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.
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.
Sad. Outrageous. Horrifying. Anger inducing. Numbing. These are some of the feelings I have had, just as I am sure many of you share, following the terrorist attacks in Paris last Friday. Horrible. Unfortunately, I have similar reactions to the politicians in our United States who either have no clue as to what they are talking about, or are purposefully using this tragedy for political purposes. Those same politicians accuse others of “politicizing” a tragedy following a mass shooting when they speak out for gun safety laws and yet they have no problem politicizing a tragic terrorist attack. Their comments are to me nearly as terrifying as the attacks themselves.
There are several issues at play here, and a twitter post or sound bite will not reflect the complexities of the situation. First and foremost one must remember that the purpose of terror is to create fear and a resultant over reaction that causes us to change our way of life or to take some action that meets the terrorists’ long-term goal. Make no mistake, despite some statements to the contrary, the terrorists have a clear purpose and a clear goal beyond just taking as many lives as possible. This is one area where the reckless statements by some running for president play right into the hands of the terrorists.
Additionally, one must understand the strategic goals of these particular terrorists who appear to be associated, if not directly controlled, by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Creating the “caliphate” or fundamentalist nation that they have declared is not an end unto itself just as the terrorist attacks are not an end. Their vision — and we must understand them from their perspective not ours — is to cause the apocalyptic battle of the West versus the caliphate. In other words, they really, really, want the United States and European forces to invade their territory in order to precipitate the clash of civilizations. They believe that the result will be cataclysmic and result in the end of the world as we know it and establish a world dominated by them.
This is an important point and necessitates taking the long view. This is a clash of ideologies. This is a clash of world views. This is a clash of civilizations. I make those statements with no sense of drama or over reach. It is a fact and one that the arm-chair quarterbacks and “bomb them to the stone age” activists do not understand. If every member of ISIS was killed on Wednesday in their caliphate, the terrorists still would have attacked on Friday and others would come in to take their place. This is a long war that will not be resolved solely by military action.
Am I saying that no military action is necessary? No. We need to take military action and we need to take the fight to ISIS. What I am saying is that such action is necessary, but not sufficient. Clearly ISIS established their ability to reach beyond the caliphate. The bombing of the Russian airliner over the Sinai, the bombings in Beirut and now the attack in Paris are certainly ISIS efforts to show that forces that oppose them will be attacked. However, since we are also dealing on a psychological and ideological level, there are other aspects to those attacks and it very well may be that they are also a result of what the president observed last week prior to the attacks. Not directly related as in retaliation or defiance, but that the facts are related. He said ISIS is “contained.” While this remark is getting shrill ridicule from presidential aspirants, he may be right. The caliphate is shrinking geographically, the number of recruits seems to be dwindling, and more nations are joining the fight against them. Under that circumstance, ISIS leaders would need to demonstrate that they are still strong and provide more fodder for gaining recruits. Additionally, without going into a history of the western world, the ISIS ideology and their pronouncements are reflective of their perception that Europe squashed the spread of Islam in the Eighth, Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, to name a few of the ideological underpinnings of ISIS and jihadist culture in general. This is in essence revenge for historical defeats and a demonstration that the war to spread Islam is not over.
