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Thursday, January 10, 2019

Withdrawal of US Military from Syria

My earlier guess that Presidents Trump and Erdogan had discussed Syria on the telephone appears to have been correct and, based on that conversation, President Trump later announced that the United States would pull all of its military out of Syria.  Erdogan recently said as much and indicated that the call had been held in December of last year.  Trump sent Bolton to Ankara to work out the details of the withdrawal.  Before meeting with Erdogan, Bolton made several public statements to the effect that there was no time table for the withdrawal and that it was contiditional on Ankara’s commitment not to harm the Kurdish fighters that were allied with the USG in the fight against ISIS.  Erdogan reiterated his belief that the YPG is a terrorist organization and refused to meet with Bolton saying that he would prefer to discuss the matter with Trump in another telephone call.

My earlier post on this subject outlines the basic situation between Kurd and Turk and explains why Erdogan is taking a hard line against the Kurds - particularly the YPG.  I will not go over that ground again here.  Instead, I am going to go out on a limb and try to understand what is motivating our President.  I believe that his fundamental objective is to remove us from the mess in Syria.  I take him at his word that he does not want to engage in nation building and believes that it is high time for others in the international community to step up and take a share of the responsibility for ensuring order in world affairs.  I doubt that he wants to harm those that have helped us diminish ISIS, but he sees it as his duty to look out for American interests first.  Syria costs too much in blood and treasure, so he is determined to get us out.  He sees Erdogan’s eagerness to expand Turkish involvement in Syria as a useful way to accomplish his objective.  

President Trump’s eagerness to get our troops out of Syria is generating a considerable backlash.  I doubt that there are any supporters for this course of action among those who have been involved on the ground, nor do any of our allies in the region agree with it.  On the other hand, Ankara, Teheran, Damascus and Moscow are, for a variety of different reasons, delighted.  My guess continues to be that Erdogan and Trump will eventually work out acceptable wording for the joint public declaration that will permit Washington to pull our forces out.  I am also skeptical that Ankara will abide by the spirit of that declaration.  The expansion of Turkish presence inside Syria is designed to weaken the Kurdish subversive campaign inside Eastern Turkey and to block any additional migration of population out of Syria into Turkey.  A secondary objective is to protect and preserve the anti-Assad groups that are currently holed up in Idlib Province.  Although Ankara is opposed to ISIS, I doubt that their pursuit of ISIS remnants will be as effective as we would like.  Down the road a very short distance, Ankara and Damascus will have problems with the manipulation of ethnicity that is accompanying Ankara’s occupation of Syrian land.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Bird Photography

How long a telephoto lens does the average photographer need?  In order to answer this kind of question, one obviously needs to know what an average photographer is.  I suggest that there are no average photographers.  There are a multitude of different kinds of photographers to include you and me.  Each one of us is different and each one of us have different equipment needs.  My own are simple, if expensive.  I have used Canon still cameras for decades and see no reason to change.  I am currently using the 5D, Mark IV.  The lens that I currently use the most is a Sigma 24 - 70 mm, but I also own several other lenses to include a Canon 400 mm.  For my purposes, the 400 mm is as long as I need, and I need it only for animal and bird photography.  Given the high ISO that is currently available, I can hand hold the 400 mm in good daylight.  Anything longer than 400 mm, I have to use a tripod and I find that to be a serious limitation because I do not do a lot of shooting from a fixed position and I enjoy capturing my subjects in motion.

My advice to anyone wanting to break into bird photography is to at least start out with the 400 mm and mount it on a decent camera body that gives you a strong image file to work with in Lightroom.  Then learn how to best approach your subject.  Stealth.  Negative eye contact.  Angle of approach.  Speed of approach.  Silence.  Smoothness of movement.  Knowledge of specie habits.  Knowledge of terrain.  Apparel.  Etc, etc, etc…  All worth as much or more than additional millimeters in your lens.  If the birds that you are hunting live near you and you can visit them often you have the opportunity to learn their individual habits.  That should eventually put you exactly where you need to be to get the picture that you seek.  I have, for instance, the standard osprey carrying fish picture.  I had watched that pair of birds for several weeks and knew exactly where their fishing grounds were and where their nest was.  I knew that they were feeding young.  So, each morning I went to the beach (Walk On) and waited for them to appear.  Once I saw where they were fishing I moved to a point on high ground between them and their nest.  They were excellent fishermen.  I only had to wait a half hour or so before one of them was flying not very high over my head carrying a fish.  I have the same picture done exactly the same way at the Mouth of the Rogue River in Oregon.  My point being that knowledge of your subject is as important as hardware, if not more important.

