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inFOCUS Quarterly

Winter 2016

Defense Modernization and Challenges Ahead

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As Asad Pushes for Aleppo, Humanitarian Crisis Looms

The UN and other international aid agencies announced this week that they fear a pending humanitarian disaster for civilians living in Aleppo, Syria's most populous city. With the help of Russian air strikes, government troops have mostly surrounded rebel-held areas of the city, threatening to sever the aid lifeline for hundreds of thousands of people.

Earlier this month, forces loyal to President Assad retook Nubl and Zahraa, about 15 miles north of the city, cutting off a vital opposition supply route leading from Turkey. Rebel fighters now face "a severe challenge in mobilizing sufficient forces to reverse this new attack" and will be "no longer be able to receive reinforcements" following the regime's gains, according to a report by the Institute for the Study of War.

Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov arrive for talks on the Syrian peace process in Zurich, Switzerland, on Jan. 20. (Photo: AFP)

Foreigners have dominated the advance against the opposition, adding momentum to the regime's campaign to retake the central Aleppo from the northwest. Russian airstrikes and special forces have coordinated closely with government units, while the U.S. military estimates that up to 2,000 Hezbollah, Shiite militia, and other fighters backed by Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have also been active in the provence.

The advance of regime forces not only cuts off the supply routes for rebels, but also limits the ability of the UN and NGOs to transport aid. to civilians. The UN says that food assistance for up to 300,000 people living in Aleppo could be blocked following last week's offensive. The World Food Program will be unable to reach the eastern part of the city if, as appears likely, an alternative route is also be severed.

Russian and Syrian forces have faced international criticism for their actions. Not only have their forces indiscriminately attacked civilian areas, but they are deliberately encircling cities, laying siege to civilian districts, and starving out opposition control areas. Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, said Moscow is "making an already very bad situation even worse" by creating conditions that force people to flee their homes.

The stark plight civilians in Aleppo has not brought about a renewed urgency in Geneva, where diplomats have attempted to restart proximity talks designed first to begin a ceasefire and, ultimately, to end the fighting. The talks, which included U.S., Russian, and Syrian officials, as well as opposition leaders, ended on February 3rd without progress, three days after they began.

Buoyed by momentum from their offensives, Russian and Syrian diplomats were not in a mood to compromise, hoping to gain more leverage' in the coming weeks based on their military successes. Rebel representatives, on the other hand, had refused to formally take part in negotiations until the shelling of civilian areas stopped. The two parties were unable to bridge their differences to truly engage with one another. While talks are scheduled to resume no later than February 25th, events on the ground appear as if they far outpace any progress made by diplomats and politicians a 1,700 miles away.

By Michael Johnson  |  February 11, 2016 at 11:19 am  |  Permalink  |  Submit a Comment

Islamic State Shows New Influence in Libya

Islamic State's top commanders have begun to seek refuge in Libya, according to a statement made this week by a senior intelligence official in the country. Western and local leaders are now considering new moves to counter the threat from jihadists that has flourished in lawless areas since the overthrow of longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.

Speaking to the BBC, head of intelligence for the city of Misrata, Ismail Shukri, described an influx of foreign fighters in recent months. Reports suggest about 3,000 Islamic State fighters now control the coastal city of Sirte, bringing with them public crucifixions, beheadings, and the same form of Sharia law that exemplifies Islamic State brutality. Shukri estimates that non-Libyans comprise "around 70%" of the Islamic State's militiamen, "most of them are Tunisians, followed by Egyptians, Sudanese and a few Algerians." Others from Iraq and Syria have roots in Saddam Hussein's disbanded army. Meanwhile, Islamic State leaders with "long-term importance" to the group are quietly relocating away from the pressures of coalition airstrikes, he said. "They view Libya as a safe haven."

Libya Dawn militia fighters look at ISIS positions near Sirte, March 19, 2015. (Photo: Reuters)

Authorities in Misrata, about 150 miles to the west of Sirte, say they are planning an offensive to oust Islamic State from the city. But media reports suggest that IS fighters outnumber government loyalists by 2:1. A local militia commander, Mohammed al-Bayoudi, lamented he would not be able to destroy IS alone and welcomed NATO support. "Airstrikes alone cannot defeat IS," he warned, "what the army really needs is logistical support."

With the backdrop of a rising Islamic State presence in Libya, diplomats from 23 countries met this week in Rome to discuss how to fight the worldwide rise of the group's self-proclaimed caliphate. U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry warned that while the American-led coalition had made "undeniable" advances in Syria and Iraq, Libya's billions of dollars of oil resources could help fuel the the group's ambitions. However, in a joint statement officials only promised to "continue to monitor closely developments" in the country and "support the Government of National Accord in its efforts to establish peace and security for the Libyan people."

