Gaza-fication of the khalifat

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As the slow-motion air campaign unfolds over ISIS-held territory, we will inevitably see the Gaza-fication of the khalifat as their fighters and artillery move into big city neighborhoods, guaranteeing civilian casualties in the event of further air strikes.

This has become a jihadi staple – the maximization of civilian casualties on both sides, and then releasing photos of dead babies to a complicit worldwide media. The curious thing, from a PR standpoint, is that both the targeting of, and hiding behind, civilian populations are clear war crimes. Yet no one is clamoring to bring rabid Islamists to the Hague for trial.

Part of the problem with “war trials” is that combat operations don’t lend themselves to the collection and preservation of evidence, but in the case of firing unguided rockets at cities, towns and communities (in the case of Hamas already), and the placing of heavy weapons in and around schools, hospitals, places of worship and residential neighborhoods are prima facie war crimes.

To paraphrase Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the moral difference between the jihadi and the West is that they use their civilians to protect their weapons and we use our weapons to protect our civilians.

While the worldwide political left is forever weeping over even the most trivial civil rights transgression by the West, it baffles me that the intentional production of civilian mass casualties brings not a peep from them. Unless, of course, the worldwide “civil rights” movement is actually an unapologetic anti-West movement. This would be only of academic interest except that the acceptance of jihadi tactics as legitimate figures significantly into the continuation of their cause. They use the oft reprinted images of “dead babies” in effective recruitment and fundraising social media campaigns. The propaganda value of unchallenged claims of Western barbarianism is matched only by its irony.

It’s the moral equivalent of excusing Jeffrey Dahmer because of an eating disorder.

Here We Go

American politics

The primaries are now behind us, and the dust is beginning to settle into measurable piles in the race of this cycle – ownership of the US Senate. The Republicans need to net six new seats to wrest control of the Senate from Democrats. There are some historical factors that taint any mid-term election cycle – presidential popularity, low turnout, the economy, and the six-year itch – all of which bode better for the GOP than Democrats this year.

Since World War II, the fortunes of mid-term candidates have closely tracked the sitting president’s popularity rating at election time. Presidents with job approval ratings above 50% have lost fewer seats (or even gained) during mid-terms than those with job approval ratings below 50%. Mid-terms are irrevocably referenda on the sitting president. Mid-term elections tend to enjoy general turnouts ten or so percentage points below presidential elections, and low turnouts tend to favor the most energized voters. This year, Republicans seem more motivated than Democrats. We are in the weakest recovery in our history, so weak in fact, that we are nearly chronologically due for another recession. The economy is always a reflection of the sitting president and his party. Second-term presidents rarely do well – specific events not withstanding – after the sixth year of their presidency. So, as I say, the generic forces are working against Democrats this cycle. No Democrat in a competitive Senate race polls regularly above 50%, GOP enthusiasm is high, and independents are trending Republican.

Alaska, Georgia and Louisiana have quirky election laws that may result in election day coming and going, and we still don’t know who controls the Senate. RealClearPolitics Averages shows the GOP picking up (statistically) 6.5 net seats, the New York Times has Republican control of the Senate at a 56% probability, and Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog has it at 54.8%. In other words, everyone is showing a very close race for Senate control, if leaning Republican. If the split is 50-50, that leaves control in Democratic hands since VP Biden has the tie-breaking vote, and, given that, I can see most issues being voted down partisan lines. If, after election night, the split is 50-49 Republican with Alaska, Georgia or Louisiana in question, we could have a mess on our hands.

Republicans are strongly favored to win three races where Democratic senators are retiring: West Virginia, South Dakota and Montana. Their best hopes to pick up three more seats are in the four contests where Democrats seek re-election in states President Barack Obama lost last time around – Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina. The GOP is also making strong bids in Iowa, Colorado and New Hampshire, which Obama carried.

If Kansas, which is really crazy this year, goes to the Independent (who is a closet Democrat), that will require the Republicans win an additional seat to net six gains. Now the wild cards.

Alaska traditionally counts only around two-thirds of its total vote on election night. State law postpones counting most absentee and questioned ballots until a week after the election, and twice in the past six years, a Senate winner in Alaska wasn’t declared until at least two weeks after the election[1]. RCP Averages shows Republican Dan Sullivan at 44% and freshman Democrat incumbent Mark Begich at 42.7% – a difference of less than two percentage points, with neither candidate at 50% or over. Democrats have outspent Republicans $6.4 million to $3.6 million (TV buys up through election day).

