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NATO in Asia-Pacific: Temporary Deterrence or Forward Thinking?

Urgent Briefing – The Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has conducted a diplomatic tour to visit the two regional allies in Asia-Pacific, namely Japan and the Republic…

Urgent Briefing – The Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has conducted a diplomatic tour to visit the two regional allies in Asia-Pacific, namely Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK, ‘South Korea’). This raised a legitimate debate regarding NATO’s prospects in a region so far away from the Euro-Atlantic realm.

 

Visits to South Korea and Japan

Jens Stoltenberg arrived on October 30, 2017 in Tokyo for a three-day visit. Appointed in 2015 as Secretary General, this was his first tour in Asia-Pacific, throughout which he reinforced the Alliance’s partnership with Japan and South Korea. Having talked with the Japanese Defense Minister, the two agreed on the potential to expand cooperation in the areas of maritime security and cyber defense, additionally to the substantial efforts already undergone. On November 1st, he traveled to South Korea for a two-day trip to meet with the Foreign Minister, and to address the North Korean threat. He made bold comments about this issue, condemning Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic programs; Stoltenberg referred to them as a threat to ‘international and regional security’, calling on Kim Jong-Un to abandon this pursuit.

 

NATO’s Asia-Pacific policy

Sine the conclusion of the Cold War, the Alliance created a wide range of partnership options through which it pursued fostering good relations with states across the globe. The largest such framework is Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC), a 50-nation multilateral forum that encompass diverse actors, from Russia, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Ukraine, to Austria or Armenia. The Mediterranean Dialogue is eligible for states situated in Northern Africa or the Levant, as the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI) welcomes several Gulf states as Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Additional to these frameworks, there are individual options that are loosely referred to as ‘Partners across the Globe’, and provides interested peers with tailored diplomatic protocols that facilitates a closer engagement to NATO. Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK) are one of those states. And following Washington’s model, they are NATO’s key partners in shaping an Asia-Pacific policy. Evidently, the United States has a leading role in applying and conceptualizing such a policy, but the other 28 states also have a decisive input. It is widely known that NATO has a history of conducting operations and crafting strategies in rapport with issues and regions outside the Euro-Atlantic space in the post-Cold War era. Operation Ocean Shield (Indian Ocean, Bab-el-Mandeb strait), ISAF (Afghanistan) or Iraq Training Mission have cemented the Alliance’s outlook towards the external space amid the 21st century security environment and emerging threats. The 2010 Lisbon Summit formally marked this transition by adding Crisis Management and Cooperative Security to NATO’s core values, in addition to the original task of Collective Defense. The 2010 New Strategic Concept is relevant in application to all issues and challenges, while keeping the focus on cooperative efforts with regional peers.

There has been no official military presence in the waters of Asia-Pacific before, nor substantial diplomatic effort in the region under a NATO framework. This marks Stoltenberg’s tour as a milestone in the Alliance’s ‘coming-of-age’ towards the region. The visits to Japan and South Korea can be regarded as a natural sign of solidarity towards NATO’s biggest financial contributor and strongest member, the United States. And that extensively, the effort was an additional deterrence tool in applying pressure towards the North Koreans.

 

North Korea: a global problem

In a speech held at the National Press Club in Tokyo, October 31st, Jens Stoltenberg outlined the ‘new geography of danger’ emphasizing the global dimension of the North Korea threat and the necessity for a united, potentially stronger front, against Kim Jong-Un regime. Mr. Stoltenberg called on Pyongyang to “abandon its nuclear program once and for all”; to “suspend the development of ballistic missiles”; and to “refrain from further testing”. He also reiterated that “NATO strongly supports a peaceful, negotiated solution to the crisis on the Korean Peninsula.” He also added that “achieve this, pressure is key”, before acknowledging that Japan is NATO’s “natural partner”. (read the entire speech here, as delivered)

Asked whether an North Korean attack on the island of Guam, a US territory, would trigger Article 5, he refused to respond. However, he did mention that NATO’s European Defense system is ready to counter any possible ballistic missile launched from the Korean peninsula.

