Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Houthis Staged a Major Comeback While Nobody Was Looking

As much as it's a matter of choosing between the lesser of two evils, I've been rooting for the Yemen government in the Yemeni civil war, in part because the official Houthi logo/motto is:

"God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam."

This is on their flag, which means it's flying over the parliament building in Sana'a right now. So yeah, we're rooting for the government.

Bad news, though. The Houthis have not only halted the government's advance (remember back when the government broke out of Aden and started marching north?), but have totally reversed gains and each week are gobbling up more territory as they push back towards Aden.

It had looked for a while like there might be a tough stalemate in which the Houthis kept their "prime" territory with lots of supporters and lost the rest, and then they would make a deal of some sort, but...

Well, it's looking bad.

Here's October 12th:

Here's today:

I'm actually quite shocked; I'm not certain how a truly committed Saudi Arabia could be losing this war, but the casualty numbers are so low (maybe 2500 total soldiers killed across all groups?) that they suggest the Saudi commitment wasn't what I thought. Haven't yet done my research.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Putin Keeps Initiative and Drives Progress with Diplomacy and Deception

Who is Putin even bombing in Syria?

The US claims it's "moderate" Syrian rebels in an effort to crush them for Assad.

Turkey claims it's bombing ethnic Turks as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

Russia claims it's bombing ISIS and other radical Islamist groups.

Is everyone right? Kinda, depending on how you define these things. 

The US has a pretty shady definition of "moderate" with respect to rebels--it includes some hardcore Islamists that have allied with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and are part of the official "opposition" meeting in Riyadh. Some ethnic Turks are part of the "rebel" alliance and are probably getting bombed.

The whole Syria thing is so messy that one can essentially make any claim one wants to unless one really limits one's targets to ISIS and only ISIS (which the US is doing). From the above image, we can see that Russia has sortof an "all of the above" strategy.

Here's where Putin becomes pretty brilliant: in response to these accusations, he has asked France to provide a map of the specific anti-ISIS rebels so that he can avoid bombing them.

There are a few clever things going on here:

  1. It forces the West to actually plant a flag in the ground on each of the dozens of Syrian rebel groups. Were Assad to fall, which ones would fight ISIS and which ones would align with them? The West really only talks about 3 groups: Assad, "Rebels," and ISIS. Asking for this map forces the West to decide whether it really wants to declare al-Nusra Front (et al) to be friends.
  2. It forces the West to acknowledge how inter-mingled these groups are. One often sees al-Nusra and the FSA fighting side-by-side, although each with an eye on the other. 
Putin won't--and shouldn't--commit to only attacking ISIS, as it would be the same strategic folly as the US has been perpetuating for a while. But without a doubt he is targeting ISIS, including oil wells and pipelines that have been funding these guys for years (leaving me to wonder why the US never got around to that).

But it looks like Putin is positioning himself to be the leader of a grand coalition by offering a path forward for the opposition that the US has not been wise or clever enough to do for Assad.

He's "taking the feedback (from the West) in stride," if you will, and is now declaring that he won't attack FSA targets and will, in fact, provide air support for them--if they're attacking ISIS. It's in fact a great way to twist the arms of an opposition group and potentially turn them into an ally: if the FSA allied with the Syrian Army against ISIS, the ground game would change. 

Well, doesn't that sound bloody reasonable? He said he'll even coordinate with the US on fighting ISIS, as well. 

And Putin is largely responsible for the upcoming Vienna talks that will seek a ceasefire between (as many) opposition groups (as possible) and the Syrian Army. Coordinating with the FSA is likely a first step at trying to wedge them away from the Islamist groups they fight alongside. Given that the US ultimately supports the FSA as the "valid" representatives of Syria, it would be an incredible coup--the Islamist portions of the rebellion would be left out in the cold.

Putin's calling for an election that would represent "all the ethnic and religious groups" of Syria--which means Shiites and Alawites as well as Sunni Arabs--which is something that our Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning President probably couldn't openly object to. Vienna may lead to that if Putin is able to manipulate the FSA in the US in the right way--and he seems to be making progress by a combination of exerting pressure, evading blame, and offering a positive relationship as a "carrot."

Putin's realpolitik is likely to do a lot more than talk of hope-and-change to promote peace in Syria. Perhaps the Nobel committee should be reconsidering who gets that chunk of gold next time. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

US Strategy in Syria is Just Insane

As I've been writing my other book, I've been taking breaks and reading a lot about Syria and Iraq because I keep hoping we're going to do something different.

We're not.

I'm not going to talk here about why the US might be choosing such a terrible strategy, but simply outline the ways in which it is so terrible in light of surprisingly limited criticism.

(It has helped me to replace "President Obama" with "President Bush" whenever I read articles about Syria to get a sense of how the public would be reacting if it was making stronger connections to the initial Iraq invasion and that goofy Texan everyone loves to hate.)

So let's tell the Syrian story in some context.

The Arab Spring

Early 2011, a whole bunch of countries in the Arab World start protesting their heavy-handed secular governments. These protesters tended to be some combination of:
  • Western-looking, clean-shaven, tee-shirt wearing liberals (not "progressives" but "liberal" in the sense of "a liberal democracy") that wanted a liberal democracy of their own
  • Oppressed ethno-religious minorities or majorities
  • Hard-core Islamists that wanted to replace these very secular regimes with some form of Sharia
(First, I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine which of these groups are most and least likely to form powerful, long-term militias if anarchy begins in the state.)

Western media mostly portrayed the protests of the first group in places like Benghazi, Homs, Cairo. The protests of ethno-religious minorities in places like Bahrain that were put down by Saudi military action got much less attention.


In 2011, Qaddafi decided to put down the protests before they could become a rebellion, so he began a pacification campaign from Sirte going east towards Benghazi.

The US and some of its EU allies decided to intervene with air support to keep tanks from rolling in and slaughtering Benghazi, which seemed like a nice thing to do.

Scope creep took over, and the West decided that really the only way to keep the people  of Benghazi and elsewhere safe was to provide air support to militias to defeat the Libyan army and overthrow the regime.

That happened quite successfully, and Obama was clever enough to not get on a giant aircraft carrier with a "Mission Accomplished" banner because he is better at managing the media than Bush was, but the US decided we were done.

Immediately after Qaddafi fell, we left, and the militias that had fought against him looted army bases and armories as the army dissolved.

A democracy was formed, but it was plagued by well-armed militias and now-unemployed (and pariah) former army and government personnel. Violence and skirmishes plague the country for 3 years.

(Again, I encourage the reader to replace "Libya" with "Iraq" and "Qaddafi" with "Hussein.")

