysis does look at the events in the region. The first is a look at the differing goals of the US and Turkey and why Obama’s weakness on Middle Eastern policy have made Turkey less willing to agree to become a full partner in the US war on ISIS.
The second part of the Analysis is a special and exclusive report asks if there is a covert plan to train, equip and arm a Syrian rebel air force capable of providing close air support to Syrian rebels fighting ISIS. We provide information on what is being done here in the US.
Think Tanks Activity Summary
The American Department of Homeland Security was created after 9-11 to fight terrorism. However, the Cato Institute argues that it is at the core of many of the recent Obama problems. They conclude, “The 2002 creation of DHS was a mistake. Congress should revisit its handiwork, and begin unbundling the department and closing it down. Some DHS agencies, such as the Secret Service, should be stand-alone organizations that report directly to the president. Some DHS agencies should be moved to existing departments. And some DHS agencies, including TSA, ought to be abolished.”
The Hudson Institute looks at the growing concern about Obama’s failing foreign policy and how Congress can sidestep it. They note, “There is precedent for this sort of congressional activity. In the 1970s, for example, President Jimmy Carter pursued an Obama-like policy of détente toward the Soviet Union, despite all the evidence that Moscow was continuing a nuclear- and conventional-weapons buildup and destabilizing Third World regimes. Conservative Republicans and Democrats in Congress, such as Senator Scoop Jackson of Washington, responded by successfully opposing the SALT II agreement on nuclear weapons and beginning a buildup of the American nuclear and conventional arsenal. Congress launched programs for stealth aircraft, the M1 Abrams tank, and other technologies responsible for the stunning American battlefield victories of the 1990s and 2000s.”
The Brookings Institution looks at how to build a better Syrian opposition army. In this major paper, they conclude, “if Washington hopes to bring these twinned civil wars to an end before hundreds of thousands more die and the region is further destabilized, doing so requires building a new Syrian opposition army—whether Iraq continues to move down the right track or not. Such an army, fighting both the Asad regime and the Salafi jihadists, can serve as a model for and a conduit to the moderate Sunnis of Iraq. The more that the United States is seen supporting the Syrian brothers of those Iraqi tribes, and seen building the kind of inclusive, pluralist and equitable state in Syria that the moderate Sunnis seek in Iraq, the more likely that the United States can turn moderate Sunni Iraqis against ISIS and its ilk.”
The Carnegie Endowment looks for solutions to the Syrian civil war. They note, “Until now, the controversy over Bashar al-Assad’s fate has blocked any possible compromise: some absolutely insist that he stay, others that he step down. The impasse could be sidestepped if Assad were allowed to stay in office, nominally president, but with most of his power dispersed to regional governors, the prime minister, the parliament, and the military. Though he is a war criminal, Assad’s personal fate matters less at this point than his country’s. A government of national unity could be formed embodying such an arrangement, to be bolstered by some form of international peacekeeping.”
The Carnegie Endowment sees Turkey’s strategy in Syria as dangerous. They conclude, “Rather than making futile demands of its allies, Turkey should instead use its role as an essential partner in the fight against jihadism as leverage to gather more substantial aid to better manage the complexities of caring for a massive refugee population. It can start by allowing multilateral institutions such as the United Nations and the World Bank to play a much bigger role in this long-term endeavor. At the very least, Ankara and Washington should jointly work on a humanitarian action plan to save the thousands of remaining residents of Kobani from slaughter… The government must reorder its priorities. An overemphasis on bringing down Mr. Assad weakens Turkey’s ability to deal with the immediate menace posed by the Islamic State, the imminent threat of resurgent P.K.K. violence, and the more permanent challenge of an increasingly dire refugee situation.”
