Ankara vs Damascus: The al-Bab Impasse

Little boy waves at Turkish armored personnel carrier (APC) in northern Syria. Associated Press photo.

Little boy waves at Turkish armored personnel carrier (APC) heading to north Syria. Associated Press photo.

Even before launching its intervention in northwest Syria on August 24 it was clear that Turkey would do its utmost to forcibly prevent Syria’s Kurds from dominating the entirety of Syria’s northern border.

Since June 2015 the Kurds have controlled the entirety of that northeastern border when they connected their two main cantons of Jazira and Kobani – territory which stretches from the Syrian border with Iraq all the way to the eastern bank of the Euphrates River. Turkey intervened in the remaining 100-kilometer-wide swath of territory stretching from the west bank of that river to the sole remaining isolated western Kurdish canton of Afrin – which was controlled by Islamic State (ISIS) militants and other armed groups.

Turkey’s intervention has two clear goals, forcing ISIS militants from the border and preventing the Kurds from joining Kobani with Afrin. Further south from the border sit the cities of Manbij and al-Bab. Manbij was captured by the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG)-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in mid-August, after an offensive and siege that lasted almost three months, with close US air support and Turkish acquiescence – that was given in return for a US promise that the YPG contingent in the SDF would quickly withdraw back to the east bank of the Euphrates, which they have not.

Al-Bab is 50km west of Manbij. Turkey does not want the YPG to take al-Bab (and has began threatening to remove it from Manbij also), fearing that it will enable them to use it as a launchpad to reach Afrin and finally create a corridor which will make all of their territories in Syria contiguous.

Turkish Air Force F-16 jet fighters. Daily Sabah photo.

Turkish Air Force F-16 jet fighters. Daily Sabah photo.

On October 19 Turkey began heavily bombing YPG positions, boastfully claiming to have killed between 160 and 200 of their fighters. The YPG claimed at least 15 were killed in that incident. Syria furiously threatened to shoot-down Turkish jets over its airspace if such an incident occurred again. Turkish jets consequently stopped flying airstrikes in Syrian air space when Syria reportedly activated air defense missiles covering that border region.

In addition to this Damascus has R-77 air-to-air missiles, the Russian-made equivalent to the American AIM-120 AMRAAM, for its MiG-29s, which could also pose a grave danger to Turkish F-16s. Therefore, any offensive launched by Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels against al-Bab can only count on Turkish artillery support – Turkey’s 155mm self-propelled F-155 Fırtına (Storm) howitzers have a range of 40km, al-Bab is about 30km from the Turkish border.

Washington warned both sides several times to avoid clashing and focus their attention and efforts on fighting ISIS. But Ankara is absolutely adamant that the YPG be stopped and is clearly prepared to continue bombing the group if it tries to advance against ISIS-occupied al-Bab.

However, here’s the thing: Damascus and its Kremlin backer do not want the Turkish-backed FSA militiamen, doing the bulk of the ground fighting for Ankara in Syria, to advance on al-Bab. This is simply because they know those rebels earnestly want to take up arms against the Syrian regime and see combating ISIS and containing the YPG in that corner of Syria as a mere sideshow to the most important battle in that country, the battle for Aleppo.

Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters in Syria.

Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters in Syria.

Reuters recently interviewed several of these rebels who said as much. If given the choice they’d readily spill their blood to fight the regime. And the last thing Damascus and Moscow want is more opposition forces pouring into Aleppo. This could explain why Damascus reacted with such hostility to Turkey’s October 19 bombing of the YPG. Also, on October 25 a Syrian regime helicopter attacked Turkey’s FSA proxy southeast of the town of Dabiq killing two of the militiamen. None of this has reportedly deterred Turkey from pushing ahead.

Ankara is not willing to acquiesce to an SDF/YPG capture of al-Bab from ISIS, and Damascus doesn’t want a bunch of FSA fighters itching to fight in Aleppo takeover a city about 45km to its northeast.

On the other hand Damascus would certainly view Turkey’s greatest nightmare in that region, an SDF/YPG takeover of al-Bab, as a far lesser evil to a Turkish-FSA victory there. Damascus and the YPG haven’t gone to war against each other – for their own immediate tactical priorities and prudence more so than anything else. Also, while they have violently clashed against each other in the recent past none of those clashes escalated into a full-fledged war. Consequently YPG forces in the Kurdish district of Aleppo are viewed by a lot of Syrian opposition groups as little more than proxies of the regime since they have never joined their armed insurgency against it.

What will happen in the long-term is far from clear. What is clear at present is that ISIS militants entrenched in al-Bab will benefit the most from this impasse until some compromise, or a third plan to rout those militants out which is acceptable to all sides, is put forward.

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Belarus Preps Additional Aircraft for Export


Imagery from June 2016 shows two Su-24M Fencer and one Mi-8-17 Hip fuselage on a parking hardstand associated with Belarus’ 558th Aircraft Repair Plant in Baranovichi. (DigitalGlobe)

A review of satellite imagery shows some new developments at the 558th Aircraft Repair Plant in Baranovichi. Co-located at the 61st Fighter Airbase, the Belarusian-based Plant overhauled two Su-24M Fencer attack aircraft and a Mi-8-17 Hip transport helicopter, imagery from late June suggests.

Previously decommissioned from the Air and Air Defense Force, the aircraft were repainted in a desert camo scheme and parked near the facility’s engine test stand with wings and rotor blades removed. Initially, it was thought the Su-24M were a part of an order to supply Sudan with 12 of the platform, but a review of satellite imagery of the country’s airfields has thus far not indicated the presence of additional aircraft. Sudan has already received at least four of the twin-engine, supersonic aircraft, two of which were confirmed operating in Saudi Arabia for the Yemen conflict. Public records from the UN and SIPRI’s arms transfer database showed no new export filings by the Eastern European country. We’ll continue to watch future imagery for more insight.

In the meantime, further space snapshots acquired in August of the airfield showed the arrival of two IL-76 Candid transport aircraft. They may have arrived to transfer additional equipment to the 558 or pick-up equipment for export. Another desert camo Mi-8-17 Hip was also parked on a helicopter hardstand associated with the 558th; rotor blades were attached at the time of capture. Imagery from late in the month also showed the re-location of a former Belarusian Su-24M to the airfield’s operations apron. The Fencer may be undergoing flight tests prior to receiving a new camo pattern and being sent for export. The aircraft was joined by 3 x Mi-8-17 Hip and 3 x Mi-24 Hind, still thought to be in service with the country’s air defense arm. Several of the former Belarusian Su-24, previously in open storage, have been cannibalized and possibly put into longer term storage over the past year. Previous imagery shows their fuselage were wrapped and relocated near the 558th’s drive-through maintenance facility. Belarus retired its ageing fleet of Fencer in 2011.

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El Salvador’s gangs turn to civil war weapons

by Bernd Debusmann Jr.

A policeman detains a suspected member of the MS-13 gang at a checkpoint in San Salvador.

A policeman detains a suspected member of the MS-13 gang at a checkpoint in San Salvador.

Across Central America, gangs are increasingly turning to military-grade weaponry as they battle each other as well as ever more heavily-armed law enforcement authorities.

The militarisation of gangs is perhaps most serious in El Salvador. According to an investigative report published in El Faro (translated to English by Insight Crime), a Salvadoran digital news outlet, on September 7, the trade in weapons has been on the increase as the country’s two main gangs – MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang – face off against a government that takes an increasingly military approach to fighting crime.

According to the report, during the first half of 2016 police confiscated three “weapons of war” a day, using the government’s term for assault weapons, mostly variants of the AK-47s and M-16s. Between 2011 and 2014, the average number of such weapons captured was about one a day.

16-09-12sal-rifles_graphicMany of the weapons, El Faro noted, are leftovers from El Salvador’s civil war, when both the government and the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) received generous aid from foreign backers. The guerrillas’ arsenal, apart from AK-47s, included ample quantities of American M-16s that had fallen into the hands of the communists during the Vietnam War.