The story evolves a bit in 2014 as elections are won by Islamists who are pretty terrible, who then immediately get voted out but--oops--decide not to respect the election and use their militias to hold Tripoli. Libya dissolves into a (very slow) civil war between the new Libyan army and the Islamist militias. In the meantime, a whole bunch of different Islamist militias (called the Shura Council) take over half of Benghazi and the Islamic State decide to move in because the place is such a mess that they can get a foothold in there; ISIS takes over Derna and Sirte. And then some other local militias, who are tired of everyone, carve out their own territories. There are now 6 groups fighting each other in Libya. 

(Libya also makes for strange bedfellows: the Tobruk gov't is supported by the US, Russia, UAE, Algeria, Jordan, and Egypt; the Islamist government in Tripoli is supported by Qatar, Sudan, and Turkey.) 

It's been a stalemate for the past 2 years.

"Fogg, what does this have to do with Syria?"

While one could give the US the excuse of thinking that "the intervention in Syria will totally be different from Iraq because we're not putting boots on the ground and trying to run the show from Washington," the lessons from Libya leave no such excuse, even for so inexperienced a foreign policy team that led the State Department when the US got involved in Syria.

(When I say Libya's civil war is slow, I mean slow. About 5,000 people have died since the beginning of 2014. 

Syria, on the other hand, has led to probably 300,000 deaths, 130,000 captured or missing, 8 million internally displaced people, and 4 million refugees. )

The one thing that the US and Western allies did right in Libya was support the rebels decisively, which at least knocked Qaddafi out of the fight. This has led to far fewer deaths and a much more "soft" civil war. 


Syrian protests started in 2011 because Assad has ruled with an iron fist as a pretty terrible dude, oppressing the Arab majority, generally putting his cronies in charge, having a Gestapo-like secret police make people disappear, etc. 

Things really blew up when he decided to torture a kid that spraypainted some critical stuff on a wall. Homs quickly got basically taken over by protesters. Assad reacted just like Qaddafi would have, had the US and allies not provided decisive air support: he's been bombing the heck out of rebel strongholds to try to end the rebellion as quickly as possible, and sending in troops with that air support wherever he can.

So what are we doing in Syria? The US has been supporting "moderate rebels" since 2011. But the word "supporting" is an odd one. We are funneling some weapons and supplies to them (which we did in Libya), but we are not bombing Assad. This is probably to keep from open conflict with Russia. 

Just as a reminder, the US and allies like Germany have been steadfast that Assad has to go before any political settlement can be reached. The US considers a totally dysfunctional patchwork of Syrian rebel representatives to be the "government of Syria," which is at least as silly as insisting for 22 years that the Taipei exile government was the "legitimate government of China" and that the Communists were just upstarts that would go away someday. 

Back to Assad. Assad knows that if he "goes," he faces a chopping block, and so do his cronies. The West is too ideologically pure to cut a deal and say, "look, we'll buy you guys a sweet island and grant you immunity." Dictators like Assad face "justice." So the US has pretty explicitly said, "Assad, you have to win this war or you and your family will die."

So there's a lot of motivation for Assad to keep fighting, even as Syria crumbles.

The US' half-hearted supported for Syrian rebels is just enough to keep the fight going. They have enough armaments to keep shooting and not collapse.... at least as long as they're allied with the al-Nursa Front, who is literally al-Qaeda. These guys are the really intense, zealous fighters that are really sticking it to the Syrian regime. Also, just in case we forgot, ISIS was classified as "part of the rebels" early in the war and between 2011 and 2013 we were still arming them. 

Sure, we tried to train some new "moderate" Syrian rebels so that they'd be more powerful, but we managed to train four or five of them before giving up. 

So now we're basically allied with al-Qaeda against Assad, because the "moderate" rebels are really kindof just the hood ornament. 

Imagining Victory

Let's imagine for a moment that we provided air cover and gave the rebels enough support to actually topple Assad. (This is possible if we support the southern front of Rebels with serious air cover, knock out Syrian bases and air power and supply lines, etc.) We could have done this with the "red line" excuse: back in 2013, Obama promised a big thick red line of Assad used chemical weapons. He went ahead and used them about 17 times, and we said, "er, well," and kept up our current strategy.

Anyway. Let's say the Syrian regime collapses, and let's say it collapsed before ISIS took over half the country. You've got Kurds in the northeast that want their own country, and then you've got the moderate rebels that number 40,000-50,000, and a bunch of al-Qaeda-and-friends (which includes a lot of groups) that number between 100,000 and 160,000. 

They duke it out. Guess who wins?

Basically, I don't see how the US imagines any outcome of the collapse of the Syrian regime besides al-Qaeda or ISIS or both taking over Syria.

But Forget That, Because Victory Ain't Happenin'

The Syrian regime is very, very different from the Qaddafi government and the Hussein government: it has pretty broad popular support, decisively controls the fertile heartland of Syria, and has the steadfast support of heavy-hitters like Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia (who are willing to put troops on the ground and are willing to bomb the heck out of the rebels, unlike the West). So we're not the only guys parachuting weapons and providing intel: the Syrian government is getting it, too. This is an all-out proxy war, which was not the case in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan.

So these groups have been tearing each other to pieces. Guess who gets to step in and fight at their convenience wherever these two groups are weak? You guessed it: ISIS. Remember that Obama called ISIS "the JV team" of al-Qaeda and we grossly under-estimated their potential strength (which he later lied about). 

But now ISIS has taken over tons of oil resources and is actually constructing some semblance of a functional state--something that no radical Islamist militia has been able to do since the Taliban emerged out of US support for the mujaheddin back in '89.  Now that they've more or less decided not to mess with the Kurds (who are a very united force thanks to their long history of shared ethnic oppression), they get to pick their battles and operate with a great deal of impunity.

The Syrian regime and the Rebels are too concerned fighting each other to be able to oppose ISIS with any serious fervor. Each hopes it's going to win and can then turn its attention against ISIS with united support from the international community. The Kurds aren't going to come in and save Syria--they have no interest in shedding their blood for that. 

(Wikipedia. Note the green "rebels" are the loose alliance of the "moderate" and Islamist rebels.)

The US and allies are bombing ISIS, yes, but ISIS is highly resilient. Remember when we bombed the Viet Cong and North Vietnam for 13 years and the North Vietnamese totally just gave up? Me neither.

So This is Officially Pretty Insane

The depth of delusion at the highest levels of the US government--and the utter refusal to learn and adapt--is frustrating and frankly mind-boggling. 

To summarize:
  • The US is half-heartedly supporting rebel troops just enough to extend a war, but definitely not win it, which gives ISIS plenty of room to grow
  • Oh right, we also armed ISIS for a few years
  • The US is currently allied with al-Qaeda and a bunch of other Islamist groups and that totally won't be just like the Mujaheddin in Afghanistan 
  • If the US decided to whole-heartedly take down the Syrian regime, al-Qaeda-and-friends would almost certainly smother the fractured moderate rebels and take over the country
All scenarios here lead to utter disaster, for decades.

