Tag Archives: Syria

If You Don’t Want “Endless Wars” Don’t Betray Your Allies


Syrian Kurds demonstrate against Turkish threats around a US armoured vehicle [AFP/Getty]


” Abandonment of the Kurds is a recipe for endless war, not a strategy to end one. Over four years, the SDF freed tens of thousands of square miles and millions of people from the grip of ISIS.

Throughout the fight, it sustained nearly 11,000 casualties. By comparison, six U.S. service members, as well as two civilians, have been killed in the anti-ISIS campaign.”


“The days when we deployed hundreds of thousands of troops in the Middle East are long gone. Today, we have 14,000 troops in Afghanistan, about 5,000 in Iraq and just 1,000 in Syria. That is a grand total of about 20,000 troops in all three countries. By contrast, we have about 37,950 U.S. troops in Germany, 12,750 in Italy, 53,900 in Japan, and 28,500 in South Korea — a total of over 133,000. In fact, we now have three times more troops deployed in Spain (3,200) than we do in Syria.

Moreover, the vast majority of these U.S. forces are engaged in a noncombat mission known as “train, advise and assist.” U.S. allies do most of the fighting, while American troops provide intelligence, operational planning, fire support and airstrike coordination from behind the front lines. We have helped train and equip about 174,000 Afghan troops64,000 Iraqi troops and 60,000 Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) troops, made up predominantly of Kurdish fighters. They are the ones engaged in ground combat with America’s enemies.

Actually, the bulk of the fighting was done by our Kurdish allies, trained and supported by U.S. Special Operations forces. As Gen. Joseph Votel, who served as commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, explains, “Over four years, the SDF freed tens of thousands of square miles and millions of people from the grip of ISIS. Throughout the fight, it sustained nearly 11,000 casualties. By comparison, six U.S. service members, as well as two civilians, have been killed in the anti-ISIS campaign.”

The Kurds bore the burden of the fight and the brunt of the casualties, and they drove the Islamic State from its physical caliphate. But the terrorists are far from defeated. They still have tens of thousands of fighters and vast financial resources. If we take our boot off their necks, they will come roaring back –

Who is going to stop them?

We are depending on the Kurds to keep the Islamic State down. But if we allow Turkey to wipe out our Kurdish allies, who will be left on the ground in Syria to fight the Islamic State? Answer: No one.

We are also depending on the Kurds to guard about 10,000 captured Islamic State fighters held in prisons in Syria — including 2,000 extremely dangerous foreign fighters. If the Kurds have to divert forces to defend against Turkey, they will be less able to guard those prisons, making it more likely that dangerous terrorists escape.

It gets worse. Without U.S. support, the Kurds will have no choice but to turn to Russia, Iran and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for protection. As a result, Iran will own all of Syria — giving it a strategic anchor in the Middle East and a base from which to attack Israel. Abandoning the Kurds will empower Iran as never before, increase the danger to Israel and require us to deploy more troops to the region to counter Iranian aggression.

The cry that America is fighting “endless wars” is a canard. Our force levels in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are a shadow of their former selves, and U.S. forces are not doing the fighting but rather arming and training allies who are doing the fighting for us. That is the right strategy. But after [abandonment] our allies in Syria to be slaughtered, why would anyone step forward to help America in the fight against Islamist radicalism?”



Pentagon Acknowledges U.S. Contractor Presence In Syria For First Time


Contractors in Iraq and Syria

Image:  “Defense One”


“The US military is using more than 5,500 contractors in the campaign to defeat the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq, the Pentagon revealed in a quarterly report this week that acknowledges the use of contractors in the Syrian war zone for the first time.

The latest figures from US Central Command indicate that 5,508 US and foreign contractors are working alongside US troops in the two combat zones.”


“That’s an increase of 581, or 12%, over January’s numbers, which did not include Syria. About half of the contractors are US citizens, while the rest are local or third-country hires.

The disclosure comes as President Donald Trump has signaled his desire to pull US troops out of Syria “very soon” after the end of the counter-IS mission. The role of contractors in Syria is also under increasing scrutiny after hundreds of Russian contractors died in a battle with US troops and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in the oil-rich Deir ez-Zor province, as CIA Director and Secretary of State-designate Mike Pompeo publicly confirmed in his Senate confirmation hearing April 12.

Unlike the Russians, however, the US contractors are mostly focused on supporting the 2,000 US troops in Syria by delivering hot meals, gasoline and other supplies. More than 30% of them support logistics and maintenance, according to the quarterly Pentagon report, and another 27% help with support and construction of US military outposts in the region.

“It’s not the Russian contractor role in Syria, which is … deploying tactical military units of squad company size,” said Peter Singer, a senior fellow and strategist at the New America think tank in Washington. “It’s the old stuff that Halliburton used to do.”

More than 400 “security” contractors are also involved in the fight in both countries, but “you’re not seeing the 163rd private US military group invading a city in Syria,” Singer said. Russian military contractors are also helping to protect oil fields across the country, protecting an industry that represented a quarter of Syria’s government revenue in 2010.

Though previous Defense Department personnel reports in the region hadn’t mentioned a Pentagon contractor presence in Syria, the US Department of Labor acknowledged in a report last year that two contractors were killed and six injured in fiscal year 2017. The Pentagon numbers don’t represent contractors working for other US agencies, such as the State Department, which assists with demining.

The Pentagon’s admission comes after an awkward back-and-forth between Trump and his top military and diplomatic advisers at a National Security Council meeting last week. While the president wants to declare victory on IS and pull out, the Pentagon has asked the commander-in-chief to leave US forces in Syria to prevent insurgent cells from regrouping along Syria’s border with Iraq.

Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of US Central Command, said at a public event last week, “The hard part is in front of us” in the war-torn country. Less than a mile away at the White House, Trump appeared to contradict US pledges to stay in the Syria fight at an open Cabinet meeting after long expressing his frustration over US military spending in the Middle East. The White House also recently announced a $200 million cut in funds earmarked for stabilizing Syria.

