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Saturday, May 30, 2015

Developments in Iraq, Syria.

Links: A. Iraqi forces confront ISIS in Anbar.
           B. Al-Qaeda celebrates as Assad regime collapses.

In a positive move, the Iraqi military has begun a well-supported effort to recapture the city of Ramadi and roll-up ISIS fighters in eastern Anbar Province. In a surprise development, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are fighting alongside the "Popular Mobilization" (Shi'a militia), and at the same time, enjoying air support from the allied coalition, which continues to wreck havoc with any ISIS attempts to operate during clear weather.  Early indications are that the ISF is having success retaking neighborhood after neighborhood, and that ISIS forces in Ramadi are virtually surrounded.  Since we've been down this road before, the Iraqis know to expect very few if any prisoners, and that the mopping up operation could take weeks.  An important element of the effort to retake Ramadi, is that it is taking place concurrently with operations in Salah ad-Din Province, where the Shi'a militias Asa'aib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) and the Badr Organization have been successfully retaking territory northeast of Fallujah. In fact, the Popular Mobilization is active throughout Salah ad-Din Province, as Shi'a militias have retaken territory from ISIS south and southwest of Samarrah city.  The key to current operations against ISIS is the joint-activity of the allied air campaign and the Popular Mobilization.  At times, both the air coalition, led by the United States, and the Shi'a militias, backed by Iran, refused to participate in military operations as long as the other was involved.  It was an odd situation, given that at the time, Iran and the United States were conducting negotiations regarding Iran's nuclear ambitions.  Be that as it may, the tide appears to be turning in Iraq (again), especially given that ISIS has been unable to gain complete control of the Baiji refinery, a piece of real estate that may appear to be worth more than it actually is.  But it has become a bit of a rallying cry for the ISF, and they are very determined to relieve its defenders and remove the threat of ISIS control of the entire refinery.  Once Ramadi has been relieved, and the ISF and its militia partners are able to consolidate gains in Salah ad-Din province and around Baiji, then ISIS may be obliged to re-evaluate its long-term strategy.  Almost everyday brings more bad news for Bashir al-Assad in Syria, and its not necessarily ISIS that is causing the trouble.  Jabhat al-Nusrah, considered by many analysts to by Al-Qaeda's "representative" in Syria, has been conducting one successful military operation after another.  In reality, all the Islamic extremist groups who envision some form of a Sunni-based caliphate, are representing Al-Qaeda, including ISIS.  That certainly does not imply that Assad is a friend to the west, it only means that the various Islamic Sunni extremist military groups around the world all have the same goal and the same motivation.  At this point, keeping them separate no longer seems to serve a point.

News from northwest Syria is that Idlib Province has, for the most part, fallen to Jabhat al-Nusrah.  Everyday, village by village, town by town, and province by province, the end draws nearer for Bashir Al-Assad; and once it comes, no doubt there will be a serious vengeance visited upon all those who were loyal to the regime.  And as the situation becomes more desperate, the regime continues to make enemies by its use of weaponized chlorine gas attacks, barrel bombs, and indiscriminate air attacks on civilian areas.  Sooner or later, the last handful of troops loyal to Assad will realize that he and his closest comrades will escape Damascus to end their days in luxury, probably in a villa on the Black Sea.  Its no secret that the Assad family has treated the Syrian treasury as its own personal bank account, not to mention all the cash derived from all manner of bribes.  So the Assad clan will be just fine, but what about the troops who have been loyal to the end?    In Libya, the number of loyal troops disintegrated at the end, and I expect the same situation to happen in Syria.  Assad will have a limited amount of time to decide when to leave, and if he misses the deadline by the smallest of margins, we might just see Bashir lit up like a Christmas tree, inside of a cage.

We have been monitoring the media reports regarding Syria, for any indication that the clocks are ticking in Paris, Moscow, Washington, London, etc., on Bashir al-Assad's Syria. The west was taken by surprise at the swift removal of Gaddafi (no doubt he was surprised by the swift removal of his head), and I wonder if the analysts aren't giving Assad a bit more staying power than he actually has.  True, we had him practically written off once before and he bounced back.  But the giant difference between then and now is Russia. We believe that Putin is willing to allow Assad and his flock of butchers and thieves to go into exile in Russia, but that's about it.  He does not appear willing to expend anymore political capital or money on the Syrian Ba'ath movement.  Assad's predicament isn't complicated; its simply a matter of diminishing returns.  Unless the Syrian military is preparing some awe-inspiring major offensive (it would have to be out of Damascus) to turn the tide of battle, then everyday Assad can expect his loyalists to decrease in number.  A few gone over here, and a few more missing over there.  Don't be surprised to see a Syrian pilot asking for asylum soon, although I don't know if any are left that can pretend to have clean hands, i.e. never having targeted civilians.  The truth is, we're getting a little impatient.  We want to know what will happen "apres les deluge", so we are discreetly trying to nudge Assad in the right direction.  "Hey Bashir, I understand that Black Sea caviar is the richest.  Don't take any chances, Bashir; you already have no chin, how will you look with no head?  Be careful, Bashir, I opened the refrigerator this morning only to find a frozen Jabhat al-Nusrah guy inside.  Oh, that was your doing?  Sorry....."  

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The rise of a terrorist superpower: the Islamic State in 2015.

Most analysts and military strategists in the United States have focused on the activities of Daesh (Islamic State) in Syria and Iraq.  After all, our equities appear to be most at risk in those two particular theaters.  We have been conducting an Allied Air Campaign  in both areas of conflict for roughly a year, and today, for the first time, we have learned exactly how aggressive this Air Campaign has been.  The Allied Air Campaign (which includes the United States, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Bahrain) is averaging fourteen missions per day against Daesh targets.  In comparison, the U.S. Air Force averaged 800 missions per day against Iraqi and insurgency targets in Operation Enduring Freedom.  When questioned about the low number of missions, the Pentagon pointed out that the targets are more complicated, and the coalition is determined to avoid hitting civilian targets in error.  I will leave that comment to stand on its own.  Recently, Daesh has become more visible in its efforts to expand into other countries.  Saudi Arabia has started to suffer from internal bombings conducting by Daesh operatives, and the presence of Daesh has been noted in Algeria, Mali, Libya, Egypt, Pakistan, Yemen, and Armenia (this includes countries with Islamic extremist groups who have declared their allegiance to Daesh).  Currently, the Islamic State has the momentum in both Iraq and Syria.  In fact, with only the remnants of the regime left to oppose their advance, Syria is beginning to look like a done deal, at least as far as Assad is concerned.  Last week, Daesh operatives captured the Syrian/Iraqi border town of al-Tanf (al-Waleed in Iraq), which is a major victory for the extremist group.  Controlling this entry point will allow Daesh to resupply its forces in Iraq more quickly, and vice versa.  It solidifies their communication and transportation network between the two countries, and will undoubtedly bring more pressure on the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in Anbar Province.

Outside of Saudi Arabia and a few isolated incidents in other countries, Daesh has yet to conduct a major operation in a theater other than Syria and least as far as we know. This group continues to impress with its planning and patience, and its ability to transform financial support into military equipment and supplies.  No doubt its recent successes on the battlefield have increased the flow of volunteers.  Last summer, when the United States appeared to be taking this threat seriously, there was hope that the Daesh movement would be limited to Iraq and Syria.  But the organization has executed a much more successful military strategy than the United States and its allies.  We celebrated when the Kurds won a few victories in northern Syria, and we rejoiced when the ISF recaptured Tikrit.  But each minor Daesh setback was followed by a major military operation against weak targets.  Although Ramadi wasn't thought to be a weak target.  It became one when the ISF deserted its positions and equipment/vehicles, and left the people of Ramadi to fend for themselves.  The example that the Iraqi Army continues to set (with the exception of a modest-sized number of well-trained, disciplined troops that get deployed whenever the government in Baghdad needs a headlining-grabbing victory somewhere) is only encouraging scores of Sunni in Anbar and elsewhere to back the winner, which at this stage is Daesh.  Each little step east, closer to Baghdad, allows Daesh to seed Sunni communities with locals who have become supporters.  No doubt, actual Daesh operatives are already in place in the bedroom communities of Baghdad.

From a larger perspective, the EU and the United States had better recognize the danger of Daesh "sightings" in Africa and in other Middle East countries.  This extremist group is nothing like we have seen before, with the exception of the Taliban, on a much smaller scale.  It has brought a conventional military capability to an extremist agenda.  These groups feed off the poverty and misery of the third world to recruit and spread a message of hate and blame.  Sadly, in 2015, they have no shortage of expansion opportunities.  We have been concerned for some time with the activities of Al-Shabaab in East Africa, and the potential for recruitment in the townships of Kenya.  There is no doubt that Al-Shabaab and Daesh are in regular communication, and that Daesh is already considering ways to tap into the mountain of discontent that exists in East African townships.  Another troubling development is the easy manner in which Daesh seems to co-opt existing guerilla movements, sometimes even groups that are not Sunni in affiliation.  One would have though that the mass executions and beheadings would have damaged the brand at least to some extent.  But the reality is, at the end of the day, what really impresses is success, which at the moment, Daesh is enjoying in Spades. Anyone that is able to make the United States appear reactionary and unresolved will always attract a certain element of bad guys, but Daesh has managed to force the United States, Saudi Arabia, the EU, the Emirates, and even the Assad regime, stand behind the same target.  As far as Daesh is concerned, they have one enemy that just happens to speak different languages and wear different uniforms.  It would be in our best interest if we also adopted the same approach, instead of continuing with this obsession of separating the motivations of various extremist groups that all share the same goal: the expansion of Islamic extremism and the destruction of the western way of life.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

A bit of politics: The Republican field begins to take shape...Dr. Ben Carson.

