Hossein Dehghan’s Concealed Hand in Iran’s Foreign and Defense Policy Efforts

According to a September 23, 2013, New York Times article entitled, “Netanyahu Is Said to View Iran Deal as a Possible Trap,” Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu intended to step up his effort to blunt a diplomatic offensive by Iran, and planned to warn the UN that a nuclear deal with Iran could be a trap similar to the one set by North Korea eight years ago.  The White House reportedly sought to allay the fears of Israeli officials, assuring them that US President Barack Obama will judge Iranian President Hassan Rouhani by his actions, not his words, and that the US is not planning to prematurely ease the economic sanctions against Iran that have hurt Iran’s economy.  However, Rouhani’s words and actions may not be the key ones for the Obama administration to watch in Iran.  Attention certainly must be given to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the source of Rouhani’s authority to act.  Khamenei’s decisions, often presented in public statements, determine the course of Iran’s foreign and defense policy.  Yet, the official, whose position and history of engaging in security activities of great consequence to Iran makes him certainly worthy of attention from the US and its Western partners, is Iran’s new Minister of Defense, Hossein Dehghan.

Although Rouhani served as Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Dehghan, until his confirmation as defense minister, he served as Secretary of the Political, Defense, and Security Committee of Iran’s Expediency Council.  The  Expediency Council is an advisory body that is appointed by, and serves, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  The prominent religious, social, and political figures on that council have supervisory powers over all branches of government.  The Expediency Council is often called the “voice” of the Iranian Revolution.  Given the power and prominence the Council’s members have in Iran’s government, it seemed a rather peculiar for an official to leave such a venerable post to accept a cabinet position.

Rouhani has expressed the desire to engage in a dialogue with the US and its Western partners, hoping to tackle issues that have led to Iran’s international isolation and economic pressure, and especially reach a compromise on the nuclear issue. To some degree, it has already been initiated with US through an exchange of messages between Obama and Rouhani.  Washington and Western capitals have been eager to accept the opportunity to revolve the nuclear issue might be at hand and an acceptable entreaty could be drawn.  Yet, Rouhani’s role may only be one part of larger plan being implemented by Iran.  Much as US and other Western analysts have suspected, Iran’s leaders may very likely have decided that while Rouhani is heroically negotiating with the US and its Western partners or even after he might reach an understanding with them on the nuclear issue, under the auspices of Dehghan and elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), away from Rouhani’s purview, they would secretly continue efforts on Iran’s nuclear energy program, until all goals of the nuclear program are reached.  It has been assessed by the same analysts that Iran is already close to breakout capacity when it will be able to finish a device in a matter of weeks, without technically testing or possessing a bomb. Turning back now, after getting so close may very likely be viewed by Iran’s leaders as counterproductive and counterintuitive.   If this is truly the case, rather than focus on Rouhani’s words and deeds, Dehghan, now in full control of the daily activities of Iran’s military forces, would be the one to watch as a better way to discern how Iran is actually proceeding on the nuclear issue.

Dehghan’s Reputation For Handling Iran’s Most Difficult Tasks

Dehghan was first discussed by greatcharlie.com in the August 23, 2013 post entitled, “Iran’s Parliament Grills, but Mostly Confirms, Rouhani’s Cabinet: Hossein Dehghan Faced No Battles.”  Dehghan joined the IRGC in 1979 and rose quickly through the ranks, becoming IRGC commander in Tehran and former acting IRGC commander of Isfahan.  He was sent to Lebanon after the Israeli invasion in 1982 to help establish a military-wing for Hezbollah.  By 1983, Dehghan was appointed commander of IRGC forces in Lebanon.  Allegedly, while in that command, Dehghan received instructions from Tehran to attack peacekeepers of the Multinational Force in Lebanon.  It is further alleged that Dehghan, after providing them with IRGC funding and operational training, directed Hezbollah operatives, along with their leader, Imad Mughniyah, the commander of Hezbollah’s military-wing, to engage in martyrdom operations against the US Marine Corps barracks and French paratrooper barracks in Beirut.  The operative detonated a truck bomb at the Marine barracks, destroying the building that housed them and tragically killing 341 and wounding several others, most of whom were asleep at the time.  In coordination with that attack, a truck bomb was used by another Hezbollah operative against the French paratroopers barracks, killing 58 soldiers.  Later Dehghan would become commander of District 1 of Sarallah and Sarallah Operations Headquarters, commander of the IRGC Air Force, commander of the IRGC Air Force, acting chairman of the joint headquarters of the IRGC, and general manager of the Cooperatives Foundation of the IRGC.  As an IRGC commander, Dehghan was a fearless, devout and dedicated to the Islamic Revolution and sworn to defend the Islamic Republic.  What he undoubtedly did best on the Expediency Council was to advise Khamenei on conventional and unconventional ways Iran could use its military as a means to accomplish its political goals in the face of US and Western opposition.  Dehghan’s descent to Rouhani’s cabinet, after serving as a committee secretary on the Expediency Council, did not occur because his skills as an administrator were sorely needed in the Defense Ministry.  Rather, Dehghan was most likely selected in order to take command of the day to day activities of Iran’s fighting forces and to manage projects of such importance to Iran’s security that only someone with his experience, capabilities, and reliability could be counted upon to direct.

“Heroic Flexibility” and Dehghan’s Likely Marching Orders on the Nuclear Issue

Dehghan, who spent his career in the IRGC,  is inextricably tied to that organization.  In one of the earliest photos of Dehghan while Defense Minister, he is appears in his IRGC uniform, sitting with other cabinet members in a meeting with Khamenei.  Dehghan has been a conspicuously quiet member of Rouhani’s cabinet, virtually absent in the media and rarely providing public statements or holding press conferences.  This is rather unusual particularly since he is responsible for Iran’s military forces.  In Iran, top commanders typically are highly visible, very often making very passionate declarations of their determination to defend Iran’s interests.  Such avowals by military officials are an accepted way to assure the Iranian people that the country can promote and protect its interests, and deter opponents from attacks against it.  During his confirmation process for defense minister, Dehghan explained to the Parliament that he wanted to engage in soft power enhancement, by means of increased visibility and promote the image of the armed forces.  Dehghan apparently did not mean to include himself in that effort.  The reticent Dehghan even has a lower profile than Major General Qassem Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s secretive, elite IRGC unit, the Quds Force.

Given his decades of devotion to the IRGC, there can be no doubt that precious little difference between Dehghan’s views and those espoused by the organization.  To that extent, Dehghan would most likely agree with an IRGC statement (translated into English in a September 22, 2013 article in Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News), which explained the IRGC “would support initiatives that were in line with national interests and strategies set forth by the theocratic leader and highest authority, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.”  According to this, Dehghan and the commanders of the 125,000 IRGC force who are hand-picked by Khamenei, will act only under the concept and intent proffered by Supreme Leader.

A key concept recently proclaimed by Khamenei on the conduct of Iran’s foreign and defense policy is “heroic flexibility.”  The phrase was coined by Khamenei, himself, when translating a book on Imam Hassan.  As is characteristic of Dehghan, but perhaps unusual for a Defense Minister, he has not offered his own interpretation of heroic flexibility and how it would guide his ministry’s activities.  Yet, as understood by his close compatriots in the IRGC, heroic flexibility allows for diplomacy with the US and its Western partners, but requires the protection of Iran’s right pursue and nuclear energy program.  In the words of the Deputy Commander of the IRGC, Brigadier General Hossein Salami, translated into English and published by Arash Karami on the blog, Iran Pulse, “heroic inflexibility is an exalted and invaluable concept fully within the goals of the Islamic Republic.”  He further explained the concept meant “in no way would Iran retreat from fundamental lines and national and vital interests and this right is something that without [sic] concessions can be exchanged.”  That essentially means that only on issues in which Iran had an interest but no rights, could Iranian concessions be negotiated.  He went on to state: “Our fundamental framework is permanent and it is inflexible and our ideal goals will never be reduced.”  Specifically on the nuclear issue, Salami explained: “For instance, the right to have peaceful nuclear energy according to the criteria that has been secured for us, and this right cannot be modified and there is no flexibility on it, however, within this framework a political flexibility as a tactic is acceptable because we do not want to create a dead end in solving the political issue.”  Therefore, for the IRGC on the nuclear issue, there is no possibility of Iranian concessions, however, given the possibility that the US and its Western partners, themselves, might be willing make concessions to reach a compromise, talks must take place to give them a chance to do so.

