Turkey finally makes a move on its long sought Syrian buffer zone

On Wednesday the 23 August Turkey initiated its long sought after buffer zone in northeast Syria with a bang. At 4.a.m in artillery rained down on Islamic State (ISIS) positions followed by airstrikes carried out by Turkish F-16’s – marking the first time Turkish warplanes entered Syrian airspace since the Russian warplane incident last year. Then Turkish tanks crossed the border covering the advance of at least 1,500 militiamen, who are fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), to rout the militants out.


This move fulfilled the first step of something Turkey has threatened to do for about five years now: establish a small 70-kilometer wide buffer-zone on the northwestern Syrian border. While circumstances have changed in the last half-a-decade – the buffer zone is no longer primarily aimed, as originally planned, at keeping military forces commanded by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad out of that region – the parameters of the zone and the basic purpose of it are more-or-less the same. The US has also supported the idea of an ISIS-free zone in northwest Syria for at least a year before this operation, since it has been at war with ISIS in Syria for two years now.

Turkey seeks to keep two enemy forces out of that area, ISIS and Kurdish militia forces (People’s Protection Units; YPG) they say are directly linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The fact that Turkish artillery has also targeted Kurdish forces south of Jarablus in recent days isn’t surprising. After all, Turkey joined the US-led coalition against ISIS in July 2015, the same month its hostilities against the PKK resumed after a failed ceasefire implemented in early 2013. Also the zone is aimed to be a safe-zone for displaced Syrians to stop more of them pouring into Turkey.

That’s not the only notable thing about it. The zones establishment comes just six weeks after the failed coup attempt of July 15 and the sweeping government crackdown on the military which ensued. Now with greater government control over the military Ankara is finally able to enact what it has long been planning to do.


Time will tell how major this operation will be, how far south the Turkish military will go as part of its efforts to target ISIS and the Kurds. It’s not clear, however, how apt of a demonstration it will be of the power and capability of the Turkish military in the aftermath of the coup. After all, presently it’s limited to a supporting role for the at least 1,500 of the aforementioned fighters backed by armor, artillery and special forces. Turkish air power is also being coordinated with, and complemented by, American coalition air power.

Also with its back to the border the military could rely on being able to bring heavy firepower to bear on enemy forces, since it could resupply relatively easily. ISIS militants didn’t have a fallback position in Jarablus, nor could its militants be easily resupplied to put up a fight since they were cut off further south, and from their main base in Raqqa, by Kurdish-led forces.

A deeper infiltration of Turkish ground forces into hostile territory would be more informative about the capability of the Turkish armed forces and how much the Turkish public would support, and stomach, it if their soldiers began to suffer combat casualties.

Free Syrian Army's fighters enter Syria with Turkish armor backing.

Free Syrian Army’s fighters enter Syria with Turkish armor backing.

While this is the biggest operation into Syria since the war began it’s worth noting that this is not the first time Turkish forces entered Syria from over the border. Since January Turkey has been intermittently bombarding ISIS-territories over the border in retaliation for mortar attacks on its frontier province of Kilis. In early May during one of these operations Turkish special forces did make a brief incursion into Syria against the militants.

Earlier than that in February 2015, a convoy consisting of a reported 572 Turkish soldiers backed up by 39 tanks and 57 armored vehicles also briefly entered Syria to evacuate the 38 Turkish soldiers guarding the Suleyman Shah tomb, and relocate that tomb, which was situated in a Turkish exclave in Syria that was becoming too hard to protect. As with the Jarablus offensive, Damascus also condemned that move was a violation of Syria’s sovereignty since Turkey did not seek Syria’s permission. Given its present day rapprochement with Russia, Ankara may have tacit acquiescence from the Kremlin for this current operation, provided they do not over-extend too far south of their border.

Whatever the case ultimately proves to be Wednesday’s move is quite a significant development in the tumultuous war in Syria.

• • •

During Wednesday the 23 August, around 20 Turkish tanks and 20 armoured personnel carrier crossed the border to Syria. At least additional 10 tanks crossed the border early on Thursday, 25 August. Meanwhile, a total of 350 soldiers from the Turkish Armed Forces are taking part (some 200 soldiers from mechanized units and 150 Special Forces soldiers).

In an interview broadcast late on Wednesday, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said that following the expulsion of IS militia from Jarablus, Turkey’s military would continue its operation in the region. Now it’s about pushing the Kurdish YPG militia back over the Euphrates river, Yildirim said. “Until that’s achieved, we will continue our operations. Our agreement with the US is that the Kurds from Manbij and the region have to withdraw to the east side of the Euphrates,” he added. (“Turkey rolls on with Syria operation as US confirms retreat of Syrian Kurds“, Deutsche Welle, 25.08.2016). Later that day, YPG declared that they have pulled back from the key town of Manbij and returned to the east of the Euphrates.

Map by TheatresOfWar (click on the map to enlarge).

Map by TheatresOfWar (click on the map to enlarge).

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Iran ISOICO Shipyard Update

DG (30JUN16) BeA

The Kharg returns to Bandar Abbas without completing deck maintenance (DigitalGlobe 30 June 2016)

The latest commercial satellite imagery shows some new developments at Iran’s ISOICO shipyard near Bostanu. In June, the Kilo-class attack submarine and the Kharg (431) replenishment ship departed the shipyard and relocated back to Bander Abbas naval base. The vessels have been located at the shipyard since October 2015 and November 2014, respectively. While the Kharg returned to its normal berthing position on the peninsular breakwater, maintenance of the deck had not been completed at the time of capture. The Kilo relocated to its normal berthing position or possibly entered the dry dock.

Meanwhile, the Jamaran (76) FFG was pulled out of water for routine maintenance, and was positioned for repairs near a Hengam-class LSLM. Other vessels of note include the hull of a probable Sina-class boat which had prior been in the fabrication shop. The vessel exhibited no evidence of further fitting out. There’s also a Ghadir coastal submarine which is undergoing extensive maintenance near the ship workshop. Imagery from April showed the submarine in two pieces. The Ghadir sat near Iran’s homegrown research vessel which had yet to leave the shipyard. Likewise, Iran’s homegrown tanker has yet to be completed and remained berthed near the floating dry dock without its deck house.

DG (30JUL16) Platform Barge Loading

Platform Barge Loading at ISOICO (DigitalGlobe 30 June 2016)

Beyond military, one of Iran’s offshore oil platform modules had been loaded on a barge for its next phase of fitting out. Iran claimed in 2014 to be self-sufficient in building offshore oil platforms. However the country inked an agreement with Russia’s Krasnye Barrkady (Red Barricades) to construct additional rigs for exploration in the Persian Gulf. The agreement reportedly included a technology transfer arrangement. Elements of Iran’s offshore platform construction span multiple shipyards including the ISOICO, Sadra Island, Qeshm Island and Khorramshahr, according to imagery analysis.

