Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Yemen Being Yemen

While I was distracted with tiny little inconveniences such as living my life, Yemen has become quite the busy place. A quick summary: Houthi rebels from the north went on the offensive (much like ISIS did in Iraq), captured the capital of Sana'a, forced the prime minister to step down, occupied multiple government buildings, signed a political deal with the Yemenis president, and then started battling Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula fighters when their offensive collided with AQAP's offensive. At least that's how I'm interpreting all of what I'm reading.

Pause for breath.

First off, who the fuck are the Houthis? I'm showing my Yemen ignorance because apparently they've been around for awhile. Read the BBC article on them but in a nutshell they are a political movement/rebel group that follow a minority brand of Shia Islam. The Houthis did not particularly like the prime minister and after a military offensive in the north along with protests in the capital, they captured Sana'a. Of course, once you have the capital people start paying attention to what you want and President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi quickly signed a deal with the Houthis giving them what they wanted, mostly a new government under a new prime minister.

The Houthis aren't done, however. After taking Sana'a they've continued their offensive momentum and pushed into central and western Yemen capturing the port of al-Hudaydah which is Yemen's second largest port next to Aden. By moving into central Yemen, the Houthis have now come into conflict with fighters and tribal members loyal to our old friends Al Qaeda who have blunted the Houthi advance.

For a short while, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was seen as the AQ franchise most likely to cause trouble for The West and there were rumors Yemen may become the next Afghanistan. If you recall, The Underwear Bomber was part of a plot by AQAP to conduct attacks against the United States. Then AQAP fell out of the news and we all became distracted by ISIS, Ebola, The Bachelor, and whatever else we in The West (America) tend to get distracted by.

Of course I realize that I'm over-simplifying this conflict. The Houthis didn't just come out of nowhere and AQAP hasn't become entrenched in southern and eastern Yemen by accident. Yemen is a complicated place full of tribal grievances and political strife that goes back to the civil war in 1994. Well, more likely the conflict can be traced to when Yemen was actually two separate countries, or possibly when it was under British colonial rule. Or maybe the Ottomans are the blame? No no no, this must go back to the Ayyubid Dynasty.

But what can solve this everlasting tribal/political/cultural crisis? Airstrikes...duh.

Update: I'm aware that U.S. airstrikes are not meant to solve the conflict in Yemen. They are for killing AQAP douchewaffles.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Islamic State Has Chemical Weapons OH NOOOOO!!!!

In the past few days there have been a multitude of articles reporting that insurgents with the Islamic State have acquired and probably used chemical weapons, primarily against the Kurdish militia YPG in Syria. Many analysts and writers are claiming that ISIS must have gotten the chemical weapons (most likely artillery rounds) from leftover Saddam-era Iraqi stockpiles. There are now many bloggers and pundits getting on their soap boxes stating the invasion of Iraq by the Bush administration was the correct course of action because it's now obvious that these chemical weapons are a clear indicator that Saddam had and was hiding a WMD program.

People need to calm the fuck down.

ISIS having and using chemical munitions does not mean Saddam Hussein had a chemical weapons program after 1991. Syria has had a chemical weapons program for some time now and only in the past year have they allowed those weapons to be destroyed. ISIS cells could have acquired Syrian munitions prior to those munitions being collected and destroyed.

However, there's an even more likely explanation, one I've made off handed comments about in the past. See the third paragraph in this post from February 2011. If you don't want to click, here's the statement:
During a short stretch of 2007 patrols in northern Baghdad were being hit by IEDs made from artillery shells containing chemical agents. Those artillery shells were believed to have come from a bunker complex that had once housed chemical rounds that had not yet been destroyed by inspectors; it was unlikely the insurgents making the IEDs had any idea the rounds were chemical munitions.
Or check out this post from August 2011 where I'm griping about stupid questions I got during my various times as a battalion intelligence officer. Check out #7 from that post:
7. *Battalion update brief some time in 2007 in Baghdad after one of the brigade Stryker patrols had been hit with an IED which consisted of a chemical weapon artillery shell.* "Why isn't the media reporting on the chemical weapon attacks? Doesn't this prove Saddam had WMD?!" -BSB command sergeant major 
- This was just part of the rant the CSM launched at me after I briefed this particular attack. The artillery shell likely came from a stockpile of chemical weapons that the old Iraqi Army had but hadn't destroyed yet, or forgot about. These stockpiles were known to the UN and the US and were not part of the WMD reasoning when Iraq was invaded/liberated. The insurgents who used this round likely didn't even know the shell had chemical weapons in it. 
If my statements are not convincing enough here's a CIA assessment of the Al Muthanna Chemical Weapons Complex, the facility where Saddam's chemical weapons were stored. Three paragraphs stood out to me (ISG is the Iraq Survey Group, the guys looking for WMD):
ISG conducted multiple exploitations of the Al Muthanna site to determine whether old chemical weapons, equipment, or toxic chemicals had been looted or tampered with since the last UN visit to the site. ISG is unable to unambiguously determine the complete fate of old munitions, materials, and chemicals produced and stored there.The matter is further complicated by the looting and razing done by the Iraqis. 
An exploitation of the facility reconfirmed previous imagery analysis that the site remained inoperable from bombings and UNSCOM compliance, including destruction of equipment and resources, and no significant production capabilities existed. Facilities and bunkers revealed no evidence of production since UNSCOM departed. 
Stockpiles of chemical munitions are still stored there. The most dangerous ones have been declared to the UN and are sealed in bunkers. Although declared, the bunkers contents have yet to be confirmed. These areas of the compound pose a hazard to civilians and potential blackmarketers. 
So even the CIA states that chemical weapon manufacturing was not being conducted and Iraq was complying with UN demands regarding previous chemical weapons sites. But what about the rounds that were stored there that had not yet been destroyed? Well, as I mentioned above, insurgent groups managed to get a few of those rounds and used them against US forces. Whether the IED cells knew they were chemical weapons or not can be debated but my analysis is the insurgents were unaware, or at the very least did not know how to properly use them.

