This week the president vowed that he would remove U.S. troops from Syria in the near future. Here is part of what he said at an impromptu news conference at the White House on Tuesday:
“I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home. So, it’s time. It’s time. We were very successful against ISIS. But sometimes it’s time to come back home, and we’re thinking about that very seriously, okay?”
Nearly simultaneously, also in Washington, General Joseph L. Votel, Commander of the U.S. Central Command who is the senior officer responsible for our troops in the Middle East said when talking about our troop deployments in the Middle East:
“A lot of very good military progress has been made over the last couple of years, but the hard part, I think, is in front of us.”
Putting aside Mr. Trump’s inability, or stubborn refusal to understand complex issues, war in the 21st century, and especially in places like Syria and Afghanistan, runs counter to our preconceived notions of what “winning” should be about. Mr. Trump seems to think that all that is necessary is to “bomb the hell out of them” and then come home. Seventeen years of continuous combat has provided many lessons learned to our current military leadership and to our Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who himself lead the first ground combat troops into Afghanistan while he was an active duty Marine general.
One important criteria for deciding who is winning and who is losing is finding the correct Measures of Effectiveness (MOE). One may think they are winning while actually losing. The classic example can be found with the Battle of the Atlantic during World War II. The German MOE was tons of Allied merchant ships sunk by their submarines. It was the wrong measure. The Allies were building merchant ships at a rate faster than the Germans could sink them, and at the same time, were sinking German submarines (and even more importantly, killing trained and experienced crews) faster than the Germans could build them. The Germans were losing, even as their MOE showed them winning.
Current reports indicate that our military is using over 90 MOEs in assessing our wars in Syria and Afghanistan. But even they reportedly admit that they are not sure that they are necessarily measuring the right things. One thing we know, counting the numbers of killed or wounded adversaries means very little if new recruits, fighting a low-tech war, continue to flow into the battles.
The other adage learned over and over is that the loser gets to decide when the war is over. As Ryan Crocker former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan said, “As we learned so painfully in Iraq, defeat has meaning only in the eyes of the defeated.” We can bomb the hell out of them all we want, but short of a Dresden-like annihilation of every living thing, as long as the other side keeps fighting, the war is not over. This is another of the hard lessons learned in Viet Nam and again in Afghanistan. The Taliban have not quit, therefore we have been there for seventeen long years despite our overwhelming military capability.
In that vein, ISIS still has strongholds in eastern Syria along the border with Iraq. In this case, our adversary is like a cancer — if they are not totally excised and destroyed they will spread out again. All of the pain in administering a cure will have been for naught. ISIS is showing signs of renewed strength in their last strongholds in eastern Syria. Our comrades in arms in Syria are mostly Kurdish forces. Kurdish officials warn that it could take “years and years” to finish off ISIS.
Senior U.S. government national security and military officials understand this fact. They also understand the larger geo-political issues at stake in the Middle East and South Asia and that a precipitous withdrawal of our forces would do long-term damage to our national interests. The issues are complicated and varied. Among other things, our credibility in supporting our friends and allies would be compromised. As a senior Kurdish official is quoted as saying, if the U.S. leaves now (or even in a few months) “it would be a disaster, and even ordinary people in the street will consider it a betrayal.” That has strategic implications. Or as another Kurdish leader put it, “after fighting for four years, there is a kind of trust between the Kurdish nation and the American nation. If the Americans abandon the Kurds, it means they are never going to find any friends in the Middle East.”
That the military viewpoint is at odds with the president may have caused the ouster of National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster. General McMaster continually told the president that we cannot just pull up stakes and leave Syria and Afghanistan, or anywhere else, without first creating the conditions that allow us to withdraw. If we just walk away, the problems will pop up again.
Of course, we want all of our military women and men to come home. But if we are truly a world power, certain obligations and responsibilities accrue in support of our friends and allies. Putting America first does not, or at least should not, mean abandoning a world order that has mostly kept the United States safe and prosperous and the world moving forward. We can lead or get out of the way. It is not in our long-term interest to abandon our leadership role in the world.