In related news, Iran has quickly ramped up production since implementation day, pumping over 3.6 million barrels per day (mb/d) in July 2016, according to OPEC. It expects to move toward 4.8 mb/d by 2021, but to do that the country requires nearly $70 billion in foreign capital to hit the target. Similarly, exports are on the rise with the country ramping up crude to Asia, especially China and India. China is in the lead importing around 603,000 bpd while India, though gaining, was around 338,000 bpd near the end of July. Available data from Japan showed the country near 206,000 bpd in the first six months of 2016. Likewise, Iranian crude exports to the EU have risen substantively, though appear to be encountering greater competition in July. So far, exports to the EU peaked in May at more than 350,000 bpd or about half of their pre-sanction levels. Given Iran’s production targets and US shale oil production productivity, it’s unlikely the crude glut will disappear any time soon. Most analysts expect prices to remain lower for longer.

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Unauthorised Troops on Foreign Soil: Wild West in the Middle East

UK_spec_forces-001Beginning of August, the BBC released the first ever photographs of British special forces in Syria (see one of the photos on the right). The photos showed twelve heavily armed elite soldiers with four accompanying vehicles and weapons. They were taken around the al-Tanf military garrison near the Syrian border with Jordan after an Islamic State (ISIS) attack on it in June.

For months now it has been public knowledge that the British are there to help the Americans in their endeavour to create a new counter-ISIS force (the New Syrian Army) to work with on the ground in Syria. That is the groups sole stated purpose, not to be used as a proxy against the Syrian regime. However they are not there under the authorization of the regime in Damascus – which the US does not want to work with, even if just against ISIS.

In mid-June there was a controversial incident when two Russian Su-34 Fullback jets bombed the New Syrian Army forces at Al-Tanf, an attack which transpired 24-hours after the British forces left the base for Jordan. Even after two US Navy F/A-18 Hornet’s were scrambled to intercept the Fullbacks and warned them off they still came back for a second bombing run after those Hornet’s had to leave the vicinity to refuel.

While Russia claimed it was an accident it’s worth at least considering that Russia may intentionally have been acting on behalf of its ally in Damascus to demonstrate that such forces on Syrian soil are not invulnerable to sudden attack. While also taking very careful precautions to ensure they did not kill any of the British forces there nor risk a serious clash with the US coalition, with which they set-up a communications mechanism to avoid any accidental shoot-downs or clashes.

The Syrian regime has claimed in the past it is willing to work with the Americans against ISIS, but that their operations must be coordinated with Damascus. Something the Americans refused to do since they deem that regime to be illegitimate.

Damascus also denounced the presence of western special forces in northeastern Syrian, where they are training the Arab-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) anti-ISIS fighting-force, as well as western volunteers, who have joined that group. Such a clear aversion to these foreign forces in Syria is something that should be borne in mind and might serve as an explanation for Russia’s bombing of al-Tanf.

A New Syrian Army patrol in late April, 2016 taking a break after a long drive on American supplied pick-up trucks (Rao Kumar, "The New Syrian Army: America’s 'Tip of the Spear' Against ISIS in the Syrian Desert", Bellingcat, 31.05.2016).

A New Syrian Army patrol in late April, 2016 taking a break after a long drive on American supplied pick-up trucks (Rao Kumar, “The New Syrian Army: America’s ‘Tip of the Spear’ Against ISIS in the Syrian Desert“, Bellingcat, 31.05.2016).

Incidentally a not too dissimilar precedent, wherein a foreign powers deployed their own soldiers to train proxy anti-ISIS forces to another country without that countries authorization, happened in Northern Iraq last December. It revolved around Turkey’s deployment of combat troops without the permission of the Iraqi government. Although Turkey had been permitted to send military advisors to its forward-operating-base in Bashiqa it was not authorized to deploy combat troops – which they did that month, much to the consternation of Baghdad which demanded an immediately and unconditional withdrawal.

The Turkish government later said it sent its combat troops to protect its advisors at that base, which is by the front-lines with ISIS. During that same month Bashiqa was shelled by those militants. Interestingly Kataeb Hezbollah, one of the Shiite militias fighting ISIS more than 100 kilometers south of Bashiqa at the time, also claimed responsibility for that attack. This was a clear bid on the part of that group to depict itself as being on the forefront of combating any foreign military presence in Iraq, even if that foreigner was also there primarily in order to combat a mutual enemy.

Turkey claimed that attack, and subsequent attacks by ISIS this year, was ample justification for the need to deploy those combat forces. The Iraqi government countered by reasoning that Turkey doesn’t need to train forces so near the front-lines with ISIS.

More recently Shiite militia leaders have also warned the US about setting-up military bases and deploying combat troops, even in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, as part of the coalitions counter-ISIS war and even threatened the attack them.

These two incidents are salient reminders that, weak as they may be from the years of destabilizing conflict which ultimately led to the rise of ISIS, the Iraqi and Syrian states are unlikely to remain willingly passive when foreign powers deploy military forces on their soil without their authorization.

More information

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Terrorism in Laos: Slow Burn?

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.

2015 Bangkok bombing. Why do ethnic separatists in Thailand use bombs and aim for substantial body counts, while ethnic separatists in Laos use small arms and apparently target specific targets?

2015 Bangkok bombing. Why do ethnic separatists in Thailand use bombs and aim for substantial body counts, while ethnic separatists in Laos use small arms and apparently target specific targets?

For decades, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic has contended with a low-intensity insurgency, primarily attributed to two extremist groups – the Ethnic Liberation Organization of Laos and the United Front for the Liberation of Laos – which both pursue through violent means autonomy or independence for the Hmong ethnic minority. Since November 2015, a rash of shootings carried out against tourist buses, Chinese contractors, and Lao military outposts has provoked the State Department in the United States to caution American tourists about the risks of travelling to Laos.

The nature of these terrorist attacks contrasts with those witnessed recently in Thailand. Whereas small arms are typically used to ambush vehicles traversing major roadways between the Laotian capital of Vientiane and Kunming, China, a series of bombs have been detonated in the Thai communities of Hua Hin, Phuket, Surat Thani, and Trang in August 2016, killing four and injuring 34. In August 2015, a bomb was detonated at the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok, Thailand, leaving 20 dead and 125 injured. In December 2013, bombs were detonated in several southern Thai communities, close to the border with Malaysia, resulting in two deaths and 27 injured. The attacks of the previous few years demonstrate the grisly nature of terrorism in Thailand – dramatic bombings in tourist spots or other high-density locations, usually carried out by separatist insurgents from southern Thailand.

