U.S.-led air war on ISIS in Syria has little allied support

The New York Times reports: As the United States prepares to intensify airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria, the Arab allies who with great fanfare sent warplanes on the initial missions there a year ago have largely vanished from the campaign.

The Obama administration heralded the Arab air forces flying side by side with American fighter jets in the campaign’s early days as an important show of solidarity against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or Daesh. Top commanders like Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, who oversees operations in Syria and Iraq, still laud the Arab countries’ contributions to the fight. But as the United States enters a critical phase of the war in Syria, ordering Special Operations troops to support rebel forces and sending two dozen attack planes to Turkey, the air campaign has evolved into a largely American effort.

Administration officials had sought to avoid the appearance of another American-dominated war, even as most leaders in the Persian Gulf seem more preoccupied with supporting rebels fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. Now, some of those officials note with resignation, the Arab partners have quietly left the United States to run the bulk of the air war in Syria — not the first time Washington has found allies wanting.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have shifted most of their aircraft to their fight against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Jordan, reacting to the grisly execution of one of its pilots by the Islamic State, and in a show of solidarity with the Saudis, has also diverted combat flights to Yemen. Jets from Bahrain last struck targets in Syria in February, coalition officials said. Qatar is flying patrols over Syria, but its role has been modest. [Continue reading…]


U.S. brings F-15C dogfighters to counter Russians over Syria

The Daily Beast reports: The U.S. Air Force is deploying to Turkey up to a dozen jet fighters specializing in air-to-air combat—apparently to help protect other U.S. and allied jets from Russia’s own warplanes flying over Syria.

Officially, the deployment of F-15C Eagle twin-engine fighters to Incirlik, Turkey—which the Pentagon announced late last week—is meant to “ensure the safety” of America’s NATO allies, Laura Seal, a Defense Department spokesperson, told The Daily Beast.

That could mean that the single-seat F-15s and the eight air-to-air missiles they routinely carry will help the Turkish air force patrol Turkey’s border with Syria, intercepting Syrian planes and helicopters that periodically stray into Turkish territory.

But more likely, the F-15s will be escorting attack planes and bombers as they strike ISIS militants in close proximity to Syrian regime forces and the Russian warplanes that, since early October, have bombed ISIS and U.S.-backed rebels fighting the Syrian troops.

Seal declined to discuss the deployment in detail, but hinted at its true purpose. “I didn’t say it wasn’t about Russia,” she said.

Russia’s air wing in western Syria is notable for including several Su-30 fighters that are primarily air-to-air fighters. The Su-30s’ arrival in Syria raised eyebrows, as Moscow insists its forces are only fighting ISIS, but ISIS has no aircraft of its own for the Su-30s to engage.

The F-15s the U.S. Air Force is sending to Turkey will be the first American warplanes in the region that are strictly aerial fighters. The other fighters, attack planes and bombers the Pentagon has deployed — including F-22s, F-16s, A-10s and B-1s—carry bombs and air-to-ground missiles and have focused on striking militants on the ground.

In stark contrast, the F-15s only carry air-to-air weaponry, and their pilots train exclusively for shooting down enemy warplanes. It’s worth noting that F-15Cs have never deployed to Afghanistan, nor did they participate in the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. The war in Syria is different. [Continue reading…]


NATO warns Russia after warplane enters Turkish airspace

The New York Times reports: NATO officials issued a warning to Russia on Monday, and the United States began what officials called urgent consultations with Turkey, after Turkish fighter jets intercepted a Russian warplane that entered its airspace over the weekend.

Russia’s actions were “an unacceptable violation” of Turkish airspace, NATO’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said after meeting with the Turkish foreign minister, Feridun Sinirlioglu. Mr. Stoltenberg added, “Russia’s actions are not contributing to the security and stability of the region.”

Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, speaking in Madrid during a news conference with his Spanish counterpart, said that American officials were conferring with Turkish counterparts over next steps.

