Small, Cheap UAVs are Making the Pentagon Nervous, so DARPA is Stepping in to Help

by Darien Cavanaugh. Cavanaugh is a contributor for War is Boring and Reverb Press. He serves on the Board of Directors for Auntie Bellum.

Artist's rendition of DARPA's Aerial Dragnet program (Image via DARPA).

Artist’s rendition of DARPA’s Aerial Dragnet program (Image via DARPA).

The Video below, supposedly recorded near Aleppo in August 2016 shows what appears to be drones targeting rebel forces. The 42-second video includes three clips shot from slow-moving, low-flying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). The first two clips show nearby targets being hit, seemingly, by other drones in the area. In the third clip, you can see what look like submunitions drop from a drone as it films. The submunitions land just outside of a rebel building below, as the occupants run from inside.

Drone strikes in Syria are nothing new. What made this story exceptional was who controlled the drones and what kind of drones they were. The Lebanese-based Islamic militia Hezbollah claimed responsibility for the attack, and they weren’t using anything that comes close to resembling the Predator drones we’ve come to associate with unmanned warfare. According to David Axe at The Daily Beast, Hezbollah most likely used commercial quadcopters that retail for around $200 to drop Chinese-made MZD-2 or similar “grenade-sized” submunitions on the rebels.

The incident added yet another element of chaos to the already exceptionally complex war going on in Syria. “As if Syrian regime forces, Russian airstrikes, and internal squabbling weren’t enough to worry about, Syrian rebels have apparently now come under attack from Hezbollah drones dropping bombs,” Axe writes at the time.

Considering that the United States launched the first successful drone strike in 2001, only fifteen years ago, Hezbollah has a surprisingly long history of employing UAVs. Until recently, paramilitaries and terrorist organizations were particularly known for their use of drones. Hezbollah got off to an early start on this front.

The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) reports that Hezbollah began flying spy drones into Israeli territory as early as 2004, “catching Israeli intelligence off guard”. In November of that year, a Hezbollah drone hovered over the town of Nahariya in Western Galilee before returning to Lebanon. The Israeli Air Force failed to intercept it.

Hezbollah flew a Mirsad-1, which FAS describes as an updated version of the Iranian Mohajer reconnaissance drone, during that mission. Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s religious and military leader, used the foray as propaganda to lift the morale of his troops and threaten Israel.

Remains of a Hezbollah drone shot down by the Israeli Air Force in October, 2012.

Remains of a Hezbollah drone shot down by the Israeli Air Force in October, 2012 (Source: Dan Gettinger and Arthur Holland Michel, “A Brief History of Hamas and Hezbollah’s Drones“, Center for the Study of the Drone, 14.07.2014).

At a public rally Nasrallah boasted that the drones “can be laden with a quantity of explosives, 40 to 50 kilograms, and can hit any target, be it water or power plant, a military base or airport” and strike “anywhere deep, deep” in Israel, according to a contemporary Associated Press report.

Since 2004, Hezbollah has sent Mirsad and Iranian-made Ababil drones into Israel on several occasions, including an attempted three-drone attack during Israel’s 2006 incursion into southern Lebanon. In that attack, three Ababils, each carrying a “40-50 kilogram explosive warhead”, were shot down en route to three different targets, according to FAS. In 2012, Israel shot down a Hezbollah spy drone right outside of the town of Dimona in the Negev Desert. This, too, surprised Israel, as Dimona is the site of its nuclear launch facilities (see also: “How big of a threat are drones to Israel’s security?“,, 11.08.2016).

Hezbollah adding cheap, readily available drones to its arsenal of more advanced drones is certain to make Israel, Syrian rebels, and any other potential targets in the region uncomfortable. And Hezbollah is not the only organization adopting such drones. For the past several months, the terror organisation “Islamic State” (ISIS) has increasingly used commercial drones for reconnaissance in Syria and Iraq.