The only way one can support the Syrian rebels and even hope for them to come out on top is to commit Iraq-level troops and support for probably just as long and just as bloody a conflict. And even then, you might just end up with the same kind of corrupt, fractured government that you have in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

But what we're doing right now is just terrible.

Enter Russia

Before I get started, readers should know by now that I'm generally extremely critical of Russia's foreign policy and territory-grabbing, to the point where I sometimes have to re-write posts to keep my frustration to a minimum.

At the UN, basically looking right through to the US Ambassador towards the White House, Putin says, "Do you now realize what you've done?"

For once, I've got to hand it to the guy. 

Russia has actually decided to end the war. It's putting troops in Syria and providing air cover to help Assad's troops carve back territory from rebels and ISIS alike. Russia's aim is to keep Assad in power, yes, but ending the war decisively will bring the nightmare of Syria to an end. 

Russia is actually the best opportunity the US has to get out of this. I know I said I wouldn't speculate on why we insist on such a stupid Syrian policy, but I think some of it is an attempt to "be consistent" and generally save face: we're not going to suddenly start supporting our named "bad guy" in the fight. And we've already backed down once on a line we drew in the sand (chemical weapons). We're probably resistant to coming out and admitting we're wrong.

But we're wrong, and it's killing lots of people.

Russia has proposed a political solution: the rebels ally with Assad to take out ISIS, and in 2 years after everything has settled a bit (which is pretty ambitious), you have elections. If the Syrian people want Assad, he stays, even if he's awful.

"Erik, are you saying we should change policy and prop up Assad?" Absolutely. We should have done it years ago, before each army was beat to snot, but while the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the 2nd best time is now.

The way out is to work together with Russia and Iran, withdraw our support for the Syrian rebels, and tell them they get no more weapons or air cover unless they stop fighting Assad and turn all their guns on ISIS, full-stop. Any group that doesn't becomes our enemy.

It would be embarrassing to admit. But diplomacy is weird: everyone can know we're doing something stupid, but we somehow save face by not admitting it.

But what we're doing in Syria is immoral. 300,000 people have died, the country is a giant pile of rubble, 12 million people have left their homes (only 1/3 of which have made it to the tent-camps of other countries). The moral move in Syria is to end the war. The only way to do that--excepting an Iraq-style commitment that risks direct conflict with Russia--is to support Assad. Full-stop. 

This is Way, Way Worse than Iraq

Hopefully you have been reading this with my instruction to draw parallels to Bush and Iraq.

Syria's worse. Way worse. It has led to the deaths of maybe half of Iraq's 600,000 (and led to the deaths of more than 3x Afghanistan's 100,000) body count, but Iraq also has twice the population of Syria--so in much less time, as much of the country has been killed. Far more have lost their homes.

And unlike Iraq, there is absolutely no end in sight, and the destruction of Syria has been far more thorough than the destruction if Iraq. Iraq has cities, and an economy. Its GDP per capita (PPP) is about $15,000 per year and has been growing every year since the Hussein regime fell. Syria's GDP per capita (PPP) has dropped to maybe $2,000 after having lost more than 60% of its economic output (without the war, it would probably be about $7.000). Its HDI is hard to measure, but basically imagine that everyone in Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Derna, Idlib, Palmyra, etc, is living in bombed-out concrete husks without access to basic supplies, and 10% of the population is stuck under ISIS. 

The Syrian war's human toll--and long-term consequences--make Iraq pale in comparison. And it's the way it is because of US policy since 2011.

The Controversy over Syrian Refugees is Comically Depressing

The outrage over some in the US not wanting to take 10,000 Syrian refugees is not wrong, but it's completely misplaced. The idea that our moral duty here is primarily to 10,000 people currently in Turkish or German or Greek camps, and not to the 17,000,000 Syrians we're subjecting to a protracted, nightmarish war so the current administration can try to save face, is absurd.

Why the same Americans that protested Iraq aren't in the streets now protesting Syria is beyond me, but my current guess is that the guys in charge are wearing the Blue Team jersey rather than the Red Team jersey.

Screed over.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Iraqi Army Has Entered Ramadi

Sorry I haven't been around. I've been working on a book about US domestic politics and this was launch week. So I'll be back with a lot more later.

For now, I just wanted to take 2 minutes to share that, after long last, the Iraqi Army has entered Ramadi center. They're in good position: they've got Ramadi totally cut off from all angles and they outnumber ISIS by probably 20:1.

Looking at the map below, there's really nowhere for ISIS elements within Ramadi to go, which means it'll be a bloody operation... but it'll be decisive. (In short, they won't get to retreat to another stronghold to strike back later, and that's critical to not having Ramadi go back-and-forth forever.)

It won't end quickly like Sinjar, but now that the Army is in the thick of it, the end is in sight.

In other good news, after a few backs-and-forths, the Army secured Baiji and areas north, which means they're wide open to head towards Mosul once they finally figure out Fallujah.

More to come soon, but I figured you guys hadn't heard about this one yet. Promising stuff on Syria, Russia-Syria, Russia-Turkey, etc.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Per Predictions, Round III of Ukraine War Begins for Mariupol

With ongoing wars in the Middle East, it's easy to forget the Ukraine conflict.

If you're outside of Ukraine, that is.

Russian-backed separatists violate the Minsk II protocols almost daily, usually through quick attacks that kill civilians or idle Ukrainian soldiers. Sometimes there are dozens of violations in a single day.

Over the weekend, separatists shelled the outskirts of Mariupol, killing a few people and wounding perhaps ten, using Russian-provided artillery. The pickup in activity around Mariupol comes alongside the massing of about 50,000 Russian troops on the Ukrainian border.

It's not particularly surprising: Mariupol is about 45% ethnically Russian and was a site of a number of pro-Russian protests, as well as fighting during the Donbass war. We've been predicting that it was next on the hit list since Minsk II was signed, largely because it would provide a major port city to a pro-Russian separatist state (resembling something like Abkhazia.

It's not yet clear how hot the fighting will get, and when. Russia is heavily dependent on propaganda to keep fervor whipped up among its citizens and foreign supporters. These shellings may be a probe (where plausible deniability is higher than a full attack) or an attempt to cause Ukraine to react heavily enough to "justify" another Russian incursion--a tactic that was used to great effect in the South Ossetia war. Shelling had picked up a few months ago before quieting down, and Ukraine may be simply gritting its teeth and trying to wait it out, rather than allowing itself to be goaded into giving Russia an excuse to return to Ukraine in force.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Persistence Pays for Saudis; Yemen Government Troops On the Offensive

Houthi victory in Yemen looked almost certain for months. Through the spring, the Houthis had pushed government troops into Aden and had almost taken the city. Had Aden fallen, government troops would have likely been unable to recover, their main forces having been destroyed.