While the scope of American military aid to the government has been well documented, the amount of weaponry that the guerrillas were able to amass is much harder to quantify. But in the book “Strategy and Tactics of the Salvadoran FMLN Guerrillas“, authors David Spencer and Jose Angel Moroni Bracamonte note that one captured FMLN document from 1989 states that the guerrillas had 400 tons of weapons ready to be shipped from Cuba, with another 150 tons waiting in Nicaragua. According to the authors, this translates to approximately 27,000 weapons – not including those already in the hands of guerrillas in-country at the time.

This figure, it should be noted, assumes that half of the total tonnage was comprised of ammunition. This, however, seems unlikely, as the guerrillas were in chronically short supply for much of the war.

The problem in El Salvador, many have noted, is that the weapons used by the military and the guerrillas were never properly accounted for when the war ended in the early 1990s.

In his book on weapons in El Salvador, Jose Miguel Cruz, the Director El Salvador’s Institute of Public Opinion, asserts that “nobody knows how many weapons were left in the hands of civilians after the war, and institutional efforts to recover them were fractured, and totally failed.”

According to El Faro, there are several ways in which these weapons reached the hands of criminals or other groups when the conflict ended. Many weapons were kept by individual combatants, who then passed them on to gang members. Still others were sold by fighters who were left guarding significant caches after the war, or by commanders who had held onto weapons in case the peace process went sour. Many ended up on the black market which flourished after more than a decade of war.

Members of the 18th Street gang attend a mass at the prison of Izalco in El Salvador. (Photo: Ulises Rodriguez / Reuters).

Members of the 18th Street gang attend a mass at the prison of Izalco in El Salvador. (Photo: Ulises Rodriguez / Reuters).

To make matters worse, El Salvador’s gangs are looking to former military personnel or guerrillas for training. Earlier in September, another Salvadorean newspaper, El Mundo, reported that members of the 18th Street Gang had hired former combatants to train gang members at six camps in the departments of San Salvador, La Paz, La Libertad, and Sonsonate. These areas were theatres of intense combat of the 1980s.

The training of Salvadoran gang members by combatants is not a new phenomenon in Latin America. In Colombia, for example, paramilitary groups – many of them actively involved in the cocaine trade – took training from Yair Klein, a former lieutenant colonel in the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) in the 1980s.

More recently, drug trafficking organizations have turned to military veterans for training and as hitmen. The original members of the Zetas, for example, were almost entirely drawn from the Mexican Army, and it is believed that the group also hired members of Guatemala’s elite Kaibiles special forces.

The increase of military-grade weapons and training among El Salvador’s gangs bodes ill for the near-term future of the country’s security landscape. The government’s military approach to the problem of gangs will increasingly be countered by a military response. The civil war of the 1970s and 80s pitted ideological foes against each other. Today, the country is the scene of different conflicts: the government against criminals and rival criminals against each other.

The result is a climate of violence in which common crime is rampant and the civilian population suffers: El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the world.

More information
“Without disarmament, demobilization and the successful reintegration of combatants, sustainable peace is impossible.” –> Patrick Truffer, “Successful Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration for Sustainable Peace“,, 14.10.2015.

Posted in Bernd Debusmann Jr, English, Organised Crime, San Salvador | Leave a comment

South African Airpower: Clipped Wings?

by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.

Among the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa has long maintained superior airpower, successfully limiting the country’s exposure to regional conflicts. During the Border War between 1966-1990, the South African Air Force (SAAF) consistently defended the country’s airspace from incursion by the National Air Force of Angola (NAFA) and provided air support in engagements with the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN). More recently, SAAF assets have been employed as part of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) and the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA).

Graphic by Louis Martin-Vézian of CIGeography (Facebook / Twitter), first published in the African Defense Review. Louis, thank you very much for the offer to republish the graphic on Click on the graphic to see the high resolution version.

Graphic by Louis Martin-Vézian of CIGeography (Facebook / Twitter), first published in the African Defense Review. Louis, thank you very much for the offer to republish the graphic on Click on the graphic to see the high resolution version.

Although the immediate threat to South Africa’s security has dissipated with the end of the Border War, it is apparent that South African leaders remain willing to use the SAAF to full effect. On 20 March 2013, Séléka rebels attempted to seize the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR), Bangui, and besieged a garrison of around 250 South African paratroopers and special forces soldiers. In response, SAAF deployed four Saab JAS 39 Gripen C/D fighters – South Africa’s workhorse fighter jet since 2008 – and a Lockheed C-130BZ Hercules transport aircraft reportedly laden with bombs. Ultimately, a ceasefire agreement was reached with the rebels and so the close air support went undelivered, but this demonstrated the political will among South African leaders to continue to use airpower in defence of the country’s interests. Nonetheless, the South African military involvement in CAR can be assessed as an disaster (see “Factbox: SANDF’s disaster in CAR” below).

The SAAF is experiencing several challenges. In March 2013, South African Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula caused some confusion by telling the Parliament of South Africa that 12 of the 26 Gripen were in long-term storage because there was not funding to fly them. The storage was only temporary, because the SAAF found a cheaper solution with the aircrafts’ manufacturer, Saab: a rotational preventive maintenance programme which involves flying the aircraft every now and then. According to an article from September 2013, some Gripen were put under tents to slow the corrosion process while the aircraft were standing.

In the same time, flight hours have declined considerably, limiting opportunities for pilots to hone their skills. In the 2015-2016 fiscal year, the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) aimed for 6,500 flight hours, but only 4,785 hours were actually flown, down from 5,026 flight hours in 2014-2015. It also seems that the Gripen fleet is not fully manned, with some pilots re-designated as reserve pilots and others assigned to instructor roles at Air Force Base Makhado. In short, the SAAF is not making full use of its Gripen fleet or use its fighter pilots, which could substantially diminish the air branch’s combat effectiveness.

Factbox: SANDF’s disaster in CAR
[…] current funding levels mean that Pretoria’s commitment to African security and stability missions presents the SANDF with critical challenges. Despite ambitions to deploy, the SANDF faces significant difficulty in generating the troops and key capabilities, such as airlift, required to play an effective role. The 2013 intervention in the CAR underlined this situation. Once the deployment was decided, it became clear that the army lacked sufficient troops to deploy more than a single combat team supported by a special-forces group. This provision proved inadequate when Séléka rebels attacked the capital city of Bangui, the CAR army disintegrated and the multinational force from Central African states proved ineffectual during the major combat phase. With a dearth of long-range airlift, South Africa was unable to quickly reinforce or extract its personnel. Thirteen troops were killed in close and hard fighting around Bangui, and the incident subsequently provoked debate within South Africa about the state of the armed forces. — Chapter Nine: Sub-Saharan Africa“, The Military Balance 116, January 2016, p. 425.

A lack of adequate maintenance is also a persistent problem. According to South Africa’s 2014 Defence Review, the SANDF is in a critical state of decline – Ammunition stocks are depleted, infrastructure is falling apart, skilled staff is leaving and the arms of the various services operate in silos and are unable to manage basic procurement. More specific to the SAAF, South Africa previously relied upon short-term interim support contracts for its Gripen fleet, allowed these to lapse, and then established a longer term arrangement with Armscor for 2013-2016. With that agreement set to expire at the end of 2016, it remains to be seen whether South Africa will be able to secure a renewal of support from Armscor and Saab in time, or if the Gripen fleet’s maintenance is set for another period of neglect and uncertainty.

Finally, South Africa’s power projection is inhibited to some degree by its relative lack of strategic airlift. In September 2014, when a church hostel collapsed within the compound of the Synagogue Church of All Nations in Lagos, Nigeria, 85 South Africans died and several others were injured. As such, the SAAF was tasked with the repatriation of the survivors and victims of the disaster, but was only able to transport the 25 survivors. For the repatriation of the remaining bodies, the South African government had to charter an Airbus A320 and an Antonov An-124 transport plane. The Antonov was coming from the private firm Maximus Air Cargo. This casts some doubt on South Africa’s capacity to assist in disaster relief elsewhere on the African continent or to contribute toward peace support missions outside South Africa’s traditional sphere of influence in southern Africa. Although the SAAF boasts a total of nine C-130BZ Hercules transports, the majority of these were purchased in 1963, prior to the introduction of a United States arms embargo in response to South Africa’s then apartheid system. As such, these aircraft are aging, have a limited range, and can only carry up to 90 troops under ideal conditions. Unless the SAAF invests in new strategic airlift, South Africa will have to rely increasingly on chartered aircraft or assistance from external partners – such as NATO member states or the Russian Federation – in order to participate in any future humanitarian interventions.