Soon Americans will be bombarded with advertisements, billboards, television commercials and radio messages, explaining why one particular Republican candidate is the best choice to run against Hillary Clinton for president in 2016.  The majority of registered voters are Democrats, but the difference doesn't appear to be an issue for the GOP.  In fact, when Ronald Reagan was burying Walter Mondale in an electoral landslide in 1984, the majority of registered voters were Democrat. This fact speaks volumes for the idea that in some instances, you really don't know who someone is going to vote for after the curtain closes.  Along with many others, I thought Mitt Romney would beat Barack Obama in 2012; the polls showed Romney ahead in both Ohio and Florida on the day before the election.  Obviously, some persons who were projected Romney voters, closed those curtains and voted for Obama (not me, I promise).  The point being, that it is very difficult to handicap the U.S. Presidential Elections.  The primaries, on the other hand, don't present nearly as much of a problem.  Take for instance the Democrats in 2016; we have known that Hillary Clinton was going to be the Democratic nominee for years (provided she didn't unexpectedly expire or run off to join the circus).  True, the party pretends that a few other possibilities exist, including Martin O'Malley, the former governor of Maryland, and Elizabeth Warren, Senator from Massachusetts who can occasionally be mistaken for Pocahontas.  But the nomination has been Hillary's since Obama took the oath of office in 2012.  In my mind, Hillary is a very flawed candidate.  If I were a Democrat, I would be very worried.  Hillary is dealing with controversies about emails and a private server, the Benghazi tragedy, the alleged "Quid Quo Pro" for companies and persons who contributed to the Clinton Foundation, and a less-than-impressive turn as Secretary of State.  But, to my surprise, HRC continues to lead all the GOP candidates in every poll I have seen.  This fact leaves me both disgusted as sad.  After looking at the Bushes and Clintons for decades, I would think that everyone would be as ready as I am for a new face, even if it requires taking a chance on an unknown.

The Republican polling machines already have created a two-tier separation between the candidates.  In the top five or six, we have Governor of Wisconsin Scott Walker, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, with former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee not far behind.  The next group is usually led by Dr. Ben Carson, famed Neurosurgeon and my personal choice, and former Hewlett-Packard/Compaq CEO Carly Fiorina.  The rest of the list includes the "unknowns"; those who have yet to decide, including New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Louisiana Governor and another favorite of mine (sorry Jennifer!) Bobby Jindal, former New York Governor George Pataki and recently retired Texas Governor Rick Perry. A big question mark seems to follow former Pennsylvania Senator and 2012 candidate Rick Santorum.  I really like Santorum.  I have tremendous respect for Santorum; he shows no fear when the time comes to stand up for this issues that are important.  When he is given an equal playing field and access to the electorate, Santorum does very well.  He speaks well and with conviction, and he is a very intelligent man.  Unfortunately, the media and the Democrats (and some of his former Republican opponents), have pinned the ultimate Scarlet Letter to Rick's lapel.  You see, Santorum is TOO conservative to be president.  He doesn't budge on any of the issues; he's against Gay marriage, pro-Life, supports the Second Amendment, opposes amnesty, and is strongly in favor of entitlement and tax reform.  To someone like me, Santorum is not TOO anything.  He is just the right amount.  He talks about the issues that just might be the keys to turning our country around.  No, my issue is not that Rick is too conservative.  Its that he is running for an office that he knows in his heart he can't win.  If Santorum were to get the GOP nomination, he would unite and mobilize the left in a way we haven't seen since Barry Goldwater.  We need a candidate that will appeal to the level-headed Democratic voters who  sense the need to abandon the current socialist agenda.  I am bothered that Santorum would take a chance on putting another Democrat back in the White House, which is what will happen if he wins the election.  It makes me consider that possibly he has fallen victim to the Bush/Clinton fog, which convinces every member of those two families that the United States CAN'T FUNCTION without them.

You probably are able to discern the reasons why I'm supporting Dr. Carson.  Many of you may criticize me by pointing out that Carson has about as much chance of beating HRC as Santorum does.  I don't accept that argument.  Once Carson gets familiar with the podium and the pace of campaigning, he will be a natural.  it may seem a bit strained at the moment because he is a neophyte.  I find his "newness" refreshing.  As for qualifications, Carson has written a number of wonderful books, he has spent a good part of his life caring for other people, and he has dedicated himself to public service OUTSIDE of his occupation.  You would be hard-pressed to find a more well-spoken, polite, learned man, and importantly, he is humble.  I had some questions regarding his grasp of the wide spectrum of issues that face the president (heck, ignorance of those issues certainly did not affect Obama's decision to run), but lately he has made a concerted effort to address foreign policy, economics, and the social troubles that seem to be about ready to catch this nation on fire.  Does it matter to me that he is African-American?  Yes, it does.  Only in the fact that it might provide him with more access into those communities that are bleeding and suffering the most.  I have heard Dr. Carson discuss the inner city neighborhoods of Baltimore, his home.  Dr. Carson did not grow up in wealth and opportunity.  He is a true American success story, as is Herman Cane.  But he never fails to discuss the plight of the poor, inner city youth, who wake up every morning to another day of no options, no opportunities, just suffering.  It will be a priority for Dr. Carson, who will, I believe, create a cabinet-level position to focus exclusively on the people who haven't been able to escape to the suburbs.  It is an issue worth serious attention and funding.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

How do we fix this mess that we are in overseas?

Presently, the United States has involved itself in three conflicts raging overseas.  I'm sure some folks actually believed President Obama when he paid lip service to the Elizabeth Warren click within the Democratic Party and promised to end foreign U.S. military involvement.  I can't really pin the blame for the crisis in the Ukraine on Obama, because Russian President Vladimir Putin has obviously been the one calling all the shots.  I can, however, call into question his strategy of implementing sanctions on Russia, and keeping the sanctions in place long after it has become apparent that Russians don't give a shit about sanctions.  But Putin's ballsy decision to scoop up the Crimea practically overnight was a surprise to just about everyone.  When the move in Crimea coincided with an outbreak in separatist activity in Donbas (ESE Ukraine), it was apparent to us that Putin was looking for a bargaining chip, something he could trade in exchange for recognition of Russia's claim to Crimean sovereignty.  But Putin was taken as much by surprise as we were by the weak and limp-wristed response by the European Powers, NATO, and the United States.  Putin annexed territory belonging to a foreign state and began fomenting rebellion elsewhere, and the response from the free world is little more than a 5-minute stay in time out.  Don't agree?  Well, explain it to me then.  I am in serious need of educating.  How has the sanctions regime impacted the Russian decision to invalidate the territorial integrity of a UN and NATO member state?  It appears to me, that as of May 22, 2015, the Russians/Separatists (it will continue to get more and more difficult to tell them apart, as Russia decides to end the charade) are again on the offensive, moving further west into Ukraine, consolidating their hold on Luhansk and Donetsk, and preparing to lay siege to Mariupol.  What can be done?  Europe and the United States seem content to talk about more sanctions (you would think that they would be a bit embarrassed by now, talking about additional sanctions when the ones in place have had no impact on Russian policy whatsoever), so its up to us to talk about solutions. 

First and foremost, when dealing with Putin, a foreign leader with any hope of success must call Putin's bluff.  Inform Putin that if Russia does not evacuate Crimea and Donbas within a week, that the U.S. and NATO will begin full military deployment in the Baltic Republics, Poland, and Ukraine.  By deployment, I don't mean actual U.S. Marines, I'm talking about full military support, in equipment, tanks, planes, anti-aircraft batteries, surface to air missiles, and, if possible, implementation of the defensive, anti-ballistic missile "Dome" that everyone nicknamed "Star Wars".  Putin cannot accuse the west of militarizing Russia's borders, not when Putin is in the middle of doing it himself.  The only language Putin understands is the language of force.  His only choice for diplomacy is diplomatic aggression.  On the other hand, if he makes a move in the right direction, and starts to de-militarize eastern Ukraine, then the United States and NATO should take appropriate, similar action.  Dealing with Putin is like trying to stop a flood.  The only way to be successful is by building a dam, and saying, "no further".