Yemen, 4/1 - Note Aden in dispute. Red is government control, green is Houthi rebel control, grey/black is ISIS/al-Qaeda control, and yellow is Southern Resistance movement control (they joined the government this summer)

Through late spring and summer, the Saudis have been arming government troops and bombing Houthi positions. For some time, the situation seemed to be delaying the inevitable. But, almost-miraculously, government troops in Aden held on and then launched a counter-attack that drove the Houthis out of Aden and secured the port city in late July. The Houthis attempted a counter-attack, but were repelled.

Yemen, 7/26

In the two weeks since, government troops broke out of Aden to take the surrounding environs.
Yemen, 8/9 

And in the previous three days, the government army accelerated its advance, linking up its split eastern and western forces, and also advancing towards the north of Sana'a. It's a fairly incredible turnaround.
Yemen, 8/12

The majority of Houthi forces are likely being pressed in the south, which means the threat to Sana'a in the north may be quite realistic--particularly with Saudi air support.

We'll keep an eye on it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Iran Deal is a BFD

Joe Biden was famously caught on camera calling the passing of the ACA a "BFD;" I suspect he said something similar as Secretary Kerry came back with news that a deal had been inked with Iran.

This is a pretty BFD. As you can see, Secretary Kerry certainly thinks so. (These guys are probably really, really tired.)

I read through CNN and the NYT's summaries of the deal; I then decided to skim the full-text.

Immediate Implications of the Deal:
The deal looks a lot like what was hammered out in April, and we discuss the key points in an earlier post. In the new version, Iran is actually restricted for 15 years (rather than 10), but gets a greater number of centrifuges (giving up 2/3 of them rather than 4/5 of them). It keeps its stockpile to 300kg (which is a 98% reduction of its current stock), ships out all spent material, and can't enrich beyond a pretty low number.

The deal still looks good. A look at the full-text suggests the inspection protocols are pretty solid: the IAEA gets to maintain permanent access, and can visit facilities "daily."

If Iran starts breaking the deal, the sanctions can "snap back" with a quick vote from the Western powers. The Western powers are banking somewhat on Iranian domestic support for trade with the West--Rouhani was elected president riding on promises to lift the (very painful) sanctions from Iran, and if they snapped back due to Iran breaking the deal, it could lead to more unrest (like the Green Revolution).

Could Iran still hide some activity and create a bomb? Sure. But their break-out period (amount of time required to build a bomb) for the past 2 years has been 2-3 months, and now it'll extend to 1 year. Iran's had the capacity for a long time to sneak around and build a bomb; this sets them farther back from being able to do so, and increases IAEA presence (from essentially none, currently) to look for any such clandestine activity. In short, I think any objections that this is a tacit thumbs-up for Iran to build a bomb are just unfounded. 

Credible Objections:
Probably the big credible objection is by Sunni allies worried about Iranian power. Saudi Arabia was hoping that Iran's foray into Yemen would become a quagmire that drove it into financial ruin. The Saudis have also been intentionally keeping oil prices low (by keeping supplies high) in order to strain Iran further: they're engaged in economic warfare designed to "break" Iran's capacity to project power, and the lifting of the sanctions will undermine that.

That's not untrue, but it's also unlikely that the sanctions were preventing Iran from projecting power into Iraq and Yemen. The key goal of the sanctions wasn't to grind Iran into insignificance--that was not going to happen with this package. The key goal was to hurt Iran enough to make a Western-friendly deal, and that worked.

Why This is a BFD:
If we model Iran more like a Soviet Union than a large mob of irrational terrorists (and I think the former is a more accurate model), we can think about Iran's self-interest, and what a self-interested power (even one opposed to the US) would want.

The lifting of sanctions means foreign investment and an alleviation of inflation (currently 18.2%); Iran's economy stands to gain a lot. Iran's been very clear that it wants trade with the West.

As this investment pours in, as Europe starts buying Iranian oil and Iran starts buying European food and goods, we start to see two big things happen:
1) The US and EU will become bigger trade partners for Iran than Russia and China (this will take a few years but less time than this deal's restrictions)
2) Iran will start to become a source of oil for the EU

#1 is important because Iran is going to ally with those that serve its interests. It is currently allied with Russia for that reason--not out of any weird ideological alignment. The Western powers want to steal Iran out of Russia's sphere of influence and put it in the West's. The West has many more carrots to offer Iran, and this is a key first step to being able to do that. (To anyone who believes this is impossible, I suggest a reading of the history between the US, Soviet Union, and China throughout the cold war to see how friendships shifted based on interest, despite ideology. Remember also that Saudi Arabia, a close ally, is a religiously extremist, oppressive monarchy.)

#2 Is important because it changes incentives for Iran with respect to the Strait of Hormuz: if Iran is exporting oil to Europe, it would hurt itself by closing the Strait of Hormuz and, per #1, would have less interest in doing so as a favor for Russia. This alleviates some of Europe's dependence on Russia for oil, and means they're more likely to have alternate sources from Qatar, UAE, Iran, and Iraq if conflict with Russia ever arises. And that means hamstringing Russia in Europe.

So as odd as it may sound, the reason the Iran deal is so important is that it helps the West increase its leverage over Russia, which is a much larger, scarier, more menacing, and more aggressive threat than Iran. The Great Game in Europe is back, and this move by President Obama and Secretary Kennedy may be seen by history as a truly brilliant stroke.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Iraq Surrounds Anbar--and Might Actually Succeed in its Offensive

I'll continue to contend that the Iraqis are much better on offense than they are on defense: even with ISIS well dug-into a city and planting bombs everywhere, the Iraqis can slowly slog forward, in part because they're confident they're unlikely to get captured and tortured by ISIS troops when the Iraqi troops have managed to surround a city and besiege it.

Ramadi will be like Tikrit: Iraqi forces have surrounded the city completely, and are working on shoring up supply/reinforcement lines, positioning troops, and training local volunteers before moving in. The Shiite militias, who might otherwise pose a major problem in the occupation of Ramadi, are staying on the outskirts to block ISIS reinforcements and prevent retreating ISIS troops from getting away to launch a counter-attack. In part, they'll stand "at the back of" Iraqi regulars and Sunni militiamen.

Unlike Tikrit, US airstrikes will be involved from the start. These airstrikes made the capture of Tall Abyad (Syria) and Baiji (north on the map below) much quicker. Recall that the airstrikes also ended the very stalled siege of Tikrit.

Note as well that Iraqi troops are holding al-Baghdadi and Haditha, which means that reinforcements from Syria would have to go through miles of Iraqi checkpoints, and retreat from Ramadi into Syria would be difficult--again, a good sign for preventing a counter-attack in the future.