Dutch Soldiers from the 11 Luchtmobiele Brigade during drills using SAAF Atlas Oryx helicopter.

Dutch Soldiers from the 11 Luchtmobiele Brigade during drills using SAAF Atlas Oryx helicopter.

Angola no longer presents a credible threat to South Africa’s security, but the considerable resources this country is investing in airpower should give South Africa pause. In 2013, Angola acquired 18 Sukhoi Su-30K fighters from the Russian Federation, which enjoy some performance advantages against the Gripen (according to the SIPRI Arms Transfers Database, all fighters should be delivered until end of this year). The narrowing capability gap does not necessarily imply that Angola is preparing for renewed confrontation with South Africa; rather, it suggests that South Africa’s pretences to continental leadership require greater fiduciary commitment, particularly with regard to South African airpower.

More information
Darren Olivier, “South Africa’s Airlift Crisis“, African Defence Review, 03.07.2014.

Posted in English, International, Louis Martin-Vézian, Paul Pryce, South Africa | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The shortcomings of Turkey’s Syria campaign

Map of situation of the ongoing Turkish-led operation „Euphrates Shield“ in Northern Syria as of 20 October 2016 (map created by Berkaysnklf, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license).

Map of situation of the ongoing Turkish-led operation “Euphrates Shield” in Northern Syria as of 20 October 2016 (map created by Berkaysnklf, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license).

Two months into its foray into northwestern Syria Turkey’s Operation “Euphrates Shield” against Islamic State (ISIS) militants and Kurdish militia forces (People’s Protection Units; YPG) is already showing some clear shortcomings. Turkey’s military has said that ISIS is successfully mounting “stiff resistance” to the militiamen of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups it is giving close air, artillery, armor and troop support to.

“Due to stiff resistance of the Daesh (ISIS) terror group, progress could not be achieved in an attack launched to take four settlements,” the Turkish military said in an October 12 statement quoted by Reuters. None of these four settlements were situated far south of the Turkish border, a clear indication that future successes will be more hard won than the initial success of the seizure of the border-town of Jarablus from ISIS militants on August 24 – which occurred after ISIS made what was clearly a tactical retreat to more easily fortifiable positions.

While the quality of the forces Turkey are backing are far from stellar they do nevertheless have the overwhelming fire support previously alluded to, as well as support from US coalition air power, and some US special forces soldiers also. Nevertheless, ISIS are having some success in following a policy which is enabling them to bleed out these militiamen (estimated to consist of at least 1,500 fighters) as they advance further south of the border.

ISIS even managed to bomb a border checkpoint, on October 13, in Azaz, which is controlled by the FSA, killing at least 14 of their soldiers. Earlier this month ISIS successfully managed to kill at least 25 more in a bomb attack (October 6) and another 21 fighters (October 2) when they rigged a town with explosives before withdrawing ahead of the those fighters’ advance.

Still the odds are overwhelming to ISIS’s disadvantage. They cannot easily withdraw from northwestern Syria to al-Raqqa, their primary base in Syria, since the Kurds control large parts of the Euphrates River following their capture of the Tishrin Dam from ISIS last December. So, they are essentially trapped in that region facing onslaughts of irregulars backed by a well-armed military, with no reinforcements or resupplies. This doesn’t mean they are not making headway in making the task Turkey has set out to achieve as difficult and as costly as possible.

Syrians returned to the Syrian town of Jarabulus following its cleansing of ISIS militants as part of Operation Euphrates Shield.

Syrians returned to the Syrian town of Jarabulus following its cleansing of ISIS militants as part of Operation Euphrates Shield.

Turkey has shown that its strategy has many weaknesses. previously noted that Turkey spearheaded its initial push into Syria with its older M60 Patton tanks, some of which quickly fell victim to rocket fire (at the time of writing and depending on the source 6-9 tanks), resulting in the few Turkish combat casualties in this campaign to date (11 soldiers). This, coupled with the aforementioned fact that Turkey is merely providing fire support to, presumably, relatively basically trained irregulars, does not inspire much confidence in a campaign which requires forces with sufficient counter-insurgency tactics to be able to hold the same territory they are able to overrun. Which is important since ISIS are known to blend in with civilian populations when they cannot repel their enemies on the battlefield, simply in order to attack them using other means later.

Turkey’s Syria incursion is likely set to evolve into a long-term military presence. Turkish officials want to establish their so-called “safe zone” across almost 90 km of the Syrian border and 60 km deep into Syria. It is already championing the present situation in Jarablus some 50 days after ISIS withdrew, which is returning to a state of normalcy, arguing that all the areas of northwestern Syria in their so-called safe zone will be like that in the long-term.

While Jarablus was relatively easy to reclaim other towns where the Turkish-backed militiamen have been fighting have been much tougher, sophisticated explosive traps and well dug-in ISIS militiamen are still proving to be an extremely formidable force to be reckoned with.

Jarablus was followed up by a much more recent victory, the seizure of the small town of Dabiq, 10 km south of the Turkish border on October 16. The tiny town – with a pre-war population of less than 3,500 – was of extreme symbolic importance to ISIS, which named its propaganda magazine after it, in reference to a Hadith that proclaims it to be the place where the Islamic armies defeat the Crusaders. Its capture was therefore of great symbolic significance to these Turkish-backed efforts, but by no means a strategic or even major tactical victory.

In this image made from video posted online by Qasioun News Agency, Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces, one carrying a Turkish flag, patrol in Dabiq, Syria, Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016.

In this image made from video posted online by Qasioun News Agency, Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces, one carrying a Turkish flag, patrol in Dabiq, Syria, Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016.

Therefore, its capture was, like Jarablus before it, far from definitive proof of the effectiveness or progress of the Turkish campaign and possibly an indication that ISIS is making tactical withdrawals to shore up other more valuable positions, such as the city of al-Bab, which had a pre-war population of at least 60,000 and is situated approximately 30 km from the Turkish border.

Al-Bab could prove at least as challenging for these irregulars to capture as Manbij was for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish-led group which, with continuous US air and intelligence support, fought for just under three months to seize that strategically important city from ISIS. The SDF consists of battle-hardened fighters who have had experience and prior success in fighting ISIS, whereas these FSA militiamen are relatively inexperienced. Before operation “Euphrates Shield”, Turkish-backed FSA rebels in northwestern Syria managed to seize the border-town of al-Rai from ISIS, only to lose it a few days later in a successful ISIS counterattack.

Meanwhile Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim is already warning of a vacuum in these areas which might be filled by their other adversary in Syria, the YPG, which have already clashed with Turkey’s Syrian militia allies since this campaign began.

Turkey looks set to maintain, mostly by proxy, a presence in these areas it captured from ISIS for what could well amount to a few years. Given the shortcomings they have experienced from the very start of this campaign it remains in question if they are prepared to undertake such a challenging endeavour, never mind execute it with the decisiveness it requires.

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The U.S. Pivot to Nowhere

by Patrick Truffer. He graduated from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich with a Bachelor of Arts in Public Affairs and completes a Master of Arts program in International Relations at the Freie Universität Berlin.

In an address to the Australian parliament in November 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that, with the “Pivot to East Asia“, the importance of the Southeast Asian region would receive more attention. This was interpreted as a shift in military focus from a peaceful, consolidated Europe to an emerging Asia increasingly under China’s influence.

Now, five years later, as Obama nears the end of his term, has this strategic realignment been a success? During this period, was there actually a shift in military focus from Europe to the Asian region? What consequences has this had on the power politics in the region? Could the United States do a better job of keeping China under check and help resolve regional conflicts?

US President Barack Obama addresses the Australian Parliament Parliament House in Canberra on November 17, 2011. President Obama is in Australia to mark the 60th anniversary of their security alliance and to bolster Washington's presence in the strategically important region (Photo: Rick Rycroft / AFP).