In the last forty-eight hours the White House has softened the president’s earlier statements. The new announcement says that the U.S. will stay in Syria until ISIS is defeated and that we will then “transition” to local forces over time. No time frame was enumerated, but reporting indicates that the president wants to bring home the troops from Syria in about six months or so. Contrast that to the statements above by those that are actually doing the fighting that it will take years and years.
Syria is a particularly knotty problem. Over the last few years, there have been arguments both pro and con for U.S. involvement in the country. The effort to push ISIS out of Iraq necessarily meant that we had to continue to chase them into Syria in order to prevent that nation from becoming a refuge for them. Borders in the desert are very fluid. It was necessary to hunt them down and eliminate all sources of support to their regime. We made good progress in doing that, but the job is not finished. So we are in Syria. What does that mean?
In Syria, you can’t tell the players without a score card. The players include the Syrian regime under Bashar al-Assad, Russians, Israelis, Iranians, Hezbollah, Turks, Kurds, Syrian rebels, ISIS, the U.S. and factions within factions of several of those groups with religious overtones to it all.
It is important to remember that the conflict in Syria started with peaceful protests that were broken up by Syrian troops firing into crowds which then evolved into a civil war. ISIS took advantage of the turmoil as Bashar lost control of much of Syria’s territory. Other nations took sides in the civil war and supported proxy troops or committed their own combat forces to support one faction or another.
The situation on the ground and in the air has the wherewithal to mutate into a regional conflict. All of which has nothing to do with whether or not ISIS is “done.” Half a dozen nations have combat aircraft in a very small area. The U.S., Russia, Turkey, and Iran all have their own troops on the ground often supporting different factions that oppose each other in the war. In a single week in early February, Israel, Russia, Turkey and Iran lost aircraft to hostile fire.
And oh by the way, did you know that Russian “contractors” (Mercenaries? Little green men from Crimea?) attacked a U.S. base at Deir Ezzor in Syria in mid-February? What? You didn’t hear about that? Could it be because neither the U.S. or Russian leaders wanted to talk about it? It was no “accident.” Russia and US forces have a hot line to de-conflict combat forces and missions. According to the on-scene battle field commander, the U.S. notified the Russians that they were attacking a U.S. base. The attack continued. U.S. air strikes turned back the assault with an estimate of over 200 Russians killed. Many analysts surmise that this attack, that could only have been approved on a national level, was Vladimir Putin’s attempt to see just how committed the U.S. was to our involvement in Syria.
To further complicate matters, Turkey, our NATO ally, is attacking the Kurds — our primary ally in the battle against ISIS. Those Kurdish forces were drawn away from the fight against ISIS last month when the Turks attacked a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria and the fighters returned home to protect their families. The Kurds are fighting for an autonomous region in their traditional homeland which is an anathema to Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq, all of which actively oppose any independent Kurdish state or de facto state.
And Syrian civilians continue to suffer from barrel bombs, enforced starvation, and other crimes against humanity.
Mr. Trump wants “rich” middle eastern countries to take over the U.S. commitment, but what does that mean? Troops? Not going to happen. Money? Perhaps, to help rebuild cities or to get industries up and running such as oil refineries or other areas where money is needed. Where does the technical know how come from? Regardless, nothing can happen until stability returns to the region and the population.
The president wants “other nations” to take over. The last time I looked, they are doing so. Talks began earlier this month among Iran, Turkey, and Russia. Conspicuously absent was the U.S. We were not invited to the talks. No seat at the table means we will have no say in the future of Syria. That is dangerous to our long-term interests in the Middle East and our ally Israel.
