Russia Defense Report – Feb. 20, 2016: Russian Military Grouping in Syria (Arab, Ger Subs)

 

 

Published first on Feb 19, 2016

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SYRIA, A “NEW” LIBYA WITH VERY LITTLE TIME LEFT?

22libya-full-bleed-videoSixteenByNine3000                   Fotograph courtesy of the New York Times

 

There could be no more apt image to describe Libyan politics today than the prime minister himself, the beleaguered Mr Ali Zeidan, being kidnapped on Tuesday morning by a militia notionally allied to his own government. When he was released several hours later, he noted, with marvellous understatement, that “there are many things that need dealing with”. Indeed there are.

For one thing, Mr Zeidan’s was not the first abduction of the week. That came courtesy of American special forces, who strolled into Tripoli on Saturday to pick up Abu Anas al-Liby, a senior member of al‑Qaeda wanted for the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Uganda. The Americans then made life immeasurably harder for the Libyan government by insisting that it had known about the raid. The predictable result was uproar.

But it’s no surprise that the US felt the need to step in. Libyan forces were neither able to prevent the 2011 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, which killed Ambassador Chris Stevens, nor arrest anyone afterwards. If the US had simply put in an extradition request, the prospect of al-Liby being picked up or ever facing trial would have been vanishingly small.

In truth, the prime minister’s kidnapping and the US raid are both no more than symptoms of something that has been obvious for over a year: Libya’s post-Gaddafi state lacks the firepower to impose its will on an increasingly lawless country. The Italian consulate in Benghazi was attacked in January, the French embassy in April, the EU ambassador’s convoy in August, and Russia’s embassy last week. And those are just the foreign targets.

This is about much more than terrorist violence. The state in Libya, which Colonel Gaddafi eviscerated for his own despotic ends, is now being consumed by the same rebel groups that brought it into life back in 2011. Performing the most basic tasks of administration, such as making arrests or monitoring borders, can require a negotiation between the government and whichever militias happen to have accumulated enough guns in that particular area. It’s not just that the enfeebled police and army won’t take them on for fear of losing. It’s also that the state has decided to outsource these functions to its tormentors. Both the prime minister’s kidnapping and the attack in Benghazi were perpetrated by groups that have worked with the government and its ministries.

Why are militias challenging the government in the first place? There’s no simple answer, because there is a dizzying variety of groups with guns. Some are Islamist, others secular and nationalist. Some are formed around particular cities or provinces. Others formed in a jumbled way during the 2011 uprising, and claim a sort of Jacobin revolutionary legitimacy against what they see as a government tainted by corrupt, pro-Western stooges.

In March, a coalition of militias, with the typically self-important title of the Supreme Security Council, laid siege to the ministries of justice and foreign affairs for two weeks, insisting that parliament sign a wide-ranging law that would ban Gaddafi-era officials from serving in government. Remarkably, parliament capitulated. It had essentially been coerced into legislating at the barrel of a gun. The speaker of parliament himself was forced to resign.

Outside of Tripoli, the problem is no better. For the past two months, Libyan oil exports have plummeted to a fifth of their Gaddafi-era peak, after guards at eastern oil facilities and ports went on strike. Part of that dispute was a demand that eastern Libya, which chafes at Tripoli’s domination, be given more autonomy.

Wars, once won, tend to be forgotten. This was the fate of Afghanistan in the years after 2001, Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011. But Libya’s problems will not stay within its borders. Adding to all of these domestic concerns is the massive flow of arms across Libya’s long, porous borders. Libyan weapons, looted from Gaddafi’s armouries, have been smuggled across the region, turning up in places as diverse as Mali, the Sinai, Gaza and Syria. According to one estimate, around 3,000 shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles – capable of bringing down civilian airliners – remain missing.

The dilemma is clear: Libya’s government is too weak to fix these problems itself, but unilateral American or European steps – or assistance that is too public – risks tainting the government further in the eyes of Islamists and nationalists. A careful balance has to be struck. This government’s authority has been eroding for over a year, and it has now suffered the most grievous blow yet. Unless Mr Zeidan shows he can check the power of militias, he risks a continued slide into irrelevance.

The Attack on the American Mission in Benghazi, Libya

The American mission in Benghazi, Libya, was attacked twice on the night of Sept. 11, 2012. Below, the events that evening that resulted in the deaths of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans according to the latest information available.
 
The American mission in Benghazi, Libya, was attacked twice on the night of Sept. 11, 2012. Below, the events that evening that resulted in the deaths of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans according to the latest information available.
Sept. 11, 9:30 p.m. Benghazi time

Militants, firing guns and rocket-propelled grenades, attack the main compound, moving on multiple entrances at once. The main entrance is protected by three armed and four unarmed Libyan guards. No more than seven Americans are in the compound, including three civilians and four who have guns. Mr. Stevens is alone in the main building, according to guards interviewed later. The militants enter the compound, backed by truck-mounted artillery.