US President Barack Obama addresses the Australian Parliament Parliament House in Canberra on November 17, 2011. President Obama is in Australia to mark the 60th anniversary of their security alliance and to bolster Washington’s presence in the strategically important region (Photo: Rick Rycroft / AFP).

Even when U.S. President Barack Obama announced the “Pivot to East Asia” with a bang in November 2011 in Canberra, the American commitment in Asia was not new: The United States had long been both an Atlantic and Pacific nation. The U.S. had been intensifying its military and diplomatic engagement in the Asian region since 2004, under then-President George W. Bush. Corresponding developments in military technology could ensure the long-term supremacy of the United States in the Asian region even with China’s increasing military competitiveness. The Pentagon, for example, had noticed that China’s development and acquisition of precision weapons had made U.S. aircraft carriers increasingly more vulnerable (Nina Silove, “The Pivot before the Pivot: U.S. Strategy to Preserve the Power Balance in Asia“, International Security 40, No. 4, 10.05.2016, p. 53f).

Additionally, the means of the U.S. Air Force and the U.S.Navy were augmented in Guam, Hawaii and Alaska as well as a loose network of partner states in the region established in the long-term. Improving diplomatic relations with China became a stated goal. Since Russia was no longer considered a military threat, there were plans from the beginning to shift military expenditures from Europe to Asia. However, to avoid upsetting its European partners or provoking China, the Bush administration has never shouted it from the rooftops (Silove, “The Pivot before the Pivot”).

PLA "sinks" US carrier in DF-21D missile test in Gobi.

PLA “sinks” US carrier in DF-21D missile test in Gobi (see here).

With the bold announcement of the “Pivot to East Asia”, Obama did no service at all regarding the relations to the European partners or to China, and already 2012, the term “pivot” was replaced by “rebalance” (Lanxin Xiang, “China and the ‘Pivot’” Survival 54, No. 5, October 2012, p. 113).

The Obama administration further reinforced the military and diplomatic measures already initiated by the Bush administration. Also, the expansion of the network of partner states was intensified with the negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a comprehensive free trade agreement signed in February 2016 by 12 states. If ratified, it could take effect in about two years’ time. With the enforcement of international law the U.S. will ensure long-term economic and maritime freedom in the Asian region.

With the “Pivot to East Asia”, Obama primarily wanted to seize the opportunity to boost the U.S. economy in the long term and create jobs, but other factors have also played an important role (Hillary Clinton, “America’s Pacific Century“, Foreign Policy, 11.10.2011). As far as Obama was concerned, U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan was coming to an end after ten years in Afghanistan and seven years of a highly unpopular war in Iraq. He insisted that the responsibility for these two nations’ security would be transferred back to the respective national armed forces as soon as possible. Military resources would now be freed up and could be allocated elsewhere. At the same time, as part of overall budget cuts, Obama sought a significant reduction in the defence spending which had reached a record $750 billion in 2010 (Diem Nguyen Salmon, “A Proposal for the FY 2016 Defense Budget“, The Heritage Foundation, 30.01.2015). Meanwhile, in the lead-up to the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago, U.S. criticism of its European NATO partners had become increasingly spiteful as the latter had repeatedly slashed their military spending in the aftermath of the 2007 global economic crisis, making the US even more responsible for the bulk of NATO’s budget. Even before Obama’s speech in Canberra, it was obvious that Europe, which had remained relatively economically prosperous, secure, and politically stable despite the global economic crisis, was not willing to assume responsibility for its strategic environment. For instance, in June 2011, U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates was highly critical that the European states involved in the international military intervention in Libya had already exhausted their entire inventory of bombs in just eleven weeks. The entire mission would have been doomed, Gates argued, if the U.S. had not provided support to its European partners (Thom Shanker, “Defense Secretary Warns NATO of ‘Dim’ Future“, The New York Times, 10.06.2011).

troop_deploymentThe European partners were listening carefully, when Obama reassured the audience in Canberra that the reductions in the U.S. defence budget would not be at the expense of the Asian region and that U.S. military presence and missions in the Asian region would be the top American priority over the next decade. What this specifically meant for Europe would become apparent in 2012 when the V Corps was disbanded and two Armored Brigade Combat Team (ABCT) with more than 10,000 U.S. troops were withdrawn from Europe. Today, there are only some 65,000 U.S. soldiers on European territory. But the cutbacks are continuing as the Pentagon plans to close fifteen of its 34 remaining bases in Europe over the long term (Andrew Feickert, “Army Drawdown and Restructuring: Background and Issues for Congress“, Congressional Research Service, 28.02.2014).

Finally, it was the Russian annexation of Crimea in spring 2014 and the subsequent war in Eastern Ukraine that eventually applied the brakes to the withdrawal of the U.S. presence from Europe. In its immediate aftermath, Obama announced his $1 billion “European Reassurance Initiative” in 2015 which would increase the number of U.S. troops in Eastern Europe with the rotation of an ABCT. This initiative received another $789 million in funding for 2016 and will enjoy an expanded budget of $3.4 billion in 2017. Almost 2/3 of this budget flows into the maintenance and expansion of equipment being held on the ready (tanks, artillery, ammunition, etc.) in Western Europe. This is apparently meant to be a long-term commitment of the U.S. in Europe. Despite the efforts to cut costs, a strategic realignment in Europe is therefore only taking place on a limited basis.

Under Obama, the economic and military measures regarding the Asian region are evident. The network of partner states has especially been strengthened. At the same time, the deployment of troops respectively their very specific reduction aimed not only to expand military cooperation with the U.S., but also to build partnerships between Asian countries. For example, troops have been reduced in South Korea and Japan to motivate these countries to play a more active role — certain parallels to European NATO member states are evident. Currently, initial results are being seen in Japan, where the new “Guidelines for U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation” were signed in 2015. In addition to the deployment of an X-band radar at Shariki in 2006, another such radar was stationed in Kyogamisaki in 2014. In the case of South Korea, the measures so far have shown to be less successful.

An aerial view from above U.S. Naval Base Guam (NBG) shows Apra Harbor with several navy vessels in port. As many as 22 total ships at one given time, marking the largest in-port presence at NBG in 30 years. The new ships in port, mostly destroyers from Destroyer Squadron-15 based out of Japan and three destroyers and a destroyer command ship from the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force, will participate in Multi-Sail 2016, a five-day at-sea bilateral exercise off the Guam’s coast before returning back into Apra Harbor for liberty in Guam (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Deven Ellis).

An aerial view from above U.S. Naval Base Guam (NBG) shows Apra Harbor with several navy vessels in port. As many as 22 total ships at one given time, marking the largest in-port presence at NBG in 30 years. The new ships in port, mostly destroyers from Destroyer Squadron 15 based out of Japan and three destroyers and a destroyer command ship from the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force, will participate in “Multi-Sail 2016”, a five-day at-sea bilateral exercise off the Guam’s coast before returning back into Apra Harbor for liberty in Guam (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Deven Ellis).

The military base in Guam has been further expanded. Since 2014, a fourth nuclear-powered attack submarine is based in Guam and the nuclear-powered strategic submarines U.S.S Ohio and U.S.S Michigan are often in Guam. In 2020, the III Marine Expeditionary Force will also be stationed permanently in Guam (Silove, “The Pivot before the Pivot”, p. 68). In June 2012, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced at the Shangri-La Dialogue, that, by 2020, 60% of the U.S. Navy fleet would be stationed in the Pacific region, i.e. at least six aircraft carriers would be assigned to the Pacific at any time.

In order to expand military training with its Pacific partner countries, a Marine air-ground task force has been stationed in Australia starting in 2012 and up to four new littoral combat ships have been sent to Singapore. After the Vietnam War, the U.S. armed forces had reduced their numbers in Asia from around 451,000 to an average of 69,000 between 2002 and 2014. This number has since climbed up to 77,000 troops in 2015 (Tim Kane, “The Decline of American Engagement: Patterns in US Troop Deployments“, Economics Working Paper, Hoover Institution, 11.01.2016, p. 5). Nevertheless, despite Obama’s assertions to the contrary, the cost-cutting has not abated in the Asian region. For example, the number of ships and aircraft required for a military operation remains inadequate and will remain so for budgetary reasons until after 2020 (Dakota L. Wood, 2016 Index of U.S. Military Strength, The Heritage Foundation, 2016, 86).