Given the similar characteristics and aims of the terrorist groups in Laos and Thailand, why does the modus operandi differ? Why do ethnic separatists in Thailand use bombs and aim for substantial body counts, while ethnic separatists in Laos use small arms and apparently target specific targets? Most likely, the differences in methods between the two reflects the “professionalization” of terrorist groups in Thailand. In previous decades, much of the terrorist activity in Thailand was perpetrated by the National Revolution Front, Runda Kumpulan Kecil, Patani United Liberation Organisation, and the Free Aceh Movement, most of which were dedicated strictly to the secession of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat provinces from the Kingdom of Thailand in order to re-establish the Sultanate of Pattani, a predominantly Sunni Muslim and Malay country until it was gradually annexed by 1909. However, militant Islamist entities have come to the fore of the conflict in southern Thailand, namely Jemaah Islamiyah, the United Mujahideen Front of Pattani, the Pattani Islamic Mujahideen Movement, and the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Pattani.

The Golden Triangle between Laos, Thailand and Burma.

The Golden Triangle between Laos, Thailand and Burma.

There is no evidence to suggest that the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has established a presence in Thailand, but it is certainly possible that members of the aforementioned militant Islamist groups already operating in the country could have received training and support from ISIS in an effort to intensify the bombing campaign and reduce some of the pressure on ISIS so-called “homeland” in Syria and Iraq. Jemaah Islamiyah would certainly be an ideal proxy for ISIS in the region, given that the organization already has substantial reach and coordination. That group has carried out attacks in Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand, rising to international prominence in October 2002 when a series of bombs its members planted in the tourist district of Kuta on the Indonesian island of Bali killed 202 and injured 209. Jemaah Islamiyah depended greatly on its partnership with al-Qaeda, while also demonstrating collaborative tendencies by frequently conducting joint training with other Southeast Asia-based terrorist organizations like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid. Finally, Jemaah Islamiyah is currently vulnerable to takeover, given the deaths of certain key members in recent months. In particular, the organization’s leading bomb maker Zulkifli Abdhir was killed in a gun battle with Philippine counter-terrorist troops in January 2015, while bomb maker Abdul Basit Usman was also killed in the Philippines in May 2015 when it seems one of his bodyguards sought to collect the bounty placed on him by the United States.

In short, terrorism in Thailand differs because its perpetrators possess the resources necessary to carry out sophisticated bombings and because the ideology of those who carry out these attacks calls for as large a body count as possible. Terrorism in Laos will not likely “professionalize” in this same way unless there is a convergence of interests in the near future between separatist groups in northern Laos and organized crime. The border regions of Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and Burma form the so-called “Golden Triangle” where conditions are ripe for opium production and porous borders allow for the trafficking of arms, narcotics, and slave labour. The nightmare scenario for Laos, which currently chairs the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), would involve organized crime networks in China’s Yunnan province supplying arms and bomb-making materials to northern Laotian separatists in an effort to fuel regional instability and secure a new supply of opium, given recent supply disruptions from Burma.

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African Drone Apron Update

DG Chabelley

The U.S. continues to expand drone aprons at African airfields in Djibouti and Niger, recent satellite imagery acquired by Digitalglobe confirms.

Space snapshots acquired in July 2016 of Djibouti’s Chabelley airfield show the addition of four more clamshell shelters since previous reporting in March/April 2016. Three new line of sight communication towers and two ku-band primary satellite links were also visible near the new tension hangars. The two shelters remaining on the older apron, located at the eastern ramp, have since been removed. The older apron probably supported drone operations associated with EU NAVFOR.

Adjacent to the apron, a taxi-way extending out to field parking appeared to be repaved while clearing and leveling activity was spotted near the airfield’s perimeter and bivouac site. A makeshift construction compound had been added to the northeast of the airfield outside the access control point. Several earth moving vehicles and dump trucks were on-site at the time of capture. Given the history of the site, the extended taxi-way may eventually support future apron expansions as more drones are put online or relocated from other forward positions. For example, we’ve noted the relocation of drones from Afghanistan in 2014-2015 and the Reapers at Arba Minch were pulled last November.

The additional drones arriving in Djibouti come at the right time. As things get worse in Yemen, additional surveillance measures will be needed. Yemen has become what some observers see as a new “Vietnam”. By all appearances, the peace process is breaking down. The lack of progress advancing toward a unity government peaked last month when the Houthi Shia movement announced the formation of a 10-member “Supreme Council” to govern territory it controls. The UN special envoy, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, suspended talks taking place in Kuwait to be resumed at an unspecified date. As a political solution slips further from reach, the return of military action targeting the Houthis is in full swing, despite brief moments of calm. Of course, that says nothing of the other groups vying for influence.

DG (03JUL16) Niamey

DG (03JUL16) Niamey

Meanwhile in West Africa, recent imagery of Niger’s Diori Hamani in Niamey shows two additional clamshell shelters erected since last year’s update. We’ve noted the ongoing construction activity at the site in other reports. Both tension-shelters were added in 2016, the first (top) during March and the second (bottom) in late June. The first shelter appears to support the basing of more drones. In July, we caught our first glimpse of a Reaper nose protruding from the shelter. What the second shelter supports remains unknown. The site continues to exhibit ongoing construction activity that we’ll continue to watch.

Beyond infrastructure developments, the “Group of Five for the Sahel” agreed in March to create an EU-backed rapid reaction force to counter militants in the region. The agreement is viewed as a mechanism to release pressure on France’s overstretched military presence. Operation Barkhane, France’s largest external operation, has approximately 3,500 troops stationed across the region. France’s main focus for its force has been to counter terrorism and smuggling operations, both symptoms of ungoverned spaces the Western European country sees as a source of instability. Including Barkhane, total French troops on the continent number over 8,000. How successful French forces will be in stabilizing the region — even with the backing of a new rapid reaction force — is debatable, given the lack of a political solution. With no end of French involvement in sight, France may be settling back into a familiar role as the “gendarme of Africa”.

Posted in Chris B, Djibouti, Drones, English, Intelligence, International, Niger | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Russia’s growing influence in the post-Arab Spring Middle East

The Khmeimim airbase near Latakia is a good example of Russias massive footprint in Syria. It is the strategic center of Russia’s military operation in Syria (Revision 1 with additional information provided by Capitain Mike Butora, Swiss Air Force).

The Khmeimim airbase near Latakia is a good example of Russias massive footprint in Syria. It is the strategic center of Russia’s military operation in Syria (Revision 1 with additional information provided by Capitain Mike Butora, Swiss Air Force).

Russia is set to maintain an indefinite presence in its airbase in Syria’s western Latakia province, from where it has been carrying out airstrikes in support of its sole remaining regional ally, the regime in Damascus.

Following the Kremlin’s decisive intervention in the Syrian conflict last September 30, Vladimir Putin lambasted the western powers at the United Nations for, as he sees it, wrecking havoc in the Middle East by supporting the opponents of the various authoritarian regimes there. Conversely he characterized his own country’s intervention in Syria as a necessary move to preserve the stability of the region and combat terrorism.

