The Question of Syria

It’ s not getting a lot of press these days but it’s becoming apparent that the Trump Administration will soon need to make a decision on what to do in Syria.  The war against ISIS is winding down but the obvious question here is simple:  What does victory look like?

As you can see in the map above, ISIS doesn’t have much of a foothold left in Syria.  Once we’ll have defeated ISIS, then what?  Was the US military effort simply to defeat ISIS?  If so, the job is almost complete.  However, viewed in a more strategic light, US backed forces, that is the Syrian Democratic Forces – read largely Kurds – essentially control that part of Syria north and east of the Euphrates river.  Bashar Assad and his Russian and Iranian supporters control most of the rest of the country save a region in the extreme northeast of the country that Turkey and it’s allies control.  If we simply state that the US effort simply dealt with ISIS, we’d pull our troops home and leave the country to Assad, and abandon the SDF forces we’ve supported.  However, by doing so, the US would then once again leave a power vacuum in the region.  The last time we did that saw the rise of ISIS.

Pulling US forces out of Syria – currently numbering at least 2,000 Special Forces, and probably many more – fails to acknowledge the geopolitical nature of the Middle East landscape:  Iran, and Russia, are currently vying for hegemony throughout the region against the Saudis, and US backed forces, in the region.  The Saudis are currently leading the fight against the Iranian backed Houthis in Yemen.  Iran, for it’s part, is relying on it’s own proxies, the Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon, while its own Quds Force/Republican Guards assist Assad.  By abandoning the region, the US would play right into the Iranian’s hands, thereby providing Iran their “Crescent” in the middle east, i.e., a contiguous line of control from the Iran/Iraq border, through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to the Mediterranean – and ultimately, direct access to Israel.

There are no easy answers:  Pulling the troops home sounds wonderful, especially for those directly involved.  However, pulling them home also abandons the current US allies in the region, the SDF, and most notably, Israel.  Yes, Israel can take care of herself, but the US doesn’t need to set the table for the opposition a second time.

The Indian Ocean

I’ve been reading Adm James Stavridis’ latest book Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans (you can fine it on Amazon here) and he has an interesting chapter on the Indian ocean.  One of the more obvious aspects of this large ocean deals with oil.  Once a supertanker leaves the Strait of Hormuz, its in the Indian ocean.  From here, the tanker can really only go in two directions:  West, towards the coast of Africa, the Red Sea, the Med and Europe, or; East, heading towards India, Indonesia and SE Asia, China and Japan. 

For those tankers heading East, there are more than a few strategic points the tanker needs to transit.  The first point is the Maldives, a string of islands running north to south with the closest island roughly 430 kilometers south, southwest from the tip of India.  The Maldives does not currently have a navy that would threaten the transit of any ocean going vessels but both India and China have expressed interest in establishing a naval base there of one sort or another.  

The next point is the island of Sri Lanka, a large island located off the southeast tip of India.  Relations between Sri Lanka and India have traditionally been quite good.  However, China has recently tried to make inroads with the Sri Lankan government.  Given Sri Lanka’s proximity to India, the Indian government can ill afford any encroachment of the Chinese.

The next strategic point, is indeed a true choke point – the Strait of Malacca.  To transit this strait, tankers must sail through the narrow five hundred mile long passageway between the island of Sumatra and the Malay peninsula, ending at Singapore.  At  its narrowest point, the strait is less than two miles wide!  As for the commercial importance of this Strait:  25% of the oil from the Persian Gulf transits the strait every year; nearly 100,000 vessels transit the strait every year, which accounts for one quarter of the world’s traded goods!  Once through the Strait of Malacca, the tankers would turn north and sail through the South China Sea, and right past the Spratly Islands, something which the Chinese have aggressively claimed as their own.

An additional strategic outpost for China lies in the southwestern part of the Indian ocean, the Seychelles.  Here, once again, the Chinese are making inroads.  In 2011, the Seychelles government offered China a key naval base in the region – something which India will need to address if they hope to keep China out of the region.

The ability of one country to exercise control over even a couple of these strategic points could pose a threat to a substantial part of the world.  Two hundred years ago, the Indian ocean looked much like a British lake since the British Empire controlled virtually all of the then strategic points in the region – key points in East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian sub-continent, and of course, Singapore; today, we need to make sure the Indian ocean doesn’t turn into a Chinese lake.

Syria’s Hama Air Base disaster

This past Friday, May 18th, a series of explosions rocked Syria’s Hama Airbase in northwestern Syria–an air base in which Iran is known to have a significant presence.  These explosions, coming in broad daylight, provide for a great deal of speculation as to the cause.   Israeli air raids have generally taken place at night, as would, most likely, an Israeli commando raid.  Debka is claiming that this indeed was a commando raid conducted by an as yet unknown group calling themselves Sariyeh Jihad.  This group supposedly launched eight missiles at the base, causing a string of explosions, as the photos below demonstrate.