From China’s perspective, these measures are being interpreted as an aggressive strategy with the aim of curbing China’s legitimate claim to regional power. China especially takes a negative view of the TPP, since they were not included in it. It also does not help that the U.S. itself does not recognize this as a containment strategy (Xiang, “China and the ‘pivot'”). China’s response to what it sees as strategic challenges in its neighbourhood is both internal (military armament) and external (forging alliances). Although Chinese defence has remained about 2% of its GDP since the early 1990s, the economic growth of the country has meant much larger budgets for its military, growing from $43.23 billion in 2000 to $214.5 billion in 2015 (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), “The SIPRI Military Expenditure Database“, 2015). This is hardly surprising and confirms the American assessment of the emergence of an increasingly competitive China.


However, the United States has underestimated the possibility of an external balance in power. The last few years have shown that China’s power can not been constrained and that its international influence is increasing. This includes, for instance, the initiative to build a “modern Silk Road” as announced by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013 which would expand China’s foreign trade infrastructure and secure its gateway to Africa and Europe. China’s future military ambitions could also be fulfilled, for example with its plans to build a logistical support point for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in Djibouti. The justification for the construction of this base is PLAN’s involvement in the fight against piracy in the Gulf of Aden since 2008. China also participated in a UN peacekeeping mission for the first time in 2013 (in Mali). Today China is involved in 10 UN peacekeeping missions with around 2,500 soldiers, the largest contingent being just over 1,000 soldiers in South Sudan, where China is also pursuing its economic interests in protecting oil production. In the Central Asian region and also internationally, China has found a partner with which it has much common and with which it shares some geopolitical and international interests: Russia. Already, both major powers are increasingly influential in Central Asia due to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (Silove, “The Pivot before the Pivot”, p. 85).

The territorial conflict in the South China Sea is another example that shows how China is no longer cowering in fear before U.S. displays of power and is consistently asserting its interests against Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei, and the Philippines, all countries with a positive relationship with the U.S. and all signatories of the TPP. This has resulted in active U.S. involvement in this conflict with so-called “Freedom of Navigation” operations where U.S. warships demonstratively sail through international waters territory claimed by China, and U.S. reconnaissance aircraft fly over disputed islands (Joseph Bosco, “After the South China Sea Ruling, Time for More FONOPs“, The Diplomat, 29.07.2016).

Satellite images show where local officials say China is building its first overseas military outpost and a commercial port in Djibouti. Left: November 23, 2015 / Right: August 07, 2016

After the Philippines lodged a complaint in the Permanent Court of Arbitation (PCA) against China’s claims to the Spratly Islands in 2013, China began to fortify the reefs, adding land mass, and building up infrastructure for military use. If China continues to significantly expand its military presence in the Spratly Islands, the likelihood of a potentially unintentional armed incident with the United States would increase. A military escalation in the tensions between the U.S. and China would be ruinous not only for both countries, but for the entire Asian region and the world, according to a study by the Rand Corporation. On 12 July 2016, the PCA ruled in favour of the Philippines, deciding that China does not have exclusive rights over the South China Sea. China has made it known that it does not accept the court’s jurisdiction on the matter and has called the whole process a charade fabricated by the U.S. (Jane Perlez, “Tribunal Rejects Beijing’s Claims in South China Sea“, The New York Times, 12.07.2016).

Neither the Philippines nor the United States can enforce the decision of the PCA against the will of China and the “Freedom of Navigation” operations are not impressing anyone, least of all the U.S. partner states. The weakness of this network has been reflected in the change of government in the Philippines, an important U.S. partner. The president elected in June 2016, Rodrigo Duterte, wants stronger relations with China and is distancing himself from the U.S.-friendly path of his predecessor. Since taking office, he has vehemently pursued drug dealers and addicts, which has resulted in the arrest of 18,000 drug addicts and a dramatic increase of fatalities during police operations. The U.S. criticism of the situation and the accusations of human rights violations have estranged Duterte from Obama. In late September, Duterte announced that the Philippines would be ceasing its maritime cooperation with the United States. In early October he even threatened to expel the U.S. Troops in the Philippines (Kevin Lui, “Philippines: Duterte Threatens to End Defense Pact with U.S.“, Time, 03.10.2016). Other U.S. partners in the region, for instance Vietnam, are also only partially reliable (Simon Tisdall, “Obama’s failed ‘Asian pivot’ leaves China ascendant“, The Guardian, 25.09.2016). This is the result of the Obama administration’s failure to achieve any progress with major regional conflicts such as the South China Sea or the nuclear threat from North Korea. In the light of an increasingly militarily and economically growing China, some countries in the region seem to have resigned themselves to having to deal with China in the long term.

Construction on Johnson South Reef. In regard to the territorial conflict in the South China Sea, there was a bloody skirmish between China and Vietnam about that reef in 1988 during which 64 Vietnamese sailors were being killed. Left: January 2014 / Right February 2016.

Construction on Johnson South Reef. In regard to the territorial conflict in the South China Sea, there was a bloody skirmish between China and Vietnam about that reef in 1988 during which 64 Vietnamese sailors were being killed. Left: January 2014 / Right February 2016.

The U.S. has always been an Atlantic and Pacific nation. Already President George W. Bush intensified its military and diplomatic engagement in the Asian region, but he never shouted it from the rooftops. President Obama has pushed these efforts further, but the “Pivot to East Asia” announced in November 2011 in Canberra has actually been a disservice to these efforts. The European NATO member states, which had already been heavily criticized for their reductions in their military spending, feared a substantial shift of U.S. forces from Europe to the Asian region, as signalled by the withdrawal of two ABCT. The fact that this reduction in troops was due more to cuts in U.S. defence spending than to a strategic realignment has largely been ignored. Since the annexation of Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine, the European region has once again become a point of interest for the U.S., as indicated by the European Reassurance Initiative, which will be substantially expanded next year. Although budget cuts will continue to be noticeable with the closure and concentration of bases, the “Pivot to East Asia” itdelf is only having a limited effect on the U.S. position in Europe.

Unlike Europe, the number of troops in the Asian region has increased by almost 10%, and the military base in Guam has especially expanded with more military equipment being moved to the region. But here too the spending cuts by the U.S. Armed Forces are noticeable. The military equipment and the number of vessels and aircraft necessary for a military operation remain inadequate. With military cooperation, military training and joint exercises, the U.S. is trying to establish a network of partner countries in the region. The mid-term success seems rather ambivalent. Depending on domestic and regional political interests, certain states seem ready to change sides or align with both sides at a whim. Additionally, the TPP, which was intended to forge economic ties among the partner states, has yet to be ratified. Faced with the unrestrained economic and military growth of China and the U.S. impotence in resolving regional conflicts, some countries will have to accept China’s long-term role as the dominant regional power.

Despite the “Pivot to East Asia”, it is obvious that China will not kowtow to the U.S. On the contrary, the Obama administration’s efforts have led to a hardening of attitudes, because the entire strategy appears to China as an aggressive attempt to restrict its power. Courting potential partners in the region and creating the framework for the TPP while leaving China out has come to be seen by the Chinese negatively. There is therefore no rational reason for China to renounce its claim to power in the region, which is obvious from its point of view, as can clearly be seen in the territorial conflict in the South China Sea. On the contrary, China has steadily expanded its international activities since 2008, with its commitment to Africa, the fight against piracy, the construction of the “modern Silk Road”, global investment, participation in UN peacekeeping missions, and plans to establish a navy logistics base in Djibouti. Perhaps the U.S. would be better advised to accept the power demands of China and embrace a more diplomatically-constructive approach. A military conflict between both great powers, whether intentional or not, would be disastrous for both countries, the Asian region and the world. Moreover, a lasting serious conflict of interest with the U.S. and the similarities between China and Russia could lead to the two becoming companions in fate, which would cause further headaches in Washington.

Despite his bold announcement, Obama’s strategic reorientation has not managed to bring China under control or make any progress in important regional conflicts. At the moment, the measures taken by Obama are much more a “pivot to nowhere”.