Despite their nonkinetic role, some experts say contractors face many of the same dangers as the US troops and Syrian forces who battled Russian mercenaries in February. With IS on the run and multiple US antagonists ready to push out the United States and its allies, civilian personnel risk getting caught in the crossfire.

“I would give America a six-month honeymoon here,” said Joshua Landis, the director of the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies. “Turkey, Syria and Iran are just sitting there, waiting to stick shivs in us.”






How Does A Combat Vet Feel When Hearing A Civilian Say, “We Shouldn’t Be Over There, We Should Worry About Ourselves”?


Rose Covered Glasses”  

“The civilian must accept his or her role in the issue. Elected representatives appropriate money and approve U.S. activities in other countries.

Solders go where they are ordered by their commander. If the civilian wishes change, then change can be at hand if the elected official is contacted and a strong input from the citizenry makes the demand heard.”

Quora Veterans Opinions on Today’s Warfare



“Asking warriors to do everything poses great dangers for our country — and the military. Our armed services have become the one-stop shop for America’s policymakers.

Here’s the vicious circle in which we’ve trapped ourselves: As we face novel security threats from novel quarters — emanating from nonstate terrorist networks, from cyberspace, and from the impact of poverty, genocide, or political repression, for instance — we’ve gotten into the habit of viewing every new threat through the lens of “war,” thus asking our military to take on an ever-expanding range of nontraditional tasks.

But viewing more and more threats as “war” brings more and more spheres of human activity into the ambit of the law of war, with its greater tolerance of secrecy, violence, and coercion — and its reduced protections for basic rights.”

US Should Stand Off In Syria; Not A Core Interest



Standoff in Syria


“It is praiseworthy that American policymakers want to end the suffering of so many in Syria and Iraq, and seek to eliminate the terror threat of ISIS.

But more than two decades of clear policy failures and an analysis of the current convoluted environment makes it clear that a major change of policy towards Syria and the Greater Middle East are necessary.

After a U.S. F-18 shot down a Syrian fighter-bomber last week, Assad’s ally, Russia, declared that it would consider shooting down any U.S. aircraft west of the Euphrates river. The White House defiantly declared the US would defend itself if attacked. Risking a war with a nuclear power over a Syrian policy that does not advance core American interests is foolhardy. We must make an immediate change in strategy. 

The overriding imperative for the U.S. Government is to ensure the security of the U.S. Homeland and its people abroad. Secondly, it is to expand global trade and improve the domestic U.S. economy. While fostering and encouraging the spread of democracy abroad remains a U.S. interest, it is not a core interest on par with the first two. Given these criteria, our current Middle East and Syria policies require considerable and immediate adjustment.

The primary justification for U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war is the requirement to destroy Daesh’s (aka the Islamic State) self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa. To accomplish that goal, the Pentagon supports indigenous forces with airpower and select U.S. ground troops. But even if that goal were one day accomplished, it would neither solve the civil war nor remove the threat of Islamic terrorism to the United States. The region is a volatile, violent mix of a myriad of aggressive and competing interests.

Ansar al-Islam, al-Nusra, al-Qaeda, Daesh and numerous other violent Islamic terror groups will continue to operate in Syria and seek to expand globally, regardless of the Raqqa outcome. Yet some in the United States continue to believe that the security situation will stabilize there if Daesh is driven out of Raqqa.

Effective U.S. policy can only be formed if we acknowledge this highly complex and volatile mix of competing forces. Even a cursory examination makes it abundantly clear that Daesh is only one of a myriad of factors at play in Syria and the greater Middle East. Even if they are completely destroyed – and the loss of Raqqa will not accomplish that objective – the cyclone of the remaining constituents will continue churning without pause. It is necessary, therefore, to step back and consider what are the true American national security interests in the region and decide what policies have the best chance of securing those interests.

If the United States were to engage again in aerial combat with a Russian jet, the risk of conflict with a major power becomes acute. Adding a spark to the already tense relationship could result in escalatory measures that quickly get out of control.

It is time for hard, but proper choices to be made. As events of the past several decades have conclusively proven – and painfully reinforced throughout the Middle East since 2011 – the United States cannot impose a political solution by military means, period, full stop. The challenges faced by that region are far more complex than even this short article can convey. The only path to stability will be found by those who have to live with the results.

We can and should actively engage diplomatically with any party in the Middle East that seeks a reduction in violence if that accomplishes our national security priorities.  The U.S. should also increase humanitarian aid to those in dire need, further advocating for freedom throughout the world.

What must be studiously avoided, however, are any actions or policies that place at risk American security or inhibits global trade. Taking actions that could lead to any level of hostilities between Washington and Moscow would harm core American interests, possibly gravely, and must therefore be prevented.”

Daniel Davis, a former Army lieutenant colonel who retired in 2015, is a defense expert at the Washington thinktank, Defense Priorities.”





500 Pound U.S. Weapons Strike Syrian Village – Who did they kill?


Syrian Bombs


“A-10 and B-52 aircraft bore down on the village. Their 500-pound bombs struck their targets.

When the dust settled, at least 95 people lay dead, thrusting Tokhar into the center of an international debate over how the Syrian war has been waged and who has paid the price.

According to conflicting Syrian and U.S. accounts, the attack was either a major victory for the United States and its allied ground ­forces or the worst case of civilian casualties by the United States since the war against the Islamic State began. U.S. officials said the strike killed a large group of Islamic State fighters; Syrian activists said the people killed in Tokhar were mostly men, women and children seeking shelter from the war around them.

The contradictory narratives about what happened that night reveal the difficulty of determining outcomes in an air campaign that has taken place beyond the reach of journalists, aid groups and other independent observers.

“In a conflict of this nature, where we’re in close quarters fighting and Islamic State is deliberately using human shields, it’s inevitable that civilians will die,” said Chris Woods, director of Airwars, a Britain-based group that tracks allegations of civilian casualties.