 

Key Judgements

NATO is right to have concerns regarding the North Korean problem. The passive and impotent efforts throughout the past three decades have allowed the totalitarian regime from Pyongyang to develop nuclear weapons, and now, even sophisticated means of transporting them towards enemy targets. The strike range of those ballistic missile do not only extend towards California, Alaska or some Pacific islands, but also over Europe. NATO’s concerns are legitimate and worthy of being shared at the strategic level by all 29 members. While the diplomatic tour in Japan and South Korea can well be accounted as a pressure force towards North Korea, and as a solidarity gesture towards the United States, there is the potential for more than just an episodic touch. Given the rise of China in the international stage and the risks it poses for global trade and regional stability, notably given the standoff in the South China Sea, it’s fair to assume that NATO is considering widening its projection. Benefiting from predictable and strategic partnerships with capable actors in the region, namely Australia, New Zeeland, Japan and South Korea, and its utmost important member in the driving seat, the United States, NATO holds the incentives for a long-term game in respect with the Asia-Pacific theater.


Briefing is a short-to-medium assessment that presents a sharp overview of a recently occurring event with the objective of providing timely information with additional comments, rather than a comprehensive in-depth analysis. Such a paper does not regularly exceed 1,100 words. 

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Something to Fear: Iraqi Feds keep Kurds in line

Urgent Briefing – Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), and unofficially, the Shi’a Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) spearheaded by Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shabbi have ousted the Kurdish forces from key areas that they’ve expanded to…

Urgent Briefing – Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), and unofficially, the Shi’a Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) spearheaded by Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shabbi have ousted the Kurdish forces from key areas that they’ve expanded to throughout the anti-ISIS campaign: Kirkuk, Sinjar and the Nineveh plains. These events are relevant to comprehend the ongoing tensions within the anti-ISIS camp in Iraq, and subsequently Iran’s asserting geopolitical order. The Kurdish independence equation was faulty and overly optimistic, resetting Erbil’s territory and power to 2003 limits.

 

Kirkuk: The Red Line

Just three weeks after the Independence referendum held by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which announced a secession of the region for Iraq, the situation has dramatically shifted. Throughout the past 3 years, the Kurdish Pashmerga and other militias have liberated significant ground from ISIS north in the country, which they later seized to expand the KRG. The most important location taken under Kurdish authority is the city of Kirkuk and its oil rich surroundings.  Since June 2014, when the Iraqi army deserted positions around northern Iraq in face of ISIS attacks, the opposition Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Pashmerga assumed the administration of Kirkuk, triggering wild protests from both Ankara and Baghdad.

Kirkuk is an energy hub, the oil fields around it amount to 12% of Iraq’s potential, and it’s also well connected to export markets via the Ceyhan pipeline towards the city-port in Turkey with the same name. Taking into consideration that KRG accounts for 17% of Iraq’s oil deposits, seizing Kirkuk would almost double Erbil’s capacity on the energy market, and provide more revenue, badly needed for an emerging war-torn state.

This dispute is far from being new, Kirkuk is also considered as the “Kurdish Jerusalem”, and a symbol of resistance against the Ba’ath regime, that sought to social engineer the area. Between  1970 and 2003, hundreds of thousands of Kurds were expelled further north, making space for Arab Sunnis to take their place and change the local demographics.  The An-Anfal campaign of Hussein’s regime that killed around 182,000 Kurds is another brutal display of a perpetual persecution by the Baghdad establishment.

Due to the Arabization process, and the lack of credible public records during the Ba’ath regime, the census of 1957 is considered the least politicized which said that Kirkuk was 48.3 percent Kurdish, 28.2 percent Arab, and 21.4 percent Turkmen.

The Turkmen remained a persistent community that also pose an opportunity for Turkish ventures in the ex-Ottoman province of Nineveh, now part of Iraq. This serves as a useful premise for the government in Ankara to promote cultural diplomacy and apply its military leverage in Syria and Iraq, as seen in the past years.. The Kurdish community while more reduced in numbers that in 1957, is still assessed to be consistent, while some of the Arabs are believed to have successively left the city and region in the post-2003 era fearing persecution. However, this does not mean that the demography tilted into the Kurdish favor.