The Washington Institute asks how popular ISIS is in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Lebanon? Polling is these countries shows, “The most striking as well as encouraging finding is that ISIS has almost no popular support in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Lebanon — even among Sunnis. Among Egyptians, a mere 3 percent express a favorable opinion of ISIS. In Saudi Arabia, the figure is slightly higher: 5 percent rate ISIS positively. In Lebanon, not a single Christian, Shiite, or Druze respondent viewed ISIS favorably; and even among Lebanon’s Sunnis, that figure is almost equally low at 1 percent. Nevertheless, there is a real difference between almost no support and no support at all. Since 3 percent of adult Egyptians say they approve of ISIS, that is nearly 1.5 million people. For Saudis, the 5 percent of adult nationals who support ISIS means over half a million people. And even in tiny Lebanon, 1 percent of adult Sunnis equals a few thousand ISIS sympathizers. In any of these places, this is enough to harbor at least a few cells of serious troublemakers.
The Carnegie Endowment sees the growth of authoritarianism in Egypt. They conclude, “The new Sisi presidency is developing a legal framework that will only enhance the power of state institutions to act as they wish—and without public oversight. At the same time, Sisi himself is moving to capitalize on existing and vague legislation to further sideline or eliminate his opposition. The absence of a parliament, together with the presence of sufficiently cooperative courts, mean the practice is likely to give strong protection to a reconstituted Egyptian authoritarianism. Three and a half years after they received a disorienting shock that paralyzed many of them, Egyptian state institutions are going back to doing what they do best—governing in a way that claims implausibly to serve the people without listening to their voices.”
CSIS looks at the recent dramatic drop in oil prices and the political impact in the Middle East. They note, “In the short term, over supply and lower oil prices clearly have some positive impacts. They are good for economies and consumers, helpful for sanctions efforts against rogue states, and serve as buffers against continued political unrest and supply disruptions around the globe. But they also carry the seeds for future troubles, including underinvestment in efficiency and alternative energy forms as well as in future oil and gas, potential instability in resource rich nations dependent on oil and gas revenue, have mixed climatic impacts, and eventually lead to higher prices.”
Turkey and US Disagree on War Strategy
The indecision and weakness by the Obama Administration during the last three years impacts how Turkey will respond
Military chiefs from the United States and 21 other countries convened last Tuesday at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland to discuss the campaign against ISIS. The day-long event, hosted by Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, included an appearance by Obama as part of an effort to dispel doubts about America’s commitment to the region. However, the meeting failed to produce any major agreement as both the US and Turkey have vastly differing goals and Turkey shows resistance about supporting US aims.
The differences were obvious. Shadi Hamid, a Middle East scholar with the Brookings Institution in Washington, said, “The coalition partners have very different conceptions about the regional order and don’t even agree on what the primary threat is,” he said. “You have all these different actors who want different things and in some cases also strongly dislike each other.”
On the positive side, it appears that the Kurds in Kobane have managed to stop and even push back ISIS forces. However, a review of the areas recaptured show that they are surrounding countryside, not parts of the urban area. This indicates these gains were primarily due to US and allied airstrikes and the Kurds are relatively still weak.
This means the ISIS threat to take Kobane is still real. In fact, The U.N. has warned that a massacre on the level of Srebenica in 1995 is imminent: There are an estimated 700 civilians left in the city, as well as about 12,000 who haven’t yet made it across the Turkish border.
Unfortunately, with only about two dozen sorties a day against ISIS targets, the battle is far from over and the Pentagon concedes this level of air activity is unlikely to be enough to decide the battle. Consequently, the main focus of the U.S. plan hinges on convincing Turkey to do more.
But Turkey has been remarkably resistant, and for good reason. Turkish leaders are focusing on their narrow interests and don’t think the U.S. is serious in its approach to the region. The Obama administration has been unwilling to focus on the problems in the region and when it does, has a short attention span that seems more focused on domestic political gains.
In reality, Turkey has no problem getting more deeply involved in Syria. They’ve been quietly supporting the opposition to Assad for three years now and have been one of the few whose strategic goals have remained grandiose throughout the whole Syrian civil war. Their argument is simple: They’ll save Kobane if the U.S. commits to destroying not just the Islamic State but the Assad regime as well.