The Iraqis are also working on surrounding Fallujah. The map here is actually a bit out of date: the Iraqis claim they've captured the dam and secured the river south of the city, and are "at the gates" of Fallujah. Trying to take both cities at once will be a meat grinder, but it's important: if only one was attacked and the other left open, ISIS troops could retreat from one to the other, only to counter-attack later. Besieging both means that ISIS troops in both cities are isolated (this tactic was used to great effect by the Communist Chinese forces against the Nationalists), and the Iraqis can take their time, advance slowly, and strike where ISIS has been softened up by airstrikes.

In Anbar, time is on the Iraqis' side. Because they're training local militiamen--in large part to keep the peace after the fighting as credible local forces--they may even stretch out the operation, as painful as it seems to consider. Forces from al-Baghdadi may also advance towards Hit and try to guarantee no safe haven for ISIS troops after the Ramadi and Fallujah assaults.

This is a case where Iraq's strategy is to accept the hard fight, take the American's help, and try to eliminate (rather than simply dislodge) ISIS forces in Anbar. Doing so will mean that fewer troops will have to stay behind to garrison Anbar (and many fewer will need to garrison surrounding Baghdad, which remains under threat from ISIS' presence in Fallujah), and thus that more can be committed to the final brutal push towards Mosul.

Expect fighting in both cities to start up within the week.

Quick Correction on the Brigade in Eastern Europe

Steve, a friend of mine in the US Army, pointed out a very key inaccuracy in our previous post about the US armored brigade in eastern Europe: it's not a manned brigade, currently, just the equipment.

This changes the rationale from being a "spiral deterrent" to being a "fast-response force." US troops can be deployed to this equipment within hours, which means they can go be a "speed bump" of sorts for any Russian invasion. Since these are NATO countries, the US won't need to waffle and quibble about a response the same way that it did with Ukraine: US troops could credibly show up and start shooting as soon as there's a problem.

It's not 100% clear that the current US administration would do just that, but deterrence is a game of probabilities: just what has been said between Mr. Putin and Mr. Obama behind closed doors? How much has US resolve stiffened in the face of Russian aggression? I assume that the Obama administration has posed some credible ultimatum to go along with the armor. It means the high risk of escalation (and lower likelihood of success) for any Russian invasion remains, especially in a country like Estonia (which could otherwise be totally occupied within a day).

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Why the US is Sending an Armored Brigade to Eastern Europe

Whether an armored brigade is "big" depends on the size of the pond it swims in.

At about 1100 armored vehicles (Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, and some mobile artillery), such a brigade could easily overwhelm the conventional militaries of most small countries.

In the Eastern European theatre, an armored brigade is nothing close to large enough to be a game-changer. Russia's military sports about ten thousand pieces of active heavy armored equipment (tanks, fighting vehicles, and mobile artillery), most of which is dedicated to its western front.

Despite the numerical gap, the US is sending such a brigade to Eastern Europe, spread out from the Baltics all the way down to Romania. What we know is that such a brigade won't be a decisive force if Russia were to invade Sweden, the Baltic countries, Romania, or Poland (all of which it's threatened to do over the past few years). Why the effort, then?

Some analysts suggest it is a "symbolic" gesture for wary allies. I think a fifteen-second gut check suggests this hypothesis is weak: Eastern European countries are skeptical of NATO, terrified of Russia, and are smart enough to see past symbolic gestures. And US leadership is smart enough to see all of this.

I think what's really going on is that these vehicles are there to be a "positive deterrent" of sorts. That is, rather than deterring Russia by having overwhelming strength on the battlefield, this brigade deters Russia by promising that if Russia attacks one of these countries, the US will be dragged into the war: these units are mixed in with local units and have the right to defend such territory from invasion--all these countries are NATO allies. If that happened, US assets would be attacked and destroyed, with all the shock and fury on the domestic front that would come with that.

The United States' leadership would have almost no choice in the matter: they would face massive pressure to deploy more forces (probably first from Germany) in order to repel the Russians from whichever ally was attacked. For Russia the subsequent fight would be long and messy at best. If Russia lost, defeat could bankrupt the country, wreck Putin's reputation, and set the Russian military back years. Not to mention that countries like Ukraine and Sweden would likely hop on the express train to NATO and request heavy garrisoning by the US to prevent further Russian attacks.

So what this brigade does is that it embodies lessons from the errors of 2004 and 2014 that allowed Russia to invade and annex parts of Georgia and Ukraine. Russia's success in those conflicts depended on avoiding getting entangled with NATO and on pitting their forces only against the small domestic forces of their target territories, and on moving quickly enough that it won the status quo in the area. Such a strategy has worked so far, but its effectiveness would quickly end once an American battle tank was destroyed on the field. Russia could not have a quick, clean victory that way, and would no longer be able to use Europe's lethargy to its advantage.

Russia's leadership is also smart, and knows this. The US administration is putting American lives at risk, yes, but with the expectation that Putin will understand the consequences of attacking, and thus be far less likely to attack at all. It is a clever way of containing Russia in a world where Western European allies are afraid to get on Russia's bad side: the US uses its cowboy reputation to its advantage here, and deploys its own deterrent.

The final stroke of brilliance here is that it is a force that is too small to be a credible offensive threat to Russia, so Russia not only won't feel territorially threatened, but its leadership will have shaky ground on which to pretend that it feels threatened (and thus justify an arms race).

In a comparatively cheap, gentle stroke, the US has out-positioned Russia in most of Eastern Europe, putting time back on the West's side for sanctions to squeeze Russia into acquiescence. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Kurds' Strategic Chokehold of ISIS

The Kurds are moving so fast that the venerable Wikipedia article map on the ISIS war hasn't caught up yet. Enjoy your well-deserved vacation, user/editor Eratosthenian.

After taking Tall Abyad, the Kurds pushed south to secure Ain Issa and the nearby Brigade 93 army base. First, I'll draw it on the Wikipedia map I've been using for some time to give general context.

Looks like a march to al-Raqqah! Don't get too excited: the Kurds have no intentions of assaulting the city. But there's still very good news afoot: the Kurds are setting up their final choking of ISIS, which will assist the war efforts in both Iraq and Syria even if the Kurds sit around doing a whole lot of not-much once they regain Kurdish territory.

Let's look at a map with some roads for context--I doodled on Google Maps to get the idea across. The lines aren't that accurate mile-by-mile, but bear with me.