For instance, coalition forces destroyed an ISIS drone on 17 March 2015. “It was a commercially available, remotely piloted aircraft, really something anyone can get”, Army spokesman Colonel Steve Warren told Matthew L. Schehl The Marine Times. “We observed it flying for approximately 20 minutes. We observed it land. We observed the enemy place it in the trunk of a car and we struck the car.”

The strike on the car marked the first time coalition forces targeted an “Islamic State” UAV. In the subsequent months, coalition forces have destroyed at least five additional “Islamic State” drones, all of them either commercial or “improvised,” according to The Marine Times.

Iraqi Sergeant Hussain Musa Kathum reportedly shot down an ISIS-controlled DJI Phantom 3 quadcopter near al-Jirashi, in the Anbar province, in April 2016. The Phantom 3 retails for about $1,000.

Iraqi Sergeant Hussain Musa Kathum with the Islamic State Phantom 3 quadcopter he shot down in Anbar province (Photo: Iraqi Ministry of Defense).

Iraqi Sergeant Hussain Musa Kathum with the Islamic State Phantom 3 quadcopter he shot down in Anbar province (Photo: Iraqi Ministry of Defense).

“[T]he militants’ growing use of drones highlights an important battlefield development in the conflict in Iraq and Syria”, writes Schehl. “The enemy is now regularly employing this technology for everything from propaganda videos and surveillance to indirect fire spotting and, possibly, weapons delivery.” It’s this inevitable rise in the deployment of these low-cost UAVs that has the Pentagon worried. As the commercial market for inexpensive drones expands, more and more paramilitaries, terrorist organizations, and individuals will begin using them for reconnaissance and attacks.

The Pentagon has turned to the Defense Advanced Research Programs Agency (DARPA), once again, to address this growing threat. In response, DARPA announced the Aerial Dragnet program in September 2016.

A primary concern in dealing with small, slow, low-flying UAVs like the ones ISIS uses, or the ones Hezbollah used in the attack in Syria, is that traditional radar systems fail to register or track them. In areas with an extended line of vision, this is not as great a concern because soldiers and other potential targets can, hopefully, identify and neutralize or evade the drones. However, in urban environments, where lines of vision can be extremely limited, such UAVs launched from nearby could pose a serious threat.

DARPA’s plan is to create a new type of surveillance network for detecting small, commercial drones. If the plan sound extremely complicated or even far fetched, remember that it was DARPA that brought us drone spy beatles and sponsored the development of plant-eating robots that could, theoretically, endure prolonged missions without needing refueling. If anyone is up to the task, it’s them. “To achieve the technically difficult goal of mapping small UAS in urban terrain, DARPA today announced its Aerial Dragnet program,” reads a September 13 press release on the DARPA website. “The program seeks innovative technologies to provide persistent, wide-area surveillance of all UAS operating below 1,000 feet in a large city.” DARPA notes that while the program will initially be used to protect military personnel, it could eventually be employed by civilian authorities to protect against terrorist attacks.

The press release compares Aerial Dragnet, in basic terms, to the systems the Federal Aviation Administration and other aviation organizations currently use to track commercial and private planes. “Commercial websites currently exist that display in real time the tracks of relatively high and fast aircraft—from small general aviation planes to large airliners — all overlaid on geographical maps as they fly around the country and the world”, Jeff Krolik, DARPA program manager, is quoted as saying in the press release. “We want a similar capability for identifying and tracking slower, low-flying unmanned aerial systems, particularly in urban environments.”

Aerial Dragnet is still in its planning stages, and researchers still lack a clear vision of exactly what the details of the program may entail. The press release announcing Aerial Dragnet is riddled with words like “seeks”, “notionally”, and “perhaps”:

The program seeks an array of innovative approaches, but notionally envisions a network of surveillance nodes, each providing coverage of a neighborhood-sized urban area, perhaps mounted on tethered or long-endurance UAS. Using sensor technologies that can look over and between buildings, the surveillance nodes would maintain UAS tracks even when the craft disappear from sight around corners or behind objects. The output of the Aerial Dragnet system would be a continually updated common operational picture (COP) of the airspace at altitudes below where current aircraft surveillance systems can monitor, disseminated electronically to authorized users via secure data links. — “Keeping a Watchful Eye on Low-Flying Unmanned Aerial Systems in Cities“, DARPA, 13.09.2016.