Turkey is quite naturally concerned that, if it accedes to American demands, it will wind up bearing the brunt of the fighting against the Islamic State until the group is degraded and Assad is strong enough to regain control over his country. At that point, they’ll have helped place a hostile neighbor back in charge, who will probably give military aid to Turkish Kurds in retaliation for Turkey’s support of Syrian rebels. And, given the uprisings by Turkish Kurds in the last week, Turkey can’t afford Syria arming the Kurds in the future.
A senior U.S. official told the Washington Post, “Of course they (Turkey) could do more. They want the U.S. to come in and take care of the problem.” However, the official doesn’t’ seem to realize that the Obama strategy is having the Turks come in and take care of problem by implementing the Obama strategy instead of furthering Turkish goals.
From the Turkish point of view, the lack of American coherence in terms of ISIS strategy is a major problem. Turkey doesn’t trust the current American strategic direction because, for the last three years, American diplomacy has swung wildly from advocating the removal of Assad from power to accepting him, to supporting the rebels, to preferring Assad to maintain power again. Turkey, meanwhile, has been persistent in advocating his removal.
During this period, Obama declared that the United States was committed to removing Assad from power even though the administration had made serious attempts to repair US/Syrian relations after Obama was inaugurated.
After the war began, the conflict evolved into Assad vs. the Syrian rebels. Now America saw it as a chance to limit Iranian influence in the region and support friendly nearby Sunnis at the same time.
This simple strategy was at the base of the failure. The Syrian regime had the support of most of the country’s religious minorities, including Assad’s Alawite tribe. This narrowed the base of the rebel support and allowed Assad, Russia, and Iran to broaden their base. Now, the internal war had become Syria, Iran, Russia, Hezbollah, and Christians vs. the United States, the Free Syrian Army, al-Qaeda, the GCC nations, and Turkey.
As “moderate Syrian rebels” disappeared, the better-funded and more-radical Islamist groups, including the al-Nusrah Front and ISIS became the face of the Syrian rebels. When ISIS began to conquer large tracks of Iraqi territory, this once again forced the US to change direction and target ISIS.
Turkey is frustrated by America’s somewhat strategic aims, which apparently have been dictated only by Obama’s unswerving desire to minimize political disaster. The siege of Kobane certainly looks bad politically, but as Secretary of State Kerry said, not a strategic target. The result was a halfhearted series of air strikes against ISIS forces around Kobane – strikes that have pushed ISIS back, but haven’t eliminated the threat.
Given this vacillating American policy, the Turks are unwilling to abandon their primary focus — Assad — for a crisis caused by the Obama administration’s strategic indifference. It is not in their interest to defeat ISIS only to have a hostile Syrian government headed by Assad to remain in power.
The latest estimate is that ISIS controls about 40 percent of Kobane. They may well capture all of it, although they will have the same problem as the rebel Kurds – conducting an offensive in a built-up urban area. However, their long term chances are better given the recent capture of more Iraqi equipment, which can be moved to Kobane to reinforce the ISIS forces currently on the ground.
Meanwhile, ISIS has made significant gains in Iraq. They have gained ground in Anbar Province and are within miles of Baghdad International Airport. They have also captured more Iraqi military equipment, including additional American supplied vehicles and munitions.
Stopping ISIS requires stringer tactics. The answer is the opening of a supply line through Turkey to Kobane and serious airstrikes against ISIS equipment convoys moving from Iraq to Syria – preferably the massive B-52 “Arclight” missions that are quite effective against large conventional targets like convoys.
But the key remains Turkey and their commitment to open the border for rebel resupply.
SPECIAL AND EXCLUSIVE REPORT
Are ISIS Opponents Preparing to build a Syrian Rebel Air Force?
Several countries opposed to ISIS have made it clear that they will train moderate Syrian rebels in order to act as a bulwark against ISIS advances. However, there are indications that these countries are helping to build a cadre that can form a Syrian rebel air force once some Syrian ground is seized.
There are currently Middle Eastern pilots in unmarked flight suits and helmets undergoing close air support training in the western United States. This training includes carrying out close air support bombing runs at the Barry Goldwater bombing range near Yuma Arizona. They are being trained by civilian defense contractors who have extensive experience in America’s premier close air support aircraft, the A-10.