 

Kurds lose everything

Beyond the historical disputed character of the Kirkuk area, it was the Independence referendum vote organized by the authorities in Erbil that prompted a steadfast counter-reaction. Recent diplomatic threats, and military drills (some of them with Turkey) set the stage for a full-on intervention on October 16th, by Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Shia’s militias (Popular Mobilization Units/ PMUs) sponsored and trained by Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to storm the city. In a desperate attempt to withhold, the President of the KRG, Masoud Barzani, and the Pashmerga allowed the outlawed terror separatist terror group, PKK, to assert a public, frontline position in a bid to defend it. While reports and photos confirm the premise, Pashmerga’s official position is contrary, mentioning that the embedded and mentioned fighters are merely ‘PKK sympathizers”. Regardless of that, it was a dangerous gamble, since Turkmen officials and militias called upon Turkey to intervene and protect the community for PKK. Inherently, it was only the Iraqi intervention that stopped a potential Turkish one.

With few shots fired, and even less casualties inflicted on both sides, the Pashmerga and PKK retreated to the outskirts of the city, while ISF and allied militias were sweeping Kirkuk and taking down billboards of Masoud Barzani and burning KRG flags. Many Kurds took the road of exile towards Erbil or Suleymaniah blocking the main highways, as the Pashmerga watched powerlessly and shocked how they lost their crown jewel in under 24 hours. CENTCOM managed to ground Iraqi air assets, by scrambling jets that patrolled the skies of Kirkuk, and almost instating an unofficial no-fly zone. Moreover, the U.S.-led Coalition ‘Inherent Resolve’ called on all parties to avoid escalation.

The political establishment in Erbil held the PUK leaders on the ground responsible for this disaster after ordering the Pashmerga to stand down and evacuate the city. To make things even worst, the ISF, PMU cohort took and are currently still taking, the rest of the expanded KRG territory during the past years in the anti-ISIS campaign, namely: the self-proclaimed autonomous Yazidi Shengal (mount Sinjar), Mosul Dam, Bashiqa (where Turkey hosted a training camp) and other locations around the Nineveh plains. But this is not only a disaster for the Kurds, but for the U.S. as well.

 

In the shadow of Washington and Tehran

According to source close to Al Monitor, the quasi non-combat setting in Kirkuk was also a result of negotiations in the city between Iranian military advisers from the elite al-Quods of the IRGC, and Pashmerga. Eqbalpour, an Iranian officer who works closely with Qasem Soleimani offered a chance to the Kurds to give up the city. He took out a map of the area and spread it out in front of his Kurdish counterparts. “This is our military plan. We will hit you tonight from three points — here, here and here,” he said, and then left the meeting with his entourage. US personnel was just outside Kirkuk at the K-1 air base, and played no role in these event.

First of all, Washington failed to contain the tensions between Baghdad and Erbil; the failure extends both as not managing to block the independence referendum, and by not being able to keep the Iraqi Security Forces, or even better, the Iranian-backed militias from humiliating the Pashmerga.  Whether this is the result of an intelligence failure, of bad decision making, or simply due to the situation’s constraints, it is unknown. Accordingly, Baghdad forced the Kurds into an agreement to withdraw back to the 2003 agreed borders, basically nullifying their efforts in the past 3-4 years. This is a success for the Iraqi establishment in recovering their lands, no doubt, but Tehran is also enjoying the development. The Shi’a militias are attempting to expel Kurdish and Kurdish-backed forces around the Syrian border, creating a logistical gap between the two Kurdish entities, containing both the U.S.-backed Federation in Northern Syria, and Barzani’s KRG. Many political opponents in Erbil pressure Masoud Barzani to resign after plunging the government into a disaster, by organizing the referendum, expanding the voting ballots to the expanded regions, and then the for badly managing the geopolitical consequences that followed shortly afterwards.

Iraqi Security Forces in Kirkuk’s governor office.

The lack of a major Turkish intervention is at least surprising, especially given the symphony of common military drills held with the Iraqi Security Forces at the border. Even though limited elements did cross the border in anti-PKK operations in northern Iraq.

Any time stall is a direct benefit for ISIS. The terror group still controls several villages, and small to medium cities along the Euphrates River Valley in Syria’s Deir ez-Zor province, Iraq’s Anbar region, several disperse pockets in Hama (central Syria), and holds informal control over directly linked Salafist groups operating in Rural Damascus (Yarmouk camp), or Quneitra, near Israel.