Libya Envoy’s Killing Was a Terrorist Attack, the White House Says

WASHINGTON — The White House is now calling the assault on the American diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, a “terrorist attack.”

“It is self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack,” the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, told reporters aboard Air Force One on Thursday. “Our embassy was attacked violently and the result was four deaths of American officials.”

Until now, White House officials have not used that language in describing the assault. But with the election less than two months away and President Obama’s record on national security a campaign issue, they have come under criticism from Republican lawmakers who say the administration is playing down a threat for which it was unprepared.

Mr. Carney offered the new assessment in response to a question about remarks by Matthew G. Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, who told a Congressional committee Wednesday that J. Christopher Stevens, the United States ambassador to Libya, and three other Americans had died “in the course of a terrorist attack.”

Asked if the president drew a connection between the Libyan attack, which occurred on Sept. 11, and the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon 11 years before, Mr. Carney said, “The attack occurred on Sept 11, 2012, so we use the same calendar at the White House as you do.”

In a highly charged political atmosphere, the mere use of the term “terrorist” is loaded, not least, as one administration official acknowledged privately, because the phrase conjures up an image of America under attack, something the White House wants to avoid.

Beyond that, different government agencies have different definitions for what defines terrorism, said Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism expert at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan research group.

The classic definition, Mr. Fishman said, “is an attack by a nonstate group on noncombatants with the intent to intimidate people.” He said that another reason the administration was shying from using that term is because “they really didn’t know who did it.”

And the president, campaigning in Florida on Thursday, did not use the word terrorism when asked about the attacks.

Mr. Carney maintained on Thursday that Obama administration officials still were not calling the attack preplanned.

“According to the best information we have now, we believe it was an opportunistic attack on our mission in Benghazi,” he said. “It appears that some well-armed militants seized on that attack as the events unfolded that evening. We do not have any specific intelligence that there was significant advance planning or coordination for this attack.”Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said earlier in the week that there had been no intelligence warnings that an attack was imminent.

Mrs. Clinton said that F.B.I. investigators had arrived in Tripoli and that the United States, with the Libyan authorities, would find those responsible. She did not discuss any potential ties to Al Qaeda, but blamed extremists opposed to the democratic changes in places like Libya, Tunisia and Egypt for the violence and protests around the region generally.

Mrs. Clinton announced the creation of a panel to investigate the attack. The panel, called an Accountability Review Board, will be led by Thomas R. Pickering, a veteran diplomat and former under secretary of state. The board is authorized by a 1986 law intended to strengthen security at United States diplomatic missions.

“We are concerned first and foremost with our own people and facilities,” Mrs. Clinton said in an appearance at the State Department with the Indonesian foreign minister. “But we are concerned about the internal security in these countries, because ultimately, that puts at risk the men, women and children of these societies on a daily ongoing basis if actions are not taken to try to restore security and civil order.”

Why Obama’s assurance of ‘no boots on the ground’ isn’t so reassuring

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A U.S. Marine on patrol. (Rebecca Sell/For The Washington Post)

Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, was an Obama administration appointee at the Defense Department from 2009 to 2011. She is married to an Army Special Forces officer.

Each time I hear President Obama assure us that there will be “no boots on the ground” in Iraq or Syria, I think of my husband’s Army boots, lying in a heap in the corner of the downstairs study. They’re covered in fine dust from his latest Middle East deployment, one that came nail-bitingly close to being extended by an unplanned stint in Iraq.

In the end, he wasn’t sent back to Iraq. He came home in July, though a last-minute change in assignments left most of his civilian clothes stranded in some Army transport netherworld. Deprived of his sneakers and sandals, he wore his Army boots pretty much everywhere this summer, even on playground outings with the kids. Watching grass stains from the local park gradually displace nine months of Kuwaiti dust gave me more happiness than I can say.

Even so, I can’t help feeling queasy every time I hear the president pledge that there will be “no boots on the ground” in America’s newest war. I wonder what that pledge really means — and just why we’re supposed to find it reassuring. It’s a pledge that seems to have everything to do with politics and little to do with the imperatives of strategy or security.

Here’s what “no boots on the ground” apparently doesn’t mean: It doesn’t mean that no U.S. troops will be sent to Iraq or Syria. Reportedly there are already 1,600 U.S. military personnel in Iraq. True, they’re present in an “advisory” role, not in a combat role — but surely one lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan is that combat has a habit of finding its way to noncombat personnel. Enemy snipers and IEDs don’t much care about a soldier’s mission or occupational specialty, and you can bet that fighters of the self-proclaimed Islamic State would be content with the heads of a few American advisers.

It’s also hard to know what publicly reported troop numbers really mean. When the Pentagon issues a Boots on the Ground report (known colloquially as a “BOG report”), it often excludes military personnel on “temporary duty” in combat areas, even though temporary duty may mean an assignment spanning five or six months. Similarly, Special Operations personnel assigned to work under CIA auspices are often left out of the BOG numbers. This makes it hard to know just who’s being counted when officials say there are 1,600 military personnel in Iraq.