“Where we have tensions is around how [U.S. military officials] tend to depict reporting of civilian casualties purely as propaganda,” he said. “What we too often see is the coalition downplaying credibly reported reports.”

While the vast majority of the Syrian war’s nearly half-million dead have been killed in ground clashes­ or regime air attacks, the U.S. government has confirmed that 55 civilians have died in more than 11,000 U.S. strikes conducted in Iraq and Syria since 2014.

Activists say those findings grossly understate the extent of civilian deaths. They blame an insular military process for evaluating civilian death allegations, one they say fails to sufficiently consider on-the-ground reporting by residents and activists that is often the sole counter-narrative to military officials’ version of events.

The figures from the U.S. Central Command show a rate of one civilian death for every 200 strikes that U.S. planes have launched in Iraq and Syria.

That’s a vastly lower figure than the war in Afghanistan at its height — a rate of one dead civilian for about every 15 strikes — or during six years of counter­terrorism strikes in countries including Pakistan and Yemen, where the White House in a recent study found that a civilian died for every four to seven strikes.

The relatively low death toll for Iraq and Syria is even more striking in light of the U.S. military estimate that 45,000 militants have been killed in two years of attacks by air and via long­-distance rockets.

“The numbers that Centcom is putting out would suggest an order of magnitude increase in effectiveness,” said Christopher Kolenda, a former Pentagon official who is a senior fellow at King’s College London. “It just doesn’t come across as very credible.”

Corpses, competing stories

Military officials describe elaborate measures taken to protect civilians, including pinpointing of civilian locations, legal and intelligence reviews, extended surveillance periods and use of precision munitions.

Since strikes began in 2014, the Obama administration has adapted those procedures, seeking to ensure, for example, that a greater number of strikes have a “shift cold” option. That means that planners identify a location, such as an empty field, to which they can divert a munition after it is fired in the event a civilian suddenly appears near the target.

“We recognize that it’s an operational imperative to demonstrate to the people of Iraq and Syria that, unlike ISIL, we take very seriously the prevention of death and injury of civilians,” said Pentagon spokesman Gordon Trowbridge. ISIL and ISIS are acronyms for the Islamic State.

At the same time, the Pentagon has relaxed some rules governing strikes in Iraq and Syria — for example, by empowering officers of lower ranks than required earlier in the war to authorize strikes.

Those more flexible rules reflect pressure from inside and outside the military to increase the pace of strikes and make greater progress against a group seen as posing a serious threat to the United States and its European allies.

When allegations of civilian deaths emerge, officials conduct an initial assessment to determine whether they believe the claims warrant an investigation. Since 2014, U.S. military officials have deemed about a quarter of casualty allegations to be credible.

Centcom has already launched an investigation into the Tokhar strike.

Such investigations, typically headed by a colonel or a higher-ranking officer, can last months. During the course of the probe, investigators interview U.S. military personnel and review flight footage and intelligence findings. They do not typically interview witnesses or Syrians, but they sometimes receive on-the-ground accounts passed on from the State Department or the U.S. Agency for International Development, which work with civil society groups in Syria.

Some, but not all, investigations incorporate the online documentation — including cellphone images and social-media posts — that has become an important feature of the Syrian war.

In the hours that followed the July 19 bombing, activist groups from Tokhar and the nearby city of Manbij posted reports on Facebook and Twitter about large numbers of slain civilians. Several hours later, the Islamic State’s media arm tweeted that at least 160 civilians, mostly women and children, were killed.

Eventually, the names and photos of at least 70 alleged victims, including people described as village residents and families displaced by the nearby fighting, emerged online.

Neil Simmonds, who tracks events in Syria for Amnesty International, said his group had struggled for clarity about the criteria Centcom uses to consider reporting from local activists or civic groups.

“We have a name and a picture, and that still seems to fall short of credible evidence,” Simmonds said.

Navy Cmdr. Kyle Raines, a Centcom spokesman, said investigators’ assessment of allegations from local sources­ depends on whether “sufficient verifiable information” is available.

In the initial hours after the strike, several Twitter accounts tweeted pictures showing photos of rubble and dusty corpses. Those photos were not from Tokhar and had appeared on the Internet previously. To military officials, the posts were proof that Islamic State supporters were using the attack as propaganda.

But a Facebook group that was the source of much of the social-media information about the Tokhar strike — Manbij Mother of all the World — quickly flagged those photos as fake and warned people to disregard them.

Officials acknowledge that assessing the validity of claims in Syria presents a particular challenge. For much of the war in Afghanistan, U.S. troops called in airstrikes, examined bombing debris firsthand and interviewed witnesses. Little of that can occur in Syria, where the United States has only a tiny Special Operations presence with a much more limited mission.

Activists say that the Centcom investigation process, in setting a high bar for validating claims of errant deaths, may reinforce an inaccurate picture of the war.

“It’s really dangerous, obviously, if you think that you’ve conducted [thousands of strikes] and you’ve only killed 55 civilians. Then you probably do think you’re doing a brilliant job,” Simmonds said. “But we all know that’s a terrible underestimate.”

The murkiness surrounding the events of July 19 also highlights the challenges inherent to the growing U.S. collaboration with allied ground forces­ in Syria.

In recent months, tensions have increased between Arabs in northern Syria and Kurdish fighters from the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The Kurdish forces­ come from other areas of Syria and have played a key role in recapturing territory from the Islamic State.

Some Arab residents have accused the Kurdish ­forces, which often relay targeting information to U.S. ­forces advising from behind the front lines, of placing insufficient importance on civilian life.

After the strikes, the Manbij Military Council, an SDF affiliate that speaks for U.S.-backed groups in the area, denounced the reports of civilian casualties as propaganda and said it had confirmed that civilians were no longer in the village before the air raid took place.

Under drone surveillance

In the days leading up to July 19, SDF Kurdish forces and Islamic State militants had clashed repeatedly in the area around Tokhar.

According to a former Tokhar resident who goes by the name Abu Abdullah and now lives outside Syria, many fellow villagers fled after the militants’ arrival in 2014 because they resented the group’s strict rules about grooming and dress.