BAC Strikemaster light attack aircraft
The aircraft being used is the British made Strikemaster, a highly maneuverable, reliable light attack aircraft that is in the inventories of Saudi Arabia and some other GCC countries. They have a range of 1,300 miles and can carry 3,000 pounds of munitions. The aircraft can fly from small, unprepared air fields and is easy to maintain since many spare parts are available on the open market. There are also a considerable number of Strikemasters and similar training aircraft on the civilian market that could be turned into an air force without revealing the assistance of the countries involved.
The pilots are being trained on former Saudi Air Force Strikemasters and since some of these aircraft appear to still be in the Saudi inventory, it is possible that at a future time, they could be transferred to a Syrian rebel air force that is already staffed with pilots and forward observers trained in close air support.
Tucson Firm Training Middle Eastern Pilots in Close Air Support
Municipal airports are usually the backwater of aviation. Here civilians can hanger and fly their aircraft or people can take their first steps in learning how to fly a simple single engine prop aircraft.
However, Ryan Airfield, west of Tucson, Arizona is not the typical airport for private aircraft. In a mission that harks back to its days as a training center for pilots in World Two, it is now a training center for close air support missions, the type that are frequently needed in both Syria and Iraq today.
The private firm that provides this type of training is Blue Air Training, out of Tucson. Its website, blueairtraining.com describes the company as, “the premier CAS (close air support) training provider in the United States. We employ multiple combat-proven attack aircraft – jets and props – with the ability to drop live BDUs (bombs), live gun, and live rockets.”
Blue Air Training brags on its website, “The true measure of a contract CAS training provider is its pilot force. All Blue Air Training pilots are current and qualified Traditional Guard and Reserve A-10C Instructor Pilots and Instructor Forward Air Controllers with combat experience in Afghanistan or Iraq – some as recent as Summer 2012. We employ the latest TTPs in support of DoD training.” Blue Air also notes it has contracts with the DoD and it ability to bring in the Strikemasters without removing the hardpoints that allow it carry bombs and missiles indicates close cooperation with the State Department and other federal agencies.
Although it does admit to providing additional training for American pilots and forward air controllers, their missions appear to go far beyond that. American close air support pilots get their training from official CAS schools like those at Davis Monthan Air Force Base, which teaches A-10 pilots close air support.
American allies also have public training arrangements with the US Air Force. The UAE F-16 pilots get their CAS training at the 162nd fighter Wing of the Arizona air National Guard. Saudi pilots learn at Mountain Home, Idaho.
Consequently, pilots from the Middle East, training with civilian contractors like Blue Air Training, without markings on their helmets or coveralls aren’t likely to be certified military jet pilots from an allied nation. And, given the situation in the Middle East and the commitment of the US to train moderate Syrian rebels and Kurds, the chances are great that they are being trained for operations in either Syria or Iraq.
This is not that unusual according to a former pilot who flew for a covert CIA air transport company during the Vietnam War. America often helps with the creation of civilian aviation firms, with skilled civilian pilots to carry out training or missions too sensitive for attribution.
Blue Air Training also has extensive experience working with America’s secret Special Forces. On their website, they tell of working last year with the 5th Special Forces Group, which is currently attached to the US Central command (CENTCOM), which includes countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, most notably Afghanistan and Iraq. The missions in support of the 5th Special Forces Group were launched from Ryan Field towards the Goldwater Range near Yuma.
This is how Blue Air Training’s website described what they do: “On day one of flying, BAT (Blue Air Training) conducted dry CAS (Close Air Support) on the North and South tactical ranges, employing the mighty BAC-167 Strikemaster. Upon check-in, BAT demonstrated its superior flexibility by joining, in an unplanned scenario, real-world A-10 Warthogs in multi-flight attacks. After a quick information update, BAT and the A-10s performed sectored and visual attacks, destroying an armored convoy within 1km of the friendlies. The ferocious Hogs softened the enemy and departed the range, leaving BAT to finish the job. Over the one-hour vul, two BAT pilots in a single Strikemaster worked six targets with two geographically separate JTAC teams. After six talk-ons, one troops-in-contact, and 12 attacks, all targets were successfully destroyed. BAT returned to base at Ryan Airfield, and lead the 5SFG through a thorough debrief that same night.”