Where you hunt birds is also important.  Needless to say, you should be an expert on every single kind of bird in the immediate vicinity of your home, but the more birds there are the better your chances of a decent image for obvious reasons.  We are fortunate here in California because there are a number of very important bird refuges located up and down the state and they are protected by some very knowledgeable people.  Take a couple of days off.  Drive to one of them and set up housekeeping in an inexpensive motel.  Eat hamburgers.  Meet the people that run the refuge.  Pick their brains.  Most of them enjoy telling you what they know and they know a lot.  Spend your entire time - sunrise to sunset - driving endlessly around the refuge photographing what you see.  Do not get out of the car.  Birds are used to the car and fearful of the person separate from the vehicle.  (The same is true in the game parks in Africa when you decide to go hunting lions and giraffes.)  Learn how to shoot out of the open window on the passenger’s side as well as the driver’s side.  Before you go home, figure out when the migrations effect the various refuges so that you can better plan your next visit.  Here again, the people at the refuge can be extremely valuable.

One last suggestion.  Join the local Christmas bird count (which frequently does not happen on Christmas).  Get to know the birders in your community.  They may be more interested in the birds for reasons other than photography, but they have the knowledge that you need about the species in your neighborhood and they are willing to share that knowledge with others that are interested in birds.  If you are very lucky, the bird count, might actually provide a couple of very nice images.  Certainly it will introduce you to some very interesting people.  

P.S:  The local count here is 1/12/19 Count day: Saturday January 12, 2018

(Note: SEVERE weather would move the count to Sunday, January 13)  They are looking for volunteers to join in.  Contact is Diane Hichwa.  Email is
I find it interesting that it is Bolton that appears to be tasked with ensuring that our withdrawal from Syria goes as smoothly as possible.  It is a daunting task and I wish him well.  In my opinion, Ankara is right to worry about the Syrian Kurds, particularly the YPG.  No matter what anybody does or says, I am utterly convinced that they will continue to support their brothers and sisters inside Eastern Turkey and they will continue to work toward autonomy and eventual independence both inside Syria and inside Turkey.  There is a very active, very serious Kurdish insurgency going on inside Turkey and communication between Syrian and Turkish Kurds is ongoing.  I don’t know what the toll has been in human lives, but Aljazeera believes it to be in the neighborhood of 40,000.  I understand Turkish President Erdogan’s concern and believe that from his perspective, he has little choice to do other than what he is doing in creating the buffer zone between a very well armed YPG and his country.  I also understand his frustration with Washington as he has watched us train, arm and advise fighters that he believes will soon turn against him.

On the other side of the same coin, I sympathize with the Kurdish people’s desire for a country of their own and admire the effectiveness of their cooperation with us in our campaign against ISIS.  They carried the ground war, suffered the major casualties, and were a critical element in achieving the degree of success that we have had in reducing the territory held by the rogue caliphate.  I agree with their analysis that they were staunch allies in our time of need and we are now abandoning them.  It makes little difference that both they and we saw ISIS as a major threat that had to be eliminated.  Bolton is charged with the task of ensuring that Ankara does not take advantage of the situation to pursue its’ objective of destroying what it sees as allies of the Kurdish insurgency just across the border.  Ironically, the hated Assad is being asked to play a positive role in ensuring this outcome.  Syrian ground forces are already occupying positions between Turk and Kurd in the Manbij region.  The Kurds were wise enough to keep a channel of communication open with Damascus all during the civil war and managed to keep Assad off of their backs even before the United States became involved in the situation.  My guess is that we are currently encouraging a Kurdish rapprochement with the Assad regime.  Because Assad hates Erdogan there is almost certainly room for Bolton to maneuver.

I do not know what will happen, but I believe that the odds are that Trump will continue with the withdrawal of US forces from Syria and that we will agree to provide the logistic support that Turkey will need to replace us.  In the short term, I believe that the odds are that Ankara will resist any overt moves against the Kurds and the Kurds will avoid provoking the Turks unnecessarily.  Should that not be the case it will almost certainly be because somebody on the ground made an error.  Washington, Ankara, Damascus, Moscow and Teheran appear to all be on the same page at the present time and the Kurds are playing the only hand they have - Damascus.  I would imagine that their internal debate is rather intense at the present time, but they have little support from Kurds elsewhere in the region with exception of those battling Ankara inside Turkey.  Internal politics within the greater Kurdish community is badly divided between a multiplicity of factions that are seriously at each other’s throats.