By mid-July, a small number of militants were coming and going from the village, sometimes using surrounding areas to fire on SDF ­forces, Syrians who spoke with residents said. Adnan al-Hussein, a journalist from Manbij who has spoken with people in Tokhar, said the Islamic State activity continued on the day of the strike.

At about 1 a.m. on July 19, a small number of militants launched mortar fire from inside the village and then withdrew, according to Hussein’s account. Remaining civilians took shelter in the northern area of the village, he said.

The planes, carrying laser-guided GBU-54 and GBU-31 bombs, struck several hours later.

While one group reported that as many as 203 people had died, between 70 and 80 civilians were named, including at least 11 children, according to reports compiled by Airwars. Among the alleged victims, according to those reports, was a man named Suleiman al Dhaher, who was killed along with at least five of his children and grandchildren, including two infants. Some sources reported that the area struck was a school occupied by displaced Syrians. “The victims of the massacre were all civilians, not a single member of ISIS,” according to Abu Abdullah.

But U.S. officials, speaking in detail about the strike for the first time, described elements that they say show that the people gathered in Tokhar that night were not civilians. Instead, the officials said, they were militants preparing for a major counter­attack on allied forces­ in Manbij, where an intense battle was unfolding.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss an incident that is under investigation, the officials said the village had been under drone surveillance for three weeks. Few civilians had been observed in the preceding 10 days.

U.S. officials cross-checked information from allied ground forces­ with their own intelligence. “The thought is that ISIL came in and told villagers to leave,” the official said. “The surveillance backed that up.”

The officials said the militants had been instructed to pose as civilians in a bid to elude enemy attack. They even arranged tractors in nearby fields to make it look like farming was still taking place.

U.S. officials say they think that a much smaller number of civilians died, perhaps about 10, and put the militant death toll at 85. Officials said they based those estimates not just on aerial surveillance but also on information provided by personnel from U.S.-backed Syrian forces­ who visited the village shortly after the strike to verify its results.

Asked whether Tokhar had been a legitimate attack, the official said: “Absolutely. . . . This was a valid military target.”

The Washington Post was not able to independently verify either the U.S. or Syrian accounts.

Kolenda, who recently co-wrote a report on the strategic impact of civilian casualties, urged the Pentagon to adopt new technologies, such as means that would allow civilians to transmit location information when using mobile phones to document attacks. Such tools may take on greater importance as the United States in­creases its reliance on air power to address threats in places such as Somalia or Syria, where U.S. officials are often unable to verify events directly.

“The military recognizes the moral and legal imperatives, but it has been very slow to appreciate that civilian harm, even if it’s inflicted within the laws of armed conflict, can be very damaging to our interests,” he said. “The Pentagon has got to get its arms wrapped around that.”



The U.S. ISIS Mission is Combat Not Training


Combat Deaths


“The U.S. now has 300 troops in Syria, where the fight against ISIS is intensifying.

The Pentagon  is sending more troops to Iraq, boosting the total number there to more than 4,000.  Calling it a training mission is cold comfort to the parents, spouses and children of the deployed troops.

When U.S. and allied troops are on Islamic State turf with the mission of wiping it from existence, they are on a combat mission.  Calling it anything else is wrong.

Where those fights are being waged, American forces are targets from the moment they arrive. That they are tasked to train local forces to defeat ISIS and other enemies makes U.S. forces all the more vulnerable.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter had his chairman’s back, also telling lawmakers the U.S. troops were killed in combat.

“Why,” Sullivan asked during the back and forth, “can’t we level with the American people” and say that U.S. troops in harm’s way in the Middle East are in combat?

Why indeed.

Tragically, the danger facing American personnel in Iraq and Syria were made clear again on Tuesday, when Navy SEAL Charlie Keating was killed on a quick-reaction mission to aid U.S. military advisers under attack by large, coordinated ISIS force.

Carter has tried to defend the administration’s position on troops deployed in the fight against ISIS, saying that although troops have been killed in combat, the mission was to train and equip local forces so they can repel the terrorist group without U.S. support.

That’s a valid if extremely challenging strategy, one driven by numerous realities. Not the least of those is the American public’s weariness with sending its men and women into combat after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, which remain volatile despite great sacrifices of life and treasure.

But the administration is trying to have it both ways and appear to be keeping the U.S. out of war while steadily building up forces in the region, increasing the number of troops deployed to combat zones, dropping bombs on enemy forces and, when necessary, engaging them in direct action.

The Pentagon has even created an Operation Inherent Resolve campaign medal for troops who have deployed as part of the mission to crush ISIS.

Where those fights are being waged, American forces are targets from the moment they arrive. That they are tasked to train local forces to defeat ISIS and other enemies makes U.S. forces all the more vulnerable.

The more the White House insists these troops are not part of a combat mission, the more distrust it breeds in the ranks and among the public. It’s viewed as the sort of condescending semantics Washington plays to deny the obvious. That can serve only to erode support for the mission.”




A Texas Man – His Truck & The Syrians That Put A Gun on It




“In Oct. 2013, Mark Oberholtzer traded his truck to Charlie Thomas Ford Ltd.

A little more than a year later, Oberholtzer would see his truck again in Syria. It was covered in dust and someone had put a 23mm twin-barreled anti-aircraft gun in the back.

His phone number still emblazoned on the door—it had gone viral.

Oberholtzer was a plumber, and his truck—a dark colored 2005 Ford F-250 Super Cab—was a plumber’s truck. It had his company’s name on the side: “Mark-1″ and his phone number on the door, Galveston area code and all.

The tweet hit the Internet on Dec. 15, 2014. Caleb Weiss tweeted the picture from a Jabhat Ansar al-Din Facebook account, and from there the Internet did what the Internet does best. Jabhat Ansar al-Din is one of the dozens of groups fighting in northern Syria against the Islamic State and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s troops, and Weiss tweeted the picture with the caption “Chechen Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar using plumbing truck against regime in #Aleppo.”

