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The US Plan To Liberate Raqqa From ISIS Could Depend On Qatar — And Twitter
The much-anticipated siege of Raqqa is officially underway, with Syrian and Kurdish militias backed by American military advisers and U.S.-led coalition warplanes leading the charge to liberate ISIS's de facto Syrian capital.
Expunging ISIS fighters from the Syrian city may represent a symbolic blow against the "caliphate," but if it's anything like the months-long effort to reclaim the Iraqi stronghold of Mosul, the U.S.-led coalition is in for quite the fight. And thanks to the events of the past few days, the biggest obstacles to clearing the Syrian city of its death cult may have nothing to do with ISIS at all.
New Middle East squabbles around an old U.S. base in Qatar
First, the Pentagon’s escalation of airstrikes since President Donald Trump took office have already yielded a new wave of civilian casualties that threaten to delegitimize OIR and inspire a new generation of extremists. OIR has in recent months reaffirmed its commitment to deploying precision guided munitions (PGMs) to minimize collateral damage, and of the more than 84,000 weapons deployed by coalition aircraft as of May 29, around 90% were PGMs. But civilian casualties have become a regular fixture of Trump-era bombing runs. Even the OIR airstrikes that heralded the beginning of the Raqqa siege reportedly killed innocent civilians attempting to flee from ISIS themselves.
Second, this week’s sudden diplomatic imbroglio between Gulf states has brought an air of uncertainty into the U.S.’s future operations across the Middle East. Qatar, a strategic yet problematic U.S. ally in the region, has been isolated over the last few days by Arab powers like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the U.A.E., and Bahrain over its support of Islamist organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Iranian government. But as a home to Al Udeid Air Base, a crucial CENTCOM installation that sees aircraft taking off and landing every 10 minutes, 24 hours a day, Qatar is a major operational hub for OIR forces.
Could the supply of U.S. bombs shrink?
The Arab states’ sudden border closures initially presented a logistical problem. Tiny Qatar, usually dependent on its vast oil wealth to lavish its citizens in foodstuffs, lost 82 percent of its Gulf imports thanks to sanctions. Could these geopolitical tensions disrupt the flow of the right type of those Mattis-approved precision-guided munitions to rapidly shrinking stockpiles deployed out of Al Udeid and other regional bases ahead of another ramp-up in bombing sorties?
Air Forces Central Command and CJTF-OIR officials both told Task & Purpose that the unfolding drama in the Gulf has thus far had “no impact” on operations, with bombing sorties “continu[ing] as planned.” According to AFCC spokesman Lt. Col. Damien Pickart, OIR has developed a “well-refined process in place that mitigates single points of failure in the replenishment of our theater munition stocks,” ensuring a steady flow of munitions and equipment to Al Udeid personnel.
As it turns out, logistics isn’t a major problem: According to AFCC spokesman Lt. Col. Damien Pickart, only 17% of the 156,651 sorties flown by coalition aircraft between the start of OIR in August 2014 and June 5 originated at Al Udeid. (Most of those were refueling missions carried out by the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing’s KC-135 Stratotanker; fewer than 2% of all strike missions since August 2016 started at the base.) And those missions have actually decreased since around the time Trump took office. Only 9% of OIR sorties flown since January 1 took off from Al Udeid.
"What accounts for the perceived drop is due to a combination of factors, including the repositioning of aircraft at different operating locations throughout the AOR in the past year," Pickart told Task & Purpose.
Operations depend on diplomacy
Al Udeid’s importance derives not just from raw air power, but the $60 million Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) that manages air operations across Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and 18 other countries. To keep that crucial cog in the Raqqa war machine turning, President Trump needs to be a serious diplomat.
The diplomatic crisis in the region was sparked by a $1 billion hostage payment from the Qatari government to an al Qaeda affiliate and Iran to — I kid you not — release a royal falconry party. But it was precipitated by Trump’s May speech in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, calling for a hard line against Islamist terror, including regimes that support and fund terrorism like Iran. The Saudis echoed Trump’s call in a June 5 statement. And in a series of tweets on June 6, Trump appeared to align himself with the Gulf states against Qatar without fully realizing its strategic importance to his campaign promise of “bombing the shit” out of ISIS:
So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding...