In Louisiana all candidates – regardless of party – run in November. If none exceeds 50%, the top two finishers head into a December 6 runoff. Strategists in both parties say a December 6 runoff is likely because Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and top Republican challenger Bill Cassidy will struggle to exceed 50% on the crowded November 4 ballot.

Even stranger is Georgia. GOP nominee David Perdue is thought to have a modest lead over Democrat Michelle Nunn (45.9% to 42.6%, according to RCP Averages) in the race to succeed retiring Republican Saxby Chambliss. But there’s a Libertarian on the ballot, who might win enough votes to keep Perdue and Nunn from reaching 50%. That would trigger a runoff January 6, three days after the new Congress’ scheduled start. A recount of a Georgia runoff result, should there be one, would extend confusion even deeper into 2015. A candidate may request a recount if the margin is less than 1% of all votes cast[2].

After all the hype and hoopla, we could likely have a very anti-climactic election night.


[1] See Charles Babington, Who wins Senate control? Nov 4 might not decide, AP, September 21 2014, 2009EDT.

[2] Ibid.

Game Changer?

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There has been a lot of chatter about ISIS’s coming into possession of an unknown number of MiG-21 supersonic fighters when they overran Tabqa Airbase in northeastern Syria. This would make ISIS the first jihadis with air power.

A supersonic jet fighter is not an AK-47 however. The finder can’t just “pick it up” and use it in a firefight. High speed, high performance aircraft take well-trained pilots, and a MiG-21 isn’t just another high performance aircraft – it’s quirky and has an inordinately high pilot load – it takes familiarity and concentration to keep it controllably flying. The Fishbed (NATO designation for the MiG-21) doesn’t like the subsonic flight regime, where most combat operations occur. It was designed as an interceptor, not a ground attack platform.

Then there are the behind the scenes considerations. A MiG-21 typically lasts for around 1,400 to 1,500 hours (and if the logs aren’t in the aircraft, the new owners might not know how many hours their new toys have on them). The afterburning Tumansky R25-300 turbojet engine is only good for about 150 hours, and they are designed to be thrown away and replaced, rather than maintained. And this gets to a ground crew trained on MiG-21s. Any pilot will tell you that it’s the ground crew that keeps him flying. Access to jet fuel also becomes critical to operating jet fighters. Overall, a MiG-21 costs around $6,000 an hour to operate, and are very short-ranged (which won’t be a factor over ISIS-held territory). I’ve heard of Fishbed pilots who say that after start up and taxi you are nearly in a fuel emergency situation before takeoff. It is not, in other words, a good patrol aircraft – you need to have a target, and to close on and engage it, so you can go back to base and land before you go “bingo” fuel. And most importantly from our standpoint, F-16s, F-22s or F/A-18s engaging MiG-21s would be like clubbing baby seals.

Assuming that ISIS could find qualified MiG-21 pilots and ground crews – and have the spare parts to keep them in the air – they will probably use them the same way Assad does: to terrorize their own people. I would assume that any American air strikes into Syria would target these aircraft on the ground, and, of course, dispatch any that were foolish enough to get airborne. This can also be enhanced by attacking at night, as the Fishbed is a VFR platform – usable only under Visual Flight Rules (it’s not a night fighter).

In the final analysis, the ISIS capture of Tabqa Airbase could be viewed as a net plus – it takes those assets away from Assad, and thus can’t be used to further kill and maim innocent Syrians in northeastern Syria. I doubt that ISIS can utilize the Fishbeds to anything approaching optimum, if at all. I’d still destroy them and cluster-bomb the runways in early air strikes.

Reign of Terror

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The Islamic State (nee: ISIS, nee: ISIL) rules by terror. They decapitate, they crucify, they line-up and machine gun, they discipline their subjects with a head-shot – mostly in public, occasionally recorded for release to worldwide media. They have decapitated, ante mortem, two Americans that we know of. They hold a Britain-size swath of northern Syria and northern Iraq – and all of the American-made weapons contained therein. ISIS also overran Tabqa Airbase in northeastern Syria, coming into possession of an unknown number of MiG-21R Fishbed supersonic fighters.