There was Oberholtzer’s truck alright. The picture shows a masked man sitting in Oberholtzer’s worn seat, his elbow hanging out the driver’s side window as he looks back at his comrade firing the repurposed anti-air weapon from the vehicle’s bed. A Texas man’s work vehicle had become a weapon of Syria’s bloody war and a plumbing truck had managed to find itself wedged into a discourse that features terms like “barrel bombs” and and Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices.

According to the lawsuit, Oberholtzer’s truck had been sold at a Texas auto auction on Nov. 11, 2013. On Dec. 18, 2013, it left the United States from the port city of Houston and was imported to Mersin, Turkey sometime later.

By the end of Dec. 15, 2014, the day Weiss tweeted the plumbing truck now seen around the world, Oberholtzers’s cell phone, work phone and office phone had “received over 1,000 phone calls from around the nation,” according to the lawsuit.

The phone calls were a mixed bag. Some of the calls stood in solidarity with Oberholtzer. The majority, though, were less than pleasant.

From the lawsuit:

“These phone calls were in large part harassing and contained countless threats of violence, property harm, injury and even death. These phone calls included, but were not limited to, individuals who were: (a) irate and yelling expletives at whomever answered the phone; (b) degrading to whomever answered the phone regarding their stupidity; (c) singing in Arabic for the duration of the phone call or voice message recording; (d) making threats of injury or death against Mark-1’s employees, family, children, and grandchildren in violent, lurid and grossly specific terms; and, (e) directing expletive-laced death threats to whomever answered the phone.”

Oberholtzer was forced to shutter his business for a week and left town. When he called Charlie Thomas Ford, the person he spoke to on the phone “expressed not the slightest regret,” and informed Oberholtzer it was not their job to remove Oberholtzer’s decals, according to the lawsuit. One of Oberholtzer’s main contentions, however, is that he began to remove his decals while waiting to finalize his paperwork with Charlie Thomas Ford and was told to stop because it would damage the paint.

In the months that followed, Oberholtzer was visited by both the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI and interviewed extensively. According to the lawsuit, he was advised to “protect himself” and Oberholtzer began carrying around a firearm. On Dec. 18, 2014 his truck was featured on the final episode of the Colbert Report, the most watched episode in the show’s history,

“The widespread viewing of the segment increased the volume of the harassing and threatening phone calls and has immeasurably added to the suffering of Mark, his family, his employees and their families,” reads the lawsuit.

For damages done, including “invasion of privacy by appropriation of name,” Oberholtzer has sued for $1,000,000.”





Decorated Soldier: “US Has A Moral Responsibility to Accept Syrian Refugees”




“Moral responsibility calls for Americans to address the implications of their support for military action and intervention in Syria,

We’re willing to bomb, but not provide refuge to those trying to escape from the bombing. What does that say about our national character?

Like all soldiers deployed to the Iraq War in 2006, I was trained to adhere to the laws of armed conflict. One of the key moral principles in war is the doctrine of “Double-Effect,” which states that any military decision-making must weigh the advantage of an action with the foreseeable negative consequences—harm to civilians being one common example.

Soldiers must attempt to mitigate these consequences through “due care” for civilians, often by accepting more risk upon themselves: clearing an insurgent compound in a populated area, for instance, with a squad of soldiers instead of dropping a bomb.

I think of these principles when I hear politicians debate how the U.S. military should respond to the crisis in Syria and whether this country should admit more refugees from that country. Many politicians are pushing for American troops to become more involved in the Syrian civil war while also rejecting that this country has any responsibility to accept Syrians fleeing the war.

But if Americans are going to continue to support a military intervention in Syria, then we also must accept some risk in mitigating the consequences of war on innocent Syrian bystanders. Otherwise, based on the moral laws of armed conflict, we will be waging an unjust war.

Now, I agree with most observers that the Assad regime and the Islamic State are the root causes of the refugee crisis, not the United States. But it’s undeniable that war and conflict destroy lives and displace people.

In Syria, the insurgents live among the people, making it a daunting task for U.S. and coalition forces to distinguish civilians from combatants. As any reasonable person would do, the Syrians are attempting to remove themselves and their families from a dangerous environment. We’ve seen this before in wars that we have participated in. During the 2007 surge in Anbar province in Iraq, U.S. soldiers and marines were battling to regain Ramadi from the grip of al-Qaeda in Iraq. The city of 500,000 was nearly emptied of civilians, due to the heavy fighting. The Iraqis then, like the Syrians today, fled the fighting for safer lands.

As for the question of risk in admitting refugees, it’s important to maintain some perspective. Only two percent of the accepted refugees are single men of combat age. The United States has resettled 784,000 refugees from around the world since September 11, 2001, based on State Department figures. In those 14 years, exactly three resettled refugees (non-Syrian) were arrested for planning terrorist activities.

[3 important facts about how the U.S. resettles Syrian refugees

According to a November 2015 ABC News/Washington Post poll, approximately 73 percent of Americans supported U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria to combat ISIL, a significant majority in favor of the President’s decision to use force. In contrast, only one third of Americans believed that we should continue to take in Syrian refugees at current or increased levels, according to a November 2015 YouGov poll.

Since the beginning of the U.S. intervention, only about 2,000 Syrian refugees have been welcomed into the country. Many in Congress also echo this sentiment by advocating for a more aggressive military strategy in Syria while dueling with the administration on accepting refugees.  This is a clear violation of the doctrine of “Double-Effect” and “due care” to mitigate the harm being done to the Syrian people.

We hold soldiers accountable to these principles, in bello, regardless of the justness for going to war. Understanding that these are the moral responsibilities of soldiers leads one to ask, what of the American people? Regardless of one’s approval of President Obama’s leadership or the soundness of his decision to go to war against ISIL, each American citizen is part of a social contract by virtue of living here and being afforded collective security and social welfare. Like soldiers participating in war, the American people are not able to pick and choose the wars that our leaders wage. The American people certainly might not be liable for leaders starting an unjust war, but they should still be responsible for aspects of how the war is waged and ultimately ended.