One thing that Aerial Dragnet is predicting and preparing for is the potential widespread demand for the program coupled with the rapidly changing landscape of automated warfare. Israel would likely be interested in Aerial Dragnet or a similar system considering that ISIS and Hezbollah, both of whom are antagonistic to Israel, are right across its northern borders. The Palestinian militant group Hamas has also flown small, domestic-made drones into Israeli airspace in the past. Hamas also reportedly captured an Israeli reconnaissance drone in August of 2015, returned it to an operational status, and is perhaps trying to reproduce it.

“Because of the large market for inexpensive small UAS, the program will focus on combining low cost sensor hardware with software-defined signal processing hosted on existing UAS platforms,” the press release reads . “The resulting surveillance systems would thus be cost-effectively scalable for larger coverage areas and rapidly upgradable as new, more capable and economical versions of component technologies become available.”

DARPA has not provided a timeline for implementing the the Aerial Dragnet program, or suggested what cities it might first be implemented in.

Posted in Darien Cavanaugh, Drones, English, Technology, Terrorism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Will Turkey go to war in Northern Iraq?

Since Turkey’s refusal to withdraw its military forces from its training camp in Bashiqa, Northern Iraq last December relations between Baghdad and Ankara have been at an all time low.

Even after the start of the Mosul operation against Islamic State (ISIS) on October 17 there has been no thaw in these tensions, if anything they are getting worse. The Iraqi government opposes any Turkish participation in the Mosul operation and has made repeated demands for Turkey to withdraw its forces, many in the Iraqi parliament even want the Turkish presence officially labeled an occupation of Iraqi territory.

The Turkish government under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has bitterly condemned Baghdad in response, insisting it has a right to intervene in Northern Iraq wherever, and against whomever, it sees fit. This has raised the prospect of the Turkish military engaging forces other than ISIS in Northern Iraq. Let’s take a look on the possible adversaries in Iraq.

PKK-trained Yezidi militia in Sinjar (Photo: Kurdishstruggle via Flickr).

PKK-trained Yezidi militia in Sinjar (Photo: Kurdishstruggle via Flickr).

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)
At the end of October, Erdoğan stated that Turkey “will go on this [Operation Euphrates Shield] campaign in Syria and Iraq, and now in Kirkuk, Mosul, Tal Afar and Sinjar. Why? Sinjar is about to be the new Qandil [for PKK]. Thus, [Turkey] cannot allow it to happen in Sinjar, because there is PKK there.”

Sinjar and the wider region was where ISIS committed one of its most infamous crimes: the massacre of thousands of Yezidi men, women and children and the clear attempt to eradicate that entire people. The PKK, who have long maintained a base in the Qandil mountain range, fought ISIS to a standstill in Sinjar for over a year. When the city was finally liberated by the Kurdish Peshmerga, the PKK maintained a presence, against the wishes of the authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Turkey has been bombing the PKK in Qandil for years, to little avail. A permanent PKK foothold in Sinjar would doubtlessly irk them to the point they would contemplate launching an incursion to rout them out. Whether this will simply consist of a series of airstrikes against the group there or an actual ground attack has yet to be seen.

Shiite fighters from the Hashed al-Shaabi, PMU enter the village of Abu Shuwayhah, south of jihadist-held Mosul, on November 1, 2016, during the ongoing operation.

Shiite fighters from the Hashed al-Shaabi, PMU enter the village of Abu Shuwayhah, south of jihadist-held Mosul, on November 1, 2016, during the ongoing operation.