I want leaders that understand just how complicated the resolution of this mess will be and in this piece I have only touched the tip of the iceberg of all that is in play. I want sober leaders, not emotional, uninformed individuals that over-react, or worse, pander for political purposes. I want leaders that have emotions — which one of us does not react with emotion to events in Paris — but that do not act emotionally. Sending the men and women of our Armed Forces into harms way should not be a knee jerk reaction. And once again, for all our sakes, just stop it with talking about “boots on the ground”! That has no meaning and tends to show one’s lack of understanding of how the military works. Do they mean combat troops? Advisors? Logisticians? Intelligence capabilities? Marines? Army? What do they mean? We must also never forget that by using the term “boots on the ground” we take out the human aspect. Somehow saying “boots on the ground” removes the obligation of our leaders to understand the consequences of sending our fellow citizens into a situation where inevitably some will be killed and seriously wounded with the consequential impact on their family and friends — not to mention the loss of our nation’s future leaders. These decisions should never be taken lightly or out of some misplaced desire to show how tough they are. Nearly all the proposals I have seen from the flock of presidential wannabe’s are amateurish at best, or fraught with danger to our nation at their worst (with the specific exception of Senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina whose proposals I am not 100% in agreement with, but at least he has a sober and thought-out plan.) By the way, none of those folks will be in office until about 14 months from now. It is sure a lot easier to say what should be done than to be the person responsible for actually making the decision. They show their ignorance when they do things like point to the “massive French response” and say that we should do the same. The “massive” response is twelve (count them, twelve) aircraft bombing shacks in the desert. The United States and coalition does more than that on a slow day and have been for over a year. ISIS will not be defeated from the air. No fly zones make no sense either, as several have proposed, because ISIS has no aircraft. A no fly zone will bring us into direct conflict with Syrian aircraft (which we may want but such a decision should not be made in the heat of emotion), and with Russian aircraft (we are not fighting the Russians). I could go on, but you get the idea. We definitely do need to step up the military pressure on ISIS, especially on the ground, but we need to realize that it is easier said than done and we need to make sure we know what we are doing. Military experts always ask “what is the next step?” and “what is the end game?” and “what does it look like when we are successful?” — none of those specific questions have been answered by advocates of a bigger U.S. military effort and their plans have only very non-specific terms.
I am most bewildered, flabbergasted and profoundly disappointed by the calls from Republican candidates for president and the twenty-five (at last count — twenty-four Republicans and one Democrat) state governors who say that they will “outlaw” Syrian refugees, or indeed any Muslim refugees from settling in the United States. It is doubtful that they have the legal authority to “outlaw” refugees, but more troubling is that they even propose it. This is perhaps more dangerous to the future of the United States than the attacks in Paris. It would also be a tremendous victory for ISIS should we “outlaw” Muslims in the United States. It proves their narrative that the West is “against” Islam. ISIS also does not want to see those refugees leave their caliphate. It ruins their narrative and gives them no basis to govern.
Most troubling are the cheers for the leading Republican candidate Mr. Donald Trump when he calls for a “deportation force” to round-up 11 million people from their homes and force them out of the country. Enforce immigration laws, certainly. Work towards some form of comprehensive immigration reform, certainly. But round-up 11 million people by force? Really? In the United States? Over the weekend he went several steps further by declaring no Muslim refugees should enter the country — and oh by the way, when he’s president he will have those already legally here deported — but he also said that if he were president he would “strongly consider” shutting down mosques in the United States. So much for the Constitution.
Even more troubling is that Mr. Trump was not alone in his demagoguery. Governor Jeb Bush and Senator Ted Cruz said we should only allow “Christians” into the country. As if we have a litmus test on religion as to who can come into the country. Bye Bye Constitution. Governor Chris Christie said he would not allow any refugees into the country, “even for orphans under the age of five.” Nice.
Clearly they do not remember the glorious chapters of our nation’s history such as rounding up Native Americans and forcing them onto reservations or rounding up Japanese Americans and placing them in internment camps, or refusing to allow Jewish refugees into the country in the late 1930s.
It also belies the facts. Safety is a concern, obviously. Should they have looked into the issue more closely, instead of just shooting their mouths off for the sake of some votes, they would see that the situation for refugees coming into our country are vastly different from Europe. Light years different. Europe is being inundated by refugees leaving the Middle East. We are not. Unless they can swim the Atlantic Ocean refugees allowed into the United States are carefully vetted, consist almost entirely of families with women and children, and take about 18 months from the beginning of the process until they arrive in this country. They should also know that so far, all but one of the Paris attackers was from France and Belgium.