The situation in Iraq and Syria is more complicated.  Formerly we would evaluate the scenarios as separate battlefields.  We have abandoned that perspective.  The Islamic Front (IS) continues to surprise analysts and military leaders alike in its ability to rebound from defeats and its ability to transport men and equipment so quickly and effectively.  Granted, the IS has become masterful at taking full advantage of sandstorms and other weather anomalies, but recent events in Anbar and also Syria have made it apparent that the IS views the conflict as one battlefield, and regroups, resupplies and conducts offensives accordingly.  Today, the Iraqi military is taking drastic measures to present an all-out disaster with the loss of the Baiji refinery.  There has been some discussion of an offensive to retake Ramadi, but if resources are allocated for just such an operation, don't be surprised to see Tikrit again fall to the IS.  It has become apparent to us that the Iraqi military has a limited number of effective, reliable troops, and they are shuttled from one crisis area to the next.  No doubt the 1500 U.S. instructors are tasked with increasing that number, but so far they haven't had much peace, with al-Asad Airbase under constant threat.  We are most concerned, as we have always been, with the security of U.S. personnel, and the possible occupation of Baghdad by the IS.  We would like to take the opportunity to repeat our warning to either move all non-essential U.S. personnel out of Iraq, or, evacuate it completely, hook, line, and sinker.  As it is, with State Dept., Intel folks, USAID, multiple private security contractors, etc., all over the place, from Mosul to Basra, I am petrified that the IS is going to get its hands on any number of U.S. persons.  We all can only imagine what would happen.

Syria is a bit different.  We don't have the same concerns regarding U.S. personnel, although given the nebulous nature of the Free Syrian Army, we may be mistaken.  We have been convinced for a few months now that Assad and the Ba'ath regime is living on borrowed time.  We cannot envision a scenario in which Assad can pull defeat from the jaws of victory.  It does appear as if Assad has been forsaken by his Russian friends, as the influx of weapons and equipment we anticipated never materialized.  Is it possible that Putin's addition of one naval port (Crimea) allowed him to shelve his designs for a Mediterranean naval base, at least for the time being?  The IS and its surrogates, including the burgeoning Jabhat al-Nusrah, are sitting in the catbird seat, with regime forces only in control of areas west of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains.  Sure there are outposts and isolated units in the east, but lets be realistic: Assad needs to decide if he is going to go down with the ship, a la Gadhafi, or when its best to vacate Damascus for friendlier environs (a Black Sea Dacha, maybe?).  It appears as if the IS is in no hurry to settle things in Syria, probably because it currently has the full military initiative in Iraq.

How can something positive be delivered of this difficult predicament?  Firstly, the decision must be made in the capitals of Europe and Washington DC, that there will be no negotiating with the Islamic State.  If the member States of the EU and the United States were to sign such a pledge, it would send the right kind of message to the IS, and be a move in the right direction.  The battlefield in Iraq is the key to the conflict with the IS.  They have proven to be much more strategic and adept at military planning than expected, but it shouldn't be difficult to take advantage of their limited military experience.  What the IS can ill-afford to lose is fighters.  Make the IS bleed in Iraq; make every inch, every foot, every mile carry a tremendous price tag.  This can't be achieved by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) alone, although if the Iranians were keen on a full engagement against the IS, we believe that they would win the day handily, as would the Marines that we believe should be deployed in Iraq in targeted operations, with the sole purpose being to kill as many IS fighters as possible.  Sure, we could give the Iraqis the equipment that our Marines would use, but I don't trust them.  In a week, there would be another evacuation, and all that equipment would end up in IS hands...again.  The Marines know the job, and they will clean up.  Within a month of targeted operations involving the U.S. Marines, with heavy Air Support, the IS will be on the run from Baiji and from Anbar itself.  More importantly, they will be suffering a manpower issue, which can only assist whatever policy is formulated in Syria.  We can't hypothesize about possible U.S. action in Syria because we still have no clue who or what the Free Syrian Army is, and where they are.  Its possible that the IS could be bled enough in Iraq to allow a large-enough neutral army like the Free Syrian Army, to pacify the countryside for possible elections and the arrival of UN Peacekeepers.  At this stage, in Iraq, we believe that the time has come to remind the Iraqi people that we do believe in their future, and we are willing to fight alongside them against the IS.  This effort should be worth at least two permanent Air Bases and at least one, huge Army facility.  

Friday, May 22, 2015

Thoughts and observations on Iraq and Syria.

[ALink: Washington Post blames Iraq for ISIS success.

A quick read of the Washington Post's latest analysis of the conflict in Iraq has left me a bit disappointed.  The Post seems content on laying the blame for the disaster that is Iraq at the feet of the Iraqi government.  They would be absolutely correct in their assessment.  They would also be displaying a sad lack of journalistic integrity and follow-through.  Once the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) retook Iraq without the assistance of the Shi'a militia, the Obama Administration was quick to take as much credit as the press corps would allow.  Its probably accurate to opine that Tikrit would not have fallen as quickly if it weren't for the air support provided by the Obama Air Coalition.  The fact that Tikrit was retaken without the militias gave support to the idea that the ISF and the Air Coalition could successfully defeat the Islamic State (IS) alone.  All the while, analysts with a bit of experience and patience to their credit, were politely reminding the excited Administration folks that trouble was brewing in Anbar.  The truth is, trouble never stopped brewing in Anbar.  The IS had every intention of an offensive to take Ramadi and isolate Haditha and the al-Asad Air Base, long before the retaking of Tikrit.  If anything, it made the task easier by withdrawing the more experienced and reliable elements of the ISF (undeniably necessarily now that the militias have lost favor) from defensive positions in Anbar to the assault on Tikrit.  As we expected, Joe Biden's celebration of the fall of Tikrit was short-lived, as everything since has turned to shit.  Baiji will probably fall (the Obama Administration is already negating the importance of Baiji by reminding the press that the facility does not have the adequate professional staff on hand to properly function), as will other small pockets of ISF resistance, and Baghdad will begin to sense the noose.

Today we learned that IS had taken Palmyra, and if the Islamic State follows its usual game plan, then antiquities from the time of the Old Testament are likely to be destroyed.  We've heard this refrain before, as every sacred archeological site in Mesopotamia seems to either be ruined on or the chopping block.  Call me uncaring and cold-hearted, but the loss of Nineveh, Babylon and Palmyra aren't what gives me a case of the Red-Ass.  What really burns me up learning about all the vehicles and equipment that the ISF left in Ramadi!  I want to know, was this equipment LOANED to Iraq, or was it sold to them?  We went through this once before, in the Battle for Tikrit Part I.  At that time, the equipment that was deserted on the battlefield and picked up by IS fighters, was all donated to the Iraqi military.  But this time around, I expect some accounting!  Anyone in the Democratic Party ever heard of financial accountability?  How about, "once-burned, twice shy"?  I know at least twenty Humvees were left for the IS to confiscate, but what really worries me is, what about artillery,  rocket launchers, mortars, ammunition?  Did the U.S. taxpayer AGAIN pay for equipping the IS?  From this point forward, I suggest we require payment UP-FRONT for any military equipment. 

Lets chat a bit about the "Free Syrian Army" (FSA).  That's all we can do, is chat a bit, because no one has ever really spoken about it.  True, the FSA has a nice introduction, which provided a narrative which the press corps was supposed to read between the lines.  The not-so discreetly hidden message in the narrative was that this FSA was supposed to act as the surrogate ground force that the Obama Administration was unwilling to introduce into the conflict.  Its my understanding that extensive training was undertaken in Jordan, with careful steps taken not to rush the issue.  Well, folks, the issue appears to have rushed itself.  I have no clue where the FSA is located and if they have actually seen any action.  In fact, I was relying on some form of engagement, so that I would have an idea what side they would be fighting.  We can assume that the FSA would not engage regime forces, so would IS forces be the main target?  Well, they might want to get moving, because the IS seems about ready to pin-the-tail on this donkey.

I wouldn't advise anyone to keep a lookout for the FSA.  I assume that given recent developments, it would be difficult to stop the IS and Jabhat al-Nusrah from finishing off the Assad regime.  Certainly the FSA, if it had the numbers, could cause all sorts of problems for the IS in the area south of Damascus and near the Jordan border and the Golan Heights, but I wouldn't advise getting too close to areas patrolled by the Israelis.  So yes, the FSA could cause trouble for the IS in the area of Damascus (and south), but what would be the point?  All it would accomplish is possibly provide a lifeline to Assad, although even that seems unlikely.  The smart move is to disband this army of modern-day mercenaries and give them a bit of cash for their troubles.  What worries would be some brilliant military strategist in the Administration making the argument that the FSA should be used in Iraq to fight the IS.  Ideally, forcing the IS to defend its western border in Anbar sounds like a smart move.  But I have always been opposed to surrogate armies.  If the cause isn't important enough to use U.S. troops, then it must be someone else's war.   

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Shit is About to Hit The Fan, Folks.

Links: A. Real-time situation report from the battlefields of Iraq.
           B. Real-time situation report from the battlefields of Syria.
           C. Real-time situation report from the battlefields of Ukraine.

Before we take a graceful swan-dive into the subject of today's post, I want to bring attention to the three links that I have provided.  All three links are generated from the same blog, "The Institute for the Study of War" (ISW).  At times I have praised certain websites and blogs, especially if I find myself becoming a regular visitor.  But I must truly take my hat off to the people behind this blog.  I am repeatedly amazed by the detail, accuracy, and familiarity with ground truth, that is so evident in ISW updates.  I am most impressed with ISW's ability to provide the same high-caliber reporting from three separate battlefields.  Personally, I'm already combining the Syrian and Iraqi zone of conflict, but Ukraine is entirely different nut altogether.  Everyday I wait for my email from ISW; kudos to whoever runs the show for turning me into and out-and-out ISW junkie!