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 6, 2017
Sure, CENTCOM has reaffirmed that it has “no plans” to change its posture in Qatar, despite the diplomatic kerfuffle and the commander-in-chief’s unhinged tweets. But the U.S. government has been headed for a reckoning with the double-dealing Qataris for years — with the closure of Al Udeid, a deterrent to other Arab powers intent on shitting all over Qatar — as a bargaining chip.
The decline in OIR sorties out of Al Udeid in recent months may reflect hedging on the part of DoD planners. Relocating the crucial CAOC at the very start of an intense campaign against a valued target isn’t great for U.S. strategic interests. But if Trump keeps tweeting, it might be on the table.
With the siege of Raqqa underway, Mattis and U.S. commanders stationed across the globe face two risk factors that could potentially sink the strategically and symbolically essential liberation of the Syrian city. One is unhinged, erratic, heavily armed, and full of delusions. The other is ISIS.
Editor's note: A combat wounded veteran, Ryan served in the U.S. Army as an armor officer assigned to 1st Battalion, 13th Armor Regiment. While deployed to Iraq in 2005, his vehicle was hit with an improvised explosive device buried in the road. He works as the Wounded Warrior Project's national Combat Stress Recovery Program director.
On Nov. 29, 2005, my life changed forever. I was a 24-year-old U.S. Army armor captain deployed to Taji, Iraq, when my vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device. On that day, I lost two of my soldiers, Sgts. Jerry Mills and Donald Hasse, and I lost my right arm and left leg.
Fatal training accidents are on the rise. Now the families of the fallen are pushing lawmakers to do something about it
CAMP PENDLETON — Susan and Michael McDowell attended a memorial in June for their son, 1st Lt. Conor McDowell. Kathleen Isabel Bourque, the love of Conor's life, joined them. None of them had anticipated what they would be going through.
Conor, the McDowells' only child, was killed during a vehicle rollover accident in the Las Pulgas area of Camp Pendleton during routine Marine training on May 9. He was 24.
Just weeks before that emotional ceremony, Alexandrina Braica, her husband and five children attended a similar memorial at the same military base, this to honor Staff Sgt. Joshua Braica, a member of the 1st Marine Raider Battalion who also was killed in a rollover accident, April 13, at age 29.
Braica, of Sacramento, was married and had a 4 1/2-month-old son.
"To see the love they had for Josh and to see the respect and appreciation was very emotional," Alexandrina Braica said of the battalion. "They spoke very highly of him and what a great leader he was. One of his commanders said, 'He was already the man he was because of the way he was raised.' As parents, we were given some credit."
While the tributes helped the McDowells and Braicas process their grief, the families remain unclear about what caused the training fatalities. They expected their sons eventually would deploy and put their lives at risk, but they didn't expect either would die while training on base.
"We're all still in denial, 'Did this really happen? Is he really gone?' Braica said. "When I got the phone call, Josh was not on my mind. That's why we were at peace. He was always in training and I never felt that it would happen at Camp Pendleton."
North Korea threatens to resume nuclear weapons and ICBM tests if US-South Korea military exercises proceed
SEOUL (Reuters) - The United States looks set to break a promise not to hold military exercises with South Korea, putting talks aimed at getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons at risk, the North Korean Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday.
The United States' pattern of "unilaterally reneging on its commitments" is leading Pyongyang to reconsider its own commitments to discontinue tests of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the ministry said in a pair of statements released through state news agency KCNA.
Customs and Border Patrol denied a Marine vet entry into the US for his a scheduled citizenship interview
A deported Marine Corps veteran who has been unable to come back to the U.S. for more than a decade was denied entry to the country Monday morning when he asked to be let in for a scheduled citizenship interview.
Roman Sabal, 58, originally from Belize, came to the San Ysidro Port of Entry around 7:30 on Monday morning with an attorney to ask for "parole" to attend his naturalization interview scheduled for a little before noon in downtown San Diego. Border officials have the authority to temporarily allow people into the country on parole for "humanitarian or significant public benefit" reasons.
Navy Secretary Richard Spencer took the reins at the Pentagon on Monday, becoming the third acting defense secretary since January.
Spencer is expected to temporarily lead the Pentagon while the Senate considers Army Secretary Mark Esper's nomination to succeed James Mattis as defense secretary. The Senate officially received Esper's nomination on Monday.