Part of the move was clearly to ensure that Russia did not lose its only Arab ally. In the post-Arab Spring order Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has remained one of the few leaders in the revolting Arab countries who wasn’t overthrown, like Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, or forced to step-down, like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.

Russia has clearly gained a lot from the failure of the revolts and the reinforcement of authoritarian orders that followed those failed region-wide uprisings. To understand trends in the Middle East it’s important to understand the political situations in the three Middle Eastern bellwether states: Egypt, Iran and Turkey. In all three countries Russia has been gaining significant influence.

Russian president Vladimir Putin meets Turkish president Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last weel for the 1st time since downing of a Russian Sukhoi Su-24M.

Russian president Vladimir Putin meets Turkish president Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last weel for the 1st time since downing of a Russian Sukhoi Su-24M.

After a seven month fallout with Turkey following the November 27 shoot-down incident (which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan apologized for in a letter sent to Moscow in June) the Kremlin has began to restore ties with that country. Turkey has even agreed to cooperate with the Russians in Syria despite their long-held aversion to Russia’s ally in Damascus. This comes as Turkey is becoming more distrustful of, and estranged from, the US – which has been home to Fethullah Gulen, the cleric Turkey accuses of orchestrating the failed coup last month, since 1999. Washington has expressed worry over Turkey’s post-coup crackdown while Moscow simply welcomed the restoration of ties and spoke out against the coup attempt as it took place. Something Erdogan personally thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for during his recent visit to Russia which, incidentally, was his first trip abroad since the failed coup.

We may see a situation develop in the near future whereby Turkey will enhance its already substantial economic ties with Russia and perhaps even cooperate more with them in the military arena given their distrust of Washington and desire to avoid relying solely on its NATO allies. We saw an earlier indication of this when Turkey sought to buy long-range Chinese-made anti-aircraft missiles two years ago only to be warned by American and European companies who have joint military projects that their “partnership in certain fields will be over” if they purchased such missiles. Consequently that deal was scrapped, but the fact that Turkey was and has been seeking, for some time now, to diversify its military and bolster its domestic arms industry is very telling (see also “Turkey’s growing domestic arms industry“, offiziere.ch, 21.05.2016).

A not too dissimilar trend has been unfolding with Egypt in recent years. While a long-time US ally, the current regime of President Fatah el-Sisi in Cairo – born of the July 2013 military coup he led before becoming president – knows it cannot rely on Washington given its authoritarianism and rampant human rights abuses. So, Sisi has enhanced ties with Moscow, reportedly ordering a fleet of 46 Russian MiG-29 Fulcrums to diversify its air force, which mostly consists of American technology, so it can remain a formidable power if the day comes when Washington threatens to place an arms embargo on Cairo as part of an attempt to sanction it for its abuses.

On top of this, Iran and Russia are working more closely in the region. In a meeting in early August Putin and the Iranian President Hasan Rouhani met in the Azerbaijani capital Baku for a summit in which Putin said that Moscow-Tehran relations have reached the point of strategic cooperation from the economy to politics. Neither of them want to see the Syrian regime toppled nor the Americans and their NATO allies becoming the predominant foreign power in the region. Also Russia is in the process of delivering Iran advanced S-300 long-range air defense missiles and possibly even a sophisticated fleet of Su-30 Flanker air superiority jet fighters. Possession of both weapon systems would substantially enhance Iran’s ability to defend its airspace and deter adversaries.

Russian AF Tu-22M3 strategic bombers deployed to Hamedan base in Iran (Photo: Warfare Worldwide).

Russian AF Tu-22M3 strategic bombers deployed to Hamedan base in Iran (Photo: Warfare Worldwide).

Strategic cooperation between Moscow and Tehran was aptly demonstrated on August 16 when Russian Tu-22 supersonic bombers, along with Su-34 Fullback fighter bombers, took off from the Hamedan airbase in the western Iranian city of Hamadan and bombed targets in Syria. Basing these strike aircraft in Iran shortened the flight distance of that bombing run from approximately 2,000 to 700 kilometers. The aircraft were also, notably, escorted by Su-30 and Su-35 Flanker air superiority jet fighters based in the Russian airbase in Khmeimim near Latakia in western Syria throughout that strike. That was the first time Russian aircraft operated from Iran throughout this campaign and underscores the extent of the two countries increased cooperation in recent months.

While Russian power and influence in the region may not be predominant, it certainly is a lot stronger and more formidable than it was just a short few months ago.

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The Unlikely Case for Suicide Attacks

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.

A picture taken on July 11, 2016 shows Iraqi municipality cleaners looking at posters commemorating the victims of a suicide bomb attack at the site of the explosion which killed nearly 300 people in Baghdad's Karrada district. The blast was one of the deadliest single attacks in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion. (Photo: Sabah Arar/AFP/Getty Images)

A picture taken on July 11, 2016 shows Iraqi municipality cleaners looking at posters commemorating the victims of a suicide bomb attack at the site of the explosion which killed nearly 300 people in Baghdad’s Karrada district. The blast was one of the deadliest single attacks in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion. (Photo: Sabah Arar/AFP/Getty Images)

The complex logic behind suicide attacks has baffled and fascinated the Western world since 9/11. The news media portrays them as symptoms of radicalism stemming from extreme interpretations of Islam, which some conservatives blame for the birth of the phenomenon. Political scientists such as Robert Pape and his supporters, on the other hand, argue that terrorist organizations only conduct suicide attacks against democratic governments occupying foreign countries.

I wanted to know what the radicals and terrorists themselves thought, so I asked around. A subtler reality emerged: they use suicide attacks not when their opponents have military supremacy alone but when, in addition, a political solution to a war appears out of reach.

Representative of Islamic Jihad Movement of Palestine to Iran Nasser Abu Sharif gives a speech during the 5th International conference of Gaza, Symbol of Resistance at Shams Hall in Iran's capital Tehran on January 18, 2015.

Representative of Islamic Jihad Movement of Palestine to Iran Nasser Abu Sharif gives a speech during the 5th International conference of Gaza, Symbol of Resistance at Shams Hall in Iran’s capital Tehran on January 18, 2015.

Nasser Abu Sharif, the representative of Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in Tehran, told me PIJ’s reason for relying on suicide attacks. “We have come to believe, based on our experience, that the Zionist Entity is unbeatable through negotiations,” he explained. “Martyrdom operations are a weapon to change the enemy’s thinking and force it to reconsider its occupation. Under negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, Israel has increased its settlements exponentially.” [1]

The anti-Semitic, Islamist terminology (“martyrdom operations” instead of suicide attacks and “the Zionist Entity” instead of Israel) might obscure Abu Sharif’s true message: PIJ has chosen suicide attacks as an alternative to the peace process, which, according to PIJ, has gone nowhere. “If Israel left Palestine now, we would throw roses in response and would not cast a stone,” he said.