After taking a few minutes to praise another blog, allow me to take a few more to praise my own.  We have been raising the warning flag regarding the Islamic State's (IS) ability to threaten Baghdad for some months now.  Yesterday, the IS launched a furious assault on Ramadi and also NW of Ramadi in the direction of al-Asad Air Base, a location that had received a great deal of attention from just about everyone.  It is likely that the IS will occupy Ramadi, at least most of it, and also probable that the ISF, and or a Shi'a militia, will snatch it back.  But this game of give-and-take is accomplishing something strategic and tremendously valuable to IS.  You see, the continued battles for the Sunni communities on the road to Jordan provide the IS with the opportunity to seed the bedroom communities of Baghdad with sympathizers, and eventually operatives.  The style of semi-urban warfare takes a page out of Vietnam.  One of the many reasons that the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong were initially so successful in the Tet Offensive of 1968 was the pre-positioning of sympathizers and irregular forces in the close suburb communities outside Saigon, DaNang, and Hue.  We are convinced that the IS has been seeding various Sunni residential areas outside the capital with supporters and operatives, waiting for the order to become operational.  The IS also seeded the Yarmouk Refugee Camp just outside of Damascus, and they were so successful that analysts are already conceding that territory to the IS.  Its not rocket science.

We at Mukhabarat, Baby! are growing more concerned every day for the still-substantial number of American and European non-combatants in Baghdad.  Its my understanding that certain agencies have re-deployed officers back to Iraq after the Obama drawdown.  Here is a very important question: if the U.S. has non-combatants (intelligence officers, engineers, instructors, linguists, support staff, etc.) widely dispersed in places such as Basra, Erbil, Mosul, and Baghdad, who do these people look to for protection?  I'm not exactly sure how many U.S. troops are in Iraq and what their designation happens to be, by last November President Obama was given approval to send 1,500 troops (specifically in a training posture) to Iraq.  So whatever civilians the U.S. government and its contractors have in Iraq are relying upon the lightly-trained Iraqi Security Forces and possibly the odd Shi'a militia for protection.  Forgive me, but we find this arrangement unacceptable, given the IS' track record in dealing with prisoners.  We must be proactive, and either move our people out, or take steps to ensure their safety by the U.S. military.

Syria also appears to be nearing the finishing line, but we've been beating this horse to death lately.  Because of the myriad of equities involved, the IS may not go in for the "coup de grace" for some time yet.  If Russia had given the slightest inclination of providing Assad the military support he needs, then possibly it would be best for the IS to strike while the iron's hot. But Russia seems solely interested in dumping its excess weaponry and equipment in eastern Ukraine, where it is greedily gobbled up by the various separatists groups. I saw a video clip last week that I haven't been able to relocate, otherwise I would have included it on my links.  It was a clip of a group of separatists trying to make heads or tails out of a relatively small missile or grenade launcher of some sort.  To cut to the chase, the evil guerilla driving accidentally ran over one of his guerilla buddies.  I haven't laughed so much since the photo of the Pakistani guy catching his arm on fire as he tries to ignite a U.S. flag.  Priceless.  Back to Syria.....certainly it appears that the IS is in position to pick off regime-held towns along the Anti-Lebanon mountain chain, until reaching Damascus.  If Assad were still in town, then the IS could seal up the place and starve him out.  But by then, Assad will have vacated the premises for more pleasant digs.  But the IS must eventually address a few political issues regarding the various factions that have been opposing Assad as well, some of them for a much longer period of time.  We have argued that the numerous groups, including Jabhat al-Nusrah, Khorasan, and the IS, are, at the end of the day, loyal to the Sunni cause and the leadership of Osama bin-Laden.  Would the IS share authority with the others?  And what of the Free Syrian Army?  Obviously they can't be abandoned after volunteering to fight as a proxy ground force for the Pentagon.  Something tells me that the lot of 'em, families in tow, will be receiving Resident Alien status.  And who am I to complain?  At least its something that this administration does well.

Of the three trouble spots that we've been examining (with the expert guidance of the ISW), Ukraine appears to be the one with the most staying power.  I can't imagine that the Russian Army will roll across the Ukrainian border, make short work of the Ukrainian Army, and then occupy the entire country.  This festering boil will continue to fester for some time to come.  Putin is obviously committed at some level.  Russian troops and tanks are in Ukraine, and Russian Migs and Sukhois are patrolling the skies in the east.  At one point, it appeared that Putin was attempting to use the Donbas region as a bargaining chip, to ensure that Kiev and the west recognize the Russian occupation of Crimea.  As Putin, who still thinks like an intelligence officer, sees it, a simple trade would have been sufficient.  We stop destabilizing Donbas, you forget about Crimea.  But we've moved quite a bit down the road since then.  The Ukrainian Army has shown itself to be far less effective than originally thought.  In fact, in many instances, it has been the separatists who have won the day in direct clashes with the Ukrainian Army.  Its possible that the government of Ukraine is holding back its major military resources in case a defense of Kiev of the heartland is necessary.  We can't say.  One thing is for sure...the Ukrainian Army currently in the field in the southeast, will be chewed up quickly if the anticipated offensive takes place as expected.  Its true that members of the U.S. military are currently in Ukraine, assisting in the training of the many new recruits that have poured into the recruitment offices in the west of the country.  But what the Ukrainian military needs more than anything else (short of western military intervention), is a dump of military weapons and equipment.  If the G.I. from Savannah, Georgia is going to tech the young Ukrainian private how to shoot an M16, it would be nice if an M16 were available for the private to use.  Back to the bigger picture....we still aren't convinced that Putin has in interest in swallowing up the entire Ukraine. It would be more trouble than its worth.  A struggling economy, reliance on Russia for energy, a vocal, agitated youth movement, and issues with NATO would be waiting for Vladimir if he managed to occupy the entire country.  Its possible that he simply wants to bring Ukraine back into the fold, and at the same time, annex both Donbas and Crimea.  Crimea is worth the hassle....but Donbas?     

Monday, May 18, 2015

Developments in Ukraine and Syria.

Links: A. U.S. Troops Training Ukrainian Army.
           B. Syrian War Nearing Conclusion?

No doubt the Ukrainian military is pleased that the United States has provided military trainers to prepare the growing number of Ukrainian Army recruits for combat, as all indications point to an escalation in hostilities.  Although I don't recall the legislation that allows for U.S. troops to be peripherally involved in the conflict, I'm glad that at least we have made it clear that we believe Russia to be the antagonist.  Like most of Congress, I urgently call for the Obama Administration to provide immediate military assistance to Ukraine.  Today I noticed a Reuters Article that quoted Vladimir Putin as identifying Ukraine as a "fascist state".  Not to be outdone, Reuters took the time to educate all of us idiots out here that the Ukrainian government and parliament were passing legislation that could be interpreted as "fascist".  News flash to Reuters (News Flash to a premier news organization?): Ukraine is under military assault by a nation with a much larger army and greater access to military resources.  What country does not rely on extreme internal measures during war, to protect the safety of the people and the integrity of the state?  Heck, Russia has draconian internal laws and they are always the aggressor in these instances.  By my history book, Russia has not been invaded since Hitler's Operation Barbarossa in 1941.  Since the dissolution of Communist Russia, the Russians have managed to be militarily aggressive towards Moldova, Chechnya, Georgia, and Ukraine.  I'm waiting for Reuters to point out that "invading your neighbors under false pretenses" is a tad bit fascist, but I'm not holding my breath.

During the 9 May May Day celebrations in Donetsk and Luhansk, the separatists paraded all sorts of military gear in front of small of enthusiastic crowds.  Interestingly enough, much of the hardware on display was supposed to be removed from Ukraine according to the provisions of the 12 February Cease Fire signed in Minsk by Russia and Ukraine.  Of course, the Russians will claim that the military vehicles and weapons on display were removed according to the Cease Fire obligations, but had only recently been returned.  And those of us with a shred of common sense will chalk that claim up to another in a long list of outright Russian lies.  Here is a bit of free intelligence for everyone who hasn't caught on yet:  Vladimir Putin is a liar, and the Russian government cannot be trusted to fulfill a treaty requiring it to clean a litter box.  And yet, looking about as moronic as is humanly possible, here is Secretary of State John "Frankenstein" Kerry, discussing the possibility of a new Cease Fire with Putin.  What is congenitally wrong with these people, that they continue to go on trusting people who have proven time and again that they can't be trusted?  Has it been that long since the Russian separatists in Ukraine, misusing the latest in Russian military equipment, shot down a commercial jet full of innocent men, women and children?  Lets not forget that the Russian government disseminated every kind of bizarre "breaking news story" to try and blame the incident on everyone from the Ukrainians to the United States.  The Ukrainian front line in southeastern Ukraine is soon to be assaulted by Russian weapons, Russian warplanes, and probably even Russian troops.  The brave of ineffectual Ukrainian Army (and the undisciplined collection of foreign mercenaries they've contracted, who can walk off the battlefield at any moment, and will) will be no match for the firestorm that approaches, and when we all wake up a few weeks later, Kiev itself maybe in the Russian's gun sights.