After the first round of talks, those three countries expressed their support to Bashar and his regime. A long stated goal of the U.S. was to remove him. The statement went on to say that they support “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria as well as the national security of the neighboring countries.” This is easily translated to mean that Bashar will stay, his regime will stay, and in playground terms it means they expect the U.S. to butt out.
In case we missed their point, the leaders of Iran, Turkey and Russia declared that the areas controlled by the U.S. and the Kurds, the second largest swath of territory in Syria behind that controlled by the regime, cannot be used to create “new realities on the ground under the pretext of combating terrorism.”
Furthermore, Turkish president Recep Ergogan threatened to attack U.S. troops supporting the Kurds. And they are a NATO ally.
It is clear that the problem in Syria, and elsewhere, is not a lack of firepower. The problems are political and stem from the ability — or in this case the inability — of the government to govern. When all is said and done, the twenty-first century may need a new definition for “winning.” As we are quickly learning, it is not entirely clear what that definition might be. Developing a political solution that leads to a stable governing entity would be part of it. Unfortunately, we cannot be a part of developing that solution if we pull up stakes and go home.
There are good and bad reasons to continue to stay in Syria or Afghanistan. We have already learned in this century that ungoverned territories, with no central governing authority, creates the conditions that allow terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS and others to grow. We know that these groups threaten the rule of law and a normal world order.
In order to protect our shores in this environment, we need to think in new ways about our nation’s wars. Nobody wants American lives wasted in far off lands that most of us could not have located on a map in the last century. At the same time we need some strategic thinking about what the long-term impact of our actions will be. There are many experienced and bright people in the Pentagon and elsewhere that are working through these issues. The answers are difficult and sometimes come at the cost of blood and treasure. They are not fail proof. There can be several “right” answers to the problems we face and reasonable people can reasonably disagree as to which ones to pursue.
There is also a “wrong” answer. That answer is to arbitrarily make decisions for the sole purpose of demonstrating that people have to do whatever one man says just because he says it. It is especially wrong when that man does not understand the implications of his decisions, and apparently, thinks no further ahead about the issue than whether it can fit into a tweet or not.
War is nasty and complicated. We are facing new challenges in real time. Critical thinking and new ways of defining our goals and missions is needed. Syria is only one of many such dilemmas we will face in the coming years.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Parkland, Florida.
Seventeen dead. Fourteen Injured.
18 incidents with guns at schools this year.
Approximately 150,000 children were exposed to a school shooting since Columbine High School in April 1999.
We are killing our children.
We are the only industrialized nation in the world with such a level of violence.
(Graph from everytownresearch.org)
From 2012 to 2016, an average of 35,141 Americans died from guns each year. That’s 96 a day.
Over eighteen years, from 1956 to 1974, a total of 58,131 Americans died from hostile and non-hostile actions in the Viet Nam War.
Gun safety is not un-American or against the Second Amendment.
Our elected officials need to grow a spine.
As a nation, we should be ashamed of ourselves.
So horribly sad. So meaningless. So disgraceful.
A single failed 2001 shoe bombing attempt on an airliner bound for Detroit.
— We all now take our shoes off before boarding any airliner.
A single failed 2009 underwear bombing attempt on an airliner bound for Detroit.
— We all now have to go through full body scanners before boarding any airliner.
A plot to turn a lap top into a bomb was foiled.
— Laptops were banned on many airline flights.
A legal immigrant kills 8 and injures 12 in New York City.
— Close the borders to immigrants. “Extreme vetting.”
A single terrorist shooter kills 59 and wounds 241 people in Las Vegas.
A single terrorist shooter kills 26 and wounds 20 in Sutherland Springs Texas.
— “It’s not a gun situation.”
378 mass shooting incidents (defined as four or more people shot) in 2017 alone.
“Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”
In February 2017 the president signed a decree scrapping the regulation aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of severely mentally ill individuals.
Gun homicide rates in the U.S. are 25 times higher than any other high income nation.
Guns kill approximately 1300 children in the U.S. each year.