The Iraqi militias
There is also no love lost between Turkey and the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), the coalition of mostly Shiite militias formed by the Iraqi government following Mosul’s fall in mid-2014. Many militias fighting under the flag of the PMU are backed by Iran and staunchly oppose Turkey’s troop presence in Bashiqa.

When the PMU were allotted the task of securing Mosul’s western periphery – allowing them to play a role in the operation but not to enter the Sunni-majority city itself, to avoid possible sectarian conflict – they immediately announced their aim to take Tal Afar from ISIS. This alarmed Turkey which warned the PMU against committing any abuses against the Turkmen residents of that city, even threatening to intervene against them if they done so.

Since then Iraqi President Haider al-Abadi has said that the PMU will not enter Tal Afar and that the town will be liberated by the Iraqi Army, possibly alleviating a potentially lethal conflict between Turkey and the PMU. However, this does not rule out the possibility of some kind of a clash between Turkey and the Iraqi militias, either directly or indirectly. Turkey’s aforementioned presence at Bashiqa is primarily to train the Nineveh Guard militia (formerly known as the Hashd al-Watani), a Sunni-majority militia commanded by the former governor of Nineveh, Atheel al-Nujaifi. The Iraqi government blame al-Nujaifi for allowing the Turkish Army to Bashiqa and have even went as far as issuing a warrant for his arrest.

The Nineveh Guard may end up clashing with the PMU in the future if their paths collide, or if they choose to target each other. This could see a proxy war of sorts evolve between Iranian proxies and Turkey’s proxy. A direct clash between the Turkish Armed Forces or a future PMU attack on Bashiqa could also be potentially very destabilizing if it escalated and both sides started pouring in more men resources to Nineveh to face off each other. While Turkey might have the initial advantage of being able to target the PMU with artillery and airstrikes the PMU may be able to muster more manpower and declare a jihad against the Turkish outsider, something which would have widely destabilizing affects on the region.

Convoy of Iraqi armored forces.

Convoy of Iraqi armored forces.

The Iraqi Armed Forces
The least likely but most dangerous scenario is one that involves a direct clash between the Iraqi and Turkish Armed Forces in Nineveh. Possibly initiated by forceful Iraqi attempts to stop more Turkish deployments in its territory. If Turkey were to escalate such a war it would need to confront Iraqi armor and engage the Iraqi Air Force, which now possesses formidable F-16s and advanced Russian helicopter gunships (Mi-28N and Mi-35M).

The Turkish Armed Forces may be reluctant to do this since their entire F-16 fleet is not currently in operation following the failed July 15 coup attempt and the subsequent purges in the military. In Syria Turkey reportedly temporarily halted air support to its Free Syrian Army (FSA) proxy fighting ISIS and Kurdish forces in northwest Syria since Damascus threatened to target their jets and even deployed anti-aircraft missiles to show it could do so. In addition Ankara has demonstrated a limited ability to readily deploy effective armored forces in Syria.

Also, the Turks would be less likely to take the risk of escalating any clash with the Iraqi Armed Forces into a full-fledged war, especially at a time when the Iraqis are at the forefront of an American-backed war in Mosul.

Posted in English, International, Iraq, Turkey | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Rio 2016: Brazilian Security in the Spotlight

by Michael Martelle. Michael is a masters student studying Security Policy at the George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs.

Members of the Pacifying Police Unit (UPP) stand guard while children play on top of the Macaco favela in northern Rio de Janeiro (Photo: Sebastiano Tomada / Al Jazeera).

Members of the Pacifying Police Unit (UPP) stand guard while children play on top of the Macaco favela in northern Rio de Janeiro (Photo: Sebastiano Tomada / Al Jazeera).