I might also point out that refusing to take in refugees does not make us any safer as anyone with a valid passport that is not on a watch list can get into the country. Do these politicians want to stop all foreigners from coming in to the country? Some apparently do. Senator Rand Paul introduced legislation yesterday that prevents anyone from roughly 30 countries that have a “high risk” of terrorism or significant jihadist movements from entering the country (which would include France, by the way) and imposes a 30 day moratorium on anyone from any country entering the United States until the government verifies that no terrorists can enter the country from anywhere on earth using a passport. So much for the world economy when all movement is shut down. I suppose that the specifics of how that works is similar to what my old calculus books used to say, “the proof is left to the reader.” Or better yet as they say on “Monday Night Football” — “c’mon man!” All of which ignores actions such as those of Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City where he killed 168 people and wounded over 600 others. An American, a military veteran, and a Christian.
We do not need amateurs and demagogues leading our nation.
Should we increase our intelligence activities, be super aware and learn to operate in the new reality of life with terrorism in the 21st century? Of course. Do we need to re-think our anti-ISIS strategy and consider increased military involvement? Of course. However, I have serious problems with the politicization of the issue and the glaring lack of specifics from most candidates. And most of what I have heard proposed plays right into the hands of the terrorists. Besides, it is un-American.
Russian military involvement in Syria creates increased uncertainty in an already very uncertain region of the world. Analysts are divided as to whether Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to send military forces to Syria is a show of strength or a show of weakness and desperation. Either way, their involvement dramatically changes the situation. Allegedly, the Russians joined the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, but also known as ISIL and DAESH depending on who is speaking — they are all the same organization). In reality they are attacking all anti-Bashar Al-Assad (the ruling dictator in Syria) forces, including those trained and supported by the United States and our allies in the region.
As is usually the case with President Putin in particular and other dictators more generally, he told the world exactly what he was going to do. In a revealing “60 Minutes” interview on 27 September before the Russians acted in Syria he said,
“We support the legitimate government of Syria. And it’s my deep belief that any actions to the contrary in order to destroy the legitimate government will create a situation which you can witness now in the other countries of the region or in other regions, for instance in Libya where all the state institutions are disintegrated. We see a similar situation in Iraq. And there is no other solution to the Syrian crisis than strengthening the effective government structures and rendering them help in fighting terrorism.”
In other words, any group fighting the current regime is working to destroy the current dictatorship and therefore they are all terrorists. To him there is no difference between ISIS and the other groups trying to depose the current dictator. Or as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a later interview, “You know, if it walks like a duck, it looks like a duck, it’s a duck” in response to a question about defending the current Syrian regime against all-comers — to the Russians they are all terrorists.
As part of their ongoing air operations in Syria, on Wednesday last week the Russians fired approximately twenty-six cruise missiles from ships in the Caspian Sea into Syrian territory. There was no tactical or operational reason to use cruise missiles in the way they were used in this instance. Like much of what Russia is doing in the region, the real purpose of the launch was to appear to be a world power on the same level as the United States. “If the US can do it, so can we” — a demonstration of technical ability — seemed to be the only reason for it. (Incidentally, intelligence reports indicate that four to six of them crashed in Iran. Mishaps are not unheard of in using cruise missiles as they are not foolproof, but it clearly was not the “flawless” attack initially claimed by Russian propaganda.)
As a footnote it is interesting to see the Russians using the same social media and press releases of ships firing missiles, video of bombs hitting targets, etc. that the United States has employed for many years. I’m not sure if that is a matter of such measures being the best way to disseminate information or if it is a case of plagiarism as the sincerest form of flattery. Regardless, the Russians are trying to demonstrate that they are every bit as capable as the United States. A questionable claim when one digs through the superficial aspects of what they are doing and we really look at their capabilities and sustainability. But for now, all they have to do is look like they know what they are doing.
Where does all of this leave us? Certain facts on the ground remain unchanged. Bashar Al-Assad is still only hanging on to a small amount of territory under his absolute control, his forces are still indiscriminately using “barrel bombs” to kill Syrian civilians, refugees are still flowing out of the country, and ISIS still controls large areas of Syria and parts of Iraq.
Likewise, the only Russian base outside of their country is in Syria. The Russians have long had a naval base on the Syrian coast at Tartus having established it in the 1970s. That base is politically and strategically important to the Russians as it provides a resupply and refueling port for the Russian fleet without having to return to Russian territory. That base was increasingly threatened by the Syrian civil war. Additionally, Syria is the only Russian ally in the Middle East and their client was in serious trouble. This is why many analysts say that the current Russian involvement is a sign of weakness rather than strength. They have propped up Bashar’s regime for years and his father’s before him. That regime was about to collapse, possibly taking their only base with it and losing their only ally. In other words, their strategy wasn’t working and the only remaining option was to get involved on the ground. And they are deeply involved — including ground troops. Those troops are currently providing security to the air and naval bases used by the Russians, but the Russian leadership has not ruled out a combat mission for follow-on ground forces.
Meanwhile, Russia claims that it is fighting ISIS and is only doing what the United States and other nations are doing in Iraq and Syria. The difference is that the Russians lump ISIS in with every other anti-regime force at work. So far, little to none of their military effort is focused on ISIS. If one were generous, one could say that they are fighting terrorism. A realist knows that they are trying to use our own policies and words against us to prop up a brutal dictator.
The situation is further complicated by several Russian aircraft allegedly straying into Turkish air space (“allegedly” because the Russians claim it was accidental but others, including the Turks, doubt it. Turkey is a NATO ally — and of course NATO was originally formed to protect its members from an attack by the Soviet Union — Russia). Unconfirmed reports circulated yesterday that Turkey shot down a Russian aircraft — a report that is probably exaggerated or misinformation — but that highlights the potential for significant expansion of the conflict.
The United States policy concerning Syria has been in disarray since August/September of 2013. You may recall that I had a series of pieces that I posted then arguing for enforcement of President Obama’s “redline” concerning Syrian use of chemical weapons. The United Kingdom’s Parliament tied the Prime Minister’s hands precluding British involvement which then gave the United States Congress pause. No vote was held, but a resolution to authorize the use of American force against the Bashar regime would most likely have failed. President Obama subsequently took no action. I warned at the time that the lack of a forceful response would create larger problems later down the line. That time is now.
In my view, President Putin put Russian forces into combat in Syria for several reasons.
- The Syrian regime was collapsing and Putin could not afford to have his only ally in the Middle East go under.
- The Russians need the base at Tartus for strategic reasons and for prestige reasons. It too was threatened should the regime collapse.
- Russia wants a seat at the table and the ability to broker a deal if and when a political solution is reached to end the civil war in Syria.
- The Russian economy is doing very poorly. The sanctions imposed after Russian adventures in Ukraine are having an impact, especially when coupled with the current low price of oil. When all else fails, dictators time after time become militarily adventurous outside their borders to distract the domestic population from their problems.
- Putin says the biggest disaster in world history was the demise of the Soviet Union. He has always had visions of restoring the empire and what he views as Russia’s rightful place in the world. Showing an ability to project military power away from the homeland “just like the United States” gives him prestige at home and perhaps, in some foreign capitals.
All of these indicators show an attempt to cover up fundamental Russian weakness. We can only see what develops over time, but it is unlikely that Russia can sustain their military operations over the long-term.
Meanwhile in the near-term Russian involvement seriously complicates the situation. The United States is now “re-evaluating” its options, while continuing to provide air support in operations against ISIS. The Russians claim that there are only two options — support ISIS, or support those fighting ISIS (Bashar Al-Assad). This is of course a false equivalency but it is a simple statement for a complex situation. Beyond operations against ISIS, it is hard to know what the United States should do. There are many, many factions now operating in Syria making it difficult to know which are the “good” guys and which are the “bad” guys. Clearly the president, and I think with the support of the American people and many in Congress, does not want the United States involved in another land war in the Middle East. Although the full military might of the United States could defeat ISIS on the ground, it would take a massive commitment in lives and treasure and in the end we would again be occupiers in a land where we are not welcome. Not a good long-term proposition for us as a nation.
Increasingly I think that an interim solution to ease the refugee crisis, show our resolve to our allies and to put Russia on notice that we will not tolerate their interference would be to create “safe zones” in Syria and Iraq along the border with Turkey. This is nearly within our current military level of effort, especially if it is coupled with our allies supplying the troops for security (such as from Turkey), the financing and moral support (Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states) while the United States supplies the expertise (advisers), intelligence, and air support. Such a course creates the possibility of further expansion of the conflict and our involvement in it. However, the status quo is unacceptable and is not resolving the problem. Without question Syria and other areas of the Middle East are a real mess, but we can no longer hope that the situation will resolve itself.
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.
So much is happening in our nation and in the world that often events move so fast that many of us cannot keep up with it all. Here are a few quick thoughts about some of these happenings.
- Syria and Iraq. The President gave a good speech at the United Nations General Assembly last week. (You can read it here.) However, in his remarks there and to the American people, he has assiduously avoided the use of the word “war.” For those flying the combat missions and on the ground in Iraq, legal definitions of “war” make little difference. For them, we are at war. As a minimum, the Obama Administration should have the Department of Defense and Central Command come up with a name for the operation. From the Middle East to Panama we have over the last few decades named all of our significant military undertakings. This one should be no exception and would, psychologically, help the American people to understand the nature and seriousness of our commitment. Something like Operation Desert Lightning might work.
- White House Security. As many of you are aware, the Secret Service has had a series of revelations of breakdowns in their procedures for protecting President Obama and his family. So far, most of the suggested changes to improve that security involve expanding the security perimeter around the White House and making it harder for normal citizens to access the area. Indeed, the security perimeter along Pennsylvania Avenue has already been expanded. Wrong answer. Review and follow the protocols. The failures of the Secret Service cannot be fixed by imposing increasing restrictions on the people. One of my biggest disappointments in recent years is going to Philadelphia to see the Liberty Bell and Freedom Hall. The security procedures required to get into the building were worthy of any security check for any airport in the world. Bad news that our symbols of freedom are hidden away behind tight security.
- Congress. Whether or not we are technically at war, Congress has an important role to play in making sure that our Armed Forces are not sent needlessly into harms way. Although the last time that Congress actually passed a resolution declaring war was long ago (in June 1942 against Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary), they have debated and passed resolutions supporting significant military operations. Other than authorizing funds to begin to train Syrian fighters, Congress left town last week for campaigning without addressing the current actions against ISIS. (Incidentally, this is the earliest Congress has left town for mid-term elections in fifty years — after having worked only eight days following a five-week summer recess. Nice work if you can get it.) There is no more important matter for our government as a whole and for Congress in particular than national defense. The only good news here is that it was a bipartisan agreement. Perhaps the only one of the past year. Neither party wanted the “operation” against ISIS to get in the way of the campaigns surrounding the mid-term elections. In other words, most Representatives and Senators did not want to have to go on record with a vote either for or against military action in fear of having to explain it during the campaign. Shameful.
- Baseball. On a more positive note, at least in this area of the country, both the Washington Nationals and the Baltimore Orioles won their divisions and are in the playoffs. It is too much to hope that they will meet in the World Series, but the locals can dream. Already the debate is underway as to what to call it. Battle of the Beltways? The Parkway Series? It would be fun. And no comment on baseball could be complete without a comment on the retirement of Derek Jeter. As a rehabilitated Boston Red Sox fan (Jetah — you suck!) I tip my hat to the man. It is too easy to get carried away about what our various sports teams mean to the country and one can question what role it should play. But all of the leagues and those in sports would be well served if their players were as consistent — on and off the field — in grace and leadership as Derek Jeter.
I could go on, but this is enough for today. It is a fast paced world that we live in, indeed.
Please forgive me while I muse out loud about the nature of evil. This piece is not meant to be about, for, or against, any particular religious view. Most religions address the nature of evil and the human dimension of fighting it off. In many religions, Satan, or a similar being, is the embodiment of evil. While I will muse about Satan, this is not intended to be a religious discussion. Or at least I think not. Non-religious people certainly recognize and ponder the nature of evil. It is more than just a religious concept. Spoiler alert: That said, I will write about God and Satan, among other approaches to trying to understand evil. Stop reading if this is not your thing and you would rather not get into it.
With the nearly constant bombardment of video images depicting the actions of the Islamic State (or ISIS, or ISIL — all the same entity), one immediately thinks of that group as evil. Adolf Hitler and his Nazi supporters were evil. Josef Stalin was evil. Pol Pot was evil. Narco-terrorists are evil. The list could go on and on.
However, I wonder why, or perhaps more accurately, how, people become evil. I do not think that it is in the nature of humankind to be evil. My premise has been and continues to be that, given a chance, people are inherently good and will do the right thing. Although this premise is tested daily, I still consider the vast majority of people to be good. So what happens to the others? I do not think that they were born evil. Although there are psycho-paths and people lacking any empathy what-so-ever, I see their actions as more a matter for psychiatrists than necessarily a manifestation of the existence of evil, which still leaves some of their actions clearly defined as evil. Nor do I excuse their behavior in any way, shape or form. However, I do not think that most of what we see today, or historically, as evil actions in the name of nations or dictators is coming purely from mental disorders. Perhaps some, but not many. It is too facile to say that they are all psychopaths.
On a Judeo-Christian religious level, most believe that God is the Supreme Being. God knows all and as the Creator, by definition, created everything in the universe. God would not create Satan. In the Old Testament (such as in the Book of Job) God sometimes sends Satan to do his bidding — in this case to test Job. If Satan exists, it is not as an equal to God. How can there be an equal competition between good and evil — manifested as God versus Satan — for the souls of mankind? There cannot. God is all-powerful. He is not going to lose to Satan in any endeavor.
To me, Satan stands as a symbol of free will. We have the curse and the gift of determining our own destiny. It is a human decision as to whether or not to do the right thing. When humans choose the wrong path, evil deeds occur. So do our historical evil doers choose to be evil or are they on some other path? I am not sure. To some degree, it depends on which side of history one sits. As has been written many times, the winner dictates the history. In war, evil things happen on both sides. From other cultures’ perspectives the United States has done evil things. Did we choose to do evil? I say no we did not. Either we were ignorant of the consequences of certain actions, or as a nation we decided that certain actions were necessary to achieve our goals. Is it possible that Hitler, Stalin, and others, including the current leaders of the Islamic State were not born evil? Is it possible that their actions were, and are, in the pursuit of what they consider to be a greater good and thereby necessary? If they wrote the history would they depict their actions as evil? Are people evil or are their actions evil? Does it matter? I am no expert. And I am no apologist for those that do evil things — there are no moral equivalencies here. I am merely trying to find my way through a troubling problem. Why does evil exist and how is it manifested?
How do good people go bad? Nature or nurture? I am not the first to ponder these questions, nor will I be the last. The world is a fearsome and complicated place. Perhaps the answer to what constitutes evil lies somewhere near Justice Potter Stewart’s opinion on hard-core pornography — that it is hard to define but “I know it when I see it.” (An opinion he later professed to regret.)
This is not to say that evil is in the eye of the beholder. It is to say that some things are universally considered evil and other things may be subject to motivation and context. Some profess that all war is evil. Evil things happen in war, but the necessary aspect of many wars (not all) does not inherently make them evil.
I have grappled with this for a long time and have no good conclusion. I hold to my basic premise that humans are born good and want to do the right things with their lives. I am challenged in resolving that outlook with the day-to-day evidence to the contrary in our lives.