Whether you believe PIJ or not, countless observers have acknowledged the intractability of the Israeli–Palestinian peace process. Two years ago, Israel suspended negotiations with the Palestinians; last year, it ended contact with EU officials involved in the peace process. Palestine, meanwhile, has accused Israel of genocide and threatened it with the International Criminal Court.

As political solutions seem less likely, military responses such as suicide attacks become more attractive to insurgents. “In suicide bombers, the terrorist organization dispatching them gets a weapon that is horrifying, that can be precisely targeted, that can infiltrate into heavily protected places, and can cause considerable damage,” Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst, said in an email. “In that sense, the suicide bomber is a terrorist group’s ultimate weapon — their version of a cruise missile.”

Taliban Spokesman Qari Yusuf Ahmadi.

Taliban Spokesman Qari Yusuf Ahmadi.

Mohammad Yousuf Ahmadi, the Taliban’s spokesman for the south of Afghanistan, agreed. “When martyrdom operations are used effectively, the enemy flees, and entire villages and regions are therefore liberated,” he said. “Martyrdom operations are the best, most powerful way to defeat the enemy in the military arena, and the enemy’s defeat also ensures changes in his political strategy.”

In Afghanistan too, the peace process has struggled. Problems ranging from Pakistani interference and hardliners in the Taliban to targeted killings of Taliban leaders and the Afghan government’s dependence on Western militaries have prevented a meaningful engagement between both sides. Indifferent to the peace process, the Taliban has reinvested its political energies in military assets: car bombs and suicide attacks. Earlier this year, a Taliban truck bomb killed sixty-four in Kabul.

Suicide attacks are neither an Islamic phenomenon nor a recent one. A nineteenth-century Russian socialist staged the first suicide attack in modern history. During World War II, Japanese pilots conducted Kamikaze raids as the Allies’ strategy of leapfrogging cut supply chains to Tokyo. Throughout the Sri Lankan Civil War, Hindu rebels launched suicide attacks against Buddhist civilians and soldiers. In all three cases, peace processes collapsed and faltered or never started.

Turkey offers the most illustrative example. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a leftist, secularist resistance movement and terrorist organization seeking autonomy for the country’s Kurdish minority, waged a campaign of suicide attacks for years before a ceasefire and peace process lasting 2013-2015. During negotiations, the suicide attacks stopped. After the Turkish government suspended the peace process, PKK suicide attacks hit Ankara and Istanbul, killing dozens.

A man looks out at ruined houses after returning to Cizre, Turkey, on March 2016. The buildings were damaged during clashes between Turkish security forces and Kurdish militants associated with the PKK. Cizre, is home to about 130,000 residents, many of whom were allowed back home in March 2016 for the first time in months, discovering widespread destruction resulting from the military operation. (Photo Cagdas Erdogan/Getty Images).

A man looks out at ruined houses after returning to Cizre, Turkey, on March 2016. The buildings were damaged during clashes between Turkish security forces and Kurdish militants associated with the PKK. Cizre, is home to about 130,000 residents, many of whom were allowed back home in March 2016 for the first time in months, discovering widespread destruction resulting from the military operation. (Photo Cagdas Erdogan/Getty Images).

Analysts should note that some Islamist resistance movements have even declined to use suicide attacks. “Martyrdom operations are not part of the philosophy behind our military actions,” an official from Ahrar al-Sham, a hardline Islamist paramilitary in the Syrian opposition, told me over WhatsApp. “We can use remotely detonated car bombs to hit the military checkpoints of the regime and its allies. There is no need for martyrdom operations. The lives of our fighters are expensive.”

As Russia intervened in the Syrian Civil War last year and interfered in a difficult peace process, a captain in the Free Syrian Army proposed conducting suicide attacks against Russian soldiers. Though he shunned al-Qaeda’s violent excesses, the commander assured me that he would use any means necessary to defend his country from an enemy who refused to negotiate.

History has proved suicide attacks a multifaith phenomenon if atheists, Hindus, Muslims, and secularists from the PKK to PIJ are willing to use them. Many terrorist organizations see suicide attacks as a last resort and a means to an end. “In principle, we oppose violence and try to avoid violent tactics,” said Abu Sharif. “Of course we are against civilians paying the price for their political leaders. […] When Japan struck Pearl Harbor,” the PIJ representative reminded me, “America responded with nuclear bombs and justified it as necessary to stop the war.” If the West wants to stop suicide attacks, then, it should focus on political solutions to the conflicts that produce them.

[1] With negotiations stalled between the Palestinians and Israelis, the number of settlers in the West Bank now exceeds 350,000 — including about 80,000 living in isolated settlements like Eli and Ofra that are hard to imagine remaining in place under any deal. In addition, there are another 300,000 Israelis living in parts of Jerusalem that Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 war and later annexed in a move most of the world considers illegal. (Jodi Rudoren and Jeremy Ashkenas, “Netanyahu and the Settlements“, The New York Times, 12.03.2015).

Posted in Austin Michael Bodetti, English, Security Policy, Terrorism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

We’re Rapidly Approaching a Terrifying New Age of Automated Warfare

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

Screenshot 2016-08-06 15.15.24

A Russian Uran-9 unmanned ground vehicle firing an M120 Ataka anti-tank guided missile.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have been used for combat purposes since Austria deployed bomb-laden balloons controlled by long copper wires in 1849 during the First Italian War of Independence. Granted, that was a pretty rudimentary display by the standards of contemporary air warfare. UAVs came a long way between Austria’s primitive foray into combat aeronautics and when a U.S. Predator drone fired a Hellfire missile at an enemy target for the first time in Afghanistan on 7 October 2001. That mission failed, but it nevertheless marked a major turning point in the history of remote-operated and automated warfare. Technological advances in those areas immediately began to expeditiously accelerate and continue to do so today.

Since those early days of Operation in Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, drone strikes as a means of neutralizing suspected terrorists have become chillingly commonplace events. Indeed, they are ubiquitous in regions of some countries. The U.S. military and CIA heavily relied on drones for both surveillance and targeted killings under U.S. President George W. Bush’s tenure, and U.S. President Barack Obama substantially increased their usage when he came into office in 2009. As Micah Zenko reports at the New York Times, “Whereas President George W. Bush authorized approximately 50 drone strikes that killed 296 terrorists and 195 civilians in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia, Obama has authorized 506 strikes that have killed 3,040 terrorists and 391 civilians.”

DroneStrikes013015While the U.S. is perhaps the most notorious operator of armed UAVs, it of course isn’t the only country deploying drones for military purposes. The U.K., China, Israel, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, South Africa, and Somalia (reportedly) all have weaponized drones as well. Israel has an impressive fleet of its domestic Heron TP UAV, and plans to triple its size by 2020. In February Nigeria used drones to bomb the terrorist group Boko Haram for the first time. Numerous other countries, such as Russia and India, have surveillance drones like the Searcher, which is also manufactured in Israel, and are in the process of developing weaponized drones. Even terrorist organizations like Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic State are trying to acquire or develop weaponized drones — sort of. However, as one source points out, “this is where the distinctions between ‘weaponized drone’ and ‘model-aircraft-with-a-grenade-strapped-to-it’ begin to become important.”