The Congress refused to pass legislation preventing individuals on the terrorist no fly list from buying guns.
It is not anti-gun to be for gun safety. As the greatest nation on earth we should be able to figure out how to keep our Second Amendment right without giving up our right not to be randomly shot by a disgruntled idiot. It is a national disgrace. It most definitely is not “the cost of freedom.”
I don’t want to hear anymore “thoughtsandprayers.”
The last few days have been deeply troubling. I fear that I will be saying that over and over and over for the next three and a half years. Every time it seems that our president cannot do anything more outrageous, he does it. There is no low bar. Every time I think he’s gone about as far as he can go, he goes further. Yesterday takes the cake. So far. I can never say he won’t go lower.
I do not need to go into detail about President Trump’s impromptu press conference from the gilded lobby of Trump Tower. You have undoubtedly heard all about it already. And if you haven’t, all you need to know about his support of Nazis and Klansmen, not to mention how he butchered our history by putting Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson on an equal basis with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, is the following Tweet at 4:45PM, immediately following the president’s remarks yesterday, from former KKK leader David Duke:
Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa.
So now what? Well, lots of politicians and business executives separated themselves from President Trump’s moral equivalency of putting the KKK, Nazis, Anti-Semites and other white supremacy groups on the same level as those that oppose them. Unfortunately most did not separate themselves from the president himself — just his remarks. Look carefully and you will see that very few actually condemned the president. A real failure of moral courage.
As Civil Rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer said in a speech to the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” For two years we have listened to Mr. Trump disparage group after group after group, from women to Mexican Americans. The events of the last few days are just one more data point in a long list of unacceptable statements and actions of the same vein. He is the same guy, we shouldn’t be surprised. So, when is he going to be held accountable by an equal branch of government — the Congress? When are Cabinet members and White House Staffers going to leave? Any ideas that Mr. Trump will change are pure fantasy. In a piece published this afternoon, conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote out five concrete steps that Republicans must take to regain the moral high ground, restore the good name of the Republican Party and put Mr. Trump in a box to limit any future damage to our country. It is worth a look.
Unfortunately, it is extremely unlikely that the Republican leaders in Congress will do anything substantive to rein in Mr. Trump. They are focused on achieving their “agenda” which apparently does not include taking action to counter the rise of the vilest elements of our society. Thus the rats know that they can come out into the light now because no one is trying to push them back into their holes.
Looking at this from another angle, I am deeply disturbed not only by the president’s defense of racists bent on destruction (“both sides” did not commit a terrorist act, which I am not afraid to say even though Mr. Trump said it was “legal semantics”). I am ever more disturbed by his actions, of which yesterday’s impromptu press conference was just one more in a long line of troubling actions by the president.
This is what I mean. Yesterday’s press event was supposed to be an announcement concerning infrastructure plans. The president was to sign an Executive Order and turn the event over to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao (spouse of Senator Mitch McConnell by the way) and depart — no questions from the press. It was planned. The Chief of Staff John Kelly, the Secretary and other cabinet level individuals were in place, briefed and all knew the plan. The president knew the plan and said he would stick to the “script.” He lied to all of them. The evidence? He had a copy of his speech from Saturday in his pocket which he pulled out. It wasn’t left over from Saturday — he purposefully pulled it from his pocket to start his tirade about the events in Charlottesville. He knew before he came down that would happen but did not bother to tell any of the other participants. One look at the photos and videos of the Chief of Staff show his dismay and dare I say horror at what was happening.
And that is my point.
Mr. Trump just had to prove — had to — that no one can control him and that he can do whatever the heck he wants to do. Period. He gave an inappropriate speech on Saturday following the disturbing events in Charlottesville. He doubled down through a nameless staffer on Sunday. On Monday cooler heads got to him and he read a prepared speech, without any emotion or sense that he believed what he was saying, but he did it and it helped. And then, and then, he could not control himself and the real Donald J. Trump came through. A petulant, whiny individual who always, always, always has to have the last word. He will not be controlled, he cannot be controlled.
