A Burning Fuse

As you probably heard, on Sunday a U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet shot down a Syrian SU-22 Fitter ground attack bomber.  This was the first air-to-air destruction of a piloted aircraft by the U.S. since 1999 and the second by a NATO aircraft in the region following the November 2015 shoot down of a Syrian SU-24 by a Turkish Air Force F-16.  Both Syria and their ally Russia immediately protested the action.  In addition, the Russians declared that any U.S. or coalition aircraft flying “west of the Euphrates River” while Russian or Syrian aircraft are in the area “will be considered air targets” and subject to attack. Today, a U.S. F-15 shot down an armed Iranian drone, the second one this month.

While none of the participants in the many-sided Syrian conflict desire to go to war with each other, and certainly the Russians and the U.S. do not war, the conditions are very volatile in a confined geographic area.  This is a dangerous situation that is very susceptible to a mistake or miscalculation by one of the parties leading to a hot war, or at least a serious shooting incident.  In short, it is a burning fuse that needs to be snuffed out before reaching the explosives.  Given the conflicting goals of those involved, that may be difficult.  The situation is exacerbated by the Russian withdrawal from a de-confliction protocol whereby U.S. and coalition aircraft communicate with Russian aircraft to warn and alert each other of their locations and missions.  Negotiations are underway to restore that protocol. This is the second time that the Russians withdrew from it, the first coming after the U.S. Navy cruise missile strikes against a Syrian airfield last April.  The relationship then was shortly restored.

The shoot downs occurred following Syrian and Iranian attacks on U.S. backed anti-Syrian forces fighting the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad.  Some coalition advisers were near the forces attacked from the air.  Following several warnings, the U.S. says it acted in self-defense.

It is difficult to tell the players without a score card.  In short, the major players in Syria are Russia, the United States, Turkey, Iran, the United Kingdom, and France.  Supplying arms and money to the anti-Assad regime are Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  (Remember also that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are involved in their own dispute which resulted in the isolation of Qatar from the outside world.  Both are allies of the U.S. but the dispute is serious and involves Qatari relations with Iran, which is engaged in a major struggle with Saudi Arabia for dominance in the region.  And, oh by the way, one of the major airfields used by the U.S. in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) is in Qatar as is the air control headquarters and the Forward Headquarters for the U.S. Central Command.  It’s complicated.)

U.S. and coalition forces are mainly fighting from the air, with some U.S. Special Forces on the ground training and advising various militias fighting against ISIS and covertly supporting those aligned against the Syrian regime. Russia supports the Bashar regime and both Russia and Syria consider any group inside of Syria fighting against Bashar’s forces as “terrorists.”  This includes those supported by the U.S. coalition.  The Russians claim to be fighting ISIS but in actuality they are going after the “terrorists” that oppose Bashar’s regime, which was the case with the recent aircraft and drone attacks leading to the shoot downs. Turkey also opposes the Bashar regime but also opposes the Kurdish PKK (The Kurdistan Workers Party), a group fighting for a Kurdish state carved from Turkey, Syria and Iran.  The PKK is considered a terrorist group in Turkey, but many of the forces that have liberated parts of Iraq and Syria from ISIS are other Kurdish forces trained by the U.S.  Iran supports the Bashar regime, but also opposes ISIS.  Iranian forces and militias are fighting in Syria in support of the regime and in Iraq, in conjunction with Iraqi troops, to root out ISIS.  Iran also supports Lebanon’s Hezbollah which is fighting in Syria to support Bashar.  In something of a proxy war, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are aiding anti-Bashar forces with money and arms, even as they have their own dispute and Qatar is friendly to Iran.

Got all that?  And the country is about as big as the Middle Atlantic states — roughly Richmond to New York City and Pittsburgh to the west.

U.S. policy in Syria has been and is muddled.  Since taking over in January, the Trump Administration has not articulated a clear policy or strategy towards Syria.  Our focus is primarily on defeating ISIS, an effort that is slowly but steadily eliminating their caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

The lack of a clear strategy in Syria is reflected in the April cruise missile attacks.  At the time, I applauded President Trump’s decision to express our dissatisfaction over the Syrian use of chemical weapons.  But it was only a one time strike to “send a message” and had no real long-term ramifications or follow-up.  There was no strategy behind the strikes.  (One way to tell the seriousness of such a military attack is the longevity of the action and the targets chosen.  If we really wanted to punish Bashar’s regime the attack would have been centered on Damascus and gone after the Interior Ministry or Ministry of Defense in order to make the decision makers pay a price.  Instead we destroyed some aircraft at a remote air base.  To truly take on a larger military operation — which I am not advocating — it would have been a much more serious decision that could lead to direct military conflict with Syrian forces, and conceivably Russian forces. While we are concerned with the humanitarian conditions in Syria, it is not currently our policy to resolve the Syrian conflict through combat.)

The take-away from all this is that the Middle East continues to be a tinder box that could go from a smoldering problem to a conflagration without much effort.  Despite bluster and name calling, neither the U.S. or Russia want to see the situation escalate — especially against each other.  But both nations need to be very careful as other players in the region could relish such a situation in order for them to meet their own priorities and interests, not the least of which is to diminish the stature of the United States in the region and in the world.

These are dangerous times that must be taken seriously.  While we are focused on our own internal daily struggles and tweets, we also must keep our heads up and our eyes on the ball.  The rest of the world is busy pursuing their own agenda.  If we want to be part of events that shape our future, then we must pay attention and clearly state our own goals.

 

Advertisements

Cold War II (continued)

With all of the attention surrounding the circus that is our presidential campaign season, it is possible to overlook other developments of significance.  To my mind, one of those significant others is our increasingly deteriorating relationship with Russia.