Technology tends to disperse quickly, and the rapid spread of drone warfare is due in part to Chinese and Israeli technology, which can be both less expensive and easier to obtain than U.S. drone technology, for instance. “Whereas U.S. firms are barred by law from selling unmanned aerial vehicles to countries with histories of human-rights abuses,” writes David Axe for the Daily Beast, “Israeli industry suffers no such constraints.” As a case in point, Axe adds that other customers for Israel’s Searcher drones include Thailand, a nation ruled by a unelected military junta, and Azerbaijan, a country saddled with a “poor rights record,” according to Human Rights Watch.

Drone and remote-controlled warfare are most often associated with aircraft, but similar technologies are being applied to land and sea fighting systems as well. Several countries are developing, or already using, automated sentry guns, drone warships and submarines, and unmanned tanks or other “robots”. Weapons developers are also working on technology to integrate more advanced systems. For instance, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Office of Naval Research, and the U.S. Air Force are trying to create “swarms” of inexpensive drones. Another drone program would allow fighter pilots to control small fleets of support craft in combat. There are also plans to have operators control drones with their minds. With these technologies, and others, coming together it’s easy to see glimpses of the fictional Skynet automated defense system from The Terminator franchise in our near future.

Sentry Guns and Robot Tanks are the Ground Combatants of the Future
Offiziere.ch previously reported on South Korea deploying sentry guns along the Demilitarized Zone, and Israel doing the same along its border with Gaza. Israel relies on the weapons far more than South Korea, where they are still in an exploratory phase. Both South Korea’s SGR-1 sentry guns and Israel’s Sentry Tech system have fully-automated and “slave” modes, the latter requiring a human operator. Neither country, however, has gone full auto with the weapons — yet.

In Israel the sentry guns are still remotely operated, and engaging a human target requires confirmation from both the operator and a commanding officer at the control center. Despite this, the sentry guns have still been controversial, with Israeli security forces claiming it targets only terrorists while Palestinian groups claim civilians have been killed. Disputes like this are certain to become more troubling if Israel moves forward with plans to transition the guns to a fully-automated, closed-loop system that will not require any human interaction or oversight. If that happens, the guns will identify targets on their own based on potentially suspicious movements a subject makes or suspicious objects in the subject’s possession. It may be a coincidence, but earlier this year an Israeli firm named Faception announced it had developed a facial recognition program that could identify terrorists, among others, based on the physical traits of their faces.

“The technology is geared to identify a range of specific traits, beyond spotting terrorists, including, for example, identifying extroverts, people with high IQs and even professional poker players,” Israeli daily Haaretz reports. “In a demonstration of the technology’s effectiveness, [CEO Shai] Gilboa said Faception scanned 50 participants at a recent poker competition and picked out four of them as top players. Two of the four finished in the top three of the tournament.”

Programs like Faception sound farfetched, and the potential for them being deployed as part of automated weapons systems definitely raises serious ethical questions, but one thing is certain: Weapons developers are looking for ways to allow systems to identify and engage targets completely on their own. According to Gilboa, at least one homeland security agency has already contracted them to test the system.

Israel is also a leader in the development of small remote controlled tanks and other combat robots. Most of what they’re currently working on is still very limited, by size and functionality. They’re tactical combat robots comparable to those used by police forces and militaries around the world to perform reconnaissance or defuse or destroy bombs. One of Israel’s combat robots, the Dogo, does pack a pistol though.

Moscow may be lacking when it comes to weaponized UAVs, but they’re holding their own as far as remote controlled tanks. The Uran-9 robotic armored vehicle is armed with a 2A72 30mm automatic cannon, a 7.62mm machine gun, and M120 Ataka anti-tank guided missiles. It’s not a big tank, but it can do some damage. “The inclusion of the Ataka missiles gives the diminutive robot the capability to engage and destroy the most modern battle tanks from ranges as great as 8,000 meters,” writes Dave Majumdar for the National Interest. “The robots are also fitted with an array of sensors — including a laser warning system and target detection, identification and tracking equipment.” The Ataka may make it useful to engage heavier tanks when necessary, but the Uran-9 is primarily intended to provide fire support for counter-terrorism units and special operations forces and conduct reconnaissance. It wouldn’t replace main battle tanks.

It’s important to note that Uran-9 is not just a single vehicle. It’s an entire system comprised of the two robotic vehicles that can be used for reconnaissance and fire support, a truck to carry those robots, and a mobile command post. There’s no Western equivalent to the system, though the U.S. and other countries have been researching the possibilities of unmanned ground vehicles, Gladiator Tactical Unmanned Ground Vehicle or Qinetiq’s Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System, for decades.

Rosoboronexport, the manufacturer of the Uran-9, hopes to market the system on the domestic and international. “This is a fast-growing segment of the arms market, so Rosoboronexport will develop and implement a long-term marketing strategy for promoting such pieces of hardware, including as part of integrated security projects,” Boris Simakin, head of Rosoboronexport’s analysis and long-term planning department, told the National Interest.

Uran-9 unmanned ground vehicle.

Uran-9 unmanned ground vehicle.

Unmanned Minesweepers and Submarine Hunters will Patrol the Shores and Oceans Soon
Israeli defense company Elbit announced in February that it had created an unmanned warship dubbed the Seagull. The Seagull’s primary function is to find and neutralize mines in the waters off Israel’s coast. The ship handles every step of this process from start to finish, and even deploys its own underwater submarine drones to help it find submerged mines.

In January U.S.-based Textron Systems also announced it was moving into the building and outfitting phases of making its Common Unmanned Surface Vehicle (CUSV) the standard unmanned surface vehicle (USV) for the US Navy’s Unmanned Influence Sweep System (UISS). Like the Seagull, this small USV’s main purpose would be to clear mines out of the way so larger warships could pass through.

Only a few months later, in April, DARPA unveiled the Sea Hunter, a prototype for a fully automated submarine hunter that could patrol the oceans for two or three months at a time without any crew or remote operators. “This is an inflection point,” Deputy U.S. Defense Secretary Robert O. Work told Reuters in an interview. “This is the first time we’ve ever had a totally robotic, trans-oceanic-capable ship.” Work estimated ships like the Sea Hunter could see service in the western Pacific within five years.

The US Navy has also been experimenting with lighter combat craft. It conducted an exercise in late 2014 in which remote operators controlled 13 patrol boats at once from a single command console. Rear Admiral Matthew L. Klunder, then Chief of Naval Research, said at the time that he believed up to 20 or 30 small craft could be directed by a single operator. With developments such as these, and taking into consideration the rapid rate with which they’re occurring, it’s safe to predict that USVs will be playing almost as active a role in surveillance and combat operations as UAVs within a decade or two. And the Navy won’t be the only ones using “swarms” or small fleets controlled by a single operator.

