Image Kurdish Peshmerga
Shingal, Iraq. 7th May, 2015. Kurdish fighters peek over defenses to direct supporting cover fire while battling ISIS.

Trump’s Middle Eastern War, A Bay of Pigs in the making

OpEd: An open plea to the Trump Administration to not abandon America’s Kurdish allies as they wage war on the Islamic State.

In January 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took control of the Syrian city of al Raqqa, making it the de-facto capital of its Caliphate. With the taking of this city, and a declaration of sovereignty, ISIS went from being a mere al Qaeda affiliated militia group, to being a pariah state, governing by extreme violence and terror.

By mid-January 2017, after countless, brutal battles, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were prepared to enter the third phase of an all out final assault – to retake the city of al Raqqa. SDF Commanders proudly stated that the SDF was about to launch their campaign, that they would have unprecedented support from the international US-led coalition through air and ground forces. Coalition members, such as Denmark, the US, UK, and France, deployed additional Special Operations teams.

Merely 3 kilometers from where this declaration was made was the frontline, where forces on both sides lay entrenched, ready for the “battle to end all battles”. The planned assault would take them through open terrain and narrow city streets, to the very heart of the Islamic State.

As part of preparations for the oncoming attack, the SDF effectively cut off any possibility that IS could bring in reinforcements from neighboring Deir Ezzor province, largely under the control of ISIS militants. The Deir Ezzor highway was largely destroyed, rendered a single file gravel road in some places, with armored vehicles positioned by mine fields.

For months the SDF had prepared for this grand effort to take the ISIS stronghold. The operation’s D-Day was nearing.

There was just one problem. The new American administration.

They are not fighting like Americans. Thank God for that. They show no restraint. They are fighting like someone defending their mother, their wife, and their daughter. They are fighting like Arabs in the history books fight.

– William B., former 5th Special Forces Group, embedded with the Kurds on the frontlines of al Raqqa, speaking on condition of anonymity with Lima Charlie News MENA Bureau.

For months Kurdish forces from the SDF have been entrenched outside of the Islamic State Caliphate’s capital. For months the American military has been ramping up its support for the Kurdish troops. A massive logistical chain has been established. An equally impressive number of US Air Force Special Operators Combat Controllers (CCT) have been deployed to provide targets for the round the clock air strikes by the anti-ISIS coalition’s air forces.

Alongside Air Force Special Operations men are operators from the US Army Special Forces on force-multiplying assignments. Officially, these men do not take part in active missions against the enemy. In reality …

For months the Kurds have been preparing for the “Battle of Stalingrad in the Middle East”. For months Americans on the ground have done everything humanly possible alongside their Kurdish comrades to make the push to al Raqqa. Their orders were clear, their orders were simple – time to liberate al Raqqa from its oppressor.

Everyone is counting on American support. Evident support. Americans on the ground. Americans in the air. American arms. American bullets. Now, these men have been betrayed by the newly elected leader of brave Americans.

Image Fighters of the YPG Kurdish People's Protection Unit in Syrian Kurdistan, North Eastern Syria.
Fighters of the YPG Kurdish People’s Protection Unit in Syrian Kurdistan, North Eastern Syria.

American fighters have been told to stand down. America will not help the Kurds take back the Islamic State’s capital, a place from where US intelligence believes that sinister and dark plans are being laid against the West and its people.

Mere days before President Barack Obama left the White House, he had instructed his National Security team to review, brief, and convince the entering President’s team to move forward and execute the plan. The plan was seven months in the making, and it relies primarily on the Kurdish militia group, the People’s Protection Units or YPG, to take back al Raqqa.

President Donald Trump and his national security team were not impressed. Days after entering office, the Trump administration announced their discontinuation of support for the operation. While tactile ground and air support would continue, the US would not back an offensive on al Raqqa directly, nor approve of it.

No concrete reason was given. The plan was publicly decried as one of poor staff work, too insufficient, too careful, too Obama. There could be a multitude of reasons for its rejection. It could have been that the operation was stale. That the Turkish government objected to US support of Kurdish militia groups. It could be that the cost of deploying men against an entrenched enemy, known for its veracity, was unacceptable. It could be that the Trump administration thought they could “renegotiate” a better plan. It could be, simply, politics.

The Trump administration’s National Security team is being headed up by the nation’s 25th National Security Advisor (NSC advisor), Lt. Gen. Flynn. For a man in his position, Flynn has unusually close ties to the Turkish and Russian regimes (Flynn was under investigation by U.S. counterintelligence agencies for communications with Russian officials, this according to the Wall Street Journal, January 22nd 2017.) Flynn is a man that is uniquely well suited for operating in the darkness so prevailing in the developing world. He previously served as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), and before that, he was director of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). While serving under General Stanley McChrystal in Iraq, as the General’s Intelligence Chief, he was credited with being instrumental in transforming JSOC. Under Lt. Gen. Flynn, JSOC shifted gear into an intelligence-driven special forces operation, tailored to fight the insurgency in the Middle East, from a direct actions and offensive force.

Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn

But at the same time, Lt. Gen. Flynn is not known for valuing Arab lives. Under his command at JSOC, thousands of local, e.g. Iraqi, intelligence operatives died. He has himself stated that he more or less lost count. He is known for being unusually, even by military standards, “abrasive”. Flynn has also been accused of being “extremely selective” in the information he studies and takes in, at times bordering on ignoring intelligence retrieved, along with viewpoints that do not correlate with the intended outcome.

After Lt. Gen. Flynn’s service as the director of DIA, he began the consulting firm Flynn Intel Group, which has been accused of aiding a pro-Turkey/Erdogan and pro-Russia/Putin line of reasoning in the media.

The Kurds share a yearning to recreate a Kurdish homeland in the Middle East – something they believe can only be accomplished by gaining favor with Western powers. This stands in stark, at times violent, contrast with current Turkish and Russian viewpoints and interests. Lt. Gen. Flynn’s somewhat interesting ties to those that would seek to remove US support of the Kurds raises many questions.

Then there’s Steve Bannon. Bannon serves as White House Chief Strategist in the Trump administration, and is seemingly the wizard behind the curtain. He was viewed as instrumental during the Presidential campaign, the “Karl Rove of the Trump administration,” as some call him. Bannon, alt-right royalty, is above and beyond capable of analyzing and utilizing the winds and emotions of grassroots campaigns and the media alike.

Bannon invited Lt. Gen. Flynn into the fold. He has long advocated a Russian policy reset, one that will ultimately serve the interests of the Russian government administration and financial sphere. His stand on Turkey, and the Middle East, is on the whole largely unknown, but his close ties to Lt. Gen. Flynn do show some indication of mindset.

Image Trump Steve Bannon
President Trump, Steve Bannon

In January 2017, President Trump appointed Bannon to the National Security Council forum. Bannon’s inclusion, along with the newly appointed CIA Chief, Mike Pompeo, came at the cost of the removal of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Lt. Gen. William C. Mayville, Jr.) and the Director of National Intelligence (Mike Dempsey). The position of the Director of National Intelligence is currently being filled by Mr. Dempsey as acting Director. This, after James R. Clapper tendered his resignation effective at the end of the Obama administration.

Another person of interest, due to affiliation, is Colonel Andrea Thompson. Col. Thompson retired from the US Army as Deputy Assistant to the President, and National Security Advisor to the Vice President. She previously served as Director of the McChrystal Group Leadership Institute, and is co-author of the book Achieving Victory in Iraq: Countering an Insurgency. The McChrystal Group Leadership Institute, part of the McChrystal Group, was created by Gen. McChrystal in January 2011.

Inside the Trump White House, we also have the unofficial advisor, Mr. Erik Prince. Prince is a former Navy SEAL, founder of the private military contracting firm Blackwater USA, and many other endeavors. Prince is proverbial royalty within the mercenary community, having close associations with the CIA, the United Arab Emirates, and China, alike. Mr. Prince has been officially advising the Trump team on intelligence and defense related matters. Allegedly, he was asked early on to produce a list of suggestions for candidates for the Defense and State departments. His list reportedly included USMC Gen. Mattis for Secretary of Defense. This, despite Lt. Gen. Flynn’s reported objections.

Image Erik Prince
Erik Prince

Mr. Prince’s sister, Betsy DeVos, is Trump’s choice for Secretary of Education, confirmed as of this writing.

Everyone is counting on American support. Evident support. Americans on the ground. Americans in the air. American arms. American bullets. Now, these men have been betrayed by the newly elected leader of brave Americans.

One possible interpretation of these circumstances is that Lt. Gen. Flynn and Steve Bannon played an instrumental part in killing the existing Kurdish-al Raqqa operational option. That they did so due to previous interests, allegiances, or the information bubble in which they operate as part of those interests.

With the al Raqqa offensive coming down solely to the Kurds, the hope from concerned parties in the Middle East is that calmer, informed, and rational heads will prevail, with a pragmatic plan to ensure a successful campaign against the Islamic State.

The Trump administration has the means to do this. It has the “right stuff” inside the administration. For instance, the newly appointed 19th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, USMC Gen. Joseph Francis Dunford Jr., has been a vocal advocate for supporting the Kurds. This after Gen. Dunford served in Iraq for 22 months while in the USMC under the leadership of then USMC Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis. Gen. Mattis is now the newly appointed 26th Secretary of Defense in the new administration. These men were promised near “free reign” when they were approached for their roles in the administration. A likely plan to emerge from the heavy military presence inside the new administration is one very similar, in all but wording and authorship, to the one that was proposed by the Obama administration.

Will the President be able to make good on his promise, despite Turkish, Russian, and non-grounded influences inside the administration?

Men like Gen. Mattis and Gen. Dunford are intelligent, of both book and action. They are individuals that know how to conduct themselves in the Middle East, that know how to get the best out of local forces, militia and government troops alike. They understand what it takes to win direct battles in the unwinnable war that is the war on extremism. They have an understanding of the enemy that most civilians can only dream about, in their worst nightmares.