From our point of view, leaving morality aside, the withdrawal of US forces from Syria opens the door a bit wider to Teheran to further strengthen its’ position vis-a-vis Israel.  I presume that President Trump is counting on his attempt to strangle Teheran economically to be the principal defense of Israel, but I would not be surprised if we found out that Moscow was also urging Teheran to proceed slowly in pursuing this objective.  Moscow’s immediate objective is to get Washington out of Syria.  The destruction of Israel is not an important Russian objective.  Although their motivations are very different, both Putin and Trump are in agreement on this point.  I presume that Trump is telling all and sundry that if anyone tries to attack Israel, the United States will respond with massive force.   I also presume that Jerusalem is most unhappy with the way things are developing inside Syria and in Washington.  Jerusalem almost certainly sees the Syrian playing board shifting in Teheran’s favor and the economic boycott of Iran failing to achieve results fast enough to ensure Israel’s security.  President Trump's uncertain political future also plays into the situation.

Although it is not the principal concern, the future of ISIS is also in question and that has potential implications for our own domestic political situation here inside the bubble.  There is no question but that President Trump has defeated ISIS.  There is also no question but that ISIS has not been destroyed.  Estimates run into the tens of thousands of ISIS fighters still running around in the area and returning to their original homelands.  I very much doubt that Ankara will pursue these fighters as vigorously as we would like.  If the ISIS remnants are wise enough not to provoke Ankara, the Turkish military will not pursue them aggressively.  They will return to the shadows to await reemergence at some future date when their stars realign.  We should understand that President Erdogan is willing to work with an Islamist political spectrum that is much wider than our own.  President Trump’s belief that the maintenance of a US military presence in Iraq will permit us to strike a resurgent ISIS is almost certainly an attempt to pacify his critics inside the beltway.  No one is asking who the surrogate ground force would be in such an effort.  Presumably not the Kurds.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

A lot of my friends believe that I am unduly patient with our President.  I disagree, probably, in part, at least, because i spent thirty years in government service.  During that time, I had a variety of superior officers in my life.  In each of those phases of my career, I tried my very best to help make our efforts successful. In some cases it required me to argue with my superiors.  Some arguments I won and some I lost.  I never saw any advantage in trying to destroy those with whom I disagreed.  The better course of action was to help them find a better way forward.  I see society’s responsibility vis-a-vis a duly elected president to be similar.  

For one element of society to try to destroy a president is to set themselves against those that elected that president and that is guaranteed to destroy not just the president but the society as well.   In my humble opinion, we, here in the United States, are doing precisely that.  We are not arguing about policies, we are hating an individual without reference to policies.  In my opinion, this president and his predecessors have gotten some things exactly right and some things very wrong.  Were we to address those policies in a meaningful way, we would be strengthening our nation.  By ignoring policies and concentrating on emotion we, not our particular president of the moment, are taking a wonderful country directly into a very deep cesspool.  

Tell me again why I should not think us to be stupid beyond belief.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

I continue to support the President of the United States, but I am increasingly concerned with the direction that our foreign policy appears to be headed.  I understand the desire to rid ourselves of war.  It is nasty, expensive and destructive.  There is nothing, repeat nothing, that is favorable associated with it.  It is understandable that a president would be frustrated with a situation such as we find in Afghanistan or Syria or Libya or any number of other places around the world where bad actors are engaged in pursuing evil policies while the rest of the world pretty much sits back and lets us deal with the vile fallout.  Although he has not yet carried through with his stated desire to pull out and let others take responsibility for these various trouble spots, I presume that President Trump, as he has repeatedly promised, will, in the not too distant future, withdraw all US military out of Syria and most out of Afghanistan.  