Image courtesy of U.S. Navy/John F. Williams (public domain).

A Sea Hunter in Portland, Oregon, on 7 April 2016. (Photo: John F. Williams / U.S. Navy).

Swarms and Drones Controlled Directly by the Operator’s Thoughts Are the Next Phases of Automated Warfare
A program currently under development with the U.S. Air Force would have fighter pilots controlling small fleets of nearby drone aircraft in combat situations. The unmanned craft could perform a variety of functions for the pilots, from surveillance and reconnaissance to weapons delivery against dangerous or difficult-to-approach targets. “We see unmanned vehicles being used for a much wider variety of missions,” Air Force Chief Scientist Mica Endsley told Military.com. “Today they are primarily used for ISR, long duration missions where we want to collect information. In the future, they will be moving cargo and more manned-unmanned teaming where they are acting as extensions of a manned aircraft.”

Another project envisions swarms of small drones engaging targets. When the Air Force rolled out its 20-year flight plan for small, unmanned aerial systems earlier this year, it included a proposal for what it dubbed “swarming”. The swarms could be organized to attack a single major target or be spread out over a large area to engage multiple targets. While larger and more expensive weapons platforms like Predator drones can be taken down with a single hit, a swarm could suffer several losses but then regroup and still be effective, a capability the Air Force refers to as “self-healing”.

Colonel Brandon “BB” Baker, Chief of the Air Force’s remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) capabilities division, said that swarming technology “changes the game” for future warfare. Lieutenant general Robert Otto, Deputy Chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, echoed this sentiment, saying that the 20-year flight plan was a “vision” for the future of air warfare. “We do believe that small, unmanned aerial systems will be the cornerstone of Air Force ISR as we look through the next 20 years”, Otto added.

If DARPA has any say in it, that future doesn’t just entail swarms of drones and vehicles of various shapes and sizes fighting on land, air, and sea, it also involves some of those craft being controlled by remote operators’ minds. DARPA and the U.S. Air Force awarded Arizona State University’s Human-Oriented Robotics and Control Lab grants totalling $860,000 in 2014 to develop the technology to allow operators to control vehicles with their minds. “The pilot wears what looks like a high-tech swimmer’s cap, equipped with 128 electrodes that detect brainwaves,” Steven Overly writes in a recent article for the Washington Post. “The electrodes identify where thoughts originate in the brain and determine the pilot’s intended commands, and then those commands are communicated to the robots via Bluetooth.”

Panagiotis Artemiadis, the director of the lab, says these types of technologies are the future of warfare, and that the self-healing nature of swarms in particular will give the forces using them substantial advantages. “Ten or 20 years from now, instead of having big expensive aircraft or drones, you can have hundreds or thousands of inexpensive ones you deploy in an area,” Artemiadis told the Post. “Even if you lose half of them, you can still achieve your goals.”

It’s quite possible that some of these technologies will fall by the wayside before they even come to fruition. Regardless, we are undeniably at a point where robotic and automated weapons systems are about to start playing a much larger role in global conflict. The thought of fewer soldiers dying in action is attractive, as is the theoretic possibility of advanced technology decreasing the numbers of civilian casualties. However, the prospect of operators controlling entire fleets of craft with their mind, or of swarms of armed drones pursuing multiple targets over large areas, also presents serious ethical questions. As does the fact that, as drones and automated weapons systems become more advanced and prevalent, developing nations will be at an even greater disadvantage when faced by threats from advanced militaries.

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How big of a threat are drones to Israel’s security?

A Rafael Python 3 air-to-air missile under the wing of an Israeli F-15D Baz. (Graphic by KGyST, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported).

A Rafael Python 3 air-to-air missile under the wing of an Israeli F-15D Baz. (Graphic by KGyST, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported).

In mid-July, an unmanned Russian drone accidentally infiltrated Israeli-controlled airspace on the Golan Heights from Syria and evaded three Israeli attempts to shoot it down. Initially believed to be deployed by the Shiite militia Hezbollah, this lone drone evaded two Patriot surface-to-air missiles and one air-to-air missile fired by an Israeli jet fighter before escaping back over the border.

The incident again raises the question about how vulnerable Israel is to such asymmetrical threats and if the Israel Defense Forces are readily prepared to combat relatively cheap, simple yet effective tools its enemies can deploy against it in a future war.

This isn’t the first time an unmanned drone has violated Israeli air space and raised questions about just how secure Israel’s airspace is. Back in October 2012 Hezbollah flew a drone near Dimona, home to Israel’s undeclared nuclear weapons program. The drone was operating around that area for a whole three hours before being shot down by the Israeli Air Force.

Such small unmanned drones are harder to detect and harder to shoot down than manned fixed wing aircraft. In fact it was the Israelis who initially used drones as effective reconnaissance aircraft against the Syrians in Lebanon back in 1982. Sending small nimble drones over the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon, where Syria had deployed a vast array of Soviet-made surface-to-air (SAM) missiles. Israel successfully used some drones as decoys which simulated attack aircraft, leading the Syrians to activate their tracking radars, enabling Israel to then accurately fire anti-radiation missiles at those SAM batteries. A series of devastating Israeli air-strikes effectively took out those batteries and enabled Israel to attain air superiority over Lebanon.

While none of Israel’s current rivals and adversaries have the capability to do such a thing against Israel they nevertheless have the potential to undercut Israel’s military and technological superiority over them and make any war Israel has with them much more expensive for the Jewish state.

The July incident saw Israel shoot two Patriot missiles, a single one of which costs approximately $2 million, and another air-to-air missile which likely cost, at least, tens-of-thousands. During the last two Israeli operations in Gaza (November 2012 and summer 2014 respectively), Israeli Iron Dome missile defense systems were shown intercepting homemade Hamas rockets over South Israel. A single Tamir missile fired from the Iron Dome cost at least $50,000. While a simple Hamas rockets costs approximately $500-1,000 a piece. Furthermore two Tamir missiles have often been fired to intercept a single Hamas rocket.

In a future war could we possibly see Israeli defenses confused or overwhelmed by relatively cheap air bourne weapons deployed by either Hamas or Hezbollah? Firing barrages of expensive SAMs to defend Israel against small drones of questionable effectiveness (the Israelis may reason that it is better to be safe than sorry when unidentified drones violate their airspace, especially when they approach urban areas) could be extremely costly to Israel and could see them expending expensive munitions very quickly.

July 2016 also marked the tenth anniversary of the July 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon, known in Israel as the Second Lebanon War. A rematch could be much more dangerous than the last war, especially since Hezbollah has much more firepower than in the last war and has reportedly garnered sufficient combat experience in its three-year-old operation in Syria.