An appraisal to this using the IRGC’s interpretation of heroic flexibility may be that Iran needs to engage in a dual-track approach to resolve problems over the nuclear issue with the US and its Western partners. Under that approach, Rouhani and the Iranian Foreign Ministry would take the path of diplomacy to acquire concessions, while Dehghan and elements of the IRGC would take a path to accomplish the goals set for Iran’s nuclear energy program.  Placing the development of Iran’s nuclear energy program in Dehghan’s purview is reasonable given the credible military threat posed to it by the US and Israel.  Moreover, as Defense Minister, his responsibilities include promoting Iran’s defense industry capabilities in meeting strategic requirements, placing an emphasis on passive defense in compliance with the requirements of development projects and land use planning, and linking knowledge, power, and strategy in industry and Defense Ministry missions.  Assuredly, Dehghan and his IRGC compatriots are currently guided by Khamenei’s concept of heroic flexibility, under the IRGC’s interpretation of it.  That being the case, it is very likely they are presently engaged in a dual-track approach.  A statement provided by the IRGC appears to provide a rationale for the dual-track approach.  It declares: “Historical experiences make it necessary for the diplomatic apparatus of our country to carefully and skeptically monitor the behavior of WH officials so that the righteous demands of our nation are recognized and respected by those who favor interaction.”  This quote would indicate that IRGC thinking is influenced by what its commanders view were past negative interactions with the West, and a dual-track approach will assure the protection of Iran’s rights.

What Would Convince the IRGC That a Dual-Track Approach Would Work?

When Dehghan was a committee secretary on the Expediency Council, he was already part of the process by which Iran developed a way to quietly take steps in opposition to the US in order to reach its goals.  Long before Khamenei’s declaration of his heroic flexibility concept, approaches and methods, derived from ideas very similar to his idea, were already being on Syria and on the nuclear issue.  As discussed in the August 3, 2013 greatcharlie.com post entitled “President-Elect Stirs Optimism in the West, But Talks with Iran Will Likely Be Influenced by the Syrian War,” initially, the Iranians consider in advance how its opponents might attempt to defeat or disrupt US efforts.  Plans are rapidly implemented to avoid detection and a possible response.  Every moment of time is viewed in itself as an opportunity to shape a situation.  This is how the initial Quds Force commander in Syria, IRGC Brigadier General Hassan Shateri, operated with all Iranian forces from 2011 until his death there in 2013.  He managed the rapid deployment of Iranian forces, Hezbollah, and Iraqi shi’a militiamen into Syria, and shaped-up Syrian Armed Forces as needed, quickly trained, and armed the Syrian shabiha or paramilitaries and organized them into a fighting force, the National Defense Front.  IRGC Major General Qassem Suleimani, who took over for Shateri as Iran’s commander in Syria, has taken the same tact.  Political leaders and policymakers in the US are perceived in Tehran as willing to make the assumption that every situation in foreign policy can be favorably altered with money or the application of military force later.  Delays in proposed and threatened military action would usually be due to some domestic political consideration such as presidential elections and mid-term Congressional elections  Concerning the nuclear issue, the same success using this approach can be observed.  Regardless of the state of negotiations between the US and its Western partners and Iran over the years, and the ferocity of the US threats, progress continued to be made on the nuclear energy program.  Iran is aware that once a sufficient level of competence with nuclear technology is successfully acquired and tested, the genie will be out of the bottle, and a new situation immediately exists.  At that point, Iran may calculate that further sanctions or threats of action against Iran, except among some of its neighbors, would unlikely be viewed as constructive or acceptable internationally.  Further, Iran, again, would know that it would be less likely to face any consequences if that type of achievement occurs when for example, mid-term elections next year, have greater meaning to US political leaders.

Events surrounding the US response to the Assad regime’s August 21, 2013, use of chemical weapons provide the latest yardstick by which Iran can measure the prospect for attaining its goals under Khamenei’s heroic flexibility concept.  US delays left the door open for Assad to secure his interests.  Obama appeared to agonize over the decision to take military action and delayed doing so.  The US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, indicated he was reluctant to take action, uncertain as to its possible impact upon the Syrian civil war’s outcome.  The majority of the US Congress prepared to withhold their support for military action, concerned mostly by the possibility that as a consequence, rogue Islamic militants would be in a better position on the ground.  While that transpired, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad managed, through a Russian proposal, to avoid military action for the time being, by declaring its chemical stockpiles, surrendering them for destruction to the UN, and becoming a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention.  Assad even managed to acquire the spotlight on the world stage.  He even received praise from some states for coming clean about chemical stockpile, while never confessing to carrying out the gas attacks.

Assessment

Iran is still a long way from getting the US and its Western partners to compromise.  For Iran, such demands would mean more than just modifying its program, but keeping it intact.  For Iran, compromise may actually equate to an act of surrender.  Iran would most likely be required to: cease all enrichment of uranium and agree to the removal of all enriched uranium from its territory; dismantle its nuclear facility hidden in a mountain near Qum; dismantle its newest generation of centrifuges at Natanz; and, stop construction of a heavy-water reactor at Arak.  The request itself would come to Khamenei and other with seniority in the Iranian government as an effort to humiliate the Islamic Republic.

The US and its Western partners have been impressed and inspired by Rouhani’s words and his deeds so far.  Small steps have been taken by the US and Iran to build confidence and trust.  However, the relationship between the two sides has been less than congenial for some time.  The ease at which Rouhani has approached the entire matter perhaps should have been cause for immediate pause. Focusing on his efforts avoids the need for officials in Washington and other Western capitals to look more in-depth at what the Iranians are doing despite claims of being vigilant.  Yet, as discussed here, whether Rouhani very efficiently and effectively pursues a peaceful solution, or falters, may not be relevant in the long run.  Potentially, his efforts may be overcome by Dehghan’s effort to reach the goals of the nuclear energy program.  Iran is so close to breakout capacity at this point that it perhaps would make little sense to turn back.  If not careful, the US and its Western partners may find the next step will not require deciding whether Iran’s nuclear program can continue.  Instead, the next step might actually require deciding on whether a nuclear weapon in the hands of Iran is something that they can accept.

The Minister of Defense of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hossein Dehghan

US Backs Off Syria Strike for More Talk, and Prolonged “Peaceful Coexistence” with Rogue Islamic Militants

As reported in a September 15, 2013, Wall Street Journal article entitled “US Backs Off Syria Strike for More Talk,” the Obama administration took two steps back from its push for a prompt attack on Syria, allowing several weeks more for diplomacy on eliminating Syrian chemical weapons.  The reversals on September 13th came after a week that began with US President Barack Obama insisting that the US Congress urgently approve military action.  The Obama administration turned to a Russian diplomatic proposal that was actually suggested offhandedly by US Secretary of State John Kerry while answering a journalist’s question on the possibility of military action being halted.  Under the proposal, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ability to execute chemical attacks would be degraded over a period of time, without strikes.  Yet, despite this diplomatic activity, the US made it clear, according to the Wall Street Journal, that military strikes, using an international coalition, and not the UN, were still very possible and any effort to stall the chemical weapons elimination process would not be acceptable.  US officials also explained that there was also hope that through this diplomatic process, Kerry, the masterful statesman, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, his sparring partner, would be able to rekindle efforts to hold an international peace conference on Syria, bringing together the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition in Geneva in an effort to establish a transitional government in Damascus.  .

However, despite the importance of these recent events, there is a crucial matter, not referenced in talks between Kerry and Lavrov: the Islamic militant presence in Syria.  Members of the US Congress gave great consideration to the issue during their deliberations on US military action in Syria.  Islamic militant factions, laden with foreign fighters, truly represent a threat to security and stability in Syria and internationally.  Anxious to garner as much support as possible from his former Congressional colleagues for immediate military strikes, when asked about the strength of the Islamic militant presence in the Syrian opposition forces, Kerry brushed off the issue of their presence in Syria as exaggerated.  Yet, even under Kerry’s assessments of the Islamic militant presence, it is clear that their numbers are significant, and they continue to grow exponentially daily.  Unlike the secular groups and moderate Islamists in the Syrian opposition, it is inconceivable that the Islamic militants’ would cease their struggle, particularly that of the foreign fighters, under any peace agreement with the Assad regime allowing for a transitional government.  The Islamic militants’ goals were never compatible with the Syrian opposition leadership’s concepts and intent.  While mainstream Free Syrian Army are directed at creating the basis for a transition to a democratic style government in Damascus for all Syrians, Islamic militant factions seek to create a separate Islamic state on Syrian territory, under Sharia law.  Clashes between moderate, secular opposition groups and the Islamic militant factions have become commonplace.  Atrocities are as likely to be committed against other opposition fighters and innocent Syrian civilians by Islamic militants, as Syrian military personnel or regime supporters.  Unless an appropriate response is formulated and readied for implementation now or in the aftermath of the signing of a peace agreement, negotiators from the US and Russia will saddle Syria for the moment, or under a potential transitional government, with the scourge of the rogue Islamic militants.  Unchecked, the Islamic militants would continue to pour into Syria, and establish a launch pad to create ferment in Syria, its region, and beyond.  Examining the situation, two options for coping with the Islamic militants emerge: peaceful coexistence through negotiation and elimination through military action.  The review of each will result in the emergence of one that would best serve US, Western, and regional interests, and especially the interests of the Syrian people.