In the lower-right of the map we see al-Raqqah. Route 6 goes north to Tall Abyad, which is the closest crossing out of ISIS territory, to Turkey. We know that for some time, people, goods, and arms were flowing out of Turkey into Syria from the border crossing there. Now they're not. Already ISIS-held territory is seeing a spike in the price of food and other basic goods (according to the Syrian Observatory on Human Rights), which means shortages could loom if they're not able to establish another supply line elsewhere: the Euphrates has limited agricultural capacity and most domestic food comes from the West, which is not under ISIS control (and Syria is a net importer of many staple goods, like wheat). ISIS may be facing food shortages in the future, which could cripple the regime far faster than airstrikes.

Why is Ain Issa (the red-black marker on the map north of al-Raqqah) significant? Ultimately, it blocks ISIS from having access to the M4, which means the Kurdish rear is secure for an assault on Manbij. To get West from al-Raqqah, ISIS must travel along route 4 to the south of the Euphrates. Expect the Kurds to be regrouping quickly from the Tall Abyad assault, consolidating Samin, and then racing across the Euphrates via the M4 to take Manbij and Al Bab, both of which are heavily-settled Kurdish areas. Given recent Kurdish success so close to al-Raqqah and their new-found positioning advantage from taking Ain Issa, I expect the Kurds' chances are good.

The Kurds' final push in Syria will be to link up with their forces in the northwest and establish a secure front just north of Aleppo and across the Turkish border. Once they do this, they'll control all border crossings to Turkey, cutting ISIS off completely from foreign trade or smuggling. Securing al-Hasakah will also cut ISIS off from a concentrated area of arable land.

(I've included USDA agricultural maps of Syria and Iraq below to emphasize that ISIS' holdings are largely a bunch of non-arable desert).

 ISIS has been funded primarily through plunder and extortion, rather than production: without places to trade, their (admittedly vast) reserves of cash will become far less valuable. It will become very hard, very quickly, to get access to foreign fighters, weapons and ammunition, and food. The Kurds completing their conquests of northwestern Syria and the areas around al-Hasakah will complete a trade, recruitment, and agricultural choke-hold of ISIS, meaning time will no longer be on ISIS' side. And that's a really, really big deal.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Kurds Close the Gap in the North

The Kurds have, in a few days, closed the gap around Tall Abyad and pushed south of the river in the east towards Hasakah. In a series of Middle Eastern wars that have chugged along with agonizing sluggishness, this arena has moved shockingly quickly.

In Tall Abyad, fighting continues, but Kurdish forces made sure to surround Tall Abyad from the south, creating pockets to squeeze in on and eliminate the ISIS forces there, rather than letting them flee towards all-Raqqah, which should dampen the risk of a major counter-offensive.

The Syrians will be grateful for the closing of the Tall Abyad border crossing. This will mean a bit of long-term relief from ISIS so they can focus on killing each other instead.

In the east, the offensive to the east of Hasakah will make inaccessible both Route 1 and Route 47 that head to Mosul.

This would essentially cut off Mosul from ISIS reinforcements in Syria, where they're strongest. To get to Mosul, ISIS would have to run convoys through the desert and well away from major metropolitan areas, making them easy pickings for coalition jets. The Iraqis will be grateful.

In the medium-term, if the Kurds can hold off any ISIS counter-attacks (which seems likely--Syrian ISIS are bogged down in the west), they'll move west to take Manbij and close the gap between their central forces and their forces hanging out in the northwest of Syria, which would make the Kurds in control of all predominantly Kurdish territory in both Syria and Iraq.

The Kurds are likely hoping for at least an autonomous zone in Syria, like they have in Iraq--and depending on how long/damaging the Syrian civil war is, they might just be able to break off and form their own country. They're showing a capacity to defend and govern in Syria, where the Assad and rebel governments have not. The expansion of Kurdish territory in Iraq is likely to also expand Kurdish governance in those areas in the long-term, though the Iraqi government is not so broken-apart that they'll allow the Kurds to break away entirely.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Iraq & Kurds on Lightning Offensive in ISIS Weak Spots

This war is a roller-coaster ride: ups-and-downs, victories and defeats. Today we get to focus on some good news.

ISIS seems to have weakened itself in some areas in order to launch offensives in others. According to CIA estimates it only has a few tens of thousands of troops (20-30k), and it's trying to fight over a vast territory. It's bound to have weak spots.

We also know that Iraq is much better at offensives than on the defense: being able to pound targets with artillery and US airstrikes and assault once they're "softened" is much easier than trying to hold out by standing around, waiting for a bunch of nearby cars to all blow up at once.

Iraqi Shiite militias are also about as tough as the Kurds, so in areas where Iraq can employ them (in the east), they also tend to have greater successes.

Such has been at the root of a recent decisive territorial gain by Iraq.


Iraq counter-attacked not in Ramadi to try to dislodge ISIS there, but in Baiji, north of Tikrit. In about a day they were able to move in and take the city center and refinery, and are now mopping up suburbs, engaged around the entire area. If it's anything like post-Tikrit, we should expect that whole area to be red in a week.

It sets the Iraqis up to be able to push north towards Mosul, which they may do next rather than getting too entangled in Anbar in their march to break the back of ISIS.

Kurdish Syria

Over the past two weeks the Kurds have been ripping across ISIS-held territory, liberating hundreds of villages. They're looking just weeks away from closing the gap in the north and linking up at Tall Abyad.

Some quick detail on the map, from left to right:
1) The Kobane forces--hardened, reinforced, and supported by US airstrikes--are pushing east after consolidating territory to the south. 
2) Forces from the east are pushing west to link up with them, though a bit more slowly. They're showing no signs of stopping right now.
3) After being bottled up for months at the Tall Tamer river crossing, the Kurds broke through and have liberated a densely-populated Kurdish population there, securing the west side of Hasakah.
4) We can see Kurdish forces have also broken through the river at Tall Brak, and are pushing south, likely to surround ISIS forces in Hasakah and secure the border crossing into Iraq from the other side.

If the Kurds are successful, they'll make their next push west, towards Manaj, and secure a line towards Aleppo. This would cover all heavily-Kurdish territory in the north, so the Kurds would slow down (or stop expanding entirely), but very good news will stem from their success:

1) It will stop the flow of fighters and arms coming from Turkey into Syria, so it will be harder for ISIS to refill its ranks and supplies in Syria.
2) It will mean the continued killing of ISIS troops.
3) It will make it harder for ISIS to reinforce Mosul--they'll be down to one highway in the desert (they won't be able to sneak north through more populated areas) so their supply trains will be highly vulnerable to airstrikes if they attempt reinforcement and resupply during the Iraqi/US assault.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Dark and Bright Spots on the Middle Eastern War Maps

Over the past few weeks, ISIS has made a major comeback in Iraq and has gained significant ground in all the non-Kurdish parts of Syria. They're expanding territory in eastern Libya amid the renewed civil war there, and hold almost all of eastern Yemen. It's looking bad. The American/Jordanian-led air campaigns are just not enough to keep them bottled up.