My belief is that no friendly power can or will step forward to fill the vacuum created by our withdrawal.  We will be replaced by hostile powers pursuing highly dangerous policies that will eventually require an even greater effort on our part to right the situation - if it can be righted short of a nuclear exchange.  It appears to me that, in Syria, the President is looking to President Erdogan of Turkey to fill-in behind us as we withdraw.  The negotiations surrounding the extradition of Fethullah G├╝len appear to be reenergized and there are rumors that we are considering providing logistic support for Turkish forces to establish their buffer zone against the Kurdish YPG inside Syria in return for which they are to take the lead in mopping up ISIS remnants.  I presume that there is some sort of commitment by Damascus and Ankara that they will negotiate in good faith with the Kurds, but I doubt the sincerity of those commitments.  I suspect that President Trump is using the Khashoggi affair to force Riyadh’s nominal acquiescence.  I doubt that he has to say or do much vis-a-vis Moscow in as much as President Putin will be delighted to see us leave the region.  I see no such plan involving a surrogate being considered for the Afghanistan pull out.  There, I believe that the President appears to be content to let the Taliban take control of the country feeling that the Kabul leadership is incapable of running the country let alone winning the war.  I believe that he sees Afghanistan as being inconsequential to American interests.  I also presume that he has various assurances vis-a-vis Israel's future that reassure him.  I doubt that Israel is equally reassured.

I also understand President Trump’s frustration with our European allies in NATO.  They are, indeed, a frustrating bunch, but I believe that we are better off strengthening the alliance rather than tearing it down.  I support the hard nosed demand for more financial support for the defense of Europe, but deplore the unnecessary and counter-productive negative chatter that surrounds those demands.  I faulted President Regan for not talking to the European left and I fault President Trump for needlessly insulting them.  The United States is indeed still the greatest power in the entire world - by a long shot - but it is not capable of standing alone.  China and Russia are both dangerous potential antagonists and while we can not expect much effective help from others if we have to go to war with them, we sure as heck can use a lot of help prior to the out break of hostilities.  With enough help and finesse we might even be able to avoid having to fight with either of them.  

China and Russia are significant emerging threats, but even more important in the long run, however, is the future of Islam.  That religion is in serious need of an effective and thorough reformation before any of its’ adherents get their hands on nuclear weapons.  What we appear to be doing in the Middle East is taking us away from the reformation of Islam.  In my opinion, Erdogan, a crypto Muslim Brotherhood advocate, is the wrong horse to bet on and the hobbling of the Saudi Crown Prince is equally unfortunate.  Both Xi and Putin see Islam as a problem internally in China and Russia, but neither can be expected to follow policies that will support the reformation of Islam.  Rather they will continue to try, unsuccessfully, to destroy it as a political force inside their own countries.  Those policies will encourage greater radicalization of a religion that is followed by one seventh of the world population.  Many of the most influential Islamist leaders in the world today are apocalyptic in their thinking.  Nuclear obliteration of the Western life style might very easily fit into that thinking even if it results in mutual destruction.  The Dulles policy of mutual destruction that we have successfully used against Moscow obviously will not work in that situation.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

The departure of James Mattis from the Trump Administration is not a good thing, but neither is it the end of the world.  The mindless rubbish being hurled around about this development by all who detest President Trump and all of those who worship The Donald is embarrassing in its’ absurd partisan blindness.  I feel that I understand the Secretary of Defense’s motivation here and confess that I share the emotions and feelings that I believe guided his decision.  The man spent much of himself in the battle against our enemies in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria and inevitably developed close relationships with many of the men and women that have been allied with us in those wars.  The policy that appears to be unfolding in Washington does not bode well for their future and he understandably feels that he is unable to implement it.  Being a principled American patriot, he chooses to step aside to permit the President to select someone else to implement his policy.  I am pretty sure that it is the most difficult thing that James Mattis has ever had to do and the most distasteful for a very long list of reasons.

Having said that, I am extremely concerned about what I think, repeat think, is guiding our President in his policy toward the Middle East.  Right now, subject to revision as more information becomes available, it looks to me that he may have made a deal on the telephone with President Erdogan of Turkey and President Putin of Russia regarding Syria.   I presume that President Assad of Syria is on board as well, but I very much doubt that he likes it one little bit.  If my suspicions are correct, Turkey will be permitted to establish a Kurdish free buffer zone inside Syrian territory along its’ eastern border in an effort to protect against future Syrian Kurdish support of the ethnic Kurdish discontent in Eastern Turkey.  In order for Turkey to accomplish this, we appear to be willing to support them logistically.  I presume that we have assurances from all concerned that they will not attempt to further degrade the Kurdish position in Syria.  My guess is that we will also attempt to turn over the mopping up operations against ISIS remnants to the Turks as well.  Assuming that occurs, and I repeat that it is all speculation at this point in time, we will abandon the Kurdish allies that were our ground force in the fight against ISIS and, overnight, start supporting one of their most ferocious, ancient, arch enemies - the Turk.  Politics is dirty business and diplomacy is worse.