Ultimately, to stop the spread of Islamic State, its terrorism, and its repressive form of Sharia law, a viable partner is needed on the ground. With Libya divided into two rival factions, an internationally recognized government headquartered in the eastern city of Tobruk and the General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli, radical groups will be able to exploit the chaos for their own gains. U.S. Special Forces, under the direction of President Obama, have been in the country to vet possible militias to ally with since late last year, but without a united central government for others to rally behind, fighting the spread of Islamic State will remain an uphill battle.

By Michael Johnson  |  February 5, 2016 at 2:39 pm  |  Permalink  |  Submit a Comment

New Report Claims U.S. Spying on Israel

The U.S. and British governments have been spying on Israeli Air Force operations since 1998, according to documents that were obtained by former NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, and disclosed Friday. Officials in Israel have downplayed the revelations, but a pattern of American snooping on the Jewish State has emerged.

As reported in Israel's Yedioth Ahronoth daily, the NSA and its UK equivalent, GCHQ, ran an electronic eavesdropping operation out of Cyprus. Codenamed "Anarchist," the unit gained access to air force data as well as the image feeds from Israeli drones. A classified British report from 2008 describes its department's access as "indispensable for maintaining an understanding of Israeli military training and operations and thus an insight to possible future developments in the region" including "initial detection and tip-off for any potential pre-emptive or retaliatory strike against Iran.

A March 7, 2007 file photo of the Israeli Army's Heron TP drone. (Photo: AP)

In Jerusalem, reactions to the disclosure were mixed. Yuval Steinitz, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's security cabinet, said the news was "disappointing, inter alia because, going back decades already, we have not spied nor collected intelligence nor hacked encryptions in the United States." Meanwhile, he cited a senior intelligence analysis as lamenting that, "none of our encoded communications devices are safe from them."

Other allegations of the U.S. spying on its closest regional ally have persisted in the past few years. The Wall Street Journal reported last month that President Obama ordered the NSA to monitor Prime Minister Netanyahu during nuclear talks with Iran. Documents leaked in 2013 also suggest the U.S. and UK hacked into email accounts belonging to former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

But this appears to be the first disclosed incident in which the U.S. was spying on IDF activities and breaking encrypted military codes.

By Michael Johnson  |  January 29, 2016 at 1:31 pm  |  Permalink  |  Submit a Comment

Iran's Hardliners Strike Back

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani criticized his country's religious establishment on Thursday, questioning the method hardliners use to keep power. Rouhani's comments came after a big blow to reformists earlier in the week, when conservatives on the Guardian Council disqualified thousands of would-be parliamentary candidates.

In a televised speech to provincial governors in Tehran, Rouhani described the move as inconsistent with Iran's self-proclaimed representative system. "It is called the House of the Nation, not the house of one faction," the President said, "If there is one faction and the other is not there, they don't need the February 26 elections."

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani giving a speech on January 17, 2016. (Photo: AFP)

Members of the reformist political movement are upset with the Guardian Council's decision to disqualify approximately 40% of the 12,000 candidates that applied to run in the February 26th elections for Parliament and the Assembly of Experts. According to political activists, of the near 3,000 candidates considered reformist, only 30, or 1%, were judged as being sufficiently loyal to the ruling system to be able to run.

This week's decision highlights how the Guardian Council remains the one of the most important mechanisms for the continuation of the theocratic regime in Tehran. The Council, which consists of six clerics appointed by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and six judges nominated by parliament, has long used candidate vetting as a way to rig elections — months before voters even cast their ballots. In the last Parliamentary election alone, more than 2000 candidates were deemed ineligible and 30 sitting MPs were barred from running again for their own seats. Even with political infighting in government, ultimately, the ruling establishment firmly controls the people and the process.

By Michael Johnson  |  January 21, 2016 at 2:41 pm  |  Permalink  |  Submit a Comment

Turkey Pursues Accomplices After Bombing

Turkish Authorities announced Wednesday that they had detained seven people in connection with a suicide bombing in Istanbul earlier this week. The blast, in the central historical district, marks the first terrorist attack this year after a series of bloody bombings in 2015.

The Turkish interior minister Efkan Ala refused to name the suspects during a press conference, but did identify the bomber as Nabil Fadil. Born in Saudi Arabia and holding Syrian citizenship, Fadil had entered Turkey earlier this year from Syria saying that he sought refugee status. At the time Turkish security forces did not know he had links to Islamic State or terrorism.

German Interior Minister Thomas De Maizière leaves flowers in tribute to the victims Tuesday's attack in Istanbul. (Photo: AFP)

Flanking Interior Minister Ala at the news conference was his German counterpart, Thomas de Maizière, whose government confirmed later in the day that 10 of the 11 people killed in the bombing were German tourists. Many of the victims were on a tour run by a Berlin-based company. However, it is unknown if the bomber had targeted Germans specifically or just western-looking tourists. Up to fifty other people were also injured in the bombing.