“I don’t believe this was an accident,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to comment publicly. [Continue reading…]

McClatchy reports: A Russian warplane on a bombing run in Syria flew within five miles of the Turkish border and may have crossed into Turkey’s air space, Turkish and U.S. officials said Sunday.

The incident raises new concerns that Russia’s armed intervention in Syria could spill over to neighboring countries, lead to an unintended military confrontation and trigger an even bigger regional conflict.

A Turkish security official said Turkish radar locked onto the Russian aircraft as it was bombing early Friday in al Yamdiyyah, a Syrian village directly on the Turkish border. He said Turkish fighter jets would have attacked had it crossed into Turkish airspace.

But a U.S. military official suggested the incident had come close to sparking an armed confrontation. Reading from a report, he said the Russian aircraft had violated Turkish air space by five miles and that Turkish jets had scrambled, but that the Russian aircraft had returned to Syrian airspace before they could respond. [Continue reading…]


Doctors Without Borders: Kunduz airstrike was ‘war crime’

NPR reports: NATO in Afghanistan says it will lead an investigation into an airstrike in Kunduz this weekend that hit a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital, killing 22 people — an attack that the humanitarian organization, also known as Doctors Without Borders, has called “a war crime.”

A U.S.-led airstrike on the northern Afghan city was carried out on Saturday but the circumstances surrounding it remain murky. NATO acknowledges only that the raid occurred near the charity’s hospital.

The NATO coalition says it “has directed a preliminary multi-national investigation known as a Casualty Assessment Team.” It says that an initial investigation would be complete in “a matter of days.” [Continue reading…]


Top NATO general: Russians starting to build air defense bubble over Syria

The Washington Post reports: While Russia’s stated goal in moving into Syria is to fight the Islamic State, NATO’s top commander believes Russia’s new presence includes the first pieces of an intricate layer of defensive systems deployed to hinder U.S. and coalition operations in the region.

“As we see the very capable air defense [systems] beginning to show up in Syria, we’re a little worried about another A2/AD bubble being created in the eastern Mediterranean,” said Breedlove to an audience at the German Marshall Fund Monday.

A2/AD stands for anti-access/area denial. During the early stages of warfare, A2/AD could have been a moat around a castle, or spikes dug into the ground — anything to keep the enemy off a certain swathe of territory. In the 21st century, however, A2/AD is a combination of systems such as surface-to-air missile batteries and anti-ship missiles deployed to prevent forces from entering or traversing a certain area — from land, air or sea. [Continue reading…]


Europe and U.S. pay cost of inaction against Syria’s Assad

Yaroslav Trofimov reports: The Syrian refugee crisis overwhelming Europe has shattered the illusion, often used to justify inaction, that in the modern world there is such a thing as a distant war in a faraway land.

Over the past four years, 250,000 Syrians have died, most of them killed by the Assad regime against which the West has refused to intervene. More than half of the population has been forced to flee their homes, with four million refugees pouring first into neighboring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan — and now many of them to Europe.

As Europe’s frontiers have collapsed, millions more are likely to follow suit, overland or by sea. This has already turned Syria from a thorny foreign-policy issue into a full-blown domestic emergency that threatens the cohesion and social peace of the European Union and lays bare the costs of the West’s policy of nonintervention against the regime.

“The Syria conflict is a lot closer to Europe than the U.S. — and the interest in solving it should have been regarded as a vital one at least here in Europe,” said Guido Steinberg, an expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs and the German federal government’s former adviser on international terrorism.

“But the Europeans really have no clue how to deal with a major regional crisis in the Middle East. We needed the U.S. — but the U.S. wasn’t there.” [Continue reading…]


Bad news for Putin as support for war flags beyond Russia’s ‘troll farms’

By Ivan Kozachenko, University of Aberdeen

Eastern Ukraine has recently seen its worst period of attacks by Russian-backed separatists since they captured the town of Debaltseve in February. It had fallen in the days after the two sides reached the Minsk-2 ceasefire agreement. Ukraine, Russia and the West have repeatedly underlined the importance of Minsk 2, but whether it has been implemented remains questionable. The latest conflict has coincided with a period of Russian military escalation that recently prompted UK defence secretary Michael Fallon to suggest that Moscow was preparing for war with NATO and the West.