You need further evidence? Look at his remarks on North Korea and Venezuela. Yes, Venezuela. He threatened military action against Venezuela because he could. And thereby undermined ongoing diplomatic efforts with our Latin American neighbors trying to bring pressure on that regime. And undermined Vice President Mike Pence who was on a diplomatic mission in Latin America.
He does things just to show that he can. Because he wants to. It is always, always, always only about him. That is even more frightening than what appears to be in his heart. Whether or not Donald J. Trump is a racist is something I can never know. But his words and actions indicate that if he is not, he is at least clueless about the mission and intent of the white supremacists who see him as “their man” and see him as helping their cause.
Where are our moral leaders at the national level? Thank goodness many mayors and governors around the country and of both political parties stood up and took action. Shoot, even the members of the service leaders on the Joint Chiefs of Staff put out statements today condemning the events in Charlottesville and the racist nature of those acts. They were clear and unambiguous. They did not mention Mr. Trump directly, but it is very clear when you read them that they are reacting to the president’s remarks from yesterday.
When will Congress find its moral footing?
It was a sad day for our country in Charlottesville Virginia yesterday when white supremacists, including self-avowed Ku Klux Klansmen, Neo-Nazis, Anti-Semites and others demonstrated, resulting in the loss of three lives — one woman killed in a white supremacist terror attack and two Virginia State Police Troopers helping to protect the citizens of Charlottesville died when their helicopter crashed.
I could hardly believe that this was happening in our country. Not so much that such people exist — it is a sad but true fact that they do — but that so many of them came from around the country to impose their twisted vision of America on the good citizens of Charlottesville.
More unbelievable, and vastly more disappointing and troublesome to me, our president refused to denounce the white supremacists and refused to call it an act of terror when a car deliberately plowed into a crowd of peaceful protesters denouncing the white supremacists .
I just happened to see the president’s remarks live, as they happened. Many of you probably saw them replayed on various news stations. The clip most played is the president saying:
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides.”
Watching it closely, and paying attention to the body language, it was clear to me that President Trump was ad libbing the “many sides” phrase. Which he repeated with his characteristic hand gestures usually utilized in conjunction with “believe me.” What is not shown, and astounded me in the moment, was during his prepared remarks, he deviated from the script several times, including a long riff in the middle of his remarks about the unfolding tragedy in Charlottesville to assure us, as a nation, that he was doing a great job.
“Our country is doing very well in so many ways. We have record — just absolute record employment. We have unemployment, the lowest it’s been in almost 17 years. We have companies pouring into our country. Foxconn and car companies, and so many others, they’re coming back to our country. We’re renegotiating trade deals to make them great for our country and great for the American worker. We have so many incredible things happening in our country. So when I watch Charlottesville, to me it’s very, very sad.”
It always has to be about him.
Not only did he fail his course on Presidency 101 and what to say and do when faced with a tragic event, he totally failed in calling out the white supremacists and in making clear that there was no place for them in our United States. On “many sides” indeed. He doesn’t have the guts to call out Nazis? The KKK? He has the guts to call out the immigrant parents of a United States Army officer killed in action defending our country but not these yahoos? What the heck? My father and father-in-law were World War II veterans, what did they fight for if professed Nazis can carry swastikas in the streets and the president refuses to call them out?
The only answer I can come up with is that he doesn’t want to upset his “base.” One would hope that he doesn’t want white supremacists in his base, but apparently that isn’t the case. Am I hyperventilating? Perhaps. But I am not making this up from thin air. Look at the comments from the former Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke on the eve of the demonstration.
“This represents a turning point for the people of this country. We are determined to take our country back. We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in, that’s why we voted for Donald Trump. Because he said he’s going to take our country back. That’s what we gotta do.”