As I wrote back in July when I focused on the role of NATO and the increasing belligerence Russia is exhibiting towards the Baltic States, Russian President Vladimir Putin sees his role as the one individual that can, and will, restore Russia to its previous glory.  Since then he has continued to create discord around the world. In particular, he has helped to further inflame conflict in Syria and Ukraine.  Just yesterday Secretary of State John Kerry pulled all of the United States’ negotiators from Geneva where they had been trying to work with the Russians to come up with a political solution to the civil war in Syria and thereby try to save some of the many civilians at risk in Aleppo and other areas of Syria.  A cease-fire attempted last month failed when Syrian and Russian, or at least Syrian assisted by Russian, aircraft bombed an aid convoy trying to provide humanitarian relief to those trapped in the city.  Since then negotiations aimed at restoring the cease-fire and creating more confidence building measures that might give a chance for a political settlement of the strife had been ongoing.  Additionally, the United States had been working on an agreement to work with the Russians in a coordinated military effort against terrorism in the region, especially against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or as most people in the U.S. call it, ISIS).  All of it went out the window when the Russians turned their full military might from the air on Aleppo in a brutal assault, even as negotiations were underway.  What future course may be taken to alleviate the situation is up in the air, but it does lead to an increased probability that Russia and the U.S. will be working at cross purposes to fight terrorists in the area and increases the probability of Russian and U.S. military forces coming into contact with each other.

In retaliation for the United States withdrawing from the Syrian negotiations, the Soviets, oops, I mean the Russians, suspended a nuclear agreement signed in 2000 between the two nations that called for the disposal of each nation’s stocks of weapons-grade plutonium.  While the Russian suspension of the treaty is mostly symbolic (both countries intend to continue to reduce their stockpiles) it does serve to show how the relationship has deteriorated and it also provided the Russian government an opportunity to complain about actions it believes the United States is taking to undermine Russia.

And what are those actions that so enrage Vladimir Putin you may ask?  Foremost among them is the continuing deployment of NATO forces to the Baltic states and the enforcement of the sanctions against Russia for its actions in Ukraine. In Ukraine last August, President Putin raised tensions as he claimed that the Ukrainian government was moving to attack Crimea, the area Russia illegally annexed in 2014. The tension persists and even though it is currently relatively quiet, nothing is totally quiet along the front as periodic fighting continues and lives continue to be lost. Further exacerbating the toxic atmosphere in Ukraine, Dutch investigators clearly linked the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17 over Ukraine in July 2014 to the Russian supplied separatists.  All 298 people onboard were killed.  Despite continued Russian denials, the investigation showed a missile battery moved from Russian territory into rebel held territory and then returned to Russia after the incident.  Russian actions in the area continue to be a threat to the rest of Ukraine and Europe, and President Putin seems to be relishing his ability to turn conflict off and on. Keep an eye on developments there as the rest of the world becomes increasingly distracted by the U.S. presidential campaign, events in Syria, and the fight against terrorism.

What is troubling to me about President Putin is his world view.  While we have competitors and adversaries in China, Iran, and other spots around the world (President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines seems to be gong off the reservation for example), they have a different world view than does President Putin.  Most nations of the world know that they are economically tied to the global economy which is powered by the United States.  This does not stop actions antithetical to our interests, but it does serve to temper them.  President Putin on the other hand, sees the world and especially Russia’s relationship to the United States, indeed politics in general, as a zero sum game.  Whatever hurts the U.S. helps Russia and vice versa.  Add to this that his country is not doing well economically and like most dictators, he is creating international foes in order to distract the citizenry from their troubles at home.  This makes him ever more dangerous.

In this context, I am amazed that more reporting is not being done on the breaches of cyber security that occur almost daily in the United States, and most especially, the hacks that impact our free and independent elections.  Of particular note are the attacks on the Democratic National Committee and the release of scores of emails concerning the primary race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and the attempts to get into the election processes of individual states, most notably Arizona and Illinois. Experts point their collective finger at the Russians as being responsible for these and other equally egregious cyber attacks.

While individual ballot boxes are not connected to the internet, and therefore cannot be hacked, there are other processes that are computer driven and may be susceptible to attack.  Among these are voter registration lists.  Imagine if large numbers of people show up to vote and are not allowed to do so because their names were expunged from the voting rolls or are otherwise tampered with so as to take away their ability to vote.  Add to that one presidential candidate that is already talking about how the vote is rigged if he doesn’t win and that his supporters should go to the polls in urban areas to watch others vote to make sure that everything is on the “up and up”  because “that would be one hell of a way to lose, I’ll tell you what.”  (Incidentally, in study after study and in court cases concerning voter identification laws, there has been absolutely no evidence of voter fraud changing or even slightly influencing the outcome of any national election, despite urban myths and legends to the contrary.)

I am not a conspiracy theorist and do not want to be misquoted so I will say up front, I do not think that the Republican nominee is in any way aiding or abetting or otherwise involved in the Russian hacking efforts, even though last July he famously invited the Russians to hack his Democratic opponent’s emails.  However, I find it disconcerting that thus far, only Democrats have suffered the embarrassing revelations of the Russian hackers.  I would be willing to bet that a number of Republican accounts have been similarly hacked, but clearly the Russian hackers are trying to influence the election in one direction.  One could speculate as to why that is, or even if there is some kind of reverse bizarro world logic that it could backfire on the other candidate.  I don’t know, but clearly there is an effort to influence the outcome.  It is bad news for our nation when a foreign power attempts to influence our elections and we do not stop it.

Ultimately, whether or not the attacks are successful at actually changing ballots, the real effort on the part of the Russians is to delegitimize our election process, call into question the results and spread further hate and discontent in an already fractured election process.  Besides being cyber warfare, it is most especially also classic psychological warfare aimed at undermining the United States, our policies, and our stature in the world.  Vladimir Putin and his cronies are ready and willing to fill the void left by the United States should their efforts be successful.