The scope of the Blue Air Training syllabus in regards to the pilots in question is unknown. They had to qualify in single engine jet aircraft before being allowed to fly missions at the Goldwater range. And, given the fact that the company brags about its ability to use live ordinance, it’s likely that the pilots were allowed to carry out training missions with live ordinance. The website also says it will soon be installing live machineguns on their aircraft in order to teach strafing. Videos from the website indicate that the machineguns will be 7.62 Browning air cooled light machineguns.
Currently, Blue Air Training has 5 Strikemaster light attack aircraft, formerly of the Saudi and New Zealand air forces. Not only is it a reliable, relatively inexpensive attack aircraft, it has been used extensively in the Middle East. Strikemaster aircraft have served with the Saudi, Kuwait, Oman, and South Yemen air forces, which means there is a pool of qualified pilots and aircraft in the region. These aircraft could be directly transferred to the rebels or laundered through a civilian middleman.
Department of Homeland Security: Who Needs It?
By Chris Edwards
October 14, 2014
The Secret Service is scandal prone. It spends excessively on foreign presidential trips, and it has agents who get in trouble with prostitutes and liquor bottles. The recent White House fence-jumping incident was a stunning failure. Despite the Service spending $1.9 billion a year, a guy with a knife jumped the fence, sprinted across the lawn, pushed open the front door, galloped through the Entrance Hall, danced across the East Room, and almost had time to sit down for a cup of tea in the Green Room. In the wake of the incident, the head of the Secret Service resigned. But the Service is an agency within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the head of DHS, Jeh Johnson, did not resign. Indeed, he said very little about it, presumably to evade responsibility. So what is the purpose of having the DHS bureaucratic superstructure on top of agencies such as the Secret Service? If DHS does not correct problems at agencies when they fester for years, and if DHS leaders do not take responsibility for agency failures, why do we need it?
The Air War Against the Islamic State: The Need for An “Adequacy of Resources”
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
October 13, 2014
The United States has stated from the start that it is conducting an air campaign to degrade the Islamic State, not to change the military situation in Syria or to substitute for Iraqi political unity and the eventual use of Iraqi ground forces. This, however, raises several key questions: What level of effort will be required over time to achieve America’s stated goal, and how will the air campaign have to change? So far, the air campaign has been minimal by any recent historical standard, and so limited that it is hard to see how it can be effective in either protecting Iraq from further gains by the Islamic State, critically degrading it in Syria, or providing humanitarian relief to threatened minorities, like the Kurds.
Oil Markets: “Trouble Ahead, Trouble Behind”
By Frank A. Verrastro, Lawrence Goldstein, Guy Caruso
Center for Strategic and International Studies
October 10, 2014
On the surface, the easy and conventional explanation for the recent drop (20% since June) in oil prices – even in the face of heightened geopolitical risk/unrest in key oil producing regions – has focused mainly on the growth in supply (especially in the United States), lackluster global demand, and sizable global inventories. In combination, this trifecta has led market analysts to be both complacent (to date, this unrest has not impeded production volumes) and more recently, bearish. U.S. liquids production continues to grow; Russian exports, even in the face of sanctions remain high, and Iraq and Iran continue to export even as Libyan volumes go up and down. Given that the market had already factored in the continued U.S. tight oil surge, the “real surprise” has come in the form of demand loss.
Egypt’s Resurgent Authoritarianism: It’s a Way of Life
By Nathan J. Brown and Katie Bentivoglio
October 9, 2014
Since assuming office in June 2014, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has been making a series of slow but deliberate legal moves to restore and strengthen the authority of state institutions. In the absence of parliament, he has taken advantage of a constitutional vacuum to lay the groundwork for authorities to act with wide discretion and little public oversight. After the 2011 revolution, outside social and political actors were optimistic that they could build a more responsive state; today, however, they are poorly placed to counter Sisi’s efforts. His approach will also likely survive the election of a parliament when that long-promised step is finally taken—perhaps by the end of 2014.