Like the soldier on the battlefield, the American people ought to accept some collective responsibility for their support for the Syrian war and take “due care” to lessen Syrian civilians’ suffering.

Steven Katz was an active duty Army officer from 2003-2009. He served two tours of duty to Iraq in ground combat leadership positions: 2004-2005 in Tikrit and 2006-2007 in Ramadi. He earned the Bronze Star and Combat Action Badge during the surge in Anbar province. He holds a Master’s degree in public policy from Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government.”



She Kills People From 7,850 Miles Away – What We Tolerate as Warfare Today




“Anne, [“SPARKLE”] an Air Force staff sergeant, was—and still is—a remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) sensor operator or “sensor.”

“When you hit a truck full of people, there are limbs and legs everywhere,” Sparkle said. “I watched a guy crawl away from the wreckage after one shot with no lower body. He slowly died. You have to watch that. You don’t get to turn away.”

Anne crawled out of bed in her North Las Vegas house around 10 p.m. and started to get ready for her shift.

She pulled her chestnut hair into a bun and slipped on her olive green flight suit. In the kitchen, she packed fruit to snack on during her shift and stuffed her schoolwork into her backpack-sized lunchbox just in case it’s a boring night. Most nights she doesn’t have a chance to open a book.

Giving her dog, a tan Sher-Pei/pit bull mix, one last pat, she left her house and joined thousands of other workers leaving for the midnight shift. While most people were heading to hotels and casinos in town, Hubbard was on her way to Creech Air Force Base and a war.

At Creech, she is assigned to a reconnaissance squadron flying missions over Iraq and Afghanistan. Few weapons in the American arsenal are more relentless than the RPA fleet, often called drones. For more than a decade, the United States has flown RPAs over Afghanistan and Iraq, providing forces on the ground with an eye in the sky to spot terrorists and insurgents, and in most cases the firepower to destroy them.

As she rode to work, Anne—or “Sparkle” as she’s known to her fellow drone operators—wasn’t focused on the desert outside her window. It was 2009 and President Obama was sending troops in a surge to Afghanistan. Sparkle’s mind was on a desert 7,000 miles away. Over the next 24 hours she would track an insurgent, watch as he was killed by a Hellfire missile, and spy on his funeral before ending her night with a breakfast beer and a trip to the dog park.

The RPA has become the symbol of America’s ongoing wars, from Afghanistan to Somalia to Syria. And, 14 years after a U.S. “drone” first fired a missile at an al Qaeda operative, the morality and legality of remote strikes remains a matter of intense controversy. Earlier this year, the U.S. government revealed it accidentallykilled one of its own citizens with a drone—a hostage held by al Qaeda—triggering another round of debate about when the U.S. is justified in using the remotely piloted planes to attack.

On Thursday, the Intercept published a cache of new documents about RPA missions in Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen. The documents paint a damning picture of the RPA, including an internal U.S. military study that found a “critical shortfall” in how targets are identified. The government’s reliance on cellphones has led to the wrong target being killed. The new documents also call into question the accuracy of the RPA. The Intercept reports more than 200 people were killed – only 35 were actual targets – in Afghanistan between January 2012 and February 2013.

“This outrageous explosion of watchlisting—of monitoring people and racking and stacking them on lists, assigning them numbers…  assigning them death sentences without notice, on a worldwide battlefield—it was, from the very first instance, wrong,” the source of the documents told the Intercept. “We’re allowing this to happen. And by ‘we,’ I mean every American citizen who has access to this information now, but continues to do nothing about it.”

But for all the attention paid to RPAs, the men and women who operate the 21st century’s most divisive weapons system remain largely hidden from public view—except for reports about strikes, especially when a missile kills civilians.

A pilot's heads up display in a ground control station shows a truck from the view of a camera on an MQ-9 Reaper during a training mission. The Reaper is the Air Force's first A pilot’s heads up display in a ground control station shows a truck from the view of a camera on an MQ-9 Reaper during a training mission. The Reaper is the Air Force’s first “hunter-killer” unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and is designed to engage time-sensitive targets on the battlefield as well as provide intelligence and surveillance. The jet-fighter sized Reapers are 36 feet long with 66-foot wingspans and can fly for as long as 14 hours fully loaded with laser-guided bombs and air-to-ground missiles. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)”


The Obscure Company Behind America’s Syria Fiasco


Image: Aram Roston BuzzFeed News


“At the heart of the high-stakes U.S. program to train and equip Syrian rebels to fight ISIS is a multimillion-dollar arms deal that the Pentagon farmed out to a tiny, little-known private company called Purple Shovel LLC.

The U.S. violated its own policy and gave Purple Shovel approval to acquire millions of dollars’ worth of high-tech missiles for the rebels from Belarus.

▸ Purple Shovel, through the subcontractors it selected and oversaw, tried to sell the U.S. thousands of Russian-style rocket-propelled grenades that were considered unreliable because they were manufactured three decades ago, before Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union.

▸ The U.S. government rejected them, and that delayed the effort to stand up the Syrian rebel force.

▸ An American contractor, 41-year-old Francis Norwillo, was killed in a weapons explosion in Bulgaria while training with such outdated grenades.

▸  Belarus, which has supplied weapons to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and is accused of human rights violations, is normally off-limits to U.S. arms dealers. But the U.S. military and State Department agreed to make an exception, allowing 700 powerful anti-tank missiles to be purchased, with U.S. taxpayer funds, for the rebels.

A Pentagon spokesperson defended its Train and Equip program in a statement to BuzzFeed News, saying, “We remain committed to expanding the New Syrian Forces and will continue to support those who we have trained.” She said the arms “delivery issues” identified in this story did not “prevent” training, though she said she would “not comment on delivery schedules.” A U.S. Special Operations Command spokesperson, Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Allen, acknowledged that the U.S. had acquired missiles from Belarus for the program.