With its fighters entrenched along slim logistical lines, their natural enemy, the Turks, marching toward their positions, and ISIS before them, what position are we putting the Kurdish militia in? The battle is raging already, and the pieces are in place for a grand American dash to finish the Islamic State Caliphate. Are we going to surrender before the battle has begun? Will this be remembered as a modern day Bay of Pigs? Will we leave the Kurdish forces stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place, between the onslaught of the Turkish military and the fortress of the Islamic State?

What position are we putting the Kurdish militia in?

The slaughter of civilians inside al Raqqa is well known, well documented, and carries little notice in the Western mainstream news. Thousands have died. Schools have closed. Any outside communication that is not explicitly allowed and supervised by agents of the Islamic State is forbidden, and the punishment for breaking the rule is immediate execution, regardless of age, gender, or cause. Tweeting from the inside comes at such a risk that only the fool heartedly brave might imagine this act of defiance.

Since al Raqqa was declared the capital of the Caliphate, thousands have been killed in public executions. Death squads roam the streets, killing all who are perceived as opposing their terror rule.

The Kurdish forces are in position. They need America to support their offensive. The time to act is now. It’s time to liberate al Raqqa and the Dam.

Al Raqqa is located 40 kilometers east of the Tabqa Dam, Syria’s largest. The Tabqa Dam is structurally failing, and has been held by ISIS since 2013.

At the time of capture, four of the dam’s eight turbines were operational and the original staff continued to manage it. Workers still received pay from the Syrian Government and fighting in the area temporarily ceased if repairs were needed. By mid-2016 a fourth turbine failed, and the Syrian Government was allowed to bring in spare parts. But the dam’s engineers warned, “It is failing. It is failing soon.” Since then, the engineers are no longer allowed to leave – they and their families are being kept inside the dam compound, not just to oversee the structure, but as human shields.

Image Lima Charlie News headline

If the capital of the Caliphate falls, ISIS has vowed to blow up the dam in retaliation. Such an act of raw vengeance would result in the death of tens of thousands, and change the face of the land for the foreseeable future. To save the dam, and save the people in the Euphrates valley, SDF forces advanced in January 2017 to secure it.

The battle began at the occupied village of al Tabqa in December 2016. During the offensive, SDF troops received support from the US-led coalition, armored personnel carriers and anti-tank missiles. US Air Force Combat Controllers traveled alongside SDF troops guiding coalition air power, assisting SDF forces, with great precision, ensuring that munitions laid waste to intended targets, limiting the possibility of potential damage to the dam. By the 24th of January, the SDF had taken parts of the town, with the support of US Army Special Forces.

In response to the village partly falling to SDF forces, and the Syrian Government offensive on Deir Ezzor, ISIS fighters opened three of the dam’s turbines, causing record floods downstream in rural Deir Ezzor. Syrian Government Engineers observing the act stated that this undoubtedly put additional strain on the dam, and considerably increased the chances of it collapsing or bursting. Kurdish and American troops attempted to gain access to the dam to stop the flooding. The dam’s entrance was damaged in the fighting. The ISIS forces at the dam were found to be too heavily defended to risk an all out attack.

ISIS had proven what they were willing to do. They had proven their complete control of the dam, and that neither the SDF, nor the coalition, could take it without additional manpower. With this point having been made, they closed the turbines down, stopping the water flow. ISIS rule by terror continued.

Currently SDF forces surround the dam and the city of al Raqqa. ISIS is isolated. But SDF forces cannot take the city, nor the dam, without massive support. They need America, now more than ever.

Image Women fighters of the Kurdistan Workers Party PKK in Makhmur area near Mosul Northern Iraq
Women fighters of the Kurdistan Workers Party PKK in Makhmur area near Mosul Northern Iraq

Mr. President, you have amassed an impressively experienced, informed, and well tuned circle of military and intelligence operatives in the Middle East. From the mercenary King, Erik Prince, to the General-gone-SecDef, James Mattis. Please, Mr. President, cry havoc, and let slip the hell hounds as they see fit. Their records show they will not steer you too far away from the path that needs traversing.

The Kurdish forces are in position.
They need America to support their offensive.
The time to act is now.
It’s time to liberate al Raqqa and the Dam.

It is time for America to be the America of John Wayne, and Clint Eastwood, the cavalry breaking through the lines. It is time to again be the America that we claim America to be.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.

John Sjoholm, Middle East Bureau Chief, Lima Charlie News

John Sjoholm is Lima Charlie’s Middle East Bureau Chief, and founder of the consulting organization Erudite Group. He is a seasoned Middle East connoisseur, with a past in the Swedish Army’s Special Forces branch and the Security Contracting industry. He studied religion and languages in Sana’a, Yemen, and Cairo, Egypt. He lived and operated extensively in the Middle East between 2005-2012 as part of regional stabilizing projects, and currently resides in Jordan. Follow John on Twitter @JohnSjoholmLC

Lima Charlie provides global news, insight & analysis by military veterans and service members Worldwide.

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