Unclear to me is whether or not our own cyber warfare forces deployed to counter the Russians and/or to similarly attack them in a way that sends a signal to knock it off or suffer the consequences.  It is a tricky situation for the U.S.  It is generally accepted that the United States has superior cyber warfare capabilities, but to deploy them now, in the month leading up to an election, and risk a wide-spread cyber war that could impact the election results dramatically (not in vote manipulation necessarily but rather in a wide-spread crisis that impacts infrastructure, banking or some other target that causes far-ranging panic) is a tough decision.  On the other hand, we do not know where or when the Russians (and possibly others) might strike anyway if not deterred from doing so.  A difficult choice.  Unknown, of course, is whether such a counter sign of our capabilities and willingness to punish the Russians in our own attack has already been demonstrated to the Russians by our cyber forces under a stringent top secret operation.

Regardless, our next president must be prepared to deal with the Russians and do so with eyes wide open.  Vladimir Putin is no friend of the United States and he never will be.  He has one goal and one goal only — to turn his economically depressed country into a super power at the expense of the United States of America.


It Will Be A Long Hot Summer

Reports from the Middle East increase my trepidation on a daily basis.  Events do not bode well for the future and I am not sure what, if anything, the United States should do.

A tour around the horizon of the Middle East reveals that all hell is breaking loose.  In Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu, in the run up to his re-election, repudiated decades of Israeli-Palestinian policy by stating that there will never be a Palestinian state on his watch.  Since the election, he has tried to walk it back a bit, but the damage is done and most pundits, analysts, and policy makers take him at his original word. What this portends for any kind of settlement, only time can tell.  At best, it has delayed it.  At worst, it has scuttled all hope for a settlement and caused the United States, European allies, and others to re-evaluate their unequivocal support of Israel.  For the Israelis themselves it means continued occupation of Palestinian territories and a fundamental change to their nation. Either they are no longer a democracy (occupied Palestinians cannot vote) or they will no longer be a mainly Jewish state (if they annex the occupied territories the number of Palestinians and Arabs will out number the number of Jewish citizens).

In Iraq, a loose coalition of Iraqi regular military forces and Shiite militia under the direction of an Iranian Revolutionary Guards Force general (!) taking on ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — Sunnis) forces in Tikrit as a preliminary operational move to retake the key city of Mosul.  After preliminary success, the approximately 30,000 Iraqi fighters suffered high casualties, became bogged down and have been stymied for weeks now by the approximately 500 ISIS fighters in Tikrit.  Most experts believe this is because neither the regular forces nor the militias have any experience in urban fighting and with dealing with the resulting tactics of sniper fire, booby traps, Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and the like.  The (now) most experienced forces in urban fighting?  ISIS and the United States military.

The situation was further complicated when the regular Iraqi army forces called in U.S. air strikes to help their offensive.  This caused the Shiite and Iranian forces to stop fighting and, indeed, several of their leaders threatened to shoot down U.S. aircraft if they flew overhead.  It should be noted that several of those groups previously fought against the U.S. during the Iraq war.

Meanwhile, the U.S. (along with the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) is nearing the deadline for a deal with Iran to curtail its possible nuclear weapons program.  It is unclear that a deal can be reached or that it will be satisfactory to all involved.

With this in mind, as Iranian surrogates threaten to totally over run Yemen, the Arab states under the leadership of Saudi Arabia are fighting the insurgent Houthi.  The Arab leadership and the ousted government of Yemen are Sunnis.  The Iranians and Houthi are Shiite.  One reason thought to be behind the Arab action is the belief that the U.S. is becoming too close to the Iranians in the interest of making the nuclear deal.  By the way, before the Houthi success — just months ago — Yemen was a model for success in the war on terror and especially the war against Al’ Qaeda.  Currently the most active, successful and dangerous branch of Al’ Qaeda is the one in Yemen — known as AQAP or Al’ Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and they are Sunni.  Both the Arab coalition and the Houthis would like to eliminate AQAP, but they are too busy fighting each other.

An Arab coalition, led by Egypt, also occasionally conducts air strikes in Libya, just in case you have forgotten that this is another nation that has disintegrated into warring factions, including one that claims to be a part of ISIS.

As has gone on for years, Iranian Shiite surrogates in Syria, Libya, and Lebanon are fighting other Sunni factions (including ISIS which seems to be opening branch offices in other countries).  If you really want to get the low-down, Boko Haram in Nigeria now claims to be affiliated with ISIS.  Most analysts believe that although troubling, it is mostly a propaganda move by Boko Haram to get on the terrorist band wagon of perceived success.

You can’t tell the players without a scorecard.

In brief, long-standing tension and conflict between two factions of Islam broke out into outright warfare.  It is very hard to determine who are the bad guys and who are the less bad guys.  Without a comprehensive Middle East strategy, it will be difficult for the United States (and its allies) to deal with all of the various factions and to support the best interests of our country in the region.  One might ask what those interests may be.  Besides our stated national policy begun under President George W. Bush to bring democracy to the region, we also have an obligation to allies.  More to the strategic interests of the U.S., one can summarize our interests in one word — “oil.”  Whether or not the U.S. is, or becomes, self-sufficient in fossil fuels, oil is a fungible commodity and integral to the economies of the developed world.  Conflict resulting in the closing of the Strait of Hormuz (access to the Persian Gulf — or as U.S. military planners prefer, the Arabian Gulf) and of the Bab al Mandeb (the strait controlling access to the Red Sea and thus the Suez Canal) would drive oil prices very high, seriously inhibiting any recovery from the last recession and conceivably driving us back into a deep recession.

On top of this is the realization from our national experience that failed states lead to the ability of terrorist organizations to act without restraint in developing plots against other nations around the world including the United States.