One White House source on background (read: don’t print my name) has pondered the difficulties of getting Syria’s permission to conduct air ops against ISIS. “Permission”?! Are you kidding me?! We tell Assad, “Interfere with our strikes on ISIS-held territory and lose your air force and radar sites. Leave us alone, and we’ll leave you alone.” This should be done in absentia consultation with, let alone partnering with, the Assad government.

Others worry about partnering with Russia and Iran, or at least doing their bidding, in destroying ISIS. On the surface, the destruction of ISIS will benefit Russia (who wants their Mediterranean deep water port at Tartus) and Iran (who wants a Shi’ite puppet in Damascus), but ultimately, it will benefit the Civilized World in saving the Iraqi, Kuwaiti and Saudi oil fields from falling to a rabid Islamist khalifat. Russia has its port and Iran its puppet as things are – Syria serves as both under Assad – so defeating ISIS won’t change that status quo.

We need to partner with Sunni Arab states – and by partner, I mean have Sunni Arab states supply ground troops for the effort. It’s neighborhood that is most existentially threatened by these fanatics, but on a higher level the only way to diminish ISIS in Arab eyes – in Muslim eyes – is to have Sunni Arabs refute the legitimacy of the Sunni khalifat and materially assist in their removal. It is vital that the president get Sunni Arabs meaningfully into the coalition as that would help neutralize [Shi’ite] Hizbollah, making them choose between helping Sunni ISIS or Sunni coalition forces. Hizbollah is Iran’s proxy, resisting ISIS advancement into Iraq (on which Iran has designs) and Syria (on which Iran has designs). Iran needs both Iraq and Syria to complete the Shi’ite Crescent stretching from Tehran to the Mediterranean.

CIA now tells us that ISIS “can muster between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters across Iraq and Syria.” This number includes some 15,000 foreign fighters from more than 80 countries, of which around 2,000 came from Western nations[1]. According to CIA analysts, it’s not clear if this number is strictly ISIS troops or includes some in the ranks of other rebel groups fighting the Assad regime.

What struck me most about President Obama’s speech Wednesday evening was its utter lack of passion. If you want to hear Mr Obama speak with passion, listen to any of his diatribes against Republican-Americans. This was a professor delivering a lecture that bores him. His heart is not in this thing. I’m not the only one who’s noticed. Our “broad” coalition consists of eight European nations and Australia (the only among them willing to actually do something) – as opposed to over 25,000 troops from 49 nations following GW Bush into Iraq.

Since British aid worker David Haines was decapitated for the benefit of worldwide media, Prime Minister David Cameron is expected to announce that the RAF will either conduct independent air strikes on ISIS or join the American air campaign – the announcement probably during United Nations General Assembly meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday in New York[2]. Alan Henning, another British aid worker is still held by ISIS. This would bring the “broad” coalition to two.

SecState John Kerry closed a trip to the Middle East saying countries “in the region” and “outside the region” are prepared to engage in military assistance against ISIS and “in actual strikes if that is what it requires[3].” We know of Australia and probably Britain from outside the region, and that Saudi Arabia will probably allow basing of US assets, if that qualifies as “military assistance” from inside the region, but Secretary Kerry mentioned no one by name. In an incredible turn of events, a US official traveling with Kerry told reporters, “There have been offers to CENTCOM from Arab countries willing to take more kinetic actions,” according to a pool report. “Well, we’re not looking to put troops on the ground. There are some (nations) who have offered to do so, but we are not looking for that at this moment anyway,” Kerry said[4]. That’s precisely what we need – Sunni Arabs willing to actually join the fight.

If we are to “roll back” ISIS, to use the president’s own words, that means we need to retake and hold Mosul, Fallujah, Ramadi, and others. Somebody’s troops will have to do the retaking and holding – neither can be done from the air. The Kurdish Peshmerga don’t have enough troops to carry out house-to-house combat and then hold the cities, and nobody wants to trust the cut-and-run Iraqi army with anything important. Who then is going to “roll back” ISIS? I’m no more reassured nor more informed after listening to President Obama’s Wednesday night speech and the aftermath than I was before he spoke. We still don’t seem to know what we’re doing.

I hope I’m wrong.