Stepping back from the emotions, or at least attempting to do so, I see possible short term advantage to the policy shift in that we can reduce the exposure of American military personnel to the hostilities in the region.  We can also save a great deal of money.  We can reduce friction with Russia and improve relations with our superficial NATO partner - Turkey.  From President Trump’s point of view, domestically it might also look like he can garner support from those that have long held that we should not be as involved as we are currently in the Middle East.  Rand Paul is elated by the thought.  I am much more pessimistic - both domestically and internationally.  I doubt that any Democrat will give Trump anything but grief no matter what he does and I see the probable result of this policy as being the increase of radical influence throughout the region.  Hiding behind Erdogan in our fight against radicals is, in my mind, a risky, bet.  Erdogan is a crypto proponent of Muslim Brotherhood philosophy and that is a very slippery intellectual slope.  During his effort to unseat Assad in the Syrian civil war, Erdogan cooperated with virtually anyone who was opposed to Assad, including al Qaida and he continues to protect many Syrian radicals from the wrath of Moscow and Damascus, including al Qaida affiliates.

The reduction of forces in Afghanistan is a separate issue, but related in that it indicates that President Trump is uninterested in defeating the Taliban.  He appears to be saying to Kabul what Nixon said to Saigon.  America has been helping you long enough.  Now it is up to you to determine your own future.  I am not an expert in Afghani affairs, but my guess is that Kabul will be run by the Taliban in the relatively near future.  Washington, under Trump, is indicting that it is tired of supporting ineffective governments.  None of this, if, repeat if, it turns out to be true, is going to be encouraging in Jerusalem.  Israel is mesmerized by the increasingly powerful base of operations that Teheran already has in Syria and has seen the 2,000 some American troops inside Syria as being something of a bulwark against Iranian use of Syria as a launching pad for the final destruction of Israel that Teheran continues to promise at every opportunity.   My guess is that President Trump is confident enough in his ability to make a deal, that he is taking a number of world leaders verbal commitments to him as being sufficient to work through the possible pitfalls and he will be reassuring the Israelis that we will continue to ensure that no one actually attacks them fearing massive American retaliation.   Jerusalem will, among other obvious things, be worried about what happens after Trump.

Monday, December 3, 2018

There were no photographs in the lives of our ancient ancestors.  People living before the camera obscura was invented had to scratch, paint or perhaps chisel images into some natural medium or another.  Those images were more clearly subjective impressions than is most modern photography.  Petroglyphs, cave paintings, works on wood and stone, all crude, all severely limited in their ability to communicate with others.  In that age, people knew that the scratchings were not the whole story and generally judged the world by what they saw, heard, smelled and felt physically and emotionally.  A person living in the Sahara knew nothing about the life of a person living in the Arctic and vice versa, but both understood their own world intimately.  The worlds that those persons knew were bounded by what they saw, heard, felt and experienced.  That is different today.  Today, we “learn” about other places not only by seeing them first hand, but more commonly, through words, recordings and pictures.  The experience is heightened by the introduction of video and movies.  We sit in our living room, flick on the television or fire up the tablet and watch hours of video complete with sound.  We feel as though we are there - wherever that particular there happens to be at that particular moment.

Video and photographs are without doubt powerful, important, and useful but they do not convey everything that first hand experience does.  Not only that, they can be edited to downplay or eliminate some selected subject matter while emphasizing other subjects.  No matter how carefully one puts photojournalism together, it is always, by definition, a reflection of what is in the editor’s head.  The same is true whether it is video or individual images captured by a still camera.  A wedding photographer sees a story that a bride wants told and chooses to exclude the drunken relative seen pestering the groom while emphasizing the little flower girls arranging the bride's dress.  An advertising executive sees a flaw in the product and chooses to photograph it from a different angle.  An architectural photographer waits for the exact time of day that the shadows strike correctly as seen from exactly the right direction. A war correspondent selectively chooses subject matter to reflect well on the side that he favors (and all war
Turkish Tanker
correspondents favor one side or the other no matter how altruistic their commentary).  Etc, etc, etc…  Photographers are story tellers and their photographs are but part of the story that is there to be told.  Perhaps accurate, perhaps not, but rarely, if ever, complete.  
I suggest that we are deluding ourselves as to exactly how smart we really are about what is going on around us.  Some are talking about distinguishing between fake news and real news, but I make the argument that everything that we think that we know from books and pictures is, to some extent or another, fake - or, at the very least, nuanced and incomplete.  How should a photographer deal with that situation?  Should we care?  Does it make any real difference?