The battle to control public opinion is taking place in parallel, as we have seen most recently with the case of Lyudmila Savchuk, a Russian journalist who went undercover in a Kremlin-backed agency whose staff were tasked with pushing pro-Putin views online. This has helped back up efforts by Russia in the traditional media to portray the heroic struggle of the self-proclaimed republics in Donetsk (DNR) and Luhansk (LNR) against the “Kiev Nazi Junta”, for example, while constantly denying any Russian military involvement.

[Read more…]


U.S. nuclear weapons could soon return to Europe

Der Spiegel reports: It’s been more than three decades since the vast peace protests took over Bonn’s Hofgarten meadow in the early 1980s. Back then, about half a million protesters pushed their way into the city center, a kilometer-long mass of people moving through the streets. It was the biggest rally in the history of the German Federal Republic.

Today, the situation isn’t quite that fraught, but it seems feasible that a similar scene may soon play out in front of the Chancellery in Berlin. For some time now, the Americans have once again been thinking about upgrading Europe’s nuclear arsenal, and in the past week, a rhetorical arms race has begun that is reminiscent of the coldest periods of the Cold War.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned of an “accelerating spiral of escalating words and then of actions.” He described them as “the old reflexes of the Cold War.” [Continue reading…]


Russia urges U.S. not to deploy weapons to border areas

The New York Times reports: Moscow issued muted warnings on Monday in response to the Pentagon’s possible stationing of battle tanks and other heavy weapons to speed the deployment of American troops if needed in NATO states bordering Russia.

The Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement saying it hoped that Washington would ultimately decide not to deploy the weaponry, while other senior officials and analysts suggested that the deployment would provoke the placement of a more potent Russian arsenal near the frontier or even herald the start of a competitive arms buildup.

“We hope that reason will prevail and the situation in Europe will be prevented from sliding into a new military confrontation which may have dangerous consequences,” the Foreign Ministry said in the statement. [Continue reading…]


Why does the U.S. have 800 military bases around the world?


Vladimir Putin is fighting for political survival — by provoking unrest in Ukraine

John Simpson writes: Mikhail Vanin, the Russian ambassador to Denmark, looks like a shrewd little man, with fuzzy hair and sharp, Putin-like eyes behind rimless glasses. And he has quite a way with words. Speaking to the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten on 21 March, he said: “I don’t think that Danes fully understand the consequences if Denmark joins the American-led missile defence shield . . . If they do, then Danish warships will be targets for Russian nuclear missiles . . .

“It is, of course, your own decision. I just want to remind you that your finances and security will suffer.” I don’t suppose that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, most of us imagined that we would hear threats of this crudity being uttered in Europe again.

It is a little over a year since the west’s relationship with Russia seemed, if inevitably spiky, at least rational and manageable. Now here is a Russian diplomat publicly warning a small member of Nato and the EU of the possibility of nuclear war. How could things have got this bad in such a short space of time? How could the post-cold war consensus have vanished so utterly?

After Viktor Yanukovych’s pro-Moscow Ukrainian government collapsed following the often violent protests of February 2014, Russia started to infiltrate Crimea with its forces as part of a plan that was worked out, we are now told, by Putin himself. They cut off Crimea from mainland Ukraine, annexed it and received the post-dated agreement of a large majority of its inhabitants. After that, the same combination of nasty civilian thugs (one whom I came up against in Crimea had “Rossiya” tattooed across his forehead) and serving soldiers in unmarked uniforms headed to eastern Ukraine. They are still fighting there.