Simply put, the only action that Putin will respect is a hard military response.  And you can bet your last ruble that he needn't worry about seeing one.

As we have been reporting over the last month, the pro-Assad military has suffered one strategic calamity after another, mostly at the hands of Jabhat al-Nusrah (JN).  In reality, aside from a few isolated and unimportant outposts out in the eastern desert, Assad's authority is limited to Syria "west of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains.  He has lost both the border in the north to the Kurds, and the Jordanian border to a variety of opposition. Folks are beginning to grumble about chemical agents because the use of such unpredictable weapons is usually reserved for desperate times.  And lets be clear about one thing:  the clock is ticking on the Assad Presidency.  The key was the lack of real support from his usual sugar daddy, Russia.  We had expected the Russians to take advantage of last year's lull in fighting to rebuild Assad's armor capabilities and air force.  Aside from a few new helicopters, we see no indication that Russia has made any kind of effort to strengthen Assad's army.  Is it possible that Putin realized that his dream of a Russian naval port on the Mediterranean wasn't going to happen, at least not on the Syrian coast?  Is it possible that the situation in Ukraine demanded too much focus from the Russian military, so Assad was cut lose?  That would be highly unlikely, so the decision was more of a pragmatic, realistic choice on the part of Putin.  With the extremist armies growing in strength, and Turkey screaming for Assad's removal, Putin probably weighed his equities and decided that Assad would have to sink-or-swim on his own.  And the last few weeks have been all about swimming for Assad and his dwindling military.

Indications are that the Islamic State (IS), which had been quiet on the Syrian front as of late (and making lots of noise in Iraq), is about to launch a two-pronged offensive in Syria, exclusively targeting regime forces.  So let me scream this from the rafters, so those in Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon can hear: we need a proactive plan regarding what happens after Assad leaves.  The United States cannot find itself in a Libya, part II situation.  Even though the Free Syrian Army still hasn't made an impression on the battlefield, is it possible that they can be utilized to protect our interests and equities in Syria?  We didn't spend billions of dollars on training an army and leading an air campaign in order to have no say-so in post-Assad Syria.  But this is where my suggestions end. I have no idea what to do with this mess.  If it had been up to me, we would have mobilized the entire U.S. military to destroy the IS in both Syria and Iraq, and left a few useful military bases behind us.  But I guess I can be labeled as a bit of a "Hawk".  Both JN and IS have legitimate claim to rule in Syria, if we follow the law of the desert: he who stands last, stands tallest.  If the IS flushes Assad and his herd of cronies out of Damascus, have they not earned their "Caliphate"?  I have a sneaky feeling that the end of Assad will result in a "rapprochement" with JN, the IS, Khorasan, and all the other shitty little groups out here in the desert.  They all fight for the same goal: Islamic extremist hegemony, under the guise of Al-Qaeda.  So dealing with is may be all that will be needed.  Either way, do we try and negotiate with them, or do we go to war again?  Is there another option?  I guess we could just evacuate all of our folks and let Israel sort it out. 

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Europe takes a giant leap to the Right. (Part II)

The Italian love/hate relationship with Silvio Berlusconi is truly something to admire.  He has been charged with a variety of crimes, with only a few inconsequential accusations amounting to convictions.  At press time, Berlusconi was in the news regarding the potential sale of his football team, Italian giant AC Milan.  He is currently serving a "house-arrest" sentence for tax evasion (I think), but our contacts in Italy and within Berlusconi's recently reborn party Forza Italiana warn is to never count out Silvio Berlusconi.  Interestingly enough, Berlusconi has provided the Italian people with the only political consistency that they country has experienced since the second World War.  Italy is famous for having governments of spectacularly short lifespans, but Berlusconi, who shamelessly appeals to the nationalist and patriotic emotions of the Italian people, has managed to stay in office longer than any other Italian Prime Minister.  The current left-of-center government is bleeding votes as the economy struggles with the usual "confidence in banking" issues.  But at least we can count our second "left-of center" government, alongside Sweden.

The Czech Republic is a bit of a mess.  Because roughly fifteen percent of the population continues to support the Communist Party, and no other parties will work in coalition with the Communists, its virtually impossible to put together an effective coalition government.  The center-right and the center-left usually end ever election with only a small percentage difference in votes.  Two important issues to watch: the far-right has been growing rapidly, especially with unemployed young people and in rural areas.  Also, if a center-left coalition were to include the Communists, would that impact the Czech Republic's membership in NATO and relationship with Russia, vis-a-vis the United States?  Poland, on the other hand, is not a difficult country to size up politically.  Poland is, and has been (and will probably continue to be), the most right-of-center country in Europe.  The Polish people are strongly pro-U.S. and anti-Russian, even after the fall of Communism.  The Catholic Church continues to influence the lives of most Poles, and, learning from history, the Polish government has built a powerful Army and Air Force.  Another country that appears to be most comfortable with a right-wing government is Hungary.  The Fidesz (Hungarian Civic Alliance) Party has a substantial majority in the Hungarian parliament, and Fidesz leader Viktor Orban is Hungary's Prime Minister.  The Fidesz Party has come under attack from international human rights organizations because of accusations that the party is anti-Semitic, racist and xenophobic.  Fidesz has made serious efforts to clean up its image, but it makes no bones about its opposition to immigration, especially from Turkey and other Islamic nations.

The United Kingdom just re-elected David Cameron to a second term as Prime Minister.  Last time around, Cameron had to spend the first few days after the election, trying to put together a coalition government; this time around, he gets to watch TV and fool around with his lovely wife.  Cameron's Conservative Party absolutely destroyed the opposition, with a result that shocked even the most optimistic Tory punter.  Now the poor British people will have to listen to a few weeks of Sky News and BBC analyzing and re-analyzing how this development came to pass. For me, its not rocket science.  Since Cameron took office, there have been a number of racially-connected mini-riots in various UK cities.  Not to mention the incident involving the British soldier who was brutally murdered on the street, practically in front of his post.  And who can forget the look of fear on the faces of Prince Charles and Camilla as their car was attacked by a group of protesters in London?  I'm sure the fact that the ISIS commander who appears to be in charge of the beheadings department proudly brags about his English heritage, is something that sticks in the craw of every English person.  The UK is not a haven for extremist and future terrorists should not consider relocating there.  The voters wanted to make sure that the right message was delivered to the bad guys. Although I'm not sure what the Tories plan on doing to tighten immigration and fight the growth of Islamic extremism in the Black and Arab ghettos of London, Liverpool, Manchester and Bristol (just to name a few), but I'm sure the message was received, loud and clear.

We haven't reached the Balkans and Greece, but I think we've arrived at a good place to take stock of our research.  Twelve of the countries we reviewed, including Germany, the UK, the Netherlands, Spain and Austria, have right-of-center government.  Only three (France, Sweden and Italy) are sailing against the wind.  I expect France and Italy to elect right wing governments in their next elections, especially if the terrorist issue continues to be a priority.  How can it not be?  With the entire continent embracing conservative governments, what does that mean for the rest of the world?  The EU will probably adopt more market-friendly policies, which includes encouraging tax cuts and tax code reform.  Also, Immigration faucet will be turned down to a trickle.  In a number of European countries, the fear isn't that foreigners will arrive with a terrorist agenda, but that desperate Africans, Algerians, Libyans and Ethiopians will arrive and take all the jobs.  Getting in a shoe box with twenty other people and managing to get it from Tripoli to Reggio on the coastal boot of Italy, will no longer guarantee someone legal residency in Europe.  I believe that this is the first change that Europe will embrace.  And right-wing governments from Warsaw to Lisbon will be on too happy to introduce the legislation to their constituents.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Europe takes a giant leap to the Right. (Part I)

One of the most interesting political trends I've been watching on the international scene recently has been the growth of right-of-center political parties in Europe.  This development does not follow a trend, as Asian countries seem content to continue the trend of hopping from one extreme to the other, and South America is on a decidedly leftist run at the moment (trying to gauge African politics with a western yardstick is a dangerous game, so we'll just leave the African nations out of today's discussion).  From my optic, and with some countries is can be difficult to judge; a number of new political movements have shown up on the scene, who really skate a thin line between fascist and eco-terrorist.  Teaching a modern European politics class in college must be an interesting job.  But a quick analysis of the major players in Europe show a definite swing to the right.  The Christian Democrats of Angela Merkel seem as entrenched as during the best Helmut Kohl days.  In fact, the popularity of the right in Germany may be the only hope for the opposition, as new right-of-center and extreme right parties threaten to draw votes away from the CDU.  To put it simply, the CDU may not be conservative enough anymore.  Everyone seems to be watching France with baited breath, as Marine Le Pen shows no sign of weakening.  In fact, the other players involved appear to be hoping for some screw-up on Le Pen's part.  She does live on the political edge, and she doesn't appear to speak with a delay (so as to think through everything she says beforehand), but let's face it; everyone expects a mistake sooner or later.  Her political party, the National Front (FN), did very well in the last European Union Parliamentary election, and polls show her consistently on top of her two rivals (but by the smallest of margins).  Some things are certain: the Socialists (PS) will not abandon Francois Hollande, who was lucky to squeak out a win against Sarkozy when all the elements were in favor of a PS blowout.  Many expect Sarkozy to emerge as the UPM candidate, completing a remarkable "phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes" comeback, and I agree.  Le Pen and Sarkozy may split the right vote so evenly that Hollande gets a second term.  Regardless, its impossible to deny that the French electorate has moved to the right.

The conservative government of Mariano Rajoy continues to face the tremendously difficult job of rebuilding the Spanish economy.  The fact the his People's Party (PP) has managed to stay in power this long is more a case of the electorate remembering what an unmitigated disaster the last government was.  But Spain is not a lost cause, as the country has been registering very encouraging growth.  But unemployment remains an issue, and with local elections coming at the end of the month, and the national election occurring before the end of the year, its very possible that the Spanish electorate could flip the players once again.  I don't think so.  I believe a number issues, with immigration and crime being near the top, will keep the PP in charge in Madrid.  Portugal also has a right-of-center government, which is trying to tackle an economic situation which is one of the worst in the EU.  Portugal has benefited from low oil prices, low interest rates and the low performance of the Euro, but debt and a struggling banking sector continue to blunt recovery.  Portugal will have national elections in either September or October.  It will be interesting to see if the current government tries to push through any additional reforms before the election, which might result in a negative response by the electorate.

I'm not ambitious enough to tackle the subject of the Belgian government.  Its a solid candidate for a posting all on its own.  The Netherlands is a fascinating country, politically.  The right-of-center "People's Party for Freedom and Democracy" (VVD) won the last election, but the left-of-center "Labour Party" (PvdA) is not far behind.  The recent trend in Holland has been to the right, and there is no reason to believe it will end.  Immigration is a big issue, with many Dutch fearing the Islamization of their society.  The government in Denmark is right-of-center, with the Liberal Party (V) leading a coalition that includes the increasingly popular far-right Danish People's Party.  Denmark is an interesting society, though, as the monarchy, highly limited by the constraints of the constitution, is obliged to perform ceremonial functions and not much else, similar to other European monarchies.  But Queen Margrethe II will not hesitate to make her opinions known; in fact, if she moved to increase her own power I would be surprised if she were not supported by the Danish people.  The monarchy is Holland is just as popular, where former Queen Beatrix continues to be adored by the Dutch.

In Scandinavia, Norway and Finland continue a recent trend towards conservative governments, while the Swedish refuse to break their tradition of left-of-center politics.  The continued growth of the conservative parties in Norway has been surprising, although the immigration issue is huge in both Sweden and Norway.  Many consider Norway to be the wealthiest country in the world, with the highest standard of living (Luxembourg, Lichtenstein and Switzerland might disagree); Norwegians are beginning to show a desire to protect the benefits that they believe they deserve as native Norwegians.  Speaking of Switzerland, the Swiss People's Party has a strong hold on the reigns of government, and just happens to be a right-wing political party (not simply "right-of-center"); this is not surprising as the Swiss have always appeared to associate their famous neutrality with Nationalism. Austria has been electing conservative governments for over a decade, and the trend continues to move to the right.  The issue of immigration has threatened to cashier the current government, in favor of a political party with even more right-wing credentials.  The Austrians don't screw around.


Tuesday, May 12, 2015

MB reviews "Woman in Gold".

Links A. Negative review of "Woman in Gold".
          B. Positive review of "Woman in Gold".

Because I left this film debating my own opinion, I decided to provide in the links, a review supporting "Woman in Gold", and a review criticizing the film.  "Woman in Gold" is the story of an elderly Austrian lady living in Los Angeles, who has a potentially legitimate claim to ownership of one of the world's most treasured paintings: Gustav Klimt's "Woman in Gold".
Gustav Kimt's Painting
The lady in question, Maria Bloch-Altmann, who is Jewish, was forced to flee Vienna in March, 1938, after the German Army crossed the border and occupied Austria unopposed.  The majority of her wealthy, established, and artistic Viennese family, including her parents, did not escape and died in Nazi concentration camps.  After removing Maria's family, the Nazi's looted their home, and many prized objets d'art, including a number of famous paintings, found their way to Germany.  After the war, some of the Bloch family paintings, the ones by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt, ended up on display at the Belvedere Museum in Vienna.  After the death of her sister, Maria decides that its time to regain custody of her family's paintings, and through an Austrian-American friend, finds a young lawyer who ends up being just the right advocate for the job (the attorney is also an Austrian-American Jew, although the film makes it obvious that he is not observant).  The viewer is taken on a trip through the legal proceedings, interspersed with Maria's flashbacks of her family and the events leading up to her departure from Austria.

I do recommend this movie, if only because of Helen Mirren.  She, like Meryl Streep, has this uncanny gift to create accents that are hard to distinguish from the those of native speakers.  Every moment that Mirren is on the screen was a comfort for me.  I totally bought into the idea that she was an elderly Austrian Jew, whose family was murdered in the Holocaust, and who was determined to regain some of her rightful possessions.  It was a bit more of a stretch with Ryan Reynolds as the attorney, although he certainly wasn't bad in the role.  I suppose it's that I've seen him in so many movies of a different flavor that it is now difficult to imagine him in something of this sort.  Katie Holmes, who plays Reynold's wife, was completely wasted in her role.  At first she seemed angry that her husband was taking a detour from his career to help this old woman, then, without any explanation, she's totally on board, picking out the clothes he should wear in court when he is NOT at her bedside for the birth of their second child.  But all of these issues are just details.  The real problem with this film is in its history.

In 1938, Hitler ordered his army to cross the border into Austria.  He gambled that the Austrian Army would not fight, and he was correct.  The next morning, the Austrian authorities handed over control of the country to the Germans, and the German Army had an impromptu parade down the Ringstrasse in Vienna.  Actually, Hitler himself was on his way, and would be leading his own parade before the day was over.  Many Viennese turned out to welcome the Germans, and the now-famous 8 mm films show the sidewalks full of cheering Austrians, waving little swastika flags.  The simple truth is that many Austrians sympathized with the Nazis.  Austria was on the same losing side in the First World War, alongside Germany.  Post-war, Austria suffered almost as bad as Germany, although economically, Austria was able to rebound sooner.  The average Austrian in 1938 looked north to Germany and saw the booming economy, the growing job market, the rebuilt army, and the sense of national pride.  It's no wonder that the Germans were welcomed by so many Austrians.  The film makes great hay out of Austrians cheering for the Nazis, not once taking into account that Vienna was only one city, and that a large percentage of Austrians were proud of their independence, and didn't want to become a piece of Germany.  Many Austrians continued to be loyal to the Habsburg pretender living in exile in Spain.  After watching this movie, you couldn't be blamed for believing that every non-Jewish Austrian in Austria supported the Nazis, which was simply not the case.

The Jewish community in Austria was decimated by the Holocaust.  The Nazi's enacted the same exact procedures in Austria that had proven so effective in Germany.  Blame the Jews for the ills of the world, humiliate them publicly, confiscate all their possessions, and in the end, ship them off to "relocation camps".  In the film, the average Austrian on the street was complicit in the beating and humiliation of Jewish Austrians.  When Jews were trying to escape or hide from the Gestapo, the bad guys had no better friends than the Austrian people, who would gladly point out the Jew's hiding places. There is no doubt that a number of Austrians joined the Nazi movement and participated in the unthinkable atrocities committed against Austrian Jews.  Too many were involved.  However,  Austria was not Germany.  The Austrian people did not rise up in an anti-Semitic rage, to burn synagogues and murder rabbis.  In fact, before the Anschluss (the German term meaning union or connection, used to describe the unification of Germany and Austria) occurred, there were rarely episodes of anti-Jewish sentiment, although anti-Semitism existed in every European city (and still does).  But as the movie progressed, I continued to look (in vain) for a non-Jewish Austrian: one who wasn't a monster.  It's possible that the family friend who gave Maria and her husband a car-ride to the airport in Vienna is an Austrian hero.  Then again, he may have been Jewish.

I have spent a good deal of time in Austria and I know Austrians who are like family to me.  I accept that I'm biased.  At the same time, I pride myself on being honest.  I have studied Austrian history in depth, and there is a reason why so many great Jewish minds flourished in Vienna, not to mention the Jewish musicians and the brilliant men of medicine.  The Jewish community was an integral part of Austria, and its destruction at the hands of the Nazis left a hole that will never be filled.  Regarding the paintings (including the one that lends its name to the movie), some Austrian politicians and bureaucrats wanted the works of art to stay in Austria because the artist was Austrian.  It was not anti-Semitism that encouraged the Austrian government to contest Maria Bloch-Altmann's efforts, it was a sense of national pride.  So much Austrian art was looted by the Nazis, and most will never make its way back to Austria.  This explains the importance of the paintings.  That said, I also understand the importance in the eyes of Ms. Altmann, who doesn't see the lines of Austrian school kids waiting to see the "Woman in Gold"; she sees Nazi storm troopers taking her family's possessions and loading them onto trucks to be driven to Germany.

In the end, I wanted very much to like this film.  But I think it's overt message, delivering a blanket indictment against all Austrians alive in 1938, is a tragedy in itself.  We've reached a point in the history of our society and culture, in which a falsehood can be accepted as truth, especially in support of "guilt by association".  The Germans and Austrians fought as allies in the first Great War, and Austria allowed itself to be annexed by Germany just before the commencement of the second Great War…….certainly enough evidence to be "guilty by association", and to justify a bit of artistic lying, I mean license.  The greatest tragedy is that in the rush to simplify the causes and forces behind history, to ignore the complexities of the economics, the national defense, and the national self-pride that was also at stake, in doing that we may doom ourselves to be candidates for repeating the same mistakes again.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Things heating up in Ukraine and Iraq, the Tories sweep elections in the UK, and my book is on sale!

Link: Official Website for Mukhabarat, Baby!

Sometime in the next few days, This blog will return to its usual format.  The world just happens to be a very screwed up place at the moment, and there is no shortage of conflicts and social upheaval to write about.  In fact, I believe that the wars in both Syria and Ukraine are about to expand, with a terrible price to be paid by the innocent civilians caught up in this mess (I overheard someone at a restaurant last week comment that civilians in the Ukraine have themselves to blame for any casualties because "they've had plenty of warning" that it was time to pack up and get out of Dodge; sometimes people wear their ignorance like an accomplishment).  I imagine that the Obama Administration is aware of the worsening conditions on both fronts, as President Obama's legacy is truly in the crosshairs, AS IT SHOULD BE.  Our military/diplomatic strategy in both the Levant and the Ukraine are a shambles.  We have become a reactionary presence in international affairs, as opposed to proactive, which is what is expected from a world power.  I have great difficulty trying to piece together a long-term plan in either engagement.  But you can be sure of one thing: no ground troops.  Mark my word, and remember, you read it here.  We will have boots on the ground, but probably in Yemen before Syria or Iraq.  U.S. ground forces (Marines) will be in combat before this Administration packs up and leaves DC.  It really won't be that difficult of a political decision to make, because we parse words so effectively in DC nowadays.  One can argue that "ground troops" implies regular U.S. Army, therefore, a Marine incursion does not require an admission of change in policy.  One way or another, our involvement in international conflicts will increase over the next eighteen months, because the Pentagon and Congress will demand action.  Which will provide the Administration with another way out of the "no ground troops" pledge.  Just blame's always worked in the past.

I spent most of the last evening watching French television air election results from the United Kingdom.  I have something called a "French Bouquet" with my Satellite Dish package that allows me to have five channels of mainland French television.  Normally French television is awful, especially the variety shows (Pardonnez-moi, grand mere, mais certains de ces actes de varieties francaises sont difficiles a regarder.  And I beg your pardon, reader, for the lack of accents; I haven't determined how to change the keyboard just yet).  But French documentaries and news programs are informative and usually well-made.  Besides, not one U.S. news channel (its not like we don't have enough) was providing a live feed of election coverage.  Maybe its because I'm a Satellite customer as opposed to cable, or because I live in the southwest; whatever the case, I was grateful to have French television hier soir.  As for the results, I'm still trying to grasp the full meaning behind the near-complete disintegration of the Liberal Democrats and the internecine slaughter of Labour in Scotland by their best buddies, the Scottish Nationalist Party (who hate the Conservatives even more than Labour does).  The astounding growth of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) was muted by the antiquated electoral process in the UK.  The Liberal Democrats managed 2,415,888 votes, and came away with eight seats in Parliament.  UKIP had 3,881,129 votes, and was fortunate to get the one seat that they currently have.  But that was to be expected.  The real question is whether the UK electorate is moving towards a more Conservative era of government (The Tories and UKIP combined equal 50% of votes cast), or is this a temporary reflex response to recent terrorist events in Europe. With the continued growth of Marine Le Pen and the National Front in France, and Right-of-Center political parties showing increased strength across the board, I interpret this development to be a serious effort on behalf of Europeans to demand a common-sense approach to issues of National Security and Immigration.  The world is a much smaller place than it was in 1914 and 1939; television and satellite bring the battlefields of Iraq, Ukraine and Syria into the living rooms of middle-income families, where parents are struggling to ensure that their children will have the opportunity to live life free of constant fear from terrorism.  Don't expect this move to the Right to end anytime soon.

I have managed to keep one eye on current events as I continue to sail my ship, the S.S. NewAuthor, through the reef-infested waters of book-marketing hell.  When I made the decision to self-publish, I realized that the process would not be simple or free from headaches.  But I assumed that self-publishing was one way to ensure that some giant publishing company would not devour eighty-percent or more of the profits from book sales.  Early on, I was quite fortunate.  I chose to use Booklocker to assist with the conversion process, the printing, and the dissemination of my book to the various booksellers out there.  Booklocker has been fantastic and I can't recommend them highly enough.  But at the end of the day, everyone who wants to sell more than a handful of books has to go through Amazon; and when it comes to devouring profits, Amazon is just as hungry as any publishing company.  But the real difficulty for non-fiction authors who self-publish (I can't speak for fiction writers, who very well may suffer the same fate), is the struggle to become part of the conversation.  Publishing companies have staff publicists who create book tours and speaking engagements for authors under contract.  Self-published folks have to go knocking on doors, and believe me, you have to have a thick skin.  I assumed (big mistake...never assume anything in life) that my personal story, of a career CIA Case Officer who was poisoned while operational, and continued a successful career into Iraq and other garden spots, even while the symptoms of toxic exposure manifested themselves, would be of interest to the mainstream media.  Up to this point, I haven't created much interest.  The truth is, my book is much more than a story of poisoning.  In fact, it was never intended to be a focus on my particular circumstances.  I wanted to write about people, the nameless faces who work in thankless environments to collect valuable intelligence for our country, and who seldom receive more than a pat on the shoulder in appreciation.  These people are normal folks, just like the ones you go bowling with on Friday night, or sit next to at the local High School football game.  It was important to bring a sense of humanity to these hard working people, and I have to say that I believe for the most part that I succeeded.  Sure I detail the poisoning episode in my book, but its just one story among many, and I feel comfortable saying that after reading my book, you will have a much better understanding of the Agency's mission and the difficulties and dangers that officers face every in support of our national security.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

My book is available.

Link: "Mukhabarat, Baby!" website:

It has been a strenuous, educational, and at times, frustrating experience, but my book, "Mukhabarat, Baby!" is available for purchase online at my website, and Amazon.  I have
Click here to read a free sample
received a bit of grief regarding the choice of the name for the book.  Actually, for me it was a no-brainer.  "Mukhabarat" was one of the first Arabic words I learned in Iraq.  I spent a good amount of time in Baghdad with the U.S. Army, and even though I was armed, I stood out because of my civilian attire.  The kids immediately started pointing me out, with the word "Mukhabarat" being repeated.  I asked the military linguist the meaning of the word, and he replied that it was common word used to describe Secret Police and spies.  The more time I spent on patrol with one particular military humint (human intelligence) collection team, the more I heard the term. Some of my military buddies started calling my partner Mark and I "The Mookies".  This explains the evolution of my choice for a book title.  To be reasonable, I understand that most people will not understand the word.  But I'm confident that it will engender enough curiosity to encourage folks to take a closer look.  And "Viola!", I have planted the definition right at the top of the back cover of all versions of the book.  The definition is also included at the very beginning as well.

Trying to decide which company to select for the printing and dissemination of the book was a tiresome task.  Thank goodness a few people have done my homework for me, and broken down/ranked the numerous companies in all the important categories, including prices, time, quality, people skills, history, and, most importantly, reviews.  I chose BookLocker for two reasons: their immediate, clear, useful response to my initial inquiry, and the reams of positive reviews from satisfied customers.  Up to this point, you can certainly add my name to the list.  The interaction with BookLocker is totally in email, but I can't recall the last time I received such one-on-one attention.  I was uniformly happy with the work that was done, especially the amazing cover, but the real positive thing about the company is their sincerity.  The charge a pittance of what some of the others charge, and if you get things done quickly up-front you might just get a discount like I did.  I realize that it sounds a bit moronic to say that BookLocker buys in to the success of every book, because of course they do; they make money off of the sales as well.  But these folks want you to succeed on a real personal level, and any guidance an author might request regarding marketing, etc., will be addressed.