 

Something to Fear: End Notes

Conclusively, the Kurdish independence dream in Iraq crumbled before it even began. Surrounded by hostile and anxious opponents, and supported by pragmatic overseas allies, the Kurds didn’t stand a chance. More so given the naïve and hasty referendum, that had no chance to stand without military backing. The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) gave the Pashmerga something to fear, taking great care that they will keep in line and know their place. Turkey and Syria hope, that their own Kurds also learned a lesson. The United States, unable to contain its two divergent allies was completely isolated in the process, and witnessed again the extent of Iranian dominance in Iraq. Many critics argue that Washington intentionally stood idle and left the Shi’a militias steal the show.

Iraqis tear down Barzani’s independence billboard in Kirkuk city.

I would say that the US did not react in Iraq because it wanted to be on good terms with Baghdad, to avoid further alienating the Iraqis, which would have surrendered completely the country to Iran. Furthermore, the ISF/PMU operation in Kirkuk did not pose an existential threat to the KRG, but only to its peripheral holdings that were gained the past years despite the constitutional belonging of those turfs. Furthermore, as long as the Iraqis and PMUs don’t decide to attack Erbil, or Suleymaniah, or attempt to subjugate the entirety of the KRG, then a U.S. intervention is highly unlikely and unnecessary, to put it on realist terms. But if the showdown continues, Iran and Da’esh (ISIS) will be the main beneficiaries.

If the Kurdish commanders want to avoid repeating the mistakes of Kirkuk, they should work towards unifying their command & control structures, and modernizing their still-militia-like structure.


Briefing is a short-to-medium assessment that presents a sharp overview of a recently occurring event with the objective of providing timely information with additional comments, rather than a comprehensive in-depth analysis. Such a paper does not regularly exceed 1,100 words. 

Further reading on topics mentioned in the text and directly relevant to the situation at hand: ‘For Dust and Rubble: Iranian ambitions on the Syrian-Iraqi border’; and ‘Fury in Ankara, Anxiety in Erbil, Distress in Baghdad: Sinjar declares autonomy amid Kurdish Independence vote’.

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IAF Raids Syrian Chemical Site in Hama

Clandestine air strike raids Syrian chemical site in Hama Province: It has been announced by the Bashar al-Assad Regime that the Israeli Air Force conducted air strikes from the Lebanese airspace…

Clandestine air strike raids Syrian chemical site in Hama Province:

  • It has been announced by the Bashar al-Assad Regime that the Israeli Air Force conducted air strikes from the Lebanese airspace on a military objective in eastern Masyaf, Hama province.
  • While not acknowledging the chemical production nature of the site, there is enough data to suggest that the al-Tala’i facility hosts significant plants tasked to enhance the Regime’s CBRN potential.
  • Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC) is hosted in the al-Tala’i facility and is believed to be the site of WMD production that also made the compounds used in the Khan Sheykoun attack.
  • The Israeli government did not comment on is involved in the air strike as it is the State’s policy not to discuss these issues.
  • However, the Israeli Air Force has conducted dozens of clandestine air raids into Syrian territory in an attempt to stop the transfer of advanced weapons for Iranian Revolutionary Guards to the Lebanese Hezbollah, and to also curb the militia’s influence near the border area of Golan Heights. The most frequent location striked in the past by the IAF is the Al-Assad International Airport in Damascus.
  • Hezbollah’s growing power in Syrian is also embedded in Iran’s influence over Damascus at a strategic level which posses an existential threat for the Israeli state.
  • A former head of Israeli military intelligence, Amos Yadlin, tweeted that Thursday’s strike on Masyaf was “not routine” and targeted a “Syrian military-scientific centre for the development and manufacture of, among other things, precision missiles”. 

Presumed blast of the overnight air strike

Russian S-400: Bypassed again or Idle? 

  • The presence of the advanced S-400 missile defense system operated by the Russian Federation at Khmeimim Air Base in Latakia has not deterred nor stopped the Israeli Air Force from striking the location.
  • It could be assumed that Jerusalem has even employed the recently purchased multi-role F-35 in the operation which is recommended to have a superior stealth and evasive technology.
  • On the other hand, it could also be the case that given the open Moscow-Jerusalem channel, the Russians could have compromised and allowed strikes on Syria’s chemical weapons plant; while a long shot, it is a worthy hypothesis especially because Israel has made its intentions clear and has drawn its “red lines” in regards to Hezbollah and Iranian activities on the border, notwithstanding the country’s readiness to take action if certain sensitive factors align.