However, why weren't these cases of chemical munitions use reported? Probably multiple reasons. US forces likely didn't want the information getting out that there were all these chemical rounds that were found and not yet destroyed...that just looks bad; not to mention the egg of the face of insurgents getting weapons that were supposedly secured . Also, higher echelons probably didn't want to spread panic among the troops that insurgents possibly had chemical weapons. Lets not even discuss the fact that these were rounds the US allowed Saddam to have and the 1980s when using chemical weapons was OK as long as it was against Iran.

Except then Wikileaks happened and all those reports of chemical munitions being used as IEDs were released to media...and reported. But nobody cared because it was 2010 and people didn't want to think about Iraq anymore. Which brings us to today and some insurgent bastards have those chemical munitions again. Suddenly, people care again and are claiming Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld were correct all along.

Those people haven't been paying attention.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Introducing the YPG!

I've written here and there about the Kurdish security forces in Iraq, namely the Kurdistan Regional Government's Peshmerga militia and their "secret" police, the Asayish. Long time readers will understand why: I was deployed to northeast Diyala Province, Iraq in 2009-10 in an area disputed between Arabs and Kurds and dealt quite a bit with both the Peshmerga and the Asayish. The "Pesh" have been engaging AQI/ISI/ISIS/ISIL/IS as well as various other Iraqi insurgent groups (namely Jaysh Rijal al-Tariq Naqshabandi and Ansar al Sunna) for years now; primarily in defense of the Iraqi Kurdish people, but also to reclaim "lost" territory. They've had success in some areas, failures in others, and stalemates pretty much everywhere.

But what about the Syrian Kurds? Who is defending them?

A Kurdish militia known as the Yekineyen Parastina Gel (acronym time again: YPG); or the Kurdish People's Protection Units for those who prefer English. The group is tied with Syria's Kurdish Democratic Union Party and Turkey's Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK). YPG denies links to the PKK which is a designated terrorist organization by Turkey and is currently waging an insurgency against that country.

I'm going to need a flow chart soon.

The YPG militia, along with their cousins the Peshmerga, utilize female soldiers which is extremely useful for propaganda purposes when you're fighting an extremist group whose fighters reportedly fear being killed by a woman (NY Post article, take it with a grain of salt). However, ISIS is known for it's brutality against women which has led to at least one fighter killing herself to avoid being captured.

Or this female fighter utilizing a terrorist tactic against terrorists. That's one hell of a symbol.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Turkey On Board

As you are likely well aware, this whole Iraq/Syria/ISIS/ISIL thing is a tad complicated. ISIS is gaining ground in Syria near the Turkish border and in the Anbar Province of Iraq. However, they are losing ground to Iraqi and Kurdish forces in the Iraqi provinces of Ninewa and Diyala. The province of Salah al-Din appears to be in a stalemate, especially in and around Tikrit. US airstrikes are helping Iraqi and Kurdish forces, but only in those areas where those forces are going on the offensive.

Some more good (?) news may be on the way. Turkey's Parliament voted to allow the Turkish military to conduct operations in Iraq and Syria. I'm glad they are finally on board, but what was the catalyst for pushing Turkey into this fight?

It may be a little known Turkish enclave (technically an exclave, but who the hell cares) in Syria.

The enclave is the tomb of Suleyman Shah, who was the grandfather of Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire. In 1921 a treaty was signed between France and Turkey, the tomb and some surrounding land was allowed to remain Turkish territory and Turkey is allowed to raise the Turkish flag and have troops guarding the shrine. Turkish commanders have stated they will defend the enclave and come to the aid of the guards there should ISIS attack.

I read about this enclave a few months ago when Turkey was concerned about an ISIS threat to the shrine, but the story never gained much traction. However, wherever ISIS goes they tend to destroy shrines, tombs, and anything else of cultural value; and now ISIS is just a few miles to the north, in Kobani. Will we see a Turkish invasion of Syria in the coming weeks/months? My gut instinct says not...maybe some airstrikes, but no ground troops. Unless ISIS takes the shrine. Then all bets are off.

Edit: I originally stated that Suleyman Shah was the father of Osman I. He is actually the grandfather.