Kerry’s Assessment of the Islamic Militant Presence

As reported in a September 5, 2013, Reuters article entitled “Kerry Portrait of Syria Rebels at Odds with Intelligence Reports,” at Congressional hearings in early September, Kerry provided an assessment on Islamic militant factions among Syrian opposition forces that US and allied intelligence sources and private experts on the Syrian conflict suggest was optimistic.  Kerry asserted before Congress that the armed opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “has increasingly become more defined by its moderation, more defined by the breadth of its membership, and more defined by its adherence to some, you know, democratic process and to an all-inclusive, minority-protecting constitution.  He reportedly told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 3rd that “the opposition is getting stronger by the day.”   Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, challenged Kerry’s assertions at the House Foreign Affairs Committee on September 4th.  McCaul told Kerry: “Who are the rebel forces? Who are they? I ask that in my briefings all the time.” McCaul then explained, “And every time I get briefed on this it gets worse and worse, because the majority now of these rebel forces – and I say majority now – are radical Islamists pouring in from all over the world.”  Kerry replied: “I just don’t agree that a majority are al-Qaida and the bad guys. That’s not true. There are about 70,000 to 100,000 oppositionists . . . Maybe 15 percent to 25 percent might be in one group or another who are what we would deem to be bad guys.”  Kerry went on to explain, “There is a real moderate opposition that exists. General Idriss is running the military arm of that,” referring to General Salim Idriss, Commander in Chief of the Supreme Military Council, the Syrian opposition’s military-wing and commander of the Free Syrian Army. Kerry reported that increasingly, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are funneling assistance through Idriss.  This was a key point as prior, Arab states made deliveries of arms, supplies, and money directly to their main beneficiaries in the field, Islamic militant factions (Please see July 18, 2013 greatcharlie.com post “Obama Emphasizes US Commitment to Syrian Rebels in Saudi Call, But He Can Still Change His Mind.”) 

Looking at US, EU, and NATO intelligence assessments of the Free Syrian Army to date in its September 5th article, Reuters interviewed a US official who explained, under the condition of anonymity, that “Most of the groups battling against Assad are composed of Islamist fighters, but only a small minority could accurately be characterized as extremist.”  However, a second official, who also asked not to be named, explained that moderate opposition fighters appear to have lost strength rather than gained it in recent months. Due to their relative lack of weapons and organization, they are beginning to make alliances with better-armed Islamic radicals, whom they see pursuing more effective actions against Assad’s forces, the official said.  A European security official with experience in the region revealed to Reuters that more moderate rebel factions predominate in the east of Syria and along its southern border with Jordan but have largely devolved into “gangs” whose leaders are more interested in operating local rackets and enriching themselves than in forming a larger alliance that could more effectively oppose Assad’s government.  Joshua Foust, a former US intelligence analyst who now writes about foreign policy, told Reuters, “I’ve heard that there are moderate groups out there we could, in theory, support.”  Foust went on to state, “But I’ve heard from those same people and my own contacts within (US intelligence) that the scary people are displacing more and more moderate groups. Basically, the jihadists are setting up governance and community councils while the moderates exhaust themselves doing the heavy fighting.”

Realities of the Islamic Militant Presence

In early 2012, many Islamic militant factions, particularly the Salafist/Jihaddis, were operating underground in Syria.  Two years of arms and support flowing into opposition forces from Arab states has allowed for the growth of Salafist/Jihaddi factions in Syria.  The Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (Syria), was active on the ground in Syria under the auspices of their parent group the Islamic State of Iraq (Al-Qaida in Iraq) for years prior to the civil war.  Ever since the formation of Islamic State of Iraq, itself, the eastern region of Syria—bordering the Al-Anbar Province of Iraq—has been a hot spot for Al-Qaida activity.  The Al-Nusra Front, a mostly Syrian organization, is considered an off-shoot of The Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham, and also Al-Qaida affiliated.  The Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham and the Al-Nusra Front have been a driving force in the Free Syrian Army.  For the balance of the civil war, Al-Nusra Front has led Free Syrian Army assaults on key installations, air defense bases, and coastal and highway routes.  They have also been responsible for the bulk of the suicide attacks in civilian areas and assassinations of key officials in the Assad regime.  They have become the best equipped, best-organized, and best-financed faction of the Free Syrian Army.  Yet, they are now known best by their rogue acts.   Several news organizations have been covering the Syrian civil war from its start.  There are journalists in nearly each one who have observed or recorded members of Islamic militant factions abuse and kill captured Syrian military personnel or suspected Assad regime supporters.  Some of their stories and recordings have been recently released.  The front page of the September 5, 2013 edition of the New York Times included a photo of Syrian Army prisoners being prepared for execution by Islamic militant rebels.  This horrific scene brings home grave realities about the situation in Syria regarding the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian opposition’s war on Assad.  Nothing the Islamic militant factions have stated or done in Syria would indicate they have a remote interest in working constructively within the Syrian National coalition in reaching the country’s  transition toward a democratic form of government.  Their plan to create an Islamic mini-state is already underway. 

Deadly clashes have raged between the mainstream fighters of the Free Syrian Army and Islamic militants while also at war with Assad regime forces.  The fighting is viewed by intelligence and analysts and experts as a parallel struggle for Syria’s future.  In the greatcharlie.com post of July 11th, entitled, “Opposition in Syria continues to Fracture, Yet This May Create a New Option for Its Allies,” pointed to a July 8,, 2013, New York Times article detailing how Islamist brigade of Ahrar Al-Sham, along with Al-Nusra Front fighters, ejected a mainstream Free Syrian Army unit, the Farouq brigade, from town of Raqqa.  The Islamic militants accused the Farouq brigade of having hoarded arms and refused to go to the aid of allies during the Qusayr battle.  They also alleged that some of its members of consorting with women and drinking wine. In the most recent violent incident, in Dana, members of an extremist Islamic militant faction were accused of beheading two rival fighters and leaving their heads beside a can near the town square. On July 2, 2013, the BBC confirmed Islamic militants killed a popular Catholic priest in the convent of the town of Ghassaniya.  The priest had fled to the convent after his monastery, Saint Simon, was bombed by Islamic militants. In Aleppo and Idlib provinces, Al-Qaida affiliated Islamic militant units were accused of trying to monopolize wheat and fuel supplies creating even greater shortages for residents.  Throughout towns and villages under Free Syrian Army control, Islamic militants have attempted to impose their strict conception of Islamic law, sometimes even carrying out summary public executions.  This has created popular resentment against them among average Syrians.  Since that time, Islamic militant factions have continued to abuse and kill Syrian citizens, and intensified their attacks upon mainstream Free Syrian Army groups and Kurdish groups.  Popular secular Free Syrian Army commanders and fighters have been murdered by their so-called allies.  So egregious have been the acts of the foreign fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham against Syrian citizens, who did not support the regime, that the Syrians of the Al-Nusra Front, themselves, became perturbed and expressed displeasure over the foreign fighters announced plans to create their own Islamic state on Syrian territory. 

Significant numbers of Islamic militants continue to pour into Syria.  Pakistani Taliban have set up a base in Syria, to assess the needs of the jihad in Syria, and work out joint operations with Islamic militant factions present.  Pakistani Taliban bases were allegedly set up with the assistance of former Afghan mujahedeen of Middle Eastern origin that have moved to Syria in recent years.  The cell has the approval of militant factions both within and outside of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, an umbrella organization of militant groups fighting Pakistani government forces.  In the past, Islamic militant fighters from Pakistan fought in the Balkans and Central Asia.  Between 1992 and 1995, the group Harkatul Mujahedeen sent a large number of fighters to Bosnia to support the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Between 1988 and 1994, Pakistan and Afghan Taliban fought in Nagorno-Karabakh on the side of Azerbaijan against Armenian forces.  As long as Islamic militants continue to pour into Syria, their numbers and capabilities will reach a point where the mainstream forces would no longer be able to contend with them.  Back in May 2013, the Russian Federal Security Service revealed that it was aware that 200 Russian and European fighters had joined the Free Syrian Army in May.  By June 2013, at a conference in St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated the number of Russians and Europeans in the Free Syrian Army’s ranks had reached 600. 

Option 1: Peaceful Coexistence with Islamic Militant Factions Through “Negotiations”

As it was their goal in Syria, Islamic militant factions, may still seek to create an Islamic mini-state in Syria after the civil war.  However, the creation of a separate state with separate laws for some Syrians, trapped in, would have to live by, would be an anathema to everything the Syrian opposition struggled for in the civil war.  It would be a bitter reminder to the Syrian opposition of its failure to create a free and democratic Syria for all Syrians.  Such a state would create fears, not only in Damascus, but in other capitals of the region, that an Islamic militant mini-state would become a launch pad for relentless attacks against them.  Those nearby states include Israel, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey.  Leaders of the Syrian National Council, the political-wing of the opposition movement have found it difficult to communicate with representatives of Islamic militant factions.  Communicating with the Islamic militant groups in the field on occasion has proven to be daunting.  A number of secular Free Syrian Army commanders and fighters were killed attempting to make contact with Islamic militant factions.  If an agreement is reached on Syria and it requires them to leave its territory, Islamic militant factions must comply.  Ostensibly, an effort could be made to provide Islamic militant factions notice of their disposition in Syria under the authority of a transitional government.  They would also need to be given official notice to leave Syria.  This information could be communicated to representatives of their organizations by the Syrian National Council, leaders of the Supreme Military Council.  If that were to fail, diplomats from Arab states that have been the primary benefactors for the Islamic militant units such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, could present notice to the Islamic militants.  Those countries might have some leverage as the funding stream for the Islamic militants.  However, the Islamic militants may be unwilling to respond.  It would be easy enough for them to recognize the relative strength of their position against the transitional government. 