In Anbar (Iraq) and northern Syria, there are a few bright spots that are worth highlighting.


Ramadi fell to ISIS a few weeks back, despite a significant numerical advantage on the part of Iraqi forces. US command says the Iraqi forces lost their will to fight, which is surprising, given the number of attacks they'd repelled in the previous weeks. 

Iraq is responding by sending in the Shiite militias, though right now it seems that they're working on surrounding Fallujah rather than Ramadi, which suggests that ISIS forces had been dispatched from Fallujah to take and hold Ramadi, leaving Fallujah open to attack. Shiite militias in Sunni-dominated Anbar will doubtless be a major problem, but Iraq is stuck choosing between bad options if its regular forces turn tail when attacked.


In all non-Kurdish territory, ISIS keeps pushing south and west. They've taken Palmyra and are now holding positions near both Damascus and Daraa. I'm thinking that the best hope to end the war is that ISIS threatens Damascus and other major population centers like Daraa and Homs so much that the rebels and gov't form a deal to deal with them.

The one bright spot is that the Kurds have gone on a major offensive. They finally crossed the river in the northeast to reclaim hundreds of villages that ISIS held, and they're moving fast. They've alleviated pressure on Qamishli and are surrounding Hasakah from the west. From Kobane, they're moving east towards Tall Abyad, albeit more slowly--this crossing is an important supply line from Turkey for ISIS and they'll fight for it. But the Kurds are looking poised to link up in the north. I also anticipate they'll keep moving south from Qamishli to surround Hasakah from the east... but they'll probably stop there and hold, as liberating al-Raqqah (ISIS' capital) is not on their agenda. They're looking out for their own.


In Yemen, the government forces are so pressed by Houthi forces in the west that their eastern backyard has been almost entirely taken over by ISIS. There's little in the way of good news there, and the stalemate--like in Syria and Libya--just means more room for ISIS to maneuver. Saudi Arabia and Syria are more concerned with the Houthis than ISIS right now, so ISIS gets to roam free.


Similarly, stalemate here means ISIS gets room to play. The Tobruk government just can't bottle ISIS up in the east, and they're taking control of population centers. Ansar al-Sharia, an ISIS ally for the moment, holds parts of Benghazi. It looks like the government offensive towards Tripoli has stalled out completely. What's odd about this conflict is just how little fighting is actually happening. Looking at the Wikipedia article gives a sense of how oddly quiet the past few months have been, and how few casualties there are. I'm not sure why it's slowed down, particularly in the east (although gov't forces are still fighting in Benghazi).

Finally, a bit of good news. An ISIS member took a selfie at a big Syrian ISIS HQ, posted it with a location to the Internet, and that gave the US the intel necessary to bomb the HQ, destroying it completely. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Tides Reversing in Middle Eastern Wars

Looking at maps is my way of procrastinating, so I get to find the seemingly little changes going on week-to-week in the Middle Eastern conflicts in Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.

Go check our most recent post on these wars that show progress by US-supported forces.

For clarification, the US supports:
  • In Libya: the Tobruk government (red)
  • In Syria: the "moderate" rebels (green)
  • In Iraq: the government & allies (red)
  • In Yemen: government forces (red)
Here's the update:


Libya Dawn (Tripoli government) has broken the siege of Tripoli and is pushing back. The Tobruk government's attack is floundering.

If we look to the south, we see some angry Tuaregs (who I imagine as pretty hardened mountain-fighters) have managed to capture a large swath of Libya for themselves and are challenging Tobruk's power there. I'm not sure what their goal is: maybe power-sharing, maybe independence.

Other unaffiliated local groups in Bani Walid and Tawergha have taken control from Libya Dawn--I believe they're actually old Gaddafi loyalists who are uninterested in either group. 

In general, we're seeing the fighting between Tripoli and Tobruk, meaning doors are left wide open in their own backyards for smaller groups to start some form of self-rule/splintering, which is going to be a recurring theme.


The attempt to surround Ramadi is failing right now, and I'm not sure what the heck the Iraqi forces are doing with themselves--they should be able to outnumber and overwhelm Ramadi, but it may be the case that without Shiite militias, they're going to continue to struggle. In the past weeks, they had taken some of this territory and pushed deeper into Ramadi, along with repelling ISIS counter-attacks. But the once-imminent surrounding of Ramadi has been held up at best. Let's see if Iraqi forces reinforce further to finish off the fight. 

If Ramadi is taken, Iraqi forces would be able to comfortably cut off Fallujah for a protracted siege.


"Moderate" rebel advances in the south along the border with Israel have been pushed back. Slogging north that way would have given the rebels plausible access to Damascus that wouldn't involve taking Daraa--if they fail here, they'll be quite bottled up.

Another option for the rebel forces appears to be trying to link up between Inkhil and Tubna to cut off Daraa and besiege the city, but their forces seem to be committed to the north and in Umam Walad.


The Houthis have made a major counter-assault in Ma'rib and Tai'zz, taking back Tai'zz and surrounding Ma'rib. They've also pushed back in Ataq and halted the southern coastal advance by government forces. It's looking increasingly bleak for government forces.

We're seeing, of course, that forces committed to red/green battle lines are allowing ISIS to make advances in ignored areas, so they've managed to pop up in the middle there, which will prove hugely frustrating (in addition to just terrible for the people of Yemen).

For the sake of beating ISIS, decisiveness--one way or another--is key in these civil wars. The continuing ambiguity is going to give them space to grow.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Little Wars: Escalation

Even in the past few days, we've seen escalation in the Little Wars.


As things heat up near Mariupol, Russia is adding command-and-control assets, air defense, and artillery to its border with Ukraine. NATO thinks Russia is readying for a new Ukraine offensive. Russia has rightly calculated that it's going to continue to get away with its offensives; the EU and US will neither provide arms nor guarantee Ukrainian sovereignty, which is about all Russia needs to feel invited to roll in.

Russia is also sending supersonic strategic bombers to Crimea, both establishing their hold over the area and getting some pretty deadly hardware as close as they can to Kyiv, just in case.

It's not that the West isn't responding in some ways. The US and Canada are throwing a bit of money at the problem, and the US is putting money into counter-propaganda in eastern Ukraine, where Russia is currently drumming up support by alleging systematic murder of Russian ethnic people by a fascist Kyiv government.


US warships are now escorting American-flagged cargo vessels through the Strait of Hormuz to prevent Iran from nabbing any more. This means a heavier, bristling fleet presence in Iran's territorial waters, which ups the ante and is probably designed to establish status quo US presence there, with Iranian aggression as the pretense. We'll see how Iran responds--there's not much they can do directly, but like the capture of the Maersk, they may find another way to be a thorn in the side of the US. Iran's motives for capturing the vessel are still unclear (and the public statements are highly dubious).