Was that a one-off? Let’s take another sample from a white supremacist who said the following after the president’s remarks.
“Trump’s comments were good. He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us. He said that we need to study why people are so angry, and implied that there was hate… on both sides! So he implied the antifa [I looked this up — it is short for antifascists] are haters.”
“There was virtually no counter-signaling of us at all. He said he loves us all. Also refused to answer a question about white nationalists supporting him. No condemnation at all. When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him.”
You get the picture. That’s why words matter and especially from the president. He knows that and if he doesn’t then his staff sorely let him down. But having watched his remarks live, he appeared to deviate from his prepared remarks on several occasions so as not to be specific about the groups behind the hate. I guess he just cannot bring himself to separate from his so called supporters.
As I write, the White House staff is in full damage control mode saying essentially that of course the president denounces all hate groups. Why would they go into damage control mode if the president’s remarks were not in fact totally inadequate? Because he didn’t and he hasn’t actually rebuked these far right-wing extremists and terrorists. How hard is it to say that driving a car into a peaceful crowd to purposely maim and kill is an act of terrorism? He certainly is not shy. Except in these cases. Where is Mr. I’m-not-politically-correct?
Thankfully politicians of every stripe from Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex) to former Vice President Joe Biden came out in full-throated condemnation of the white supremacists and also chastised the president for his missed hand slap to the violent white supremacists. There is hope that all of us will stand up for what we believe actually makes America great and not let this behavior continue unchallenged. And we should voice our opinions to President Trump to let him know how badly he let us all down, both as president and as a person.
Clearly these far right-wing nuts think that the president is on their side. With so called alt-right (a nice name for white supremacists) supporters on his personal staff in the White House — Mr. Steve Bannon and alleged doctor Sebastian Gorka to name two — they have good reason to think so. The only way that he can disabuse them of that notion is to clearly, forcefully and unambiguously tell them to climb back into their holes and that he refuses their support in any way, shape, or form. Otherwise, he is not the president of the United States that I know and love.
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.
United States policy for many past presidential administrations firmly states that a nuclear armed North Korea is unacceptable to our national security interests and is a threat to peace around the world. This stance continues with the current administration. Unfortunately, despite sanctions and diplomatic isolation, North Korea already tested five nuclear weapons between 2006 and 2016. Some intelligence reports, as widely cited in the media, indicate that there may soon be another such test. Meanwhile, the North Koreans continue to test ballistic missiles, ever-increasing their sophistication and range.
The threat of a nuclear armed North Korea becomes real when they reach the capability to mount a nuclear weapon on top of a long-range missile. Experts differ on that estimate. Some say it is “years” away and some say it could come as soon as 2018. No one knows for sure, but they do know that the pace of the Korean progress towards that goal is steadily increasing.
When that day arrives, a clear and present danger will exist for the United States and for our friends and allies in the Pacific area. Thus the question: How to implement our stated policy of preventing that danger from becoming real? There is no easy answer.
The Trump Administration, like those before it, states that “all options” are on the table. The implied but not so subtle threat is one of military action. To take such action is not so simple as it may seem to some. In practical terms, North Korean nuclear sites are underground and the intelligence community is not positive that it knows where all of those sites are located. Reaching a hardened underground site with a conventional missile or bomb is difficult, if not impossible. It is possible to destroy such a site with our own nuclear weapons, assuming we have it correctly located, but despite the facile way some people talk about nuclear weapons, no credible official thinks that taking a first strike with nuclear weapons is part of the solution at this point. A bomb without a delivery system is not able to reach the target. To stop the threat, eliminate the delivery system.
However, further complicating the issue is that part of the North’s missile development includes mobile Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) that makes targeting the delivery system before launch that much more difficult. They have also tested submarine launched ballistic missiles, which are even harder to locate without sufficient warning and planning. So while the military option is and should be on the table, the practical aspects of eliminating the threat without a major conflict are daunting.
The ace in the hole held by North Korea is the fact that Seoul, the capital with a population in the city and suburbs of nearly 24 million, is only about 40 miles from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The North amassed and maintains large numbers of artillery, rocket, and ballistic missiles along the DMZ, many with a range capable of reaching Seoul. This is a huge deterrent to unilateral U.S. or allied strikes. Additionally, North Korea already has operational ballistic missiles that can reach Japan, the Philippines, Guam and other locations with U.S. military bases and U.S ex-pats. There are other threats as well, but you get the picture.
The Korean War began in 1950, and technically never ended, although an Armistice was reached in 1953. The war resulted in approximately 2.7 million Korean deaths, with an additional 800,000 Chinese and 33,000 American dead. Since then Civil Defense capabilities in the South have vastly improved and the citizens practice taking shelter. Also new are the preemption plans of the United States and South Korean military that in the early stages of conflict would seek to take out the North’s ability to wreak wide-spread damage in the South. However, despite these plans and practices, the devastation of extended combat would be real and with a lasting impact.
The key to a non-military solution in North Korea is China. President Trump tried to impart to Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visit to the U.S. in April the importance we place on this issue and the need for Chinese influence to reign in the North Koreans. Presumably President Xi took the information on board, but China has their own interests on the peninsula. First and foremost, they do not want a united Korea, especially one allied with the United States. Secondly, they are unwilling to deal with the economic fallout of a massive refugee and humanitarian crisis on their border should the regime of Kim Jong-un fall. Kim is the ruthless Chairman of the Worker’s Party of Korea and Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or as we call it, North Korea.
Most of us know of the ruthless leadership of Leader Kim, including having his uncle and half-brother killed. He does not appear to be “crazy” as some would have it, but he is isolated, inexperienced, and convinced of his infallibility. For a minute, take a look at the world from his point of view. Assume that he is committed to his personal and the regime’s survival. Assume also that he believes his own propaganda and that the world really is out to get him. Here is what he sees.
Kim knows well of the fate of two previous strongmen, Muammar Mohammed Abu Minyar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. Both had programs to develop Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). Both were pressured by world leaders, diplomatically and militarily, to give up their WMD programs. We now know that both actually did give them up. One ended up sexually violated and killed in the desert and the other was hung. Kim Jong-un is not about to fall prey, as he sees it, to the same trick. He will not willingly give up his nuclear and missile programs just because the U.S. threatens him or China cajoles him. Economic sanctions seem to hurt only the North Korean population, Kim and his cronies are immune from the deprivations that seriously impact his citizens. Rebellion from within is nearly impossible given the total control over the population wielded by the state and the total immersion into a way of life and a propaganda machine that influences the average citizens from the day that they are born.
During the Cold War, the superpowers possessed nuclear weapons and competed for influence and territory for many decades without nuclear war becoming a reality. There were many reasons for our survival despite some serious crises such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the lesser known 1973 Arab-Israeli War when the U.S. military world-wide went to DEFCON III (Defense Condition 3), the two closest instances of direct conflict between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. Foremost among these reasons is the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (aptly known as MAD) where the chance of total and equal destruction deterred each side from using their nuclear weapons. (Although in fact, most nuclear war plans did not contemplate an all or nothing use of nuclear weapons. There were (are?) war fighting plans using nuclear weapons in limited strikes that may or may not escalate based on the war aims. It also has to do with hitting counter-value or counter-force targets — in over simplified words, hitting cities or military forces. But I digress, although it useful to remember this concept of counter-value versus counter-force targeting in thinking about North Korea.)
It is unlikely that North Korea can be deterred from using its nuclear force based merely on the concept of MAD. Kim does not want to die, he wants to survive, but he will not go down without a fight. If his survival is threatened in a way he finds credible, he may go down swinging.