Is There an Answer for Syria?
By Jessica Tuchman Mathews
October 9, 2014
New York Review of Books
The glaring weakness in President Obama’s new Middle East strategy, unveiled on September 24 at the United Nations, is the lack of troops on the ground in Syria. In Iraq, the Kurdish peshmerga, a reformed and remotivated Iraqi army, and the Sunni tribes that played a major part in the success of President Bush’s surge can all be brought into the fight against ISIS. But in Syria—whose disintegration directly threatens the five nations on its borders and indirectly the entire region—there is no one. The Pentagon has made its timetable starkly clear: it has announced that it will take three to five months to identify and vet fighters from the Syrian opposition and another year to train them. What will happen, other than air strikes, in the interim?
Turkey’s Dangerous Bet on Syria
By Sinan Ülgen
October 9, 2014
With the Islamic State just miles from its border, Turkey is now facing its most severe security challenge in decades. In response, the Turkish government is seeking to accomplish the impossible; Ankara wants to fight the Islamic State, carry out regime change in Syria and roll back Kurdish autonomy all at the same time. The risk of this overambitious approach is that it could end up accomplishing none of these objectives while squandering the opportunity to contribute to the stabilization of the region. Underpinning this risky strategy is a questionable assumption and an equally dubious policy decision. Turkey assumes that remaining indifferent to the fate of the besieged Kurdish enclave of Kobani will not imperil its peace negotiations with Turkey’s own Kurds. Ankara has done little to assist the Kurdish enclave, ruled by an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdish Workers Party, or P.K.K. In Ankara’s eyes, the Syrian Kurds fighting there are essentially allies of Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria.
Al Qaeda, al Shabaab, and ISIS: Recruiting and Taking Ground
By Nicholas Hanlon
Center for Security Policy
October 14, 2014
The recent interplay between al Shabaab and the African Union military mission in Somalia offers new data on the role of ground troops, the holding of territory, and Islamist recruiting…It is important to keep in mind that as far back as 2007, the FBI was mobilizing to counter al Shabaab’s successful recruiting of Americans among the Somali refugee community. In 2010, fourteen people were indicted for trying to support al Shabaab. Individuals among them came from California, Alabama, and Minnesota. One of the attackers at Westgate Mall in Kenya last year was believed to be from Kansas City, Missouri.
By Arthur Herman and John Yoo
Republicans and Democrats act resigned to two more years of retreat and setbacks for the United States in international affairs, particularly when it comes to Russia. President Obama remains commander-in-chief and has at his disposal vast diplomatic, military, and intelligence resources. But a House and Senate unified under conservative leadership could use its own constitutional powers to counter presidential passivity toward Russia and begin to rebuild American influence.
ISIS Has Almost No Popular Support in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Lebanon
By David Pollock
October 14, 2014
How much grassroots support does the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) enjoy in key “coalition” countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Lebanon? Until today, one could only guess at the answer. Recent news reports about the arrests of ISIS adherents in all three of these countries add urgency to the question. Now, however, a trio of new polls — the first ones of their kind — provides the hard data on which to make this judgment. The polls were conducted in September by a leading commercial survey firm in the Middle East, using face-to-face interviews by experienced local professionals.
Building a Better Syrian Opposition Army: How and Why
By: Kenneth M. Pollack
What a difference a year makes. In the fall of 2013, Syria dominated the headlines, in part from fear that its spillover would destabilize its neighbors, Iraq first among them. Sadly, those fears proved prophetic. Sparks from Syria, in the form of the Salafi terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), helped reignite the Iraqi civil war. And the implosion of Iraq has pulled the Syrian conflict which triggered it back into the spotlight of America’s foreign policy debate. Yet throughout that year, the notion of increased American involvement, and in particular, ramped up assistance to the Syrian opposition was effectively off the table. The Administration and most of its critics regularly scoffed at the idea. Now, thanks to the crisis in Iraq and the belated recognition that spillover from Syria is an important element of the problems there, what was once ridiculed is now policy.
Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor
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