Explosion-Hama-missiles-18.5.18

Plume from Hama Base explosion

In addition, one individual got some stunning pics and videos of the conflagration and can be found here.

Syria is claiming that this is an unfortunate accident resulting in the deaths of several troops.  It’s interesting to note that earlier this year, a rebel group opposed to Assad launched a swarm of drones in an attack on a Russian air base relatively close to the Hama site.  Whatever the case, or cause, of this incident, it does not bode well for the Assad regime.  Clearly, if they can’t protect a base such as Hama which obviously stores an impressive amount of explosives and ammunition, it’s no wonder both the Russians and Iranians are sending in their own forces–both to protect their own personnel and equipment as well as supporting Bashar al-Assad.  Moreover, if this indeed was the result of a commando attack from this previously unknown group, imagine what an Israeli Sayeret Matkal team could do . . . .

The Israeli/Iranian Conflict – Phase I

This past week, the Iranian Quds force launched 20 missiles at Israeli positions in the Golan Heights and air raid sirens went off in several Israeli communities.  This Iranian attack represents the latest in a continued escalation of hostilities since February.  Israel,  already locked and loaded, responded immediately with their largest response in Syria since the Yom Kippur War in 1973!  Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman indicated that they targeted “nearly all the Iranian infrastructure in Syria.”  In addition, multiple types of Syrian air defense systems were targeted.  The Israeli Air Force just released this amazing video taking out an SA-22, Pantsir S-1 point defense missile system which represents possibly the best air defense system Syria has.

While the Israelis took out virtually all of the Iranian infrastructure in Syria, Iran still has the capability to launch their own massive response.  In southern Lebanon, Iran has supplied Hezbollah with literally thousands of rockets and missiles over the past several years.  Obviously, if Hezbollah entered the fray, the IDF would most likely invade southern Lebanon and eliminate this threat.  In addition, Iran has dozens, if not hundreds of ballistic missiles they could launch from Iran that could reach Israel as well.  Indeed, a leading intelligence source in Israel recently indicated that Iran has higher quality missiles that neither Hezbollah or Syria possess.  While the Israelis clearly sent a message with this massive response, the question remains:  Did Tehran get the message?  We’ll have to wait and see.

The F-22 Raptor Restart Study

Tyler Rogoway and Joseph Trevithik at The War Zone just posted an analysis on restarting the F-22 production line based on the Congressionally mandated Air Force study of doing just that.  Their analysis includes a link to the study but that study can also be found here.  Their bottom line:  a restart is unlikely to occur as any dollars put towards restarting the F-22 would come at the expense of the F-35.  However, as the authors allude, if Japan is willing to foot the bill for the non-recurring startup costs–which is several billion dollars–the per unit cost would dramatically be reduced.  And, if that were to happen, in addition to having a couple hundred more Raptors in the Air Force inventory, other US allies would more than likely be interested in an upgraded F-22, notably Australia and Israel – and all of this could be done relatively quickly given much of the production line has been mothballed in a California warehouse.  Yes, it is definitely time to restart the F-22!

The Israeli/Iranian War is upon us

“Israel has four problems:  Iran, Iran, Iran, and hypocrisy,” so says Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman.  “What we see in the international arena is a surreal spectacle where those same countries that many years ago supported the Munich and and Molotov-Ribbentrop agreements continue to bury their heads in the sand and ignore reality of Iran, which is trying to destabilize the entire Middle East, Yemen, Iraq,” he claimed in a recent speech.

Iran, clearly has been active in the region:  The Houthi rebels in Yemen continue to receive arms and ammunition from Iran, including advance ballistic missiles which they routinely launch into Saudi Arabia; In Iraq, “Tehran’s military help is not a secret anymore. You can find General Soleimani’s pictures in Iraq everywhere,” said an official close to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.  In Syria, Iran’s activity continues unabated as they work to establish their presence at several military bases.  In addition, reports are that Iran is currently building a factory in northwestern Syria to produce long-range missiles.  Indeed, it seems that Iran is becoming bolder and bolder in their work within Syria.

This past weekend, Israel reportedly struck a Syrian airbase stocked with “missiles,” most likely provided by Iran.  This air raid reportedy destroyed 200 missiles and killed several.  Moreover, the explosions were so fierce, it registered a 2.6 on the Richter scale.  (A video of the explosions can also be found on The Warzone’s website here.)  Tensions between Iran and Israel are clearly escalating.  After Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech earlier this week, I wouldn’t be surprised if Israel increased its actions in Syria very soon.  The Syrian powder-keg could erupt all too soon.

It’s time for an F-22 Raptor 2.0

When Lockheed shut down the production line for the F-22 Raptor, they kept much of the equipment and machinery necessary to reopen the line, should the prospect materialize.  There have been a few studies on doing exactly this and Congress actually ordered just such a study in April, 2016.  However, in spite of the moth-balled machinery & equipment, it was still deemed too expensive to restart the program.