[1] Jim Sciutto and Jamie Crawford [DC], and Chelsea J Carter [Atlanta], ISIS can “muster” between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters, CIA says, CNN, September 11 2014, 2116EDT.

[2] Peter Dominiczak and Christopher Hope, Demands for immediate military action against ISIL as another volunteer is threatened, in The Telegraph [London], September 14 2014, 2200BST.

[3] Cassie Spodak, Kerry: Countries “in the region” willing to aid strikes against ISIS, CNN, September 14 2014, 1316EDT.

[4] Ibid.

Putin’s Mind

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Although best known for his exposure of the Soviet Gulag system – a network of political prisons, mostly in Siberia – Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has an admirer in Vladimir Putin. He has often praised Solzhenitsyn’s 1990 essay entitled Rebuilding Russia, in which he criticizes the Soviet government’s haphazard border policies that carved up traditional “Rus.” He advocates a “Russian Union” encompassing Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, and the ethnic-Russian parts of Kazakhstan. Setting aside Putin’s adventure into Georgia (which as was done to spite NATO’s romancing of Ukraine), he is sticking to Solzhenitsyn’s script.

Putin is diddling with Ukraine, even boasting that he “could take Kiev in two weeks if he wanted to.” Belarus was fiercely communist during the Soviet era and continues to be pro-Russian, so absorbing Minsk into “Greater Russia” wouldn’t be problematic. And Mr Putin has rattled Kazaks with recent remarks about Kazakhstan “remaining in the space of the larger Russian world[1].” He stated this spontaneously on August 26, and then repeated the phrase three days later in answer to a question about whether Kazakhstan could undergo a Crimea-style carving up[2].

What isn’t covered much in the Western press, but that which draws him to Solzhenitsyn, is the fact that Putin is a nationalist. He has spoken often of the stupidity of communism and the tragedy of the break up of the Soviet Union (and subsequent weakening of Russia). He is not intent on resurrecting the Soviet Union, he wants to build the foundation for a new Russian Empire.

Jeffrey Mankoff, a Russia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (at Georgetown University), traveled to Eastern Europe in April. “Crimea was our 9/11,” he was told during his trip. “It’s an event that’s causing a lot of rethinking around the region.” Those who know Mr Putin best, at appears, are very wary of him. We in the West are learning to be, but beyond that, our thinking seems a bit muddled.

NATO has been aroused from its decades-long nap – it was pressed to supply troops for Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan), but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has electrified many members. Much of the panic is that, in the best traditions of the West, NATO has atrophied to the point of being utterly unprepared to fulfill its charter. With metronomic regularity, when conflict ends, those in the East reassess the global balance of power while those in the West dismantle their militaries and begin spending their “peace dividend” on themselves – we have already budgeted our military down to pre-World War II levels. This combination all but ensures the next conflict, for which the West will be woefully unprepared.

Vladimir Putin holds a visceral disdain for NATO, but doesn’t want to confront it, rather demonstrate its flaccidity to Eastern Europe. After consolidating its gains in Ukraine – whatever fraction of that country is carved off – it will come to some formal understanding with Belarus, and begin seeding unrest in Kazakhstan. His chess match with NATO will need to be fairly swift, before member countries can meaningfully swell its ranks with genuine combat troops and assets. This may take the form of threatening Moldova or Estonia – some small border state of little interest in the West. The intention will be to see if NATO will risk combat operations against Russian troops over such an insignificant prize. If not, Putin’s point will have been made; if so, he will have encountered the first resistance to his adventurism in Eastern Europe. He doesn’t need Moldova or Estonia. He needs to know NATO’s commitment to its charter.

Of the three external national security threats we face (PRC’s rise, ISIS taking territory from Syria and Iraq, and Russia’s Ukrainian invasion), Mr Putin is the most immediate as he is actively challenging Western resolve, and he is doing it because he is convinced the West won’t meaningfully react without America taking the lead, and that President Obama will not take the lead.

Putin has begun a process that pits his will against that of Barack Obama, and he has confidence that Obama has no stomach for it.


[1] Robert Coalson, Is Putin “Rebuilding Russia” According To Solzhenitsyn’s Design?, Radio Free Europe, September 1 2014.

[2] Mike Eckel, Ukraine War, Putin’s Comments Stir Worry in Kazakhstan, Voice of America, September 7 2014.