 

Growing anxiety at Jerusalem

  • Given the winning streak of the Syrian Regime coordinated and aided by Iranian elements it is expected for Tehran to gain a significant grip on the country and move advanced weapons and funds more easily to support Hezbollah’s operations against the Israeli Defense Forces.
  • The border province of Quneitra is still disputed between the Regime, several Rebel factions and the ISIS-affiliated ibn-Khalid Army, therefore time is still on the table in regards to Israel’s national security concerns in Syria.

Briefing is a short-to-medium assessment that presents a sharp overview of a recently occurring event with the objective of providing timely information with additional comments, rather than a comprehensive in-depth analysis. Such a paper does not regularly exceed 1,100 words. 

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11 Days: The Liberation of Tel Afar

Situation Report – According the Press Release, the global Coalition to defeat ISIS congratulates Prime Minister Al-Abadi and all Iraqi Security Forces on their stunning victory in Tal Afar and…

Situation Report – According the Press Release, the global Coalition to defeat ISIS congratulates Prime Minister Al-Abadi and all Iraqi Security Forces on their stunning victory in Tal Afar and Northern Ninewah Province, Aug. 31. The offensive to liberate Tel Afar was launched on August 20 after necessary assets and personnel were redirected from Mosul, upon the finalizing the liberation there, to the near-by region. Tel Afar, a Shiite enclave in the predominantly Sunni-Niniveh province, was captured by the jihadists in June 2014, bringing death and suffering to the local population, also comprised of a significant Turkmen and Yazidi population.

Under the command of Prime Minister al-Abadi, all branches of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) took part in the liberation of Tal Afar – the 9th, 15th and 16th Iraqi Army Divisions, the Counter Terrorism Service, the Federal Police and Emergency Response Division, Iraqi Local Police, the Popular Mobilization Forces as well as the Kurdish Regional Government Peshmerga.

While the city and critical infrastructure are under ISF control, dangerous work remains to completely remove explosive devices, identify ISIS fighters in hiding and eliminate any remaining ISIS holdouts so they do not threaten the security of Tal Afar in the future.

“Following their historic liberation of Mosul and now a swift and decisive victory in Tal Afar, the ISF have shown, once again, they are an increasingly capable force that can protect the Iraqi people, defeat ISIS within Iraq and secure the country’s borders,” said Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of U.S. and Coalition forces in Iraq and Syria. “This is yet another significant achievement for the Iraqi Security Forces and the government and people of Iraq.”

Before declaring complete victory, the Iraqi forces had been waiting to clear the small town of al-‘Ayadiya, 11km northwest of Tal Afar. Da’esh militants had retreated to the town and put up a heavy resistance. The victory in Tel Afar essentially brings ISIS to an end in northern Iraq and almost cleared-out of the Niniveh province – that held a dual important, symbolic (declaration of the Caliphate) and strategic (border area + source of oil revenue).

The Coalition contributes to the defeat of ISIS by providing Iraqi forces with equipment, training, intelligence, precision fire support and military advice to leaders. By working by, with, and through the government of Iraq and the ISF, the Coalition has enabled the Iraqi Security Forces to reclaim 90% of their land from ISIS. The Coalition will continue to support the government of Iraq and Iraqi Security Forces as they fight on to defeat ISIS in Western Anbar province and Hawijah.


Briefing is a short-to-medium assessment that presents a sharp overview of a recently occurring event with the objective of providing timely information with additional comments, rather than a comprehensive in-depth analysis. Such a paper does not regularly exceed 1,100 words. 

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New Year’s Resolution: Syrian Civil War

STRATEGIC FORECAST – Reflecting on the Syrian Civil War’s end of the year and debut of 2017 I have outlined the following scenarios.  The analysis consists of a procedural process…

STRATEGIC FORECAST – Reflecting on the Syrian Civil War’s end of the year and debut of 2017 I have outlined the following scenarios.  The analysis consists of a procedural process of summarizing the context, deepening into present tendencies and outlining the prospects.  Sources are as always, Open (OSINT) gathered through social media crowd-sourcing and personal empirical and holistic conclusions.

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