Now, in the wake of the current geopolitical environment, it’s looking like it might be more of a possibility.  One of the original issues, though, is that Congress specifically legislated that the F-22 could not be exported, even to our closest allies like Great Britain or Israel.  Japan, for its part, really wanted the Raptor–and still does–and, given Chinese ambitions in the local area, Japan clearly has a need for an advanced fighter.  Japan has already ordered more than 40 of the F-35s but is still looking at the F-22 or a hybrid thereof.  More importantly, though, it sounds like they might even be willing to pony up some serious money to get an F-22-like program going – $40 billion dollars worth of capital for what Lockheed describes as an F-22/F-35 hybrid combining the best capabilities of each thereby making the new F-22 better than either of its parent designs.

Obviously, if Japan is willing to put up this type of money, the startup costs for the US for an improved F-22 is dramatically reduced.  In addition, an expanded F-22 fleet in the US inventory would be a very welcome enhancement, given that the Air Force only bought about 180 of the original F-22’s roughly a decade ago.  With the F-15 and the F-16 fleet aging–who’s designs are 40 years old–an expanded F-22 fleet could only complement the F-35.  Obviously, Congress will need to get involved but with President Trump actively supporting exporting US arms to allied nations I think the time is right to actively pursue the F-22 once again.  (See Tyler Rogoway’s excellent article from The War Zone here, from which much of the information above was used.)

Drone over Syria, II

Drone over Syria wTracking

Let’s see:  We have an unidentified aircraft that started tracking over northwestern Syria that is currently at 20,400′ traveling at 72 knots and with a heading towards Incirlik Air Force Base, interesting . . . .

Drone over Syria?

Drone over Syria.

Looks like there might be a drone over extreme northwestern Syria:  No call sign, flying at 22,400′ at 72 knots!  Hmm . . .  something in the works?

The Syrian Powder Keg – Has the Fuse Been Lit?

As most everyone knows by now, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad launched another chemical attack on Douma last weekend.   Roughly a year ago, Assad launched a previous chemical attack and this was met with close to 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles hitting the airbase where the chemical attack originated.  Now, in the wake of this most recent attack and Israel’s immediate response on Sunday night, the world is waiting for the next shoe to drop–and it appears that it will be coming based on President Trump’s tweets–though a few questions–and issues–obviously exist:  What’s going to be targeted this time?  Who’s all going to be involved?  How long will the response last – will this just be a once and done raid or will this happen over several days?  And, obviously, when will this happen?

Adding just a little bit of suspense to this is Putin’s claim that he’ll be targeting both the missiles themselves, as well as the vehicle that launches these missiles.  Russia installed their advanced S-400 air defense missile system at Hmeimim Air Base in northwestern Syria a couple years ago so it would appear that they have the capability to definitely reach out and touch someone.  (You can read all about that here, as well as its capabilities.)  The question is, though, if Russia does engage any of the attackers, would the US, and presumably any of the attacking coalition, respond in kind?  It would not be the first time US forces have engaged–and killed–Russian opposition forces in Syria.  Two months ago, Russian forces operating under the Wagner Group attacked US, and US backed, forces at a base in northeastern Syria.  The Special Forces commander called in air support from orbiting F-15E’s, AC-130’s, F-22’s and even some Reaper drones–all of this followed by Apache helicopters.  In the end, upwards of 350 Russian soldiers were killed.  Russia denied this action as all of the troops involved belonged to their private contractor Wagner.  However, things could be different this time.

Let’s also not forget that at the same time as the Russians were engaging the US outpost in Syria, Israel was attacking in Syria as well, including bases housing their Iranian allies.  This attack cost Israel one of their vaunted F-16I’s but this amounted to their most widespread bombings in Syria since it destroyed almost all of Syria’s air defenses in 1982.  Of course, Israel launched an immediate attack last Sunday but this seemed to be rather limited in nature, given the capability the Israelis have, and have used in the past.

Not to be outdone, Bloomberg  is reporting that the Houthi’s in Yemen have launched another ballistic missile – and drone – attack against the Saudis just yesterday.  The Saudi’s apparently took out several, if not all, of the inbound missiles and drones.  However, is it too much to think that Iran urged the Houthi’s to initiate this attack to keep the Saudi’s preoccupied in the Peninsula?   Maybe, maybe not.

The bottom line:  There’s more to think about than simply retaliating against Assad’s use of chemical weapons – as deplorable as this is.  Should we attack?  Personally, I think so.  And, it would seem that Putin is expecting the attack as the entire Russian fleet has vacated their naval base of Latakia.  However, we need to be prepared for a Russian response and Tyler Rogoway and Joseph Trevithick have an excellent article in what Putin’s response could look like.