The best case scenario would be similar to that of the foreign fighters present in Bosnia after the war.  The Dayton Peace Agreement ending the war required foreign fighters to leave Bosnia.  This demand was communicated to Islamic militant factions in Bosnia through the President of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Alijah Izetbegovic, and his government.  It was enforced by the robust 60,000 member NATO force, I-FOR, that entered Bosnia immediately after the peace agreement was signed.  However, many of the Islamic militants remained in Bosnia and were welcomed by Bosnia’s Muslim community to do so.  They married Bosnian women and became part of the society.  Unlike Bosnia, there is little chance any community in Syria would want the Islamic militants present.  The experiences of Syrian civilians with Islamic militant foreign fighters have been quite different from those of the Bosnians.  Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps units, Quds Force members, and Ministry of Intelligence and Security officers left Bosnia when the war ended.  Yet, some Iranian troops who fought in the Bosnian War remained. Welcomed more warmly into the Bosnian Muslim community than any other group of foreigners, they also married Bosnian women and usually joined the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Hezbollah completely evacuated Bosnia when requested to do so.  As in Bosnia, fighters for Hezbollah would likely rapidly leave Syria and return to Lebanon.  Unlike the Islamic militant factions opposing the Assad regime, Hezbollah’s military-wing would be fairly easy to communicate with, either through Iran, its political leadership in Syria and Lebanon, and the Assad regime, through the Russians. 

If Islamic militant factions were to comply with an order to leave Syria through a peace agreement, it is difficult to imagine where they would go.  It is difficult to picture how their demobilization would be enforced.  It is also difficult to envision how they would arrange transport anywhere given their numbers.  Although Kerry’s assessment of the size and strength of the Islamic militants was at 15 percent to 25 percent, that would still put their number in the tens of thousands.  Further, essentially every Western intelligence organization has assessed they are growing in size and capability.  Conceivably, they might charge into Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, or Turkey, but their presence would not be tolerated in any of those states.  They could possibly leave the Levant and travel to the heart of the Middle East, Southwestern Asia, South Asia, and North Africa, the Horn of Africa, Southeastern Europe, Western Europe, or Southern Russia!  Yet, transportation would remain an issue, and it would still be difficult to find any country in those regions that would be interested in having them.  They would pose immigration and security issues wherever they went.

Option 2: Confronting Islamic Militant Factions During the War or Afterward

In a July 20th, New York Times article, David Shedd, deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and 31-year intelligence veteran suggested that in addition to strengthening the more secular groups of the fractious Syrian opposition, the West would have to directly confront more radical Islamist elements, although he did not say how that could be accomplished.  He noted that left unchecked, they will become bigger,” Shedd further stated, according to the New York Times article that “Over the last two years they’ve grown in size, they’ve grown in capability, and ruthlessly have grown in effectiveness.”  Eventually, the Islamic militants would need to be confronted.  It is unlikely that a transitional government would have sufficient military power to eject the Islamic militants from Syria.  As was also explained on greatcharlie.com in its July 11, 2013 post “Opposition in Syria continues to Fracture, Yet This May Create a New Option for Its Allies,” the Obama administration would need to do more than meet its promise to arm the Free Syrian Army with weapons and ammunition.  Only by intervening, covertly if necessary, on the side of mainstream Free Syrian Army groups against Islamic militant factions would mainstream opposition forces have a chance, during the war, of being positioned to defeat Assad’s forces.  Taking this step would put the US in a position to do much more on behalf of the Free Syrian Army and eventually, a transitional Syrian government.

If a prospective peace agreement in Syria required Islamic militant factions, postwar, to join some grand coalition in the transitional government and abide by its authority or leave Syria, they might not join.  However, given their disposition, they would certainly refuse to go.  It is unlikely that a transitional government would be ready to promote their interest, force them to leave.  It might behoove the US, in support of the transitional government and its own interests, to assist the transitional government.  The US could announce internationally that the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham, the Al-Nusra Front, and other rogue Islamic militant factions are not part of the Syrian opposition.  Indicating the degree of danger the Islamic militant factions posed to a secure and sustainable peace in Syria, the US could conduct an operation to destroy those organizations entirely as part of its Counterterrorism policy and in support of its Syria policy.  The US could potentially muster its Western allies, as well as Russia and Iran to support its efforts.  Assistance from Western allies, Russia and Iran could primarily include intelligence, however, operational assistance and personnel could also be requested.  The operation, executed by the US Joint Special Operations Command, would need to be quick, intense, and effective.  All Islamic militant groups hostile to the concept and intent of the Syrian opposition and the Friends of Syrian, and identified as having attacked mainstream Free Syrian Army fighters, would be identified and targeted for strike.  Units, arms, equipment, supply lines, communications, commanders, headquarters, and financial support would be targeted. All entry points for Islamic militants should be identified and placed under special reconnaissance and electronic surveillance.  Foreign fighters entering Syria must be targeted.  Islamic militant units must be completely destroyed.  Any foreign fighters later reaching Syria should not be able to find evidence that any Islamic militant factions ever existed there.

A US decision to eliminate the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham, Al-Nusra Front the and other rogue Islamic militant organizations in Syria would likely please the Russians and Iranians.  If any cooperation on a counterterrorism effort could be established, there is a chance that step could further enhance joint diplomatic efforts between those countries on Syria.  Among many things, for Iran, such an effort would allow it to work alongside the US and Russia, as an equal partner, and act as a power player in its region.  For Russia, it would mean a resolution to the conflict, hopefully allowing it to pursue interests acceptable to the US in Syria.  For the US, it would mean establishing peace and stability in the region, placing Syria on the path toward transition to a democratic government, and perhaps opening the door to further cooperation with Russia and Iran on other issues.

Assessment

Moving and destroying Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile put the chemical weapons out of reach for Islamic militants in Syria.  However, it does not address the issue of their presence.  The current size and strength of Al-Qaida affiliated Islamic militant factions in Syria is considerable.  Allowing them to become a fixture in Syria would hobble a transitional Syrian government, and could lead to its eventual collapse. The US Congress has pressed the Obama administration regarding the Islamic militants.  Initially, Members of Congress, as well as legislators and officials in other Western capitals expressed concern that Western arms sent to Syria would fall into the hands of rogue Islamic militant factions, and their concerns were legitimate.  Concerns were so great in Britain that its Parliament refused to allow its forces to join the US in military action in response to the August 21st chemical weapons attacks.  Now is the time for the US Congress to urge the Obama administration to orient itself on coping with the Islamic militant problem.  True, Congress was grumpy toward President Obama’s approach to Syria, and perhaps should have been more supportive of the presidential authority.  Yet, conversely, President Obama should be responsive to the concerns of Members of Congress, as representatives of the American people, over the Islamic militant problem in Syria.  The White House should be able to recognize the urgency of this issue itself.

Negotiating with the Islamic militants could be attempted, but it is implausible to think results could be achieved with them through formal talks.  Only through military action, unilateral or multilateral, could the US relieve Syria of a barbaric Islamic militant threat.  A transitional Syrian government will not have the means to eject Islamic militants from sovereign Syrian territory.  The entire US effort in Syria hinges on how the US responds to the Islamic militant presence.  Syria could become a state hampered by disunity and conflict caused by Islamic militants, or transform into a state ready to become a positive and welcomed player on the world stage.  Through potential cooperation against rogue Islamic militant factions, the US, Russia, and Iran, the three states might create conditions that might facilitate greater cooperation on Syria among them.  They may urge parties to the conflict to find a peaceful solution to the civil war.  By working together to cope with the Islamic militant issue, the US, Russia, and Iran would take further steps forward together beyond the Syria issue, and establish a path toward real cooperation, possibly leading a resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue. 

(Over the past three months through blog posts, greatcharlie.com has been providing insights into US, EU, NATO intelligence assessments of the Free Syrian Army’s situation on the ground, the organization’s deterioration, and coping with the Islamic militant threat in Syria.  Those posts include: Is the US Public Aware the US Is Said to Plan to Send Weapons to the Syrian Rebels?, June 14th; The Price of Loyalty to the Syrian Opposition for the US May Be A Useless Investment of Arms, June 20th; Opposition in Syria Continues to Fracture: Yet This May Create a New Option For Its Allies, July 11th; Obama emphasizes Us Commitment to Syrian Rebels in Saudi Call, But He Can Still Change His Mind, July 18th; Congressional Hurdles Lifted on Arming Syrian Rebels, Beware Assad, and Islamic Militants, Too!, July 25th; and more recently, “White House Says Still Fact Finding Reported Chemical Weapons Use and Weighing Military Options, August 27th.)

Pentagon Is Ordered to Expand Potential Targets in Syria, Focusing on Forces, But Strikes Could Be Further Calibrated to Meet Obama’s Goals

According to a September 5, 2013, New York Times article entitled, “Pentagon Is Ordered to Expand Potential Targets in Syria with a Focus on Forces,” US President Barack Obama has directed the Pentagon to develop an expanded list of potential targets in Syria. The decision was reportedly in response to intelligence reports that suggested the government of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has been repositioning troops and equipment necessary for employing chemical weapons. while the US Congress has been debating whether to authorize military action, however to gain authorization for military action.from Capitol Hill, the Obama administration would need to accept restrictions on the military response. In order to make the strike meaningful, the article suggests that the administration expand its scope. The worst outcome, explained the article, would be to come out of the current struggle with Congress with authorization for an attack that made little difference. Doubt within the Congress over US military action in Syria greatly mirrored doubt projected by the Obama administration in its handling of the issue.

While the US has the capability and capacity to carry out calibrated strikes against the Assad regime, Obama has had great difficulty in publicly articulating what he wanted to achieve, why he wanted to do it, and how he would get things done. With his decision to defer military action until Congress voted on the matter, he opened himself up to an onslaught of criticism. The argument could be made, or rather the excuse could be given, that if Obama had been better served by the White House staff, none of this would have occurred. The president should have been provided with options for an appropriate response to the chemical attacks. His effort to present his case for military action should have been far better organized. An examination is provided here of Obama’s drive for military action against the Assad regime for its August 21st chemical attacks. His public statements are examined and an analysis of those very statements is used as guidance to propose elements for a plan for military action in Syria that would better meet Obama’s needs as well as achieve his desired outcome. A transformational opportunity that the US might capitalize on to find some advantage in reaching a secure and sustainable peace agreement in Syria is also duscussed.

Obama’s “Distressed” Approach to Military Action in Syria

Through Obama’s initial statements, it seemed that military action would almost certainly be taken in response to the Assad regime’s August 21st use of chemical weapons. The US newsmedia pundits practically insisted that an attack was imminent. Still, nothing happened. Immediate perception caused most to believe that Obama wanted to take action in response to Assad’s chemical weapons use. Yet, as time moved on, there was a palpable sense through his statements that Obama was not very confident about doing anything. Obama appeared indecisive and greatly concerned about possible negative outcomes, such as embroiling the US and the region in a larger conflict. He also appeared greatly concerned with the legal ramifications and international implications of military action against the Assad regime. Through their boasting and posturing on how aggressively they would respond to US military action, their rebuffs of validity of US intelligence on the source of the chemical attacks, and their hostile taunts about Obama’s courage, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and Iranian military leaders sought to exploit what they perceived as Obama’s insecurity over taking military action and his uncertainty about its aftermath. Obama’s advisers failed to do enough to assist him in articulating a clear concept and intent for action based on his “nuanced”  thinking. For several days, there was a rather sloppy, piecemeal presentation of ends, ways, and means for using military force in Syria voiced publicly without a clear indication of the Obama administration’s goals, except hitting Assad for using chemical weapons and deterring his regime from using them again. Apparently, White House advisers provided Obama with a plan that represented something far from decisive action, far less than determined deterrence against further chemical use by Assad. The plan for action better resembled some panicky plan for the pre-emption of additional chemical attacks with the guiding concept being that the US must steer clear getting involved in the Syrian civil war. Language Obama was presented to use in his public statements, plans he was provided, indicated that his staff was not truly in touch with Obama on Syria. They were only in touch with Obama’s thinking to the extent that they tried to meet his desire to be transparent with the US public on the use of military force. Explanations to the public of how the new plan would achieve US goals were inaudible. Explanations of how military action in Syria would fit into overall US strategy in the region were nonexistent. However, once the rather incomplete plans were exposed via the media, opponents of the US would naturally make assumptions that there was little to be concerned about and they could proceed with their own plans in Syria.

All of this being considered, Obama, despite all initial appearances, does not want the US military to intervene on the ground in the Syria. Still, it was Obama’s own use of the term “military action” that was understood to mean “war” among many Members of Congress, the US public, commentators, rivals, and detractors. It stirred great concern over long list of terrible possibilities. The US Congress and public, in particular, fully recalled the ventures of the administration of US President George W. Bush into Iraq and Afghanistan. In both cases, military intervention, while proffered by the Bush administration to have been well-considered, had a clear cause–weapons of mass destruction, and would have firm goals, led to tragic losses of personnel and relatively meager results. When Obama and his officials speak of military action, there is concern that the US would find itself once again committed militarily overseas to a far greater extent than anticipated.

Interestingly, during the Cold War, when a balance of power was maintained and a modus vivendi was established to assure global peace and security, while the threat of nuclear conflict loomed, measured steps were more often used to respond to trespasses upon the interests of the US and its allies by the Soviet Union and its client states. Some have yet to be unclassified. While the August 21st chemical weapons attacks in Syria were very much apparent in the media, the plan for a US response of any type did not need to be publicized. It would have been best for Obama to have made it absolutely clear that the US would respond, but keep vague  his response the how, when, and where of the response. The Congress could have been informed of a plan for action by the Obama administration in camera. Military action was not the only means the US had available to deliver a punitive response against Assad. If solitary engagement had been Obama’s choice, the matter might have been best handled by the Central Intelligence Agency. The Central Intelligence Agency is already steeped in the Syria situation as the lead US agency coping with the training and arming of the Syrian rebels. The military would be brought in to the extent it could provide air assets and provide highly-trained special operations forces to conduct missions in support of the Agency’s plans.

Obama’s Concept and Intent for a Response

Granular details on Obama’signed thinking on military action in Syria certainly could be found in minutes of meetings, memos, and other records of the dialogue on the matter. However, guidance on Obama’s thinking to a significant, or indeed sufficient, degree can also be gleaned in significant amounts from open-source reporting on the White House’s decision making on Syria. For example, a healthy amount of information was revealed in a CNN interview aired on August 23, 2013, during which Obama discussed potential US response to what was then called an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria. It could be discerned that Obama’s thinking on military action was guided by the idea that the US military was over-extended in the previous Bush administration and he wanted avoid making that same mistake. Indeed, Obama stated: “Sometimes what we’ve seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region.” Obama did not indicate, even then, an intent to have US forces engaged in any long term action in Syria. It was also apparent in the CNN interview that Obama’s thinking was influenced by his background as a legal scholar, expressed concern about international law. In his discussion, Obama revisited his failure to respond when the Assad regime’s crossing of a chemical weapons use “red line” he had declared in 2012. Obama explained that there were “rules of international law” guiding his response. He went on to state, “You know, if the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it, do we have the coalition to make it work, and, you know, those are considerations that we have to take into account.” Further, Obama was seemed to be concerned with what the genuine interests of the US were in Syria. While Obama admitted that there was some criticism and pressure from some Members of Congress for robust military action at that time, he explained, “What I think the American people also expect me to do as president is to think through what we do from the perspective of, what is in our long-term national interests?”

Obama’s statements on CNN  did not contrast at all with his speech in the White House Rose Garden on August 31, 2013, during which he further expressed his concept and intent for US action in Syria. In that more detailed and refined presentation of why and how he intended to proceed, Obama stated: “This attack is an assault on human dignity. It also presents a serious danger to our national security. It risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. It endangers our friends and our partners along Syria’s borders, including Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. It could lead to escalating use of chemical weapons, or their proliferation to terrorist groups who would do our people harm. In a world with many dangers, this menace must be confronted.” Hearing and reading that statement, one could believe Obama, without a shadow of doubt intended to take military action against Syrian regime targets. The US military operation he envisioned would not require “boots on the ground” and would be designed to be limited in duration and scope. Obama went on to explain: “I’m confident we can hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, deter this kind of behavior, and degrade their capacity to carry it out.” In order to execute the operation, Obama further stated that “Our military has positioned assets in the region. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs has informed me that we are prepared to strike whenever we choose. Moreover, the Chairman has indicated to me that our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive; it will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now. And I’m prepared to give that order.” Obama clearly wanted any military operation to be punitive in nature, limited to being a response to the August 21st chemical weapons attack. In no way was it to be part of the ongoing efforts to remove Assad by forcing him to negotiate an agreement for peaceful transition to a democratic form of government. A US response to the chemical weapons would be unrelated to diminunive US efforts in support of Syrian opposition and change the military balance on the battlefield thereby supporting them. Obama’s publicized military plans did not appear muscular enough to accomplish any of the anyway.

Military Plan of Attack So Far

Open source data provided by US officials to the New York Times revealed the goal of a US military strike against Syria, to “deter and degrade” Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons, has expanded. A new target list goes beyond the fifty or so major sites that were part of the original one developed with French forces before Obama delayed action to seek Congressional approval of his plan. The strikes would not be aimed at the chemical stockpiles themselves risking a potential catastrophe, but rather the military units that have stored and prepared the chemical weapons and carried the attacks against Syrian rebels, as well as the headquarters overseeing the effort, and the rockets and artillery that have launched those attacks. According to the September 5, 2013, New York Times article, military officials said Thursday. General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to the New York Times, stated that other targets would include equipment that Syria uses to protect the chemicals — air defenses, long-range missiles and rockets, which can also deliver the weapons. Officials cautioned that the options for an increased American strike would still be limited — “think incremental increase, not exponential,” said one official — but would be intended to inflict significant damage on the Syrian military. The bulk of the American attack is still expected to be carried out by cruise missiles from Arleigh Burke-class destroyers within striking range of Syria in the eastern Mediterranean. Each ship carries about three dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles, a low-flying, highly accurate weapon that can be launched from safe distances of up to about 1,000 miles. But military planners are now preparing options to include attacks from Air Force bombers, a development reported on September 5, 2013, by the Wall Street Journal. The Pentagon was initially planning to rely solely on cruise missiles. Bombers could carry scores more munitions, potentially permitting the United States to carry out more strikes if the first wave does not destroy the targets. Among the options available are B-52 bombers, which can carry air-launched cruise missiles; B-1s that are based in Qatar and carry long-range, air-to-surface missiles; and B-2 stealth bombers, which are based in Missouri and carry satellite-guided bombs. The Navy in recent days has moved the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz into the Red Sea, within striking distance of Syria. But Defense Department officials said Thursday that the USS Nimitz, and its squadrons of F-18 Super Hornet fighters, as well as three missile-toting destroyers in its battle group, are not likely to join any attack unless Syria launches major retaliatory strikes.

More Could Be Done to Give the President What He Wants

What Obama wanted from military action was to show the Assad regime was held accountable by punishing regime elements and assets determined by the US to have been involved in the chemical weapons attacks, deter the regime from further chemical weapons use, and degrade its capacity to do so. True, the latest target list includes the military units that have stored and prepared the chemical weapons and carried the attacks against Syrian rebels, as well as the headquarters overseeing the effort, and the rockets and artillery that have launched those attacks. However, that list could be refined using the intelligence collected on the chemical attacks, released in truncated form to the public on August 30, 2013.

Command and Control of the Assad Regime’s Chemical Weapons Attacks

US government states that it intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21st, and was concerned with the U.N. inspectors obtaining evidence. Additional information collected indicated that on the afternoon of August 21st, Syrian chemical weapons personnel were directed to cease operations. At the same time, the regime intensified the artillery barrage targeting many of the neighborhoods where chemical attacks occurred. In the twenty-four hour period after the attack, the US claims to have detected indications of artillery and rocket fire at a rate approximately four times higher than the ten preceding days. There were indications of sustained shelling in the neighborhoods up until the morning of August 26th. There were follow-on communications confirming that the chemical attacks had occurred. Through intelligence, the Obama administration has indicated that it has identified those commanders who issued orders for the activation of chemical ordinance.

Those commanders and their most immediate subordinates who were unmistakably identified as being involved in the chemical attacks and those who most likely would have been aware of those activities, should be targeted for precision attacks. In line with Obama’s desire not to shift the military balance in the field with this particular punitive action, strikes should be calibrated to hit those individuals alone, not simply their headquarters. The goal is not to decapitate military command of Syrian forces altogether, but to strike them specifically for the chemical attack. Destroying headquarters might have the effect of degrading their units’ capability in the field affecting military balance. Field grade officers would be very likely be available to rise up to replace those leaders. The hope is that after witnessing precision attacks on their commanders, the new commanders would be unwilling to use chemical weapons in their military operations. Cutting that layer of leadership off the Syrian chain of command may have the positive collateral effect of weakening Russian and Iranian links, relationships with those commanders and allow new leaders to emerge and consider their own place and the future of the Syrian Armed Forces. Syrian officers of all branches do not want to find themselves in a situation similar to their Iraqi counterparts a decade ago when the Coalition National Authority disbanded the Iraqi Army.

Targeting the Syrian Scientific Studies Research Center

Syrian chemical weapons personnel who prepared chemical ordinance for the August 21st chemical weapons attack included members of the Syrian Scientific Studies Research Center. The Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, which is subordinate to the Syrian Ministry of Defense, manages Syria’s chemical weapons program. Syrian chemical weapons personnel were operating in the Damascus suburb of ‘Adra from Sunday, August 18 until early in the morning on Wednesday, August 21st near an area that the regime uses to mix chemical weapons, including sarin. On August 21st, a Syrian regime element prepared for a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus area, to include using gas masks. US intelligence sources in the Damascus area did not detect any indications in the days prior to the attack that opposition affiliates were planning to use chemical weapons.

Members of Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center that provided combat service support for those units that launched the chemical attacks should be targeted by US strikes, not only as a consequence to their participation in the operation, but remove them from the equation in Syria and help destroy the Assad regime’s ability to use chemical weapons in the future. The facilities and equipment of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, from bases and offices, to trucks and gas masks should be destroyed to severely curtail the organization’s ability to support any chemical attacks in the future. US should be confident enough after attacks to assess numbers of remaining personnel only of a size enough to maintain stores of the ordinance until the time that perhaps an international body entering Syria at a later date might become engaged in its management. Under no circumstances should the US allow attacks to create a circumstance where rogue elements with the Syrian opposition forces could gain control of the chemical weapons at any site.

Syrian Military Units That Utilized Chemical Weapons

Three days prior to the attack, the US collected continuous streams of human, signals and geospatial intelligence, revealing regime military activities allegedly associated with preparations for a chemical weapons attack. Information gathered by the US from multiple streams indicates that after those preparations were made, the regime executed a rocket and artillery attack against the Damascus suburbs in the early hours of August 21st. Satellite detections, specifically, corroborated that attacks from a regime-controlled area struck neighborhoods where the chemical attacks reportedly occurred – including Kafr Batna, Jawbar, ‘Ayn Tarma, Darayya, and Mu’addamiyah. This includes the detection of rocket launches from regime controlled territory early in the morning, approximately ninety, minutes before the first report of a chemical attack appeared in social media. The lack of flight activity or missile launches also leads us to conclude that the regime used rockets in the attack.

US military strikes should hit those specific units and the systems identified as firing chemical weapons attacks in Syria. All those in Syria who are aware that those units were involved will realize the US is truly following all matters in Syria closely through technical means. Future movements by officers and men of any other Syrian Army units that appear to have the aim of preparing to launch chemical attacks will also be monitored by the US. The officers and men of such unitsinvolved must face the same consequences.

Assad

According to US intelligence, Assad is the ultimate decision maker for Syria’s chemical weapons program. A body of information has led the US to conclude that regime officials were witting of, and directing, the attack on August 21st. Obama has made it clear that he does not want to use this punitive attack to remove Assad from power. However, it would be meaningful to let Assad feel some consequences, “discomfort” for his regime’s actions. Rather than attack Assad, strikes could be launched to remind Assad of his vulnerability as a leader. A precision attack could be launched on the Syrian infrastructure designed to severely damage electric power in the neighborhood in which Assad lives. That might require the use of non-lethal technologies such as electromagnetic pulse weapons that can seize all electric equipment of any kind in their vicinity. However, if the destruction of power stations by airstrike or cruise missile strike can get that task done faster, and effectively, then attacks using those resources should be made. While the well-being of Assad and his family members should not be placed in danger and the attack should not present or produce any possibility that harm might come to them, it should impact their daily lives. That calibrated attacks would literally bring the consequences of the chemical attack home to Assad. Assad’s neighbors will also know that the strike against their electricity, their confines area space living space came as a result of not as a result of Assad’s effort to defend them but the use of chemical weapons. They may realize that greater consequences could come if Assad insists on further use of chemical weapons.

Maintaining the Military Balance in Syria While Taking Action Against Assad

The front page of the New York Times, on September 5, 2013, included a photo of Syrian Army prisoners being prepared for execution by Islamic militant rebels. This horrific scene brings the home some grave realities about the situation in Syria regarding the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian opposition’s war on Assad. Islamic militant factions have continued to abuse and kill Syrian citizens, and intensified their attacks upon mainstream Free Syrian Army groups and Kurdish groups. The more powerful Islamic militant factions such as the foreign fighter laden Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham, the Syria based affiliate of Al-Qaida and the well-armed, mostly Syrian, Jabhat al-Nusra, are not directed toward a transition in Syria to a democratic form of government. As long as Islamic militants continue to pour into Syria, their numbers and capabilities will reach a point where the mainstream forces would no longer be able to contend with them. US airstrikes and missile strikes against  Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra would if not destroy them, degrade or displace them to a degree as to take them out of the Syria equation. By purging rogue Islamic militants factions from the Syrian opposition, from Syria, the US and its allies could halt the deterioration of the Free Syrian Army, allow for the proper organization of its remaining groups as a military force, permit unit cohesion and coordination to develop between units, improve their fighting capabilities, and permit their combat power to be enhanced with better arms. As it was explained on greatcharlie.com in its July 11, 2013 post “Opposition in Syria continues to Fracture, Yet This May Create a New Option for Its Allies,” the Obama administration would inevitably need to do more than meet its promise to arm the Free Syrian Army with weapons and ammunition. Only by intervening covertly in support of mainstream elements against Islamic militant factions would mainstream Free Syrian Army groups ever have a chance of being positioned to defeat Assad’s forces.