The methodology goes back to the heart of the postwar Soviet era, with a few 21st-century touches. If Moscow’s grip on a country that mattered seemed about to loosen, excuses were found and fraternal forces were assembled to make sure that it didn’t happen – the hard way. Remember Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Afghanistan in 1979 and now Ukraine in 2014. Keeping hold of what they have has always mattered to Russia’s rulers. If they let one part go, the whole structure might start to fall down. Above all, it suggests weakness and there will always be those inside or outside the system who might take advantage of it and bring the rulers down. As we shall see, some Putin-watchers think that this pattern is being repeated. [Continue reading…]


Denmark threatened with nuclear attack by Russian ambassador

AFP reports: Russia’s ambassador to Denmark said Saturday that the NATO country’s navy could be targeted by nuclear missiles if it joins the Western alliance’s anti-missile shield.

The threat made by Ambassador Mikhail Vanin in an opinion piece he wrote for the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten sparked an angry reaction and came amid an increasingly Cold War-style standoff between Moscow and the West.

“I do not think that the Danes fully understand the consequences of what happens if Denmark joins the US-led missile defence,” Ambassador Mikhail Vanin wrote in the daily.

“If this happens Danish warships become targets for Russian nuclear missiles.”

Russia has long opposed NATO’s missile shield — launched in 2010 and due to be fully operational by 2025 — in which member countries contribute radar and weaponry to protect Europe against missile attacks.

Denmark has pledged to supply one or more frigates equipped with advanced radar to track incoming missiles.

The chairwoman of the Danish parliament’s foreign affairs, Mette Gjerskov told AFP that the comments were “very threatening and not necessary” as the missile shield was simply an “intruder alarm” and no danger to Russia. [Continue reading…]


The myth of the West’s threat to Russia

Alexander J. Motyl writes: Much Western thinking about the causes of the Russo-Ukrainian War is rooted in a myth. It posits that the West — or, more specifically, NATO — attempted to wrest Ukraine from Russia’s sphere of influence, thereby forcing Vladimir Putin to defend Russia’s legitimate strategic interests by going to war with Ukraine.

The logic is impeccable. The only problem is that there isn’t a shred of truth to this claim.

Was the West determined to integrate Ukraine into its institutions? Until the Maidan Revolution broke out in late 2013, Ukraine “fatigue” had characterized Western policy since about 2008, when the government of then-President Viktor Yushchenko lost the reformist zeal it had inherited from the 2004 Orange Revolution. Even before that, Western policymakers never talked of including Ukraine in the European Union. Indeed, the EU’s Eastern Partnership program and its offer of an Association Agreement to Kyiv were supposed to placate Ukraine without promising it even the distant prospect of membership in the EU. The reluctance to offer that prospect remains unchanged.

Was the West determined to transform Ukraine into a pro-Western democracy? The United States and Europe pumped several billions of dollars into Ukrainian civil society projects since 1991, while remaining indifferent to the Leonid Kuchma regime’s slide toward authoritarianism in the late 1990s, the abandonment by Yushchenko’s “Orange government” of its democratic reform agenda, and Viktor Yanukovych’s establishment of a full-fledged authoritarian regime in 2010-2013. Some Western policymakers supported the Maidan Revolution rhetorically and insisted that Yanukovych seek a compromise with the democratic revolutionaries; but most did not. No Western state actually provided any material assistance to the Maidan. And no Western presidents or prime ministers called on Yanukovych to step down during the revolution: quite the contrary, they travelled to Kyiv in late February 2014 with the express purpose of saving him. Once he abandoned his office, many Western policymakers welcomed his move — but that was after, and not before, the fact. [Continue reading…]


Berlin alarmed by aggressive NATO stance on Ukraine

Der Spiegel reports: It was quiet in eastern Ukraine last Wednesday. Indeed, it was another quiet day in an extended stretch of relative calm. The battles between the Ukrainian army and the pro-Russian separatists had largely stopped and heavy weaponry was being withdrawn. The Minsk cease-fire wasn’t holding perfectly, but it was holding.