Also in the last war after 34 days of fighting with Hezbollah Israel’s stockpiles of bombs and munitions, vast quantities of which are required to sustain an offensive campaign against an opponent in that opponents territory, reached levels considered to be dangerously low by the Israeli military. It took a few years for them to be replenished.

Security forces examine debris from Patriot Missiles fired at an unidentified drone that entered Israeli airspace from Syria, July 17, 2016.

Security forces examine debris from Patriot Missiles fired at an unidentified drone that entered Israeli airspace from Syria, July 17, 2016.

More generally modern wars see munitions, especially hi-tech ones, dispensed very quickly. That was true in the Yom Kippur War, when both Israel and its Arab adversaries had to get their respective American and Soviet clients to keep their stocks replenished, and in the 1991 as well as 2003 American war in Iraq. Even the current US air campaign against Islamic State (ISIS) militants in Iraq and Syria has seen the US government sign a recent contract with Boeing to produce more smart bombs to replenish their diminishing stockpiles.

An enemy using elusive techniques, like simple drones of the kind that dodged three missiles last month, against Israel and dragging that country into a protracted conflict they cannot win decisively could have the potential to weaken Israel, damage morale and faith in the military’s ability to rapidly neutralise any threats to Israel’s security. A cost which many of its enemies may be willing to lose a major battle for on the gambit that it might help them win the war in the long-term.

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Trouble in Trinidad and Tobago

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.

According to "Defence Blog", China delivered 20 Dongfeng MengShi 4×4 army light utility vehicle, which is similar to the US-made Hummer H1, to Trinidad and Tobago in June 2015.

According to “Defence Blog”, China delivered 20 Dongfeng MengShi 4×4 army light utility vehicle, which is similar to the US-made Hummer H1, to Trinidad and Tobago in June 2015.

On 10 July 2016, two days before the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruled against China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, the Chinese news agency Xinhua released an article alleging that the United States had exercised a kind of imperial hegemony over the Caribbean, maintaining “dominance over the entire region” through military means. This was intended to cast American criticism of China’s aggression against the Philippines and other regional neighbours as hypocritical. Yet the Caribbean is not the way station of empire that the Xinhua writers would have one believe. In fact, beyond Cuba’s isolationist approach to trade and diplomacy in the Americas, several countries in the region are experiencing turmoil that cannot be compared to the conflicts on China’s southern periphery and which the US has not, rightly or wrongly, sought to address.

As addressed in a previous piece, Jamaica is in the midst of a painful struggle with organized crime, involving a staggeringly high homicide rate. Haiti is plagued by political instability amid botched elections and a cholera epidemic. [1] Perhaps most disturbingly, Trinidad and Tobago is contending with threats of terrorism from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and other militant Islamist groups. While the thought of ISIS securing for itself a Caribbean enclave might seem fanciful, Trinidad has experienced ruthless terrorist attacks from ISIS-like organizations in the past, particularly from Jamaat al-Muslimeen. Rumoured to have connections to Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya, the group staged a coup attempt in the Trinidadian capital, Port of Spain, in July 1990, holding then-Prime Minister A.N.R. Robinson hostage while occupying the television station and the Red House, where Trinidad’s bicameral legislature meets, for six days. In 1983, Jamaat al-Muslimeen reportedly considered mounting a coup attempt but an internal rift in the organization resulted in the plot being abandoned. In a more recent attack, members of Jamaat al-Muslimeen engaged in a shootout at Port of Spain General Hospital on 24 July 2015.

The threat posed to Trinidad’s security by Jamaat al-Muslimeen is not specifically the result of US foreign policy in the region. Trinidad and Tobago is an oil-rich country, boasting crude oil reserves equivalent to approximately 728 million barrels in addition to estimated natural gas reserves of 25.2 trillion cubic feet (about 713 billion cubic meters). It is possible that Qaddafi’s support for regime change in Trinidad was motivated by a desire to deny the US another vital source of oil. However, perhaps more likely, the previous and ongoing terrorist activities of Jamaat al-Muslimeen have been driven exclusively by domestic conditions in Trinidad. In a country of just over 1.3 million, the Islamic community is rapidly growing but still remains a small minority of the population, comprising just 5.0% of Trinidadians in 2011. Trinidadians of African descent also remain the second largest ethnic community in Trinidad, comprising 36.3% of the population, compared to Indo-Trinidadians that make up 37.6% of the total public. As indicated by United Nations Development Program (UNDP) reporting on Trinidad and Tobago, Trinidadian Muslims of African descent are an economically marginalized demographic in the country, which has clearly contributed to feelings of disenfranchisement and resentment among segments of the population.

Economic inequality may have created the conditions necessary for radicalization, but the under-development of Trinidad’s defence institutions created the opportunity for Jamaat al-Muslimeen to launch its attacks against the Trinidadian secular state. The country has yet to adopt a national security strategy or similar framework to guide force modernization efforts in the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force (TTDF). There certainly have been attempts by concerned individuals to correct this, including a February 2011 editorial in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian and a thesis presented by then-Lieutenant Colonel Ronald Jeffrey of the TTDF at the US Army Command and General Staff College in 2012. Yet such well-developed proposals for force modernization and expansion have yet to be formally adopted.

Trinidad and Tobago’s Ministry of National Security contracted Damen Schelde Naval Shipbuilding in April 2015 to build four 51-metre 28-knot coastal patrol vessels, two 54-metre fast utility boats, and six 11-metre 53-knot interceptors for the Coast Guard. These vessels will be integral to the fight against organized crime and the issue of narcotics trafficking in the Caribbean. But there are as yet no plans to improve intelligence-gathering or intelligence-sharing capabilities in the country, which will inhibit Trinidadian efforts to combat any future ISIS-led campaign in the country. Trinidad and Tobago is well-served by its own Special Forces unit for counter-terrorism operations, and members of that unit frequently engage in joint training activities with US military personnel, but the country’s defence establishment sorely lacks the means to prevent terrorist attacks while they remain at the planning stage.

Concept drawing of the vessels acquired for the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard.

Concept drawing of the vessels acquired for the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard.

Evidently, the region requires greater American involvement, in stark contrast to what the accusations of Xinhua’s writers suggest. With a series of tragic attacks across Europe in recent weeks attributed either to ISIS or to “lone wolf” terrorists sympathetic to that organization, it is important that the US act to prevent ISIS from establishing a foothold in the Americas. Regular exchanges of best practices, as well as an intelligence-sharing mechanism, with the TTDF and the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS) would be an appropriate response to the exacerbated threat from militant Islamism in that corner of the Caribbean.

[1] The ongoing Haiti cholera outbreak is the worst epidemic of cholera in recent history, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the first 27 weeks of 2016, Haiti alone have been reported over 21.600 cases (over 776.000 cases and 9.160 deaths since the outbreak in 2010; Pan American Health Organization / World Health Organization, “Epidemiological Update: Cholera“, 21.07.2016).

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