A week after the truck attack in Nice, France, and two weeks before opening ceremonies in Rio De Janeiro, Brazilian Federal Police announced their success in wrapping up a ring of Daesh sympathizers calling themselves “Defenders of Shariah”, who were “preparing acts of terrorism” during the 2016 Summer Olympics. What initially sounded like an indication of serious organizing activity around the Olympic Games was described by Moraes as amateurish, ill-prepared and unorganized (Rogerio Jelmayer and Reed Johnson, “Brazil Arrests 10 Suspected of Plotting Attacks Timed for Olympics“, Wall Street Journal, 21.07.2016).

The three widely agreed upon elements that go into committing a crime are means, motive, and opportunity. Skipping “means” for now, motive is present, but lightly so. The individuals arrested were, according to Brazilian Federal Police, all born in Brazil, had never traveled to the Middle East, and hadn’t even met each other (see also this criticism about the media and politicians, who ascribe attacks to Daesh — often without specific evidence for its actual involvement).

Brazil's Justice Minister Alexandre de Moraes attends a press conference on arrests made in at least two states before the start of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, in Brasilia July 21, 2016 (Photo: Adriano Machado / Reuters).

Brazil’s Justice Minister Alexandre de Moraes attends a press conference on arrests made in at least two states before the start of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, in Brasilia July 21, 2016 (Photo: Adriano Machado / Reuters).

Brazil’s Muslim population is incredibly small, not large enough to mention in the CIA World Factbook. According to the US Governmental International Religious Freedom Report, the assessments of the number of Muslims vary enormously: “According to the 2010 census, there are approximately 35,200 Muslims, while the Federation of Muslim Associations of Brazil states the number at approximately 1.5 million. Other observers estimate the number of Muslims to be between 400,000 and 500,000.” The population is considered to be reasonably well-integrated, and there has been a recent influx of converts from the Brazilian populace. In all, hardly a situation where one would expect Daesh sympathizers to be found. According to police, the 10 met, communicated, and learned via websites associated with Radical Islam, so there is a very strong possibility that these individuals felt otherwise disgruntled and saw in Radical Islam an outlet for their feelings.

The question of “means” is where things get weird. The group had no bomb-making materials, had inquired online about buying a single AK-47 rifle from a seller in Paraguay, and had only recently talked about maybe getting some martial arts training. According to Brazilian Police, it was this additional step to “action” and “planning” from what was previously only communication online — for which they were already being monitored — that led to the arrests. That being said, this group was clearly nowhere close to reaching the ability to launch what the world would consider a terror attack, and were arguably a good distance from basic competency in the field. If, as Donn Piatt once suggested, greatness can be measured by one’s enemies, this ring of would-be terrorists was hardly a trophy for Brazil’s security apparatus. So why was this broadcast so widely? The principle security fear surrounding the Rio 2016 Olympic Games had been street crime, or crimes of opportunity. It is precisely these crimes of opportunity that this group of 10 were capable of carrying out.

We expect that if there is a major drop in inequality, homicide rates go down. In 2000, Brazil’s homicide rate was 32.2 per 100,000 residents, and in 2012 it was just over 32.4. — Christopher Mikton, technical officer on the WHO Prevention of Violence Team cited in Vincent Bevins, “In Brazil, homicide rate still high despite increased prosperity“, Los Angeles Times, 22.05.2015.

Despite an improvement in all other economic and social indicators prosperity for the region, Brazil’s crime rates remain exceptionally high. From 2000 until 2012 the homicide rate remained essentially the same while globally the homicide rate dropped 16%. An important detail to this statistic, however, is the fact that homicide rates in wealthier areas of the country have actually dropped significantly due to aggressive, some would say heavy-handed, security policies. One can assume, given the lack of change in the national rate, that the homicide rate in the more impoverished areas has increased. If true, the cause is likely demographic: The primary perpetrators of crime, young adult males, have increased in share of the population.

Brazil’s security forces have been trying to address these fears through “pacification” of the Favelas which began before the 2014 FIFA World Cup and a wide-spread and publicized redeployment of troops and security personnel to the city. The operations in the Favelas have been met with marginal success at best and dubious reactions internationally. Couple these question marks with the Zika Virus, which so far nobody has any answers for, and it can be seen that Brazilian officials may have been looking for a “win”. Ironically, while this case did demonstrate Brazil’s ability to monitor, track, and arrest a group of suspects simultaneously, it also demonstrated the class of criminal that Brazil’s security community considers dangerous enough to warrant an operation of this magnitude. Brazil does not fear Daesh; Brazil fears the street criminal.

Military soldiers patrol external areas and the lobbies of Galeao international airport ahead of Rio 2016 Olympic Games. (Photo: Dado Galdieri / Bloomberg Photo).

Military soldiers patrol external areas and the lobbies of Galeao international airport ahead of Rio 2016 Olympic Games. (Photo: Dado Galdieri / Bloomberg Photo).

Shortly after the opening ceremonies, which featured an ironic tribute to “favela culture”, a Federal Police squad car took a wrong turn and wound up in a favela near the airport. It is unknown whose “territory” this was but Brazil’s most powerful gang, Red Command, is reported to hold ground near the same airport. The car was targeted by machine gun fire and one officer was killed. Brazilian officials later claimed the identity of the killer was known, though he had not been brought into custody (“Olympic officer who was shot in head after wrong turn into slum dies“, Chicago Tribune, 11.08.2016).

[…] [W]hen Brazil wakes up from the Olympic reverie, it will have to face the same bitter political struggles as before, coupled with the deepest recession in decades. — Alex Cuadros, “Why Brazilians Are So Obsessed with the Ryan Lochte Story“, The New Yorker, 18.08.2016.

At around the same time a prison and the town around it erupted into violence in response to a crackdown on cell reception within the prison and subsequent measures by authorities to disrupt communications to, from, and between gang members in prison. The government was forced to send a sizable force, 1,000 army soldiers and 200 marines, to quell the unrest (Jonathan Watts, “Brazil deploys over 1,000 troops in response to spate of gang-related attacks“, The Guardian, 03.08.3016).

Perhaps the most visible security event during this year’s Olympics was the saga of Ryan Lochte and his team-mates. Brazil’s reaction to this event and specifically to Lochte’s story seemed to suggest a sensitivity to stereotypes of dangerous street crime of opportunity.

If the reaction to Ryan Lochte showed what stereotypes Brazilians are embarrassed by, the arrest of 10 terrorists, albeit amateur, may have been an attempt to display strength and security while in the public spotlight. The situation in the favelas and the prison riot turned insurrection suggest Brazil’s security apparatus still has a ways to go in facing crime-based security challenges before it can credibly stand shoulder to shoulder with counterparts in other regional powers.

Posted in Brazil, English, Michael Martelle, Organised Crime, Security Policy, South America, Terrorism | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Iraq’s notorious militia is setting up camp west of Mosul

Militias of the Popular Mobilization Units south-west of Mosul at the beginning of November 2016.

Militias of the Popular Mobilization Units south-west of Mosul at the beginning of November 2016.

Since its official inception shortly after the beginning of the war against the terror organisation “Islamic State” (ISIS) in Iraq in the summer of 2014 the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU; aka Hashd) has garnered its fair share of controversy. Human rights reports have documented their use of child soldiers and their abuse and torture of Sunni civilians in areas recaptured from ISIS.

Given the Iranian support to these militias, the US has refused to work with them or act as their supporting air force, in the same way they have been for the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish Peshmerga. They also fear that PMU participation in operations in Sunni-majority parts of Iraq would turn local Sunnis against the Iraqi military and the coalition, which would seriously complicate efforts to uproot and defeat ISIS.

In March 2015 the PMU single-handedly launched an offensive against then ISIS-occupied Tikrit. They told the Iraqi Army they were welcome to participate provided they forbid the US from joining up. This was an attempt to demonstrate that they could fight ISIS without Washington’s support. The stunt ended in abject failure for them. They withdrew under ISIS fire and the Iraqi Army moved in with US air support and recaptured the town in one of their first major victories against the militants since the war began (Kenneth M. Pollack, “Iraq’s Mr. Abadi Comes to Washington“, Brookings Institution, 13 April 2015).

By May 2016 the PMU had spent two years besieging ISIS in Bashir, a small farming village in the province of Kirkuk. They only succeeded in retaking that village after playing a small supporting role to the Kurdish Peshmerga, who managed to rout the militants in just a few days.

In the operation to recapture Fallujah (in May and June of this year) Baghdad allotted the PMU a supporting role in the operation, in hopes of keeping them out of the actual city. But in that role they still abused and brutalized some of the approximate 50,000 civilians who fled that bombed and ruined city throughout the course of that assault.

Since the end of October 2016, the PMU had launched an offensive towards the west of Mosul. Their goal is to cut off any option of retreat by ISIL insurgents into neighboring Syria or any reinforcement for their defense of Mosul.

Since the end of October 2016, the PMU had launched an offensive towards the west of Mosul. Their goal is to cut off any option of retreat by ISIL insurgents into neighboring Syria or any reinforcement for their defense of Mosul.

In the present operation in Mosul, a Sunni Arab-majority city with a remaining population of up to 1.2 million people in the hands of between 3,000 and 5,000 ISIS militants, the coalition is again supporting the Iraqis in their endeavours against ISIS while opposing PMU participation.

The PMU have been given again a supporting role. In the two-week old operation, Iraqi and Kurdish forces have been taking towns and villages from ISIS to the north, east and south, moving in closer to the city limits. Nobody has covered the west, leading to some speculation that the coalition secretly wants ISIS to evacuate Mosul to Syria to avoid a long drawn out and destructive battle in that metropolis.

Now, however, the PMU are moving in to Mosul’s west, fighting to capture Tal Afar (which has a large Turkmen population) and close off ISIS’s only escape route. This in turn means that two possible scenarios could come to be: ISIS doubles down and decides to fight to the death in Mosul knowing it has no exit route back to Syria, increasing the chance that more of Mosul will be destroyed and more civilians will be killed or ISIS tries to escape to Syria by trying to break through PMU lines.

The second scenario would be a particularly interesting one. While ISIS did fight sustained battles in Fallujah and the Syrian city of Manbij. In both cases they began withdrawing when it was clear they stood no chance. When leaving Fallujah their withdrawing convoys were bombed by both Iraqi and US coalition aircraft. From Manbij they managed to escape since the US suspected they had civilians with them as human shields.

Militia fighters entered the village of Abu Shuwayhah, south of Mosul, on Tuesday, during the operation to retake Mosul, the last major ISIS stronghold in Iraq (Photo: Ahmad Al-Rubaye / AFP).

Militia fighters entered the village of Abu Shuwayhah, south of Mosul, on Tuesday, during the operation to retake Mosul, the last major ISIS stronghold in Iraq (Photo: Ahmad Al-Rubaye / AFP).

If ISIS were to make a similar move in Mosul while the PMU remain the only force standing to their west that raises the question how the US and the coalition would respond. For one the coalition does not want to work with the PMU and the PMU do not in any way want to be seen working with the Americans – since they oppose their presence in Iraq to begin. Simply bombing ISIS as they try to break through PMU lines to get back to Syria increases the chance that the US kills PMU through lack of coordination, like it did to at least 62 Syrian soldiers in the city of Deir Ezzor when they mistook them for ISIS militants in the same vicinity in September. This would likely inflame the PMU and could lead them to target American forces and interests in Iraq in retaliation, as they have already threatened to do.

As the battle for Mosul progresses and looks set to last at least another few weeks, if not months, the role of the PMU should be carefully observed given the important positions they are now beginning to occupy.

More information
Hauke ​​Feickert, “Iraqis argue over war strategy“,, 04.08.2015.

Posted in English, International, Iraq | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

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.

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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.

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