Busting the Axis

Iran is currently close to Russia in part because Russia does not have sanctions on the country, and Russia wants to keep it that way. 

If the Iranian nuclear deal works, the West will start trading with Iran again, which would be a huge boon for the economy. Frankly, the massive US/EU markets provide a much more appetizing treat for Iran than the sluggish Russian petro-conomy. Iran has more than enough petrochemicals and doesn't want vodka.

So Russia (and China) might actually be trying to "nuke" the deal, as it were. Forbes' Russia-China expert talks about it here (thanks to reader Nathan for pointing me to this).

The US could soften/weaken the alliance between Russia and Iran with the deal, as well as finally have access to Central Asia (also under Russia' indirect control), which would be a huge boost in the Great Game. 

Could the nuclear deal happen? Sure: the US and Russia made all sorts of similar deals throughout the Cold War, even while facing off in places like Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Little Wars with Russia and Iran

We'll take a quick break from battle lines to look at the "little wars" going on between US/allies and Russia/Iran. Much like during the Cold War, we're seeing regional military action that threatens regional escalation as outside powers become more involved.


Shelling from rebels in Ukraine has started back up (using rocket launchers and tanks that are both banned and were-never-there-in-the-first-place), which we predicted after Minsk II: the deal with Russia caused successful withdrawal of Ukrainian troops from key areas--especially Mariupol, which is next on the rebel/Russian list of targets. Unsurprisingly, the shelling is happening in Shyrokyne (along with reported rebel presence and gunfire exchanges), just east of Mariupol.

Ukraine requested EU peacekeepers; they have been refused. But Poland and the US continue to reassure Kyiv that they will provide support. The US recently deployed anti-air batteries to eastern Ukraine and says it will keep sanctions on Russia until it has completely fulfilled Minsk II.

Even more interesting: Finland spotted what might be a Russian submarine off its coast in its territorial waters, and dropped depth charges with the intent of scaring it off. Sweden did the same in October.

This is another sign, along with continued military exercises near Estonia, that Russia is testing Western resolve and may be intending to create a clearer "sphere of influence" at its border areas where Western military powers cannot operate. Finland and Sweden aren't part of NATO and, like Ukraine, don't have that military umbrella (though unlike Ukraine, they are part of the EU and therefore have more standing to request help). Unlike Ukraine, their militaries are formidable and they do not have restive Russian populations, so don't expect an invasion any time soon; but there may be a rising conflict over the Baltic sea as Russia tries to expand its sphere.


Last week, US carrier Theodore Roosevelt moved to the coast of Yemen in order to turn away Iranian cargo ships likely carrying arms for Houthi rebels. The ships were deterred, meaning the US now has a partial blockade of Yemen and has for all purposes entered the conflict. Roosevelt has moved back to the Persian Gulf, but the point seems to have been made. 

Iran has responded.

For reasons not yet clear, 5 Iranian combat vessels intercepted a US (Marshal Islands) cargo vessel heading into the Strait of Hormuz, demanding it move towards Iran. After the cargo ship refused, Iran fired warning shots across its bow, and then escorted the ship into Iranian waters and boarded it.

The Strait of Hormuz is a free-go zone (it's all Iranian territorial water but is subject to innocent passage law). The ship may have moved closer to the shore than Iran may have liked, but typical protocol is to demand that such a ship leave, not come closer. So it's interesting behavior.

The US has sortied jets and a destroyer to the area to "monitor." 

American forces aren't likely to open fire or create a direct confrontation, but Iran now has 34 crew members held hostage. It may be a muscle-flexing strategy or Iran may be looking for a negotiating chip of some sort in its standoff with the US over Yemen.

It's the most direct conflict the US and Iran have had in the past few years. At the very least, Iran is making clear that it has no intent to be pushed around by the US, but the Obama administration is unlikely to respond to this by capitulating on Iranian arms shipments to Yemen.

Expect a simmering conflict here, as well.

Little Wars

Like in the Cold War, these "little wars" are unlikely to escalate into major superpower conflict--it's something nobody wants and something that's hard to back down from once started. 

The risk is that Iran and Russia are so inundated in comically-absurd propaganda that it might be politically difficult to save face if backing away from conflict, so these escalations must be managed very carefully.

This will be a longer-term trend over the next decade--the US' "war focus" is likely to shift to an ongoing cold war with Iran and Russia as its attention leaves Afghanistan and Iraq. Once ISIS is pushed out of Iraq and negotiations between Kabul and the Taliban are complete, the US will have its hands newly quite full with Russia and Iran.

But that is likely going to be a problem that comes to a head during the next administration.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Quick Update on Libya, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

There's been moderate but notable movement in the past few weeks across war fronts in Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen; I'll highlight them below.

After having been initially repelled, army troops (loyal to the elected government) have moved to encircle Tripoli with support from Zintan militias. They've also moved into Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad from the east, taking those towns back from ISIS.

Government reinforcements have almost surrounded Ramadi, and will counter-siege the ISIS troops in the city. If they take it, expect the government to attempt to similarly encircle Fallujah, just to the east.

Northern Syria:
Kurdish troops are making very slow progress across the Nar al Khabur river into a densely-populated area of Kurdish villages under the control of ISIS. They're battling desperately to take these villages back after finding mass graves in the area.

Southern Syria:
Free Syrian Army troops are making agonizingly slow progress against Syrian government troops in the south, around Daraa. They've recently taken the Nassib crossing and reinforced the Quintera crossing. Closing off Daraa has been attempted and repelled a few times, but would give the FSA access to the highway going north towards Damascus, their final target. They may attempt to circle in from the west, near Quinteria, to link up with pockets of troops to the southwest of Damascus.

The Saudi coalition's air campaign has reversed the Houthi tide, and government troops are making some gains. They're barely holding on to Aden, and are trying to relieve pressure by taking surrounding areas to the west, northwest, and north of the city. They've also moved west from Madrib and are attempting to use Saudi air support to seriously threaten Sana'a.

And, because it will make everyone's day: ISIS and the Taliban have declared jihad against each other.

Sources: All images from Wikipedia:

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

How the Battle Lines Against ISIS in Iraq Have Moved Over Time

To show progress against ISIS in Iraq, the Pentagon put out a graphic that is somewhat comically difficult to understand. But after the Pentagon's disastrous Powerpoint slide on Afghanistan, we've come to expect little else.

So I decided I'd work with the fine folks in Wikipedia (thanks, guys!) to make a GIF that shows how the battle lines have moved since the ISIS offensive with a few pointers about key events. It's not perfect, but I think it's a big improvement.

Enjoy, and feel free to share or put in your own content.

(Click here for an even larger size.)

And in case you want to look at the photos individually below: