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.
Last night U.S. Navy war ships launched over 50 Tomahawk missiles against an airfield in Syria. The airfield was the base from which the Sarin attacks on civilians were launched earlier this week. We can only speculate at the moment as to where this leads , but I am glad that the Syrian’s actions did not go unpunished. This time, the Trump Administration did the right thing.
The mechanics of delivering the missiles to the target are relatively simple. Well, not simple in the abstract, but simple because the targets were on the list for years and the ships’ crews have practiced endlessly for this type of scenario. They take no pleasure in it, but they understand that this is this their profession and so they professionally executed the mission.
The strikes were tactical and an appropriate and proportional response to send Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad the signal that his actions will have consequences. Now he cannot act without calculating possible future responses from the United States, and hopefully, our allies. It is also an appropriate signal to Russia and Iran that they cannot continue to enable Bashar without consequences. Their rhetoric will increase but it is doubtful that either nation will make an immediate retaliatory response.
The larger question is “what next?” Tactics only make sense in the context of a larger strategy and I am not sure that the Trump Administration has a fully developed strategy for dealing with Syria in the days and months to come. What is apparent, is that the strategy outlined only days ago by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, that we will pay little attention to Syria and the Syrian people will decide their own future, is no longer relevant.
The Syrian Civil War can only end through diplomatic efforts. The U.S. should increase the pressure on Russia and Iran to stop enabling Bashar and to bring him to the table for serious negotiations. This can be accomplished by a combination of diplomatic efforts that hold them responsible for Bashar’s actions and direct pressure, such as through increased sanctions on Russia and Iran. Secretary Tillerson is scheduled to visit Moscow later this month. It will be interesting to see if those talks are still on, and whether Secretary Tillerson can use that opening to put Russian actions in Syria in the spotlight.
On the domestic front, for those White House West Wing watchers that believe “personnel is policy”, several interesting developments occurred in the days leading up to the strike. What it means is not yet entirely clear, but consider what happened. When the statements concerning Syria and our policy were put forward by Secretary Tillerson and Ambassador Haley, Mr. Steve Bannon was thought to be the architect of those statements which reflect his “America First” outlook. Likewise when President Trump put out his inane statement that the Obama Administration was responsible for the chemical attack. The next day, it was announced that Mr. Bannon was demoted and removed from the National Security Council, also leading to his threat to quit and go home (he didn’t — yet). Then the President’s son-in-law Mr. Jared Kushner, probably the only man in the West Wing that President Trump absolutely trusts, returned from a trip to Iraq with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The next day President Trump, in a news conference with King Abdullah II of Jordan, changed his tune on the chemical attack, condemning it in the strongest possible terms, taking responsibility as president, and hinting at further actions. He was then known to meet with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. President Trump then ordered the retaliation last night. Personally, I do not think that the changes in personnel and the influence yielded by his son-in-law and, most importantly, the experienced national security advisers, prior to the Tomahawk strikes, was coincidental.
Only time will tell whether the national security adults in the room will continue to be the most influential or not. There is still much to be worried about in Syria and North Korea. However, this was the right thing to do and a good first step.
With the daily crises that seem to emanate from the Trump White House, it is often difficult to keep track of those things that are important — almost all of it is in some way — and those things that are not only important, but conceivably life changing for our nation. Three of those things come to the forefront this week. One is the events in Syria, two is concern over the ever more belligerent actions of North Korea, and three is the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch and the possible resulting use of the “nuclear option” in the Senate that will forever change that body and the future of the Supreme Court. The latter issue is worthy of an entire blog unto itself. Before turning my attention to the first two issues, let me just say briefly that Judge Gorsuch will be on the court for decades to come, so that alone makes it a big deal. Changing the confirmation process to a straight up or down vote will make confirmation of future Supreme Court nominations a purely partisan endeavor with ever more radical judges the norm — by Republican or Democrat presidents — and removing any last vestige of a purely non-partisan Supreme Court. In my view, the Democrats should vote for cloture (allow a vote to go forward without a filibuster) and then vote their conscience as to whether Judge Gorsuch is qualified to be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.
That said, let’s turn back to the first two issues of international policy. They are important on their own merits as well as for the precedent they may set under the administration of President Trump. Let’s address Syria first.
You undoubtedly saw the heart-wrenching pictures coming from Idlib Syria following a chemical attack on innocent civilians. Reports estimate at least seventy people died a horrific death with hundreds sickened by the toxic chemical — likely Sarin. The Syrians are known to routinely use chlorine gas against opposition fighters, but this attack is significantly different. As you may remember, the Syrians made a similar attack in August of 2013 and then President Obama declared that the Syrians had crossed a “red line” and would pay the consequences. When our British allies refused to participate and the Congress got cold feet on whether to support such action or not, President Obama decided against military action. In a blog at the time I decried the lack of action and moral fortitude of not only our country, but of the entire civilized world for taking no action. I also predicted that it would eventually come back to haunt us.
It looks like the same thing will happen this time around. Loud denunciations, Security Council resolutions and much wringing of hands around the world as the order of the day, but in the end, no action taken. President Trump, apparently forgetting that he is now the president and responsible for U.S. foreign policy, condemned the attack and then blamed President Obama for it taking place. This is the entire statement as posted on the official White House website.
Today’s chemical attack in Syria against innocent people, including women and children, is reprehensible and cannot be ignored by the civilized world. These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution. President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing. The United States stands with our allies across the globe to condemn this intolerable attack.
How ironic that President Trump condemns his predecessor for doing nothing and then does nothing himself. Actually, that’s not too surprising given his comments in 2013. He posted the following statement then.
President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside. Save your “powder” for another (and more important) day! — Twitter from @realdonaldtrump on 7 September 2013.
Note that was while President Obama was deciding how to respond to the Syrians for a chemical attack.
Also note that the most recent attack came five days after the Trump administration through U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that they would no longer focus on Syria or the regime of Bashar al-Assad. More precisely, Ambassador Haley said, “We can’t necessarily focus on Assad the way the previous administration maybe did. Do we think he’s a hindrance? Yes. Are we going to sit there and focus on getting him out? No.” Secretary Tillerson followed up later by saying, “I think the longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.” The same Syrian people gassed, I suppose. Make no mistake, in the way of foreign policy, and particularly in the Middle East, when the United States says that in essence, they are no longer concerned about Syria, that is a green light to the ruthless regime to do whatever they feel like doing without fear of retribution. Not surprisingly, the Russians who in the deal made in 2013 were to guarantee no Syrian chemical agents would remain in the country, claim that the chemicals came from a “rebel workshop” bombed by Syrian aircraft.
Sorely missing from President Trump’s statement and those of his administration is any indication of actions in response. It seems that in foreign policy, as in his domestic policy thus far, whenever something happens our new president can only lash out at others to assign blame. That is a pretty weak foreign policy position and it will be duly and clearly noted by our friends and enemies around the world.
We see a similarly troubling scenario unfolding with North Korea, and they surely noted our lack of action in Syria. The North Koreans are quickly moving towards a capability to hit the United States with long-range missiles and will in a few years have the ability to mount nuclear weapons on those missiles. As I write this the North Koreans have the capability to reach approximately 300,000 Americans in South Korea, Japan and on bases in the Pacific area. The ruthless North Korean dictator Kim Jon Un is not suicidal or crazy as some have described him. He is, however, isolated, unskilled in foreign affairs and threatened. Reportedly, he refers to the fate of Saddam Hussein repeatedly (hanged, you may remember) and vows not to go down without a fight. The key question is whether or not he will respond to a perceived provocation or start one of his own. It is an extremely dangerous situation that can lead to miscalculations on both sides of the border.
One key element of deterrence is that the people you want to deter from an act must know what is that they are not supposed to do and understand the consequences of doing it anyway. One’s intentions need to be clear, and the punishment beyond the pale in terms of an actor’s cost-benefit calculations. A corollary is to never threaten something that you are not ready or willing to do. This is why it is troubling that President Trump said in a recent interview that, “Well, if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will. That is all I am telling you.” When asked if he thought the U.S. could solve the North Korean problem, and if so, how, he added, “I don’t have to say any more. Totally.”
I agree with Secretary Tillerson, speaking for the Trump administration, that the last 20 years of U.S. efforts to bring North Korea under control have failed. I agree that all options must remain on the table. I also agree that China is the key to solving the problem. However, it is not possible to solve the problem without China, and for the president to suggest that it can be done without Chinese involvement is a statement without knowledge behind it or a bluff, both dangerous in the current situation.
Further confusing the issue is Secretary Tillerson’s statement today, following yet another North Korean missile test. He said, in a twenty-three word statement,
North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile. The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.
No one knows what that means. Of course one could take it at face value, but it is, shall we say, exceedingly rare for the Secretary of State of the United States of America to refuse to comment on a situation that directly threatens the well-being of the nation and its friends and allies.
In total, it is all very strange.
President Trump meets with Chinese leader Xi Jinping starting tomorrow at Mar-a-Lago (and once again charging the American taxpayer for the use of his own resort — yet another topic of discussion in this space in the future). North Korea will be a major topic of discussion, to be sure. Unclear, however, is the path the negotiations will follow. In the interview in the Financial Times referenced above, President Trump indicated that “trade deals” will lead to further cooperation on North Korea. How that will play out is hazy. Chinese concerns over North Korea are tempered by the fact that they do not want to be left holding the bag economically should North Korea collapse, and they most definitely do not want U.S. troops on their border should war break out and the Americans sweep through North Korea. There are many problems to be solved on both sides of the negotiating table.
These are matters of great concern to the world, but with a direct impact on our own well-being. They will take a delicate and knowledgeable effort to resolve and probably cannot be accomplished in one meeting. We will soon learn whether or not President Trump is up for the task at hand. To me, the signs are that he is not.
These are troubling times, with seemingly a crisis a day of the administration’s own creation. And yet, the Trump Administration has not been tested in the crucible of national security. In the coming days and weeks, we will see whether or not our president has “the right stuff.”
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.
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.
I recently returned from a vacation tour through Europe. We were fortunate enough to travel from Budapest, Hungary to Amsterdam, Netherlands and had a great time. It was interesting on many levels — history, culture, fellow travelers, all of it. As always when traveling overseas, of course, it also reminded me of how lucky I am to live in the United States. For all of our troubles and differences of opinions, at least in my lifetime, we have been incredibly fortunate.
This was brought home in one way by the opportunity to visit cities and towns throughout central Europe that were occupied by the Soviets, Nazis, or both. As I am always reminded, it is one thing to learn history from a book, and quite another to talk to people who lived through the experiences. To these people, it is still a living history. In the former communist states of Hungary and Slovakia, the rebuilding from World War II is nearly complete. Construction was delayed for decades because of the Soviet occupation and the reluctance or lack of caring (or both) to put any thought or effort into rebuilding locally important buildings. While the Soviets (and local regimes) obviously built structures during the period leading up to 1989, they did so without regard to historic local norms, desires or long-standing culture. And, not to put too fine of a point on it, but what they did build is down right ugly.
In Austria and Germany the scars of World War II remain. Perhaps not so much with respect to rebuilding cities, but with their history. Indeed, we were told that the now famous museum in Nuremberg retelling the story of Hitler’s rise and rule — used to educate German youth of the horrors of that period — was not built until 2002. According to our guide, it could not have been built any earlier because no one wanted to confront that chapter of German history. Only the younger generation could face the facts. Many of the medieval cities along the Main and Rhine Rivers had to be rebuilt as they were mostly 90% or more destroyed by Allied bombing. For the locals this was just a fact — not something raised in acrimony — although they often pointed out that there was no tactical or operational reason for the bombing. There was only the strategic goal of breaking the will of the people through sheer helplessness. We have not experienced anything like that since the 1860’s.
Likewise, it was with helplessness that many in these countries watched the flow of thousands upon thousands of people from the Middle East into Europe. We have seen the reports on the news here in the U.S., but again, in Europe they are living the reality of the situation. It is a tragedy seemingly without a solution. Hundreds, if not thousands, have died making the attempt to get to safety, primarily by sea to Greece where they then try to move on to wealthier nations. The European Union is grappling with how to deal with the situation. Provide humanitarian assistance and it probably entices more people to make the dangerous run. Do nothing to help them and thousands of people suffer and die.
From a distance, the most interesting discussion involved what to call these people. Perhaps that discussion is relevant to our own political debates in the run-up to the 2016 elections. The question was whether they were “migrants,” “refugees” “asylum seekers” or “immigrants.” The question is more than one of semantics as under international law and under the standards of humanitarian treatment, how they are categorized makes a difference in how nations should, and will, deal with them. To those making the dangerous trek however, it may matter little. It is a problem that is only going to continue to grow as the civil war in Syria continues, and ISIS and other groups operate in the Middle East. Without solving that root problem, the mass migration, the largest since World War II according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will continue.
In 1980’s I had two experiences with people fleeing what must have been intolerable conditions. I still think about them to this day. They were on a smaller scale than those going on today in Europe, but in some ways are even more unbelievable. Today’s refugees leaving the Middle East for Europe take boats across the Mediterranean Sea headed for Europe. It is very dangerous and they are horribly mistreated by smugglers profiting from the endeavor. But they have a destination in mind and a relatively short trip. In the early 80’s refugees were leaving Viet Nam in small boats heading out to sea. No destination, per se — they were just hoping that a passing freighter (or their greatest hope, a U.S. Navy ship) would spot them and pick them up. Some made it, some did not. There is no real way of knowing because those that didn’t make it were lost at sea without a trace. Those that got picked up ended up all over the Pacific because most ships would continue to their destinations before off-loading those they had picked up. On two different USN ships I was part of the ship’s company that picked up some of these refugees. We were not on any mission to do so, it was purely luck or providence that we spotted them adrift at sea as we proceeded through the area. Of the several occasions, it was nearly always the same. We would spot a rickety non-sea worthy vessel of about 50 feet adrift with upwards of 75 or 80 people on board. Usually those on board consisted of a couple of extended families (babies to grand parents) from the same geographic area. They were out of fuel and food and nearly out of water. They had nothing but the clothes on their back as in each case pirates intercepted the boats before we did and took everything of value from the people — including pulling teeth with silver or gold fillings. There were rarely young women on board as the pirates took them too.
Unbelievable. To this day I ask myself how bad things would have to be to put my entire extended family in a non-sea worthy boat and push out to sea with no destination and only a vague hope that a friendly ship would stop and help us. And the odds were that no one would see us. I cannot imagine risking the lives of my entire family in such a way. I still think about it.
(As a footnote, I later served on ships where some of the new crew members reporting aboard were babies or small children on those boats rescued at sea in the early 80’s by U.S. Navy ships. Only in America.)
In the late 1980’s my ship was operating in the Caribbean Sea on a mission unrelated to the migration then taking place from Haiti. The U.S. Coast Guard was actively involved in rescuing those migrants, also in flimsy boats, from the sea. They would take the refugees to the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba where they would be processed by Immigration and State Department personnel and then generally returned to Haiti. Pure chaos. Again what came through was the overwhelming desperation of the people. While we were not directly involved in that operation, we were certainly able to observe at close hand how difficult it was to effect the rescues on a mass scale and then to humanely treat the people once they reached shore while still trying to maintain some degree of orderliness and safety. It is an extremely difficult task.
I can only imagine what is going on at sea and ashore in Europe as the numbers of people flowing into Europe dwarf anything that I participated in or observed. A very tough situation.
We are so lucky in so many ways. As partisan divides emerge, I trust that all of us will realize how lucky we are compared to so many in this world — past and present.
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.