A lawyer for Purple Shovel wrote that many of BuzzFeed News’ findings are incorrect. She declined to provide details because she said the firm is barred by federal law from discussing its Defense Department contracts. Purple Shovel’s CEO and founder, Benjamin Worrell, said in a brief telephone conversation, “I have absolutely no comment for you. I’m sorry.”

Purple Shovel’s arms contract is at the core of one of America’s top international priorities: thwarting ISIS, the extremist group that has seized large regions of Syria and Iraq, beheaded many of its captives, and helped fuel the ongoing exodus of refugees from Syria. Last year, President Barack Obama gave a primetime televised speech from the White House, calling on Congress to approve his $500 million program to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels. The program was to recruit moderate Syrians, vet them to ensure they weren’t infiltrators sent by ISIS or other groups, train them overtly using the U.S. military, and arm them. In December, Congress appropriated the funds.

A militant waves an ISIS flag in Raqqa, Syria, in June 2014. Stringer / Reuters

Yet this July, eight months later, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter testified that only 60 Syrians had been trained. Later, in a devastating blow, the Syrian commander trained by the Americans was captured along with some of his soldiers by Islamist rebels from the Jabhat al-Nusra group. And this week, the commander of Central Command, General Lloyd Austin, testified that only four or five of the U.S.-trained rebels were actually deployed and fighting ISIS.

While those fiascoes are known, the problems with Purple Shovel’s multimillion-dollar arms contract have not been reported until now, and they show that troubles with the high-profile effort run deeper than previously realized.

They also illuminate the murky world of arms-dealing contractors behind many of America’s efforts to prop up friendly fighting forces. The United States government is one of the biggest buyers of AK-47s and other Russian-designed weapons, pouring them into Iraq, Afghanistan, and other war-torn countries. The U.S. provides foreign weapons to groups it trains because fighters sometimes prefer them, because they can conceal U.S. links to an operation, and because they are inexpensive. As BuzzFeed News has reported, the Pentagon and the CIA sometimes use small, untested arms dealers to purchase the weapons.

A Tiny Firm Wins Big Contracts

Incorporated in Delaware in 2010, Purple Shovel was founded by Benjamin Worrell, who worked in Army counterintelligence from 1993 to 2001, according to military records. His company is designated as a Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned small business. His last assignment was with the 902nd Military Intelligence Group out of Fort Meade, Maryland. Military websites say the unit runs “full spectrum counterintelligence activities,” which include “detecting, identifying, neutralizing and exploiting foreign intelligence services, international terrorist threats and insider threats.”

From 2005 onward, according to his LinkedIn page, Worrell worked for the U.S. government and a series of contracting companies. He and his wife filed for personal bankruptcy in 2008, the year the financial crisis was cratering the economy. He reached an agreement with the bankruptcy court to discharge the debt, and federal court records show that his bankruptcy case was closed in July 2012. A Purple Shovel attorney, Margaret Carland, emailed that the bankruptcy was associated with medical costs and “is a private matter of no public news consideration.”

Purple Shovel’s big break came in December 2014, when it won two contracts totaling more than $50 million for the Syria program from the Special Operations Command, or SOCOM, which coordinates the activities of America’s most elite military units.

When Purple Shovel was awarded those crucial contracts, according to a federal procurement database, the company had just six employees and annual revenue of less than $2 million.

One contract, for $23.5 million, was not for guns, but rather for training and equipment. Over time, the contract came to include things like “Arabic keyboards,” and swelled to $31 million. Purple Shovel, records show, got this contract as a “sole source” award, meaning there was no competitive bidding — no other companies were able to try to get the work at a cheaper rate. Federal law typically discourages no-bid contracts, and the Pentagon declined to say why one was given in this case, though a federal procurement data system reported that it was because there was “only one source.” Still, according to a performance review Purple Shovel shared with BuzzFeed News, the government gave the company a glowing review of its work on this contract, which was completed at the end of July, calling the work “exceptional.”

The other big SOCOM contract was for approximately $26.7 million and was for “Foreign Weapons and Ammunition,” according to the description. In this case, federal records say Purple Shovel won the contract in a competitive bid against two other companies. This contract eventually worked its way up to $28.3 million.

The equipment Purple Shovel and its subcontractors were supposed to buy for the Syrian rebels, according to documents and sources familiar with the procurement operation in Bulgaria, included 12,640 armor-piercing rocket-propelled grenades, of a type called the PG-7VM, along with hundreds of shoulder-mounted launchers. Then there were 6,240 even longer-range anti-tank grenades called PG-9Vs, which are fired from launchers called SPG-9s. (Insiders pronounce it “spig-nines.”)

BuzzFeed News

According to four sources with knowledge of the procurement, there was a huge problem with the effort to get the grenades. Purple Shovel’s subcontractors managed to find rocket-propelled grenades made by a Bulgarian company, but they’d been manufactured in 1984 and sitting in warehouses longer than many soldiers had been alive. “1984 is way past its shelf life,” one arms expert told BuzzFeed News, “unless it’s been refurbished.” But sources say these grenades had not been refurbished. The problem is that components can degrade, making the weapons either unstable, so they can blow up in a soldier’s hand­, or inert, so that soldiers can’t fire the weapons, leaving them vulnerable in battle.

Three of those sources said that SOCOM turned down batches of the grenades that were supposed to be given to the rebels, because they were too old and unreliable. They say that slowed down the operation for the Syrian rebel effort.

SOCOM and the Pentagon didn’t dispute that they rejected substandard equipment, but Cmdr. Elissa J. Smith, a Pentagon spokesperson, emailed BuzzFeed News, “I can tell you that the delivery issues did not prevent training from occurring.”

Meanwhile, Bulgarian arms dealers with knowledge of the deal told BuzzFeed News they are being asked to find newly manufactured rocket-propelled grenades for SOCOM to fill the gap in the Syria program. New weapons are hard to procure, Bulgarian arms industry executives said, because due to the wars around the world, production for Russian-designed grenades and other weapons in Bulgaria and other Eastern European countries has reached capacity. The production lines are full.