“No boots on the ground” also ignores the many nonmilitary American boots (and shoes and sandals) present in Iraq and Syria. Our Baghdad embassy personnel presumably wear some kind of footwear, as do thousands more civilians working as U.S. government contractors in Iraq. In both Iraq and Syria, scores of American civilians also work for nongovernmental organizations and humanitarian aid groups.

The Pentagon keeps careful count of dead and wounded U.S. troops, but the government doesn’t systematically track dead or injured civilians or contractors (many of whom, of course, are U.S. military veterans). Though few Americans know it, there were often more contractors working for the U.S. government on the ground than there were U.S. troops at the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and some estimates suggest that there were as many U.S.-employed contractors who died in those conflicts as there were U.S. troops killed.

Cynics might even suspect that this heavy reliance on contractors was part of an effort to keep those BOG numbers down while outsourcing military risk. After all, no one likes high BOG numbers — the very acronym is suggestive of that most dreaded military outcome, the “quagmire.”

If “no boots on the ground” means playing games with numbers and offloading military risk onto U.S. government civilians and contractors, we should take little solace in presidential reassurances.

And we should feel even less comfort if “no boots on the ground” ends up putting vulnerable local civilians at risk. Remember Kosovo? President Bill Clinton’s refusal in 1999 to put U.S. troops on the ground forced us to rely solely on airstrikes to prevent Serbian ethnic cleansing. To further minimize any risk to U.S. military personnel, we mainly flew sorties at a safe 15,000 feet above the ground. This worked out well for us: Aside from two Americans killed in a helicopter accident in Albania, there were no U.S. fatalities in the 78-day air campaign. It worked out less well for some of the civilians we were trying to protect; in several cases, for instance, NATO pilots mistook convoys of refugees for troop transports, causing scores of civilian deaths.

The primary goal of the current U.S. airstrikes in Syria and Iraq isn’t civilian protection, but Obama has suggested that this is at least a secondary motivation. In his speech this past week to the U.N. General Assembly, for instance, he asserted that the Islamic State “has terrorized all who they come across in Iraq and Syria. Mothers, sisters and daughters have been subjected to rape as a weapon of war. Innocent children have been gunned down. . . . Religious minorities have been starved to death. In the most horrific crimes imaginable, innocent human beings have been beheaded. . . . The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force. So the United States of America will work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death.”

It’s hard to argue with the importance of dismantling a “network of death,” but no matter how careful we are, U.S. airstrikes in Syria and Iraq will also end up killing some innocent civilians. Without eyes and ears on the ground, we’re more likely to make tragic targeting mistakes. We have to hope we’ll do more good than harm, but it’s hard to feel confident of that.

Numerous respected military and defense leaders — from Army Gen. Martin Dempsey , current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to retired defense secretary Robert Gates — have argued in recent weeks that ground troops will probably be required if our strategy is to be effective. So far, events seem to be proving them right: In Iraq, seven weeks of airstrikes have done little to push Islamic State fighters out of the territories they control, despite close U.S. coordination with Iraqi army units. In Syria, we have no similar local force with which to coordinate, creating a risk that U.S. airstrikes will increase the chaos without fundamentally reducing the threat to local civilians — or, in the longer term, to the United States.And that’s most worrisome of all — the possibility that our insistence on “no boots on the ground” also offloads present risks onto the future. Relying on airstrikes alone may merely prolong a bloody and inconclusive conflict, or strengthen other actors who are just as brutal as Islamic State fighters, from the regime of Bashar al-Assad to the al-Qaeda-linked rebels of Jabhat al-Nusra.Insisting that we’ll never commit U.S. troops to this fight plays right into every jihadist narrative, reinforcing America’s image as an arrogant but cowardly nation — happy to drop bombs from a distance but unwilling to risk the lives of our troops. Each time we reinforce that narrative, we give jihadist recruiting another big boost.

 

For a decade, we’ve relied on drone strikes as a top counterterrorism tool in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, but a few thousand dead terrorism suspects later, it’s far from clear that we’ve made ourselves safer. If anything, the global jihadist movement appears to have gained strength. As a former Defense Intelligence Agency director, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, recently noted: “In 2004, there were 21 total Islamic terrorist groups spread out in 18 countries. Today, there are 41 Islamic terrorist groups spread out in 24 countries.” Ultimately, our efforts to destroy the Islamic State from afar may similarly spark the creation of even more jihadist groups.

“I will not commit you . . . to fighting another ground war in Iraq,” Obama told troops at Central Command headquarters this month. I appreciate his desire to do right by America’s military personnel: My husband’s boots, like those of so many other members of the armed forces, have already gathered too much dust in too many dangerous places, over too many years. Right now, I want those boots to stay exactly where they are: here, at home.

But I don’t want to trade the safety of U.S. troops today for the safety of our children tomorrow. If Obama’s promise of “no boots on the ground” means we’ll be fighting a war of half-measures — a war that won’t achieve our objectives and that may increase the long-term threat — I’m not sure, in the end, that it’s a promise I want him to keep.