This developing geo-strategic situation (the technical term is “mess”) creates the question of what should the U.S. do about it?  Although in a previous career I was considered a Middle East expert, I have to say “I don’t know.”  This is a tough one.  In some respects, this escalating situation is fundamentally a conflict between Sunni Islam and Shiite Islam and the resulting governmental control and continued well-being of certain elites on both sides of the equation.  To me, our getting into the middle of it would be akin to the Chinese getting involved in the Thirty Years War.  As the current order in the Middle East changes, and in many cases collapses, it mirrors in some ways the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire in the 1600s and the resulting war between Protestants and Catholics for the future of Europe.  The difference today of course is that the world is interconnected in a way that could not even be conceived of in the 17th century, especially economically.  Also different is the ability to project power over long distances and to injure and kill civilians a long way from the battlefield.  Yet, the U.S. is not going to settle a war between two factions of Islam, just as in the 17th century the Chinese would never have been able to resolve a conflict between Christians.

We must also balance our desire to reign in Iran with the realities on the ground.  Which is the more important result — stopping Iranian adventurism or stopping their nuclear program?  The correct answer of course is “c — all of the above” but that is far easier said than done.  Is ISIS our primary threat?  It appears to me that ISIS is a terrible, evil entity, but that as an organization it will not have a lasting ability to establish their “caliphate.”  They will eventually self-destruct if constant pressure is applied.  At the same time, air strikes alone will not defeat them and the notion that Iraqi forces in conjunction with Kurdish militia and Shiite militia can drive them out of Iraq is now in question.  Air strikes may serve to contain further expansion, but to date it shows no real ability to defeat them.

And that’s in Iraq.  The real stronghold for ISIS is Syria.  We face yet another dilemma in dealing with that situation.  To battle ISIS is to help the brutal dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad.  The avowed policy of the U.S. is that Bashar must go — leave power and allow a new government to form based on a negotiated settlement among the warring factions.  Isn’t going to happen.  Not to mention that ISIS will not negotiate any such settlement and neither will Bashar.  Middle Eastern dictators know one thing in their gut and it has been re-emphasized throughout their history — govern ruthlessly or you and your family are dead.  Our policy to train militant factions opposing Bashar’s government is too little too late and is called into question by the actions in Iraq where trained forces and strong militias are having a difficult time dislodging ISIS fighters.  I’m not sure how similar groups will do against ISIS in Syria or against Syrian regular forces, especially since the latter have an effective air-to-ground combat ability.

To me, the last resort, and the worst option, is expanded U.S. military involvement in the region. We have fought three wars there in the last twenty-five years and another now is not in our best interests. We need to prioritize our efforts on the economic and diplomatic fronts while still holding a big stick (the military) in reserve should something go really wrong.

In my mind, our priorities should be (with some possible smudging of the order as events unfold):

  • Continue pressure on Iran to get a meaningful deal on stopping their nuclear weapons program.  If the deal is not sufficiently transparent, with verifiable steps, then continue and tighten sanctions until Iranian leaders realize that they cannot ease their way out of world scrutiny of their actions.
  • Continue to support Iraq in its fight against ISIS.  Work to isolate and pressure ISIS through continued coalition air strikes, but no combat troops beyond advisers and intelligence support.
  • Pressure Israel to begin serious negotiations to settle the Palestinian issue, including through the United Nations where in the past, the U.S. vetoed every resolution thought to be against Israeli national interests.  The free ride is over until meaningful steps are taken.  That does not mean that we abandon our long time ally, indeed we continue with our military aid (in the billions annually) and other support.  It just means that now there needs to be some reciprocal movement in the direction of a meaningful settlement of a fundamental reason for unrest in the region.
  • Continue to support Saudi Arabia and its Arab coalition in the fight in Yemen through coordination and intelligence support.  The U.S. should continue to conduct drone and other strikes against terrorist operatives in the country, but should not engage in overt military action.
  • Continue to develop alternative sources of energy in the U.S. and develop a comprehensive, forward-looking energy policy taking into account fossil fuels as well as wind, solar and other non-fossil fuel sources of energy.  It may be impossible, but such a policy should be devoid of the usual influences from lobby groups invested in their own profit motives.

This is a start and of course does not include the other areas of concern including Egypt, where one dictator replaced another; Libya which is a lawless basket case of a country; Somalia (roughly on the other side of the Bab al Mandeb) where the terrorist group Al-Shabaab is still a disruptive force in the region; Lebanon where the terrorist group Hezbollah basically controls the country and Afghanistan where a fragile government is still fighting elements of the Taliban and is not yet stabilized.

I fear that it will be a long hot summer as each of these situations is likely to get worse before they get better.


Where Do We Go From Here?

“Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.”  — Oliver Hardy

After only a cursory glance at the headlines of the past few days, it is easy to discern that a lot of troublesome events are occurring around the world.  Two of the biggest, in my mind, involve the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the continuing rampage of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS — although apparently the United States government is using the abbreviation ISIL, or Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).

On the recent Sunday news talk shows, and elsewhere, there has been much finger-pointing and “coulda, woulda, shoulda” type of talk as to what needed to be done in the past.  While somewhat productive in order to prevent future mistakes, the backward looking finger-pointing does nothing to resolve the situation at hand.  It is disappointing, especially as many of the critics in the Senate and the House offer no way forward, only criticism of the President’s leadership or lack thereof. Unfortunately, the President showed a lot of candor but gave a disappointing public statement when he said last Thursday that we have no strategy for Syria.  Those of us who have studied such things would argue that there is no clear policy either, so without either concept, there can be no policy-strategy match.  As everyone who has taken even the most basic course in such things knows, the great disasters of military history are most often the result of a policy-strategy mismatch.

So, what do I say we should do so as not to be one of those backward looking critics that produce very little?  I am struggling with it — it’s a tough nut to crack in all respects, which is why most of the critics would rather look back at what should have been done rather than forward as to what to do.