Syrian rebels with a SPG-9 rocket launcher in 2012. John Cantlie / AFP / Getty Images

Death Of A Contractor

On June 6, the news broke in Bulgaria of a mysterious explosion near the village of Anevo, at a rented arms range just a few miles from a medieval mountain fortress. One American contractor was killed and two were injured. Two Bulgarians were also injured.

Soon afterward, the U.S. Embassy in the Bulgarian capital Sofia released a statement revealing the name of the Purple Shovel and its connection to the Syria operation.

The defense contractors involved in this incident are employees of the company Purple Shovel, which has been awarded a contract by U.S. Special Operations Command, at the request of U.S. Central Command, to support the Combined Joint Interagency Task Force-Syria (CJIATF-S). CJIATF-S is the organization tasked to administer the Coalition Syria Train and Equip program.

BuzzFeed News has learned that the man who lost his life was Francis Norwillo, a 41-year-old Navy veteran who was an expert armorer. Sources close to his family say that after leaving the Navy, where he had worked with Navy SEALs, Norwillo joined the ranks of the private military-contracting world.

Francis Norwillo Courtesy of Joe Norwillo

This spring, he was based in Texas and looking for work. Sources say he was hired by SkyBridge Tactical, a subcontractor to Purple Shovel. His job, according to friends and family members who asked that they not be named, was training. They say he told them he would be in Bulgaria for a week and a half. There, sources say, Norwillo was supposed to receive training meant to familiarize him with the rocket-propelled grenades so that he would be prepared to train American soldiers who would, in turn, train the Syrian rebels.

He was killed, according to five sources and Bulgarian news accounts, when he fired a grenade that was old, manufactured in 1984.

The family was told little about the cause of the accident. “All we know is a weapon went off and he got blown up,” said Joe Norwillo, his father, in a phone interview from Texas. The Bulgarian government is conducting a probe, and the prosecutor’s office there told BuzzFeed News that it will be completed in December.

In her statement to BuzzFeed News, Purple Shovel’s lawyer wrote: “Mr. Norwillo’s death was a tragic accident. All of the questions you ask here must be asked of the US Government or the subcontractor who oversaw his actions.”

The SOCOM spokesperson, in an email, wrote that “we have not yet received an official report from the host government, which means we can’t know with certainty what occurred at the time of the incident.” Contradicting the U.S. Embassy statement, he added, “To the best of our knowledge, he was not supporting our contract when the incident took place.”

U.S. authorities said there is no American investigation into Norwillo’s death at this point.

SkyBridge Tactical, the subcontractor that employed Norwillo, declined to comment. The president, Stephen Rumbley, said that Norwillo’s family had been upset by BuzzFeed News’ calls: “If you hadn’t talked to the family to upset them I would talk to you. Write your blog. Do your thing. I’m not going to talk to you.”

Other companies were involved as subcontractors, according to sources and documents. Regulus Global, headquartered in Virginia, was Purple Shovel’s primary procurement subcontractor. It, in turn, arranged to buy the grenades from a Bulgarian firm, Algans Ltd.

In a brief interview, Regulus Global’s president, Lee Tolleson, said, “What we are doing for SOCOM is very good and very needed.” He declined further comment. Algans could not be reached for comment, and the firm did not respond to an email with detailed questions.

U.S. Buys Weapons From A Dictator

In addition to the rocket-propelled grenades, Purple Shovel was also contracted to acquire 700 Russian-designed Konkurs missiles for the Syria mission. Those are anti-tank weapons, which are guided in flight by an attached wire, and they can hit and destroy a target at up to two and a half miles away. In theory, they could be used to blast the heavy armor that ISIS had acquired by conquering U.S.-equipped units of the Iraqi army that fled. Or they could hit the heavily armored construction vehicles that ISIS jerry-rigs to bust through fortified lines.

But there was a problem: finding them on the worldwide arms market. Bulgaria, the source for most of the weapons for the Syria operation, didn’t have any. Ukraine is known to have some stored away but won’t sell because it is in a shooting war with Russian-backed rebels.

A country that has plenty is Belarus. But that country, often called “Europe’s last dictatorship,” is usually considered off-limits for arms dealers who work with the United States. President Alexander Lukashenko, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has ruled with an iron fist for 21 years, and he has been accused of repeatedly stealing elections and of “disappearing” political opponents. This year, a United Nations special rapporteur found that “the situation of human rights in Belarus has not improved, and that widespread disrespect for human rights, in particular civil and political rights, continues.”

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko. Afp / AFP / Getty Images

Ironically, along with Russia, Iran, and North Korea, Belarus was historically a major seller of arms to the Assad regime from 2006 to 2010, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tracks arms sales.

Belarus is on a special “International Traffic in Arms Regulations” list published by the U.S. State Department, of countries with bans or special restrictions. The State Department has to license almost every deal involving US companies, and arms dealers say they are almost always prohibited from buying weapons from Belarus, because it is on that list.

Still, Purple Shovel and its subcontractors turned to Belarus for the Konkurs missiles, according to five sources and SOCOM itself. Formally, the missiles would be acquired by Purple Shovel for SOCOM from a company in Bulgaria — but that company would get them from Belarus. Asked if it knew that the 700 Konkurs missiles specifically came from Belarus, the SOCOM spokesperson answered, “Yes. USSOCOM is required to know all sources of equipment procured for use.” SOCOM and the Office of the Secretary of Defense would not provide further comment on the issue. The U.S. State Department, which licenses private arms deals, also signed off on the transaction, sources say. The State Department declined to comment.

An official at the Military Industrial Committee of the Republic of Belarus, which coordinates military exports, told BuzzFeed News to send questions by email, but a subsequent email received no response.

At the Purple Shovel headquarters in at an office park in Sterling, Virginia, there’s a Purple Shovel logo on the mirrored front door. It shows a globe, a shovel formed from the letter “P,” and the words “Around the world, Around the clock.” Earlier this month, no one responded to repeated knocks on the door.”