Rogue Islamic militant factions would be relatively defenseless against the type of airstrikes and missile strikes that could be used against them. Unlike airstrikes against the Assad regime, the risk of loss to the US and its allies in attacks against them would be low. The vetting process in which the Central Intelligence Agency and its regional counterparts have been engaged to support the delivery of arms and supplies to appropriate groups of the Free Syrian Army by now should allow the US to determine friend from foe. As discussed in the August 27, 2013 greatcharlie.com post, “White House Says Still Fact-Finding Reported Chemical Weapons Use and Weighing Military Options,” Central Intelligence Agency officers and operatives and special operations forces, with Free Syrian Army commanders at their side, have undoubtedly interviewed locals and quietly gained granular information on the Islamic militant groups including the size of specific units, the locations of its fighters, the backgrounds of individual fighters and commanders, unit capabilities, and its combat and nonlethal resources. Islamic groups that seek to work with mainstream groups have most likely been identified and an effort has been made by the Central Intelligence Agency to establish a rapport with them. An effort has also most likely been made to support those groups and place them under the leadership of the Free Syrian Army. The whereabouts and activities of Islamic militant groups hostile to the concept and intent of the Syrian opposition, and identified as having attacked mainstream Free Syrian Army fighters, are well-known by Central Intelligence Agency. Special reconnaissance and electronic surveillance means very likely has kept track of them. Leaders, arms, supply lines and depots, and financial support have most likely been identified. All entry points of Islamic militants have also most likely been identified and placed under special reconnaissance and electronic surveillance. Any contingency plans or new plans for conducting Free Syrian Army operations without the targeted Islamic militant groups could be put into effect. Sufficient numbers of new mainstream fighters must be trained, equipped and fielded to cover any gaps created by the Islamic militant groups that would be removed from Free Syrian Army controlled territory. The Central Intelligence Agency could request to have its efforts, and those of US Special Operations teams, further supported by allied intelligence and special operations forces. The rapid and robust training and equipping of the Free Syrian Army in which the US would prefer to be engaged, could be conducted.

The Door Opens to a New Opportunity in Syria

Relations between Russia and Iran with the US have been uncongenial. Both countrues, against US wishes, have supported the Syrian Armed Forces. Russian support has mainly taken the form of arms and supplies and rather vociferous support in the international community. Iran has provided Syrian Armed Forces with training, equipment, and Iranian troops as reinforcements. However, their support has never included attacks against specific elements of the Free Syrian Army with airpower, other deep strike assets, or raids. Such action has very likely been avoided as a result of concerns over likely US reprisals overt such action. Yet, perhaps in discussions with the Russians and the Iranians, the US could inform them that the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra are not part of the Syrian opposition and the Free Syrian Army. Both states could be informed that US itself has undertaken an effort to destroy those organizations entirely as part of its Counterterrorism policy, and attacks against those organizations would be made separate from any US activity concerning Syria. The US could also request assistance from Russia and Iran, including intelligence, in conjunction with US airstrikes and missile strikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra. The Russians might be particularly pleased for within the Kremlin there are concerns that Islamic militants who arrived in Syria from Dagestan might gain possession of a portion of Assad’s chemical weapons and use it in Russia.

Undoubtedly, hearing about US efforts to destroy the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham and Al-Nusra would likely surprise, yet please, the Russians and Iranians. If any cooperation on that effort could be established, there is a chance that step could be a basis on which a joint effort between those countries on Syria could be built. Mutual strength of US, Russia and Iran could shift from military or intelligence cooperation to a diplomatic effort. Advocating for their respective sides among parties to the conflict, they might be able to find an acceptable compromise. From that, a new peace effort on Syria could potentially be ignited. For Iran, such an effort would mean working with US and Russia, as an equal partner, and as a power player in its region. That is something it greatly desires. For Russia, it would mean a resolution to the conflict, hopefully allowing it to pursue its interests in Syria. For the US, it would mean establishing peace and stability in Iraq and placing Syria on the path toward transition to a democratic government.

Assessment

For many members of the Assad regime, US military action against Syria will mean the end of life. The lives lost would be a severe consequence of their participation in the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. If all goes as Obama plans, the attacks, optimally calibrated, will have a sound educational effect on the Assad and other rogue leaders and deter them from future chemical weapons use. Ironically, in the calculus of Obama, the lives lost in the attacks will assure countless more lives would be saved from the scourge of chemical weapons. Given what Obama feels is at stake, failing to attack does not appear to be an option. Yet, there may be other opportunities created by the use of force in Syria. The opportunity exists for the US to support the Syrian opposition in the field and US Counter-terrorism policy by taking punitive action against those who have committed despicable acts against innocent Syrian civilians and Syrian Army conscripts. Rogue Islamic militant factions, affiliated with Al-Qaida, should be purged from the Free Syrian Army, Syrian opposition, and Syria.

For the Obama administration and the US Congress, supporting the Syrian opposition against the Assad regime was viewed as a chance to pressure Assad to the negotiating table and influence a decision by him to accept a settlement by which he would step down. Intervening covertly on the side of mainstream elements of the Syrian opposition against Islamic militant groups would literally emancipate them from the pressures placed on them by the rogue Islamic factions. The possibility of the Syria’s transition to a democratic form of government would be greatly enhanced. A renewed effort could be made to train and equip Syrian opposition members. In the region, providing this “helping hand” to the Free Syrian Army would prove the US to be a reliable ally to such movements as the Syrian opposition, supporting its interest as best as possible. US policy would be on track. There have been indications that a quid pro quo of increasing training and arms for the opposition forces in return for support from Members of Congress on military action.

While it may be undue optimism to suggest this, it may be that if the US, Russia, and Iran cooperated or cordinated in some way against rogue Islamic militant factions, the three states might create conditions that might facilitate greater cooperation on Syria. They might urge parties to the conflict to find a peaceful solution to the civil war. The steadily stream of Islamic militants going into Syria is a genuine problem that must be immediately dealt with. Units of such foreign fighters have made the situation in Syria, far more violent, far worse. The US, Russia, and Iran should continue to place joint attention on the transnational threat the Assad regime poses with it chemical weapons. Russia’s late decision to throw its support behind US Secretary of State John Kerry’s off-hand suggestion that Assad move Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile outside of Syria, or a determined point in Syria, and create a form of international custodianship of it until can be destroyed is being considered in the US. However, moving, guarding, and eventually destroying Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile does not respond to Assad’s use of those weapons on August 21st. It also does not prevent a rogue regimes such as Assad’s from secreting weapons for future use, even against its current. By working together to resolve such issues, the US, Russia, and Iran might lay the ground work for real cooperation in finding a diplomatic solution to the Syria crisis, and perhaps beyond that.

Iran’s President Tweets Condemnation of Syria Chemical Attacks: Is Twitter Part of Rouhani’s Approach to the West?

In an August 29, 2013, NBCNews.com article entitled, “Iran’s President Tweets Condemnation of Syria Chemical Attacks,” Robert Windrem, an investigative reporter for NBC News, reported on the online statements of new Iranian president Hassan Rouhani and other top Iranian leaders on the crisis in Syria.  Windrem’s article focuses on the tone of Rouhani in his statements over a twenty-four hour period moving from condemning the use of chemical weapons to requesting the international community use prudence in resolving the Syrian crisis.  He had Hooman Majd, author and Iran expert, analyze the statements.  What is most interesting is Windrem’s coverage of Rouhani’s comments on Twitter and the fact that Rouhani has decided to use the social media service as a tool to communicate his views, in English!  While Rouhani’s comments on Twitter stand as an official reaction of the Iranian government to the major issue of the day, they cannot be seen as windows into the thinking of Rouhani or the Iranian government as Windrem proffers.  This is not to state conversely that Rouhani’s comments on Twitter should be considered de minimus.  Rather, Rouhani’s use of Twitter as Iran’s president is in its nascent stage, as he only took office in August.  His “tweets” have not yet become a reliable source to determine whether their text, tone, or nature reflect the desires, goals, any underlying meaning, and the united position of the Iranian government.  For “greatcharlie.com,” Rouhani’s tweets make for an interesting case to follow.  The examination of government tweets representing official positions permits us to develop and present our perspectives on a variety of issues in international affairs for our readers.  That allows us to cover issues beyond those discussed in our blog posts.  Before presenting any official comments through Twitter on greatcharlie.com, we engage in a vetting process to ensure messages represent official views and are not part of an effort to deceive or manipulate their audience.  (This is not to imply that Iran would ever engage in such an effort through Rouhani’s tweets.)