The attack will bring renewed scrutiny to Ankara's handling of the country's long, porous border with Syria. Even though Turkey restricted most land crossing points to Syrian refugees late last year, Western countries have long complained about the ease with which both migrants and potential terrorists leave Syria. Moving in the other direction, radicalized young men from Europe and the Middle East often transit through Turkey to join Islamic State fighters in Syria, helping to inflame the conflict.

Turkish leaders in Ankara have begun to address the problem, with increasing sea patrols, building concrete barriers near the border, and loosening the rules of engagement for troops who intercept smugglers. U.S. officials have set up a shared terrorist list with the Turkish authorities to help flag jihadists claiming refugee status. The EU has pledged more than $3 billion to help refugees in Turkey, in exchange for increased security measures.

However, these measures might have already come too late. At least four other Islamic State terrorist attacks, including two suicide bombers, targeted Kurds and security installations last year.

By Michael Johnson  |  January 14, 2016 at 4:13 pm  |  Permalink  |  Submit a Comment

Tensions Rise With Tehran's Claims of Bombed Embassy

Iranian officials accused Saudi Arabia of launching an airstrike against its embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, on Thursday, marking the latest escalation between the two regional powers.

Saudi Arabia's alleged attack on the diplomatic facility was "deliberate and intentional," said an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman quoted in the Islamic Republic's state-run media. "Iran holds the government of Saudi Arabia responsible for this act and the wounding of a number of embassy staff and damages made to its building," he said.

A Yemeni soldier stands guard in front of the Iranian embassy in Sana'a in July. (Photo: AFP)

While not all of Tehran's accusations have been independently verified, accounts from Sanaa suggest that a building across the street from the diplomatic compound was indeed hit in an air strike. The New York Times reported that shrapnel from the attack injured embassy guards in the vicinity. Saudi Arabia has led a destructive air campaign since March to push back Iranian-supported Houthi rebels in Yemen, often coming under criticism for bombing built-up urban areas.

Wednesday night's events are only the most recent signs of tension between the Sunni Kingdom and Tehran's Shiite theocracy. Riyad's execution of a leading Shiite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, who authorities had accused of fomenting terrorism, sparked outrage in Iran. Rioters gathered outside the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, throwing firebombs and ultimately ransacking the building. Following the incident, Saudi leaders cut diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic, expelling all Iranian diplomats from the country. Other Sunni nations followed, Qatar announced it would recall its ambassador from Iran, and Bahrain, Sudan, and Djibouti severed diplomatic ties.

The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and more widely between Sunnis and Shiites, for regional dominance dates back centuries, and can be seen in various trouble spots throughout the Middle East. But, Washington's recent willingness to lift sanctions on Iran as part of a wider nuclear agreement alarmed Sunni leaders who no longer feel secured by America's presence in the region. Ultimately, this week's flare-up highlights the uncertainty by the changing of an important 40-year-old American strategy: containing Iran.

By Michael Johnson  |  January 8, 2016 at 4:14 pm  |  Permalink  |  Submit a Comment

Suicide Bomber Hits Pakistan

A suicide bombing killed at least 22 people outside a government building in the northwestern Pakistani town of Mardan on Tuesday. The bombing marks just the latest in a series of bloody terror attacks in the country this year following a crackdown initiated by security forces last January.

Media reports indicate that the terrorist drove an explosives-laden motorcycle to a National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) building and blew himself up as security officers approached. Approximately, 75 people were injured, 25 of them critically, according to police at the scene. Jamaat ur Ahrar, a hardline faction of the Pakistani Taliban wishing to impose Sharia law claimed responsibility for the attack, saying the office was a legitimate government target.

The attack has been claimed by a faction of the Pakistani Taliban. (Photo: BBC News)

Earlier this year elements of the Pakistani Taliban, also know by the name of its umbrella organization Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also carried out bombings. Most attacks target government offices, military facilities, or Shiite neighborhoods, but incidents by the TTP have become less common.

A few months after a Taliban attack killed almost 150 school children in December 2014, Islamabad implemented a new National Action Plan empowering military and civil institutions to more aggressively pursue terrorists. With wide backing from across the mainstream political spectrum, the government enhanced the ability of separate agencies to share information, codified a special military tribunal court to hear terrorism cases, and created a specialized counter-terrorism unit. Similarly, Operation Zarb-e-Azb, started in 2014 but intensified in 2015, directed the Army to purge militants in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the northwest border with Afghanistan.

Consequently, the security forces successfully decreased the number attacks and almost halved the number of people killed by terrorism in 2015 compared to 2014, according to the Wall Street Journal. On the other hand, taking on the militants in the Tribal regions has displace fighters, forcing many back into Afghanistan but also into more urban Pakistani slums. Meanwhile, the Islamist groups making up the TTP have also splintered along ideological lines, with some subgroups - worried about their image - becoming less willing to target civilians in public to achieve their political goals.

By Michael Johnson  |  December 30, 2015 at 11:07 am  |  Permalink  |  Submit a Comment

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