On that same day, General Philip Breedlove, the top NATO commander in Europe, stepped before the press in Washington. Putin, the 59-year-old said, had once again “upped the ante” in eastern Ukraine — with “well over a thousand combat vehicles, Russian combat forces, some of their most sophisticated air defense, battalions of artillery” having been sent to the Donbass. “What is clear,” Breedlove said, “is that right now, it is not getting better. It is getting worse every day.”

German leaders in Berlin were stunned. They didn’t understand what Breedlove was talking about. And it wasn’t the first time. Once again, the German government, supported by intelligence gathered by the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, did not share the view of NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR).

The pattern has become a familiar one. For months, Breedlove has been commenting on Russian activities in eastern Ukraine, speaking of troop advances on the border, the amassing of munitions and alleged columns of Russian tanks. Over and over again, Breedlove’s numbers have been significantly higher than those in the possession of America’s NATO allies in Europe. As such, he is playing directly into the hands of the hardliners in the US Congress and in NATO.

The German government is alarmed. Are the Americans trying to thwart European efforts at mediation led by Chancellor Angela Merkel? Sources in the Chancellery have referred to Breedlove’s comments as “dangerous propaganda.” Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier even found it necessary recently to bring up Breedlove’s comments with NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg. [Continue reading…]


Russian soldiers ‘dying in large numbers’ in Ukraine, says NATO

BBC News: Nato’s deputy chief says Russian leaders are less and less able to conceal the deaths of “large numbers” of Russian soldiers in eastern Ukraine.

Alexander Vershbow said Russia’s involvement was becoming more unpopular with the Russian public as a result.

Russian officials dismissed on Thursday a US claim that Moscow had sent “thousands and thousands” of troops to fight alongside separatists.


Libya: To intervene, or not to intervene, that is not the question

The New York Times: Largely overshadowed by the crises in Syria, Iraq and Ukraine, Libya’s unraveling has received comparatively little attention over the past few months. As this oil-rich nation veers toward complete chaos, world leaders would be wise to redouble efforts led by the United Nations to broker a power-sharing deal among warring factions.

A few of the Islamist groups vying for control in Libya have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and carried out the type of barbaric executions that have galvanized international support for the military campaign against the terrorist group in Iraq and Syria. The growth and radicalization of Islamist groups raise the possibility that large parts of Libya could become a satellite of the Islamic State.

“Libya has the same features of potentially becoming as bad as what we’re seeing in Iraq and Syria,” Bernardino León, the United Nations envoy to Libya, said in an interview. “The difference is that Libya is just a few miles away from Europe.” [Continue reading…]

Jenan Moussa sardonically observes:

Now as always, those who reflexively argue against all forms of intervention will maintain the conceit that to do nothing is to do no harm. The unspoken assumption is: if we do nothing, we will suffer no harm. It’s not so much a mind your own business, live and let live, philosophy. More like, live and let die.

But as Richard Haass points out, intervention does not simply involve a binary choice:

When Barack Obama reluctantly led from behind in 2011, joining in the NATO intervention which toppled Gaddafi, his attention was much more keenly focused on domestic politics and an upcoming election, than it was on the fate of Libya. He placed higher value on the intervention ending than on what might follow. That Libyan oil quickly started flowing again looked like a success — from a Western and myopic vantage point.

But even though Libyans understandably did not want to see international powers controlling what essentially amounted to the construction of a new state, it seems like the international community missed an opportunity to use oil revenues as a political tool. If revenues had been paid into a UN-controlled account instead of directly to the National Oil Company, their release to the central bank and government could have been made contingent on a set of political milestones being passed such as disarming the militias.

The Libyan economy is totally dependent on oil and the desire to continue selling oil is the one common interest that unites all political factions. Left to their own devises, each will vie for control of the oil supply and revenues. But the power to determine whether oil is a source of division or unity could rest in the hands of the buyers. The world can manage without Libyan oil but Libya can’t survive without selling oil.

No one — apart from ISIS — has an interest in Libya becoming an irretrievably failed state.