More information

Duterte journeyed to Beijing this week to announce his “separation from the United States” in military and economic terms. “America has lost,” Duterte said. He claimed that a new alliance of the Philippines, China, and Russia would emerge — “there are three of us against the world.” His trade secretary said the Philippines and China were inking $13 billion in trade deals; that’s a pretty hefty signing bonus for switching sides. Duterte said he will soon end military cooperation with the United States, despite the opposition of his armed forces. […] If the Philippines becomes a Chinese satrapy, by contrast, Washington will find itself hard-pressed to hold the “first island chain” in the Western Pacific that encompasses “the Japanese archipelago, the Ryukyus, Taiwan, and the Philippine archipelago.” Defending that line of island barriers has been a linchpin of U.S. strategy since the Cold War. It now could be undone because of the whims of one unhinged leader. — Max Boot, “Duterte’s Flip-Flop Into Bed With China Is a Disaster for the United States“, Foreign Policy, 20.10.2016.

Posted in China, Djibouti, English, International, International law, Patrick Truffer, Peacekeeping, Piracy, Sea Powers, Security Policy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The U.S. must stop the Taliban’s Rise

by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College. He focuses on the relationship between Islam and conflict in Syria and Sudan.

Preparations for the liberation of Mosul: A convoy of Iraqi security forces advances on the outskirts of Mosul (Photo: Ako Rasheed / Reuters).

Preparations for the liberation of Mosul: A convoy of Iraqi security forces advances on the outskirts of Mosul (Photo: Ako Rasheed / Reuters).

The U.S.-led intervention against the Islamic State (IS) has made obvious progress in the last year and a half. Criticized in late 2014 and early 2015 for failing to stop the militants’ advances, the Arab–Western coalition first started reversing these gains after the Siege of Kobanî in January, 2015. This February, the Iraqi Security Forces freed Ramadi, the only Iraqi city that IS had captured since U.S. warplanes started bombing it. Three months later, Syrian soldiers with Russian air support expelled the militants from Palmyra, the Roman-influenced city that IS had conquered a year earlier, to much fanfare. From Fallujah in Iraq to Manbij in Syria, the terrorist organization is on the retreat, and news media has been dutiful in reporting the achievements.

The disaster in Afghanistan, for which the U.S. government bears much of the responsibility, has received far less attention. Last year, the Taliban seized Kunduz, a northern provincial capital far from traditional militant strongholds. The country’s ill-equipped soldiers required U.S. air and fire support — in addition to the participation of U.S. special operations forces — to recapture the city. Journalists focused on the accidental bombing of the MSF-hospital during the lengthy firefight instead of the startling facts on the ground: the Taliban, once on the run from Western soldiers in the Afghan countryside, now had the firepower, manpower, and willpower to seize the country’s fifth-largest city. Since then, the Taliban has managed to besiege Kunduz again in addition to making further inroads into Helmand, Afghanistan’s largest province and the centerpiece of its illegal drug trade.

The U.S. have failed Afghanistan on the level of peacekeeping and public opinion. Though the country hosts 9,800 U.S. soldiers, more than Iraq’s 5,000 and much more than Syria’s several hundred, the U.S. government has failed to commit itself to peace or victory in Afghanistan, giving the Afghans enough air and fire support to maintain tenuous control of urban areas but too little to hold and secure the countryside around cities such as Kunduz and provinces such as Helmand, where the Taliban has blocked the northern highway and mined the eastern one. The insurgents have even severed supply chains between the capital and the rest of the country.


The number of airstrikes conducted by the U.S. Air Force in Afghanistan this year until the end of August, 813, pales in comparison to the 19,623 of U.S. bombings aiding anti-ISIS campaigns in Iraq and Syria. Afghan officers in Helmand and elsewhere have begged the Americans to launch more airstrikes as the Taliban constricts their country’s cities. Whereas the Pentagon has injected hundreds of millions of dollars into strengthening Arab and Kurdish militias and security forces in the Middle East to support its efforts there, U.S.-led projects such as the Afghan Local Police have been a disaster, in part contributing to Kunduz’s initial fall. According to the U.S. government’s own sources, the Afghan National Army replaced a third of its recruits in 2015, meaning that the security forces founded by the Americans still have little loyalty to what should be long-term U.S. goals, such as defeating the Taliban.

The Americans have sent mixed signals on the subject of peace talks, perhaps the best hope of stopping an insurgency that has survived over a decade of Western airpower and firepower. On the one hand, the White House has encouraged the Taliban to join peace talks and engaged the insurgents before, negotiating the release of Bowe Bergdahl in 2014. On the other, the White House killed the Taliban’s controversial leader this May, citing his opposition to peace talks. The irony of this confusing strategy came full circle when the Taliban’s new leader, more conservative than his machiavellian but pragmatic predecessor, voiced renewed opposition to peace talks. Given that the Taliban has cooperated with Iran and Russia, which itself occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s, it would follow that the U.S. should be able to bring the insurgents to the negotiating table, yet they have failed.

(Situation in April 2016)

(Situation in April 2016)

The Taliban controls a fifth of Afghan territory and influences half of it, giving the insurgents little reason to negotiate or retreat. Afghanistan now resembles Iraq in 2014: Militants are using a Western withdrawal to besiege or seize cities while the U.S. government and public express reluctance to intervene in a country where they have spent billions of dollars and thousands of lives. This attitude, however understandable, led to the power vacuum that empowered IS. A similar blitzkrieg by the Taliban, which hosted al-Qaeda during the planning of 9/11 and still maintains an alliance with it, presents a threat equal to (if not greater than) IS. The Taliban has fought U.S. soldiers for fifteen years without facing IS’s near extinction of the late 2000s, rendering it a more patient, resilient foe.

If the U.S. government wants to prevent an Afghan sequel to the IS surge in Iraq, it must invest military and political resources in Afghanistan now, when adequate intervention can preserve the Afghan state and protect its national security. The Taliban will only concede or negotiate if the U.S. government gives it a reason to fear defeat. Till then, the insurgents will edge closer to victory.

Posted in Afghanistan, Austin Michael Bodetti, English, International, Iraq | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The benefits and risks for Russia of having a permanent naval base on Syria’s Mediterranean coast

Amid deteriorating relations between the US and Russia over the Syria crisis officials in Moscow are voicing that country’s intention to establish a permanent naval base on Syria’s Mediterranean coastline. Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov told the Federation Council on October 10 that Moscow “will have a permanent naval base at Tartus“.

Igor Morozov, a member of the Federation Council, followed up this announcement by declaring, “[b]y doing this Russia is not only increasing its military potential in Syria but in the entire Middle East and in the Mediterranean region as a whole.”

Despite other claims, Russia didn’t expand their naval facility in Tartus, yet. It is expected that the Russian aircraft-carrying cruiser Admiral Kuznetsov will anchor off Syria's coast in November and will stay there until January 2017.

Despite other claims, Russia didn’t expand their naval facility in Tartus, yet. It is expected that the Russian aircraft-carrying cruiser Admiral Kuznetsov will anchor off Syria’s coast in November and will stay there until January 2017.

Since Soviet days the Kremlin has had a warm water port in Tartus, but it was never more than a naval depot. Russia has reportedly begun dredging the sea around the port to enable it to host its larger warships. If Russia does this then Tartus would constitute its most strategically important foreign military asset. The big ships of the Russian navy could stay for months on end not far from the British RAF station in Akrotiri, Cyprus and Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base, which is a major NATO base.

Russia’s state-run press could hardly contain gloating about the strategic significance such a facility would provide Moscow. Sputnik News published an article outlining what it considers the “five reasons why Russia needs a military base in Syrian Tartus“.

“If our new combat surface ships and submarines outfitted with Kalibr cruise missiles are based in Tartus, this will allow Moscow to keep the situation in the Middle East and Mediterranean under control,” Igor Korotchenko, the editor of the National Defense magazine, told Sputnik.

Russia has been making moves in this direction since early in its Syrian intervention. A foretaste of this came in late November 2015, following Turkey’s shoot-down of a Russian bomber over its border with Syria, when Moscow deployed long-range S-400 missiles to its Hmeymim airbase in Latakia and dispatched its large Moskva cruiser, outfitted with S-300F missiles, off Syria’s coast. These advanced weapons would have enabled Moscow to shoot down any Turkish jet fighter which violated Syrian airspace.

In October and November 2015, Gepard class frigates and Buyan class corvettes, part of the Caspian Flotilla totally launched 44 Kalibr-NK system cruise missiles 3M-14T from the Caspian Sea at targets in Syria. The missiles traveled 1,500 km through Iranian and Iraqi airspace and struck targets in Al-Raqqah (then controlled by the Islamic State) and Aleppo Governorate, but primarily in Idlib Governorate (then controlled by the Jaish al-Fatah and its ally al-Nusra Front

The only major thing to change since that time is the striking fact that Russia and Turkey are making great headway in restoring relations since they began their rapprochement over the summer. Meanwhile, Washington’s accidental bombing and killing of at least sixty-two Syrian soldiers in Deir Ezzor last month along with Moscow’s full backing of, and support to, the Syrian regimes ferocious bombardment of Aleppo, has seen relations deteriorate to dangerous Cold War lows.

Russia has just added advanced S-300VM missiles to its arsenal in Syria amid the fallout with Washington, a clear message to Washington that Moscow could readily make all of Syria’s airspace a no-fly zone if the US tries to interfere with the present campaign it is waging, alongside the Syrian regime, in Aleppo.

Also, data accumulated by Reuters show that Russia’s “Syrian Express”, hence the international shipping route from the Black Sea through the Bosphorus to the Mediterranean Sea, is more busy than ever. “Some of the ships that have been sent to Syria were so heavily laden the load line was barely visible above the water”, Reuters observed.

With such a logistical route stretching directly from the Russian mainland to a large permanent Syrian naval base, Russia could maintain a very formidable force in that wider region in the foreseeable future. Having warships, as Korotchenko describes, with lethal weaponry permanently based in the Mediterranean Sea (rather than further north in the Black Sea) would seriously alter the balance of power there.


For the meantime Syria remains a largely unstable country. Granted, while Russia does have a largely stable foothold in the Latakia province – which it helped secure through its initial intervention, when the Syrian regime was largely on the defensive – the future of Syria remains in the balance. Russia counts on having a weak regime, that it will have to continuously shore up, as its host in a country which has been completely wrecked from war.

However, even under the two Assad’s relations with Moscow, while mostly cordial, have had their ups and downs over the decades. One notably tense, but largely forgotten, incident occurred back in 1989 in Tartus. The scholar David W. Lesch, author of a political history of the presidency of Bashar al-Assad, recalls that incident well since he was present as a graduate student at the time. It saw two Syrian helicopter gunships attack one of the Russian cruisers docked at that port, killing two Soviet sailors. Not knowing why on earth Damascus did such a thing to their superpower ally Lesch wagered a guess that the incident was “a not-so-subtle message from [then Syrian President] Hafez al-Assad to [General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union] Mikhail Gorbhachev that Damascus did not like the direction of Syrian-Soviet relations at the time.”

That incident aptly demonstrates that the relationship between the major Russian power and the Syrian regime was not always built on solid foundations and is susceptible to sudden ruptures. Something the Kremlin should bear in mind before it commits to devoting the large amount of capital and resources such an undertaking will inevitably require.

Posted in English, International, Russia, Sea Powers, Security Policy, Syria | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Turkish UAV Bayraktar TB2 Flying from Batman

Imagery acquired during October 2015 shows the Bayraktar TB2 parked at Batman. (DigitalGlobe).

Imagery acquired during October 2015 shows the Bayraktar TB2 parked at Batman. (DigitalGlobe).

As Turkey pushes toward becoming a major player in the UAV industry, seeing more of their drones on satellite imagery beyond test airfields should come as no surprise. DigitalGlobe space snapshots from October 2015 captured one of the country’s latest drones, the Bayraktar TB2, complete with its ground control station, parked in front of an aircraft shelter at Batman air force base.

The TB2, a medium altitude drone developed by the Kale-Baykar group, is a twin-boom, push-propeller UAV which first took to the skies back in 2009. According to the manufacturer, the platform has a length of 6.5m, wing span of 12m – both confirmed on imagery – and a maximum take-off weight of 630kg. The unmanned aircraft can fly up to 22,500 feet (6,800km), loiter for more than 24 hours on station at a range of 150km from the ground station. It’s equipped with electro-optical and infrared sensors, a laser designator and laser range finder.

Highly capable, Ankara has plans to make it one of the country’s front line UAVs. Domestic press reports say that the platform will conduct orbits along the Iraqi border. Batman, located less than 60 and 90 miles from the Syrian and Iraqi borders, respectively, also hosts the IAI-built Heron. Turkey acquired two Heron systems in 2010 after significant delay integrating Turkish components. Up to four of the Israeli-built platform have been observed at the airbase in previous imagery.

Like the UAE, Turkey turned to the domestic private sector to develop its own platform of surveillance and strike drones after Washington turned down requests to buy armed Predators and Reapers. So far, the country’s done pretty well advancing the tech. In December 2015, Turkey conducted its first armed UAV test flight using locally developed smart micro munitions (SMM) fitted to the TB2. Targets were struck with pinpoint accuracy, according to Turkish press reporting. The initial drop test utilized a variant of the air launched anti-tank missile, the UMTAS (or Mizrak), which is infrared seeker and laser seeker capable.

The UMTAS is made by the Turkish armor and missile manufacturer Roketsan and was designed for Turkey’s homegrown T-129 ATAK combat helicopters, a locally produced version of the Agusta A129 Mangusta. A second test in May 2016 (see video above) saw a live warhead fitted with the SSM completing the trials. Notably, handhelds showed the drone armed with the unpowered variant at two hardpoints underneath the wings, a similar carriage configuration to the U.S. Predator.

However, unlike their U.S. counterparts, each Bayraktar TB2 system is comprised of six aerial vehicles while U.S. systems typically have four drones. Additional equipment for the Turkish platform includes two ground control stations, three ground data terminals, two remote video terminals and other support equipment.

As of 2016, press reporting suggests that two systems are operational with the land forces where they’ve already been used in operations against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) since 2014. Rumors even suggest that the platform may have made a foreign appearance recently during Turkey’s Jarabulus operation. Outside of the military, other operators include Turkey’s Police who received at least two systems this year.

Batman air force base, the location the drone was observed, is the HQ of the 14th Unmanned Aircraft System Command.

See also
Turkey’s growing domestic arms industry“,, 21.05.2016.

Posted in Chris Biggers, Drones, English, International, Turkey | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Afghanistan: challenging aid neutrality in war-torn Helmand

by Laura Cesaretti. Laura is Freelance Reporter in Middle East and South Asia, currently based in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Kharim Ahmad, 22, suffered shrapnel wounds on his face and the loss of a leg from fighting in Sangin. He was being treated at the Emergency hospital in Lashkargah on March 25, 2016 (Photo: Paula Bronstein for the Pulitzer Center).

Kharim Ahmad, 22, suffered shrapnel wounds on his face and the loss of a leg from fighting in Sangin. He was being treated at the Emergency hospital in Lashkargah on March 25, 2016 (Photo: Paula Bronstein for the Pulitzer Center).

There is a reason why you can find a cold Guinness in the unstable and alcohol-free Afghan capital Kabul: Globalization. For many, it is a refreshing relief from their daily struggles, which help them to cope with a life full of renunciation. Normally, those people are the humanitarian workers, who have moved to Afghanistan in the name of highest values, career building, or more cynically, the opportunity to have a generous wallet in their pocket. For others, globalization is the process whereby their own culture is weakened and questioned by an unknown outside agenda. “I have a message to send to the world. Please, stop this fight against Afghanistan. We are simple and poor people, the only thing we got is our homes”, says Mahmud.

Mahmud is one of the thousands victims of the fight between the post-2001 governmental forces and the Taliban in Helmand, a troubled province in southern Afghanistan. His brother was killed in a crossfire inside the war-torn district of Marjiah. The wife is still suffering from the many injuries caused by the bullets that crossed her body. But she doesn’t even think about crying. Although she lost a husband and her elder child, she is patiently breastfeeding her younger baby, wrapped in badages in a hospital bed in Lashkargah, the provincial capital.

Emergency NGO Medical Coordinator Luca Radaelli, center, listens in as doctors and nurses make their morning rounds at the Emergency Hospital in Lashkargah, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, Wednesday, August 21, 2013.

Emergency NGO Medical Coordinator Luca Radaelli, center, listens in as doctors and nurses make their morning rounds at the Emergency Hospital in Lashkargah, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, Wednesday, August 21, 2013.

Afghans, especially children, are used to never cry or complain. Many believe this is due to their pride and strong body shape. Most probably it is because mourning is a luxury that they still cannot afford. For decades, international NGOs have been filling this country with aid supplies, humanitarian services, and generous donations. However, the rapid proliferation of these NGOs has also been accompanied by the understanding that their activities on the ground would have been far from neutral. Allegedly international organizations, including non-governmental ones, were accused of aiming to change the behaviour of an entire population. In exchange, they would have provided security and economic development.

Something happened though. An unprecedented number of attacks on NGOs, humanitarian workers, and even international institutions, such as the United Nation, have shown the world that humanitarian inviolability was not to last in Afghanistan. With the rational incontestability of the NGOs purpose challenged, the “machine of aid” was sucked into the sadistic network of war itself. In a conflict where the line between civilians, fighters, criminals and politicians is blurred, they have became simply another actor, struggling between its good and bad side justified by the violence of the environment.

The dramatic use of private securities companies that accompany the humanitarian works in the provinces and the capital is one of the most outstanding evidence of that. Many organizations have also forced their international staff to leave the country, managing the local projects from Europe or other more safe locations. Others have focused their activities in the few districts where security could still be guaranteed. Where welcomed, it was mainly due to the opportunity of high salaries and local economic growth, creating a sickening dependency and the enrichment of certain tribes at the expense of others.

In the name of neutrality: No armed guards, no security cameras and no barbed wire — this is the „Emergency Surgical Center for Civilian War Victims“ in Lashkargah.

In the name of neutrality: No armed guards, no security cameras and no barbed wire — this is the „Emergency Surgical Center for Civilian War Victims“ in Lashkargah.

Emergency, an international medical charity founded in Italy, has helped heal war victims in Afghanistan since 1999, is one of the few, who have followed an opposite trend. As a policy, they refuse to have armed guards, security cameras or barbed wire that covers their medical and accommodation buildings. In the unstable southern province of Helmand, where Mahmud lives, they have located 10 internationals among doctors, nurses and logicians. In their guest house, based in the provincial capital of Lashkargah, even local kids can jump, out of curiosity, over the small walls that surround the building.

It took the organization 17 years, and an abundance of common sense, to gain this trust. When Gino Strada, renowned war surgeon and founder of the NGO, opened the hospital in Panjshir province in 1999, none would have bet that he would manage to run also a hospital in Kabul, the Taliban capital of the, at the time, Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Panjshir at that time was the home of the Northern Alliance, the Afghan armed opposition that rejected violently the Taliban’s fundamentalist ruling. Yet, according to Strada, even Ahmad Shah Massoud, head of the movement and famous “Lion of Panjshir”, left his inseparable AK-47 outside the doors of the Emergency hospital.

It was in the name of neutrality, not security, that then, as now, Emergency has banned everyone from bringing arms inside their structures. It is also the same reason why the international staff are forbidden from going to areas in Kabul, where the night-life appeals to expats: “We cannot afford that our role could be questioned by the behaviour of a single individual”, explains Luca Radaelli, the country program coordinator.

In Afghanistan, as in other zone of crisis, the idea of purely neutral humanitarian relief has always been difficult to apply, especially when the services were closely associated with cultural and social questions. The realm of “do not harm” policy, to whom all NGOs are inspired to abide by, has been easy contradicted by the social intercourse of foreign entities with the natural development of extremely fragile societies. If this truth concerns certainly any non-governmental nation building effort, it doesn’t spare the basic humanitarian actions, such as medical aid.

The international staff of Emergency based in Lashkargah, Helmand.

The international staff of Emergency based in Lashkargah, Helmand.

Emergency, who have provided medical assistance to over 4 million people, knew that operating under the name of neutrality could cause mistrust, especially when it meant working on both sides of a war. After decades of conflicts, any violated society would have learnt that even good intentions have their price, and will become distrustful toward those, who claim the contrary. There were times when rumours spread regarding Emergency’s activities and the amputations they were carried in their operation rooms. Some believed that this kind of surgical removal aimed to weaken one of the opposite side of the conflict. Others found Emergency’s policy to cure everyone disturbing. Clearly, they were also saving the life of an enemy, allowing him to go in shape in order to kill again.

This and other more difficult events have repeatedly put the organization under severe scrutiny. In 2010, three Italian and six Afghan employees were accused of “terrorism and assassination“, although then released without charges. In 2007, due to their role as facilitator in the release of Daniele Matrogiacomo, an Italian journalist kidnapped with his Afghan colleague Ajmal Naqshbandi (tragically killed then by the kidnappers), their role was extensively investigated by the Afghan authority.

In our work, we keep asking ourselves: will you let your mother be operated here? — Luca Radaelli, Emergency NGO Medical Coordinator, Afghanistan.

Nowadays, however, Emergency is unquestionably the first hospital, where all victims of war are taken in Afghanistan. This is in spite of the availability of other public medical structures, often stationed nearest the location of an attack. In a civilian struggle, where brothers kill each other on the frontlines, their works proved that it is possible to help civilians, government soldiers and Taliban fighters, keeping all of them in nearby beds under the only principle of human care. In a society, which cannot provide adequate formative courses in many of the most basic fields, they found a way to transform almost illiterates into one of the most professional and respected team of health workers in the country.

Emergency has 46 first aid posts (FAPs), all run by a local team and available in the most remote and profoundly unstable areas of the country. “We go only where we are welcome”, explains Luca. In practice, it means never forcing the opening of a clinic according to a top-down organization assessment, but always replying to a demand made by the local communities itself. It is by following this simple rule that they reached otherwise inaccessible districts such as Sangin and Marjiah in Helmand. Those, as other places where their clinics are located, are normally the frontlines of the struggle between government and insurgency forces, inhabited by thousands of victims with war-related injuries.

The staff of the FAPs has to pass through different checkpoints with the risk to be unexpectedly caught in the crossfire with its ambulances, which bring patients to the three main Emergency hospitals, located in the Panjishir valley, Kabul and Lashkargah on a daily basis. In order to guarantee the right hygiene and professional quality standards, actual surgeries and intensive health assistance are provided just inside those structures: “In our work, we keep asking ourselves: will you let your mother be operated here?”, explains Luca. If the answer is yes, it is only thanks to this strict operative model, which takes little inspiration from the new humanitarianism theories, but instead has been developed along years of considerations, humility, and willingness of exposure.

No exceptions!

No exceptions!

Always behaving as a guest, Emergency have received the greatest feeling of openness by the Afghan community. Nevertheless, they never took a step back, when it was time to prove that there were no “weapons” hidden behind the people’s smiles. Even in the conservative Islamic Helmand, the local male staff do not show embarrassment in shaking the hands of their international female colleagues. An important effort, aimed simply to communicate appreciation and respect, not adaptation to others strangers beliefs. Indeed, for the humanitarian realm, this can be translated as a sign of the sacred obligation of hospitality — as a common worldwide certainty embraced by the old Greek western inspired civilization, as well as the historical eastern Afghan society, regardless the doubts that inevitably tie any relationship between host and guest.

In these constant daily actions, Emergency and the Afghan population are proving that something like “universal rights” exists. However these basic rights can only be identified, if a common ground of mutual respect between a foreign NGO and the local community can be found. In that sense, humanitarian assistance implemented in the name of liberal values without the regard for local social inclusion and coherence can no longer be considered as neutral. The balance between “harm and benefit” depends on this effort and on commonly defined ethical rules, rather than high budgets. It might require a deep articulate reform of the international humanitarian aims, but results prove that it is worthwhile.

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