Part of the significant background that sometimes goes missing in each of the cases — Ukraine and ISIS — is that no one, at least no one that anyone takes seriously, is advocating that American ground combat troops get involved in either situation.  (Can we please stop saying “boots on the ground?”  No one I know in the military uses that expression.  It is used mostly by pundits and politicians trying to use the latest lingo without really understanding what they are saying.) Even the strongest advocates of using American military power are really only advocating the use of American air power and some supporting intelligence units and special operations groups to find and identify targets.  Unfortunately, I can think of no significant conflict involving the use of American military power that has been won solely in the air. Ground troops, either our’s or someone else’s working with us are required in order to defeat, or even to significantly degrade the forces at work.  Thus we are back to diplomatic efforts to build some sort of coalition to fight the invaders and/or build up the host country so that it can fight on its own terms.  This takes time.  Sometimes, lots of time.

Currently, the Obama Administration is trying to build a coalition on both fronts to confront the Russians in Ukraine and ISIS in Iraq.  The Russians are more of a direct threat to Europe than the United States and ISIS is a direct threat to every country in the Middle East.  Yet, trying to get other nations to take action has been difficult at best.  One could question whether or not the difficulty is partly of our own making, given the ambivalent messages that the President has put forward during the last 12-15 months.  It is time to step up and put some direct pressure on our allies and friends to come together and not just leave it to the United States to solve the problem.  Fortunately, a few national leaders in Europe are starting to come around, but not enough and not very quickly.

I am more worried about Ukraine, in terms of long-term implications to the United States, than I am about ISIS. This is not to say that I underestimate that maniacal organization.  Both situations are extremely serious to the United States and its interests, but I think strategically, Russian actions in Ukraine are more detrimental to our long-term interests. Unfortunately, that crisis is not getting the same sort of attention from our leaders, at least according to what I see in news accounts, as is ISIS.  So let me address that first.  As I do so, remember from my 9 August post that the basic function of military forces is to deter, defend, defeat.

Vladimir Putin is neither deterred, nor defeated by the threat of sanctions.  That is clear in his actions so far.  And sanctions do little to nothing to defend against an attack.  This is not to say that sanctions should not be applied, only that what the Europeans have done thus far is only mildly irritating to Putin in the pursuit of his ambitions.  Particularly troubling were reports about a television appearance he made in Russia on Friday where Putin openly talked about creating a new state in eastern Ukraine.  It is not only for propaganda purposes that Putin and many Russians talk about Novorossiya, or the new Russia.  It is a historical term that denotes most of eastern and southern Ukraine along the Azov and Black Seas.  Indeed, this is the area of the latest Russian invasion (and yes, I understand the President said “incursion” in order not to create the conditions where we must act.  But that’s what it is).  The latest Russian military moves occurred for two reasons.  First, the Ukrainian military was defeating the “volunteer” Russian and separatist forces in eastern Ukraine.  The simple operational move to relieve pressure on those forces is to open a new front, and that’s what they did, thereby giving the Ukrainian military too much to handle.  Secondly and strategically, the move along the sea creates a corridor to create a land bridge between Crimea (annexed by Russia from Ukraine last spring) and other areas of Russian interest.

Remember, and I wish European leaders would review their history,  that NATO was formed for the exact, and at the time the only, reason to protect Europe from Soviet (Russian) invasion.  Although Ukraine is not a member of NATO, it seems that the leadership in Europe should see the writing on the wall.  Putin is testing the waters of European resolve in order to see what type of resistance he will get as he tries to regain Russian dominance and restore the Russian Empire, goals he openly talks about.  Weak sanctions will not do it.  So far there have been no substantive consequences to stop his territorial ambitions.

So, what should be done?  The following actions within NATO and the European Union are not exhaustive as I am sure there are additional courses of action being considered.  As a minimum the west should:

  • Provide the Ukrainian military with the supplies, including heavy weapons, that they require to combat the immediate threat.
  • Provide training to Ukrainian military leaders at the tactical and operational levels to instill a long-term ability to combat Russian military adventures.
  • Increase the numbers and types of rotational deployments of United States military forces to the Baltic states and eastern Europe to underline the importance the United States puts on the tenants of the NATO treaty and the independence of nations.
  • Impose meaningful sanctions on the Russian economy.  This will necessarily impose hardships on some sectors of the European economy.  The western world is either serious about this threat or it isn’t.  To me there is a certain element of “pay me now or pay me later”.  The costs of dealing with Putin will only go up over time.
  • Convene a high level diplomatic conference involving all meaningful players, and put the pressure on Russia to cease its adventures in Ukraine while trying to accommodate legitimate concerns of vital importance to Russia. This should not mean throwing Ukraine under the bus, but could include some semi-autonomy in parts of eastern Ukraine under international observers.

Putin is playing the long game.  The sooner the west demonstrates to him our resolve and the sooner that he feels actual consequences to his actions, the sooner he will look for a diplomatic solution.

Defeating ISIS takes a different skill set.  ISIS will not come to the negotiating table, nor should we even hint at any kind of compromise.  However, diplomatic and political efforts must be made along with any military effort.  Iraq must get its political house in order so that the efforts of its military are not seen in Sunni or Shiite terms only.  Defeating ISIS also means that we are helping Bashar al-Assad and his murderous regime in Syria and aiding the strategic interests of the Iranians.  Both results are inimical to our own interests.