Twitter

Twitter is a free “microblogging” site that a growing number of national governments and government officials are using to present policies, approaches, and statements on issues and events internationally, given Twitter’s reach through the internet.  They also use Twitter to reach their constituencies of their domestic audience.  Launched in 2006, Twitter users send and receive brief messages, limited to 140 characters of text over the internet.  Using the site requires the creation of a profile page, including a title or “handle.”   Users can then send messages to those they desire to have as followers, or followers suggested by Twitter based on a user’s profile.  Those messages called “tweets” can include web addresses or TinyURL (Uniform Resource Locator), a service that provides a short alias for long URL addresses.  This allows followers to go to web sites or blogs for anything ranging from articles, editorials, blog posts, reports, documents, archives, photo galleries, YouTube videos, sound recordings, and television and radio programs. 

Iranian Officials and Twitter

Iranian leaders who currently use Twitter to communicate their views in English include the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei (using the handle @khamenei_ir) and President Rouhani.  (Who actually has two profiles and three handles: @President_Iran; @HassanRouhani; and, @HassanRouhani_)  For his August 29th article, Windrem quoted tweets from the profile and handle: @HassanRouhani.  While government leaders around the world use Twitter in this fashion, it is rather surprising to have Iranian leaders utilize this social media tool whose use US and other Western officials have mastered and whose tweets, as far as government officials go, dominate the service.  Apparently, Iranian officials believe there is enough room for them to make some headway on Twitter and eventually promote their views on urgent and important issues and Iranian interests in English to an audience equivalent to those of their foreign counterparts. 

Rouhani’s tweets are really not directed at a domestic audience.  Younger generations of Iranians are steeped in internet technology, well aware of all social media available, and typically have studied English in school.  So, they may actually look at, learn from, and comment on their leaders’ tweets in English.  However, older generations would be less likely to use Twitter, and less likely to be as fluent in English enough to read or fully comprehend the tweets meaning.  Attempting to reach either audience using tweets in English would be a poor use of the tool.  Western foreign and defense policymakers and decision makers, political and business leaders, policy scholars, academics, and journalists are unmistakably the target of Rouhani’s English communications, including those sent on Twitter, remains.  It is plus whenever Rouhani manages to reach an audience of ordinary citizens in the West. 

True, Rouhani’s tweets are from profiles and handles in their names.  However, it would be more than surprising to discover that the Iranian president would actually devote any time to composing tweets given the multitude of issues that require his time, attention, and energy daily.  His tweets are not mundane comments about events, daily activities, or personal stories.  While not earth shattering or controversial in any way so far, Rouhani’s tweets are still official statements of the Iranian government’s positions on issues in international affairs that reach a global audience, particularly Rouhani’s counterparts in Western capitals.  For that reason, despite Rouhani’s accepted command of English, his tweets are logically drafted by scholars and experts, fluent in English on his staff.  They should be viewed as such, and not a personal effort by the Iranian president.  Drafting a concise official tweet, effective enough to communicate the desired comment in 140 characters, practically requires a newspaper editor’s hand.  Rouhani would be invested in his staff’s Twitter efforts to the extent that tweets they promulgate are based on his concepts and intent for the conduct of Iranian foreign and defense policies.  Those ideas can only come from Iran’s most senior leaders.  It is the political perspectives and goals of the Iranian leaders’ upon which policies and approaches of the Islamic republic are formulated.

Distinctions

Although Rouhani’s tweets are produced by his staff, it is very conceivable that his office  would also very likely consult with his ministers of foreign affairs, defense, and intelligence and security over communications on an issue, especially when specific content is of absolute importance.  Ministers, and subsequently their own staffs, could possibly assist in the drafting of a specific tweet or set of tweets.  Rouhani selected his cabinet ministers because of their expertise and capabilities, and his sense that with them he could establish a rapport and from them he would receive the best advice available on issues.  There would be little reason to exclude their input from important communications of Iranian policy.

It would be a goal of staff scholars and experts when crafting tweets to avoid telegraphing Iran’s moves or leak any classified information or plans of the Iranian republic over Twitter.  Searching for such gems of information from Iranian officials’ tweets would be a fool’s errand.  Utilization of Rouhani’s tweets as an intelligence tool for efforts and manipulation or deception would also be very unlikely.  Rouhani’s credibility would be at stake as the tweets, profiles, and handles are in his name.  While an Iranian patriot, undoubtedly willing to sacrifice for the Islamic republic, Rouhani would not want to engage in that practice.

Any signs of disunity in thinking within the Iranian government would hardly be found on Twitter because the Supreme Leader and the president are the only officials with English Twitter profiles.  The ministries and ministers of Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Intelligence and Security do not have such profiles, although that situation could change.  While their comments may at times have a stronger tone, they actually represent the logical application of the concept of force and diplomacy to cope with opponents of the regime.  Iran’s military capabilities and financial wherewithal aside, the ability to assure that Iran’s can promote and protect its interests, in Iran’s view, requires declarations of Iran’s determination to defend those interests.  Those expressions serve to some degree, to deter threats but are for the most part, genuine avowals of Iran’s willingness to fight.  (Albeit, some military officials could accomplish that task using “:less-passionate” statements.)

English Proficiency

The unlikelihood that Rouhani’s tweets were drafted by them is actually evinced in the examples of his tweets provided by Windrem in his NBCNews.com article.  Windrem points to Rouhani’s August 27, 2013, tweet, which stated: “As UN resumes its investigation, President #Rouhani calls on international community to show prudence over Syrian crisis and observe international law.”  This tweet, allegedly drafted by Rouhani, has him referring to himself as “President Rouhani,” in third person.  For Rouhani to refer to himself in this manner would be rather unusual.  This statement, while reflecting Rouhani’s thinking, was clearly drafted by someone other than Rouhani.  Interestingly, while tweets are sent under Rouhani’s profiles and handles, the Iranian president’s office has not given notice or any definitive statement indicating that he prepares his own tweets.  That would certainly be newsworthy information.

Twitter’s 140 character limit for messages normally requires most English speaking users to abbreviate outside of accepted English grammar rules.  However, in his messages, there is evidence non-native English speakers drafted the text.  Rouhani’s tweets are laced with “inter language grammar,” normally observed in the writing of non-native speakers of English (or any language for that matter).  Since that is the case, it is clear that the tweets from the Iranian president presented in Windrem’s article could represent an effort at deception or manipulation by the Ministry of the Intelligence and Security.  If the Ministry of Intelligence and Security were preparing tweets, its officers would have insisted upon using native English speakers, perhaps from the US, Canada, or Britain, who were expert in preparing concise messages on Twitter.  That would serve to avoid misstatements and ambiguities in the communications.

Tweets as Targets for Examination

What really makes Rouhani’s tweets a real target for examination is the almost ubiquitous desire among Western foreign and defense policymakers and decision makers, political and business leaders, policy scholars, academics, and journalists to identify every statement and action he takes as an effort to approach the West.  It is what led Windrem’s intriguing choice to examine Rouhani’s tweets.  The search for signs that a comprehensive compromise might be found on the nuclear issue and others between Iran and the West, appears akin to a virtual quest for the Western foreign policy “Holy Grail.”  Yet, that search maybe for naught.   Rouhani and his cabinet seek to bring Western leaders to their views and positions, and not, themselves, be influenced.  For Iran, the possibility of a compromise would be seen only when signs exist that Western leaders are willing to alter their views on issues concerning Iran.

 Assessment

When the situation in Syria reached crisis level with the use of chemical weapons, US National Security Adviser, Susan Rice, was invariably swamped by the demands of organizing reports, meetings, briefings, travel, visits to Congress, and other important national security policy issues unrelated to Syria.  Rice would hardly have the time or opportunity to compose concise and effective messages sent under her handle and profile: @Ambassador Rice.  Undoubtedly, a staff member from Rice’s office, perhaps the National Security Council spokeswoman, Caitlin Hayden or her staff, prepared Rice’s tweets.  US Secretary of State, John Kerry, tweets, but his tweets, usually very general statements on policy, are sent from the rather generic Department of State profile: @StateDept.  Perhaps every US official has a Twitter profile, managed by staff.   In this respect, methods used by Iranian officials to prepare and send tweets would be little different from methods used by US officials. 

 There is certainly potential for Rouhani’s tweets to develop into a significant resource for understanding his thinking and concepts, and Iranian government policies and approaches in international affairs.  Detractors of the Iranian government would claim that disunity exists in Iranian policymaking to such a degree that Iran’s official statements are never definitive, and should not be given consideration.  However, Rouhani’s tweets could indeed become part of a process of establishing normalcy with regard to Iran’s presentation of its positions.  Through Twitter, Rouhani could potentially provide carefully crafted, official statements of such quality and quantity as to help eliminate ambiguities or doubts of Iran’s position on issues.  (Of course, dialogue is the best way to build greater confidence, eliminate ambiguities about positions, and prevent further guessing over actions, intentions, and motives.)  It would be ideal for Iran if Rouhani’s tweets supported movement in Western officials’ thinking from mutual suspicion toward the direction of mutual trust, and set the stage for constructive dialogue.  Potentially, his tweets could help to encourage the West to engage in, what Iran would consider, a fair and respectful dialogue, in which goals and interests are exchanged.  That may lead to greater steps relevant to reaching agreements.