Diplomatically, it is difficult to know what will bring the North to the table with a credible negotiating team willing to provide a solution to inhibiting or eliminating their nuclear program. On-site inspections and verification must be part of any solution, but Kim has signaled he will never allow them to occur. Past U.S. administrations have entered into negotiations with them only to find them unserious and uninterested in a real solution. They were only interested in finding out how much they could get from the West before opting out of any reciprocal actions.
There may be some value in taking a similar approach to the one that the world took with Iran. While President Obama is often and furiously “blamed” for “caving” to the Iranians, a few things need to be remembered about the agreement. First, it was not a bilateral U.S.-Iran agreement. It was a multi-lateral agreement that includes, among others, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, the European Union, China and Russia. Second, it in fact did stop Iranian development of nuclear weapons, at least in the short run. The idea is that eventually Iran will benefit sufficiently economically without a nuclear weapons program that they will forgo it rather than suffer more sanctions in the future. Third, it did open the country to outside inspectors. No deal is credible without continued verification. The deal was a result of focused sanctions that hurt the Iranians where it counted.
Using this model may or may not be possible, but it could be a starting point for a meaningful international diplomatic effort to resolve the Kim issue. However, thus far other world leaders have been content to allow the U.S. and China to solve this problem as they are less threatened by the DPRK. China is the key to any solution, but particularly one involving meaningful sanctions. To be meaningful, they must hit Kim and his fellow oligarchs where it hurts — in their pocket books and life styles. So far there is no evidence that current sanctions are having any impact on the leadership, only on the population. Thus China (and others) need to meaningfully and consistently enforce economic sanctions.
For other world leaders that do not seem too concerned, they should consider what may be the biggest threat from the North Korean nuclear program. Cash strapped and looking for a market, it is conceivable that the DPRK will (and maybe already has) export their knowledge and expertise to the highest bidder. This may and probably will in the future include terrorist organizations and rogue states. That alone should be enough to get most of the world on board with solving this problem.
Finally, and, as it should be, a last resort, there are a number of military options that may preclude full-scale war. Cyber attacks that cripple the nuclear infrastructure for example could be carried out. (Remember reports in 2010 that the “Stuxnet” virus crippled the Iranian nuclear centrifuges in what is thought to be a combined U.S.-Israeli operation.) Other clandestine operations are surely in the U.S. playbook.
Should conventional military force be required, a counter-force strike aimed at limiting the DPRK’s ability to do damage in South Korea could be followed by an offer to negotiate with Kim.
Another option is to specifically target Kim and the senior leadership in a decapitation strike that removes the DPRK leadership and thus limits their ability to retaliate. This seems to have the biggest chance of success. If a pre-emptive U.S. military strike could lead to a massive conflict on the peninsula and surrounding areas anyway, then go for the leadership first in the chance that the command and control abilities and the will to fight may be eliminated before the conflict spirals out of control.
While the DPRK is increasing its capabilities, so are the U.S and our regional allies. While we may not be able to locate and eliminate all of the nuclear sites and mobile launchers on the ground, using increasingly sophisticated Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) systems the U.S. can limit the impact of a strike by destroying the missiles in flight. Current systems include Ground Based Mid-Course Defense (GMD) based in California and Alaska which tested well against ICBM targets, the Navy’s Aegis destroyers and cruisers have proven adept at hitting ballistic missiles and the Army’s Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems have as well, depending on the threat and the environment. You may recall that the U.S. is presently deploying the THAAD system in South Korea, although in April President Trump inexplicably called on the Koreans to pay us one billion dollars for the system unless they terminate or renegotiate a bilateral trade agreement — “a horrible deal.” For now, the deployment continues.
It does not take a crystal ball to determine that the Trump Administration will face its toughest international challenge in North Korea. Whether in the coming months, as the DPRK accelerates its testing of missile and weapon systems, or in the coming years, one should expect action in one form or another in the near future. It will take a confident and realistic combination of diplomatic and economic measures from the international community coupled with unparalleled military readiness. What is certain is that the problem will not go away on its own.