So what should be done?  The United States cannot do this alone.  While we have the military means to fight ISIS, air power alone cannot stop their reign of terror and the United States should not reintroduce ground combat troops to fight the ISIS army.  The nations in the area must also recognize the threat that ISIS holds for them as well and take actions to:

  • Pressure Turkey to close its borders.  Intelligence reports indicate that fighters, supplies and weapons are moving freely back and forth across the border with Syria.  Turkey is a member of NATO.  Push them to shut down this avenue of supply.
  • Pressure Saudi Arabia and other Arab states to cut off funding to ISIS.  Wealthy Sunni Arabs are secretly supplying funds and supplies to ISIS.
  • Enlist Jordan, Qatar, Turkey and others to train and equip moderate fighters in Syria to increase their strength and ability to counter the Bashar al-Assad regime, and thereby pull fighters away from ISIS, as well as furthering a more moderate force in the area.
  • Push for a ground offensive from the Iraqi military.  American air power can support ground attacks, but cannot alone defeat ISIS.
  • Equip Kurdish and other fighters that have a proven combat record.
  • Continue intelligence work to find and decapitate the ISIS leadership.  They have many dedicated fighters.  They have also become a haven for the world’s psychopaths out for a good time.  Without key leaders, the various factions within the group would fragment.
  • Continue to push the Iraqi government to get its political house in order.  The disenfranchisement of Sunnis in Iraq adds fighters to the ISIS ranks.  With a coalition government that genuinely looks out for the interests of all Iraqis, not just Shiites, some of the fighters from ISIS that do not share their apocalyptic view of the world may melt away.
  • Continue intelligence work in the United States and elsewhere to identify and impede the travels of potential recruits wishing to join ISIS.

ISIS is an evil force that must be excised.  The United States is a key player in getting an organized effort to eradicate them.  However, the United States should not, and cannot be the only nation combating this threat if we are to succeed in making it irrelevant.

Critics of the President say that he is too deliberative and slow to act.  I am not so sure that is a bad thing.  Some events require an immediate response, others, with so much at stake, require a more thought out response.  It is not too late to have a measured, coherent, international response to both of these threats.  Such things take time, often frustratingly so.  That said, time, tide and world events wait for no man.  We need to put forth a coherent and forceful strategy to deal with these threats to our stability.  And we need to be flexible enough to adjust the strategy as events unfold and respond to the actual situation.

I am sure that the professionals in the State and Defense Departments have thought this through.  Let’s get on with it.


Between Iraq and a Hard Place

As I commented in my post of 17 June, the United States has a difficult task ahead in figuring out how to deal with the advances of the terrorist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  Although their progress slowed in late June and through July, as you are aware, they have now turned northward towards the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq.  These ISIS fighters are a much more formidable force, with skilled tacticians and some sense of strategic objectives, than most originally thought possible.  On Thursday, President Obama authorized the use of American air power to avert a humanitarian disaster and to help the Kurds resist ISIS advances.  More on that in a moment.

For months the Obama Administration resisted pressure to get involved again in Iraq.  Primarily,  it was because there was no clear path to follow without significant changes in the political climate in Iraq.  In the end, with extremely few historical outliers, wars can only be ended through political means.  The loser gets to decide when the war is over, no matter how badly beaten they may be.  The situation is the same in Iraq.  The Shiite dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki is extremely unpopular in many areas of the country.  Until a broader based government is in place, there is little to no chance of stability returning to Iraq.  The United States cannot fix that.  And yet, here we are getting involved again.

Part of the issue is that we cannot ignore the territorial spread of the pernicious tenants of the ISIS fighters.  They dominate much of Iraq, essentially controlling the northern and western parts of the country, as well as parts of Syria. There is no question that ISIS is bad news, bringing death and destruction to anyone that opposes them or their extremely fundamentalist view of Islam.  The role that the U.S. can play in stopping them is difficult to determine, especially as ISIS is also fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Part of the issue is that the Iraqi Army, at least those Sunni dominated units, do not have the will or the ability to oppose ISIS.  US military advisers and intelligence personnel have helped the Iraqi units that are willing to resist (unfortunately backed primarily by Shiite militia units) to stop them from advancing towards Baghdad, but is unclear how the Iraqi military will act to confront ISIS where it already exists.

The unexpected development is the inability of Kurdish fighters to stop the ISIS advance.  The Kurdish fighters, or peshmerga, are tough, experienced fighters.  They were expected to be a bulwark in stopping the ISIS advance and thereby preserving a part of Iraq that could be used as a staging area for further efforts against ISIS and to provide a bastion for United States military and other personnel to operate out of the United States Consulate in Irbil.  This plan fell apart this week as Kurdish forces were becoming overwhelmed by the ISIS fighters, partly because of their use of captured American heavy weapons that Iraqi forces left behind in their eagerness to abandon their posts in the June fighting.  The Kurds were the most supportive of U.S. efforts in Iraq and a bond exists between the U.S. military and Kurds.  Additionally, a very large humanitarian crisis was unfolding as tens of thousands of Iraqis fleeing the ISIS forces found themselves stuck atop a barren mountain range without adequate food or water.  The combination of factors could not be ignored.

Complicated indeed.  Thus, President Obama’s decision to provide air power to try to alleviate the situation.  This effort is currently underway in two parts.  First, air drops of food, water, and other supplies are taking place for those trapped on the barren mountains.  It was a situation that only a major power could alleviate.  Second, fighter/bomber forces were authorized to protect the airdrops and to attack ISIS fighters where they threatened Kurdish forces protecting U.S. interests in Irbil.  This part is more difficult to understand.  Both parts of the operation could potentially drag the U.S. back into combat in Iraq or conversely, tarnish our reputation as a world power.  Only time will tell, but here are the pitfalls that I see coming and that may be difficult to avoid.

The United States, with the United Kingdom, has already undertaken a nearly similar effort in providing relief in this part of Iraq.  It occurred in 1991 and was called Operation Provide Comfort.  This effort took place following Gulf War I when Saddam Hussein turned his wrath inward on his own people following his defeat in Kuwait.  In short, a humanitarian crisis developed as tens of thousands of Kurds fled Saddam’s forces and were trapped without food and water.  The U.S. and U.K. began air operations to provide food, water, and other supplies to the Kurds.  As it happened, there was no expertise on the Kurdish side to assist in the effort, so it was decided to put logisticians on the ground to help the air dropped supplies land in the proper places and to distribute those supplies.  This precipitated the need for security forces to also be on the ground to protect the logisticians.  This led to a major undertaking.  I trust that some of the current planners in the Pentagon, Baghdad and Irbil remember this operation, and how what seems to be a simple thing — getting food and water to people who need it — can quickly become a much larger and more involved task.  It is never as simple or easy as it seems.