The next paragraph is where I will hide my subliminal message to everyone that they MUST buy a hardback copy of my book for themselves and for every member of their family, including left-wing Great Aunt Olive, who stills brags about voting for Adlai Stevenson for President in '52.  The truth is, the only way for a self-published book to be successful is through word-of-mouth.  It's what makes the process so special.  Its truly rewarding that people might enjoy my book enough to take time to recommend it to family or friends.  For books that have opted for the traditional, Publishing company route, the path to success truly is smoother.  Of course the Publisher is determined to see the book sell, so the company reaches out to contacts in the media, and in no time at all, reviews in major newspapers have been scheduled.  Then it's time for television.  The Author's Literary Agent and Publisher will set up short interviews on CNN, Foxnews, MSNBC, etc.  And all the while, as a Self-Published Author, I'm sitting in front of the local VFW (a quiet crowd of thirteen or fourteen), listening to someone else's war stories.  The real rub is that I know I have a good book, and that I have really unique experiences to share with folks.  I was raised in a two-language household, and traveled to Africa to work, right out of college.  After returning to the U.S., I accepted a job as a Federal Agent in Laredo, TX., for INS (formerly Immigration & Naturalization Service), and gained tremendous life experience working on the International Bridges to Mexico.  Eventually I accepted a position with the CIA, and during my career I was fortunate enough to serve on four continents.  I was poisoned early on in my career, but I continued working, and completed a tour in Iraq.  A great deal of my book focuses on my Iraq experiences.  That is my book, in a nutshell.  And Brandi Glanville of the "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" writes a book about her life, and it gets launched directly onto the best-seller list.  Sometimes all you can do is say, "screw it", laugh a little, and move on.

I'm not the first person who ends up in this position: trying to adequately thank the many folks who read my blog regularly and who will be reading my book.  You can't imagine how grateful I am to the validation that comes with a book sale.  Writing the book was not easy.  This book is extremely personal, and writing was a bit of a cathartic experience.  God bless all the amazing people who I've been fortunate enough to know, and thanks again to everyone out there, for being my friend.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Illegal immigration is an international problem, not something unique to North America.

Links: A. Europe faces a flood of sea-bound illegal immigrants.
           B. France's NF calls for an end to allowing migrants entry.

In the last few weeks, calm seas have resulted in thousands of illegal immigrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea, hoping to reach Europe and a brighter future.  I can't blame these folks; I would probably being taking the same action if I were in their shoes.  It's not a difficult issue to understand.  People in north and sub-Saharan Africa, who struggle to feed their families and have no real hope of bettering their lives, will spend whatever meager amount of money they can raise to try and hire a smuggler to find a place on a boat that will sail in the direction of Europe.  One difference between the illegal immigration in this part of the world and the problem on the U.S./Mexico border: persons attempting illegal entry into the southern United States (mostly from Mexico and Central America) usually don't bring their families.  They settle in, find a job, and send for their families later (ideally), who then repeat the process as a group.  Border Patrol officers on the U.S./Mexico border normally encounter adult males, between the ages of sixteen and fifty, who are attempting illegal entry.  Certainly families will attempt to cross together on occasion, but usually the male bread winner will come first.  For most persons attempting the crossing of the Mediterranean, it will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; therefore a much higher percentage of families will attempt the crossing together.  This detail increases the number of children and elderly who are at risk, and ultimately, become casualties.

The various Republics that constitute the European Union (EU) in 2015 (and those who cling to the periphery, like the UK and Norway), have elbowed and bruised each other to see who can be the most "progressive" and "liberal".  This  has resulted in a number of positive developments, especially in the area of minority rights.  A serious movement exists to guarantee women equal pay for equal work, and the gay community has been granted certain protections that combat homophobia not only in the workplace but in public environments as well.  The move to appear more progressive has really focused on the social issues of each respective nation.  Certainly Germany, Italy, Austria, France, and others have taken steps to strengthen the so-called "social safety net" of unemployment, disability, paternity leave, gay-partner benefits, and other concerns.  Its almost as if one day the EU decided that it had reached a level of maturity and wealth that obligated its member countries to leave no person without lodging, food, clothing, medicine, and a certain degree of comfort.  This is a very worthy goal, but a bit too utopian for my reality.  Not every EU member state is drowning in wealth.  In fact, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain threaten to scuttle the entire EU scheme in debt sometime within the next decade.  Sadly enough, these four countries have each been forced to deal with the ever-increasing issue of seaborne illegal-migrant traffic (in this instance, Europeans use the word "migrant" instead of "immigrant").  Part of the EU's effort to deny no person basic human rights was the decision to not repatriate these sea-borne migrants who come by the hundreds of thousands every year (except in the case of terrorists or murderers....good luck checking everyone).  Once these refugees from Niger, Libya, Burkina Faso, Sudan, Congo, etc., either land or are intercepted at sea (lets not reflect too long on the poor souls who never make it to this point....its too heartbreaking for me to consider), they are distributed to various immigrant processing locations.  Just because a boatload of migrants was intercepted in Italian waters does not guarantee that they will become wards of the Italian state.  They may end up in Austria, or Denmark.  But wherever they end up, one fact is guaranteed: they are the responsibility of the state, i.e. the taxpayers of whatever country we are dealing with.  Some nations, including France and Austria, have been very proactive in creating education and employment training programs for the migrants.  Ideally, the new arrivals will soon become productive, job-holding, tax-paying members of society.  Sadly, it just doesn't happen that way; at least not often enough.

Recently I saw an interview with Marine Le Pen, the leader of France's National Front political party and possibly the front runner for the presidency in 2017.  I can't say that I agree with everything this lady has to say, but I give her credit for being intelligent, clear and to-the-point.  As is highlighted in the second link above, Le Pen points out that the longer the EU states continue the policy of guaranteed legal residency for all persons who manage to float a dinghy in the direction of Europe, then the number of migrants will continue to increase.  Soon the numbers will become unsupportable.  If residency is no longer a guarantee, and persons who attempt an illegal entry by sea are treated in the same manner as those who attempt an illegal entry by land (repatriation), then people will stop risking their lives and their meager savings in this effort.  Look, its normal for decent folks to have sympathy for persons who are trapped in the third world and have little hope for the future.  But there are other avenues to help that do not involve drowning your own country and crippling the future of your children and grandchildren.  Europe is not financially able to support a third of the population of Africa.  In fact, the more I look at Greece, Portugal, Spain, Cyprus, and Italy, the more concerned I become regarding the EU's ability to support itself. 

Saturday, May 2, 2015

What can we expect if Bashir al-Assad is forced to abandon Damascus?

Links: A. Assad forces losing more ground in Syria.
           B. Assad's weaknesses being exploited.

Everyday the headlines bring news of more territory lost to pro-government forces, as the hodge-podge of various anti-Assad groups push closer and closer to Damascus. In recent weeks, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), a well-organized group that many identify as Al-Qaeda's proxy in the Syrian conflict, has taken the lead, and delivered a string of defeats to the regular Syrian Army near the northwest town of Idlib.  Syria's second-largest city of Aleppo, which is just north of Idlib, presently is not controlled by either side.  Within the last year, regime forces have suffered losses in every corner of the country.  The Iraqi border area is controlled by the Islamic State, while the northeast border with Turkey appears to be under mostly Kurdish control.  The Jordanian border area in the southwest has seen a successful push by Jabhat al-Nusrah as of late, with the regime no longer able to claim control of any of the towns.

Although I have argued on numerous occasions that the IS, JN, and the Khorosan group were basically separate digits connected to the same hand, the hand of Ayman al-Zawahiri and Al-Qaeda.  I have always based my opinion on the strong historic links between all the groups and Al-Qaeda, and the usefulness of having the enemy imagine ten separate opponents on the battlefield as opposed to one.  In truth, I'm sure these groups do have certain issues of ideology or ceremony that aren't the same, but at the end of the day, they share they same basic goal: creating an Islamic Extremist state in Syria (and the entire Levant, for that matter).  Interestingly enough, now that the Kurds have solidified their defensive positions in the north eastern border region, all of these groups can focus exclusively on regime military targets.  I would imagine that if they truly were opposed to each other, then we would eventually see some sign of conflict; it's human nature.  Even the nebulous "Free Syrian Army", equipped and trained by the United States, appears to be focused on Syrian military units.  In a nutshell, Its all against one.

If the regime is unable to respond effectively, what can be expected?  Right now, Assad's control basically is limited to everything west of the Anti-Lebanon Mountain Range, which includes the entire Mediterranean coast, and the area around Damascus, although the Yarmouk refugee camp just outside Damascus has apparently been co-opted by the IS.  As difficult as it is to imagine, Assad controls roughly one-eighth of Syria, the enemy is collecting at the gates.  No doubt, when it becomes necessary, Assad and his family will be able to find asylum in Iran, Oman, or some friendly country, and plenty of money has been squirrelled away in various banks to keep him and his henchmen living comfortably for the remainder of their days.  The question is, will Assad recognize the moment, when the time has come to abandon ship?  He has shown a great deal of determination in the past, and he has stayed in Damascus when many others would have left. 

Who picks up the pieces?  Will it be Jabhat al-Nusrah?  Or possibly Al-Qaeda, or the Islamic State?  Don't put your hopes on the Free Syrian Army.  As soon as the U.S. money goes away, these guys will disappear into the hills.  I believe that the Islamic State will take charge, and the experts will begin to consider that maybe these groups weren't so far apart after all.  While the IS solidifies its position, maybe Angela Merkel and President Obama and convene a summit to enact sanctions. One thing is certain; whatever military resources that will be made available because of the end of hostilities in Syria, will quickly make their way to the battlefields of Iraq.