More worrisome to me are the “limited” air strikes.  The tenants of military forces, simply put, are “Deter, Defend, Defeat” — deter the enemy from attacking, defend against attacks if deterrence fails, and then defeat the enemy.  We already know that ISIS is not and will not be deterred by the threat of limited air strikes.  The intent of the authorized action is to defend the Kurdish fighters, the results of which are unknown and will be unknown for some time.  We also already know that limited air strikes (despite the headlines and rhetoric, a total of twelve 500 pound bombs and a drone strike in the desert are a pin prick) will not defeat ISIS.  So where are we going?  Heavier airstrikes?  Special forces on the ground to locate targets?  More advisers in Iraq?  The path ahead is unclear to me, and there is no obvious strategy at play in the use of our military force.

My concern is that either the United States — and it is unlikely that we will get any other nation actively involved to help us — will get drawn into another major conflict in the Middle East, or do little more than what we have done already the last few days and look ineffective at best in our efforts.  We are in a tough situation, sure to be damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.

There are some that can make a good case that we should get involved yet again in Iraq, especially against such an evil force as ISIS.  I am not so sure.  In the end, only the forces on the ground — Iraqis, be they Kurds, Sunnis or Shiites — with their own homes and families hanging in the balance can make a difference.

There are a number of intermediate steps that can be taken, of course, without full American involvement.  The question is how effective they will be.  Remember that we spent eight years, nearly a trillion dollars, and lost 4,487 Americans in our last attempt to fix the problem.  It does not seem to me that a few bombs from some carrier based F-18s are going to solve it now.

These are indeed dangerous times.  Actions are required.  Let’s hope that our leaders understand history and make the right decisions.

 


What To Do About Iraq?

As you know, events in Iraq have unfolded quickly as the fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) moved into northern and western Iraq from Syria.  The cities of Mosul and Tikrit, significant in many ways to Iraq, fell without resistance from the Iraqi army, most of whom changed into civilian clothes and ran away.  The ISIS fighters seemed well on their way to Baghdad when the Iraqi army, backed by Shiite militia, stiffened and are now providing resistance to the advance. How this will end is anybody’s guess at the moment — truly, no one really knows.

There are several things that we do know, however, and these are worth a look.  Most importantly, the question before our national leadership is “should the United States get involved in what is fundamentally a religious civil war?”  “If so, in what way?”  Clouding the issue of course is the investment we already made of 4,487 dead and 32,223 wounded Americans.  A high price to pay any time, but especially given the unraveling of all that was accomplished. Unfortunately, in my view, we should not invest any more lives or treasure in Iraq.  Certainly, we should not do so under the current conditions.

Demands that the United States should supply immediate intelligence and material support to the Iraqi government are a bit overblown and not really reflective of the facts.  This is true in particular because of two things: the Iraqis have been known in the past to use “intelligence” to even scores with political rivals, and the ISIS forces are now equipped with modern U.S. weapons left behind when the Iraqi army abandoned their posts.  It will be a continued waste of time and money (and perhaps lives) to continue to equip and train the Iraqis (or any force) if they refuse to fight.

Most experts do not believe that ISIS has the will or ability to take Baghdad, especially now that the Iraqi army is beginning to mobilize.  It will, however, get very dicey in Baghdad in the coming days as the terrorists will use assassinations and car bombs and other attacks to disrupt life in the city and to create more friction between the factions that live there.  While Iraq as a whole is divided into roughly three sections (Sunni, Shiite, Kurdish), all three elements are present in the city which is also de facto divided.  This is where the United States needs to beef up its efforts. Protecting the world’s largest American embassy and those that work there should be our current focus of main effort.

It is tempting to get into a “who is responsible for this mess?” argument.  There is plenty of blame to go around.  Some of you may recall that from my observations in a key Pentagon office that I felt that President Bush and his administration began planning to invade Iraq beginning in January of 2001 following his inauguration.  The unfolding events after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks gave them a reason, however much of a stretch that might have been.  It was especially discomfiting because our real effort should have been in Afghanistan where the threat was real.  That is all now past history.  Similarly, accusations that President Obama did not do all that could have been done to reach a Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government to leave U.S. troops there serve to place the blame at his feet.  I happen to think that the Iraqi people as a whole never really wanted the United States there at all, period, end of discussion and that it was unrealistic to think that they would allow our troops to stay.  But again, whatever one’s opinion of  that, it is past history.  We are where we are and the challenge is figuring out what to do about it now.

The real problem is the current Shiite government that totally shut out the previously dominant Sunni power brokers.  There is enough religious animosity, deep-seated anger and hatred between the two groups and that has only been exacerbated by the administration of Nouri al-Maliki refusing to deal with Sunni leaders and driving them not only from the government, but in some cases, from the country.

I suspect time will reveal that some percentage of the ISIS fighters are actually Iraqi Sunnis seizing an opportunity to topple the current government.  I am not sure how long this uneasy coalition of terrorist fighters can stay together and I am especially doubtful of their ability to administer a large territory or population.

There is no doubt, however, of their ability to create havoc, destruction, and threaten the lives of thousands of people.  They are also creating the conditions for another failed state that can easily become a training ground for terrorists that reach far beyond the current area of conflict.  That is a different problem, one that needs to be addressed but different from what to do to support the current Iraqi government.  In the end, wars end through political settlements.  Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is not able to, or does not desire to, build a functioning coalition government.  The ISIS leadership is not interested in a negotiated settlement.  This leaves the United States with few options.  In my opinion, putting more American lives at risk through direct military action will not help the situation and should not be one of the options on the table.

We should continue to protect our embassy and critical workers and to pressure Nouri al-Maliki to work out a political settlement.  Whether an “artificial” country drawn by western powers without regard to the indigenous population can survive is a difficult question that only time will resolve.


What About Syria? (Part Two)

What a difference 72 hours makes.  In many respects nothing fundamentally changed, but like so many complicated issues, this one got even more complicated.

I doubt anyone, especially Prime Minister David Cameron, expected the British Parliament to vote against action in Syria.  In my view, this was an internal political move rather than a repudiation of the alliance with the United States or an acceptance of the Syrian use of chemical weapons.  They have been, and still are, mad as hell about the United Kingdom’s involvement in Iraq, and the way that it was sold to them, and they”aren’t going to take it anymore.”  I doubt that Thursday’s vote is the final word from the British about their involvement or lack of involvement.  As further information becomes available to them and to the world about what occurred in Syria (and may occur again) it would not surprise me to see them come on board in the end.

I am surprised by President Obama’s statement today (Saturday).  I have not yet had the opportunity to fully digest it.  None-the-less I find it confusing for him to say that the United States is going to take military action against Bashar’s regime — and my interpretation of his words is that we are definitely going to take action — but then seemingly leave it up to a vote by the Congress.  It is all backwards.  If even only for appearances sake, he should make the case for military action, rally Congress for support and an open-ended resolution to use “all necessary means” and then announce a strike or other military action.  And oh by the way, he has now given the appearance of providing Congress veto power over his already announced decision to take military action.

While I understand that there is not necessarily a definitive timeline to act, the traditional statement that works best in these circumstances is something along the lines of the United States “will take action at a time and place of our choosing.”  President Obama left me with the impression that “we’ll get around to it.”  To me, if the case is as compelling as it increasingly appears to be, and ten days have already elapsed, then I don’t see why he is waiting for Congress to return to Washington at the regularly scheduled time (9 September) to get going on this.  Call them back to Washington now and get on with it.

Of course I may be reading more into this than is there.  Perhaps consultations will be sufficient and he won’t wait until they return to Washington to have a debate and a vote on the issue.  Additionally, waiting another ten days (or more) may have the side benefit of giving the Administration time to continue to build its case for action and to bring more international support to the equation.  So, maybe there is some method to the madness, but I still wonder if the President is getting very good advice on how to put this all together for the country’s consideration.

On top of all that, as was demonstrated in the United Kingdom, there remains a very deep distrust of “evidence” of WMD and its persuasiveness for taking action.  Personally, I do not see this as being the same — either in scale or in terms of what has happened — as the events in Iraq leading to Gulf War II under President George W. Bush.  I think that by invading Iraq we took our eye off the ball (Afghanistan) and went after Saddam because that Administration thought they saw an opportunity to get rid of him “easily.”  Nothing in warfare is as easy as it looks.  Regardless, those events, and the justification for going to war in that case, have poisoned the well this time around.  No one wants to get fooled again.  However, I believe that this time around what we see is what we get — Bashar’s regime used chemical weapons, probably Sarin gas, against its own population and killed approximately 1400 people.  He may well do it again.

As I noted in my previous post on 28 August, I still do not have a clear idea of what the President intends to accomplish with a military strike.  I support a strike.  Like it or not future deterrence depends on demonstrating a willingness and capability to act as we say we will act.  I am not a war monger.  I have serious reservations about any military action and very great concerns about what will come of this particular action.  Once underway, there is always the chance for things to go awry.  But in this case I believe it is important to do something that demonstrably holds Syrian leaders accountable, I just do not yet understand what the President has in mind that accomplishes that goal.

Many current and former military leaders are expressing serious concerns over the use of force in Syria.  Primarily, this is because there is still no full explanation of what we want to accomplish and, as I’ve said before, what is it exactly that we want to see as a result of the military action.  In my view, we probably cannot do much more than degrade the WMD capability of Syria and also send a message to those responsible that their personal well-being is in danger if it happens again.  I think the critics fear both what happens if we take “too much” action and equally fear what happens if we take “too little” action.  As with Goldilocks, we need to get his one “just right.”

So far the President has said that Bashar crossed a red line and that we therefore need to do something about it.  That is a political statement that does not translate to military action.  The arm-chair strategists are nervous because they don’t know what is that the President wants — “what do you want us to do?”  I say this only a bit  facetiously, but let me  give you an example.

In the lead up to Gulf War I, President George H. W. Bush said following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait that “this will not stand.”  Got it.  As military planners, it was necessary to take that statement and put it into concrete terms that the forces that had to go out and do something could understand and work towards.  In this case it would “not stand” because the goal was to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait and restore the legitimate government (the one that existed before the invasion) of Kuwait.  It was not to over throw Saddam or occupy Iraq or bring democracy to Iraq or a number of other unrelated actions.  It was a clear and precise formula for what needed to be done and everyone could clearly understand what things would look like when it was over.

It is easy to pick targets and talk weapon systems and the like.  Some people consider it fun and others make a lot of money talking about it on TV.  That stuff is relatively easy for those in the know but it has no relevancy to the bigger picture.  What is important is the mission and the end state.  Figure that out and the tacticians and military commanders on the scene know what targets to hit with what weapons.  Let the professionals do their job.   But to do it well, they need to know what we want it to look like in the end.

It does not appear to me that the hard stuff has yet been addressed.  I hope I am wrong, but we are still waiting to hear what the end state should be.  How do we know when we are finished?

I am also sure that Congress, which apparently cannot take anything seriously during its five week vacation that takes precedence over the well-being of the country, will make it even muddier.

Let’s get on with it.